Sharing Failure

This is a conversation between Maria Byck, Kerry Downey, & Sunita Prasad. The three of us met at Congress of Collectives – a Flux Factory organized gathering of people who work collaboratively.

Maria Byck is a former member of Occupy Museums, Some Feminists in Your Neighborhood, Paper Tiger and Red Channels.

Kerry Downey is a member of Action Club and former member of Flux Factory and is currently teaching a class with Douglas Paulson on collaboration and collectives for Teen Programs at MoMA.

Sunita Prasad is a former member of Some Feminists in Your Neighborhood and Red Channels.

Sunita Prasad: It seems like collectives are more interesting to people when they fail? [Laughter]

Kerry Downey: Failure is more interesting than success, too. Failure as a principle is pretty hip these days.

S: I guess that’s what it is – it’s really juicy, so people are like “Oooh! … Your collective dissolved?!”

Maria Byck: I know, collectives usually sound really boring, but when it goes into the soap opera mode…I have been talking to people in a bunch of different collectives, and we had this immediate bond because we were dealing with exactly the same things. I was involved with 3 different collectives at different stages of their experience. I believe that the conflicts they experience are not an individual thing. It’s systems within systems and power structures.

K: Maybe we could try to talk about what those overlapping experiences and systems feel like, what it means to be in a collective, and why it’s different than just like a regular social network.

S: I think politics, actually. I think the Congress of the Collectives really demonstrated that there are a lot of different types of organizations with different politics that use this term “collective”. But I think that all of them, even if they’re just cashing in on the cultural capital of it, are rooted in what was a politicized notion of how we should work together.  It seems like the caché of that word comes from a sense of like, “we should work together horizontally” even if we don’t actually work together horizontally. You know, there are businesses that call themselves collectives.

M: Right, well that’s what happens to a lot of radical ideas. Radical art. Radical music. You know, all of that stuff becomes subsumed by the larger capitalist system

S: On the one hand it’s co-optation, on the other hand it’s recognition, in a way.

Sunita Prasad. Tender Comrades, 2013. Still from 23 minute video.

K: I don’t know that there’s an easy way to separate them.

M: There’s a systemic motivation for that process happening. To depoliticize anything that’s created in opposition to the system. If it didn’t benefit the existing system, it wouldn’t happen that way. I don’t think that fluidity is random.

K: Yeah that makes sense. That there are structures in place in a capitalist world that will grab a hold of something and immediately bring it into the mainstream and that collectives will also bring something from the mainstream into their language, like Gran Fury is a perfect example of a fluid back-and-forth between radical culture and mainstream culture. My four years at Flux Factory were riddled with this contradiction of being an alternative to the art market by living together and making work collectively. But over time this took on some of the same dependencies as the larger art world like need for press, competition for resources, and individuals accruing creative and social capital.

M: For me it leaves me with the question of: is it possible to create an alternative system within the current system? Or, I guess, what would that process have to look like? And because so much of it is tied to economics…I think one thing about Red Channels that was decided early was that we wouldn’t deal with money. That money was something that we didn’t want to have be part of it. And actually, coming out of Paper Tiger, where that dependency on money – not dependency, but the fact that money had to be involved, I created a hierarchy – I was excited about not dealing with money.

S: I was excited about not dealing with money, too. But it became unavoidable at some point. People just started giving us money at some point [laughs] for shows and stuff. In small amounts, but still.

M: I think that the economic tension is a big part of it. The cultural capital coupled with economic tension. Like what you were talking about with Gran Fury, I think there’s a certain amount of that as well in collectives. Because, to be honest, one of the biggest or, kind of, most aggressive conflicts in Red Channels was around this perception that some of us were getting some kind of financial benefit.

