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Boundaries of Knowledge

Questions for Brian Holmes

Interview by Tom Vandeputte and Sidsel Meineche Hansen (2015)

We’d like to ask you a series of questions that have to do with knowledge production, experimentation and learning in groups. First, what is your understanding of the crisis of academic institutions, considered in the light of your analysis of neoliberalism? And how do you see the possible role that academic institutions or self-organized forms of inquiry could play in this context?

It’s now obvious that neoliberal entrepreneurialism and the concept of investing in one’s own human capital through education have been the templates for a total makeover of academic institutions. On the one hand, the student becomes a client demanding personalized services in exchange for cash payments (or really, for loan transfers that mortgage his or her future); and on the other, the professor becomes a producer of intellectual property, exercising intellectual activity for a profit in which the university shares, and which soon becomes its raison d’être. After the Occupy movement, and as a part of its fundamental critiques, I retraced the way that this total makeover unfolded in the United States in a text called “Silence=Debt,” which you can easily find on the web. If you read that text to the end I think you’ll start seeing how far down this neoliberal pathway universities in Europe have gone on in the wake of the changes orchestrated by the Bologna Process. You may not have the same tuition levels, or student loan scams, or even the same structural incentives to produce intellectual property; but generally speaking, the old concepts of universal knowledge and maintenance of the democratic public sphere are being eroded, destroyed at the foundations and then cleared away, while some humanistic facade remains floating in the glow of the spectacle society. For the governing logic of the present, knowledge is a pure instrumentality bound to ownership rights, and education is a personal investment that has to cash out in the future. Continue reading


Sarah Augusta Lewison and Dan S. Wang


Days after the fall of Mubarak, the Wisconsin Uprising emerges.

Days after the fall of Mubarak, the Wisconsin Uprising emerges.

“What time is it on the clock of the world?”

This treatise and travelogue follows on an impulse to revisit the outbreak of popular protest in Madison, Wisconsin in February of 2011, when a mass movement was born, one that linked at a key moment to protests in Tahrir Square and prefigured the months-later Occupy Wall Street in New York. When a reactionary state governor threatened labor autonomy, thousands of Wisconsin workers, students, pensioners, and families occupied the state capitol building for sixteen days and nights, and later forced an early election. Encouragement came from supporters all over the country and the world. An Egyptian protester in Tahrir Square acknowledged the Wisconsin workers’ struggle through signs delivered virally; Wisconsin protest singers paid the favor forward by posting video tributes to those in the heat of Spain’s Indignados movement. The horizontal contagion of uprisings across different national and regional contexts in 2011 revealed a sympathetic political imaginary of resistance that could instantly bridge great distances.

But as the uprisings, occupations, and mass movements projected themselves and were received as spectacularized images, their translocal and transcontextual significance was diluted; either flattened into broad universals about human struggle, or overshadowed by local urgencies. As demonstrations met with repression, the euphoric exchange of transnational support was preempted by the spectacle of heavy policing, leading viewers to experience the unrest as the disciplining of unruly publics. In this essay we look to the rhetorics of recognition between contexts of those connected by but suffering unequally from the predations of neoliberalism in the year 2011. Admitting our own investment in the reciprocal recognition between peoples engaged in different struggles, we mourn that the translocality could not be sustained. But we also understand why. Protest politics based on the mass spectacle model preordains the transnational factor as an easily ignored superficiality.

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Railroad Safety

Workers, Community and the Environment

Community Mapping-8.5x11Compass members Borcila and Holmes at the conference put together by Railroad Workers United, along with Tom Shephard of Southeast Environmental Task Force and Lora Chamberlain of Chi Oil By Rail

Extreme Energy: The Burning Issues

Chicago is the rail hub of North America: a dangerous crossroads in the age of explosive Bakken crude. Every week some forty oil trains come rolling through the city’s most populated neighborhoods, each with an average of a hundred tankers. The tankers are filled in the shale oil fields of North Dakota. They bear the red hazmat placard #1267. Maybe you’ve seen them?

Since the raging fire that destroyed the Canadian town of Lac Mégantic two years ago, we know these bomb trains are a potential catastrophe. And that’s about all we know. Proposed regulations have been gutted by industry lobbies. The explosions have continued, as nearby as Galena, Illinois. But neither the government nor the corporations will provide information about the trains, their routes or their destinations. Nor will they disclose their “worst case scenarios.” Everything that matters is kept strictly secret.

