Historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein
offers perhaps the most gripping of end times theories outside of pre-millenial
Christianity: the five century-long ride of capitalism is nearing its
closing stages. Owing to its status as the first of the world systems
to actually encircle the entire planet, capitalism’s end is sure
to be grandly chaotic. The acute crises are the proof: absolute de-ruralization
on the horizon, energy supplies at long last becoming prohibitively expensive,
the worldwide rise of anti-modern fundamentalisms. What will be the nature
of the system or systems that replace capitalism is an open question.
Nobody knows what will emerge–systems based on wisdom rather than
greed, or systems that surpass the violence of the bloody twentieth century.
Periods of transition are intensely contested. Like a great mass teetering
on an unstable footing, future directions and momentum may be determined
by small pressures one way or the other. Mass mobilizations are not prerequisites
for impact. Right now and probably for the next few decades, we, as individuals
and as small groups, are players. The creative administration of space–i.e.
territory and architecture–is of particular significance given the
process of world-systemic bifurcation, and the fact that space is the
sphere in which property rights are most concretely manifested.
To describe what Mess Hall is against such sociohistorical conditions,
with their attendant political urgencies, is to suggest that Mess Hall,
for all its humble effect, can be a meaningful part of a tide, a current,
a flow that moves in a general direction. Being a conscious effort, this
direction is a chosen one, and therefore it is not inappropriate to confess
that Mess Hall is in its most abstract interpretation an ethical project.
Moreover, given the reality in which we operate and the constellation
of forces working against the simple proposition of an open space available
to a self-administered public, it is impossible to understand Mess Hall
without considering its ethical dimension.
Mess Hall is an initiative mostly based out of a storefront space in a
North Side neighborhood of Chicago called Rogers Park. There exists no
single way to describe what Mess Hall is because the initiative continually
enlarges its domain of activity; moreover, this document is merely one
person’s point of view. That said, I believe Mess Hall projects
can be thought of as belonging to several different types.
The first Mess Hall project was and is the most basic: for individuals
to come together and establish a working group that would coordinate the
use of the space. Within the first few months of activity the individuals
belonging to this group began referring to themselves and each other as
“keyholders.” The term “keyholder” designates
those who actually carry a set of storefront keys at all times. Permanent,
unrestricted, and frequently exercised access to the space may be the
most visible distinguishing feature of keyholder status, but it only results
from other features. Those include a number of responsibilities having
to do with sharing basic labors. For example: making decisions about programming,
cleaning the space, paying the utility bills, helping with publicity,
buying, preparing, and sharing food. Additionally, there are specific
labors having to do with any particular project that often fall on the
shoulders of one, some, or all of the keyholders.
The keyholders are not an unchanging group. It began with eight, one joined
about six months after our inaugural project, and then one of the original
keyholders moved cross country at around ten months, leaving the group
again at eight.
For those who participate in the keyholder group, it itself is a type
of project different from all other Mess Hall projects: collaborative,
ongoing, cumulative, open-ended, regularly and sometimes intensely conflictual,
profoundly social, simultaneously theoretical or even dreamy, while also
concrete in the least glamorous ways imaginable. Articulating what keyholder
status is and means will be a Mess Hall project for as long as Mess Hall
lives. It is also a fundamental project, in the sense that its directions,
successes, and failures can easily affect all other Mess Hall projects.
Another type of project at Mess Hall is that of the exhibition. Exhibitions
make use of the walls, the floors, the ceiling, and/or the windows. Exhibitions
need not be confined to the physical space of Mess Hall. Exhibitions can
be staged outdoors or off-site.
In its first year Mess Hall hosted or produced at least seven projects
which either were or included exhibitions of varying duration. They consisted
of widely divergent media and concern, and ranged from two days to six
weeks long. There was no effort to link exhibitions to each other thematically
or conceptually. All recurring themes were more a reflection of the keyholders’
shared interests than proof of any deliberate curatorial statement. The
commonality is only that all the exhibitions were and are exhibitions,
and because of that Mess Hall can be accurately thought of as a space
for exhibitions. But far from presenting shows in predictable fashion,
taken as a whole Mess Hall’s displays demonstrate a governing belief
that the exhibition form is not yet exhausted, and in fact is only beginning
to be exploited. Given the frequency of exhibition programming, it must
be admitted that Mess Hall bears the imprint of those who trained and
work in the realms of visual culture and, yes, visual art. But given the
range of content, the diversity of exhibitors, and the way Mess Hall generates
a viewership through scheduling events rather than through staffing regular
open hours, there is always embedded within Mess Hall an implicit critique
of not only conventional museum and gallery practices, but also of most
so-called alternative exhibition venues. The artists, curators, activists,
and neighborhood folk whose exhibitions we help realize all necessarily
contribute to the ongoing implying of this critique, insofar as their
shows are considered in relation to all the other shows.
