The Life Deliberate: We’ll Drink Coffee During the Revolution

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The Life Deliberate

We’ll Drink Coffee During the Revolution

by Anna Clark
illustration by One Neck

I ARRIVED at Boston’s Haley House in early 2005, expecting to stay five months. My lukewarm commitment testifies to my doubt that this place was for me. Back in Michigan, I had been restless, looking for something new and engaging to do with my life, and I imagined Haley House as a curious pitstop along the way. Nearly a year and a half later, I’m still here.

I’m still not great at describing it in 25 words or less, but here goes: Haley House is an intentional live-in community that engages with poverty and class in Boston. We draw from the Catholic Worker tradition: personalist approaches to real justice, eschewing charity. Embracing simplicity and unique approaches to spirituality. Together, we manage a small soup kitchen in the heart of Boston’s gentrified South End, as well as a food pantry, cloth- ing room, music jam sessions, and writing and culinary workshops. We have an organic farm an hour away, housing a second community, where we work regularly with guests from the kitchen. We run an affordable housing program in the South End and host the street magazine Whats Up.

During my first summer here, we expanded our bakery—which doubles as a job training program—into a full café in Dudley Square. It’s a fantastic space, colorful and supportive of local artists. Organic food is sold cheaply, making good food available to the people in Roxbury who typically don’t have the means to access it. Many people in the training program are just out of rehab or prison; upon completion of a six-month paid holistic training program, we support them in finding related employment.

See—I suck at explaining Haley House in a soundbite. It needs more words.

But the point is this: I came here uncertainly and I stayed because the house’s mission to break down boundaries between people who are typically isolated from each other—homeless men and South End professionals; immigrants and college students; me and you—resonated deeply with me.

Living and working in the same place is no joke. I detest waking up extraordinarily early on the mornings I work at breakfast. I’ve been surprised more than once to find one of the guests sleeping inside our door. Sometimes shutting the door to my room isn’t enough for me to get some peace. I’ll admit that I escape—I leave the house with nowhere to go, desperate to be somewhere else, to be alone. We eat the same food we serve, delivered to us from Boston’s Food Bank, and there are times when rummaging through the near-expired goods, or trying to come up with a new way to prepare kidney beans, makes me want to choose death first.

But despite this, it comes down to the smaller moments. For me, it all comes back to the coffee.

Last summer, my housemates and I were recruited for a coffee taste-test. While our old storefront bakery had served Equal Exchange, the opening of the new café offered the opportunity to try new fair-trade brands. So I had the welcome task of drawing my chair out to the brick sidewalk one morning with Adam and Ali, sitting in the sun, and declaring whether we preferred Cup 1 or Cup 2, and to offer a couple of adjectives to capture the taste. An Equal Exchange rep was there to help with the test. So while the three of us were chatting it up, we asked the rep about what the hell fair trade really means, and whether all fair trade is the same, and why she was personally involved. A couple people we know from our kitchen, Bethany and John-Paul, happened upon us, and they pulled out chairs to participate in the taste test.

And it was just a morning of sun, and coffee, and me and my friends.

This morning happened to occur at the five-month mark—that is, when I’d initially planned on moving on to my “real” life. But that morning captured why I wasn’t ready to leave.

Here, unexpectedly, in my own home, I had a chance to learn about fair trade from a woman who works on the inside.

Here, people are engaged in creative activism—creating alternative possibilities for a just world, rather than merely resisting what’s out there (though resistance certainly has an important place).

Here, communities are created, and not just on one side of the kitchen counter—my housemates, all of us from relatively privileged backgrounds, have space to connect with people we’d otherwise never know.

While many of us feel crushed by the weight of all the suffering in the world, why would I not dig into a space with so many possibilities? So many friends? So much good coffee?

Anna Clark reports that Haley House Bakery Café ended up choosing Equal Exchange coffee after all, and serves it at affordable prices. For more information about Haley House, check out haleyhouse.org. For more information about Whats Up Magazine, check out whatsupmagazine.org.

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Under the Covers: Jonathan Franzen Will Never Write a Novel in This Town Again

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Under the Covers

Jonathan Franzen Will Never Write a Novel in This Town Again

by Carla Costa
illustration by Nicole Neditch

IN THE YEARS since the publication of his last novel, The Corrections (2001), Jonathan Franzen has talked so much shit about the American novel that he may never write one again.

Franzen just released his second collection of autobiographical essays, The Discomfort Zone, and shows no sign of working on a new novel. He has, however, written letters to writers who criticize his work and the opinions put forth in his now-infamous 2002 essay about reading William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, “Mr. Difficult.” In his defense, you’d think that in four years writers would have found something better to talk about than an piece by a nerd who grew up to write philosophical essays on birding for The New Yorker.

Unfortunately for Franzen, Ben Marcus reprised the chorus of sighs spurred by Franzen’s essay with a tiresome diatribe of his own entitled “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It.”1 Ben Marcus is a funny guy.

Simultaneously, a new issue of n+1 (Fall 2005) hit newsstands, featuring an essay from New Republic senior editor and literary critic James Wood, with his own take on the State of the American Novel. It includes some notes on Wood’s own complicated relationship with Franzen as not only a critic but a respectful reader of Franzen’s novels. The result was the appearance of a letter from Franzen in n+1’s Spring 2006 issue (which includes a lot of exclamation points), an attempt to defend himself from misinterpretation and call Wood to task on his own (supposedly) contradictory statements. It’s followed by an as-yet-unanswered letter from Wood in an issue that attempts to review the State of American Writing Today. The more Franzen writes nonfiction, the more difficult it is to keep from finding fault with the guy. Perhaps this is because he does such a great job of pointing out his personal deficiencies with his Eeyore essay-writing style. Poor Franzen can’t catch a break, but why can’t misguided editors, writers and critics stop trying to peg down the American Novel as an either/or proposition (good/bad, experimental/mainstream, progressive/staid)?

A rudimentary question still begs to be answered: Why should we care what Jonathan Franzen, Ben Marcus, James Wood, and the editors of n+1 (among many others) see as the State of the American Novel? Because they’re novelists? Because they’re editors? Because they’re academics?

None of these writers offer anything more than analytical opinion. In this context, they’re all critics, and although their expertise is valuable, it doesn’t necessarily intersect with what true lovers of literature (and other readers) take home. It does not account for individual tastes or for PR-machine hype; it does not account for the ever-surprising nature of book sales. Instead, it extends the notion that readership can be pinned, mounted and traded as a commodity, yet none of these parties seems to really believe that an audience can still make a novel. In their criticisms of Franzen, none of these writers really broach the intricacies of alienating readers, which is exactly what Franzen aimed to do with his “Mr. Difficult” essay. Also, they appear to exist in a world where the industry of publishing has little to do with what’s written and the way it’s written. This world is, of course, make-believe, and not in some post-modern, metaphysical way.

