TUCKER: Thinking Outside the Ballot Box
“WHAT DO WE WANT?!” Before you say “Justice!” … what if we asked you to be a little more specific? As the Arab world builds new societies from scratch, as we prepare for another U.S. presidential election, the question of what we want is increasingly important. Chicago resident Daniel Tucker asked his neighbors to think a little harder this spring when the City of Chicago had its first new mayoral election in close to 20 years. Instead of simply responding to or critiquing the candidates’ platforms, this cultural organizer had hundreds of Chicagoans articulate their vision for the city in a novel community art initiative. “Visions of Chicago” was featured by Timeout Chicago, art industry blogs, and the Chicago press. Its now being published as a book. Daniel sat with OrgUp editor Sushma to discuss imagination and ideology during election season:
What blocks imagination and our ability to reinvent ourselves and our cities?
DT: In Chicago, I observed that the most significant casualty of having the same mayor for 22 years (who is also the son of another mayor for nearly that long) was the stifling of the collective political imagination of Chicagoans.
The trajectory for restricting they city’s imagination was, in effect, planned out and premeditated. A prime example was a 2005 PR campaign launched by the Chicago Housing Agency around the demolition of the city’s public housing stock. The CHA worked with the Leo Burnett advertising agency (the same folks behind the Army of One campaign) to roll-out a re-branding effort for the CHA called CHAnge. The intention of this campaign was paradigmatic of the strategies cultivated throughout Daley’s reign (and I do not use that phrase lightly), which also have echos in Obama’s 2008 branding. They wanted to define, own, and formally close the definition of “change” as it related to demolishing public housing and the giving away former CHA land for nothing to private developers. The most egregious part was that they used testimonials from CHA residents to illustrate that the change was wholly positive, progressive, and a done deal.
Stepping back from the local context, I see our imaginations stifled by the perceived edges of our current reality. Robin Kelly said it best in the article Organizing Upgrade published, “How do we produce a vision that enables us to see beyond our immediate ordeals?” Meaning, we often cannot imagine a life which is that much better than our current reality because our current reality actually structures and dictates a significant portion our time, our relationships with other people, and the pragmatic objectives of our work as organizers. We spend so much time concerning ourselves with what is realistic that we forget how to imagine a significantly better life.
That is why when I asked people what their visions were for this project, many of the visions were articulated as slight improvements (to the status quo) that were barely beyond the edges of the current reality of life in Chicago: better schools, more jobs and less violence. If you are at the bargaining table, I understand that you sometimes have to take what you can get. But this public art project wasn’t the bargining table and much of our daily lives are not spent at the bargaining table. So why is it so hard to think about dramatic changes that would make life significantly better that can at least give us something to strive for? I’m not even talking about utopia or fantasy – I am just talking about having the ability to generate visions of lives which are better than some kind of social-democratic welfare state.
What mindset or experience were you seeding amongst participants and the Chicago public with “Visions for Chicago”?
DT: The Commercial Club of Chicago generated a vision for the kind of public-private partnerships they wanted to see in public education in this city. I want that kind of bold imaginative process to be encouraged amongst a diverse range of community activists across the city.
This project was really about going through an informal creative process to generate and visually represent our visions for the city. So I kept things pretty open-ended and simply asked people to make a yard sign about their long term visions for Chicago.
In my conversations with the contributors, I was struck by how many people found the process both difficult as well as rewarding and enjoyable. I think both of those reactions had to do with how little time most people feel they are allowed to think about big picture and long term plans. The challenge is finding the mental or creative time and space to brainstorm, draw and articulate ideas. That is also where the fun part came for many people…once they find that space, it becomes clear that it is actually really important to let yourself ‘go there’ sometimes. The “drawing board” shouldn’t just be for professional communications workers, artists, or students.
I hoped that this small effort might provide a platform for some of the visioning that most people had not done while Daley was mayor and most people were not going to do while scrambling to figure out who was going to replace him and if they could effect the outcome with relatively little lead-time. It was a way to use the occasion of the election and all the excitement, shit-talking, door-knocking, debating and energy to talk not about candidates but talk about the city as the subject in and of itself. Understandably that is not what some folks wanted to do, they wanted to get in the political ring and make moves. But it felt like it would be a missed opportunity if there wasn’t some effort at engaging people with political vision to actually articulate that somehow. The challenge of representing our ideas and visions is a truly important and overlooked terrain of possibility, inspiration and rejuvenation.
Visions for Chicago was featured in art blogs, art magazines, and the Chicago press. You’ve published a book to boot. How do you understand ‘the media’ and communications in your art and organizing work?
