Friday, February 20, 2009

The Mess Hall, Chicago.

Mess Hall is an experimental cultural space. Located in the Roger’s Park in Chicago, Mess Hall is a place for visual culture, creative urbanism, sustainable ecology, food democracy, radical politics, and cultural experimentation. Mess Hall runs on the generosity of those who use it. This allows us to provide everything for free - from food and drinks to workshops and events.

Over the past five years, hundreds of events have taken place from art shows, film screenings, discussions, meetings, potlucks, sewing rebellions, performances, and everything in between.

Mess Hall links:

Mess Hall website:

(BRAND NEW!) Mess Hall blog:

Type rest of the post here

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Give up art and save the starving?

If art and design is understood as the expression and reflection of a particular set of values, systems and interests, then most artistic practice today tends to express the interests of the class that controls and profits from society — the bourgeois or corporate class and their markets. It is these interests that dominate and control the standards of value in art — that defines its emphasis, and excludes its more subversive, egalitarian alternatives. Likewise, when our society places so much importance on the individual, technical virtuosity of an artist instead of the social motivations and commitments of that artist, one doesn’t have to look much further than the world of art and culture in our society to see where fascism breeds.

These are heavy and rather confrontational definitions of mainstream art, but one only needs to experience the fishbowl of a typical art opening to take them as truisms.

But what of alternatives? For practitioners of a completely different kind of art, these dominant understandings make using the term ‘artist’ rather problematic. Are we artists, or something else? Should we separate ourselves from the term ‘art’ altogether — or reclaim it for an entirely new set of standards and values, values in tune with our political, social and economic realities? Or, do we completely destroy the separation of art and everyday life, as the Situationists tried before us? Do we take it one step further, to ‘give up art and save the starving’, to ‘paint all the paintings black and celebrate dead art’, as Tony Lowe would have us do. And why not? Capitalism and the global financial crisis continues its drunken march of exploitation, playing havoc with the millions of working people who always suffer the effects of the hangover while never being invited to the party. For practitioners truly willing to empower more than just themselves — the barricades — and not the gallery, may be the new canvas on which to create.

Of course, practitioners with any kind of decent analysis should already be ‘on the barricades’. Cultural production plays an integral role in the current way of life — it is the means by which a monopoly of content and control by a few over the many is kept in check. Consumption, and the spectacle of consumption, contribute to the alienation and social poverty we currently experience. And yes, that includes hip, avant-garde, ‘edgy’, political work supposedly with ‘something to say’ while continuing to hang upon the white (or brick) walls (or pages) of our capitalist utopia.

If we decide not to leave art for dead, and instead embrace its omnipotent potential for radical, social change — it will be important to collectively create perspectives and values which clearly illustrate the realities of everyday, working life, and the possibilities of libertarian alternatives. Rearrangement of our institutions — cultural ones included — is simply evasive. A tree that has turned into a club cannot be expected to put forth leaves. Any artistic practice short of advocating the abolishment of capitalism and replacing it with logic, frankly, should be left to die.

Alec Icky Dunn, Thicket. 1 color block print.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Artist. Aboriginal. Anti-Capitalist — the works of Dylan Miner

It's such an empowering and exciting experience when you come across great things for the first time — books, ideas, friendships — and in my case, revolutionary printmaking. Sadly, as time moves on, we often overlook those things which meant so much to us at a particular time. So when it pops back up to remind you of that initial buzz — to relive the experience all over again — it's a bit like finding a $20 note hidden away in that rather obscure inner pocket in the depths of ones overcoat. Sweet.

Stumbling upon Dylan Miner's personal website was an experience not dissimilar.

I first came across Dylan's work in 'Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World' — his illustrations accompanied the chapter headers in a bold and distinctive black and white style, easily managing to stand out amongst the other amazing graphical historiographies which also littered the pages. I eventually found more online at, and now, his personal site.