S: Yes, there was some funding for a show. And there were suddenly these new stakes that just the idea of this small amount of funding immediately injected into the atmosphere of the collective. Questions of equity and who had a right to access these material resources began to bubble up and become volatile. It was different than anything we experienced before money was on the table. Not only did money become a problem, but also other systems of oppression present in the collective that went unchecked, particularly patriarchy, right? Replicating patriarchy within Red Channels, and a capitalist kind of patriarchy where the labor of women was being used, and the cultural capital produced by women was being used, by people who were not necessarily the producers of that cultural capital.

K: Right, the economics is not based only on money, it’s also about power and privilege.

S: Right.

K: This conflict arose at Flux all the time – where there were some people who were getting paid and some who weren’t, some people were accruing more cultural and creative capital than others, while others were just doing work to support their ideas or the collective at large. And then there was stuff like, women doing much of the office work, certain men in charge of maintenance, and a heterosexual marriage presiding over the collective. This was back in ’03.  It took time to have the perspective to realize that I was living in a supposedly self-aware collective where some inequalities were being replicated automatically. And in my opinion, a big one of these was patriarchy.

M: And in patriarchy, it’s not always men who are claiming authority. Paper Tiger is actually mostly women-dominated, yet I think the same power structures existed there. I think it more naturally gravitates toward men to step into those roles, but I think those roles will be filled whether or not there are men there to do it. And I think there are men who will never step into those roles, as well as there are women who will always step into those roles.

K: Yeah, I don’t think of patriarchy as being so gender specific. In dealing with it, it becomes a question of how you hold individuals accountable for stepping into those oppressive roles.

S: Right. But a funny thing about accountability, within Red Channels at least, is you don’t always recognize when it’s needed. One of the particularly cruel ironies that we experienced was that those structures were reproduced explicitly through the structure of “structurelessness” that was agreed upon to avoid that, if that makes any sense.

M: Yes, the thing that I found so fascinating is that we read together, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, Valerie Solanas, and so forth. We were in all of this feminist theory, and yet it was happening without our consciousness.

Maria Byck. Red Channels reading Up Your Ass, a play by Valerie Solanas that Andy Warhol “lost,” together at Flux Factory.

S: It’s so embarrassing!

M: I know!

K: How you can be doing that work, how you can be this radical alternative, and those oppressive structures return so unconsciously?

M: I think that it was because those structures are so embedded in our culture that we didn’t see them emerging. And I think we were also willing to let them emerge.

S: Yeah, they also feed you a little bit in the same way that capitalism feeds you, right? Like you really have to bite the hand that feeds you to get away from this stuff. Red Channels burned bright, it was a beautiful thing. For a while, right? And it was exciting to be together. And people kept asking us to be together more, to show up and do more events, and it seemed like it was really succeeding. I think that for me there was a willingness or a way of putting on some sort of rose-colored glasses about what was going on in the collective and not seeing it because I didn’t want to destroy that feeling of things going so well. You know?

M: Yeah…I guess maybe I was putting on rose-colored glasses, and I definitely feel like I put on some rose-colored glasses for my work with Occupy Museums, but I was very much challenged by the dynamics within it. Now I’m more aware. I feel like we were fooling ourselves about going to the Berlin Biennial and kind of allowing ourselves and Occupy to be co-opted. The curators talk a good talk, that is convincing and that you want to believe. I think we want to believe that there has actually been a shift in people’s consciousness about what they want to see. And it’s giving us a chance to interact with a lot of people.

K: And in a way by giving in to a certain amount cooptation, if you’re doing it with an incredible amount of consciousness, then you get to draw arrows to that, and you can see the extent to which you can create an open dialogue around it. Then is it better than not doing it at all, because there’s an important exposure and building experience in the work that you’ve been doing?

S: At this point, though, individuals within the collective are often too tempted by opportunism. Like you were saying about individuals within Flux Factory, Kerry, it often happens that certain people accrue more success or acclaim from greater exposure of the collective than others. Within Red Channels, this was one of the main conflicts that led to dissolution. Because we called an individual out for taking on so much of the collective’s identity, and then we experienced a lot of backlash for making that call. People would be like, “why are you talking about this all day, why are you creating problems in the collective, why are you bringing up this divisive feminism?” Which is very typical. Old, old.

