I began writing this talk on day 40 of my quarantine. Today is day 45, I think. I want to start by noting the origin of the word quarantine, which comes from quarantena
, in old Venetian, meaning 40 days, which was how long ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore, during the plague in the middle ages.
And while we’ve been contained, there’s something about this initial period of our own collective quarantena
, those first 40 days, that for me was as much about restriction as it was mobilization
. It’s easy to forget that in this moment of slowing down, when 40 days felt like a year, we’ve already learned so much about how artists and designers can organize in crisis, through call and response. So this talk is about a contradiction: getting to work—urgently—during a shut-down.
Because in crisis, we must organize. As businesses and schools closed in early spring 2020, and we started isolating ourselves and retreating to the screen, we saw a dazzling amount of mutual aid
efforts beginning to circulate.
It seemed like they appeared overnight, specifically within that second weekend of March, but ongoing since then. Like many of us, what I felt most in that moment was fear, but also, below the fear, motivation. It was suddenly time to get to work, directing energy towards those who already and always carry the largest burdens, in our own networks and beyond.
What does communal care look like in a moment of crisis? Maybe something like this: solidarity, mobilizing networks of people within and across communities, connecting needs with resources, and redistribution of assets—these are some of the inspiring mutual aid strategies we saw in action during the first few days of the pandemic.
Here’s a call to action from the activist group Decolonize This Place
on March 13, which they identify as “commoning-in-the-crisis.”
A beautiful phrase that I need to remember, because it foregrounds something very specific about solidarity and coming together in urgent times—that we can work from shared, common positions, in common, and on common ground.
No crisis is ever new. Depending on who you are and your specific relationship to burden and privilege, crisis can be a constant way of life. BIPOC, queer, trans, disabled, femme, low-income, immigrants, survivors, and all other underserved and marginalized people have always known struggle.
But our experiences are typically less visible, deliberately left out of archives, and erased from history. Centering, amplifying, and preserving perspectives that exist outside of conventional narratives is essential first-aid work, especially during heightened times of crisis. An inspiring text I come back to again and again has been The Queer Art of Failure
by Jack Halberstam, who encourages us to learn from those who don’t conform to traditional models of success. Those who identify, describe, and interpret what’s happening around them from less privileged positions. Who give us insight into the ways power operates, how culture shifts, and how justice can be served.
David Wojnarowicz, 1988
And I think about David Wojnarowicz’s jacket
here, worn by him at an AIDS demonstration 32 years ago. I see it first as an act of protest, but then as a gesture of publishing, manifesting an urgent message in public space, using the very body that is the subject of that message, the body that will die of the disease, as the platform for its dissemination. This jacket is so many things. It’s art, it’s graphic design, it’s a plea, it’s a protest at a very particular moment. It’s an urgent artifact.
I saw so many urgent artifacts circulating during those first few weeks of quarantine, documents and projects and actions that don’t conform to what we normally think of as good art or design: collaborative spreadsheets
, online petitions
. . .
. . . letter-writing, essay writing
, note-taking, shared open access writing spaces
, streaming workshops, performances
, talks, teach-ins
, raw and unedited poetry, and quickly made zines
All of it was evidence of how a crisis spreads its toll unevenly in real time, with first-hand experiences shared and recorded in the quickest way possible.
Urgent artifacts expose our collective pain points and provide a fleeting record of the moment. It’s crucial that we acknowledge and make space for this work, affirm and support each other in non-traditional forms of making and creating, and preserve these urgent artifacts before they evaporate, for whatever comes next, in six months, in two years, in 32 years.
For me, studying these stories of queer failure, and those voices that resist proper inclusion in the smooth narratives of history—and connecting them to our present condition—this has been a valuable way for me to approach being an artist, and to teach design. And I see others doing it too. As our platforms and institutions fail us again and again, we need to look for new ways to tell stories, write histories, and complicate what we typically accept as good or new or important.