DT: Getting press has a few motivations. One is quite simple, and that is that if you ask people to take the time to do something out of the ordinary (if it attend a gathering, an action or in this case make a yard sign and be photographed with it) then you need to reflect appreciation and respect for that on multiple levels. Obviously, that includes being kind and well-organized in direct interactions but I believe that people also respect media coverage (even if people get their news elsewhere) and have an understanding that if it is covered in the media that it is worthwhile. Without getting too much into how people value their time and energy, I think that a consideration of this dynamic is the duty of good organizers. There is nothing wrong with affirmation if it gives people the motivation and courage to keep pushing the boundaries of what they will do to express their discontent and aspirations.
The other major function of working the media angle is that it produces a kind of mythology around an idea, event or project. In real material terms, Visions For Chicago involved about 85 people making signs for their front yards, 15 people writing short vision statements and me and my intern walking around taking photos and sitting on our computer. It is small potatoes, dinky and insignificant if you see all these fragmented pieces as they are. But when you combine portraits of the signs and signmakers into a published catalogue, website and articles in the major weekly papers then it becomes this compelling story about tons of people across the city creatively refusing to express their visions through endorsing disappointing candidates and generating really compelling ideas to share with their neighbors and communities in this unique way. That the release party for the catalogue happened on the day Rahm Emanuel took over as Mayor meant that the story of this project was presented along-side the story of him taking office. It literally was a featured article in the same Timeout Chicago edition that had rare one-on-one interviews with both Rahm Emanuel and Daley which pretty much ensures that the story about all these people across Chicago making Visions signs and criticizing both of those guys made its way into their press secretary’s hands if not their own. The Tribune, Reader, Timeout or other outlets that promoted the event would not ever consider publishing articles about the abstract concept of political vision, but they will promote something done under the auspices of “public art” made by a diverse range of Chicagoans.
Finally, the media is just one among many sites of distribution for ideas and meaning. This project operated on multiple fronts, including but not limited to: the often collaborative processes the signmakers went through with their friends and families to come up with the words or images to represent their ideas, the incredible exchanges that I had directly with the participants about their perspectives on local politics and on the concept of political imagination and vision; the interactions the sign-makers had with neighbors about the signs in their yards; the sign-makers put in symbolic dialogue in the catalogue and website featuring the portraits of them with their signs; the media coverage of the overall effort; and then the word-of-mouth that circulates when something this multi-faceted happens.
In a recent interview, you mentioned that this project was about extracting and professing ideology. What do you see as the role and use of ideology in engaging people during the electoral cycle?
DT: The project engaged ideology in two ways. One is through opening up the possibility for people to express their complex and long term visions and goals in a manner that was all about their subjective point-of-view and without any direct correlation to their job, party, community or scene. They were simply photographed with their sign in front of their home and the book and website present them with their name and the ward number (correlating to our city council system) connected to their home address. There is no mention of who their elected representatives are or what they think about them. It is simply a way of indicating the political geography of the city. In this case they were invited to say what they want and that could potentially reflect a really honest presentation of their ideological position. This perspective allows the audience to encounter a wide range of positions that don’t neatly fit into commonly understood ideological frameworks because people are frankly more eclectic than most of our organizations, parties, and communities typically acknowledge.
A more critical perspective on this would require analyzing the ideas implied by their signs and reflecting on how those ideas do or do not reflect the dominant ideologies of capitalist society such as social democracy or neoliberalism. I did not attempt nor invite that level of critique though one can certainly learn a lot about what people do and do not feel capable of demanding by looking at and reading the signs and vision statements collected.
I think that electoral cycles are great opportunities to talk about seemingly abstract things like political vision because elections are the condoned time and space in which political thought and activity is allowed to take place. Since people commonly conflate politics with elections, I believe that elections are strategic terrain for engagement by those of us on the left. That is not a new insight by any means. But I grew frustrated realizing who was in office and how their style of governance was stifling to political imagination – for those taking elections seriously as well as those who were disengaged (like I typically was in the past).
Daniel Tucker has worked as a cultural and political organizer in Chicago for the last decade, initiating a number of large-scale local projects, publications, and events. The themes he focuses on are primarily public space, leftist history, and geography. As a communications consultant he has worked for activist groups such as Metropolitan Tenants Organization and academic groups like University of California Institute for Research in the Arts and the Center for Urban Economic Development in Chicago. From 2005-2010 he served as the editor of AREA Chicago, a print/online publication dedicated to researching and networking local social movements in Chicago. He has written and lectured wid