Amy Fung is a writer, critic, and organizer working across intersections of histories and identities. She is currently a Doctoral candidate at the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University and received her Masters in English and Film Studies from the University of Alberta in 2009 with a specialization in criticism, poetics, and the moving image. With almost twenty years of freelance newspaper and magazine writing experience, her texts have been commissioned and published by festivals, museums, and publications nationally and internationally. She often guest lectures and facilitates writing workshops across the country. Her first book, Before I was a Critic, I was a Human Being addresses Canada’s mythologies of multiculturalism and settler colonialism through the lens of a national art critic (Artspeak and Book*hug 2019).
Yes write about it if I like or anything if I like: being there there for Material Practice
Ruminating about her early years of American life in 1937, writer and arts patron Gertrude Stein wrote, “. . . what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.”
Stein’s distinctive rhythm, the collapsing of connotations through alliteration and assonance, allows for multiple readings and a plurality of meanings. For me, when she says, “it was not natural to have come from there,” I interpret this as a reference to her wealthy Quaker State family’s re-settlement in Northern California in 1878. Subsequently, both her parents would pass by 1891, leading Stein, who was still a teen, back towards the Eastern Seaboard. Her infamous quote, or at least the last bit, “there is no there there” has been generally understood as a dismissive quip of Oakland, but understood in the local context of the region’s rapid development through the introduction of large-scale industry and immigration after the turn of the 19th century, the there of there also alludes to the absence of any reminders—including any former remnants of her past life—when she returned to the far more urbanized Bay Area for the first time after four decades away.
The there of there suggests a place is substantively composed of far more than a point on a map. The weight of being there is a composite of memories, lineages, and lived experiences converging with what I can only surmise as culture. When I think of a there, I am conjuring its cultural signifiers from language and idioms to the sensorial details and experiences specific to that place.
The two-folded question of how cultural practitioners turn there into there followed by the conundrum of how these communities share, protect, and nurture themselves continue to linger from the Material Practice convening.
My first visit to Milwaukee had been guided by the hypothetical question of who Ruth Arts might be according to the foundation’s celestial coordinates. Ruth Arts was launched into the world as a sensitive cardinal water sign in the summer of 2022 and born in the 10th house, placed in the 10th house, the house of reputation and lineage. Naturally, there is a heightened awareness of the responsibility of preserving her own dignity and being responsible to society. In just over a year’s growth, Ruth Arts has been carefully, but steadily learning to move through her surroundings, and with each step taken, the foundation has been reconfiguring the perimeters of what lineages could spark rather than foreclose.
Launched as an arts granting body that would operate like an arts organization and be run by curators and artists, Ruth Arts is possible only through the generous legacy of the late Ruth DeYoung Kohler II who believed in the enriching potential of art, especially artist-built environments. While the traditional definition of an artist-built environment has been understood as immersive structures of accumulated collection reflective of the artist’s life experience and surroundings, the recent convening of presentations bringing together all four streams of Ruth Arts’ initiatives hints at a multitude of possibilities and re-imaginings being formed into material realities.
Material Practice began with a public keynote by Zita Cobb, an eighth generation Fogo Islander and self-made multimillionaire. Along with her siblings, the Cobbs co-founded Shorefast Foundation, a registered charity located on the upper edges of the North Atlantic Ocean to stimulate the local economy through a variety of social enterprises. From an international arts residency program to a $2000 per night luxury hotel colloquially named “The Inn,” the tension between art as social impact and art as conduits for neoliberal investment reflected the existing conditions facing artists and arts administrators. As an example of the palpable desire for global market access through the redistribution of wealth and resources to locals, Cobb emphasizes the goal of Shorefast is to identify and distribute the “local” culture of Fogo Island, an isolated fishing village, to a market of global consumers.
The culture of Fogo Island has been shaped by the Atlantic cod, which has been critical to the island’s human presence. For several millennia prior to the arrival of Irish Catholics and English Protestants in the 16th century, Fogo Island was a seasonal fishing ground for Beothuks before their forced dislocation. The island is composed of hard Silurian sediment carved between paths of lush rock lichen that thrives underfoot, leading to tilting clapboard shelters perching near the water’s edge and a self-reliance of community members to make everything from quilts to fishing boats by hand.
