We Our Us: Classroom Collectivity in Trump’s America / Daniel Tucker and Dan S. Wang

Organize Your Own postcard, designed by Josh MacPhee

The following is part of a forum on Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. To read the editor’s introduction to the series, click here.

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This dialogue between two friends and frequent collaborators takes as its starting point our co-teaching a course at Ox-Bow School of Art in August 2018. The course, Organize Your Own (OYO), takes its title and theme from an exhibition/event/book curated by Tucker that featured Wang’s work, among others. The project began in January 2016 and is touring until the Spring of 2019. While neither instructor had read Haider’s book prior to teaching the class, the book and this online symposium offered an occasion to consider the course in context of a broader discourse. For further background on the class, see the syllabus here. The interview weaves together a number of themes about teaching artists that speak to concerns in Haider’s book.

DSW: The part in the book that spoke most directly to my experience with the OYO course, at least to begin with, was in Chapter 2 where Haider relates a story about organizing within the framework of the Occupy movement on the campus of UC-Santa Cruz. As he relates, the movement began with some promising spontaneous student actions, including some militant moves, but before long devolved into a factionalized situation with infighting and splits among the campus activists. One of the primary splits occurred when several Black students claimed a unique moral authority or right to speak, and several white students deferred in purported alliance. A number of students who disagreed, including some African American and other students of color, were silenced. At the same time, the activists using the rhetoric of the Occupy movement–including using the words “occupy” and “occupation”–became the target of criticism from students with a decolonization agenda who reduced the word purely to its use in contexts of colonial land theft. Haider tells the story of how this point of inflection, where the campus movement turned from its ostensible external opponents and goals—i.e. administration and the tuition hikes (that sparked the initial student mobilization to begin with)—toward its internal distribution of power, fractured the movement. Particularly disheartening is the paradoxical erasure of the students of color who adhered to an analysis that prioritizes strategic collectivism.

Haider’s story speaks to an unconstructive dynamic that I, too, have witnessed. The way that ostensibly radical political projects and formations can easily devolve into dynamics driven by moral outrage couched in identitarian terms rather than historical analysis has become, unfortunately, common on the Left. Steering the dynamic away from such tendencies was a concern of mine going into the OYO course. I think we managed to do it, thanks in large part to a collection of students with some fairly advanced political thinking. But I think it also helped that we proceeded with, for example, the reality of white privilege as an operative assumption deserving of scrutiny, rather than the end point of an analysis.

DT: It was around the same time as the Santa Cruz story that a similar situation inspired me to pursue the “Organize Your Own” exhibition. In late 2014, I encountered speakers at Ferguson solidarity demonstrations suggesting that white activists focus on organizing against racism in their own communities. I was struck by the echoes this had with Stokely Carmichael’s 1966 directive: “One of the most disturbing things about almost all white supporters of the movement has been that they are afraid to go into their own communities – which is where the racism exists – and work to get rid of it. They want to run from Berkeley to tell us what to do in Mississippi; let them look instead at Berkeley… Let them go to the suburbs and open up freedom schools for whites.” In response, white activists in the late 60s and 70s created organizational responses, like the Young Patriots and the October 4th Organization. (This is described in Amy Sonnie and James Tracy’s revelatory book “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power”.) The OYO exhibition became a way to offer up a collective exploration of what that quote could mean 50 years later.

Since the course we developed out of the exhibition themes was a course for visual artists (and which included some creative writing), that resulted in placing social theory and history into dialogue with formal questions that concern artists. This meant that while some things were dealt with more minimally, one thing that was certainly foregrounded was a suite of representational questions dealing with collective identity, solidarity and social difference.

In August 2018 the class from Ox-Bow visits the Organize Your Own exhibit and poet Oliver Baez Bendorf at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College

DSW: To pick up that last point: because the course was contextualized as art education to begin with, there were some a priori tensions in relation to the course concept, I thought. Inevitably so, since art education is mostly if not purely delivered as an individual experience. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Ox-Bow’s partner institution, has a reputation as an extreme example of such a customized post-secondary educational path—no grades, few requirements, etc. This culture of art education runs against our experiment in teaching both the histories of political collectivism and our practical instruction in how to represent in images, performances, texts, collective identity, social formations, and other ways of being that deemphasize the personal. I felt we did not successfully impart a new consciousness of social belonging, but, on the other hand, we were up against a very strong and internalized culture of personalization. How to enact a formal social consciousness within an individualized art education context remains a question.

