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01.03.2021

Towards Common Ground in An Occupied Nation

As an attempt to recalibrate our individual beliefs, with respect to identity, solidarity, and resistance, artist and curator Drew Kahuʻāina Broderick speak with artist Gaye Chan, a member of the collective EATING IN PUBLIC, on autonomous systems of exchange as part of their actions in Honolulu and Kāneʻohe, Oʻahu.

Drew K. Broderick and Gaye Chan (of EATING IN PUBLIC) write from Mānoa and Kāneʻohe, on the island of Oʻahu, in Ka Paeʻāina o Hawaiʻi, the archipelago of Hawaiʻi. Their current location, over three thousand kilometers from the nearest continental landmass is a sobering reminder of the vulnerabilities and connectivities that shape daily life at the center of Moananuiākea, the Pacific. The exchange that follows, which touches on their respective practices, departs from an interview conducted as part of the Hawaiʻi Contemporary Art Summit 2021, a multi-day event convened remotely, from February 10 to 13. The Summit is a precursor to the inaugural Hawaiʻi Triennial 2022, Pacific Century – E Hoʻomau no Moananuiākea curated by Drew and Miwako Tezuka (Consulting Curator of Reversible Destiny Foundation, New York City, U.S.) with curatorial direction from Melissa Chiu (Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., U.S.).

Drew K. Broderick (DKB): Given the ways in which many realities continue to be defined by a pandemic, economic collapse, and social unrest, it feels more important than ever to be in relation, to think, and act in public, especially within and across those spaces and places that can support the possibilities of change—big, small, and in-between. Over the past couple of years, in part because of the difficulties securing exhibition opportunities within institutions, I have felt compelled to work outside—on streets, in parks, at the ocean’s edge. More recently, my desire has been fueled by the numerous government regulations that dictate lived life in the islands—social distancing, self-isolation, and self-quarantine. Gaye, EATING IN PUBLIC has been working through these issues for nearly two decades now. Your folks’ collective actions have become a source of goods, services, and inspiration for many.

Gaye Chan (GC): This may sound strange but I think my practice has been preparing for this moment. Out of the frustrations that you outlined, Nandita Sharma and I founded EATING IN PUBLIC (EIP) in 2003, in Hawaiʻi. Following the path of pirates and nomads, hunters and gatherers, diggers and levelers, we gather at people’s homes, plant food gardens on private and public land, set up free stores and other autonomous systems of exchange. Sometimes by invitation, but more often without permission. Thus far we have initiated projects at over 1,000 sites of spontaneous and unauthorized sharing of goods and skills.

Our projects aim to demonstrate to participants and observers that a different world is possible. A different world from the one that capitalism and nation-states have indoctrinated us into. They have invented categories that divided us. They have violently dispossessed us from life’s resources. They denigrate our knowledge and skills in order to cheapen our labor and bodies. They have purposefully deskilled us to turn us into helpless consumers.
Nandita and I also believe that the hunger for the spectacular is an addiction symptomatic of insatiable consumption. Our projects, whether they are pop-up in residential and commercial zones, or spread out through social media platforms, instead activate the potential of the everyday.

We believe it is every day that can open us to radical potentials between strangers—toward alliances and freedoms.

DKB: I too turn away from spectacle whenever possible. Although, at times, my artistic actions, which are becoming increasingly dependent on public displays of resistance, may be seen as “visually striking” but only because they disrupt expectations. Whether it be climbing a larger-than-life, historically inaccurate, bronze statue of U.S. President William McKinley, digging by hand to reveal an abandoned drainage pipe buried beneath the sand in Waikīkī, or eating a SPAM® musubi on a parking lot island—PRIVATE PROPERTY KEEP OUT.

GC: It’s interesting to think about your actions along the spectrums of embodied protest actions, from Tania Bruguera’s >El peso de la culpa (1997), Teching Hsieh’s Time Clock Piece (One Year Performance 1980-1981), to Act Up and BLM. EIP’s methods differ in that we center system implementation rather than the body. We see our work as a continuation of the long line of resistance by dispossessed commoners (maka‘āinana, if you will) everywhere to reclaim the commons. We disrupt “business as usual” operations on both private and public (state) property, and remake them as places and practices based on the principle that everyone has the self-activated right to refuse their exclusion from the means of life. In this way, we foreground how we each engage, as opposed to how we have been categorized. Practice versus identity.

DKB: Yeah, I am still coming to terms with my body and the many ways in which it can engage with structures and systems in order to reclaim public and private space, if only momentarily. Reflecting on the distinction you’ve made between practice and identity really helps me better understand EIP’s practice as inherently political, in the sense that your folks’ work advances an action-based position not rooted in identity.
In the context of Hawaiʻi, an independent nation under U.S. military occupation for over a century, I feel it is crucial to address the legacies of settler colonialism and ongoing dispossession that structure life, in a more-than-human world, throughout the archipelago. My work, as an artist, curator, and educator, often centers on issues that disproportionately impact marginalized communities, especially Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander.

