Metaphors are so tricky; I use one, it seems to perfectly encapsulate my meaning, but then I do a bit of digging only to find that my metaphor is rooted in the language of capital or war. ‘Outpost’ is exactly what I mean: I think of centers, of cores, and then, connected by an artery of some sort, a smaller node. That site is, in my mind, a nimble outpost – a part apart yet self-sufficient, rich in its own objectives and ways, marked by its own climate and topography. When I think of my work as an artist and as a teacher, I think of myself working in an outpost. This is strange because South Florida is, in several ways, not an outpost at all. It is the American center of the Caribbean and the major American terminal to South America. It is the corridor between New York and Kingston, Port-au-Prince, and Havana, or, further south, between DC and Lima, Buenos Aires, and Managua. Even so, there’s a stability to places like Los Angeles, Toronto, and the Twin Cities that is not characteristic of South Florida at all. Even the people who’ve been in the area for three of four generations understand the region and themselves in terms of mobility and change. Hurricanes can change and move everything and everyone. Boom and bust cycles, too. Like the sandy soil that plays host to our crabgrass lawns, South Florida roots and shakes people loose with ease.
My work and other people who do similar work seem to thrive in more stable urban centers. And I hear it all the time. Conceptual art and experimental classrooms belong in New York or Los Angeles or at some small liberal arts college somewhere or in some program in some other global metropolis. I think I’m stubborn. It’s not a word I would use to describe myself in any area other than my work in art and education. I firmly believe in the nature of both projects: conceptual art belongs to diverse communities of people; literature and the humanities rigorously pursued can form the foundation and shape of healthy, enjoyable lives. And, to my bones, I believe that neither urban centers nor elite institutional spaces should have a lock on people in communities who encounter, engage, exchange, and exist with the arts and humanities. The abstraction, the critique, the whimsy inherent in my artwork, the frameworks of understanding and the questions we ask of the texts we explore in my classrooms are all rooted in ideas of community. And it pisses me off to think that the only communities that are expected to be fully invested in this type of work are capitals of either nations or industry. Bleh.
So, I work in what feels like an artistic and intellectual outpost – not because there’s no art or scholarship in South Florida; rather, the specific ideas I engage are not as yet linked to the area’s wider systems of art and education. The more I move away from object-oriented art, the more I challenge the purpose of public education, the less connection I feel to most of South Florida’s existing art and educational institutions. But like I said, I’m stubborn. And, while I imagine I could be quite fulfilled doing my work in places where those conversations already thrive, I resent the implication: that here isn’t as good as there, that there’s something wrong with us here.
In both art and education, I’ve seen people who are deeply engaged in questions of aesthetic and narrative leave our area for other, ‘more supportive’ places. Curators and artists, students and educators go away to directly engage the plurality of voices in our fields. I did it to work on my MFA. Interestingly, even though I had the option of going to New York for my degree, I chose the Twin Cities because I wanted to think about and make work without fighting against a clamor of names and trends even as I sought more voices than those that are prevalent in South Florida. But, although it is far smaller than New York, the Twin Cities are hardly outposts of the art world.
Few of us who leave come back. Those of us who return often find ourselves fighting feelings of frustration at the lack of infrastructure and interest to support our work. My network of similarly-focused groups and individuals starts in Minneapolis and extends east and west to DC, New York, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Only now do I have nascent connections in South Florida. For the last three years since my return, I’ve wrestled my desire to stay in South Florida against the siren call of more established hubs. I’ve actively pursued both angles, and my efforts here in South Florida have yielded very satisfying if moderate results. Another person in my situation would continue this work and, in a year or so, take their show on the road. But I have decided not to do that. I’ve decided to stay and make a case for my outpost.
Well, I for one wish that someone had written a manual on how to do experimental work in the arts and humanities outside of traditional urban centers. No one that I know of has done this, so I suppose I have to do it myself. I imagine that I am not the only one who is so deeply in love with some aspect of their home town (the beach and the atmosphere and the overlapping diversity) that they would rather live there than in some place that already has everything and everyone (I’m looking at you, Brooklyn). For good or for ill, cosmopolitanism is the heart of outpost thinking. In those major cities and cultural centers, multitudes of praxes collide with one another and shape and reshape thinkers and practitioners. And, for good or for ill, this is where the military roots and capitalist applications of the outpost metaphor are most accurate: major cities and cultural centers protect themselves by drawing in everything and everyone that might possibly feed their enterprises. To do this type of work in the away is to build capacity elsewhere, is to resist the thrust of contemporary society that takes us far from the people and places that we genuinely depend on over the course of our lives.
Look, jobs with lots of money are great. Engaging the cutting-edge of a chosen discipline is stimulating, satisfying. We can and do make families out of friends and colleagues. But life inevitably takes turns where siblings and parents and children require historic resources, lineages with roots. I’m more interested now in what the hero does when she returns.