Mr. Difficult

Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult” reads like a neurotic novelist posing as a reader in order to assess whether or not complex writing (known as experimental in some circles) will make a book more or less sellable or respected. He must have been merely curious about the matter, since it doesn’t seem like Franzen has any intention of using the feedback to write a new novel. At least, not that he’s told us, anyway.

With his latest nonfiction book, Franzen is doing just what I would do in his position: dodging the unbearable pain of writing a follow-up to a book like The Corrections, which stands not only as his most popular and best-selling work to date, but also (thanks to the Oprah controversy surrounding it) the revelation of his desire to be, at once, a cult writer and a bestseller—or to be loved, but only by the readers he likes. The fact that such a goal is made unattainable by the structure of the publishing and marketing industries could be the one point on which Franzen and his critics agree. It’s old news, after all.2 If only they would just talk about it, but to do so would mean admitting that some of Franzen’s critics long for the same unattainable cult/mainstream status.

Few writers have successfully walked the line between cult status and industry success (at least in their lifetimes). Those who have followed a similar tack of getting out of bed and out the door before the follow-up novel wakes up and demands to be written. Take, for example, one of the other Jonathans. Since his bestseller, The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem released a collection of autobiographical essays, The Disappointment Artist, followed by one, and soon another, collection of short stories. The short stories are entertaining, but The Disappointment Artist is for suckers, people who have the exact same aesthetic taste and the same hobbies/interests as Lethem but are too lazy or disinterested to write about them at length and call it essays. If you aren’t in that camp, you’ll find yourself left out of the world Lethem makes for his readers. This may not be so bad for Lethem, since the time away from novels will shake many of his mainstream fans, separating the wheat from the chaff, and ensuring that when he does write another novel, it will be for those cult readers who stuck with him. He will be loved, but only by the readers he likes.

How to Be Alone

The difference between Franzen and Lethem seems to be that the more Lethem writes about himself, the more his devoted fans admire him. The more Franzen writes about himself, the easier it becomes to dislike him, to purposefully misinterpret him, to make fun of him and use him as a target for a game of literary darts. Franzen is, as is revealed in The Discomfort Zone, a well-meaning kid who’s too cool to roll with the losers and too much of a loser to roll with the cool kids. A cartoon by Patricia Storms, The Amazing Adventures of Lethem & Chabon,3 in which Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon save a middle-aged man from disinterest in literature with their “action-packed novels about male-bonding and self-discovery,” also features a telling frame in which Franzen begs Lethem and Chabon to let him join their literary superhero dynasty:

Franzen: But I can appeal to the macho mind, too! Why, I even wrote an essay about comics in The New Yorker!
Chabon: You mean that drek about Peanuts?
Lethem: You think that’s gonna put you in our league? You’re hilarious, Franzen!
Chabon: Face it, Franzie, your writing is too soft. You’ll never play with the big boys.
Lethem: Should have kissed Oprah’s ass when you had the chance, girlie-man!

I, for one, like Peanuts, but I long for the days when Franzen was rewriting the literary mystery (The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion), and instead of pouring himself into a pity-party collection of essays, was pouring himself into the protagonist of his next novel.

It is, essentially, impossible to get and keep all readers. It is, essentially, impossible to dictate what readers want, and especially what they want from a novel. The best novelists do not define an audience and write their way into a readership. The readership comes to them. To attempt to describe The State of the American Novel and make demands for its betterment without acknowledging that one’s opinions are only as valuable as those of their readers is not only foolish, it’s the kind of thing that destroys careers.

1 Harper’s Magazine, October 2005
2 See: Theodor Adorno’s “Culture Industry Re- considered” from The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (Routledge, 2001).
3 stormsillustration.com/L&C-1.html

Carla Costa is a bookseller who continues to recommend Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion, thinks Ben Marcus’ The Age of Wire and String is brilliant, reads every issue of n+1, and wishes Lethem and Chabon really were superheroes so she could giggle at their man-bits in tights. Send your reading recommendations to carla@kitchensinkmag.com.

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Earth Balancing: Affording a Green Budget

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Earth Balancing

Affording a Green Budget

by Elka Karl
illustration by Michael Wertz

IN MANY WAYS, we’re lucky that the environmental movement has recently been streamlined and slickified by the design mavens who’ve incorporated organic cotton and sustainably forested black locust into their designer denim and coffee tables. The labels “environmentally friendly,” “organic” and “sustainably grown” no longer strictly mentally associate with the long-haired hermits who abandoned our urban centers to live their mangy utopian dream in some backwoods holler. Instead, these labels now remind me of the products that actress Amy Smart advocated in her recent spread of über-consumerist Lucky magazine, or U2’s plan to mitigate the carbon emissions on their upcoming tour. In short, it’s become hipper to be green.

But it’s also become more expensive. If I want a sustainably grown coffee table, I’m going to pay more for it than for a table fashioned from clearcut old growth and exploited child labor. Inevitably, once a movement is embraced by the cool kids, its value and price is going to rise as well.

For years I’ve been unable to completely align my green ideals with my everyday buying habits. Finally, after years of poverty-level living (thanks to graduate school and a few years of volunteer service), I’ve gotten to the point where I can actually afford to put my money where my bleeding green heart is. But even after earning a very decent income last year, many of the big green purchases, such as a hybrid vehicle, are beyond my means.

But greening your lifestyle isn’t necessarily about the big-ticket items. It’s about the little choices you make every day, the things that are necessary to survival. With that in mind, I decided to break green spending down into the very basic categories of food, shelter and transportation, to take a closer look at where many of us can afford to green our lives, and where we’re still priced out of doing the right thing.

Food

When I moved to Oakland in 1997, I was building organic gardens in the city’s public schools through AmeriCorps, the do-gooder Clinton program that allows white, college-educated kids to rub elbows, perhaps for the first time, with folks that don’t look like them. One of the people who didn’t look like me was Carmelita, a strikingly beautiful black woman who was 48 but looked 20 years younger. I adored her for her mama bear-like presence in our work group and her no-nonsense take on our project. “Organic food is bourgeois,” she declared upon our second day working together. “I wish it weren’t true, but it is. You know how hard it is for me to get any produce in my neighborhood [her neighborhood, dubbed “Hoochie Mama Row” by her daughter, is close to my current home], let alone organic? Let’s be serious. Organic is not in wide circulation for poor, urban black folks.”

In my liberal, rural, white way, I bristled at this statement, because I’d grown up just as poor, if not more so, than those urban black folks Carmelita was talking about, and I’d had a diet chockfull of organic produce. The key difference, though, is that poor rural folks have access to land, while poor urban folks do not. You can’t feed a family of five on the produce you can grow on your fire escape, but you sure can if you live in a falling-down house on one acre, which is exactly what my parents did.

