aborted proposal for a public art commission in Mississauga, © 2015
I am drifting, adrift. No matter how much we talk about drift as method, no matter how powerful the bonds of affection become on these trips – not just between spouses and lovers and children but also between friends – there remains a sour note. Something in the ecstatic feeling of travel together remains shiftless, rootless and untrustworthy. Maybe that is part of its charm. We show up in the middle of the night at run-down motels. We burn hundreds of gallons of gasoline extracted from the Alberta tar sands whose pipeline system my small family is tracing in this particular drift. We sneak photographs out the passenger window and poach wireless in hotel parking lots. In Detroit, I encounter women from a neighbourhood organization fighting the construction of a refinery to convert tar sands oil into the gasoline that I will burn in my car as I drive home. They are neither drifting nor adrift, and they don’t need me to articulate the tar sands’ spatial politics or elucidate the relationship between the micro and the macro of petroleum production. But if given a chance to contribute full-time to the ‘front lines’ of a movement, to become ‘embedded’ in a specific place and campaign, I am pretty sure I would shy away. In the United States, there are relatively few examples of ‘militant research’ – the situated, collective knowledge production that animates social movements and enhances a collective capacity for political imagining.
The term itself originated in a particular context – the Argentinean crises of the early 2000s – and can only in its broadest outlines be applied to an American reality of political fragmentation, professionalised activism, and the containment of radical intellectuals in the academy. It’s not just that it is very difficult to work in this way (though it certainly is); it’s also that many people in the Compass come from an art background in which questions over the wisdom of committing to a cause versus leveraging art’s purported autonomy for critical ends still provoke heated debate. There is something I trust about my untrustworthy drifting; it is just hard to articulate what it is and far easier to recognise what it lacks. Though the group has called for a ‘longer, slower, deeper’ engagement with geography and the infrastructures of transnational capitalism, we rarely spend more than a few days in any place and often no more than an afternoon. While the conversations we have may be meaningful and the observations perhaps astute, they are limited, and not just in an ‘all knowledge is partial and contingent’, post-structuralist sort of way. The duration of our engagement allows some impressions to be gathered but prevents the slow filtering of multiple, contradictory streams of information that staying in a place over a longer time, say months or years, might permit. From time to time, we visit places in the Midwest that point to liberating, sustainable futures and are inspired by what we find. We describe these drifts as knitting together a Midwest Radical Culture Corridor, a real-and-imagined place built of relationships between divergent, but sympathetic, oppositional political, aesthetic and life practices. When we return and speak to friends working full-time in areas in which we only dabble (permaculture, ‘natural’ building, local food systems) it sometimes uncovers wildly divergent points of view about the same parallax people and places. By dropping in for a day or week, we may see only what we are primed to see and what our local hosts and guides would like to show.
If this critique sounds familiar, it should. Tourism has been discussed and criticised in strikingly similar terms. Bashing tourists has a long and proud history among intellectuals, from Daniel Boorstin’s classic indictment of their pursuit of spectacular inauthenticity to Zygmunt Bauman’s less-than-flattering portrayal of the tourist as a signal figure of postmodernity. Even those whose critique is more nuanced, notably Dean MacCannell, acknowledge the challenge of ‘ethical sightseeing’. Perhaps the Compass drifts romanticise and exoticise those we visit as much as heritage parks and living history museums do for more mainstream tourists. How different is it, really, that my ‘tourist gaze’ is directed at cooperative solar energy systems, barter economies, and homemade aquaculture tanks? My ability to sustain a belief in these efforts is bolstered by my mobility: shielded from the often discouraging and mundane details of day-to-day operations, I am free to remain ‘inspired’. That this sort of mobility is largely an artefact of both class and race privilege is so obvious as to seem beneath comment. It helps explain why most of us on these drifts have graduate degrees, faculty positions, or neo-bohemian lives of voluntary (and mostly gentle) poverty. Our privileged mobility parallels the mobility of capital that produced the rust-belt cities, megafarms, and supply chains we trace in an attempt to know.
If this critique seems rather damning, it certainly feels that way to me, and it’s levelled against myself most often. But it also feels too easy, absolute and disabling. It makes me feel helpless in my sadness and isolation, and guilty in turn for feeling impotent. Like many discussions of privilege by people on the American left, it remains mired in a zero-sum, almost Catholic identity politics whereby privilege is a sin to be disavowed and expiated at all costs. Compass friends Maribel Casas-Cortes andSebastian Cobarrubias wrote, ‘the category of privilege can limit the potential activities or alliances of social movements, or dismiss those that already exist’.
They suggest that a more helpful approach might be to remain conscious of how privilege operates while considering how the subject positions it produces might be used. This ‘non-categorical politics’ demands a rigorous practice of inquiry, action, and self-reflection, ideally connected to concrete political activity but also calling into question the constitution of subjectivities and experiences. ‘By attending to the microscopic elements of everyday life, research can connect with people’s experiences, allowing for mutual recognition and the discovery of previously unthinkable combinations and possibilities.’
In other words, what do our distinct positions within interlocking systems of oppression, capitalisation and socialisation enable us to experience, think, know and do? What do our sometimes contradictory, sometimes overlapping positions allow us to occupy, subvert and create? This shift of emphasis from privilege to position accomplishes several important tasks. First, it makes visible the ways that mobility is not a function of privilege but rather a function of the capitalist present, which distributes forms of mobility unequally according to privilege. People and forces with different positions within the capitalist present experience and use mobility in different ways. Some of them are exploitative, others liberating, but all are intellectually and politically productive. Second, it favours a dialectical approach over the dichotomy of inside/outside on which conventional forms of tourism – as well as disabling identity politics – are based. If tourism traditionally functioned to create a field of the exotic other against which one’s own culture might be understood, thinking positionally suggests that these relationships are multi-dimensional, overlapping, shot through with contradiction and in constant motion. The form of mobile research that the drift represents is therefore, in part, an attempt to understand our own positions in dialogue with others’ subjectivities and as part of broader institutions and infrastructures. As Casas-Cortes’ and Cobarrubias have written in the context of the drifts practiced by Precarias a la Deriva, ‘“field research” is a temporary expedition into singular experiences. Precarias’ project searches for commonalities and fosters singularities’. This recognition of positioning within systems – our singular commonality – and shared experience among individuals also sets apart these forms of artistic practice from a neo-avant-garde approach hinging on alienation, distance and shock.
Thinking about the drift this way, my self-critique becomes less damning, enabling me to ask the more open-ended question, ‘What, ultimately, is produced by our drifting?’ We know our drifts and gatherings create affection, most durably among ourselves but also for and with those we encounter and visit. They help us overcome isolation and sadness and enlarge our capacity to care. We believe drifting produces knowledge, however incomplete, of social and economic systems as manifest and contested by localised efforts. We hope it initiates relationships, however tenuous, between ourselves and the places and people we meet on our travels. Rather than making some grandiose claim for this method, or dismissing it as self-indulgent and lazy, can the love, knowledge and relationships we know we build be recast as something meaningful and politically necessary, if necessarily incomplete?