Many artists have a sense that art and life should be fused. We know that art does not belong exclusively in galleries, museums, or in institutional spaces, as creativity is everywhere and cannot be contained or made scarce. Even if we show our work in galleries and museums, we know that the majority of things we make will come back home to live with us. Every art object we make cannot be collected or sold; there are too many.
And so, for most of us, the question arises: How can I fuse art and life?
Should my art live in the streets, to support political protest?
Should my art live in a garden, to support regenerative life?
Should my art live in a home, to support maintenance and social reproduction
Should my art live in a learning space, to support skill sharing and growth?
In 2013, I decided: my art should live in meetings, to support discussion and debate about the solidarity economy. This began a long exploration of ways to fuse my love of group processes with my love of object-making.
I am devoted to meetings where everyone attends voluntarily, where people are not obligated by a boss to be present. I spend the majority of my time in meetings with two to twenty people that take place in community groups, cooperatives, artist-run spaces, and collectives; I prefer these spaces to meetings that happen in workplaces where workers do not get to weigh in on the conditions that they work within. In the best moments, in voluntary meetings, there is a sense among participants that the process is spontaneous, collaborative, and transformative.
Meetings are what make my projects possible. I love to plan meetings, to participate in them, and to think about them. I define a meeting as a scheduled gathering of people where participants are able to speak extemporaneously about a shared topic. At their best, meetings are a form of mediation. They ask participants to reconsider practices and habits and potentially allow something new to emerge, both relationally and conceptually.
For me, meetings of this form are a space for lifelong learning. Where else can you go to think with other people, to move from study to action, to build friendships, and to transform your understanding of the world, in community?
At a SolidarityNYC meeting in 2009, I remember finding out about the emergent cooperative movement in New York City, and being invited to bring my media-making skills to the work ahead. It was exciting to be sitting at a table with people who talked about how to connect worker-owned businesses to credit unions and community gardens across the city, and then to help as we did this by making videos, a website, and graphics with the group. It was here that I learned about transformative organizing, as the SolidarityNYC collective invited members to gather every weekend to talk about the challenges we each faced in “becoming the change” we wanted to see in the world. Each person would have 30 minutes, or an hour, to share the ways that they lived and worked through the contradictions of desiring a cooperative world and living in an extractive and exploitative one.
As an artist, I wondered: What might strange objects (sculptures) do to the conventions of meetings? Can objects open up space for reflection and the wild unknown? I wanted to do more than to make posters, websites, murals, and traditional media for groups of activists and organizers.
I have always been interested in objects that can guide a space. I thought: There must be something more powerful than a sticky note or a circle of chairs for a meeting. As a white, European-American person, raised agnostic yet celebrating a market-driven version of Christmas, I grew up with an impoverished cultural imaginary about aesthetically compelling, emotionally open, or directly democratic gatherings. My parents, their parents, and their parents all passed down to me a false legacy of “whiteness” as our general racial identity and heritage. Rather than being told about my German and Swedish heritage, for example, I was told that I was simply “white” with no connection to any particular ancestral lineage; without culturally specific rituals or objects that I might take pride in beyond assimilation into a dominant culture of white, settler-colonial America. In this way, and many others, my parents participated in an unspoken project of assimilation into whiteness as a monolithic category.
What rituals for gatherings can I bring to gatherings? Again, I want to make objects for secular meeting spaces, but my family passed down no ritual objects or awareness of the specificity of my heritage that I could draw from. I started thinking about contemporary artists who have reimagined ritual spaces and objects from their own social positions and heritage.
The sculptor and performance artist writes that she is “motivated by a sense of accountability for harms caused by my ancestors,” and has therefore “spent many years investigating the cultural phenomenon of historical reenactment as the ritualized performance of unresolved trauma.”
(Guelph) created by Postcommodity in 2013, uses, as the collective describes, a “ceremonial conceptual frame- work” to “transform participants into musi- cians engaged in a community instrument of self-determination.”
The mixed-media installation with video,
I prayed to the wrong god for you,
made by Tiona Nekkia McClodden in 2019, includes a ritual for the Santería/Lucumi god Shango as well as documentation of the creation of ritual objects.
The temporary shelter made for shared meals during the Jewish festival of harvest during Succoth,
from 2000 by Allan Wexler.
Most facilitators — people who guide meetings — do not assume specific religious or shared cultural heritage in the majority of the community meetings I have attended. What objects already exist in these secular community meeting spaces? Sticky notes, clocks, fluorescent bulbs, ceiling tiles, formica tables, old plastic chairs. What excites me is the possibility that an object can produce a shared meaning within the context of a gathering; that it can guide meeting participants to some genuinely new space or thought or make the travel of reaching such a destination that much easier. I have also had to check my own assumptions in this process.
As an artist who spends hours each day looking at and making art, the references that shape the way I “read” any object, including the ones that I make, are far different frommany of the people I find myself in meetings with, who are not artists. For example, the giant mycelium head that I made was only used by facilitators and groups that already include theatricality and role playing as part of their meeting culture. In many of the meetings I attended, and offered objects for gathering, the mycelium head simply sat there, unused, as it seemed too strange or too much like an expensive art-object.
I finally accepted that my glass water clocks, my mycelium head, and my nets took too long to explain for the majority of meeting scenarios; they required a facilitator who would introduce them, and move the group from a culture of verbal discussion to a culture of movement, haptic awareness, and embodied leadership. Not wanting my objects to seem elite, ritual-like, or untouchable, I began to develop The Meeting Game. This game asks participants to roll spheres across the table. I found that this game was approachable because the spheres live easily on a meeting table, imply movement, cannot break, and come in multiples so they do not seem precious.
The game visualizes the flow of dialogue, as each person starts out with the same number of spheres, and a person must roll a sphere to another person, or “spend it,” in order to speak. In this way, the spheres act as a kind of currency. People can redistribute spheres without speaking, if they wish. When played in a meeting, the game has the effect of both slowing down the flow of conversation and exchange as well as making visible who is speaking, how often, and to whom. In this intersection of artistic relation and social relation, I see an opening toward a new work culture and perhaps a new economic formation as well.
I have long had an interest in community-generating currencies and other ways to imagine and visualize the flow of resources outside of our existing, capital-driven economy. For example, I did so at both Exchange Café, see chapter 4, as well as the barter networks TradeSchool.coop and OurGoods.org, see chapter 3. I believe that the only way in which we will have a new economy and an economy that works for many artists is for artists themselves to begin the project of imagining, representing, and instantiating new organizations of labor, currency, and infrastructure. It is my lifelong ambition to make art that enables people to imagine and enact practices of solidarity economies.
“Imagine that the next time you walk into a meeting room and sit down, rather than getting out your laptop, iPad or notebook, you pick up a group of ceramic spheres and start rolling them across the table to signal who is speaking, who is not, and for how long. Imagine that addressing items on an agenda involves a collective somatic experience― the picking up and putting down of tactile things, the exchange of objects that invite a different kind of relationship with your peers. This is the work of Caroline Woolard.”
—Curators Anna Harsanyi and Macushla Robinson, 2019