If there’s a way to characterize these acts of creative labor—work that aims to document, agitate, redistribute, or interfere with power at these pain points—I’m calling it urgentcraft
. I spoke about it this past summer in a series of talks
about artistic practice that makes good trouble
, but I think it takes on a new charge now, on day 45, in the middle of a pandemic that’s impacting us in severe and complicated ways.
We saw creative first responders who immediately got to work with mutual aid efforts, prioritizing equity, solidarity, and communal care practices (not charity); they mobilized quickly using modest, available tools and materials. Providing support, spreading information, making demands, or simply expressing the moment despite the failure of larger structures and institutions. Nothing precious or difficult to access, but going to where the conversations were already happening and locating the work there.
Urgentcraft today might look like protests happening on Instagram or within Animal Crossing, or a Google Doc used to collaboratively assemble work by poets
, or for a congressperson to make a zine
about mutual aid, or to circulate a letter
demanding changes to a school as it scrambles to get a grip.
Or a handcrafted
, DIY platform that provides access to resources, support, and relief. Urgent artifacts aren’t necessarily legible to everyone; their strength is in their specificity, designed for certain communities, while barely acknowledged by others.
And this is why urgentcraft is so intimately tied to independent, radical publishing. Work that carries an urgent message wants to circulate and it wants to spread. Dissemination in public is an essential part of how it works, and in a crisis, there’s no time for lengthy approvals from university presses or mainstream publishers.
Artists, designers, and writers who produce urgent artifacts are working fast to create their own publics—reproducing, printing, projecting, and amplifying to smaller, specific audiences who are ready to engage in real time.
Urgentcraft means choosing to remain outside of the mainstream and the commercial. It’s a refusal to participate in these definitions of professionalism and success, like academic publishing and the gallery system. Sometimes, this means sacrificing those kinds of rewards to work in public space, on social media, or with your own small press, on your own terms.
So urgentcraft isn’t a manifesto but more of a “note to self,” a constellation of tactics to imagine what comes next—not “when the crisis is over,” but for when the harshest breakdowns are occurring.
Death-Dow watch, March 29, 2020
As institutions crack wide open, they reveal new spaces and opportunities for reshaping and reimagining an unjust world. For many of our leaders, a global pandemic means an opportunity to profit. For anyone who doesn’t want to play along with disaster capitalism, urgentcraft is work that happens below, beside, and behind the scenes, counter to professional market demands.
Urgentcraft exists outside of a design world that prioritizes brilliance, perfect legibility, otherworldly craft, extractive practices, and profit at all costs; urgentcraft interrupts the smooth flow of design perfection.
So here is that constellation. I’d like to make a proposal. To consider some of these tactics, like illegibility, agitation, radical publishing, and messy sense making, as a new kind of curriculum. They’re mostly self-explanatory and I won’t go into detail for each of them, because I think they speak for themselves. But they do need to be spoken.
It’s a set of principles that works to resist oppression-based design ideologies, especially for art and design students and educators. I wrote them, but they’re meant to be borrowed, distributed, used, re-circulated, and re-authored however you wish.
Do what you can
Use modest tools and materials
Understand the politics of your platforms
Practice media hybridity
Work in public (self-publish!)
Practice a slow approach to fast making
Think big but make small
Redistribute wealth and accumulation
Work towards the then and there of queer futurity (while acknowledging past struggles and privileges)
Agitate/interfere (“make good trouble”)
Dismantle white supremacy / be anti-racist
Resist, loosen, and dismantle ableism, heteropatriarchy, and settler colonialism
Resist capitalist strategies
Refuse design perfection / stay with the mess
Question linearity and other hierarchical structures
Commit to maintenance and self-care as a form of urgency
Fail to provide the perfect read (resist legibility)
Use (steal from) the institution when you can (while resisting its values) (Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, “The University and the Undercommons”)
Prioritize communal care as a never-ending practice
Ongoing and persisent work
Right now, I am prioritizing these principles in my own work and I’m keeping my gaze fixed on independent, artist- and designer-run spaces that work this way. I’m focused on non-linear, queer, anti-racist projects that agitate, interfere, and take care, that hold space for others, to amplify voices, and to connect communities. In a moment like this one, with the risks as high as they are, prioritizing communal care has never been more important.