Almost 10 years later, access to organic produce in urban centers, even those near Hoochie Mama Row, has improved. Since 1994, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture first published its National Directory of Farmers Markets, the number has nearly doubled to almost 4,000 weekly farmers markets across the country. Many of these markets accept food stamps, and my own neighborhood recently opened its first farmers market, to great success. But we still don’t have a decent grocery store within walking distance.

The fact remains that organic produce is often priced 20 to 25 percent higher than conventional produce. It’s often hard to justify spending more money on your food budget, especially when you’re saving extra cash for, say, a trip to SXSW or your weekly drinking binge. And prepackaged organic food is even more expensive, as is organic meat, cheese and milk. If you’re struggling with your budget, try to at least add organic produce that you can afford to your grocery list. Twenty percent of that dollar package of carrots only makes organic carrots twenty cents more expensive than the conventional ones, and the addition of organic produce to your budget is unlikely to bankrupt you (although it may force you to order one or two fewer PBRs over the weekend). And for those foodies out there, organic produce simply tastes better, looks prettier, and is almost always fresher. Though it is more expensive than non-organic food, it’s still one of the easiest, cheapest ways to green your lifestyle.

Shelter

Unless you own your own home, there aren’t a lot of macro-level changes you can make in your home environment to really affect your living situation. You probably can’t add a grey-water system to your home to collect used shower and laundry water to irrigate your lawn. You can’t add PV panels to your rooftop. And you often won’t add more energy-efficient appliances, since your landlord is obligated to provide said appliances for you. However, if one of your appliances does crap out while you’re living at your home, urge your landlord to consider Energy Star products. These products are particularly attractive to landlords footing water or energy bills, since landlords will save money through these appliances’ increased water and energy efficiencies.

Even if you can’t replace appliances, you can still do plenty—and these changes won’t necessarily break the bank. The first thing I did when I moved into my house was paint the kitchen and bedroom with low-VOC paint— which is friendlier to the environment and to your health. You know that terrible paint smell? It smells that way because the volatile organic compounds swimming around in those pretty colors are royally screwing with the indoor air quality of your home, which can lead to immune system problems, asthma and other less than desirable consequences. Low-VOC paint doesn’t cost much more than regular paint, either: Prices are the same or only up to 10 percent higher than that of conventional paints.

I also switched out most of the house’s incandescent lightbulbs with CFLs, which last for years and actually save money in the long run. Other cheap changes included adding a water-saving device to the toilet (I simply stuck a brick in the tank), installing a low-flow showerhead, turning off lights in unoccupied rooms and only running laundry on a full load and air-drying clothes.

For the unmotivated out there, you can save enough money to buy a few kegs of beer annually by unplugging energy vampire appliances when they aren’t in use. Small appliances like DVD players, phone chargers, battery chargers and laptops have transformer-type power supplies that consume between 2 to 30 watts of electricity, even when the appliance is not in use. It’s estimated that these appliances consume over five percent of the total energy use in the country—when they’re essentially doing nothing. What does that mean for you? Hundreds of dollars a year in energy costs and the potential construction of more power plants to supply energy we don’t even need. So don’t put your laptop to “sleep,” power it down and unplug the bastard. Same with your cell phone, battery charger and the power strip that holds the plugs for your DVD player, microwave or toaster oven. Unless you pull the plug out of the wall or turn off the powerstrip, chances are you’re still draining electricity.

Transportation

While my family might have had an advantage agriculturally by living in a rural environment, we were at a loss when it came to transportation. Most places were only accessible by car, and there was no public transit system of which to speak.

The hard but simple truth for all of us lazybones urbanites is that we can travel easily and cheaply by moving our bodies more. Walk. Ride your bike. Skateboard to the bar. My friend Phyllis used to ride her bike to and from work all year round—even through Minneapolis snowstorms in January. I’m not trying to pretend that it’s always fun, but transporting yourself via feet or bicycle guarantees you an endorphin high.

The big issue when it comes to transportation is the automobile. While I hate the idea of putting money into a vehicle when it could go into, say, a European bicycle vacation, I work at a bar in San Francisco a few nights each week, which means that options such as carsharing or going carless altogether are out of the question, since public transit via BART closes down at 12:30 every night. My 2001 Toyota Echo, which averages 38 mpg, is not the 47-mpg Prius that I really want—however, it is nearly $20,000 cheaper. And until the price of hybrids drops, I can’t afford to stick that much money into a vehicle.

To make up for this environmental faux pas, I offset carbon emissions through nativeenergy.com. By calculating the car’s fuel efficiency and the number of miles driven, you are charged a fee that’s invested in renewable energy sources, such as wind or methane.

You can also offset your trips any time you fly through the same service. Flying contributes a huge amount of CO2 to the earth’s atmosphere (and thus exacerbates climate change), so when I flew to Norway I offset the 3,936 pounds of CO2 I produced with a renewable energy contribution. Don’t have the extra $10 to $40 to offset your trip? Then don’t fly at night or during the winter. University of Reading, UK scientist Nicola Stuber discovered that although night flights only comprise 25 percent of total flights worldwide, they contribute 80 percent of the warming effect from plane travel. The emissions from planes, which form artificial cirrus clouds, or contrails, also significantly add to warming during winter travel. So plan to travel in the summer and during the day, and fly with a slightly cleaner conscience.

Power to the Poor People

The bottom line is that unless you have wads of spare cash, you’re going to have to work a little harder to actually green your lifestyle, which is the way of the marginal in society in general. We work harder. We think longer about decisions. We travel in slower, more circuitous patterns. Recently, as I debated whether to bike to a matinee or drive, I stopped to consider what exactly I would be doing with the extra 15 minutes I’d save by driving. Puttering about on the Internet? Zoning out in front of an episode of Deadwood? Putting more gas in the car? And I realized that the time I was saving wasn’t really worth anything special. Sure, it took a little longer to bike with my friends to see that summer blockbuster, but if we’d driven I would’ve missed so many things: a game of dice on a street corner; the geese waddling along Lake Merritt; a conversation about bicycles initiated by a man who also rode a Raleigh.

Living a greener lifestyle isn’t an issue of hipness or label envy. Sure, giving environmentalism a modern façade has been helpful in marketing it to the masses, but consumerism does not an environmentalist make. It’s about the everyday decisions, the biking instead of driving, the buying local instead of international. We have a choice to make a change, and it’s not about being cool or self-righteous anymore, it’s about surviving. If there’s any upside to climate change, it is in its potential to unite us as humans dedicated to the cause of our own survival. The first step in this campaign is to consider the things we do every day, and that we must now accomplish with a little thought given to greening our actions.

Elka Karl recently harvested her first ever backyard artichokes. Check in on the progress of her heirloom watermelons at elka@kitchensinkmag.com.