The oil trains are just one symptom of what some people call “the extreme energy economy.” In Chicagoland we directly experience the frenzied rate at which fossil fuels are extracted, transported and burned. Our region is home to three of the biggest refineries of Canadian tar sands oil — Exxon in Joliet, Citgo in Lemont, and BP in East Chicago — brought here through a series of pipeline expansions that have stealthily replaced the controversial Keystone XL. The region is crisscrossed by railcars, barges and trucks carrying petcoke, a highly carcinogenic byproduct of the tar sands oil. How can ordinary people learn to recognize and denounce these energy extremes?

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Political ecology begins when we say “Black Lives Matter”


excerpt from Watersheds

“They say it’s a joke they say it’s a game.” The slogan was launched on the Chicago streets by the group We Charge Genocide, in the middle of a demo demanding reparations for victims of police torture. The folks on the street chanted those words, we hurled them out of our mouths in staccato bursts, while looking round at the passers-by who pretended not to notice. What the chant means is either enigmatic, or it’s painfully obvious. There is a kind of disdain that minimizes a death or a beating or a torture or a life sentence for black people in the name of lawfulness, efficiency, morality and humanist ideals. That kind of disdain has made democracy impossible in the US – and other places too.

Our group, the Compass, allowed two main tracks to run parallel for years. Bioregionalism on the one hand, minority rights and prison solidarity on the other. We were ecologists and social justice people, not the same thing but at the same time. The divide ran less between the members than inside each one, a split in a collective personality. At a meeting in the city of Madison the group decided that the split could be overcome. Political ecology begins when we say “Black Lives Matter.”

Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the movement, puts it like this: “”#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important – it means that black lives, which are seen as without value within white supremacy, are important to your liberation.” Some would say that climate change makes every other issue pale by comparison. But black slavery, or the taking of life as a commercial object, started hundreds of years before the industrial revolution. The poisoning of the planet was built on the way our enlightened societies treat other human beings.

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Infrastructure Study Group: “Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency”


Reading Michelle Murphy’s “Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency”

Here is a link to article we read and discussed Sunday Feb 22, 2015.

In this article Murphy describes some of the transgenerational effects of chemicals from petrochemical processing plants along the St Claire River between Sarnia and Detroit. She uses infrastructure as an extensive term to connect industrial chemical production, assisted reproduction, and reproductive injustice. The petrochemical plants can be described as infrastructures for producing materials and fuels that assist normative reproduction, biological and social, babies and culture. The petroleum plants pollute water, soil, and sky with toxic chemicals that detrimentally shape the biological and social reproduction of communities along the river, particularly the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. The sedimentation of the pollution becomes a petrochemical infrastructure chemically shaping and structuring bodies, environments, and ecology.

In this post, I attempt to iterate some of our two hour discussion inspired by the article:

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Infrastructure Study Group

Music for infrastructure: Under the Bridge

In Chicago, Compass Collaborators are initiating a weekly or bi-weekly infrastructure reading group. We meet on Sunday afternoons around 4pm in the Logan’s Square area. After the meeting and discussions we will eat dinner, and sometimes watch a video.

We welcome more participants. Please contact duskin (forestmongrel(at)gmail(dot)com) if you are interested in joining us!

Most of us have been studying infrastructures in some form. The reading group offers the opportunity for recollecting and reflecting through shared readings and discussion. A gathering that might stimulate modulated approaches to our practical engagements in, entanglements with, and succor from infrastructures.

In our conversation at the preliminary gathering several idea clots linger with me. I wrote the following responses the day after the meeting.

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“Something that has to do with life itself”

World of Matter and the Radical Imaginary


 A Review of the show at UNY Graduate Center, New York, 9/1-11/1, 2014 / by Brian Holmes

In the antechamber of the exhibition there is a parable. For centuries the fisherfolk of Urk lived on an island in the middle of the Zuidersee. Then in 1932 the Dutch government decided to build dikes against the ocean. The island is now anchored on dry land. It must have been as if the world had turned upside down. Yet the film Episode of the Sea, by Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan, does not really explain why the fisherfolk of Urk remained attached to their ancient trade. Instead it is all about the present. Images of nets tell a story of deep entanglement in the regulations of the European Union. You are encountering an age-old way of life that has always had to deal with human transformations of the environment.

How to face the natural crisis of global society? How to engage with the overwhelming material conditions of the Anthropocene? In the year 2014, awareness of human-induced global warming seemed to reach a kind of planetary tipping-point. Yet earlier experiences like the Fukushima meltdown, the BP oil spill or the flooding of New Orleans show that profound shocks to consciousness can be erased by dull, everyday reinforcements of the industrial norm. The point is to go beyond just reacting to the next inevitable blowout. If we want to break the cycle of disaster, public outcry and induced denial, then changes in our mental maps, or indeed, in our shared cosmologies, must be followed by transformations of our social institutions. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to begin exactly where World of Matter does, with the institutions of representation. At stake is the relation between the capacity to make images of worldly things and the capacity to remake an inhabitable world.

