The artists of Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative were born of a particular time. Ranging in age from mid-twenties to late thirties, they identify with the broad-based movements from the last decade and a half, for which there is no single accurately descriptive name, and which emerged out of demands for an egalitarian social order, a radically decreased role for private capital, greater environmental responsibility globally, and which, in anticipation of brute US military aggression in late 2002, grew to include a clear antiwar message.1 In the wake of the Obama victory, right wing discredit, and the collapse of the world’s financial machinery, zombie forms litter the social and political landscape, solving no problems but wreaking damage.2 The work of imagining future possibilities, now more than ever, requires self-directed experiments in autonomous action and voluntary association. To Justseeds and other political artists coming after the New Left, anarchism gains in promise.
Precisely because it is interpersonal in scale, cellular action is where individual sovereignty meets the demands of the group, where individually embodied minds pool energies and perspectives for common cause, and where group structures take individual personalities most fully into account.
Radical culture evolves continually, even while associated political expressions wax and wane over the decades. The work of creating culture and cultures—meaning respectively, the production of value-laden symbols, images, narratives, and representations, and the work of applying imaginative values and visions to our lived experience and lifeways—ensures that the work of radical change always continues at the cellular level of small groups, grassroots organizations, and site-specific work, no matter the possibilities for broad, movement-based political action. Moreover, the work of small groups in local initiatives, focused efforts, and/or of organizing around specific causes, forms the ocean of decentralized action and experimentation out of which flow social tides that inform, catalyze, and periodically renew mass political movements. Precisely because it is interpersonal in scale, cellular action is where individual sovereignty meets the demands of the group, where individually embodied minds pool energies and perspectives for common cause, and where group structures take individual personalities most fully into account. The terrain of struggle I speak of includes the task of creating different relations between persons, finding shared thought processes, and enlarging one’s sense of self by indentifying with the collective. And as a collective, Justseeds, a group now numbering just over twenty artists, belongs to a radical tradition of small groups who produce culture (representations) and a culture (values- and visions-informed lifeways).
Justseeds works in two spheres or modes. The best known and constantly visible sphere is that of the distributor. As a distro, Justseeds is a retail webstore selling printed works and books by socially and politically active artists and an example of economic democracy in action. Following its transformation from an enterprise belonging to a single person to an artist-run collective going on several years ago, as a distro Justseeds is a machine. Along with the website and the physical space from which the inventory is distributed, the art worker-owners and their activity as creative and responsible individuals constitute the machine’s parts. With roles set but not unchanging, the machine is organized to favor stability but allows for tweaks and new ideas. The stock of output is constantly refreshed with new offerings, and it operates along a steady path demanding ready maintenaance but little experimentation. In this sphere, Justseeds is a successful retail store, and a reliable and autonomous dissemination port for activist messages, political graphics, and related news. It is also a machine for enabling livelihoods, and a self-sustaining revenue generator for the group.
The social experiment sphere is where faith gets put to the test, far beyond the sometimes prosaic trust governing the handling of money and earned time.
The other sphere and mode—in its infancy compared to the long-running distro—is that of the social experiment. Here we have an open-ended project, a search for insight and inspiration from within the collective, a sharing of labors at the level of dreams and possibilities, as well as material production.
The social experiment sphere is where faith gets put to the test, far beyond the sometimes prosaic trust governing the handling of money and earned time. This is where the abstract struggles of program and ideology meet the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of personality and personal history. Unmoored from the website, the nature of this sphere is less definite, formally open, and only periodically visible. Attitudes and moods inform this mode as much as learning and argument, opening important roles for conviviality, comradeship, and personal affections.
The machine creates culture, the experiment creates a culture.
As experienced facilitators know, even the most carefully structured group process may blow up in a moment, given a sharp turn of attitude or mood.
How can artist collectives, on a very concrete, material, and temporally-bound level, actually think and create as one? Obviously, there is no single answer. As experienced facilitators know, even the most carefully structured group process may blow up in a moment, given a sharp turn of attitude or mood. Similarly, outwardly unstructured situations can turn into bonding experiences, orchestrated actions, and highly efficient expressions of group will, sometimes surprisingly quickly. Such is the irregularity of collectivism, not for random factors, but rather for collective consciousness being essentially immanent and context-dependent.
Every positive example will be conditional necessarily, because collective consciousnesses always emerge in highly contingent forms and cannot be reduced to formulae. Part exercise, part journey, the group emerges from large collective projects strengthened, confident, united, and humbled in the knowledge that giving up a degree of control normally assumed in an individual practice can, with one’s collaborators, return something no single person could have imagined, much less realized.
Their work is an argument for the complexity, the richness, the density, and above all, the real, achieveable possibility of a collective imagination made concrete.
Excerpted from a longer blog post about Justseeds’ exhibition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Union Art Gallery. Read the full essay at Proposition Press.