The following is an essay I wrote recently about what I think are compelling interventions — I had a 1500 world limit, so it by no means exhausts my thinking on the subject. I’m posting it because of its relevance to the freehoodship mission:
Compelling interventions today create cavities in the teeth of the wind. Let me explain this elusive definition with an example. Some years ago, I founded Waste And Vice Elimination Squad (WAVES), a rapid-response garbage mitigation collective or community service club for high school students. It’s more or less rubbish collection as interventionist art. We dress in jumpsuits with our logo (a crushed aluminum can with a golden halo) on the front and motto (“Live on the face of the earth, not in earth’s face”) on the back and pick up garbage at schools and parks, by the American River, and every so often, at outdoor Malls or in front of Big Box stores. I chose jumpsuits for our uniforms because I know that when people see groups of teenagers in jumpsuits picking up garbage, many can’t help but think of juvenile offenders fulfilling court-mandated community service – it’s one of our habits of mind. In the above elusive definition of an intervention, these habits of mind correspond to the “cavities in the teeth.” When, however, people discover, in various ways, that these teenagers are picking up garbage not as punishment but because they want to, the habit of mind or in this case, stereotype, is challenged; often I’ve felt in those who inquire into who we are and what we are doing a little reversal of attitude – the cavities are no longer “in the teeth” (bad), but “in the teeth of the wind” (good). Such an intervention is intended to open a space (cavity) in our habitual streams of consciousness (wind) for new eddies of reality to be cognized.
This space or cavity is not created through coercive, in-your-face – to echo the WAVES motto – intervention, but through a subtle invitation to reinterpret an event based on its inner reality (the reasons the adolescents are there). These subtle invitations or cues to go deeper are partly the jumpsuits with a logo and motto, which of course are not standard juvenile justice issue, but mostly the attitude of the adolescents – they’re having fun; they’ve chosen to be there. The central goal of the WAVES intervention, besides cleaning up the environment, is to promote, in those witnessing the event and therefore a part of it, an intensity of consciousness that values, and even insists on, more than face-value. In my years as a teacher, coach, interventionist artist, and alternate reality game designer, it is clear to me that in order to promote, encourage, and cultivate such intensity, one must promote, encourage, and cultivate it in oneself. The social innovation leader Bill O’Brien is no fool when he says that “the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” A relatively simple and conventional intervention, such as teenagers in jumpsuits picking up garbage in public spaces, becomes more “successful” when the interior condition is leveraged. Entering the space of the intervention to produce merely an interesting spectacle is different from entering it with the intent of creating an opportunity for people to interrupt their habits of mind. And experimentation with the interior condition during interventions is infinitely fruitful. Recently, in thinking about why certain people happen to be there for my interventions or really anyone’s interventions, I’ve been substituting the concept of “chance” with a concept more along the lines of “destiny,” “opportunity,” or “serendipity.” I’ve discovered that “chance” becomes a feeble explanation when one looks in retrospect at the series of events that can often unfold after an intervention. How feeble the concept “chance” becomes I may perhaps even begin to us as a rubric for determining an intervention’s success. Anyway, even when I’m feeling particularly skeptical, I like to play with the idea that everyone at an intervention, including the unplanned participants, have been for weeks or months angling toward it and are even ripe for it.
Though I have been distinguishing between the exterior and interior aspects of an intervention, my goal all along has been to get beyond an exclusively dualistic worldview. If we look once again at my definition of a compelling intervention, we see that the word “teeth” works, both in the definition and in the English language in general, on a literal and figurative level. Likewise, the interior and exterior aspects of an intervention are two expressions of one phenomenon, distinguishable, but inseparable. There is an extraordinary passage from Helen Keller’s autobiography that illustrates my point. In the passage, Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, has come up with an idea (an idea for what I would call an intervention) to help Keller discover the word for “water.” Sullivan proceeds to guide one of Keller’s hands under a stream of running water while in the palm of Keller’s other hand she over and over again spells W-A-T-E-R with her finger. If one were to predict what happens next, I imagine one would say that Keller eventually connects her concept of water based on the experience of water running over her hand with the word “water” spelled into her palm – a nominalistic sort of explanation. But Keller describes what happens very differently. In her experience, the thing (water), concept, and word do not arise separately, but instead appear simultaneously as an indivisible gestalt. She perceives no concept, without word and thing, no thing without concept and word, no word without concept and thing. The appearance, for her, of water is disclosive. a sort of revelation. Keller experiences not just what appears but the coming to appearance of what appears. It is only afterwards that we can divide such experiences into separate concepts such as inner and outer. It’s obvious from reading Keller’s autobiography that Sullivan’s pedagogical interventionist art enriches Keller’s reality.
When I as an interventionist artist began to realize more concretely the non-dualistic nature of reality and experience, that specious divide between inner and outer, I began to design some interventions that were for the most part invisible and rooted more in the interior pole, though still with a goal of interrupting habits of mind and reversing attitudes. One such intervention involved taking on the dehumanizing culture of the suburban Mall. As many have experienced either subliminally or more obviously, entering a Mall is like entering the language of advertisers where we are either “targets” or “waste” and where we too often turn others into “targets” or “waste.” Here we feel reduced, parsed, and objectified. Here I realized the mission of the intervener was to personify these targets and waste back into persons, and then these persons back into individuals, and then these individuals back into Sarah and Jack, so to speak, thus returning them to subjectivity. In this intervention, I and a group of friends and fellow interveners went to a local Mall where each of us chose a stranger who we felt we too-readily judged based on “target and waste” criteria, and then proceeded to imagine a rich story for this individual, going into as much detail as we could in the time allotted. We thought of their issues, their beliefs, their thought processes, their reversals of fortune, as well as some lessons they had learned. Our intention here was to transform our superficial judgments and antipathies by creating detailed stories for the people we had chosen. That the stories were pure fictions did not matter – their function was to generate real warmth and interest in another human being, one we didn’t know. And anyway, only the details were fictional because we all have our issues, beliefs, thought processes, reversals of fortune, and lessons learned.
What’s not, however, a fiction is that the trajectory of human consciousness at least as far back as the Scientific Revolution has been more towards objectification and control than towards warmth and interest, more towards separation than integration, more towards competition than collaboration. Our habits of mind have been deeply informed by this trajectory. For me, the compelling interventions today must be designed to address this reality as fully as possible. Better yet, they must be designed to query, tickle, hug, and expand and deepen it. They must write W-A-T-E-R in its palm. To do all these things, the interventionist artist must cultivate a radical love (of the non-sentimental sort) for people and the world, and see every intervention as an opportunity to unlock an infinite potential, what Gilles Deleuze calls the “virtual.” Also, a sincere I-don’t-take-myself-so-seriously willingness to risk awkwardness and silliness as I have tried to do by leading off this essay intervention with my elusive definition will assist this love in creating the necessary “cavities in the teeth of the wind.”