On Asking Permission To Take Up Space

Becca Balmes
Macon, GA
December 14, 2016

When we last left off, I was talking about the "why?" of artist careers in Macon. I've since had a few days (though most of them were action-packed and not conducive to deep thought), and in the meantime some things happening peripherally to [&] in the art community, as well as some conversations that I've had are leading me down a path to a more comprehensive understanding of where we need to go from here with regards to alternative modes and foci of arts education.*

In the lead up to a discussion on alternative arts education, I'd like to talk about something more fundamental that has become a major conversation point in the Guild Hall over the last few weeks and was the focus of the second-day keynote presentation at the AASF - the question of who controls normative space, ways people try to access it, and whether it's a realistic option to completely reject the norm.

Dr. Craig L. Wilkins, PhD, RA, speaking at Pioneer Works on November 20, in a talk titled "The Architecture of Arts Education".

Dr. Craig L. Wilkins, PhD, RA, speaking at Pioneer Works on November 20, in a talk titled "The Architecture of Arts Education".

[You can listen to an audio recording of this speech & presentation here. The first 20 minutes of Dr. Wilkins' speech, the philosophical underpinnings, are what I'll reference with quotes and extrapolation now, and I'll include a transcription of that part of the speech beneath a page break at the bottom of this post. Please listen to the rest if you have time, and look up some of the projects he references. What you're unfortunately missing from the audio of this speech are the slides, which laid out a complimentary structure of vocabulary.]

The premise is this: there is a thing called "normative space", and it is "an organized, well-defined, legible system of communication that constructs for us a common preferred order." 

"There's little ambiguity about this ideal space. We all understand it. It is constantly reinforced in every aspect of our lives, every moment of our day, through all manner of instruments -- some of those instruments are grids, buildings, codes, permits, laws, regulations, restrictions, associations, aesthetics, institutions, agencies, foundations, and fellowships and the like. We have divided, separated, categorized, labeled, prioritized, organized, catalogued, and valued our shared realm - our space - at all times seeking uniformity of uses, expectations, and behaviors at almost every level. It shapes us - it molds us; our beliefs, our actions, our entire being - this space. It is here that our shared worldview is created and disseminated. It is what makes us, "Us"."

You likely have an idea of what normative space is in your head right now, based on your concept of what "us" means or doesn't mean. Based on your lived experience with the instruments of reinforcement of the norm, your impression of how well you personally fit into what you know the norm is. What I think is important to note is that "normative space" can be simultaneously literal (buildings, parks, neighborhoods, cities, states, countries) and figurative. The literal is visible and logistical, and the figurative overlays it and is visceral. Norms can be a source of pride, shame, derision, frustration, pleasure, and so on, depending on your relationship with them.

My own view of the normative space I live in, that shapes my identity and is what I understand about the common space I share with others in my community, includes things like:

  • Classic Rock and Americana are approved music
  • Young professionals are by default competent, friendly, and mean well
  • Beer and coffee are good
  • "Healthy lifestyles" are important and involve special foods and exercise regimens
  • You must speak English
  • and so on. You know the rules, too.

To use space is natural, but in order to fit into the norm you must ask permission for unconventional uses, 

"Because conformity is the rule. Hegemony is the goal. Normative space demands a certain acquiescence for acceptance, for access. It comes with rules, requirements, and criteria. Some innate, some borrowed, and some developed over time. It is the price demanded to obtain our identities, artistic and otherwise. There are proper organizations and legitimate uses of space we must accept. In its most benign manifestation, it's what makes us want to straighten up a room, or help us read a map, or create art. At its worst, it legitimizes all manner of exclusions -- from red-lining, to shanties, to art."

Bureaucracy, man. Without it, anarchy? Normative space and alternatives to those spaces, responses to being excluded, are value neutral.

Bureaucracy, man. Without it, anarchy? Normative space and alternatives to those spaces, responses to being excluded, are value neutral.

Normative spaces start with ourselves, and also include our immediate and extended families, neighborhoods, cities, organizations, buildings we inhabit both public and private, societies, schools, nations, and so on. We are seamlessly incorporated and welcomed into some of these normative spaces, and we are excluded from others.

The truly enlightening segment of Dr. Wilkins' presentation for me was when he laid out the generalized responses people have to their exclusion from normative space. With the understanding that these categorical responses and the alternative spaces they generate are as a whole value neutral [my own argument, see below], it's useful to look at the categories and try to figure out which we might fit into. 

  • Normative space can also be referred to as "A-Space", as in first, primary, the one to which all others are responding.
     