His use of various printing techniques, the bold block colours and IWW and anarchist revolutionary content easily won an adherent, but what I really like is his line work. I'm no art critic (as you can tell), but there's something inherently human in the odd, humorous and sometimes warped interpretations Dylan presents — the portrait of 'Bakunin' for instance, or "Power in a Union'. The physical weight of the linework, the boldness, the jerks and jaggered woodcut strokes — and yet at the same time, the personality of his mark making — often makes me smile, even when conveying such confrontational and political themes. And I think for folks making such charged and meaningful work, that has to be a good thing. There is a place for alienating and negative work, but there's also a (rather large) place for work which can challenge and deconstruct the ideas of the viewer in a positive and empowering way. To that end, the work of Dylan Miner serves as a worthy example.

View links for more work.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

As We (Still) See It!

1 — Throughout the world the vast majority of people have no control whatsoever over the decisions that most deeply and directly affect their lives. They sell their labour power while others who own or control the means of production accumulate wealth, make the laws and use the whole machinery of the State to perpetuate and reinforce their privileged positions.

2 — During the past century the living standards of working people have improved. But neither these improved living standards, nor the nationalisation of the means of production, nor the coming to power of parties claiming to represent the working class have basically altered the status of the worker as worker. Nor have they given the bulk of mankind much freedom outside of production. East and West, capitalism remains an inhuman type of society where the vast majority are bossed at work and manipulated in consumption and leisure. Propaganda and policemen, prisons and schools, traditional values and traditional morality all serve to reinforce the power of the few and to convince or coerce the many into acceptance of a brutal, degrading and irrational system. The ‘Communist’ world is not communist and the ‘Free’ world is not free.

3 — The trade unions and the traditional parties of the left started in business to change all this. But they have come to terms with the existing patterns of exploitation. In fact they are now essential if exploiting society is to continue working smoothly. The unions act as middlemen in the labour market. The political parties use the struggles and aspirations of the working class for their own ends. The degeneration of working class organisations, itself the result of the failure of the revolutionary movement, has been a major factor in creating working class apathy, which in turn has led to the further degeneration of both parties and unions.

4 — The trade unions and political parties cannot be reformed, 'captured', or converted into instruments of working class emancipation. We don't call however for the proclamation of new unions, which in the conditions of today would suffer a similar fate to the old ones. Nor do we call for militants to tear up their union cards. Our aims are simply that the workers themselves should decide on the objectives of their struggles and that the control and organisation of these struggles should remain firmly in their own hands. The forms which this self activity of the working class may take will vary considerably from country to country and from industry to industry. Its basic content will not.

5 — Socialism is not just the common ownership and control of the means of production and distribution. It means equality, real freedom, the end of oppression based on restrictive male/female social roles, reciprocal recognition and a radical transformation in all human relationships. It is people's understanding of their environment and of themselves, their domination over their work and over such social institutions as they may need to create. These are not secondary aspects, which will automatically follow the expropriation of the old ruling class. On the contrary they are essential parts of the whole process of social transformation, for without them no genuine social transformation will have taken place.

6. A socialist society can therefore only be built from below. Decisions concerning production and work will be taken by workers' councils composed of elected and revocable delegates. Decisions in other areas will be taken on the basis of the widest possible discussion and consultation among the people as a whole. This democratisation of society down to its very roots is what we mean by ‘workers' power’.

Self-managed institutions and collectivities will be the living framework of a free society. There can be no socialism without self-management. Yet a society made up of individual self-managed units is not, of itself, socialist. Such societies could remain oppressive, unequal and unjust. They could be sexist or racist, could restrict access to knowledge or adopt uncritical attitudes towards 'expertise'. We can imagine the individual units of such a society - of whatever size or complexity (from chicken farms to continents) - competing as 'collective capitalists'. Such competition could only perpetuate alienation and create new inequalities based on new divisions of labour.

