On Systems That Don’t Work For Us: Public Annex and Finding New Ways Together

When I think about the systems offered to people living in the United States by established institutions, I find myself frustrated with their lack of human-ness or recognition of what it means to be a whole person. Interactions are meant to be sanitized, ‘professional’, and access to resources or opportunities are based on privilege and positionality. It is becoming more obvious that the systems we are floating around in today were not designed with us in mind (by us I mean anyone who is not an able-bodied, heteronormative, wealthy white male), and we are given options to adapt. Often these options are inadequate and disabling.

Working in three different states in the Developmental Disability (DD) system over the last six years, I’ve learned a lot about how workers and those served by those structures are treated. There is often inadequate pay all around, complete absence of reliable transportation, scarce opportunities for meaningful work, physically restrictive or clinical spaces, and lack of respect for work created by artists. I’ve seen employees mistreated by the state and the management, and then they in turn flex the power they have to dehumanize or take agency away from the people they are working with. There is a ton of resilience, dignity and dedication brought by people on all levels, but it often seems to be swallowed up by the chaos and impossibility of sustainably being a whole human. In some places I’ve worked, I never felt safe to report injustices I witnessed for fear of losing my job, and I knew others felt the same. I don’t want to discredit the smattering of amazingly supportive, progressive and holistic programs out there, but they are rare birds and they are usually only one part of a person’s daily life, not all parts. Working with Public Annex, I’ve realized how we can change the game, functioning adjacent to this system, but distinctly separate.

There are many long, multi-layered stories about how Public Annex formed and why, but a general idea we talk about often is a dissatisfaction with the systems we have been offered to function within. We have created Public Annex in an attempt to work within these systems in a different way, and to build community together in small steps that we can manage in between our day jobs. We are trying to figure out ethical and good feeling ways of doing things together across the ability spectrum. We talk a lot about accessibility, and people often misinterpret what that actually means. It doesn’t mean simplifying things, or being reductive, it means creating multiple access points and flexibility in ways to engage.

In an article about Public Annex for Oregon ArtsWatch, artist and writer Hannah Krafcik used the phrase “alternative value systems” to describe what we are creating. That has really stuck with me. While functioning within these oppressive structures created by a capitalist, colonizing, nation-state, we are managing in small ways to create new methods of working. We do value things differently than the systems we are offered to participate in. We like hanging out together and are passionately supportive each other’s practices. We want to take care of each other beyond labor roles and build community. We hope to slowly influence institutions we interact with and create new ones.

I had a conversation with DB Amorin and Rachel Mulder, founding members of Public Annex, about some ideas, frameworks, motivations and foundational concepts that drive Public Annex.

DB Amorin: The impetus of Public Annex was to, like you just said, kind of subvert the prevalence of care within a contemporary art context, because we were/are all working within this really rigid social work environment where there are so many “rules” that are completely arbitrary and invented by the non profit industrial complex. Obviously there are protections in place for people that matter, but it’s also predicated on this weird hierarchical kind of system where there’s a “patient” and there’s a “caregiver” and there is this really clinical distinction between the two.

Lauren Moran: And there’s always bureaucracy and hierarchy created around labor positions like, I’ve been told in jobs that I wasn’t allowed to be friends with people and stuff like that, people are clients. I feel like it gets in the way of meaningful relationships and I’ve seen people set up in those situations act dehumanizing towards each other.

Rachel Mulder: Right, like your not even supposed to style someone’s hair. That was a rule when we were working, but it was never enforced…

DB:  Because it was known we had a different culture at Project Grow. We made a stand and had to sell it saying that’s what they were buying into or had purchased.

L: Right, Project Grow was set up as a separate entity originally, very intentionally nonhierarchical (by social practice artist Natasha Wheat).

DB: But yeah, those types of directives are common within the care field, right? Because they want to maintain this like sanitized air of “professionalism”. It really destroys some of the natural, organically formed relationships that people create. If each person, in reality, had to eliminate their workplace as a place to gain relationships and form friendships? If you were literally told you were not allowed to be friends with people you work with, how many friends would any of us have? I would have zero. And half the reason I get employed is to make friends, at this point. That’s why I have so many goddamn jobs, I just want to have so many friends (laughs).

L: Right, I know, same, besides trying to survive. (laughs)

DB: You know what I mean? Really that’s what it comes down to. Then there’s this whole other portion of it, like this idea of what does it mean to support the artistic practice of people with disabilities? What are the existing structures of that? They are problematic as well and they’re problematic, in part, because the general structure of the art world, in terms of monetizing people’s practices, is problematic to begin with. It’s all hierarchical; there’s the artist, there’s the curator, there are these institutional leaders.

