Nato Thompson in Conversation with the BDC (2009)

Nato Thompson:
Lets begin by discussing the origin of your collective. I believe you came together via an exhibition curated by Cira Pascual Marquina at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. This strikes me as an unique situation, but then again, the exhibition was strikingly different in that her stated goals were the production of a more politically radical community. Maybe you could fill this out and walk us through how your group came into existence?

Scott Berzofsky:
In 2005, Cira and her partner Chris Gilbert were both working as curators in Baltimore (Cira was at the Contemporary and Chris was at the Baltimore Museum of Art). Some of us had recently graduated from MICA and got involved with Chris through this “study group” that he organized as part of a cycle of exhibitions at the BMA called Cram Sessions. Around the same time, Nicholas Petr, Nicholas Wisniewski and I were working on some research-based projects about urbanism in Baltimore, and helped coordinate a People’s History Bus Tour for this symposium that Cira and TJ Demos co-organized in preparation for an exhibition called Headquarters that would take place at the Contemporary in the summer of 2006. (TJ left Baltimore for a new job in London and was unable to continue working as a co-curator of the exhibition). From my perspective, the collective campbaltimore emerged out of Chris’s study group, which he referred to as “the cadres.” This group originally included Ashley Hufnagel, Janine Slaker, Chris Gladora, Chuck Miller, Jeremy Roundtree, Nicholas Petr, Nicholas Wisniewski and myself. After Cram Sessions ended—with an exhibition on artist-run educational institutions called Counter-Campus that had a big influence on the practice of campbaltimore and included contributions by 16 Beaver, The Copenhagen Free University and Nils Norman and Stefan Dillemuth—Chris left Baltimore for a job in Berkley, and Cira invited us to collaborate on two projects at the Contemporary.

To put our collaboration with Cira into context, I should explain that she had been working as an assistant curator at the Contemporary in 2005 when the director unexpectedly resigned, making her acting director. This created an unusual situation in which Cira—who identified as an activist and organizer—had a rare degree of autonomy to operate within the art institution. We were given full access to the offices and resources, we had keys to the building, Cira would give us the museum credit card to buy materials, etc. When she took over, funding had already been secured for an exhibition in the fall that was to be called Person of the Crowd, which would have looked at contemporary art in relation to the figure of the flanuer. Anyway, Cira was unhappy with the planned exhibition, so she cancelled it and cleverly changed the name to Crowd of the Person, allowing her to keep the funding (the board probably never knew the difference) and organize an exhibition about collective political agency. She invited campbaltimore to collaborate with Lasse Lau on the central project within that exhibition, called (Re)living Democracy, which looked at urban redevelopment from a critical perspective, specifically the situation in east Baltimore where Johns Hopkins and the City were using eminent domain to take over 80 acres of land for a biotech park and displacing over 300 African American families who had lived in the neighborhood for generations. We collaborated closely with the Save Middle-East Action Committee (SMEAC), the neighborhood organization that had been resisting displacement to produce an exhibition that consisted of video interviews with residents, documentary photography of the neighborhood, a library of articles on urban renewal, a large wall drawing that mapped conflicts of interest between public officials and private developers, and the outside windows of the museum were boarded-up and wheat-pasted with anti-gentrification posters (one key reference for the project was Martha Rosler's If You Lived Here exhibition at Dia in 1989). We also organized a series of public programs, including a bus tour with long-time east Baltimore activist Glenn Ross and a discussion between David Harvey and Marisela Gomez, the director of SMEAC.

(Re)living Democracy really functioned as part one of Headquarters, allowing us to do lots of research about the city and begin to build relationships with local activists and organizers. I won't go into much detail about Headquarters because we've talked about it elsewhere (, but I will say that it got us out of the museum and into working in public space. This was in part due to our own sense of the limitations of the gallery space, and in part due to the influence of our collaborators Emily Forman and Taller de Costura de Codigo Abierto (Open Source Sewing Workshop), these amazing artist-activist-squatters from Barcelona, who did a residency in Baltimore during the summer of 2006. We all lived together in this warehouse space we had downtown and our project for Headquarters was informed by their practices, which were very interventionist, doing sewing and cooking workshops in public space. During the exhibition Cira also made her intern, David Sloan (who was still an undergraduate at the time) a co-curator, and he contributed a lot and became part of campbaltimore.