Genuine freedom will only be possible when our lives are no longer the object of economic, cultural and political forces which we experience as external to ourselves, and which constantly tend to regenerate capitalist or authoritarian social relations. A socialist society would therefore abolish not only social classes, hierarchies and other structures of domination, but also wage-labour and production for the purpose of sale or exchange on the market. Th fulfil their needs and desires, people would live and work in free co-operation. The national frontiers of armed states would be replaced by a democratic human community, on a world scale. The elimination of competition (and the decay of competitive attitudes) would have profound social effects which we can hardly imagine today.

7 — Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self-activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others - even by those allegedly acting on their behalf.

8 — No ruling class in history has ever relinquished its power without a struggle and our present rulers are unlikely to be an exception. Power will only be taken from them through the conscious, autonomous action of the vast majority of the people themselves, The building of socialism will require mass understanding and mass participation. By their rigid hierarchical structure, by their ideas and by their activities, both social-democratic and bolshevik types of organisations discourage this kind of understanding and prevent this kind of participation. The idea that socialism can somehow be achieved by an elite party (however 'revolutionary') acting 'on behalf of' the working class is both absurd and reactionary.

9 — We do not accept the view that by itself the working class can only achieve a trade union consciousness. On the contrary we believe that its conditions of life and its experiences in production constantly drive the working class to adopt priorities and values and to find methods of organisation which challenge the established social order and established pattern of thought. These responses are implicitly socialist. On the other hand, the working class is fragmented, dispossessed of the means of communication, and its various sections are at different levels of awareness and consciousness. The task of the revolutionary organisation is to help give proletarian consciousness an explicitly socialist content, to give practical assistance to workers in struggle, and to help those in different areas to exchange experiences and link up with one another.

10 — We do not see ourselves as yet another leadership, but merely as an instrument of working class action. The function of SOLIDARITY (or any libertarian socialist group—Ed.) is to help all those who are in conflict with the present authoritarian social structure, both in industry and in society at large, to generalise their experience, to make a total critique of their condition and of its causes, and to develop the mass revolutionary consciousness necessary if society is to be totally transformed.

The above text is the aims and principles of Solidarity UK (1961 - 1992), a great libertarian socialist group close to council communism and class struggle anarchism. The aims and principles are still, if not more, relevant today. See 'For Workers Power' for a majority of their collected texts, or find some of them online here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

TypeSHED11 — Design Escapism 101

As typographers, graphic fashionistas, advertising moguls and the elite of the visual communication world come together in Wellington this week for 'TypeSHED11', I thought it might be fitting to revisit my earlier text on an alternative graphic design practice. Of course, design, or more specifically typography, is off the radar for the majority of everyday, working people — so it may seem an odd topic to focus so much attention on. Yet it is a profession that has a huge impact on the lives of working people whether they understand the complexities of typography or not — mainly in the mass consumption and the spectacle of the capitalist society to which both design and our everyday lives belong.

"Graphic design has predominately been, and still is, the tool which beautifies, communicates and commodifies a set of ideas, ideals or products within various tenets of our social and economic relations. Unfortunately, it is fair to say that this creative tool is overwhelmingly used in an economic/commercial sense — consciously or unconsciously using its talents to exploit — to raise profit margins and material wealth for the benefit of a select clientele. While graphic design lends its talents outside of the commercial realm in the form of an informative and communicative visual language, and in academic or self-authorship, research-based practices — the primary role of graphic design as a medium is that of the visual instrument of the powerful; the seller of sales, the convincer of consumers — employed by the corporate body or state-sanctioned by capitalist/socialist totalitarian governments in order to perfect and reinforce their hegemonic positions. And while design academia can wax poetic about the virtues of graphic design and its specialised visual language — conveniently side-stepping more tangible issues — the design industry practitioner, whether one chooses to acknowledge his/her role or not, must realise that their labour is nothing more than the harbinger of consumerism, used in the service of monolithic capitalism and all of its ails. Without graphic design those who sustain these ills of society have no face, no visual identity, no point of reference, and most importantly, no effect.