Inspiring projects like these keep me going: GenderFail
, Homie House Press
, The Bettys
, Soft Surplus
, Dirt Palace
, Public Media Institute
, 2727 California Street
, Asian American Feminist Collective
, Hyperlink Press
, Other Publishing
, Wendys Subway
, and Unity Press
, among many others.
And individual writers, designers, and artists like American Artist
, nicole killian
, Nontsikelelo Mutiti
, Tiara Roxanne
, Demian DinéYazhi´
, nat pyper
, Kenneth Reveiz
, Nora Khan
, Parker Bright
, Brontez Purnell
, Paul Maheke
, Autumn Knight
, Nafis White
, Rin Kim
, and Sal Randolph
. And many others.
These are artists and practices that refuse to replicate or support heteronormativity, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and capitalism. The urgent artifacts that these artists create don’t wait for a crisis to peak; their work is ongoing and persistent.
Many of them prioritize materiality and analog tools and techniques in their work, but they’ve all been building and fortifying incredible digital networks for years, giving them an advantage in a moment like this one.
My own artist’s practice during the last few years has been focused on collaboration and making space for other voices. Which most recently looks like Queer.Archive.Work
, a project that asks, how might a publication provide a queer space for collective care?
opened me up to new networks, connecting queer theory to art and poetry to publishing communities, making good trouble with their work. A platform for voices who send urgent signals out into muddy waters, important messages that don’t comply. So far in the first three issues, I’ve featured the words and images of 50 artists and writers, with a focus on LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and other people traditionally left out of archives.
These publications are designed to make a physical mess, as the components shift around, and when they slide out of their containers. Urgentcraft stays with the mess to allow for an abundance of meaning, and no dominant narrative. In Queer.Archive.Work
, most of the items are un-bound. I’m using almost no glue or staples or tape. Instead, the parts are folded, nested, and enveloped to encourage new kinds of juxtapositions. Legible to some, dismissed by others.
The poetics of the mess is something I’m trying to bring into my teaching as well. I started my career in corporate branding and ran my own design studio for many years in NYC, and for a long while this was the definition of success that I tried to manifest, and it was far away from these urgentcraft principles. Getting there was a long and arduous process, which should be saved for another talk, but let’s just say that teaching became a way for me to leave that behind, to focus less on personal accomplishment and power and more on an engaged pedagogy
, after bell hooks, that tries to empower everyone in the room, with a commitment to dialogue, shared vulnerability, and criticality.
In a new course that I taught at RISD last year, called Urgency Lab
, we asked: What would it mean for a classroom to be a space for communal care? As we progressed, we realized that the urgency was right in the room with us. We were ourselves a micro-community, a space full of relationships, vulnerabilities, and complexity. We each interpreted ideas like failure and care differently, and negotiating these differences equitably was a challenge for the class.
But this is exactly what urgentcraft is—doing this slow work to keep us together in space, invested in the complexities of collective making and learning. Throughout the semester we discussed and wrote about ideas like: boundaries, archives, post-apocalyptic practice, accountability, and identity. And I learned from these students, as I saw them slowly self-organize and prioritize things like mental health, inclusivity, and joy.
In the end, we collaboratively published Urgency Cookbook
, full of ingredients and recipes for survival and communal care.
A porous place
In January, I decided to transform my publishing practice into a community space. I established Queer.Archive.Work
as a non-profit organization, and besides teaching, this is where all of my energy goes these days. I’m interested in how a physical space can be porous, how this generous coming and going in space can work to create and support a community, and where access to tools is a form of shared empowerment, in this case a shared risograph printer in a publishing studio. This is about bringing that engaged pedagogy out from the school and into a more open and diverse community, away from larger institutions.