GC: Continued dispossession and exploitation of marginalized “communities” are the ongoing legacies of colonialism and capitalism. They have brutally impacted peoples who “moved,” as well as those who “stayed.” This is ever palpable here in Hawai‘i, as it is the world over.

In spite of being constantly gendered, racialized, etcetera, the only identities that Nandita and I claim are that of queer (not LGBTQIA), and as Diggers. The Diggers can be understood as maka‘āinana (commoners) in the place we now know as England. Arguably, they were among the first peoples dispossessed by colonialism in the 17th century. The Diggers fought the Great Enclosure by digging up the hedges and filling in the trenches that were used to enclose their commons, or planting food on land recently taken from them—in their case, parsnips, carrots, and beans. The liberatory politics of the Diggers was and will always be a politics of eating. Nandita and I became Diggers in 2003 when we planted papaya saplings and laid claim to the commons. Our work is a continuation of all previous struggles for the same. We use the same tactics. We make the same points.

DKB: Indeed, the power dynamics at play, on micro and macro scales, across Moananuiākea as elsewhere are complex and nuanced. The Native/non-Native binary persists, perhaps not surprisingly given the struggles for survival that many have endured. In this context, claiming citizenship, rights, and justice is also inextricably linked to acts of intergenerational community resistance, solidarity, and healing.

GC: I know that much of your work as an artist-cum-curator is in service of underrepresented “communities.” I have been working on weaning myself from using this word. Many people who become aware of EIP mistakenly believe we engage in “community projects,” or efforts in “building community.” However, we intentionally eschew symbolic representational strategies, and the notion of “community” is one among them. While “community” is often carted out to unite a select group through abstract ideas of nation, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, etcetera, it simultaneously works to divide us. By design, “communities” based on such ideas define themselves by their membership, and in turn, make those denied entry into their exclusive club into strangers deemed unworthy of empathy; strangers whom we are encouraged to hate and fear.
In the world today, borders have continued to harden. While borders are imaginary, thousands of migrants continue to die each year trying to cross them. More insidiously, nation-state border-making practices have somehow led a lot of us to believe that borders are supposed to protect us. They do not and are not intended to. Corporations and the rich are exempted. The Climate Crisis doesn’t care. Viruses don’t care.

DKB: Viruses and bacteria are a part of communities too. Can’t “we” express care for microbes even if, as you said, they don’t care? Since returning to Oʻahu in the Summer of 2019, I have made an effort to relearn the moʻolelo, stories, of the valleys, alleys, shorelines, and street corners that support my existence. And, also the Hawaiian names of the forms and flows—stones, insects, winds, birds, ridges, plants, rains, fish, streams, reefs—that they are characterized by. These particularities, as expressed through ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, Hawaiian language, offer texture and enrich relationships to place.

GC: I love your beautiful (literally) grounded approach to research. There is so much to learn about how things are named and categorized. EIP assumes we all start out as strangers to each other. Our work aims to make visible that it can be the stranger who provides us with what we need. By putting in place systems based on mutual cooperation instead of cut-throat competition, EIP’s projects help us realize a different sense of ourselves, one arising from direct experiences and practices. This helps clear the fog created by abstracted “identities,” which help to legitimize the violence required to maintain capitalist markets and state authority.

EIP’s edible weed projects [WE(ED)S, Weeds Up Front, and soon, Movable Feast], were inspired by our annoyance of the pernicious discourse of “invasive species” that has become popular in Hawai‘i as well as a growing number of places across the world. Although the stated purpose is to protect ecosystems, this discourse is applied willy-nilly to anything not categorized as “native.”

Many people, organizations, and states subscribe to ideas of territorial purity and engage in the actual and rhetorical expulsion of plants and animals (including humans) identified as “invaders” who “don’t belong.” Many do so in the name of “saving nature” or “saving the nation.”

Such approaches—and ideas—are at odds with life in the commons, and even more basically, at odds with continued life on our planet. Instead of defining some life forms as inherently valuable and others as inherently destructive, our edible weed projects work on transforming the perception of “weeds” from being seen as threatening and “unworthy” into a life-sustaining resource. As with our other projects, we intend for this transformation to spark a way of living with the other beings on our planet that brings forth a commons in which no one is disposable or excluded.

DKB: Human-driven biodiversity loss is deeply unsettling. But I’m intrigued by the idea of strangers in relation…Linked to one another through spaces of horizontal exchange. We’ve talked before about the ways in which EIP’s practice is dependent on the existence of strangers. Maybe you could comment on why the presence of strangers is vital to your collaborative work?