K: I’ve also experienced this backlash.

M: Yes, they respond with “We don’t have time for this, we have so much to do.” The trivializing approach. When in fact, isn’t working on these interpersonal relationships to deconstruct patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity and all these other structures the main work that brought us together?

S: Yeah, that’s how we felt, so we held our ground, and said we are talking about patriarchy in this collective because this collective explicitly proffers itself as against patriarchy. It became a cycle of us holding ground, backlash, us holding ground, backlash, and then it just does not make sense to keep bouncing power back and forth instead of putting it in the middle and trying to deal with each other.

K: So in the end these conflicts could not get resolved. You brought them up, they created this sort of tailspin and then Red Channels dissolved?

S: Yes. Because we recognized that we couldn’t sustain this system in good faith. And it wasn’t just this one “charismatic leader” individual to blame, or to say that he was just an asshole. We were all complicit in it and no one was singularly the villain. It’s complicated. I learned so much and was so stimulated by some people who came to cause the most problems. So it is not like some monolithic, “this person is not cool” – that’s not the way it is.

K:  So, we create these collectives that are meant to be alternative structures to all kinds of things: capitalism, patriarchy, the art market, our families, and even religion. And then we recapitulate these structures of oppression. That is, it seems that they’re a part of us. So many kinds of alternatives need to happen, in terms of race, class, privilege.  Other alternatives in terms of the ways that we care for each other.

Kerry Downey + Action Club. In this Hello America. 2010. Video Stills. 8:23.

S: Unfortunately or fortunately for us, it comes out in these conflicts. In a way, we have to fail, and fail better. Dissolving is not necessarily the answer. Collectives have been successful in carrying on – I know that moments of toxicity at Flux were just plowed through – for better or worse. In a way that is a good thing. Because Flux is a good thing. And Flux has served a big community and continues to do so. Whereas for us, Red Channels, we tried something, we failed, we burnt it down, in hopes that when we try something else we’ll fail better next time. I feel that was more our ethos: try, fail, fail again and fail better. We said “this is messed up and this is full of patriarchy and hierarchy, this is totally not what we set out to do: burn it down and start anew.” So there are different ways of dealing with failure. But failure is necessary in a collective because of all these inherited histories and legacies.

K: I contended with these issues with Flux Factory in 2003-2008, and hopefully Flux Factory, as it continues today, is wiser because of the conflicts that we shared. It’s a place that is still a part of my extended community in New York City. Conflict brings growth and makes visible these formerly invisible structures. They need air.

S: To come to the surface and come out of internal spaces.

K: So you can look at them and pull them apart.

S: I think we did start to talk about these things earlier with Congress of Collectives. Things we thought that were good about a collective. That it gives you a space that is inspiring in a different way. And one of the things we also just said that goes right is failure.

M: And what it does is it moves it from failure from being a personal thing to a systemic thing, which we talked about earlier, and which I think is a really healthy thing, especially in our destructive culture of American individualism.

K: And the collective allows us to fail in a way where the stakes aren’t so high as the housing market.

S: We’re not losing our house.

K: It’s not that there aren’t stakes. The stakes are there. Red Channels is a perfect example of the stakes being pretty substantial. You pretty much had a break up. That shit deeply affects your life. It changes you. But it’s also relatively contained failure.

S: Or because it’s shared failure, it doesn’t necessarily crush you. If we can truly share the failure, then it doesn’t have to affect any one individual to an extreme degree.

M: And the benefits of our failure can be equally accessed.

K: I think that’s a really nice place to leave our conversation for now, to think about how collectives can work at this kind of sharing failure, of not placing blame.

S: And how do you keep that in focus when you’re going through the painful parts?

More Articles Like This One
  • Announcing our new
    Executive Director!
  • Spring Update!
  • Announcing our
    Executive Leadership Search