  • B-Space is space in which those excluded from A-Space are attempting to figure out a way to come back into the good graces of those in charge of maintaining the norms, or to create side-by-side alternatives in which to live while waiting for the norms to change enough to include people like them.
     
  • C-Space is one in which those excluded from A-Space fight tooth and nail to be accepted on their own merits, to challenge and change the norms themselves.
     
  • And then there is D-Space, a rejection of the hostilities and expectations of normative space entirely.
    • "Deprived of normative space on its terms, this cadre of creative workers doesn't mimic, because assimilation is of no interest. They don't care to remain bispatial, because duality is not their goal. Belonging is not their objective. They don't demand acceptance, because they don't acknowledge authority. They don't speak the truth to power, because they don't speak to power at all. They don't care to integrate, they don't care to commiserate. They don't care to fit in, follow, acquiesce, or concede."

 

I'd urge you to read the transcript directly below. It's important at this point for me to point out that my statement above about spaces being value neutral is my own perspective. I argue that we're not talking about good vs evil, we're talking about conflicting values and power dynamics. While there ARE significant and objective evils that have been done and continue to be done in the name of norms, nowhere near all normative spaces, denizens of such, or norms themselves are objectively bad or wrong. Likewise, alternatives to the norm are sometimes good, sometimes bad, but most of the time valuation is entirely subjective and neutral in the aggregate.

I also disagree with Dr. Wilkins on his assertion that D-Spaces are always going to be a target for competition and extermination by agents of the normative spaces. That statement will be explored in a future blog post from Gabriel.

My advice is to take action on this bit of knowledge, mull it over and absorb what's useful for yourself. I want you as an artist to think about what type of spaces you inhabit, and what that means for your work and future. Be conscious of the alternatives - maybe you know where you fit and what you should be doing to get the responses you desire, but maybe you could try something else. Be bold, no matter what, and true to yourself. Don't be afraid to be your own authority and to not ask permission.

 

*For our purposes, professional artists' career development is the educational goal, though personal enrichment and self-expression are laudable and connected goals for all in arts education.


Partial transcript of Dr. Craig L. Wilkins speech to the Pioneer Works Alternative Art Schools Fair on November 20, 2016:

"It seems like such an innocuous thing, space. However, in all my years of studying, shaping, and bringing it into focus, one thing I know for certain is that space is anything but. ...Space, as we typically understand it, is both neutral and ubiquitous - it's all around us, surrounding us, embracing us. It is infinite; it has no beginning, it has no end. It is nowhere and everywhere; nothing, and everything. It is as if it has always been.

This particular spacial awareness is considered normal, universal. The basis for defining, discussing, claiming, purchasing, using, trading, and protecting space across nations and people. We see space as an organized, well-defined, legible system of communication that constructs for us a common preferred order. There's little ambiguity about this ideal space. We all understand it. It is constantly reinforced in every aspect of our lives, every moment of our day, through all manner of instruments -- some of those instruments are grids, buildings, codes, permits, laws, regulations, restrictions, associations, aesthetics, institutions, agencies, foundations, and fellowships and the like. We have divided, separated, categorized, labeled, prioritized, organized, catalogued, and valued our shared realm - our space - at all times seeking uniformity of uses, expectations, and behaviors at almost every level. It shapes us - it molds us; our beliefs, our actions, our entire being - this space. It is here that our shared worldview is created and disseminated. It is what makes us, "Us".

Understandably then, our concept of normative space is a singular shared impression of what's considered correct and proper about the void, the nothing. That general spatial ideologogy is why permission must be given to use space differently, unconventionally. For example: to live in a garage, mobile home, or a tent. To alter a home. To grow fruits and vegetables in the front yard. To have a picnic, hold a block party, paint on a building, install public work... you can add to that at your leisure. All require special dispensation. Why? Because conformity is the rule. Hegemony is the goal.

Normative space demands a certain acquiescence for acceptance, for access. It comes with rules, requirements, and criteria. Some innate, some borrowed, and some developed over time. It is the price demanded to obtain our identities, artistic and otherwise. There are proper organizations and legitimate uses of space we must accept. In its most benign manifestation, it's what makes us want to straighten up a room, or help us read a map, or create art. At its worst, it legitimizes all manner of exclusions -- from red-lining, to shanties, to art.

