NOTE: The text below is an abbreviated version of what will be posted at a later time. This version was offered as part of a larger presentation at RaRa in Sheffield on May 14, 2011 and aceartinc. in Winnipeg on June 23, 2011.
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Not An Alternative is a dynamic collective of activists, artists, designers, and others based primarily in Brooklyn, New York, who have come together in various capacities since 2004 to produce actions, interventions and installations with the goal of challenging the dominance of neoliberal ideology by disrupting the symbols and gestures it has incorporated into its structures and functions. Integrating art, activism, and theory, the collective encourages rethinking around events, symbols, and history.
Although a number of people have worked with Not An Alternative over the years, Beka Economopoulos and Jason Jones are core, sustaining members. The group produces and curates work that questions and leverages the tools of advertising, architecture, exhibit design, branding, and public relations. Their programs are hosted at a variety of venues, including their own gallery No-Space. No-Space hosts free lectures, screenings, panel discussions, workshops, and artist presentations. The space also consists of a production workshop, film studio, and video editing suite. Topics they address are varied in nature, including directly opposing neoconservative trends in US politics, as well as social and environmental injustice, such as gentrification and homelessness, clear cutting, oil and gas fracking, and food security. During the day, No-Space is a co-working office for cultural producers and other freelancers.
Not An Alternative is radical in the sense that every aspect of its activity seeks to challenge assumptions about the way we live in an increasingly neoliberalised world – the world of global capitalism. The activity of the group has varied depending on who has been involved. At present, they are moving deeper into online video and social media interventions, in part to confront the ways in which corporations have framed a participation paradox – a superficial sense of community or involvement creating the delusion of democracy in the marketplace while citizens provide massive quantities of valuable personal data for free.
Regarding the delivery of programming, responding to the possibility that Not An Alternative might need to give up its current shop-front location due to increasing rent, No-Space is in transition. That said, becoming a little more itinerant within the city is appealing to the collective – their space doesn’t need to dictate what they do, and when it comes down to it, they sometimes feel pressure to make full use of their space when they receive external support specifically to pay rent.
Approximately three years ago, Not An Alternative established itself as a formal non-profit in order to benefit from a broader base of funding, and the shift has brought new challenges. Core members have struggled with the administrative aspects of this transition, particularly now that someone once responsible for that is no longer involved. They have likewise struggled to avoid co-optation by seemingly benevolent sources. For example, a pair of wealthy donors that not only pushed them into producing a “business plan” at a break-neck pace, but also tried to re-define their mission. That relationship didn’t last long, but the situation wasn’t entirely unique, since the group regularly questions how to identify itself to funders or other gatekeepers of opportunity.
Still, in terms of funding, it helps they are becoming more widely known because the more they work, they more work they are able to do, thanks to positive invitations from larger groups such as The New School’s Vera List Centre for Art and Politics, or CreativeTime, organizations also based in New York City. Of course “not so positive” invitations from larger groups have also materialized, but on the bright side, those growing experiences helped the collective consolidate their ideas on how they want to move forward
More than just “artists” or “activists”, they see themselves as committed members of multiple communities and are involved in many types of actions and activities, not always expecting to take the lead. This sometimes confuses funders who want to see them conduct “outreach” in what ultimately appears missionary in fashion. They have full respect for their allies and don’t experience their interactions in an us versus them/artists versus audience kind of way.
They used to juggle their work as a collective with other occupations, but are now aiming to find better overlap so energies expended are diverted to multiple purposes. For example, instead of undertaking the physical production of material objects for other organizations, they now work in areas that help them develop the skills they want to apply to their own work, or in ways that help them draw maximum benefit from resources/material/equipment. This is a key survival strategy, which took time to identify, but sets them on a more sustainable path. With that said, they’ve never drawn a salary from their work in the collective. Everything they receive – speaker fees, grants, etc. — goes back into Not An Alternative, mostly to pay rent, but occasionally to acquire necessary materials.
Although New York City has a very high cost of living, one sure advantage of being there is that intriguing people regularly have reason to visit, so Not An Alternative are often able to connect with figures of interest. They are typically unable to compensate visitors for travel, nor can they provide honoraria, but the money accumulated when a hat is passed at the end of an event is often enough to host the guest for dinner, which in its own way helps build feelings of community more than any formal arrangement could.
Ultimately, this way of working helps Not An Alternative find allies… people become involved because they want to contribute to progressive change. This is not a celebration of sacrifice, or going with less, but it does mean finding and maintaining essential camaraderie is necessary to keeping the movement going, growing, and working effectively.
I asked Jason and Beka if they were worried about the potential impact of coming austerity measures shrinking their already limited resources. They answered, without hesitation, no, and they explained that it would provide fodder for their biggest project to date because the very cause of such measures is central to their raision d’etre. And, as they’ve observed, when major issues need to be tackled, people really do come together and gather what they need through existing solidarity networks. In other words, when stuff needs to happen, people make it happen; financial woes are not enough to stop them, they’ll just find another way.