So I think that's enough name-dropping and self-historicizing, but most of this history has not been recorded and I don't want to leave anyone out. To conclude, after Headquarters we began having a lot of internal debates and arguments about art and activism and whether or not the group should engage with art/academic contexts (and while I greatly respect Chris and Cira and all the decisions they made, I have to point out that this was right after they left for Venezuela, and I think some of their more militant rhetoric—just go back and read Chris's letter of resignation—had a strong influence). Some in the group took an extreme position of refusal to participate in anything art related—which they perceived to be politically corrupt—and that led to the break-up of campbaltimore. Chris Galdora, Chuck and David went on to grad school, Nicholas Petr started working full-time on the Indypendent Reader (a free quarterly newspaper that campbaltimore started with Baltimore Indymedia), Ashley became a full-time organizer with the United Workers and Nicholas Wisniewski and I began collaborating with Dane Nester on Participation Park, and now the three of us are working together as The Baltimore Development Cooperative (BDC).

Nicholas Wisniewski:
So here's a different perspective—although all these experiences Scott describes above are common to our collective genealogy—the BDC has a slightly different trajectory, having nothing to do with campbaltimore or Chris and Cira. Scott, Dane and myself originally met at the Maryland Institute College of Art in the Fall of 2000, where we were randomly selected to share dorm rooms. By chance, our collectivism started there—living together. Now a ten year old transformative process of relationship building, sharing, fighting, friendship and individual experiences have coalesced into the BDC. After graduation Dane left for graduate school and Scott and I continued working together along the lines above. A new dialogue re-emerged around the end of Dane’s program with the prospects of him moving back to Baltimore to collaborate on a site-specific sustainable living project based on shared interests in occupying land, plants and creating a space for experimentation.

As for campbaltimore, although Chris and Cira raised the critical consciousness of our practice in Baltimore, many of us were already working together on different urban projects soon after graduation. In response to loosing the comforts and discourse of the institutional community we had in school we decided to create our own. But ultimately it had to come to an end because of irreconcilable differences, problems with horizontal organization, idealism, informal power structures, impatience and image management conflicts.

When you say more militant rhetoric it makes me wonder what exactly it was in retrospect that was too militant? Because to some degree I share that pessimism about the potential of an art institution to achieve social change. Even though some took an essentialist position on the matter ... I admire Chris and Cira for making a path by walking it rather than employing empty rhetoric. Although I'm not so sure it was the most strategic move for achieving radical change in the US or at building stronger solidarity and progressive political agendas among grassroots movements. Even if the only successful reform to come out of cultural institutions is producing “islands of sanity”, at least it would be a beginning. Occupying your local art institution can provide a space to build a new social practice. But Chris and Cria as well as some in campbaltimore became overwhelmingly pessimistic about the value of the art institution.

NT: In retrospect, how did that form of exhibition making change the culture of Baltimore? From a distance, it seems like Cira's show had some profound effects in influencing the type of work being made.

Cira used the exhibition as a platform to bring visibility to different struggles in the city and initiate collaborations between artists, activists and community organizations. It definitely built relationships that did not exist before, and I think these relationships changed the way that everyone approached their work. For example, during Headquarters we organized a march with the United Workers, who were in the middle of a campaign to earn a living wage for the day-laborers who clean the baseball stadium at Camden Yards (which they later won). The march was a big success, we ended up taking over a sidewalk and part of the street downtown with this trailer we had built and served lunch to everyone. At one point the police showed up because of a complaint, but there was such a festive atmosphere to the whole event that they allowed it to continue, which was really unusual. The United Workers understood the importance that cultural production has within a social movement and they were able to take advantage of the exhibition to mobilize parts of Baltimore's artistic, student, anarchist and DIY communities to get engaged in their campaign. Many of those people continue to be allies of the group, and the United Workers have gone on to organize some of the most creative and spectacular public actions the city has seen in a while.

Yes, strengthening the relationships between artist and activist groups would be one result of producing back-to-back exhibitions with the focus of direct collaboration, solidarity and alignment with social justice struggles in the city. The exhibitions and programing Chris and Cira organized helped open up possibilities and changed the perception of the museum as a place that only reflects bourgeois values to one that could be a site of political education and organizing. Now it's the self-organized institutions like Red Emma's or 2640 that facilitate this kind of dialogue between culture and politics in Baltimore.

Lets talk specifically about Participation Park which is, in many ways, a squatted community garden in a low-income neighborhood of Baltimore. How long have you been working on this garden and how has the community response been?

