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Labor, Value, and the Path Forward

Welcome to the Brooklyn Commune LABOR & VALUE research team online.

This is the first in a series of public statements on where we stand, where we should be, and how to get there.

Consider this your invitation to participate. Our mandate is expansive, our topics diverse, and we invite eager minds to help us confront these issues head-on.

We’ve had a few brainstorming sessions that have proved extremely productive at defining the outer-boundaries of this group’s focus. We are also in coordination with the other research teams as they articulate their positions, and are keen towards areas of cross-pollination. We are tweaking our process to dig into the meat of the issues, seeking specificity in our articulation of the possible solutions.

This document will propose several solutions to our common challenges. There is space for both systemic solutions (working within the system as it stands) and revolutionary solutions (overhauling the system), and indeed both are necessary if we are going to improve the lives of artists within and against the global economy of our time. We hope that the process of creating this document reflects the fundamental messages of solidarity and collaboration. Our solutions must not only be described, but also demonstrated.

Some of the solutions we seek have already taken rough shape, and many are still emerging. What’s clear is that we need to divvy up the tasks and research them in small groups of 2 or 3 people. The list of topics below reflects the primary strains of thought that have emerged organically from our discussions. Look it over and see if you can contribute, and pass it along to others who can. This group is built specifically so people can flow in and out as their time allows. We are looking to create an in-flow of people looking for research and solutions. We hope this structure will make it easy.


We have come up with four different types of value:
Economic/Entertainment Value – the most obvious, and the one that’s most often referenced in our culture. How much money can you get a consumer to pay for the performance, and how many consumers will pay that amount?
Value for the Social Good – how a piece can help us become more empathetic and world-conscious, not just entertaining. As it stands, this kind of value is nebulous and difficult to communicate. We are actively searching for (online/crowd-sourced) structures to share with your community that “this performance made me a better person.”
Aesthetic Value – what is the value of seeking new forms, purely for the sake of new forms?
Nebulously Economic Value – which refers to the income generated by the arts community. At the inaugural Brooklyn Commune lecture on March 24th, NYU prof. Randy Martin argued that through the (totally problematic) process of gentrification, artists creates tons of economic value for an area with their love and energy, and they never get to see that profit. If we can find a formula to quantify how much this is, then we can speak more precisely about what are fair wages for artists in this economy.

We are looking to other participatory structures like sports and religion, to see how they organize their communities, empower individuals with the fluency and comfort to participate, and how they interact with the larger economy.

How does our childhood education prime us for a lifetime as art-makers or art-embracers? Is it working? It seems that schools do a better job with sports than with the arts, and that is reflected in how people spend their money as adults. There was a recent story that shook our hearts: a Boston principal of a struggling inner-city school fired security guards in order to hire art teachers. Fights dropped dramatically and the school is improving rapidly. What are the lessons here for the culture at-large?

Definitely one of our biggest topics. It seems to us that the press often does more harm than good to the arts community. The New York Times positions itself as steadfastly against innovation. Mainstream media judge art-works solely by their entertainment-value, which is shallow, incomplete, and refuses to engage with the intentions of the artists. The press doesn’t merely reflect the wishes of an audience that seeks entertainment instead of transformation; it actively creates that audience. We yearn for an accessible and critically-engaged press. We want the media to encourage risk-taking rather than merely entertaining (though there is absolutely room for both). And we want it now. We are currently seeking ways to short-circuit the system.

Organizations like Materials for the Arts (MFTA), Build It Green, and ART/NY have proven essential for the independent arts community, providing infrastructure where there is none. There are dozens of similarly-spirited organizations that have yet to be invented. For instance: can we conceive of a subsidized Scene Shop space for performing arts organizations? This would allow artists to engage rigorously with design and environment, in a way that is currently cost-prohibitive. What are the other ideas? How should such organizations determine membership and distribute their resources?

Lots of questions. How much work do we do, and how much of it is for free? How much is a real living wage and where should that money come from? How do we learn and get experience? Are unpaid internships ethical? And it is a class-barrier to require a grad school education?

There tends to be a dark blanket over our conversations about money, because there’s very little transparency about how much everyone’s making. Many of us enjoy economic privilege (i.e. trust funds), which sometimes help create the impression that artists don’t need to get paid. If we can create a safe space for this conversation, for people to come clean about their experience, then we can act together and leverage the market on behalf of the whole. For now, the silence hurts artists more than anyone else (except the luckiest among us). Is this what a union looks like in the 21st Century? If not, what is?

*** This list is necessarily incomplete, and only represents what I thought were the meatiest topics already-discussed. There are many more windows into the group. Come and figure our where you want to fit yourself in. ***

We’re seeking artists and non-artists of all kinds to join us at this early phase. We need economists and labor-scholars. Sociologists, social-movement leaders, and all-around team players.

1) EMAIL NBENACERRAF (at) GMAIL (dot) COM & JILLIANBUCKLEY (at) GMAIL (dot) COM. We’re the coordinators of the Labor and Value research team. We are holding another Team Meeting in the next 1-2 weeks, so get in touch soon if you’d like to join!
2) COME TO THE NEXT COMMUNE on Sunday July 14, 2pm-6pm at Invisible Dog in Brooklyn.
3) COME TO THE MINI-COMMUNES, every Monday night at 7pm. Info at http://www.brooklyncommune.org and on the facebook page.

Thank you, and good morning.

Nick, Jillian, and the Team




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