To learn more about offsetting your carbon emissions, go to nativeenergy.com.

To find farmers markets in your area, go to ams. usda.gov/farmersmarkets/map.htm.

To learn more about residential power use, go to eere.energy.gov/consumer.

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Birth Control for Both of Us

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Birth Control for Both of Us

by Aneesa Davenport
illustration by Liz Harris

THE FIRST TIME I had sex, crashing in a friend’s guest bedroom, I didn’t tell my parents that my boyfriend was there too. We hadn’t planned ahead, so we ended up making a late-night run to the 24-hour drug store for condoms. The clerk called across the desolate aisles for a price check, of course, while we waited speechlessly. That boyfriend taught me to be responsible—he even showed me how to tie a condom so the semen wouldn’t spill, and advised me not to trust any guy who didn’t do this. He didn’t, however, properly dispose of the wrapper, and the next day I was dragged into an excruciating conversation with my friend’s mother in which I was stabbed with shame and obliged to deny everything. My boyfriend had intended to step up and take responsibility for our birth control that night, but it turned out to be the first time the particulars of being safe were primarily up to me.

We learn when we’re young to use condoms, but for couples in long-term relationships, they soon become outmoded. Condoms are laborious to use and generally decrease pleasure; once you stop using them, it’s hard to go back, the way it’s hard to move out of the apartment or break off an engagement and then continue dating—you’re fumbling and retreating to the guest bedroom when you should be honest and up close. Young adults in long-term relationships are therefore more likely to get their blood tested and then use the pill, patch, injection or intrauterine device (IUD), forms of hormonal and non-hormonal contraception which require a prescription, injection or implantation.

In college, I lived in households full of girls who displayed their fourth-week “reminder” pills on the coffee table in candy dishes, influenced the timing of my period, and complained about turning into bitches. I dated a guy who, after several failed attempts, admitted that we probably weren’t going to have sex unless we stopped trying to use condoms. I was on the pill within a month.

I was warned about mood swings and depression, both of which are common and sometimes tough-to-spot side effects of hormonal contraception. I was told I might experience them immediately, or after a few months, for the first three months, or continuously. I learned that such side effects could force me to switch brands of oral contraception. However, I wasn’t prepared to diagnose myself. Also, having grown up with jokes about PMS, I was wary of blaming my emotions or behavior on hormones. I recognized changes in my body before and during my period, but I became so accustomed to defending myself against PMS that I was surprised to learn that it actually exists, and that the physical symptoms, which I couldn’t ignore, are as much a part of it as the emotional symptoms. This indoctrination against the very concept of PMS was the first reason I couldn’t recognize the pill’s side effects. I wasn’t acting any bitchier than usual, so I was OK. My boyfriend, having also been raised around riot grrrls and third-wave feminism, was equally self-conscious about the issue. For him to even suspect that natural or unnatural hormones were affecting my moods—which seems so obvious now—would have been a turn-around from everything he’d learned about how to communicate with women. Instead, he blamed the relationship and himself, and saw no solution to the problem.

In my early 20s, like most at that age, I was plagued with indecision accompanied by breakups, heartbreaks, move-ins and -outs, move-aways, reunions, long-distance relationships, joblessness and new jobs, and homesickness. One roommate asked me to hide her meds from her so she wouldn’t take too many in the night, and another, the next year, tried to take his life. I tried to hold down a job that made me so anxious I felt nauseous every Monday morning, while taking calls to come home and clean up the blood. I reluctantly finished college, and when my boyfriend got into grad school I moved away from my family and friends to support him despite my envy. Of course I’m more emotional during these great changes, I thought, but no matter how logically I looked at it, I couldn’t match my feelings to my circumstances.

I took the pill for two years, and I cried for half that time. Sometimes I felt nothing, the inside of my body a stranger to the outside. I recognized that a harsh word or look could trigger disproportionate sadness, anger, pain and resentment, but I was unable to deny that I really felt them. What made the cause of my mood swings most difficult to identify were all the probable causes for unhappiness.

Regardless, the emotional ups and downs took their toll. The harder my relationship was to maintain, the harder I tried to fix it. Talking it out was impossible, because logic, reason, and even cause and effect seemed inapplicable. Why did such-and-such hurt my feelings? I didn’t know any better than my boyfriend did. Instead, like many desperate people, I hoped physical intimacy could lure our hearts back together. But another possible side effect of birth control (including IUDs) is decreased libido. It was harder to have sex. It wasn’t as good anymore, and sometimes hurt. It was worse to think that we couldn’t connect in that way, so I tended to fake it.

When choosing condoms, the birth control responsibility is often distributed between partners. They make the decision to use them together and accept and deal with the inconveniences or problems together—they get out of bed and drive to Walmart together; they can both see if the condom breaks. But the responsibility for other forms of contraception falls more heavily on the woman, and the repercussions of pregnancy or other medical complications, of course, also fall more heavily on her. Every time my period was late, I worried, which I suspect tensed me up enough to make it even later. But the impact of simply using birth control hits both parties, often unbeknownst to them. The pill, for example, is designed to make relationships easier and safer, but when its side effects are hard to diagnose and easy to misunderstand, it can have the opposite effect.

In my experience, using contraceptives which require more forethought (e.g., a doctor’s prescription) and more constancy (daily doses, quarterly shots, etc.) gives couples the impression that they’re working together more maturely, honestly and openly than if they just opted for the one-off solution of condoms each time they have sex. But unfortunately, our bodies may still embarrass or confuse us into silence or miscommunication when we don’t understand them.

Once external events had settled down to a hum—no more roommates, no more break- ups, no more moves—it became clear that they weren’t the cause of my constant drum of sadness, now neither spiking nor sinking. My boyfriend suggested I go into therapy (easier said than done without health insurance), but even when I suspected I was reacting to the pill, there didn’t seem to be an obvious solution. If I switched brands, how many would I have to try (friends had gone through several) and how long would each take to affect me? (Also, a history of being hurt and shamed by rude emergency-room physicians whom I saw for urinary tract infections and kidney problems dissuaded me from going back to a doctor for a new prescription.) How would I know if the pill was the cause of my symptoms? Mostly, I worried that it was already difficult to be with my boyfriend, so how could I go off my contraception?

I did not fully realize the implications of my choices—that choosing a method of birth control is a decision a couple must make repeatedly throughout their relationship, as their relationship and their bodies change. Regardless of how old we are when we start taking contraceptives, if it’s our first time it’s our first time: We’ll never know what to expect of ourselves, no matter how many warnings and raves we know by heart. When I was first caught having sex, I was young enough to try to deny it, and in a way I continued to deny the full effects of my sexual relationships for years after, even to myself.