In the 1960s, Fogo Island and its residents were the subject of no less than 27 ethnographic documentaries by the National Film Board of Canada’s Challenge for Change (CfC) program. Led by Montreal filmmaker Colin Low, most known for his pioneering work to develop large screen formats like IMAX, his series of Fogo Island films—much like the bulk of CfC project—were government-led initiatives using the power of film as a “catalyst for social change.” Cobb credits “the Fogo process” and the arrival of those from away who came with new questions and different perspectives as instrumental to bringing together fractious sects of the island. With newcomers come innovative ideas, which for most of human life has involved the trade and exchange of localized knowledge and goods from one part of the world to another. In this way, art and exchange are understood as predecessors to what Shorefast was built to do, leading to enterprises big and small from local designs to ethically harvested seafood.
The conundrum, however, of pricing “the local” out of their locality has been the crisis of gentrification for decades with artists being at the center of these conversations. Embraced by city developers and political officials, the cultural capital of art ushers in the Trojan horse of neoliberal investment with promises of brighter days via economic revitalization. The result of this trickle-down economics on a scale of a neighborhood is the exponential rise in the cost to live, which time and time again results in displacing the very people that made there there.
As a contrast of ventures, Mei Lum and Serena Yang of The W.O.W. Project gently prodded the room of jet-setting cultural practitioners with the provocation: What if we stayed? As a community initiative against gentrification and displacement in Manhattan’s Chinatown, The W.O.W. Project explores the cracks and surfaces between the fossilization of places like Chinatowns with their roots in exclusionary policies. Founded by Lum, a fifth-generation owner of Wing on Wo & Co, the oldest and longest running business in the neighborhood founded in 1890, The W.O.W. Project has actively centered the voices of young women and queer youth to build and renew Manhattan's Chinatown through intergenerational art and activism where the edges of its own preservation cultivates new possibilities for regeneration.
Similarly, the work of Michele Carlson, Weston Teruya, and Nate Watson, collectively known as Related Tactics, approach and confront oppressive systems through mobilizing intersecting histories of movement-building and multi-racial coalition building. As a more targeted form of institutional critique that centers racial solidarity, Related Tactics thoughtfully enacts the theories outlined in Savannah Shange and Roseann Liu’s “Solidarity as Debt: Fugitive Publics and the Ethics of Multiracial Coalition," and Elissa Sloane Perry and Aja Couchois Duncan’s “Multiple Ways of Knowing: Expanding How We Know." Through their incommensurable experiences united towards dismantling white supremacy, Related Tactics offers operational strategies for mutual benefit, because loosely paraphrasing their presentation, “power as a collective project must be confronted as a collective project.”
In times of unending crisis and the turn towards increasingly draconian laws regulating everything from migration to speech, Billy Tang of Para Site in Hong Kong spoke of simple, yet generous programmes through the early days of the pandemic lock down. Re-distributing funds through new support structures such as “NoExit Grant for Unpaid Artistic Labour” to extend healthcare plans and cash to artists and writers, and “Unconditional Trust” with its focus on supporting local artists from the Philippines and Indonesia whose communities are often locally exploited for their domestic labor, Tang was enacting a form of critical laundering which supported communities during times of uncertainty. Co-presenting with Fogo Island Arts’ Claire Shea, a longtime collaborator with Tang, they also spoke about now finding themselves on opposite ends of the world, thinking through and investing in different forms of relationship building on very different islands.
Rounding out the presentations were Rob Blackson on behalf of Doll Museum Forward, the 2.0 version of Philadelphia Doll Museum started by Barbara Whiteman in 1988, and Billy Dufala, founder of the Recycled Artist in Residence (RAIR), another Philadelphia-based project that leverages the excess of industrial and commodity sectors for artistic collaborations. Taking place across two days, Material Practice was more of an introduction of like-minded individuals and their projects to each other rather than a world-building symposium that over promises and under delivers. To share in the time and company of doers who are also dreamers was a much needed reminder of what art can do to nourish the relationships that have always been there.
- 1 Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1937), 289.