L: Right, and institutions often seem to benefit more than artists by being able to claim ‘diversity and inclusion’.

DB: It really robs a person of very much agency to begin with, let alone having to be forced into this category of “outsider art” or whatever it’s called. Public Annex wanted to address all of those things. How can we rethink disability itself? We try to reframe our thinking of it to see it as a spectrum instead of a black or white, yes or no kind of definition. Also, how can we reposition ourselves and what we do within the greater context of a contemporary art system that is wrong to begin with.

L: Yeah, the art world and the disability system are both functioning improperly in our opinion (laughs). And they seem threatened by the fact that we are critiquing them.

DB: But they also see us as necessary. One of the reasons we did form classes and do the things we decided to do was because we could, like you said, funnel money and resources away from those institutional systems into practices that don’t necessarily have to meet the same types of weird medical or institutional regulations that they fall under. Because of the changes in state funding, day programs have to seek these outside organizations for programming. And because (pause) they had to be told how to treat people. Someone had to slap someone’s hand and be like, “you can’t hide people in a warehouse and pay them less than minimum wage, so please go outside and mingle with the rest of the world!” (we laugh, but Oregon is one of the only states where sheltered workshops have been outlawed) Which is still not quite a right concept to function under, “let’s go out and into another person’s space in coordinated groups, let’s occupy different places.”

L: It’s still pretty stiff, every situation is ‘safely’ orchestrated, but I guess that’s the reality of functioning within that system.

……

I am interested in civic engagement, or civic resistance that is working towards building a new society, one where the starting point revolves around accessible systems and institutions built by EVERYONE. This may seem idealistic, given our current situations, but when I am in a workshop at Taborspace with the Public Annex crew and everyone is laughing and singing, or when Lawrence Oliver drives his remote control trucks through the Portland Art Museum or when we are all pulling mustard flowers together out of a garden bed or when Ricky Bereghost teaches a weaving workshop or when we sing karaoke, it feels possible.

Public Annex is a collective and volunteer-run 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in Portland, Oregon that provides accessible urban farming and arts programming, focusing on inclusivity of artists and farmers with developmental disabilities. Our mission is to break down systemic barriers that prohibit marginalized populations from inclusivity by building a community around accessible farming and art programming. Programs we offer include but are not limited to weekly art classes, urban farming, lectures and workshops, artist residencies and artist representation. Why art + farming? Both art and farming are trades in which there is not a single defined approach; they can be accessed by all. We believe that art and farming can act as forms of communication – forms that cross barriers of language, culture, physical and cognitive ability. These are our chosen entry points for the change that we strive to see in our society. We work to empower and connect people – of all abilities and mobilities, people who share a passion for art and/or farming – to learn from each other, find meaningful connections to “work” and define their chosen identity within society. We utilize the spaces of other arts organizations around Portland, Oregon and operate our urban farm project on the Side Yard Annex Farm to provide our programming. We believe that in partnering with other established organizations, we can further our mission of helping marginalized populations become included in communities and spaces that they have not historically been able to access. Learn more at publicannex.org

Lauren Moran wants to put relationships at the forefront of their artistic concerns. Creating interdisciplinary projects that are often participatory, collaborative and co-authored, they aim to experiment with and question the systems we are all embedded in by organizing situations of connection, openness and non-hierarchical learning. They are interested in developing sites for accessibility and are an active member of Public Annex. laurengracemoran.com.

Rachel Mulder earned her BFA in Printmaking from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and has since adapted those printmaking techniques and processes into other art forms, namely drawing. She has been an art-assistant with a passion for working with people all along the ability spectrum, focusing on facilitating art-making for people based on their individual desires as well as in workshop settings. She currently works with local nonprofit Public Annex where she assists with their daily inclusive workshops and serves on the founding board as Social Media Director. She is a Midwestern native and lives and works in Portland, Oregon.

DB Amorin is an artist from Honolulu, Hawai’i currently living and working in Portland, Oregon USA. He works within video, expanded audio and augmented environments, drawing upon DIY experimentation and using lo-fi techniques or open source technology to create mediated experiences. He is a founding member of Public Annex, an arts organization that aims to break down systemic barriers that prohibit marginalized populations from inclusivity within contemporary arts.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.

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