Although there have been developments in oral contraceptive methods or contraceptive injections, implants or vaccines for men, their reliability is even more uncertain than their viability. If only 28 percent of women on the pill always take it correctly, can we trust our male partners to do any better? If he accidentally skipped a pill, would your partner tell you? Regardless, these types of male contraception would again separate lovers instead of offering us an equal and shared contraceptive plan, in which our bodies are respected and better known to ourselves and to each other. For now, though, while women in long-term heterosexual relationships still bear the greater burden of contraception, the best we can hope for is an awareness that what affects a woman also affects her partner. Both partners are responsible for the internal and external manifestations of their decisions.

Aneesa Davenport is a graduate student at the California College of the Arts.

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Two-Wheelin’ in Tinseltown: On Cars, Class, the Planet, the System and Riding a Bike in L.A.

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Two-Wheelin’ in Tinseltown

On Cars, Class, the Planet, the System and Riding a Bike in L.A.

by Jessica Hoffmann
illustration by Chris Lane

IT’S ANY GIVEN HOUR, any given day in Los Angeles, and there’s a long line of shiny SUVs streaming out onto 3rd Street from the Grove, a mall designed to evoke a city-plaza feel with its cobblestone outdoor walkway and quaint trolley, although in fact it faces inward, toward the actual city it’s in, tall white walls decorated with advertisements for the stores on the other side. You can see shopping bags with sturdy twine handles through the streaming SUVs’ rear windows, plastic Coffee Bean cups and cell phones in their drivers’ manicured hands. They are streaming out onto a public road from a private one, making easy lefts three or four at a time.

I want to say: This image epitomizes L.A.

I want to say: Don’t you people know there’s a fucking war going on?

But then, I don’t want to say those things. But I do.

Fuck Westwood, and Hollywood, Too

It’s a different day in L.A., not any given but a specific one in the spring. I worked all day in Venice and then hopped on my bike to head to a screening of some Brothers Quay films in Beverly Hills.

I’m easy in a tree-lined bike lane from the beach all the way to Westwood.

But then Westwood.

Wilshire Boulevard is eight lanes of fast, impatient traffic with no shoulder or parking lane, the rightmost lane of cars speeding inches from the curb. So I take the otherwise empty sidewalk. But then the sidewalk abruptly ends and I have to choose between backtracking for blocks or waiting for a pause in the rushing traffic to jump into that right lane and then ride my fastest (which ain’t fast) with a stream of rush-hour commuters honking behind me. Fuck ’em, I decide, and jump in. But, quickly remembering I’m much more vulnerable to their apparent “fuck her” than they are to my “fuck ’em,” I jump back onto the sidewalk as soon as I see another one. And then that one ends, abruptly, this time at the bottom of a long, steep grade. No way am I gonna get in that rushing right lane up this thing. There’s finally a street branching off Wilshire, so I take it, ready to wind my way east on some side streets—which turn out to be smooth and quiet but also windy and looping back and back on themselves, and now I’m lost in some hills above Westwood, late.

And angry—at the simple fact of an eight-lane street with not even a sliver of room for a cyclist during rush hour. At the too-many people rushing relentlessly forward there, alone in their massive vehicles. At the stupid waste of the lawns I’m riding by in the middle of a desert pretending it’s not one. At—I’m angry at so many things that when a woman in a hulking gold Lexus comes careening onto the street without noticing me in her path, this hardcore feminist head of mine thinks “fucking dumb blonde SUV bitch.”

But maybe I have no one to blame but myself. Because who the fuck rides a bike in L.A., right? This is the City of the Car I’m trying to two-wheel across. A city where I’ve heard more than one peak-oil-worrying, capitalism-smashing radical (myself included) explain that she still owns a car because “it’s a necessity here,” where a ’30s experiment with socialism in the desert envisioned one car per family as part of its utopian dream. This is a city of sprawl, a city famous for its elaborate freeway system and the long lost red-car rails that were paved over to make way for it.

Some days I think no scene better symbolizes L.A. than the near-constant stream of gleaming SUVs, shopping bags visible in their back windows, coming out of the Grove.

But really, I remind myself, that image just symbolizes one story of L.A. It just happens to be the one that predominates.

Except, Actually, I Heart Hollywood

There’s a serious class dimension to the story of L.A. as a city of cars and vanity and materialism. The everyone-drives-in-L.A. story elides the realities of the many poor and working-class folks who have been moving via public transit and bikes and their feet here for decades. It’s a story of a town of rich, beautiful individuals zooming about in shiny cars, created and disseminated by Hollywood—that’s metonomyic Hollywood, mind you, as opposed to the actual Hollywood that I live in, which for generations has been inhabited primarily by working-class immigrants from various parts of the world and which I’ve heard is the most linguistically diverse neighborhood in the country. Yet the L.A. fable is a fairly accurate story of a certain privileged and insulated population in this city, a chunk of which repeatedly projects it on big screens.

The literature of car culture, cinematic and otherwise, casts the car as both flashy and liberatory. The car serves as both a status symbol and a means of escape in countless road-trip and getaway narratives. Even for writers exploring marginalized social positions (On the Road, Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”), the car represents an escape from conformity, from limited possibilities. While it’s easy to see why movement is associated with freedom, why so much love for the individualistic MO of the auto?

The difference between individualism and individuality is obscured in super-consumer cultures. Can’t we be nonconformist and also community-minded? Liberated but not at the expense of others and the places we all share? Individualism casts us all as in competition with each other, and this particularly capitalist construction is deeply tied to American—and Angeleno—car culture.

Thinking Outside the Box-on-Wheels

Biking in L.A. is an opportunity not only to reduce emissions, get exercise, and all that good stuff, but also to break out of the isolation and insulation that driving a car here entails and perpetuates—and that I think is directly related to de facto segregation in this city, and the lack of meaningful cross-class contact that makes it possible for people to displace, under-pay, pollute the neighborhoods of, and otherwise exploit people whose lives they have failed to imagine.

You don’t see what I’m calling segregation when you move from one point to another in your air-conditioned, hermetically sealed car. If you move through L.A. exclusively via auto- mobile—especially if you are a person whose skin and class privilege allows you to work and socialize exclusively with people who are “like” you, if you choose—the city becomes a composite of points where you choose to park and get out. The spaces between are a blur on the other side of glass. It’s L.A. as a constellation of selected destinations, with partially or unimagined blank spots in between.

Except, of course: People live in those blank spots. I live here. There is nothing like blankness, here, at all. There is just, for some, the unseen.

On a bike or a bus or on foot, one is inescapably engaged with different people, different neighborhoods—the small sensory particulars of them, their sounds and smells and qualities of light and of life. When I move through this city, as I increasingly do, on my bike, I’m talking to people, I’m seeing the neighborhoods I move through. I’m noticing big and seemingly small stuff all along the way.

