On the road to Culture/Shift

November 16th. Nicholas and I were on a road-trip.

But it didn’t feel like November. A warm wind from the south. Nearly eighty degrees.

And it didn’t feel like we were on the precipice. No cliffs in sight. No curfew. No national guard on the streets. Just blue skies. Light traffic. And endless billboards along I-70 for Loose Slots, Ozarkland and Nostalgia Ville, USA.

Like the recent SNL sketch that encouraged aggrieved and disillusioned hipsters to escape the new reality by living inside a literal bubble hovering over Brooklyn, for a moment we could motor on under the delusion that Trump and his gang were just a bad dream.

It didn’t last long. Culture shifts.

In a field along the interstate near Kingdom City was a sight that brought the nightmare back to life.  A monster truck with knobby wheels the size of kiddie pools was installed on a ramp as if it were about to take off into the sky. Emblazoned with billowing U.S. flags like a tank in a military parade, it’s meaning was not made unclear. A banner above the truck cab screamed triumphantly TRUMP! The banner was a claim to territory both physical and psychic. And it felt like a threat.

As it was in 1893, when land grabbers staked claims to the home of the Cherokee in what we now call Oklahoma. As it is in working-class neighborhoods across the U.S., where greedy developers force out long-term residents to make space for the “creative class.” And as it is at Standing Rock where multi-national corporations gamble with the well being of an entire ecosystem, while trampling on the treaties and human rights of a sovereign nation.

A phone call from the Lawrence Director of Arts and Culture brought a moment of levity. It seemed that someone had made a politically charged alteration to a community mural I led in 2006. A protest sign held by a Civil Rights Marcher in the mural was repainted to say, “Stop Trump.” “Did I believe this was a criminal act,” they asked. No, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, I replied… No one claimed responsibility. Many commenters were outraged and called the change terrorism, while many others cheered.

All this made the purpose and destination of our road trip that much more meaningful. We were headed to St. Louis for the first national gathering of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, aptly titled Culture/Shift. It promised to be a memorable weekend, but the outcome of election made it feel like emergency preparedness training – good to know then that one of the Lawrence Field Office folks, Kate, is actually on our local Emergency Management team. In addition to Kate the blacksmith and Nicholas the filmmaker, the Lawrence/Kansas City contingent included Sara the scientific illustrator, Connie the adventure cartographer, Margarita the poet, Amber the painter/musician, and Nedra the story quilter. Thanks to support from the USDAC home office we were all able to afford the trip. 

Culture/Shift was held at the Regional Arts Commission (props to Cultural Agent Roseann Weiss and the incredible coordinating team there) which for a few days became a home to the most dynamic and inspiring group of artist/activist/policymakers I’ve ever had the privilege of hanging out with. And although the weather outside caught up with the season, inside the spirit was warm and full of radical hopefulness.

Setting the tone for the gathering, Chief Policy Wonk, Arlene Goldbard challenged us to stand up to equivocating media pundits and armchair apologists who have suggested that we “Give him a chance” or “Wait and see.”

“Don’t adapt to absurdity,” Arlene said quoting Van Jones. We didn’t need more proof of Trump’s xenophobia, racism, sexism or ignorance to verify the danger. It was time to imagine and then build the resistance.

More on Culture/Shift here