On a foggy, summer day in San Francisco, I meet my friend, filmmaker and professor Brook Hinton for coffee at the Acme Café in the lower Mission District. We haven’t gotten together for a year, and I’m looking forward to sharing news, stories and ideas with him. After an hour or so I’m sure I’ll be going home to Berkeley a little less anxious and more connected to the buzz of activity around the city’s more adventurous or fringe-y filmmakers and musicians.
We’re able to unlock our masks of bright self-confidence around one another. At the moment, it doesn’t matter to us that our problems as creators may not seem as shattering as all the other worsening social and environmental problems in a time of recession, shrinkage and slow deflation of dreams.
We’re good at recognizing this state of urgency, and measuring its effects on our friends and colleagues trying to make a living and continue their work in the arts. The Café is full and bustling in the late morning with people like us – reading and working on their laptops, scanning their devices, and even talking face to face with one another.
We do a quick and honest scan across our work worlds. What are artists coping with? Neither of us can report on big success stories – either our own, or about people we know. We trade small success stories of artists we know being able to hang on and persist, experimenting in private or with small groups of friends with shareable skills. Brook’s friends who work in art-related jobs are scraping by project to project.
The old ways of earning a living will no longer work, since only a few name-branded artists will land college teaching jobs that are now paying by the course, and which offer scant reliability and barely modest incomes. Earning a living making media products to sell in the cultural marketplace? For us as filmmakers we know that’s over, yet the reality penetrates slowly.
We exchange news about our own ongoing projects. We’re scrambling to keep in the game and not let the boundary lines that vibrate around technology change get us down or disable our drive to work through them.
I think of the phrase I’ve been noticing lately — that technology has led us into a state of “permanent change.” When I want to remember it I bring up the image of a red Sharpie marker pen bleeding its indelible ink through my pocket full of pennies.
Out loud, we worry together about using social networking tools to stand out and get attention. I admit I lose sleep ruminating on the next new technology and online tool to learn. We wonder to each other if it’s what we want, or need to do anyway — or maybe just do it carelessly without much thought of doing it perfectly.
I say that I’m trying to understand how global economic flows are creating pressures that ripple throughout the cultural ecology. I’m feeling the impact in ways that seem both intimate yet remote. My projects and the ability to pay for their production is moving slowly and cautiously. No one wants to get anything new started.
By sensing the big picture expanding and contracting, I respond through my work — making it more honest and sharp, and not let feelings of inferiority get the better of my energies. I also confess that I feel alienated and distant from the contemporary art world — like a lifelong friend I’ll never stop loving, but who is too busy with business to stay in touch with me.
Brook and I might begin these occasional meetings with disappointment and headache-inducing shock at the harsh state of affairs we find ourselves spinning out to consider. Inevitably though, through talking and talking, we gain control over the mess. Our conversation takes a turn with some good music in the cafe, and the darkness lifts like the fog does by mid- afternoon.
We laugh at the absurdity of our complaints, because no matter what, creativity continues. It thrives, a life force not to be controlled or given up. And neither of us will stop learning, challenging assumptions, or working through our processes — because whether we recognize it or not, this is the way we measure our success.
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Both of us continue to make film even though we see the news that the IRS does not want to allow business deductions for documentary filmmaking, because it is, in their new definition, a “hobby,” and not a “for profit” business activity or profession. Does this attack prove that documentary is a cultural force at this moment?
It takes a determined lawyer and several arts organizations to prepare an amicus brief proving that documentary filmmaking is a profit-making profession and not a weekend activity. It also shows how the structures holding artists and creators within a skill-based profession (worthy of being considered a tax-paying or deducting business and not just an activity that anyone can “do”) are fading as the 21st century emerges succinctly as the digital age where what makes a professional creator in the eyes of the law will be redefined and fought over.
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We circle around the image of “taking refuge.” And how important it is to be giving refuge to the young by telling them the truth as we see it in our own lives and work. When students ask for answers from experience, we say, “The system has to be rebuilt. By you. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by.” I say that we have no time to be dishonest or vague with students. When they ask about how they can earn a living in the arts, we must tell the truth: don’t think about selling stuff, think about how does your work contribute to waking people up in this state of urgency we find ourselves in?
For now, the refuge we reach for remains partially hidden online in the fragile, still free and open internet – this wild, enticing ocean full of noise and distraction. Yet, for now it remains the only alternative emerging where we can imagine and present a remixed, expansive, even hopeful reality connection.
I admit to Brook that I’m immersed working in this economy of gifts, where I still do not know how to be paid for what I do as a media maker. What Richard Nash, the founder of the new publishing site Red Lemonade writes about literature is true for the arts and media:
The book is now something more of yourself, something you exchange with others, more like a talk, a conversation, a class, an event, than a lampshade or a hammer.
This is the flux of permanent change: our cultural expressions are emerging to be dialogues freely shared, and not physical objects only to be purchased.
Brook tells me that I appear much more grounded when I talk about the Lunch Love Community project. “I have no other choice,” I say. ” I’ve pinched, kneaded, pounded and beaten myself into this shape. I’m building my own state of urgency and making it as stylish as I can.”
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All of this leads to the 2011 Maker Faire at the San Mateo County Fair Grounds. Is it fair, I ask Brook, to compare international art fairs like the Venice Biennale to the Maker Faire? At an international art world fair, I would only be a detached observer, a pretend consumer and compulsive evaluator.
A piece of my heart now belongs to the Maker Faire and the DIY adventure it conjures up. Whatever we make of the visual arts in the 21st century, as religion or business, the seeds of its future live in the tremendous creative energy at the Makers Faire. Everyone there “makes” and “shares.”
I saw Stanford scientists meeting down home crafters; Silicon Valley engineers meeting Oakland art collectives; kids and adults putting together Lego cities and robots. You can build, network, exchange, and buy what you would need to make something you can use or play with – from coffee roasters to machines and electronics to backyard bio-tech and all-purpose circuits called ‘Arduinos.’
Wonder and excitement is palpable because in this temporary space, hierarchies around science, art and technology disappear for a weekend, and everyone is just into the festival groove together. I left the Maker Faire smarter and more energized, with a few solar electronics kits to put together with my son.
In this moment now, as stories of gloom and disaster sit in our lives like heavy bleak furniture we can’t move or get rid of, I keep in mind a bit of advice from The Maker’s Checklist: “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”
Brook and I leave the coffee shop promising to meet again next year -at a refuge called the Makers Faire.