Discussing how resource impoverishment is connected to a poverty of choices, author/activist Amber Hollibaugh writes about how you can’t imagine your way out of a world that has no map, how “there is no map for an invisible world, no path out of a closed system.”

While Hollibaugh speaks of the maplessness of the poor, I want to suggest that in this city, with its extreme wealth gap, in some senses it’s the so-called have-nots who are moving through the world in a way that’s not only more sustainable but that also affords them a more complete view of the spaces they’re moving through. The mapless, in this case, are the ones who can’t imagine a way out of a system that poisons everyone in it because part of how they benefit from it is blindness.

Let me revisit that list of things for which L.A.’s famous. In addition to cars and vain materialism, there’s that other bit of the sprawl story: development struggles. From Chavez Ravine to the South Central Farm, individual profit/ power interests’ trumping social and environmental values is part of the L.A. story. And, as is too often the case historically, the folks with the power to create the authoritative maps are the ones who can’t see what they’re mapping, whose views are literally circumscribed by the ways they’re moving through their city, their lives, our world.

Hitting the Glide

It’s another day in L.A., this time early morning. It’s not hot yet and the air is clear and I’m gliding downhill. At 12th and Rimpau, I think about Lisa Anne Auerbach, whom I know only via a recent Los Angeles Times piece on bicycle commuting, which described a sweater she made that says “On My Bike Los Angeles Is Mine.”

Yeah, I think as I turn onto 12th, on my bike L.A. is mine.

Or no, I think as I turn again and pick up speed down a bigger hill, it’s not that it’s mine, exactly, it’s that when I ride, I’m really in the city and of it. When I’m moving through L.A. on a bike, this city of sprawl and alienation and a crazy wealth gap is accessible and rich and beautiful in all sorts of non-monetary, non-manicured ways. On my bike, it’s not that L.A.’s mine, but that it and I are complicatedly engaged—and what I’m engaged with is not the notoriously alienating celluloid city but the L.A. I’ve spent most of my life in, the L.A. I love—one of the most diverse cities in the world, where you can spend hours outside daily all year long, where the mood shifts every few blocks, where people are walking—and talking to strangers and eating mangos on corners and planting side by side in community gardens and… and… and…

…And I really don’t want to ask some dumb SUV bitch if she knows there’s a war going on, don’t want to demonize her or anybody. Because I don’t really think anybody’s a demon. I think we’re all products of a system that hurts all of us and the earth we’re standing on, and that both privilege and lack within that system, in their different ways, make it hard to map a way out. And I know that this mood, this angle, is hard to hold onto. Finding a peaceful side street helps. So does pedaling so hard I start to giggle at my strength and speed, sometimes. Other times, I get the mood back by reminding myself that I don’t have to get there asap, that I live in a city where many streets are awesome with the scent of jasmine, which brings back scenes of old friends and other L.A. phases and neighborhoods. And tonight I can just inhale that—I can just glide.

Jessica thinks you should know: There’s quite a vibrant bike culture in L.A. (check out cicle.org and bicyclekitchen.com). And she wants to say hi to Nick-the-house-manager-at-Redcat, who opens the special door for her to park her bike while she watches strange films.

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Recipe: Easy Alterations and Advice for Fat Girls Who Thrift Shop

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Portfolio: The Repair Work of Claudia Tennyson

Roadside Elixir Installation, Headlands Center for the Arts 2005

Roadside Elixir
Installation, Headlands Center for the Arts
2005

Portfolio: The Repair Work of Claudia Tennyson

I AM a chronic closet cleaner, ritualistically purging objects from my life that no longer serve a supposed functional purpose, despite their stored memories. I’ve actually teared up over throwing away or donating unused stuffed animals, overcome as I am with feelings of guilt and abandonment—the sense that I am not only removing an object from my life, but attempting to remove my past.

In this sense, I like to imagine Claudia Tennyson as not simply a repairer of objects, but perhaps also a mender of broken and abandoned memories. In her Repair Series, for which Tennyson has asked people to drop off items they feel are in need of fixing, she transforms broken objects, not necessarily restoring them to their original state, or even keeping them recognizable. In doing so, she redefines “repair” and, as she explains, “what it means to hang on to something thought of as useless and give it another life.” As a result, “these objects then become metaphors for what we think is necessary to give up on, whether it is a broken cup or a difficult relationship.”

Although it could be argued that the real art in Tennyson’s work is found in her interactions with the public—her process of receiving, mending, fixing, rearranging, and eventually giving back—the images that remain of her repaired objects are enough to make me reconsider what I choose to throw away, whether it be a deserted toy or a regrettable memory. Perhaps everything has the potential to be mended. —Tara Goe

Blue Plate repaired with ribbon and rubber bands 2005
Blue Plate
repaired with ribbon and rubber bands
2005

Plastic Cup repaired with staples 2005
Plastic Cup
repaired with staples
2005

Toaster repaired with stitched, quilted cosy 2005
Toaster
repaired with stitched, quilted cosy
2005

Broken Crayon repaired with stitching and fabric 2005
Broken Crayon
repaired with stitching and fabric
2005

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Are Five Artists Better Than One?: In Pursuit of Collective Genius

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Are Five Artists Better Than One?

In Pursuit of Collective Genius

by Meredith Tromble
illustration by Marie Rich

ALTHOUGH SOME futurists look to engineered neurochemicals to accelerate human ability, 21st century artist collectives are taking a low-tech, social route to enhancing creativity. Witness the upsurge of groups in the big pulse-of-the-culture exhibitions: Kassel’s Documenta 11 included Park Fiction, Multiplicity, the Raqs Media Collective and many others; New York’s Whitney Biennial featured the Bernadette Corporation, the Wrong Gallery, and Otabenga Jones & Associates; and, in Kitchen Sink’s own territory, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts kicked off a year-long series of artist collective exhibitions by incorporating four groups in their 2005 triennial, Bay Area Now 4.

Courtney Fink, director of S.F.’s Southern Exposure gallery and lead curator of an exhibition focusing on collective process (The Way We Work, 2004), says, “As director of a collectively run space, I’ve been thinking about the ways that groups are creative for the past three years. There are so many groups now, you can see a taxonomy of artist collectives developing, and new ways of addressing them critically are beginning to emerge. I think we are just beginning to understand the nuances of collective thought.”

Group Creativity Has A History

Twenty-first century artists are playing by different rules. The 20th century notion of artistic genius involved going it alone. You didn’t see Jackson Pollock handing the stick to Lee Krasner, inviting her to paint a section of his canvas.

Status adhered to singular artists—sparking more than one cat fight about who influenced whom, and who thought what first. But as art history became an established discipline and expanded art publishing made information widely available, it became difficult to maintain the notion that any one artist was an island. There was way too much evidence to the contrary.