Spaces and projects in history like the Detroit Printing Co-op (recently presented to us at RISD by Danielle Aubert
) and The Black Panther
newspaper, and Unity Press in Oakland today, are tremendous sources of inspiration for me around this idea of physical space and the radical potential of the printed artifact to support community.
Nikki Juen at work, our last guest at Queer.Archive.Work before quarantine :( March 2020
So, we were off to a good start. I had opened up the space, established the 501(c)(3), and started turning it into a well-trafficked place, a space that would always be free to access. Where productivity could be high, but expectations for success would be low, or even non-existent.
Nora Khan at work, open house printing at Queer.Archive.Work, March 2020
People began coming in to work with the risograph printer and this was just such a joyful experience, to open up this tool like this and empower people to realize their work in new ways. Just before the crisis, I started applying for grants, and launched a riso residency program. And then, of course, I was forced to close it up to the public.
Mutual aid publishing during crisis
I had to get to work though, in some other way, something that could happen remotely. In mid-March, I announced an open call
for Urgency Reader
, a mutual aid publication, part protest, part time capsule. I started thinking about how we needed to save all of this evidence, that as conditions normalized later on, we would need access to this very strange mix of panic, support, and emotional expression, a crucial affirmation of what happened.
And within 10 days I’d received over 100 submissions. I heard from former students and friends but mostly from artists and writers and poets who were new to me, so this was a humbling learning experience about the power of networks, and the need to be heard in this moment.
Almost all of the work had been produced in the last days of March. In many cases the material was dated or the author noted which day of quarantine they were in, right there within the work.
would be, it is, a document of this moment. With the studio’s risograph printer I produced a very small edition, using all of our inks and leftover paper. I scanned it, made it available for download
, and now it’s circulating.
I had just received a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, so I decided that this was the moment to redistribute this abundance, and create a gesture of relief. I was able to compensate the contributors a total of $2,295, using funds from this grant, plus an anonymous donation. A little more than half of them donated their share back into the pool, resulting in 45 authors each receiving a stipend of $51. And then I was able to sell the printed copies to raise another $2,000, which will go directly to funding the riso residencies, once we open back up.
Call and respond
materialized a practice of call and response, and in this response we were in it together. This specific idea of attunement
was introduced to me by Tiara Roxanne
, an Indigenous cyberfeminist, scholar, and artist based in Berlin and NYC.
In her piece in Urgency Reader
, she writes about our new condition, and how “digital attunement serves as a dynamic model of body to body memory facilitated by the machine, we form memory together and as networks are limiting and the restraints of the network extend globally which increases the necessity to develop new forms of understanding interconnectedness as a means of resistance and survival but also now to extend into Fred Moten’s
‘grammar of together.’”
And I looked up her reference to Moten to find his sermon
“this is how we fellowship” from January 19, 2020, where he speaks about call and response, about listening as a way to be in it together. I really encourage you to give it a listen, and learn about this grammar of together
A call to action
And I end this sketchy talk on day 45 with this very direct connection to Tiara’s words that bridge and take us to Dr. Moten’s words, because this is what it means to fortify a network by circulating messages and acts of communal care.
We’re faced with a kind of doom right now that sometimes feels like the end of the story. So here’s what you can do. In your own work, whether it be art, design, or otherwise: use what you have, whatever is right in front of you. Don’t wait for the next wave of crisis. Strengthen your networks now, so that when another flash point happens you’re prepared to connect, to call, and to respond, to gather, and to be in it together, whatever that means to you. Map your needs. Map your assets. What are your resources? How will you share your abundance? Be generous in how, what, and with whom you share, because in these moments of exchange, communities form. Use the urgentcraft principles, re-shape them, add to them, share them. If nothing else, keep them around, as a reminder that art and design can be used to loosen power.