If one takes the above view, which I obviously do, then to analyse the worth of such a conference as 'TypeSHED11' is a valid one. From a brief look the program on their website, there seems to be no space dedicated to any kind of social change work. There is one workshop called 'Bridging Culture' which mentions the latest conflicts in Palestine (for research purposes), but to use the their own words, the workshop sounds more like a pep talk in globalisation and diversity of the market. "Technology, mass media and the global village concept have made the world smaller and the cross-cultural audience bigger for the design profession. It is becoming a must for designers to think beyond their local boarders and to be able to create visual communication materials that makes sense to a diverse audience." Of course I could be wrong, but I sincerely doubt that there will be discussion on how graphic design could alleviate, instead of activate the current exploitative system we live in — or the complex situation facing the people of the middle east.

"Design then, must explore the peripheral space outside of advertising; totally devoid of any commercial use — or more specifically, for the movement towards a more humane and libertarian society, that is to say, a more autonomous existence based on self-management, mutual aid, solidarity and direct participation and control over one's affairs. As the potential producer, educator and visual face of social change, graphic design could weld its creative future with more important and pressing concerns than market shares, profit margins and consumption rates."

If there in fact WAS talk of social justice work in Wellington this week, then that would be a tentative start. But, like the 'First Things First Manifesto' of 2002, we should question the locality and the direction of that way of thinking.

"While proposing 'a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting, and democratic forms of communication', the manifesto falls short in recognising any kind of tangible and radical change. The 'First Things First Manifesto' of 2002 fails to recognise that the 'uncontested' and 'unchecked' consumerism they wish to re-direct is so engrained in the very system we participate in, that anything short of the complete transformation of social priorities, structures and organization will never effect true social change. Proposing the shifting of priorities within the system rather than the shifting of the system itself — as history has proven in both state/democratic socialism, and the farce of parliamentary democracy — will do nothing more than file down the rough edges of our chains. The fact that rampant globalisation and totalitarian corporate hegemony go hand in hand with the current system is the real issue concerned graphic designs could be questioning. In fact these systems, "far from being a guarantee for the people, on the contrary, creates and safeguards the continued existence of a governmental aristocracy against the people."

So, what is the alternative, if any, that graphic design could play towards radical, social change? This is the crux of my original text, and the topic of a type of praxis we could undertake as practitioners interested in a more egalitarian way of existing.

The everyday individual or anarchist design practitioner, through the basic act of joining their libertarian principals with their material production, should, and could, greatly contribute to the transformation of everyday life — towards a more just and humane existence. As educator and mediator, it is the responsibility of anyone with an understanding of visual communication to instill in people's minds a broader sense of possibility, using the communicative powers of artistic imagery to empower, encourage and enrage. It is important to shift societies' many urgent concerns from the fringes and into the public realm, in a direct and unavoidable manner. However, purely negative and angst-ridden critique (while sometimes useful) can only go so far — it is the sense of positive possibilities that need to be associated with the ideas of anarchist communism. The marginality of current grassroots movements must be overcome — the isolation of both activist groups and concerned individuals thoughts must be rendered public, transparent, and shared.

Mainstream media do a rather convincing job of keeping our private thoughts as seemingly isolated and illogical. It is an important task to illustrate that the critical and questioning ideas we may be having individually are, more often than not, shared as a whole, rather than letting them be diffused and disarmed by hegemonic structures and institutions such as the popular media, the church and the state. Graphic design can publicly and prolifically become the visual manifestation of these shared ideas. "Ideally, art can inspire hope, encourage critical thinking, capture emotion, and stimulate creativity. It can declare another way to think about and participate in living. Art can document or challenge history, create a framework for social change, and create a vision of a more just world. When art is used in activism it provides an appealing and accessible entry point to social issues and radical politics".9 As the initial point of contact with more in-depth and varied forms of activism, graphic design can act as the essential catalyst for further education, involvement, and more importantly, direct action.

