Quarantv: A Brief and Accidental Window to Utopia
Posted by <Thomas Faison> on 2021-04-13
Audio is available for this blog entry.
“The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again” -- Mark Fisher
There’s a certain type of person who works at an independently owned movie theater, one who already knows well the benefits of paid free time. On paper, the job consists of popping popcorn, selling popcorn, watching customers drop popcorn, and sweeping up popcorn. But in reality, after a round of films start, employees have between about 60 to 90 on-the-clock minutes for whatever they want. On an average day at one Baltimore movie theater you’d find the bartender finishing his musicology PHD dissertation on Bataille, the concessionist producing beats for his trap project, the usher editing her video art, and the ticket taker asking to leave early to play a show across the street. Baltimore is a city whose arts scene runs on the “day job” model, meaning one should work whatever job that pays the bills but doesn’t extract too much energy from the worker. Then, one can pour the remaining energy into whatever creative endeavor or public service they desire, free from market demands and careerist ambitions. A job at a movie theater is the prime example. I have floated back and forth between a careerist mindset and the day job model for the last eight years, always returning to movie theaters for both the ease of work and my love for the physical space. But what if there were no day jobs? What if people were free to pursue whatever they saw as worthwhile for themselves or the public good without having to put in hours at a job that primarily exists to make an owner money?
It is only in the last couple years that Universal Basic Income (UBI) has entered mainstream discourse. First, by technocratic neoliberal democratic primary candidate Andrew Yang. Then, somewhat accidentally, in the form of $600 weekly unemployment payments from the federal government’s CARES act pandemic relief bill. While Yang proposed $1000 a month in lieu of social services, a sum that would not sufficiently provide for most people’s basic needs, the CARES act funding, for those who could navigate the antiquated application process, was fairly sufficient. For a few months in 2020 everyone on unemployment was receiving at minimum (many were receiving more) the equivalent of $15 an hour at a full time job. Most young people I know, myself included, were making more money than they ever had before.
Capitalists often talk about the need for wages to motivate productivity, they like to insist “human nature” is selfish and must be manipulated to keep society running. It’s well understood that in the United States scarcity of basic goods (food, clothing, shelter) is non-existent. What remains instead is unequal distribution of those goods as decided through the market and those who control it. So it could be said that this model of waged labor doesn’t function primarily to keep goods flowing and society running, but rather to maintain a power structure that at worst exploits and alienates workers and at best still doesn’t provide for much of society's basic needs. I would like to take this a step further. I am not interested in cultivating a society that only just meets people's needs, but in cultivating one where people are able to experience joy and meaning outside of a coercive, violent relationship. I believe the answers are already here.
For many people, work is their meaning for living, and in some ways that’s admirable. But we should ask, is it literally the relationship of selling one’s labor? Or is it all the other things that come with work: clear tasks, structure, community, and a mission greater than yourself? If it’s the latter, are those things inextricably tied to the profit-driven workplace? Or could they be found or created another way? I believe they can be. As for the former, looking at the accidental pseudo-UBI of summer 2020 could be useful. Freed from the bondage of selling our labor, what happened? Did we become helpless couch potatoes, or did work continue, but with a new meaning?
When the pandemic hit Baltimore, movie theaters and other large venues were the first to close. I was in a very fortunate financial position and aside from entertaining the looming nightmare of all my family and friends dying alone in over crowded hospitals, I didn’t panic. I had a little nest egg saved up from a hellish gig hanging Christmas lights on mansions 14 hours a day and was living rent free while doing some house sitting. Instead, I thought about the shows my newly formed Crash-Worship-esque project was going to play, the experimental film screening series my partner curates, a documentary I was producing, and my friend’s gallery exhibitions. I wondered how the hell I was ever going to finish anything without the hard deadline of IRL presentation? And what will we do with all this free time? So I called my friends from the movie theaters and a few other artists, and we tried to answer that question.
Our answer was Quaran.tv: a 24/7 public access style streaming channel that showed old movies & television shows, Youtube compilations, and new short films alongside original programming like talk shows and musical performances. We imagined the project as a public service, providing information, entertainment, outlets, and community for everyone stuck at home. Baltimore artists like Lexie Mountain gave live advice, Rachel Amos and Nicole Sexton hosted a comedy show and pulled topics out of a hat, Steve Brand and Mark Tipton talked sports, Daisy Braun and Elie Macinnes did live drawing, Gillian Waldo discussed the nitty gritty of Baltimore politics, Max Anderson performed episodes of Star Trek playing every character himself, Harris Rosenblum gave craft tutorials while ruminating on utopia, and Scott Russel showed off his hundreds of snakes. Many of these shows ran for months on end, totaling thousands of hours of new content. One off musical performances included existing acts like Poncili Creacion, Andrew Bernstein, Network Glass, Jenny Moon Tucker, Tom Boram, Organs, Naomi Alligator, and many more. But perhaps more interestingly we also saw brand new collaborations like when Isabella Pitman and Melody Mulshine performed “By Sunsets,” where they played improvisational piano, electronics, and flute as the camera dollied in circles capturing both the performers and a roaring live sunset through giant west facing windows. While some of these performers are signed to traditional record labels, they all situate themselves within the DIY tradition and the day job model. What do you call an unemployed barista who’s basic needs are met? A professional artist.
