Opinionista Andrew Miller 13 December 2012

In search of critical mass

Just a few days ago, a piece was published on Johannesburg’s biggest monthly bike ride – a piece that would have passed by quietly, if not for the wave of responses from offended cyclists; responses that opened up a local but not-so-lekker race and class storm. Sadly, however, the distance between the haves and the have-nots can’t be crossed on a bicycle. We’re all caught in it, one way or another. And there’s no clear-cut route out.

Last week a little piece of reflection went upon youth culture web site JHBLive.com (disclosure: I work on the JHBLive editorial team, and I edited the piece). The story would have passed unnoticed if not for the ripples on social media from Critical Mass riders. 

The piece, called Critical White, posed a series of personally reflective questions from a rider on the nature of the event. For those who don’t know, Critical Mass sees about 1,000 suburbanites cycle through the city on the last Friday night of the month. The JHBLive story questioned the racial dynamic inherent in the demographic profiles of Critical Mass riders and city residents, and veered off (charmingly, according to some, horrifyingly, according to others) into the author’s observations on Africa’s colonial past. That’s right, the big C word.  

Amidst the backlash and debate (which, of course, involved the standard Seffrican racial squabbling) one thing became apparent. Many of the Critical Mass riders were hurt by the notion that the good will and engagement they perceived to be part of their venture into the city might not be returned by the city itself – by the idea that, from the view of many city residents and workers, Critical Mass is just another one of those weird things large hordes of mlungus seem to get off on. It’s not like the city and its people hate the riders or anything – let’s just call the word on the street amused disdain, and leave it at that. 

Whilst laughing at the hyper-sensitive Critical Mass cyclists (who seem barely able to say the word “race”, let alone “colonial”) it occurred to me that I shouldn’t laugh too hard. That, metaphorically speaking, we all end up in this position at one time or another. And that I am actually in the middle of it myself, right now. 

Our art gallery has been running for about a decade without funding or support – even though we’ve always done a lot of development work. We rode away from the private and public sector funders like Jozi’s suburbanites turned their back on the city all those years ago. We decided we didn’t need them, or want them, and we could do just fine on our own. Which we did for many years, until things changed. Now, post-recession, the world is different, we do far more pro bono than we used to, and we can’t carry on without funding and blah blah blah – you know the story.  

So we took our decisions and decided to seek support. We rode back into city. Only to find, well, nothing. 

“You’ve been giving free internet to artists?” the capitalist shakes his head, almost amused.

“Well let me tell you, the major decision you need to make is in your heads. This idea that giving things away helps anyone…” He shakes again, gives us the parental eye and moves on to explain that there is no sin in earning a “decent living” off an NGO, and that an operation that can’t sustain itself is nothing more or less than a “failed business”.

We get that reaction from executives every time we mention free internet for artists. You can see the image rising in their minds: hordes of young punks, blunts blazing (if not in their hands, then certainly in their red eyes) while they pillage the ADSL for music and movies and arty porn… 

The reality, of course, is a little duller. We have an office with four or five machines operating. My wife and I access the ADSL account at home. Then there’s a tired old laptop we make available for artists – it sits in the corner and does incredible open source duty, hour after hour. If someone is so inclined and equipped, they are welcome to tap into our wireless with their mobile device. The grand total for this socialist extravagance is between R270 – R350 per month, and 90% of that cost is absorbed by the office and our home use. We must use our gigs in 30 days, so effectively we’re letting the artists eat our scraps; megabytes which would go in the bin anyway. 

That old laptop has changed many young lives and careers. Not in a flashy, “Ooh, we must put this in our annual report” kind of way, but in a very quiet way. Lives slowly change as young adults discover the power of email and social media. As they create Facebook accounts and load their art onto their pages and start to get reactions. As they discover what image resolution is, and how to crop and resize pictures and so on. As they realise that open source software exists. The change occurs from the daily habit, the slight shift in lifestyle, not from any particular intervention. 

But we are not able to explain this to a venture capitalist or a CEO. Free is bad. It’s irresponsible. It’s typical of these little arties to be so flippant with profit and loss. And now they come to us for money. As usual. 

As we continue to engage with the hard silver edges of Sandton, we have started to just leave that stuff out. It’s easier. And, let’s face it, funders and bosses need, more than anything, to guide. To tell the young muppets what to do, and how to do it. They do not need to be told anything. It’s the golden rule  – the man with the gold makes the rules. 

From our side of Mandela Bridge, there are perceptions that are never expressed. That can seldom, if ever, find voice. Here’s one (there are many others): we perceive an assumption of innate self-wisdom among corporates that would be amusing if it didn’t stick in the gullet so much. Yes, there might be great skill in spending the budget and marshalling the staff and establishing the brand and so on, but at the same time one surely has to consider, when assessing the superhuman strategic and operational powers of executives, factors like blind luck, and the fortunate juggernaut momentum of the large organisation. One never hears executives hailing how lucky they were to be born into the suburbs and an easy BComm. The funder will never tell you how nice it is to be able to write off “those few tricky years” by cranking up the leverage. 

Yes, the CEO laughs at our arty naïveté. But we know that if we had to drop that executive at Noord at 10 at night, armed only with R12 and series of unlikely dreams (as we do with our young artists week in, week out), he’d be hurtling down Jeppe dressed only in tears and his g-string within minutes. We think (but seldom say) that all skills are relative. From the chairman of the board to the beat boxer and suburban late night cyclist, our position is that everyone has strengths, and weaknesses – and that many of the abilities people think are so strong in themselves are actually the benefits of choosing the right parents. 

From our perspective, the private sector and funders should be very lucky to have us. We’ve run this ship for a decade with our own money – many within our community have invested heavily, from their own piggy banks and time banks. We’ve been to the dark side of the budgetary force so often they don’t even ask for our passports any more. We bring skills and knowledge, a special kind of fiscal survivor instinct and education, etc., etc., etc. 

But the critical funding mass we seek eludes us. No matter how good we think we are, we really suck at transitioning from a private thing to a funded thing. Is this Sandton’s fault? Should we blame the funders and the suits we eschewed for so long? Or should we admit that it has been our own failure to engage “the system” that has put us in this position? 

And so we leave 2012 slightly wounded, just like the Critical Mass riders. We are not being received in the same spirit as we are offering ourselves. Yes, white corporate horses of rescue are appearing on the horizon, but there are no guarantees – we realise there is a good chance that next year we will have to watch the boat sink. 

Even if it does sink, however, I believe it’s important that we all recognise that the end may not be failure. That it might just be the end. We’ve poured money and time in, and what we got out (aside from revenue for artists) was a beautiful decade of planned failures and accidental successes. Maybe we haven’t ultimately got what we would have liked, and maybe we won’t be able to flash the profitable sustainability that thrills the fat guys so, but what we do have is a true understanding that great things can happen when people choose to try. When we buy (or hire) the bike and ride on into that city, even if it doesn’t seem to want us.

And ultimately, that’s my message to the Greenside massive. Keep riding, okes. Just because people laugh and tell you you’re socio-politically deranged doesn’t mean what you’re doing is bad, or stupid, or silly. Maybe it will just take them a while to see you as you see yourselves. And Jozi does need engagement, of all sorts. It needs your engagement. Our city would surely be worse off if you weren’t disregarding most of the basic rules of the road in bright spandex once a month on a Friday night. DM


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