SB: This is our third year working on the project, which was started in the winter of 2007. We like to think of Participation Park as an ongoing public art project and activist initiative, based on converting a vacant lot in east Baltimore into a sustainable urban farm and social space. We are squatting the land and collaborating with neighborhood residents to grow food and organize social and educational activities. The park is located in a poor neighborhood that has been negatively affected by disinvestment over the last 40 years: at least half the houses are vacant and boarded-up, there are large empty lots on every block and no grocery stores. So we are trying to work with these conditions and build resources from the bottom-up by utilizing the land to produce healthy food and initiating a participatory process of planning in which everyone who works on the space is involved in the decision-making process that shapes it. There are lots of young people in the neighborhood who come out and help maintain a large communal garden with no fence, we cook food and make salads together with vegetables we've grown. Several adults also have individual plots, and this year we've starting a worker-run cooperative that is growing food to sell to local restaurants, at the farmer's market and to a small community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

The community response has been very supportive. At first we encountered some indifference and skepticism, because people are used to hearing idealistic proposals that are never realized. It's been a slow process of building trust and demonstrating a commitment to the space, since we're a group of white artists who don't live in the neighborhood. The danger of a project like this is that it will function as a beautification initiative that contributes to gentrification, so we have to actively resist that scenario by encouraging residents to take ownership of the space. As people grow food there, share meals or just stop by for an informal conversation, the park becomes part of the fabric of everyday life in the neighborhood.

NW: Somehow the simple categorization “community garden” is in many ways antithetical to the experiment Participation Park, which has intentionally retained a degree of ambiguity for itself in the hope of reconfiguring new forms of built and social relations. The space has no signage indicating it's use. The effectiveness of this open-ended strategy is debatable, but we've tried to leave some room for the definition of the space to be generated by the people using it. The park's location makes the issue of community and participation challenging. I'm reluctant to speculate on the cohesive response of "the community”. What is community, who’s inside and outside of that community and who has the right to do what where? Does community start and stop at the border of a neighborhood, is it constituted by a shared cultural background, physical appearances, class, identity and if so does that effect the possibilities for social justice and solidarity? Rather than assuming that a coherent community already exists in the neighborhood and that we're are outside of it because we don't live there, we are trying to build a new community around this shared space. With Participation Park our intentions were to simultaneously do what we wanted by opening up a space for others to do what they wanted. Inevitably this raises conflicts over what kind of space we are producing. For us growing food was a way to initiate a dialogue about these broader questions of democracy, public space and self-organization.

How do you differentiate this project from a community garden? Are there substantive differences?

Urban agriculture has become a big part of the project, but from the beginning our main interest has been in land reclaimation and bottom-up planning. Gardening is the currently the main activity at the park, so many of the conversations that take place there are about food production, local food systems, nutrition etc. But by calling it a park, we're trying to think of the space in a more expanded way, as an experimental social space where gardening is one activity, but where you can also just hang-out and drink a beer, have a conversation, have a neighborhood assembly, cook a collective meal, play a game. The dominant spaces in the city are based on the idea of defensible space, they are spaces of discipline and control. We want Participation Park to be a heterotopia, a space of difference and transgression, a space where unexpected encounters and new political subjectivities are possible. We also want the space to embody a kind of prefigurative politics, to materialize the principles of ecological sustainability, radical democracy and alternative economics that we're always talking about.

The longer we're there, the more land security becomes an issue of debate for everyone involved. The initial challenge was to see if we could illegally occupy this land and build the infrastructure necessary to grow food while generating participation among residents. Now that we've done that it becomes a question of long-term strategy and sustainability. Some people have criticized the act of squatting as a self-righteous form of rebellion that is more concerned with creating conflict than with benefiting the neighborhood. They argue that the responsible thing to do is establish a community land trust to protect the space, and we may eventually do that. But right now this debate is the very point: public space, like democracy, is defined by conflict. As Chantal Mouffe has written, the meaning of public space is never fixed but is the subject of a constant negotiation between those who inhabit it. So I think the open-ended nature of the project is what would distinguish it from a conventional community garden. It's about asking questions and initiating a collaborative process of producing a space without knowing what the outcome will be. Sometimes the process can be a bit messy and antagonistic, but that's the compromise we make for trying to do something that doesn't just reproduce a pre-existing model.

NW: If you were to look at images of the project one would undoubtably see an urban farm/community garden. But I guess it depends on how one understands a “community garden?" A shared meeting place for people to produce relationships, environmental awareness and food? Currently it is dominated visually by a garden but could just as easily become a public housing site, a material resource center for residents to use to fix up the housing stock in the neighborhood, a health clinic, free school, adventure playground, etc. David harvey distinguishes two forms of utopianism: utopianism of spatial form and utopianism of social process. Each is limited: the first for its closed authoritarianism, the later for its endlessly open experimentation. He writes that, “we must face up to the fact that closure (to materialize something) always contains its own authority because to realize any one design, no matter how playfully constructed, is to foreclose the possibility of materializing others. The challenge is to work out a language for dialectical utopianism that is materially grounded in social and ecological conditions but which nevertheless emphasizes possibilities and alternatives for human action through the will to create.”

