Strategy of Deterrence: An Interview

Arts writer Arthur Whitman interviews co-founder and co-curator Danielle Winterton about the third installation of Arcades Project.

How did you come by the McCormick-Cowdry House as a venue? Could you describe the physical space – what’s interesting about it, what is its history, have you adapted the market for the space, etc.?

It was co-curator and co-founder David Nelson Pollock’s idea to try to have an Arcades Project in the McCormick-Cowdry House. We were there for a party a few years ago, and with its domestic feel, high ceilings, big windows, and ample space for wandering, it seemed like an ideal venue. Each Arcades Project is adapted for the space that houses it, so we always have to make adjustments. Co-curator and co-founder Wylie Schwartz knew the owner, Avi Smith, and she arranged for us to have the show there. We’d like to give Avi a big thanks for hosting us! As for the house, it was owned at one time by the wealthy daughter of a carriage maker. Her name was Belle Cowdry and she never married; legend has it that she filled her house with parrots and big vats of buttons. The History Center has her diaries, which show that she hoped to someday be able to leave “quiet Ithaca,” but she never did.

 What sorts of local patronage or support have you received for the current event? How does it relate to Spring Writes? Gallery Night? Essays and Fictions?

This Arcades Project is largely funded by Spring Writes and the Community Arts Partnership. The rest of the funding is gathered through vendor contributions. Essays & Fictions has a table at the event, and we, as co-founders, wanted a lively place to sell our books besides the usual channels of readings and online sales. It was a motivational factor in our establishing the project. We also wanted to provide the thriving community of small presses and publishers in Ithaca and the surrounding region a stimulating and aesthetically pleasing way to connect with readers, buyers, and the general public. This year, as part of an effort to incorporate performance into Arcades Projects, Essays & Fictions will host a reading at the beginning of the night. The featured reader will be Irakli Kakabadze, the Ithaca City of Asylum poet who has been here for the last few years. He will write a poem specifically for the event, and this will be his last reading in Ithaca. We’re thrilled to have him.

What is the geographic range of the participating vendors and how did you come by them? Is there a deliberate strategy here – e.g. have you tried to balance local and non-local artists?

All of our participants are regional: they’ve come from Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, Ithaca, and the Finger Lakes area. Because Arcades Project is a one-night event, there is always an element of chance in terms of sheer availability of artists and vendors, so we don’t make any conscious attempt to balance local and non-local. The process is more organic than that – we see who applies and make selections based on aesthetic fit and quality of work samples. While we are consciously trying to bring regional work to Ithaca with Arcades Project, an applicant’s location doesn’t play a role in selection.

You’ve set “de-colonializing consciousness” as a theme for this edition of Arcades Project. This is a compelling image; what does it amount to in more concrete terms? What sort of effect you expect that participants and viewers will take away from the event? What sort of impact do you expect that it will have on local and broader communities? What does it amount to as a form of social or political critique?

 The idea of “de-colonializing consciousness” is quite abstract and is derived from Walter Benjamin’s unfinished work of scholarship on the Paris Arcades. Benjamin saw the sprawl of colonialization as happening not just in terms of geographical territory, but also inside people’s minds, in terms of how they saw themselves and their social relationships with each other. Benjamin came of age as the Third Reich came to power; he ultimately committed suicide to escape being captured by Nazis. So he chose death over submitting to fascism. He writes about shopping in the Paris Arcades, which was the precursor to the modern department store, as a method of colonializing consciousness. How? Well, you take the vast potential of the human mind, and preoccupy it with dazzling displays and stimulate it with this sort of never-ending desire for material objects. Benjamin called this “the dream of commerce.” When we shop, when we browse, when we look at objects, whether or not we purchase them, but especially when we purchase them, we participate in that dream of commerce, which is ultimately a fantasy and arguably an escape mechanism. Jean Baudrillard might have called this fascination with shopping a “strategy of deterrence,” something delightful that steals your attention away from the horrors happening around the globe in the name of imperial expansion. In other words, behind that fantasy of commerce, there’s a real human cost that we may not think about when we’re enjoying the decadence of shopping.

Of course, the United States might be past its heyday as a consumer society given that most households have experienced a reduction in expendable income in recent years. With the rise of locavore culture, and the decrease of easy credit and impulse purchases, people are paying more attention to the quality and origin of their products and the social cost of what they buy. So we’re in this in-between place – experiencing a dawning awareness of the colonialization of our homes, our bodies, ourselves, while faced with few alternate sources for obtaining goods necessary for survival.

The outpouring of social resistance that’s erupted in the last six months or so has been both exhilarating and frustrating for David and myself to observe and occasionally participate in. While there have been some exciting and innovative ways of addressing class discrepancies, there have also been some overly simplified ones that imitate oppressive power structures. So we thought it was important to put this idea out there.  Each of us has some kind of “marketplace soul,” and understanding how that manifests individually is an important thing to contemplate if you wish to work for social change.

In execution, this remains more conceptual than aesthetic, and we’ve had some exciting responses to the prompt. Jesse Hill’s installation uses Banksy-esque street art styles to explore relationships of big oil, monopoly, money, and the response of a disenfranchised public. Mimi Baveye and Mara Baldwin will use recontextualization of familiar commercial objects in their sculptural installation and zine series to help weave together different storytelling strategies. Lily Gershon of LilySillyToys and the Dacha Project, which is comprised of six people who are in the process of creating an environmentally sustainable house and home with no natural gas or propone, will have a puppet theater with her crafted puppets. All of these examples, either in craft or technique, show an awareness of the forces and impacts of commercial transactions on the viewer.

As for the takeaway for the viewer or the region, I couldn’t possibly speculate about what other people think. We just hope to create something aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking.

 How does your practice relate to other attempts to provide a marketplace for independent culture: books, visual arts/crafts, etc.? Is this something that has shaped Arcades Project from the beginning and as it has developed a history?

Our practice is curated and selective, rather than all-inclusive, and the shopping experience itself is part of the installation and exhibit. What bothers me most about many literary events is they are largely promotional rather than artistic endeavors. You have a writer, who has, most often at great sacrifice to themselves, poured over a manuscript and undertaken the incredibly difficult task of finishing the book, and the culture treats it only as a commodity rather than as an art object. For many small presses, the best chance they have to sell their works is online, at a trade show, or at a reading.  We wanted to go beyond the all-inclusive “trade show” feeling to create a selected, curated arrangement of titles, artists and presses. We also wanted to provide an aesthetically pleasing experience for the visitor.

What do you anticipate as the future of Arcades Project? Is this a long-term project? What do you plan in terms of different sites, themes, participants, et cetera?

We all have other projects and jobs, so we have to gauge interest and feasibility on a case-by-case, or season-by-season, basis. I do think there is opportunity to continue hosting Arcades Project events in the future; if it seems like the public, the artists, and the presses are still interested, we’ll continue to stage these events, but there are no solidified plans for the next one at this point.

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