Although we never compensated anyone, live acts were surprisingly easy to book. Everyone involved understood that this labor occurred in service of a small public good. The bulk of the labor fell upon head programmers Gillian Waldo, Kayla Drzwicki, Elinore MacInnes and myself. With our basic needs met, our labor took on a new meaning. Every day we all collaborated on a shared schedule spreadsheet to prepare a 24 hour long program. Every night, Gillian finalized the line up while I downloaded the content. Every morning I exported a 20 hour video file while Kayla designed the graphics for our schedule.
So what motivated this productivity? Clever exploitation of platform capitalism carved out a creative space to challenge filmic hegemony and this challenge formed a joyous puzzle. Much like how unemployment payments freed individuals from wage labor, our programming decisions too were freed from market pressure :pirate-flag:. So the short answer is: it felt useful and it was fun. Conversations I’ve had with professional film programmers lead me to believe this is not usually the case. They bemoan negotiations with studios and financial expectations from boards. I know programmers who quit their dream jobs after total burn out. Their labor, productivity, effectiveness and often overall happiness is actually restricted, not provided, by the market. They are left unable to actualize the underlying purpose of their work: providing access to and contextualization of works of cinema that both support and respond to the community a programmer serves. Whereas qTV could present what we saw as right for our community, like the Baltimore City Council police budget hearings in June, rather than whatever the market deemed valuable, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Should a reader pause at the thought of eliminating profit motives from cinema and wonder how movies, an incredibly expensive art form, would get made, I invite them to take a look at the current federal budget for defence spending.
But all of this begs the question, how useful is something like QuaranTV? A skeptical reader might recall the classic, hyperbolic, conservative critique of liberal arts education, “we are creating a country of people who are angry they can’t get a job after they majored in feminist basket weaving!” Perhaps avant-garde noise music doesn’t tickle your fancy? I very much understand. I’ve had many nights watching a long haired boy lackadaisically hit a cigarette and click around on a macbook where I ask myself “what the hell am I doing here?” That being said, I am firm in my conviction that art plays a vital role in a healthy society and that diversity in aesthetics pushes mediums forward. One performer is less important as an individual artist than as a piece of a conversation. But even more importantly, such a line of criticism misses the more interesting point. It is not that an accidental UBI led to the glorious cause of more noise music, but rather more broadly it led to a series of individuals channeling their previously extracted labor towards what they saw as a public good instead of a private commodity.
What would happen if we applied this core idea (directing labor towards creating public goods and away from private commodities) to another industry like medical research? If qTV saw the popcorn maker turn into the head curator, what would happen with a scientist? It’s been said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but I don’t find it too difficult to imagine a scientist halting research on profitable erectile dysfunction medication and pivoting into reducing the cost of producing insulin should control of the necessary resources be provided. Nor is it hard to imagine architects and builders creating useful housing instead of extracting value from under resourced neighborhoods. But one need not even speculate to see this idea in action, just walk down to your local library where the aspiration is to get as much knowledge into the hands of as many people as possible.
Something as audacious as a public library, if presented today as a new idea, would probably seem completely unfathomable in the contemporary, all encompassing neoliberal order. The meme goes like this, the kid says: “mom can we get public access to intellectual property?” Mom: “No sweetie, we have public access to intellectual property at home.” But then at home we see: Amazon Prime. If the library is a relic of a forgotten horizon, and qtv is a glimmer of a hopeful, socialist future, then the unemployment application and weekly certification process is a poignant mirror to the neoliberal present. In order to actually access unemployment, many people had to spend hours and hours a day battling automated phone systems.
I was most engrossed in the ritual in June. Mixing trial and error with advice I gleaned from the Facebook group “MD Unemployment DIY - The Real Answers,” this is my guide for that time: wake up at 6:50 and start calling either the 677 number or the 410 number 30-40 times. Hopefully you get through before 7:00. Press 0 to get the main menu circulating so the call isn’t dropped. Right when it turns 7:00 press 1-2-2-1 and if you hear a robotic woman’s voice, you have to hang up and start over. If you hear a disgruntled man’s voice, you’re in and you will either be given the option to leave a call back number, or wait on hold for 1-2 hours and potentially have your call drop. If you stayed strong and kept calling, eventually you would get through. This too was labor abstracted from the market in some ways. This strange dance of the phones served only to re-distribute funds already allocated by the federal government. 1-2-2-1 fast enough and I got a call back and got money. I can imagine a world where endless wage laboring in the market is replaced by a bizarre laboring for the bureaucracy, still fighting for unnaturally scarce resources. We saw that future also. I plan to continue describing and exploring other labor assemblages in future blog posts.
All of this ruminating and imagining leaves a lot of the detailed economics out of the picture. If a reader is curious about the logistics of a planned economy and further evidence that seeds of solutions are already present, I would recommend The People's Republic of Walmart by Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski. For more information on how we could implement a left leaning UBI, I’d recommend Matt Bruenig’s writing for the People's Policy Project. My point here is to open the door to this conversation and to share my first hand experience. Now, when I’m confronted with the idea that we need economic threats of violence to keep society running, I scoff. I think of Gillian up at 2am finishing the line up. Not for profit, out of coercion, or for personal gain, but for what we liked to call, “the true qTV heads in the chat.” The answers are already here. The question is, who will have the political strength and courage to start implementing them?