I want to focus on the idea of the “right to the city”. Besides being a broadbased political organization, it is also a framework espoused by urban geographers like David Harvey borrowing in large part by theorists like Henri Lefebvre. I know that most of you came to hear David Harvey speak on the right to the city and are also assisting in organizing a conference in March 2009, titled, "The City from Below." Tell me about what you find advantageous politically in thinking about public space, art and social justice via the lens of the right to the city.

I think the right to the city will be a very important concept for social movements in the 21st century. As Harvey often says, quoting Lefebvre, “the revolution will be urban or nothing at all.” As the world’s population explodes over the next several decades (it is projected to peak at around 9 billion in 2050—the current population is 6.6 billion) this statement will become more urgent than ever. The majority of all future population growth will take place in cities, and cities will be the spaces in which the struggles for social, economic and ecological justice that could determine the future of life on this planet will occur. So it’s no surprise that there’s so much artistic, academic and activist discourse at the moment around urbanism, planning, the right to the city, etc.

The right to the city is also an important political concept because unlike human rights—which are often understood as individual—the right to the city is necessarily collective. For me, it is ultimately about a kind of radical democracy, about a form of democratic spatial practice in which people have the right to engage in an ongoing process of remaking the city in response the their own needs and desires.

In the US, the right to the city has emerged in recent years as a concept that lots of groups and individuals working on a range of issues can identify with. It has the potential to tangibly connect diverse struggles for affordable housing, environmental justice, prison abolition, living wages, food security, decent public education and fair development. And then of course there is The Right to the City Alliance, which is a national alliance of some of the most active organizations working on many of the issues I just mentioned.

NT: In your own practice, as urban artists and collaborators, do you find that you are part of a larger network of art and activist communities? I am equally excited about the increasing focus on the city as a framework for social justice. It seems reasonable that such a focus provides access for projects that are both local and global. There can be specific battles (this house on this corner), but equally, the terms of the struggle can be posited in a global context. Are you connecting with groups internationally? How does that transform what you do?

SB: International networks of practitioners, activists and academics do exist and are able to share knowledge and strategies with increasing speed thanks to the internet. One thing that neoliberal globalization has given us are the same conditions of uneven development, gentrification, privatization and displacement operating—at different scales and degrees of violence—everywhere. So an anti-eviction campaign in South Africa can inform the work of housing activists in east Baltimore. When we sent out the call for proposals for "The City from Below," the conference we co-organized in March with Red Emma's (a worker-owned radical bookstore and coffeehouse) and The Indypendent Reader, we were astounded by the number of responses that were sent in from all over the world. The notion of the city from below—the notion that the city's inhabitants should directly control the way the urban environment works and how it grows—really resonated with people. I think people we also excited to participate in a conference that was being organized independently by activists without any institutional sponsorship. The attendance at "The City from Below" definitely reflects a growing network of art and activist communities focusing on social justice in the city, people came from New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, LA, Miami, Toronto, Boston. The event provided a space for people working on urban planning and geography from a more theoretical perspective to engage with activists and artists who are putting those ideas into practice on the ground. The organizers also worked very hard on documentation, and most of the weekend's sessions are recorded and available at:

Would you consider this framework to be growing as a model for organizing? What were some of the lessons you took away from the conference?

At "The City from Below" there was definetly a sense of growing interest in the right to the city as a framework for organizing. The focus on the city as the place where all of our different struggles can come together to form a larger movement allows us to make connections between urban social justice issues that are too often viewed in isolation from one another. There was a lot of discussion about the use of occupation as a tactic with particular value in this moment of economic crisis, as foreclosures and bankrupsies create a surplus of empty housing at the same time as homeless populations increase. Max Rameau from Take Back the Land in Miami was there and he shared stories about their work moving families who have lost their homes due to foreclosure back into vacant homes. Picture the Homeless, a member of The Right to the City Alliance in New York was also there, talking about the recent building occupation they had attempted. The most urgent questions seemed to be about appropriate responses to the current economic crisis: how can communities stop foreclosures through direct action? How can foreclosed or abandoned properties be reappropriated to provide housing for those who need it?