The idea of the stranger, as I think more and more about it, is the most important part of EIP’s work. The stranger is that who lies outside of what we imagine to be the rightful occupant of a particular space. For example, we see niu (coconut), ‘ulu (breadfruit), and kalo (taro) in Hawai‘i and we forget there are also unseen fruits; as well, we think universities are populated only by students and professors overlooking misunderstood aspects.

One of EIP’s earliest FREE STORES was at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Department of Art and Art History Building. The traffic at the store made visible the folks who come to campus to walk their dogs, jog and use the library. Staff members cleaning their offices, people who brought leftovers from their garage sales, dumpster divers, custodians who got the first dibs of evening drop-offs, and the houseless folks who come to the university at night to sleep. These are all the people that it takes for the FREE STORE to thrive, for societies to thrive.

I want to tell you a story. For a while, a frozen chicken would show up at the UH Mānoa FREE STORE. This unsurprisingly triggered urgent conversations…
“Oh my god, did you see that somebody left frozen chicken at the FREE STORE?!”
“What about botulism!? We should throw it away now!”
“No, it’s so wasteful!”
“What should we do? Are you going to eat it?”
The frozen chicken is one of the main reasons that we started the FREE FRIDGE, a companion to the FREE STORE, for perishables. One day I ran into Loy, one of the houseless persons who used the building walking toward FREE STORE, carrying frozen chicken. I said, “Loy, are you the one who has been leaving chicken at the FREE STORE?” Loy replied, “Yeah, the Foodbank gave me this. I don’t have a kitchen so I bring them to share.”

This demonstrates that FREE STORE is horizontal. It is not a charity, it is creating the world that I want to live in with you all. (By the way, once the FREE FRIDGE became a known entity, for a few weeks someone left homemade ice cream sandwiches nearly every night.) The FREE STORE and FREE FRIDGE show us that strangers are not people that we should be afraid of. They are the people who leave you good things, including frozen chicken and ice cream sandwiches.

DKB:As I imagine Loy, frozen chicken, Clostridium botulinum bacteria, and ice cream sandwiches, I find myself wondering about the kinds of relationships that the FREE STORE and FREE FRIDGE support and how these connections to materials, processes, strangers, neighborhoods, institutions, etcetera, in turn, inform EIP’s practice. Related to this, it also seems meaningful to acknowledge the ways in which functionality drives the aesthetic decisions that y’all are making as this is in and of itself political. What are the underlying politics of the aesthetic decisions that you folks are and/or are not making?

GC: EIP has multiple aesthetics deployed mainly through signage systems. We use impersonation to evoke different voices, making overlapping commentaries. We imitate the state to demand the commons. We decorate shabby chic to make outrageous suggestions, etcetera.

Indeed, it is instructional media that guides users in navigating the projects autonomously, providing basic information that explains what they are encountering. For example, helping to tell what is a FREE STORE item versus a FREE STORE shop fixture, or labeling edible weeds and how they can be prepared. That said, I prefer to explain as little as possible, thus constantly navigate between decipherability and ambiguity. In contrast to the forest of signs we encounter at schools, streets and offices, EIP works to engage an active being, to facilitate a space where they feel alive, where they have to make decisions about what they want, how to go about doing it, and about who they are within it. Our motto is,

TAKE = act without shame
LEAVE = share without condition
WHATEVAHS = trust without apology

DKB: But this anarchistic motto also presents a dilemma because you’re facilitating a space of autonomy, sort of come and go as you wish, take and leave what you want but then there are rules. Sometimes there are rules that have to be made that you don’t necessarily want to make or to implement and least of all enforce.

GC: Yeah. Due to a neighbor’s complaint about FREE STORE users blocking the street I was obliged to put a sign up that says, “Don’t Park in the Street!” I’m not happy with this. Like really?! It offends me in so many ways that this has to be done.

DKB:So, how do you balance desired intentions with actual outcomes?

GC: I have zero answers for that. It is a constant negotiation, and it requires having to repeatedly rework the project. It is constantly surprising because I truly cannot imagine a lot of the things that happen. I guess this is the difference between studio practice and relational practice. No one comes along and starts making compositional adjustments to a painting on a gallery wall.

DKB:Hahaha.

GC:But you know, EIP’s work belongs to all of us. Our ideas are not original. Join us if you want. Or better yet, take our ideas and run with them as far as smart and fast as you possibly can.

DKB: Eō!

Notes

  1. For more information on this anti-colonial stance around the occupied Hawai’i territory, you can consult the research of scholars such as Haunani-Kay Trask, Dana Naone Hall, Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa, Noenoe K. Silva, and Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua.

  2. The term enclosure refers to the process of dividing or consolidating communal fields, meadows, pastures, and other farmland in England; a process that spread to the rest of Western Europe from the 13th century to modern times, becoming carefully delineated and owned agricultural parcels and individual administration.

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