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Small Business as Artistic Medium

The chairs are up on the tables. I’ve stopped mopping halfway through the dining room. My partner needs to leave—to get home to her kids. Another partner is still counting the cash in the register. We say we need to meet, to talk, when there’s time. . . And then we launch in. This is when the best conversations happen.

The ongoing discussion in these stolen moments is about value: How do we understand and value everything that each of us brings to the work we do together?

We are running a small business—a café and social center called Backstory, on the south side of Chicago. A substantial monetary investment was made at the outset and subsequent cash infusions have been necessary since. Hours upon hours of unpaid labor have been poured into the effort. Creative energies have been diverted from other projects into the resource stream of this enterprise. Family dynamics have shifted to create space for this new occupation. Other life paths have gone untraveled. How do we value each of these contributions and sacrifices? How do we appraise the worth we gain through our involvement in Backstory and the value of the relationships we’re building with each other? How do we set all of these things next to each other and understand any semblance of equivalence when they are so dissimilar and, in some cases, largely immeasurable?

The world of conventional business offers no workable model for how to relate the diverse resources we each bring to our collective effort. Nor do utopian visions of non-monetary, autonomous zones provide acceptable alternatives.

Just over a year since we opened our doors, and on the cusp of introducing a new member into our partnership, this is a difficult but incredibly exciting moment in our lives as business owners, friends and collaborators. We’ve known intuitively for some time that the practice of capitalism currently dominating the globe doesn’t work. Now our situation is a tangible example of its shortcomings. The world of conventional business offers no workable model for how to relate the diverse resources we each bring to our collective effort. Nor do utopian visions of non-monetary, autonomous zones provide acceptable alternatives. Our journey necessarily begins within the infrastructure of capital, yet we struggle to build relationships that might break that mold.

For me, probing the meaning of our disparate contributions is part of an ongoing fascination with the concept of value—how it is collectively created, assigned and acknowledged. For us as a group, having come to this shared endeavor from incredibly different backgrounds, working to understand the question of value is also a process through which we actively value understanding. Commitment to each other is a central organizing principle of Backstory because we know the change we want to create in the world is something we must first practice in our own lives. The truly reaffirming thing about these partnerships is that even in moments of conflict and uncertainty, when business logic says ‘look out for yourself,’ we continue to prioritize the relationships, accepting the slow and steady process required to confront such complex questions in search of a resolution that works for everyone. Personally this is the closest I’ve come to prefiguring the world I want to live in.

Certainly there is a voice in each of our heads—whether it’s my businesswoman aunt, a father-in-law or the family accountant—advising us on the ways of dog-eat-dog business; insisting that we are naïve. More naïve, however (in fact, irrational in my estimation), is blind faith in the idea of business as usual. As a society, we simply can’t sustain the usual American-style capitalism, where profit trumps all other concerns, for much longer. We need new models.

But then why did we—a group identifying to varying degrees as artists, activists, community builders and anti-capitalists—go into business of all things?! Well. . . We chose a small business model for very specific and strategic reasons. Our goal in operating a food business is to create a space that is accessible and appealing to a diverse population. While we fundamentally question the logic of capitalism, we feel we must acknowledge our current circumstances. We believe we stand a better chance of engaging and building a broad-based community if we create a context anyone can interact with, rather than appealing exclusively to a self-selecting group of those already tuned in—whether to activism, art, specific political ideologies or general civic participation. At this moment in time, that common meeting point for people of all stripes happens to be a commercial environment.

We are also experimenting with this organizational model as an alternative to the not-for-profit approach, in which the priorities and funding streams dictated by granting agencies strongly influence programming decisions. By operating a food business, we aim to create a self-funding space that can be flexible and responsive to the needs and desires of our community. The café acts as an access point and a meeting ground. As a social center, we hope to move beyond casual sociability to stimulate critical dialogue, develop committed relationships across the boundaries of difference and provide vital resources.

Kids hanging out at the Backstory Café

The day-to-day work of this project can be incredibly mundane: Did we order enough bread? Has the new shipment of to-go cups come in? When it does, how on earth will we find space for it in our miniscule storage room? These very practical questions and micro-level processes definitely threaten to crowd out the big picture and I often worry they are drawing energy away from our underlying goals. In these moments I have to remind myself that the unromantic tasks provide the context in which we get to redefine our relationships to each other and to value. The daily minutia is therefore the foundation of our work together—not just the work of running a café, but the work of finding new strategies for supporting ourselves and our communities, making decisions together and sharing our lives.

Compared to previous strategies like research, performance actions and short-term projects, investing in Backstory has taken me to a whole new level of exploration as an artist. Just when I stepped away from anything that could be recognizably identified as “Art”, I finally feel like I’ve found my medium. Artists have an incredibly powerful role to play in imaging what a different way of life in America might look like and how we might get there. Our ideas will remain impractical and marginal, however, if they are not tested in reality. Imagining and speculating only get us so far and then there is a need for action—a need to commit to some unglamorous, seemingly unrelated and often invisible grunt work, to open ourselves to hard conversations, and to risk losing sight of the vision. This is the process-based art of crafting new economic models and forging new kinds of relationships.

Backstory café can be found on 6100 S Blackstone Avenue in Chicago, and www.backstorycafe.com.


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