We are each of us born into a pre-existing, spatially organized world awash with the benefits such access brings -- an established worldview and a collective identity. Space, then, our ability to perceive it, to access it, becomes an essential element in our ability to become, know, and name who we are. I'm an American; a German; a Canadian; a Floridian; European; Californian; a New Yorker; Philadelphian; Chicagoan; Bostonian. On scales large, small, and intimate, the primary function of space is to prioritize, categorize, define, mark, and order. Whether for social, political, financial, cultural, communal, aesthetic, or personal reasons. Alone or combined, it matters not. The goal is always the same: to instill a particular kind of worldview, configure a particular kind of social order, create a particular kind of identity, and incorporate a particular kind of person. In short, space is existence; space is life.

Because it's so important, it's simply taken for granted that everyone enjoys a full and unfettered right to it. Particularly so in what we believe to be just and equitable, i.e. democratic, societies. Yet, to paraphrase Baudelaire, the loveliest trick democracy ever pulled is the belief in equal access to space. Because in truth, space is anything but equal. In truth, space is power. And there has never been anything egalitarian about that.

Bullshit, you say! Fine, believe me I understand the response. However, without some egregious act against the common that necessitates a revocation of rights, we generally believe that in a free society everyone has equal access to space. I mean, how could one not? It's all around us. It's ubiquitous! It's everywhere, for everybody. The doubters say, "how can nothing be power? It can't. It can't, that's how." Perhaps, but indulge me for a moment. Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that it is indeed possible that space can be organized overtly and covertly to be hostile. That, in shaping an ideal spatial aesthetic, it might do us best to keep a presence or two at bay. That the configuring of a particular kind of social order, institution, identity, person, is done in ways that place some at a decided disadvantage. So much so, that through no fault of their own, their basic access to space is heavily curtailed. Always, and in all ways. Let's just say that's possible -- what then?

Well, perhaps some, from whom space has turned hostile, might wish to know why. In order to understand and address the root cause of that hostility. To rectify that which denies them full and unfettered access to the life space provides. Am I not American enough? Am I not articulate enough? Am I not talented enough? What am I missing, and how do I get it? Fairly reasonable questions, I should think. In search of an answer, those denied the benefits of space might study closely others who appear to be in its good graces, in order to emulate them if not become them. They may attempt to pass, by mimicking the masters and slip through unnoticed, to adopt the behaviors, mannerisms, speech patterns, aesthetic judgments, and cultural cues as a way to gain acceptance, hoping that in time space might warm to their actual presence and indeed grant them the full access to its life-performing, identity-constructing benefits. However, they have already been marked as less-than-ideal, which is why space hasn't accepted them. Less-than-worthy. And that mark can't be washed away or mimicked into irrelevance. Something substantive must change for them or in them. No amount of appeals to end hostilities will suffice. Waiting on the benevolence of power will always leave one waiting. In this case, it leaves them condemned to react to the arbitrary criteria of normative space. Power is never given -- it is taken. And yet, take they do not. Instead, they wait. They emulate, believing at some point their consent to the demands of normative space will be acknowledged and they will be as free as anyone to become whom and what they wish. Never mind that those demands may sometimes be in contradiction with their convictions or personal preferences, never mind the process of bridging the gap between those two spheres may leave them hollow -- having given up so much for spatial privilege they have nothing left they recognize. Never mind they can do all that is required, and more, and still remain unacknowledged. Yet, comforted by the prospect of belonging, they ignore these concerns, ignore the reality of knowing that some demands should simply never be made or met. They stand at the edges of normative space, wanting, waiting, practicing for that day, pretending to be something they're not, and probably never will be.

There's another response, and that is to make peace with the hostility. The partial, not-quite-full membership. It's a difficult truth with which to come to grips. Everyone wants to belong, to be accepted. None more than those for whom acceptance is believed to be damn near impossible. However, working within if not around the hostilities of normative space necessitates the creation of another worldview. A dual, symbiotic worldview, to assist in navigating its fickle nature. In essence, they become bi-spatial. They know acceptance may be possible, eventually, and it may even be desired. Yet they also know it is in no way guaranteed. So, ignoring the reality of the present for the promise of the future is not really a viable option. Aspirations are fine as far as they go, but their spatial conditions remain temporary, fragile. They want to be accepted, but don't wait for it. They know that, like life, art is what happens when you're making plans.