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Illinois Department of Freedom and Liberation

Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Alternative Report

CJTM_Participatory_MemorialChicago Torture Justice Participatory Memorial

read the full report

Dear Colleagues, Comrades, and Collaborators,

This introduction was written the day after the Grand Jury in Missouri failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Ferguson resident Michael Brown. Cities across the U.S. are erupting with expressions of raw and powerful emotions. We come together, yet again, in cultural and community centers, park houses and student unions, and other public spaces to talk, teach and feel with each other about the loss of yet another young Black life. Once again, we confront the national insanity of white supremacy and its institutionalization in a system of governance that depends on the uneven distribution of life chances.

Our daily political landscape is often rife with contradiction. The dizzying speed with which these contradictory moments unfold, where gains are often measured against profound loss, can be overwhelming: How do we remain alert to each new set of specifics, while also gaining a better understanding of the structures that penetrate and shape these events, the links between these events and the conditions of ordinary life, and the tactical opportunities each presents to forge new solidarities on the basis of our shared desire to re-make the world from the ground up? How do we respond to emerging events, often framed for us as “crises,” and remain committed to a process of careful and complete analysis of our collective situation? It’s the radical potential of collective praxis, its becomings and openings, that keeps us going. Committing to imagination and engagement seems like the only path away from despair.

This First Annual Alternative IDOC/IDFL report, chronicles work people in Illinois have done in 2014. Our collective labors stopped jail expansion in Urbana, supported people while inside and after release, fought for meaningful legislation to curb increased punishment, organized internationally against police violence, and worked hard to stop people from getting locked up.

By no means is this report exhaustive. Across Illinois many other groups – formal and informal – continue to push back.

To create this report, we asked Illinois based organizations and collectives to submit materials produced for an action, a project, an event, or a campaign in 2014. Every year the IDOC pumps out a report about how successful they are with our tax dollars. This year we want to celebrate our collective work to end our nation’s over reliance on policing, imprisonment and punishment and to acknowledge our shared desire to support people/ourselves inside/after release, to fight for self-determination and community control over the terms of “public safety,” and to forge a future free from the logics of incarceration.

with revolutionary love,

Erica Meiners & Amy Partridge
for P+NAP

Thinking with a River


“We are so fortunate to be living now because the challenges are so many and we need to use our imaginations in new ways.” Grace Lee Boggs

In June this year, torrential rains at Iguazú led to the closing of tourist sites, and the platform for viewing the waterfalls was all but destroyed. The upper Paraná was said to be carrying 33 times its usual flow and near Ascuncion, and farther west again in Paraguay, at least 300,000 people were flooded out of their homes. This was a month before we flew from Chicago to Buenos Aires, and when our group arrived at Rosario in late July, the still expanding floodwaters were speeding flotsam and freshwater weeds along its swollen surface. Rosario is quite distant from where the Rio Pilcomayo flows into the Paraguay and then joins the Paraná, but people in that city know it takes 25 days for upriver floods to bring the river up along their own shores. The flooding becomes more frequent as land upstream is deforested, mined and paved for roads and cities. Do the people know this too? And I wonder whether the people in St. Louis, near where I live by the Mississippi, know how many days it takes for upstream floodwaters to reach their banks. Those intervals between floods here and floods there might open a window in the skew of time between this place and that, north and south, that illuminates the interdependencies of our fortunes. This meeting is then a question of how to interrogate our temporal and causal connections to locate the time of a river. And to learn how the patterns that emerge from a river and its basin might address the daunting problem of how restorative ecological engagement is so outscaled by global financial ambitions. As Graciela Carnevale points out, there is no more need for growth. How then can humans move toward reinhabiting the basins and rivers as partners, rather than as exploiters?

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Years of Struggle with a Side Effect: Critical Art



This text was originally commissioned for inclusion in a volume of the Chicago Social Practice History series. Judged to be inadequately convincing in its thesis by series editors, it was axed. Being more of an exercise in genre evasion than in genre definition, the text is certainly fuzzy in applied terminologies.  But the action that took place during the period covered was never about defining a kind of art, at least not from the ground level. It was about struggling to make the city livable. That is what forced so many art workers in Chicago to think outside of conventional forms, and, ironically, what brought consequent outside attention to the many forms of politically engaged work happening in the city. Consider this a contribution to the social history of “social practice” in Chicago rather than to an art history.

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