However, images alone are not enough. Further exploration of participation and facilitation in design and the design process can only set the basis for future non-hierarchical, organic organisation. Structures and ways of working with others raised in ones practice could essentially form patterns and guides for the self organization of a more libertarian society. Therefore the act of making work could be as empowering as the visual message itself. Both collective and personal processes of making work could lead the way in eventual liberation on a more macro level, exploring the 'unlimited perfectibility' of both design activity and social organization."

Type rest of the post here

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Treaty of Waitangi (or Tino Rangatiratanga) for beginners

From Arena.

Conversations around the Treaty of Waitangi tend to generate a lot of heat, but not much light. Some Maori people and their supporters claim that the Treaty has not been honoured. Those with somewhat redder necks say the Treaty should be scrapped because "after all, we're all one people, aren't we?" Many fair-minded people stay silent during these conversations, because they feel the Treaty is too complicated and they don’t have enough knowledge to challenge some of the claims made for or against it. This article is for those people.

In fact, the issues raised by the Treaty are very simple and easy for everyone to understand. The Treaty was an agreement between the British Crown on the one hand and Maori chiefs on the other. For the purposes of the Treaty, the British recognized those Maori who signed it as representing the whole of Maoridom as a nation. It was first signed at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands on February 6, 1840, and there were basically two versions, one in English and one in Maori. Most of the chiefs signed the Maori version.

There are basic differences between the English and the Maori versions, since the Maori version is not a literal translation of the English Treaty. However, under the terms of international law, which governs the signing of agreements between nations, only the Maori version has any legitimacy. This is important, because the differences in the translation are crucial to understanding why many Maori feel the Treaty has not been honoured.

The Treaty of Waitangi consists of a preamble and three basic clauses, called "Articles". (Some Maori signed a version of the Treaty with four articles, but there is little disagreement about the meaning of the fourth, and we can safely ignore it, at least until we have an understanding of the first three.)

In the English version, Article one signs the rights of sovereignty in New Zealand over to the Queen of England. That means that the power to make and enforce laws over the whole country was given to the British Crown. But in the Maori version, something very different, called "kawanatanga", was granted to the Crown in Article I.

An understanding of what is meant by the term kawanatanga is crucial to an understanding of the Treaty, and of the role of Pakeha people and Pakeha institutions in Aotearoa/New Zealand today.

Kawanatanga is a transliteration of the English word "governorship". The difference between kawanatanga and sovereignty is at the heart of many disputes over the Treaty. The present Government cites Article I of the English Treaty as the basis of its claim to sovereignty - the right to rule - in New Zealand. But the claim just doesn’t stand up. Maori who signed the Treaty were led to understand that the status of kawanatanga granted to the British in Article I was a good deal less than that of full sovereignty, or tino rangatiratanga. In their view, they were certainly not signing away their sovereignty when they signed Article I.

So what did they think they were signing? According to records made at the time the Treaty was signed, a missionary by the name of Williams, who had translated the Treaty into Maori, explained the difference between kawanatanga and tino rangatiratanga in terms of the Biblical story of Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the Governor of Judea at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, and as such he was said to exercise "kawanatanga" – governorship. The Maori chiefs were led to understand that Pilate did not have the power of life and death over those he governed. His kawanatanga was something a lot less than the tino rangatiratanga - the chiefly authority - that the Chiefs themselves exercised.

Further, the phrase tino rangatiratanga had previously been used to translate the word "sovereignty" in the 1835 Declaration of Maori Independence. This document, signed five years before the Treaty, was an agreement in which the British Crown had recognized the sovereignty of Maori chiefs in New Zealand. Many of the same chiefs who signed the Declaration also signed the Treaty and would have recognized the use of the phrase from that.

