It is 3:41 PM Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday, February 1. I would like to borrow Pamela Lu’s strategic approach to a piece written for the Poetic Labor Project in 2010. (Read the transcript here.) Lu used an hour on her lunch break to write about the labor and work of writing. I am going to take the next hour to write my initial thoughts concerning my relationship to “queer economy” and how I’m surviving as an artist.When I think about the phrase “queer economy,” I think about it in terms of an anti- capitalist economy and how communities of trans, gender non-conforming, intersex and queer people of color are paying their rent and able to make their artistic and/or community organizing projects a reality.
I have learned to cook millet and soak beans from living in large collective houses full of queer artists. I eat $2.50 banh mi. I applied for food stamps. I buy food at Grocery Outlet. Sometimes I don’t have an appetite.
I know a lot of queer folks who have fundraised for top surgery and medical bills and have set up support networks for medical care. Our community mobilizes to support them. I have spent time with friends in recovery. I have helped people work on their résumés and job applications.
I put calls out to my community and my networks for assistance in my job search and folks responded with leads and ideas. I offered my services as a writing tutor and a graphic designer, I’ve watched my friends children and in return they gave me money, which paid my rent.
For me this conversation is about what it means to be working class, as well as what it means to be broke with an MFA degree.
So much of art-making is unpaid. Folks rehearse for weeks and months for nothing. This blog I’m writing right now, for instance, is an hour of unpaid time. Writing that desires to make connections, to make an impact, to highlight the intersections of memory, history and practice–takes an enormous amount of time and labor.
When I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend an artists’ residence program, I spent a blissful month in the mountains, food and rent paid for, with time and space to work on a new writing project. I spent time applying for more residencies, for grants that would help me expand my short film project.
I spend my time preparing submissions to publications and film festivals. I spend my time coordinating events and readings and emailing, corresponding, emailing. Few of these gigs pay. None of my time doing publicity pays. Sometimes I sell my books at these events, but I was given 20 copies of my book for free and now I’ve sold them all, which paid my rent.
I’m throwing a rent party to help fundraise for two trips I’m taking to do events in other cities. I’m selling my books and DVDs of my short film to friends and professors. I’m giving a talk at a college with the hope of getting a nice fat honorarium.
Rich queers should write me checks. I’ve been unemployed since I was laid off at a nonprofit due to budget cuts. (I only worked there for one year.) I need healthcare. I need new contact lenses. I need my teeth cleaned. I took my money out of Wells Fargo because of service charges and went to a credit union. I just made my rent this month. Friends cook and share food with me and I do the dishes.
When I had a job I spent $100 on a 2-hour massage. Now my back hurts in about five different places. I can’t take dance classes anymore because I can’t afford them, nor can I afford train fare into SF that often. I fantasize about having a job so I can take my friends out to dinner and pay them back for when they treated me. I need access to trans health care. I want to get bodywork done regularly. I want to take dance class. I’ve never had a credit card. I would love to buy a really nice pair of shoes.
I recognize that the period I spent receiving unemployment insurance from the government gave me the time to make a bunch of work and perform, without which I wouldn’t be where I am today. But I need a non-art job, a corporate job, to give me the financial stability and health care I need to pay my rent, pay back my student loans from two private institutions and support my parents. Making time for my work, the work of making work, will survive late at night, in my dreams, on the train, on my lunch break. It has to.
It is 4:43 PM Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday, February 1. My hour is up.
It is 2:32 PM Pacific Standard Time on Thursday, February 2. Today, while preparing for a phone interview with a nonprofit, I realized that one hour is not enough. Failure–the fact that I didn’t have time in the paragraphs above to talk about the real questions of resource access and distribution, the fact that I failed and hate what I wrote because it goes nowhere–is not enough.
So I’d like to try again.
I will not speak to a shared Bay Area queer experience but to my own specific experience as a queer person of color in community with unemployed, self-employed, on-the-hustle queers. Many of these folks are people of color, and many of them are activists who would not primarily self-identify as artists, but whose work participates in transformative justice and is more politically engaged than most work that tends to get funded or staged or written about in dissertations.
I could spend my time now talking about the glamour of queers (some of them with graduate degrees) holding down service jobs, doing childcare, working as personal attendants and sex workers and gardeners and bike mechanics, who are perpetually broke but still seem to find joy. Or I could talk about our systems of trade and barter and mutual aid. I could talk about cleaning and mopping studios for rehearsal space. I could talk about our sleep deprivation and our insanely busy schedules. I could talk about the outstanding queers I know who are outstanding teachers, who are hot queer academics and scholars. I could talk about queers who start small businesses and community spaces and hold workshops for youth. I could talk about the things we’ve saved and trash-picked, the art we make out of recycled materials. I could talk about the time we spend dealing with systemic bullshit or mis-gendering or educating those in power when we should be doing our own work.
I don’t think that the question is about how we are creating our own DIY economies, because I believe that queers, living in the interstices, will continue to survive as long as we have love and a few good reasons.
The question is: When will our current economic structures, fed by US imperialism, collapse because they are no longer sustainable? When will basic resources and healthcare become completely unaffordable and no longer accessible and in service of the communities that need them?
We are making our own economies and saving our pennies in preparation for this eventual collapse. As these corrupt foundations give way, we hope to be able to resist up through the cracks.
It is 3:32 PM Pacific Standard Time on Thursday, February 2. One hour is not enough.
Jai Arun Ravine is the author of “แล้ว and then entwine” (Tinfish Press 2011) and a staff writer for Lantern Review.
PAST PRESENT | FUTURE IMPERATIVES: QUEER SPACE TIME: installation with Viet Le, Genevieve Erin O’Brien and Tina Takemoto
TOM / TRANS / THAI: a short experimental film on Thai and Thai American trans-masculinities
FAN CHRISTY (COVER) [KARAOKE MV]: an experimental karaoke music video and mistranslated cover song
แล้ว AND THEN ENTWINE: first full-length collection of experimental poetry and prose
Visit Jai Online here