Thinkers involved in the liberation movements of the ’70s began theorizing the ways in which then-established notions of creativity meshed with social position, knocking holes in the “genius = lone white male” equation. Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” got the balls rolling by pointing out that if genius were strictly the result of individual talent, it would occasionally wear skirts. She argued that becoming a “genius” required the cooperation of other people who chose to funnel resources of attention, time and money to support an artist’s work. Even Van Gogh had Theo. Supportive individuals like Theo may not regard their contributions as collaboration, but conscious collaborations are nothing new, either. A cursory trek through the annals of modern art turns up Constructivism, Surrealism and the Situationists. Influen- tial contemporary examples include Gilbert and George, the Guerrilla Girls and General Idea. Let’s not forget Renaissance workshops, Amish quilters, and Islamic carpet weavers, either—the world is and has been full of collective creativity.

Speaking From Experience

My interest in collectives is personal. I’ve lived through—in one case, in—several groups: a political commune, a drawing group, an artist-writer group, and now, Stretcher, a collective of five artists. Stretcher’s aim is to energize the creative life of our community by intensifying the flow of communication within it. We produce an online magazine (Stretcher.org), and installations activated by live events, videos, panel discussions and dinner salons. Conversation is the connecting link between these forms. While these activities might once have been seen as reportage on the “real” creativity of individuals, once conceptual artists began looking at ideas as material it was a short step to exploring the exchange of ideas as a generative process. Forms that encompass multiple voices or viewpoints, such as digital publishing with comment strings, live dialog and video are particularly consonant with our project.

The amazing thing, from my point of view as a traditionally trained artist, is that developing a conversation framed as art feels the same as developing a painted image. There is the same need for preparation—mulling over, noticing and gathering useful information, the same focusing of attention, the same rhythm of question and response, the same effort to connect and, occasionally, the surprising wave when intentions, materials and execution train together to carry my understanding somewhere I’ve never been before.

There’s also the same mass of work that doesn’t make it, the mountain of work that occasionally thrusts up a special, unpredictable peak. There have been perhaps a dozen times in Stretcher’s five years together when we achieved something far beyond what we could have done individually. Memorable out of proportion to their frequency, these moments suggest that artists working through a collective identity might be able to touch the unknown in that electrifying way we associate with “genius.” I’m not saying that Stretcher has achieved this, but my experiences with Stretcher make me think it is possible.

What Supports Genius?

There are exceptions to every rule, but most occurrences of “genius” involve sustained, intense practice. Forming a sustainable collective is not easy. Most of the historical artist groups mentioned earlier had two to three good years before fragmenting or dissipating; my short-lived artist-writer group, which ran aground on the feelings aroused by critical exchange, is more typical than not. Conflicts are inevitable; the interpersonal chemistry of a given group determines whether or not it is manageable. Even when quarrels are channeled towards creative solutions, things change. Shifts in individual status strain the esprit de corps—the most treacherous time for a collective is when a member has a success independent of the group. Primate anxieties about pecking order are easily activated and can be very disruptive. In his study of artist collectives, art historian Alan Moore identified a related phenomena, saying, “As artists rise in stature, they drop their organizational memberships—or acquire new ones, moving from bohemia to the academy. These groups are to art as scaffolds are to architecture.”

For an exceptional group to arise, though, it must be more to its members than a ladder to something else. So far, Stretcher has had offbeat luck in this regard, starting with the departure of its first two members. Conceived during the dot-com boom by an artist and a critic hoping for a money-making venture, Stretcher lost its progenitors to studio and bill-paying work when the boom busted. This development, which could have been fatal, shaped the collective in two ways: The level of commitment to the project for its own sake was enhanced, and the “founder effect,” wherein the originators are given more say in difficult decisions, was diminished. This inadvertent leveling significantly increased the resiliency of the group, with leadership passing from person to person.

This modus operandi is idiosyncratic, but in centering around digital technology, Stretcher is right in line with other participants in the international move towards collective art production. Networked time and space ease collaboration at the same time they deliver more information than one person can possibly process, resulting in a pull-and-push group process. Curious readers can sample the huge variety of digital strategies in the online work of groups such as Blast Theory and Platform in England, Raqs Media Collective in India, and Critical Art Ensemble in the United States.

The Potential of Artist Groups

In a short paper titled “Collective Cultural Action,” Gillian MacIver, who belongs to the artist collective Luna Nera, writes that “the main elements in successful collaborative practice are the shared process of making, joint ownership and responsibility for the project and the exponential increase in opportunities.”

This is true, and probably adequately describes successful artist collectives as we know them so far. But the conditions MacIver identifies could also apply to a business, or a school, or other sorts of joint projects. I am curious to know whether or not we will be able to specify, in the future, an additional quality of the most successful collaborative art. There is still much work to be done in developing the forms of collective practice. But should a singular group of artists appear, fluent in collective action and responsive to collective intuition, I hope I am around to see it.

Artist and writer Meredith Tromble teaches interdisciplinary art and science classes at the San Francisco Art Institute.

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Meat Donuts and Ceramic Gold Teeth: The Yo-Yo Reporter Takes the Oakland Art Challenge

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Meat Donuts and Ceramic Gold Teeth

The Yo-Yo Reporter Takes the Oakland Art Challenge

by Elka Weber
illustration by Trish Laguna

WHEN MY friend Heather and I arrive at Bootling Gallery, the keg is pretty much gone. Crystal Morey and Ben Belknap’s ceramic pieces shine in the small but nicely organized space, winking at us behind the shoulders of people milling around sipping their foamy beers, glancing at the art. I nod at my plastic cup, and then at Heather. “It’s all head, man.” Heather elaborates: “Going to an art gallery enables you to have a cultured feel to the night even if you’re drinking swill.”

Tonight, Heather and I are trying to hit as many galleries involved in the Oakland Art Murmur as we can. Established in 2006, Art Murmur is a collective endeavor in which local galleries host their openings on the first Friday of every month, spreading the word together, bringing a communal sense to Oakland’s art scene. Which neither Heather nor I know much about.

We are in awe of Crystal Morey’s ceramic teeth. I squint at the price and realize that this is the only piece of art I could buy for under 20 bucks. I want a tooth but I have no money on me—I had no idea I could actually afford to shop at an art gallery.

I look behind us and notice that the crowd is moving in a rough circular pattern, slowly milling, sipping and sleeping by each piece. A band of onlookers halts next to one of Ben Belknap’s untitled works: an image of a woman from the ’20s playing a record, ringed with ornate, gold detailing. My friend Kelsey nods at me straining to see the piece from across the room. “You know, the average viewing time of a piece of art is 7 to 12 seconds.”

Dirty Mops and Riot Cops

Auto 3321 doesn’t have beer; it keeps to the classic combo of wine and Chex Mix. Heather and I chow down while looking at the group show, featuring members of the Thin Ice Collective. I am drawn to Serena Cole’s watercolor portraits. One is a woman’s face, staring out at the viewer as if she was caught thinking about something just before she was about to speak.