Another reaction might be to challenge the criteria. To, in short, speak truth to power. If power must be taken, this is a likely first step. Speaking truth to the very arguments and criteria that work to exclude. Those who choose this path critique and challenge the merits of each requirement, confident that the hostility of normative space cannot stand the scrutiny. That, once revealed, the viability if not the legitimacy of each hostile criterion would crumble, and no longer be an obstacle to space. It is a difficult, long-term, and costly strategy, fraught with perils known and unknown. It requires enough saying, "ENOUGH" -- a critical mass willing to speak truth in one voice, speak it loudly and often, however long it may take. It's a bold choice, and a strangely hopeful one, given the circumstances. Demonstrating a belief in the open, egalitarian principles upon which access to normative space ostensibly is built, despite all the evidence to the contrary. But even here, wrapped in your principled belief, they come as petitioners. Tough, unbending, determined, but petitioners just the same. Acknowledging authority; challenging only its use. In essence, they're supplicants, and until such time as their petitions are successful, supplicants they remain.

There is a fourth response to the hostilities of space, and that is simply to reject them. Deprived of normative space on its terms, this cadre of creative workers doesn't mimic, because assimilation is of no interest. They don't care to remain bi-spatial, because duality is not their goal. Belonging is not their objective. They don't demand acceptance, because they don't acknowledge authority. They don't speak the truth to power, because they don't speak to power at all. They don't care to integrate, they don't care to commiserate. They don't care to fit in, follow, acquiesce, or concede. They simply don't care. THAT is D-space.

Creative workers building this space take what others might consider at best extremely broad liberties with the common spatial narrative. If and when they deem to acknowledge it at all. They understand intimately that the price of the normative space for them is too high. That they need to give up too much to be part of it. Rather than comply, these creative workers take space whenever, and wherever, they damn well please. If indeed space is life, they reject outright any authority that deprives them of it or defines the terms of its use. They steal space - on the edges, in the center, wherever they can find it, whenever it's needed. Their spaces are rarely fixed. Always moving, changing... they're _taken_ spaces, hacked, accumulated, mashed, and transported. If normative space is hostile to their presence, they feel, "that's normative's problem". Yet, such bold choices always come with consequences. In this case, rejecting the norm is not only to reject the agreed-upon social order, but also one's standing in that order. But then, that's the point. They understand that the constructed ideological framework that supports the normative space is not neutral. It only masquerades as such for very specific reasons. Where normative space is always already preexisting and demands conformity for the 'common good', D-spaces don't lie. They're not talking to anyone outside of those spaces. D-spaces are deliberately, consciously, and iteratively made, conforming to its various creators regardless of the location - in alleys, vacant lots, abandoned buildings, ball fields, homes, offices, home offices, home studios, schools, streets, galleries, you name it. D-spaces are less definitive conditions and more suggested applications. Options that remain open to both individual and collective appropriation. Those who have chosen D-spaces have learned to become comfortable navigating that which is always moving, always in transition. D-spaces rarely adhere to the logic of fixed stability. The kind of well-known rules of behavior, aesthetics, ownership, and economics that allow them to operate in the manner expected. And that kind of lived experience requires a different kind of aesthetic notion. A different kind of idea of what is beautiful and valuable. D-spaces rewrite the codes, behaviors, content, the very DNA of normative space, and alters it for as long as is needed. When it no longer serves an artist's purpose, it's disassembled and they move on. Yet traces of its passing always remain.

So it should come as no surprise that normative space is forever changed at the point of contact with D-space. Like ideas, D-space travels, permeates, disseminates. D-spaces move when artists move, they breathe when artists breathe, expanding and contracting as needed. If space is power, for those who benefit from normative space, the worst case scenario is to encounter those who reject it. Who believe that they have just as much right to space as anyone else and they act accordingly. Who neither ask, nor give, spatial quarter. In other words, to be forced into a competition for the spoils of space. The possibility of the competition is the stuff of nightmares for the beneficiaries of normative space. At the core of their fear lies a fear of the perversion of the norm, but also a fear of D-space expansion. Unable to do away with the variants that can neither be solved nor eliminated, the best they can do is to minimize its destructive possibilities. In their eyes, D-spaces are to be avoided at all costs. Ameliorated if possible, policed if not. So this is the reason why normative reactions to D-space are so routinely over the top... so visceral. Why the normative narrative works so hard to crush D-space uprisings wherever, whenever, and in whatever manifestation they are found. Make no mistake about it - current debates concerning immigration are largely spatial ones. Baltimore, Ferguson - spatial. Assumptions about whom and what is proper, correct, and valuable to legitimately access the benefits of space. It is against this backdrop D-spaces manifest themselves, allowing the most daring cultural workers to be in the world - to make art in the world. D-space overcomes the common narrative. Making new places for production, and in doing so help construct new ways of being, of learning, of teaching.

In response to places that represent the power of exclusion, D-space is a specific spatial understanding in service to the project of agency and identity unavailable anywhere else.