DT: This gap between individual and collective reminds me of the challenge Haider describes of his teaching in the book. His undergraduate students are stretched thin in such a way that they have a “melancholic sensibility” and lack a “youthful and rebellious optimism.” Haider concludes: “this sadness is the primary cause of the restriction of politics to one’s own personal identity. Not only has the idea of universal emancipation come to seem old fashioned and outmoded, the very possibility of achieving anything beyond the temporary protection of individual comfort seems like a delusion.”

DSW: I will note, though, that while Haider ends the book with an inspiring argument for a return to universality–an “insurgent universality,” as he terms it–he offers no prescription for how to actually begin undoing the constellation of forces boxing students into their atomized, hyper-personalized chambers. We, in the OYO course, went into the contemporary toolbox of trust-building and ice-breaking in an effort to quickly establish some familiarity. We then delegated to the students some care-taking tasks. A “movement pod” of three students, for example, took responsibility for initiating stretch breaks, and so forth. There was also a “time pod” for time keeping and a beauty pod responsible for the appearance of the studio classroom. This was a very modest but surprisingly effective way of breaking students out of a narrow concern for themselves and (at a small scale) socializing their sensibilities of care. So while, like Haider, we covered texts, screenings, and lectures that were heavy on historicizing the political truisms encountered in grassroots organizing, we also made efforts to build a different kind of classroom culture, one that binds students to each other rather than maintain separation.

Word associations from the first class at Ox-Bow – August 2018

DT: We did a number of projects that tried to extend this into a more political space, including having them do research into histories of labor organizing as prompts for their artwork. But there are two exercises that stand out to me. One was to stage photographs or choreograph collective performances that capture group power. This resulted in some fun posed-formations that ranged from more literal portraits to metaphors and even resulted in a tote-bag with a mashup graphic of the tattoos that adorned all of the class members. (The tote bags were sold as a fundraiser for one of the groups that a student works with in Pittsburgh). Another image-making experiment was called Envisioning Capital and was based on two readings we did together: “Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display” by Susan Buck-Morss and “The Pyramid’s Reign” by Eric Triantafillou. Both deal with how to represent capitalism. The results were fantastic and included various explorations of the visual and rhetorical tropes used in depicting capital.

But, ultimately, we did not quite achieve our goal for that last assignment. The hope was that there would be some grappling with the dichotomy that is often set up (and was proposed by several of our readings) between the politics of representation (making voices present in a process) and redistribution (the distribution of something in a different way, typically to achieve greater social/economic equality). I had thought that this last assignment might be a way to get beyond an economistic hierarchy that posits representation as a lesser goal than redistribution. Rather than an either/or and diminishing the significance of representation, I wonder if we can locate more precisely what power representation has and mobilize that power towards a more transformative redistribution. Perhaps this is a place where artists can make a critical contribution to the dialogue that Haider is advocating? That is, art’s strength and history in the field of representation can move beyond ambiguous depictions and advance how we envision, model and explore a just resource and power distribution.

DSW: One place this might happen is in how Haider thinks about gender. He puts gender into a compartment separate from race as a lens through which to examine blockages on the left. On a theoretical level I agree that race (and globally speaking, ethnonationalism) continues to be a primary contradiction. Because segregation by gender is less pronounced in many ways than segregation by race (across the entire society, beginning with families), gender divides are a less problematic obstacle to leftist organizing, if only on the level that gender differences are always present while, because of segregation, racial differences can be either ignored or dealt with in an abstract sense. But gender is a factor that must be directly addressed particularly for today’s trained artists because imbalances in the field of art are an inescapable reality, a distorted mirroring of male-dominated fields such as engineering. I say distorted because despite the overrepresentation of women in the field on the whole, positions of authority are still mostly held by men. Our inaugural OYO course was a microcosm of this very condition: two male-identified instructors and eight students, all but one of whom identified as women and/or female. In art schools this is hardly unusual.

Also, while Haider leaves gender aside, a key point of his is the erosion of collectivism in favor of personalized politics. He follows this logic to its absurd end in his critique of the “white privilege knapsack” Peggy McIntosh’s persistent metaphor first described in the late 80s. Haider argues that if the invisible knapsack contains problem-solving tools granted to white people as a group but availed as individuals, then the properly inventoried knapsack would contain all other group privileges pertaining to that individual, many of which have little to do with race, not to mention whiteness specifically. But I would say that the contemporary left’s tendency toward an individualization of discontent cannot be fully understood without tracing it back to second wave feminism’s insurgent slogan “the personal is political.” Understanding that truism as having originally enlarged the field of politics rather than closing it down, I think, holds a lesson for us today: how are we to enlarge the sphere of the political, such that it is not confined solely to personal experience and personal power? Again, that is a question that begs for practical experimentation–just as the early consciousness raising groups of 70s radical feminism were largely experimental.  If Haider’s arguments about identitarian priorities boil down to the titular “mistaken identity,” then the OYO course was a test in something closer to a dis-identity politics. By this I mean that we are less interested in the fact that the wrong identities have been emphasized, and more in that identities need to be expanded to increase the multiplicity of emphases. That may be a vague play on words, but I think our approach to the course was a provocation in the interest of re-collectivizing today’s fascist threats that, despite variance in exposure, encompass persons belonging to all different groups.