A third type of project at Mess Hall is the event. Even more so than the
exhibitions, events are wide-ranging in character, purpose, and constituency.
Many events involve presentations of one sort or another: screenings,
lectures, readings, listening parties, how-to demonstrations, etc. More
than a few of Mess Hall’s events from the past fifteen months fit
into no category but their own: for example, a no-cash, clean-out-your-closet
swap day, a weekend celebration of Eighties speed and thrash metal complete
with vintage fanzines on display, and a hands-on deejaying tutorial. Some
events are programmed as series, and some are singular, one-time-only
happenings. Some events happen around a meal, the most regular of which
is our bi-monthly Sunday brunch. Some events are conducted by a notable
visitor but others do not require a focus on an individual. Events can
be scheduled either during the run of an unrelated exhibition, which helps
to enlarge a show’s viewership, or as complements to a related exhibition,
which helps to deepen that project.
Any event that gathers people in a place necessarily articulates an aesthetics
of the social. By intention the social aesthetics of Mess Hall range from
high definition (for example, novice and experienced knitters at a knitting
workshop) to blurred heterogeneity (openings often bring in a mixture
of visitors from out of town and overseas, students, artists, neighborhood
regulars, and curious passers-by). In contrast to the mostly vacuous occasions
which prop up various “scenes,” Mess Hall treats events as
the medium through which we, along with our collaborators and our visitors,
cultivate a public which actively experiences itself as a visible body
from more than a single angle. Events give Mess Hall’s public an
occasion to know and consider itself, and therefore, potentially, to shape
Redistribution and Relationships
As is by now clear, even brief descriptions of the various types of Mess
Hall projects return us to the ethical dimension, and it is on the ethical
plane that the operational logic of Mess Hall finally emerges: redistribution
To clarify, Mess Hall occupies a rent-free space, thanks to the voluntarily
redistributive generosity of an enlightened property owner. Mess Hall
also maintains a constant giveaway of small surplus goods displayed in
a permanent installation of artist Dan Peterman’s storage bins.
This latter project is not redistributive in any meaningful sense; it
re-circulates goods horizontally, at the ground level of the economy.
The rent-free deal, by contrast, moves resources vertically, from the
rent-collecting tier back to the rent-paying tier. Petty generosity is
never enough; with or without Mess Hall, the ground level economy of scavenging
and re-use will exist. Substantively redistributive generosity makes a
greater impact, in terms of creating social and physical spaces that would
not exist otherwise, much less thrive. Horizontal re-circulation is a
service of Mess Hall; vertical redistribution is the goal.
The keyholders continue the chain of redistributive generosity by giving
of our time, covering petty expenses, and arranging for all our events
to be free. Those who come to Mess Hall enjoy rent-free space for meetings
and workshops, and are frequently offered knowledge and thought by visitors
who usually only work in specialized, limited-access environments. These
are small but very real gestures, and the ideal is to make the redistribution
of resources profoundly felt by all who come through the door. It is a
tall order, but given the costs of defending entrenched inequities at
the local and global levels, the redistributive ethic may define the economy
of the future.
Unlike the state, which only redistributes resources through coercive
mechanisms like taxation, or charities, which rely too heavily on guilt,
Mess Hall hopes to establish a model of redistribution based on cultivating
relationships. Instead of bureacratic coercion, we would have the sharing
and redistribution of resources be the consequence of different and complex
ways in which people think of themselves in relation to other people.
The modes of relation would include those of fellowship, mentorship, kinship,
and friendship, for example. The range of emotional registers would include
feelings of obligation, affection, loyalty, sympathy, so forth. Mess Hall
works this way now; informally, without a bureaucratic structure, and
without having to incorporate. Not only is the rent free, but Mess Hall
often rides the coattails of large institutions by hosting an off-site
event for a museum or university’s visiting artist or lecturer,
the arrangement often being based on our friendly relations with people
working within those institutions. The question is how to expand this
operational mode to include more of those with access to concrete resources.
Obviously, there is no formulaic answer. But it is just as apparent to
those of us centrally involved in Mess Hall that the limits have yet to
be tested, that the art of social relations are just beginning to breach
capitalism’s definition of social relations.
* Many of the ideas mentioned in these first two paragraphs can be found
in the essays that make up Wallerstein’s The End of the World As
We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis