So, this is where we are.
Like everyone else on the left, I have been attempting to process the results of the November 8 election and adjust to the idea of the new America we will be living in. But my immediate thoughts in the shock of the post-election haze focused on the workshop I had been asked to do for Denver Public Schools’ Creative Careers Day that week. In this new world, what on earth was I going to tell these kids about pursuing a career in art and activism?
It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that this outcome only deepened my mission: The election proved the thesis of the Mayday Experiment like nothing else ever could. Clearly, after a vote that repudiated the status quo in the harshest way possible, following a year of everyone squabbling on the Internet with friend and foe alike, the notion that I should take my work and conversations to rural communities and look for points of agreement within them seems more important than ever. Meeting face to face may be the only way to cut through the static and make progress, even if it now feels somewhat more dangerous. Our country may be in uncharted territory, but it is clear that there has never been a more urgent need for the work I plan to do.
Facebook and Google give us ample tools to build a metaphorical border wall, to protect the fragile boundaries of our belief bubbles from opposing viewpoints and pesky differences. But if we’re going to affect change, we can’t ignore half of the country as we keep talking to ourselves in the echo chamber, preaching to the converted. Liberal elitism and condescension are literally killing us: Who will listen to you once you’ve proclaimed them “stupid”?
A central tenet of what I am doing with the Mayday Experiment is that you can only expect to be listened to when you listen. As painful as it is, we have to find things we can agree upon; at this point, it could be a matter of life and death. There are certain issues – racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia — on which we can never compromise. But perhaps if we can find other places of agreement, we can work on the bigger issues eventually. I have to believe this, or I will despair.
What gives me hope is that those points of agreement exist — when you are open to finding them. Everywhere from Amish communities in Ohio to ranches in Wyoming, throughout my life I have had conversations across the political spectrum, and always, always, found things we could agree upon. My brother and I are the perfect example of this: He may not believe in anthropogenic climate change, but he also doesn’t believe in dousing his garden with chemicals, and he innately gets the logic of using solar energy. If these conversations have taught me anything, it’s that we have far more in common than we think, but it's impossible to find these points of agreement while trapped on our political teams. We can’t let the stereotypes and bullies drive the conversation: If we want to avoid a full-scale civil war, we are going to have to start seeing each other through different lenses.
With each widening arc of the political pendulum, our country feels more divided. After past presidential elections, though I may have groused about the results, I begrudgingly accepted things and moved on. But what is different about this election — apart from the players involved — is that we are now at the precipice and going over the edge. We have long passed the tipping point on climate change, according to many scientists; four years from now, we may be past the point of no return, past the point of humans’ viability as a species on an ever-hostile planet — as the climate models prove, time after time, to be more optimistic than the speed at which our planet is changing. People like to talk of “saving the earth,” but in reality, all they are saving it from is US. The earth will go on. But if the United States backs out of the Paris Agreement and reverses direction on our climate effort — this country is already the worst polluter per capita in the world — there is no guarantee that we will be able to be its inhabitants much longer. Humans are resilient but fragile; a shift of more than two degrees and oceans rising seven to eight feet may be calamitous enough to drive us to extinction. It is only our own hubris that causes us to think we are exempt from the Sixth Great Mass Extinction.
“But, but, science will save us! Our ingenuity will save us!” These are the cries of the hopeful, but they belie an important point: In each case, it boils down to US. Whether with backyard inventors or kickstarter solutions, each of us has to find our way of creating change. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we cannot and should not wait for governments to save us. We just have to do the work, and do our best, because we are now on our own and in hostile territory: with a climate-science-denying EPA appointment and a President-elect who thinks the Chinese can melt glaciers with propaganda.
This is why the Mayday Experiment feels more important now than ever. It is only through grassroots efforts that we are going to be able to fight climate change. If nothing else, it is a good-faith promise to the rest of the world that we, the people, are trying, and it is good for our spirits to claim every morsel of power and self-determination we have.
On Thursday morning, after discovering that the safety chains had been stolen right off the tiny house’s trailer (morning in Trump’s America), I still hitched it up and drove carefully over to Santa Fe Drive, where I backed it into the corner of a parking lot and waited for students. Once they were gathered in the tiny house, representing a multiplicity of cultures and races and abilities, my first question was this: “Are you afraid because of the election?” They all solemnly nodded their heads. I acknowledged their fear and told them it was rational, and then said: “A career in art and activism is how you fight back. It’s how you turn that fear into action. It may not pay much, but it’s the most important job you could ever have.”
For two sessions, I told them about the project and fielded questions from a young Latina city planner, excitedly peppering me with queries about everything from gentrification to affordable housing, already skeptical of tiny homes in that capacity (I share her skepticism at times); a blond boy with a Swedish accent asking about architecture; a slight boy with leg braces excitedly talking about writing and dreaming of being an author; a girl in a hijab and a flowered backpack who loves design; a Korean boy whose passion for video-game art was infectious. This is the real America. Each of them breathed a little life, bit by bit, into my deflated soul, leaving me almost tearful with hope for the future by the time I towed the house back home.
A few nights later, I watched my friends Bree Davies (Westword contributor) and Ru Johnson
(professional badass) take the Oriental Theater stage with Masha (Maria Alyokhina) and Sasha (Alexandra Bogino) from Pussy Riot, an amazing feminist punk band jailed by Putin in Russia. Their art and activism had put them in the line of fire in ways that, in the film they showed us, looked way too similar to what we had seen with the attacks on the Occupy movement and the conflict at Standing Rock. I always knew that this path, of activism and art, could be dangerous, but reflecting on the brutality of the man our President-elect admires made things shockingly real and palpable, and had me thinking about how much worse things could get. Their stories of life in Russia sounded too much like a cautionary tale.
The timing couldn’t have been better, and the audience broke out in cathartic applause after Masha said, simply, "I'm sorry" in regard to our election. As they talked of their actions and the general atmosphere of art and activism, I felt that they had come to teach us what we would be facing in the all-too-near future: a regime with a vengeful leader and no checks or balances to hold him back. The crowd laughed in relief after a tension-filled week and rose for standing ovations more than once.
After W’s election, which many people naively thought was the worst it could get, I still remember feeling buoyed by Toni Morrison’s words to artists. “This is precisely the time that artists go to work,” she declared. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” Her words have always made sense to me, innately. To be an artist is to reflect your world, to ask the questions, to educate, to prod, to expose. Art has as many jobs as it does styles, varying according to one's need, but historically speaking, it is quite clear: Where there is political unrest or geopolitical change, there are artists, speaking up, throughout time.
The conceptual journey to the tiny house began with the desire to change my work from making pretty things with which the wealthy could decorate their homes to something that more reflects the urgency of my concerns. Although my work always had muted, obfuscated political and feminist content, for several years I grappled with what I had done and what I would do — and it now culminates in this moment. In the end: All art is political. Choosing NOT to engage the issues of your time is still a political choice, and one that I cannot, in good conscience, make.
After 9/11, I remember feeling that the work I was doing was out of step with the time, and it kicked off an aesthetic crisis that eventually became life-changing. I was making pornographic stuffed animals back then — not work the world needed in that moment, and work I instantly no longer felt compelled to make. The difference between now and then is affirming: I was already on this path; now I know for sure that it is the right one.