DT: This premise of enlarging the categories we operate in is an interesting one for educating cultural producers. There is a desire on the part of artists studying in school to make work grounded in their own experience as a means to connect with others; this is the “from the particular to the universal” approach. There are all sorts of ethical and pragmatic concerns bound up in this approach, such as students feeling unable to “speak for” anyone and therefore resigning themselves to speak for themselves. This is not particular to art education, though it is prominently seen there as Dan suggested above that the education tends to emphasize self-expression over other values, even when political or socially-engaged art is being discussed.

One thing that I have been somewhat unsuccessful at is being able to inspire or facilitate art students to challenge their identity constraints and make a leap into collectivity. Recently my class on curating for artists had a breakthrough when we took a field trip to The Colored Girls Museum, an art-project-turned-museum here in Philadelphia. Afterwards the class had a conversation about the way the exhibition design had really modeled how powerful it could be to be part of a collective whole by not using individual or social labels but grouping artists into thematic rooms about “searching for the colored girl” , “love”, or “colored boy’s room” among many others. But there remain so many conventions and assumptions about the educational context that reinforce individuality. Some of these—like in the original anecdote from Haider that you mentioned—even come from progressive vantage points that advocate the creation of underrepresented narratives and images. I want to preserve this importance on representation, but only as it links into broader collective imaginings.

Dan, In the work that you made for the Organize Your Own traveling exhibition, you also took on educational spaces and a student population that is frequently not engaged. What I love about this project is that it really complicates the premise of “Organize Your Own” while also still enacting it on some level. Could you describe this project a bit and what you’ve learned from testing it out?

Dan S. Wang’s Falling In (2016) contribution from Organize Your Own exhibition

DSW: The project for Organize Your Own is called Falling In: American Counterculture for Chinese Nationals. The concept grew out of my experiences meeting intellectuals and artists in China in the late 90s and early 2000s. I often had the experience of wishing I could explain to them a certain countercultural event or scene from the US context. They had little or no exposure, and I did not have the language skills to convey. But many of them were living bohemian, exploratory lives. Also, I understood the long cultural history of China as marked by countercultures of its own–court drop-outs, wanderers, dissidents, gender benders, etc. This was a potential dialogue that never happened.

Then in recent years I took note of the growing numbers of international students from China on US campuses. UW-Madison, the university in the town I was living in, was typical of scores of universities. There, over about fifteen years, the enrollment of undergraduate students from China went from a few hundred to nearly three thousand. That’s a larger number than the total student population at my liberal arts alma mater. In observing this phenomenon, I saw that the students, once enrolled, usually were paid no special attention, even though the schools had recruited them. The students land in the US without much understanding of their new context, let alone any meaningful knowledge of countercultural histories. True enough to the idea of a counterculture, the default values inhabited by these individuals are often the bourgeois values of the new urban middle classes of China: material status, professional achievement, etc. Why wouldn’t they be?

Nevertheless, I saw that at least one arm of American society is in fact making an effort to organize them: the campus outreach of the Christian organizations. Evangelicals know that accepting Christ as one’s savior doesn’t just happen; most people need to be introduced to the idea. We of the leftist, queer, pagan stripe should learn from them. They get what it takes to organize in a fundamental way, and they get that there is a gap in how we organize ourselves. Falling In is my contribution to the spreading of a countercultural Word. The syllabus has yet to be implemented. I am looking for the right situation.

To the question of “one’s own,” I recognize these young people as potential Asian Americans, in many senses of that term, especially in its original association with a liberation consciousness. Addressing the syllabus to that population (but not exclusively) speaks to my belief that identity is a process, not an ahistorical essence. That said, the process itself is poorly understood and highly variable. We should be deliberately experimental and contingent in our identifications because, in any event, that is what they will be.

As a last word, I’ll say that while I loved Haider’s conjuring of the Combahee River Collective and Amiri Baraka’s late communism as models and inspiration, I wish he had cited some positive figures or groups from today. His words about the present were mostly critical, leaving “What is to be done?” yet again unanswered. In this way he duplicates a common mistake on the left: showing what’s wrong but not pointing to what’s right. I hope he learns about Organize Your Own.