Tracy Timmins, Auto 3321’s co-owner, mentions how Art Murmur has been really great, “because all of the spaces in collaboration have different aesthetics and attendees, so people are able to experience totally different exhibitions and environs within a matter of blocks.” I am about to agree, but then my eyes lock in on a strange-looking dog belonging to a middle-aged woman—one of the few in the gallery—wandering by Uri Korn’s photograph of policemen in full riot gear, lined up casually in front of a Versace window display. The dog has dreads.

I question the lady thoroughly about her Welsh terrier named Utka because I am obsessed with other people’s dogs, unable as I am to have one of my own. It’s like baby envy, but canine. The lady’s name is Ingrid, and I ask about the dog’s name. “Utka means ‘duck’ in Russian. Because she goes bananas over water.” But does her hair naturally grow into dreads like that? “Any dog whose hair doesn’t shed—if you stop combing and cutting—this is what happens.” We shift our wine glasses in our hands and watch Utka strain towards the Chex Mix. The dog warms up to me and starts licking my hand. I can’t even see her eyes through the dreads; she looks like a giant dirty mop. Her owner, Ingrid, gestures at the gallery walls. “This was my first time out tonight. I went to other galleries further down Telegraph, but I like this stuff better.”

It’s All Telegraphed up, Man

Mama Buzz is packed with hip 20-somethings. I wander into Lisa Ostapinski’s solo show at Buzz Gallery: mixed-media squares of brightly colored pastiche hang on the wall across from the entrance. Discussing process with friends, I listen to myself chatter about how the encaustic resin looks a bit like frosting, and decide to stop talking for a while.

Beered, Heather shows up next to me and we zoom in on the cluster of 5-by-5-inch squares of what appear to be animals flying in space amongst swirls. “Look at the turkey! Somebody bought the turkey.” But nobody bought the unicorn one. Apparently the unicorn is passé now? Heather croons, “Yes, much like heroin, the unicorn is so passé!” I notice Heather’s owl ring. So owls are still in? “Yes! Owls are still in. Especially owls with flames on them,” she says, gesturing to one of the pieces. We pause and execute our 7 to 12 seconds. There’s a lion roaring over an iceberg, and grizzly bears covered in glitter. I ask Heather how she thinks the squares were made. “Since I don’t know how things are assembled, I’m just like… it was magic!”

What do you think the crystals and the baked ham over here mean? “I think that means An Isolation at Thanksgiving Dinner With Your Family?” Especially the yellow seaweed-grape-like things. “Yes, those represent your family members, asking questions about your life.” We squint at the shapes; they look like intestines. Possibly after a big meal of ham. Heather emphatically agrees. “We definitely know what the artist was going for.”

Heather has another beer. She starts humming a little.

The gallery at Rock Paper Scissors collective is by far the most crowded space we’ve visited tonight. I am impressed by the multi-tasking survival skills of the galleries we’ve seen: Auto 3321 is open every First Friday, 7 to 10 p.m., and then by appointment, with occasional weekend hours. The rest of the time the space is divided into painting studio and woodworking shop. Down the avenue, Mama Buzz is primarily a café, with events, music performances and art shows, which draw a mixture of people to the space. And RPS has a large boutique aspect to its storefront, enabling the collective to showcase local artists as well as designers, writers and artisans.

Even with all the people packed in, RPS makes its exhibition accessible: the space has lofty walls peppered with wooden cutouts by Nathaniel Russell, placed in front of mural works of ghosts and bearded men. Nate Crane’s motorcycle and swirl paintings round out the high walls.

I locate Heather in the mass of people; we wander down the block to Ego Park, but by this point we are tipsy and hungry so we simply admire the intricate wooden structures from outside. We head to that elusive fourth gallery: Taco Bell. Because we have spent the night in galleries, I look at the Bell with a critical eye.

The white plastic and purple highlights invoke an installation piece about mass taco consumerism, with “A Whole Lotta Love” piped over the intercom system. A bombastic drunk woman in line behind us asks Heather and me if we are sisters. Heather is a head shorter than me, with a heart-shaped face that looks nothing like my oval features. Heather placates her, “Well, we’re sisters in the eyes of god.”

Heather orders a steak Chalupa and we talk about how Chalupas are basically meat donuts, and Taco Bell burritos are rehydrated logs. I’m classy, I announce, as if it isn’t obvious. I take a big bite of my log.

“Now that’s a fine meat donut.” Heather pauses and pecks at the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “To be honest… I was really enlightened by the experience tonight. I never go out anymore, and I didn’t even know that one of the galleries was right around the corner from my house. “

Heather looks at me, her face suddenly serious. “I’ve never seen something like that in Oakland before. I’ve never seen people coming together for a common interest that had to do with something other than a kegger. Or bands, which is also great, but everyone was so involved tonight. I was feeling it. Everybody else seemed to be feeling it too. It’s a real sense of community, and I haven’t felt that way in Oakland for a long time. So it gets an A+ from me. And a Chalupa.”

For more information on the Oakland Art Murmur, go to oaklandartmurmur.com.

Elka Weber sometimes wishes she never dropped out of art school, but she may go back one day to learn to sculpt giant likenesses of mop-dogs dipped in gold enamel, ideally placed outside Versace storefronts in riot gear.

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Seeing Things: Paperrad Messes up My Closet

Seeing Things

Paperrad Messes up My Closet

ks15 UNTFINAL.inddI fear clutter, visual or otherwise, so I am surprised at how much I like Paperrad. Neon computer animations, comics, books and posters that appropriate My Little Ponies and Troll dolls, installations that overload the senses, and a website that shakes the eyeballs with vibrating GIFs and moving icons are not the usual art fare I find myself drawn to. What is going on here? As galleries and museums fill up to the rafters with installation, video and tech art, what makes Paperrad’s three-person art collective so special?

The answer to this question, I fear, lies with clutter. Paperrad fuels my desire to get rid of all my excess material goods before it’s too late. The things that calm me (simple design, clean lines, bare walls, empty rooms) are missing in Paperrad’s work, replaced by mutated pop characters in fractured semi-narratives. Naughty acts are committed, racecars are driven, and silk-screened monsters hang out, but one never really knows when or why. Is it social commentary on our media-saturated society, or is it simply a jumble of brightly colored nonsense?

Either way, Paperrad creations are (often, but not always) a good time, and after recent run-ins with art that takes itself a tad too seriously, I can appreciate that. Paperrad lacks an artist statement and enjoys equal play in galleries and lo-art havens like craft fairs, offering the wake-up of caffeine and the paradoxical sedative effect of information overload. Maybe for me this isn’t just about art—Paperrad is my fear, and I am embracing it. —Hannah Reiff 

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