So Article I of the Maori version granted something less than complete sovereign authority to the British, but there is some confusion about what it actually did grant. Fortunately, the confusion is easily cleared up.

The preamble of the Treaty refers to creating good order and harmonious relations between settlers and Maori. That’s because relationships between Europeans and Maori up to that point had been less than ideal. Settlers tended to be a rowdy, uncultured lot who nevertheless considered that the colour of their skin made them superior to the "savages" they encountered in Aotearoa. Maori communities close to European settlements like Kororareka (today called Russell) suffered from frequent looting, rape, general drunkenness and disrespect from white visitors. Defensive measures taken by Maori often resulted in military reprisals. Attempts to bargain with representatives of the British Crown for stricter enforcement of behaviour standards got nowhere because the British Crown was powerless - legally and physically. Despite being able to commandeer the British Navy to punish Maori villages who had dealt summary justice to a lawless whaler, the Crown was unwilling to establish a police force for white folks, because it didn’t have any legal authority in Aotearoa.

The British Resident at the time, a man called James Busby, advised the Chiefs that no-one had any recognized legal authority in Aotearoa. He recommended that the Chiefs get the British Crown to recognize their authority.

That was how the Declaration of Maori Independence came into being. In this document, the British Crown recognized, as noted earlier, that Maori Chiefs exercised sovereignty (tino rangatiratanga) in Aotearoa. But the fact that the British Crown recognized Maori sovereignty did not mean that the settlers were going to follow suit. The lawlessness continued. After another five years, Maori chiefs around Northland had had enough. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in an attempt to give the British Crown authority over settlers in Aotearoa.

In this way, Article I of the Treaty granted the limited authority of kawanatanga over the Pakeha population of Aotearoa to the British Crown.

Just to make the position absolutely clear, Article II was completely unequivocal in the Maori version. Article II reserved tino rangatiratanga - full sovereign authority - over their lands, forests, fisheries "me o ratou taonga katoa" (and everything they valued) to the chiefs. It further stipulated that any land bought by settlers could not be bought directly from Maori, but had to be acquired by the British Crown first. This carries the clear implication that land acquired by the Crown became land over which British kawanatanga would be exercised. The rest of the land would remain under Maori law.

Article III stated that everyone in Aotearoa would have the rights and privileges of British subjects, but clearly avoided handing Maori any responsibilities or duties to the Crown.

As each chief signed, Governor Hobson is reported to have said to them: "He iwi tahi tatou" (we are one people). It is significant that he said this in Maori, since in the intervening years, most people have taken his words to mean that Maori should become brown-skinned Pakeha, rather than that Pakeha were now to become more like Maori.

After the initial signing at Waitangi, the Treaty was taken to various places around the country and eventually collected signatures from over 500 chiefs. Governor Hobson however, became bored by the process at one stage and claimed the South Island by "right of discovery". Some major tribes, including the Waikato tribes (united in later years under the Maori King) and Tuhoe, to name just two, never signed the Treaty.

Today, many people think that the Treaty gives Maori certain rights. It does not. The rights of sovereignty which Maori exercised for at least 800 years before the arrival of the Pakeha could not and still cannot be "granted" by the Crown. The British Crown officially recognized those rights in the 1835 Declaration of Maori Independence, and that recognition was reaffirmed in Article II of the Treaty. In effect, the Treaty does not give Maori any rights they didn’t already have, but it does give Pakeha certain limited rights - the rights covered by the term kawanatanga.

The Treaty of Waitangi is today the only legal basis for the presence of non-Maori settlers here in Aotearoa/NZ. Maori never gave up their rights (as the Crown claims), nor were they ever conquered, despite several attempts. If we take away the Treaty, the legal right of non-Maori people to live in this country is removed with it. The Treaty of Waitangi is actually about Pakeha rights, not Maori rights. And those rights do not include the right to rule Maori people or Maori land.

That is why many Maori feel the Treaty has not been honoured.

From Arena.