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August 6, 2012 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts | [ssba]

Comment: A Tea With The Tories

Renee Gerlich has a chinwag with Richard Bartlett of Nineteen Tory Street – an ‘open source community gallery’ and ‘world where there’s no money and everyone has a good time’.

One of my first experiences of 19 Tory street involved about a dozen people on scraggly couches absorbed in a discussion about relative meanings and applications of the words ‘space’ and ‘place’. Dick Whyte was challenging the assumption that Tory street is a space because it is malleable and abstract, whereas for instance, the market is
a place, that is fixed and local. Somehow this discussion didn’t disintegrate painfully, but stayed intelligent, vital, poetic, animated and funny. I got interested. Who are these people? What is this… this splace?

These people are a community of creative and politically aware movers and shakers, and 19 Tory a platform for exhibitions and events proposed from all over and approved by the collective. To avoid both top-down authoritarianism and bottom-up tedium, and sustain both momentum and inclusion, they developed an exciting piece of software. ‘Loomio’ is open-source and designed to facilitate democratic organisational decision making—Tory’s twenty seven users (and counting) all have equal sway.

I’m typically cynical about the tedium of anarchism, but Tory street is a powerful demonstration of how it can work, and something magic has emerged as members have grown into the process. Their regular, inquiring decision-making has produced a heartening eloquence in the culture of Tory street that is ever present there.

Rich points out how this ‘post-capitalist’ experiment all hinges on Tory’s property owner, Michael Baker, being an arts patron (‘we are suckling at his teat’) who donated the space to Tory’s half-dozen founders. At that time, at least three of them were still riding the high of Occupy and that experience of crisis, self- definition, solidarity and the fluid emergence of systems is another influence at play in 19 Tory.

Rich talks about the ‘blank canvas experience’ and its role in self definition and productive critique—the opportunity to exhibit opens infinite opportunities (am I going to sell? Make a statement? Provoke dialogue?), the navigation of which is often transformative. The gallery is also an art project itself, engaged and open-ended: “Art can be a painting on a wall, but also an online discussion thread… people extend the walls of the gallery as wide as they can in their lives.”

This is some good shit. But there’s a stubborn little greebie whining inside me with a killjoy question about this techno utopia: I want to know how the social consciences of Tory street feel about their engagement with the dark production lines of the computer hardware they depend on. Hardware production is a big player in the plundering of global fresh water supplies and copper and cobalt from Congo, exploitation of Chinese workers (I’m thinking of the Foxconn suicides) and excretion of stupid amounts of toxic waste. Aren’t these activists’ enemies?

Partly there’s a desire not to be paralysed out of action by one’s own integrity, but there is another point to be made. Contemporary organisations inevitably rely heavily on software that currently is all embedded with the same hierarchical models driving the globe to its knees.

As software is redesigned increasingly for democratic applications, perhaps (as Isaac Wilder states) the virtual network can be a precursor to the physical network. Thinking of Lyttleton Timebank’s instrumental role in the Christchurch earthquake recovery, as well as the co-operative Bizdojo and Enspiral offices on Vivian and Allen streets, this makes sense to me: in a very real way, online platforms are facilitating very real changes in living structures.

During Occupy Wall street, Isaac Wilder made the statement that the emergence of small, globally connected assemblies is key to contemporary democracy, and that “Occupy is not a protest, it’s a demonstration. We are demonstrating what one of those assemblies might look like. Perhaps 19 Tory is also such a demonstration where, according to Rich: ‘it all starts with the imagination.”

Go to to propose a project. 


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  1. Strypey says:

    Thank you for a well-written and thought-provoking article. It’s been said many times that Occupy is not a place (eg Civic Square), it’s a space that were and are continually co-creating. It’s really heartening to see the groups like 19 Tory taking the energy and organising models of Occupy into other projects.

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