Excerpt from Lost Properties, Number 19 in The Whitney Pamphlets, published by Semiotexte, 2014.
I first met Thomas Gokey in the summer of 2011 in Saas-Fee, Switzerland in an EGS writing class that I taught. He was living in Syracuse, a small city in central New York, and was completely involved in a project called LibraryFarm that allows library patrons to “check out” a small garden plot from a half-acre “farm” that his wife, the librarian and activist Meg Backus had begun on part of the Northern Onondaga Public Library’s unused grounds. Gokey was passionate about his work LibraryFarm. Like a lot of the people I met at EGS, he struck me as extraordinarily independent and self-directed, not “merely intelligent,” as those driven by some larger belief like to say, but inclined to consider ideas so deeply, they become animate things.
Syracuse seemed like an exile to me. I’d gone there a half-dozen times to visit a friend when I lived in upstate New York. Receiving the highest amount of snowfall in the US and the fourth-highest rainfall, the city is reached in all directions by driving over a hundred miles through industrial farm fields and decaying former manufacturing towns. Despite a few half-hearted efforts at gentrification, the former downtown is empty and grim. The city is ringed by miles of new-ish master-planned suburbs. Throughout the winter, the sun may not come out for more than a week. Gokey and Backus had moved from Chicago in 2008 so she could attend Syracuse University’s graduate program in Library Science. He’d recently finished his MFA in sculpture at SAIC. Not surprisingly, Backus’ Library Science degree was the one that led to a job. When she was offered a full-time job as Adult Programming Librarian in the public library system, they decided to stay. Gokey was able to pick up a couple of adjunct classes to teach in the Syracuse University art department, but Backus’ project, LibraryFarm soon became the main focus of his artistic work. Shortly after graduating from SAIC, he’d produced a one-person show titled $49,983: Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper. At the time, the show attracted bemused attention but these four large works on paper, priced by the inch, failed to sell.
What made Gokey and Backus’ work with LibraryFarm seem remarkable was less the fact of the garden itself, than the deliberateness of their intent. But then again, the fact of the garden itself, its daily conflicts and resolutions both large and small, was the locus of all of their work. Which is what distinguishes LibraryFarm from thousands of neighborhood vacant lot allotment plots and community gardens throughout the US. Both Gokey and Backus received their BA’s from Christian colleges. More praxis than ‘artistic practice,’ LibraryFarm became, at least to them, all about details, which, when fully considered, become paradigms. As Backus wrote in an early proposal for LibraryFarm, “[I]nformation here includes traditions, processes, and … living biological objects like plants and bugs and microorganisms and people.” Listening to Backus and Gokey’s accounts, I thought more about Bertolt Brecht’s book of poems, The Great Art of Living Together, that posits theater as a paradigm for unequal but democratic micro-communities, than about gardening. For example, there is the story about how they first got the half-acre plowed:
The land has not been farmed for a long time, and the soil was packed so tightly you couldn’t dig it with a shovel. We needed to get a tractor in to turn the land over. It only cost about $200 to do this, but we learned that the library wasn’t willing to let us spend that much. It looked like the whole idea was going to have to get shelved. But then [Meg Backus] told me about how the parks department has contacted her to ask if they could borrow an LCD projector from the library. Meg said that the library never uses this particular LCD projector and that he wishes she could just sell it but since the library is a public institution there are all kinds of restrictions that prevent them from selling their equipment. … When I heard about this I suggested we work out a barter to get the land plowed. I’m really proud of how it worked out. The parks department got their projetor and the library got their land plowed and no money was needed. Unfortunately there was a fair amount of paperwork … [which] meant we couldn’t get the land plowed until late June …
Thomas Gokey, 'THE LIBRARY FARM', in Public Praxis
…Or the story about the war of the straw bales:Jules was very upset that somebody “stole” (her word) the two straw bales that I had bought for the rows in the collective section and used it for their own plot instead. This really rubbed her the wrong way, especially since she had gone out and bought two bales to use herself. She had gone the extra mile not to use the straw I bought, as tempting as that might have been. She could have just taken it for herself but no! She’d never do that. She only used one and a half of the straw bales she bought and was even more upset that the half left over had also gotten stolen. And it was really easy to tell who had stolen it. Some guy named Trevor who just came in … [T]o be honest I couldn’t care less that he had used the straw bales. They only cost six dollars each and I’d go get a few more. … Jules wanted a tribunal … She wanted rules. She wanted it to be against the rules to use someone else’s straw bales. I didn’t like the idea of making so many rules. Rules are like weeds.
Thomas Gokey, 'THE LIBRARY FARM', unpublished essay
Fifty people showed up to the January 2009 public meeting Backus held to introduce the idea of LibraryFarm. It was decided to divide the land into a series of individual plots, and a larger “collective” garden that would donate its produce to a local food bank. The project attracted an unlikely mix of civic-minded library board members, garden fanatics, people in search of free food, parents in search of an unstructured outdoor activity to do alongside their kids, a bi-polar woman named Jules, an Iraq war veteran suffering from PTSD. As homemaker Sue Buswell told me on the phone, “I thought it would be a good opportunity for my kids. Instead of just going to the supermarket, to be part of the whole process of growing food. I didn’t want to dig up my yard, and besides, I’d never gardened before, I didn’t know what to do. My kids were six and eight when we started. In three years, it’s really evolved. A lot of people, both new and old, attend the meetings. It’s a community vision. Eighty percent of the people do a fine job of maintaining their plots.” Working with other people at LibraryFarm became one of the big attractions. Oddly, while Syracuse is a notoriously conservative area, Backus and Gokey found that if you scratch beneath the surface of buzzwords used as triggers within the far-right lexicon, many of the basic values beneath them entail a desire to cooperate, be accepted, and share.
In an unpublished essay written after the EGS class, Gokey describes filling the holes in his philosophy background that August by listening to Yale undergraduate audio lectures on academicearth.org while weeding a LibraryFarm plot. The lectures about Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau make him think about “ways for people to organize themselves, the conflicts that inevitably arise, and ways of sharing property. I decide that Locke is to blame for everything that is wrong with America. But, I think to myself, the individual plots are going much better than the collective section. A quick rationalization: that’s only because what we are trying to do in the collective section really is harder to do. True democracy is harder, it takes more commitment and effort and sacrifice. Letting everyone fend for themselves is easy. Given the free choice between freedom and its opposite most of us will choose it’s opposite because it’s easier. I think of The Brothers Karamazov, and then the Gospel of Mathew … I’d like to prove we can make this collective section work but I’m not entirely confident that it will.”
Thomas Gokey and I stayed loosely in touch. That fall, he took time off from teaching to participate in Occupy Wall Street. He emailed: “OWS is the most beautiful thing in the world to me. I love attending the working groups. It reminds me of the LibraryFarm, trying to work with lots of different people, lots of petty disagreements, lots of flawed people trying to practice democracy in a very slow and messy process. It’s wonderful.” On November 17, he got arrested. His cellmates included writer and n+1 founder Keith Gessen, Mark Rudd, radical lawyers and economists, anarchists, and a few non-OWS underclass ‘criminals’ (marijuana possession, DUI, loitering). But a month before that, during the first weeks of Occupy, he’d gravitated to the idea of the Rolling Jubilee, which, he recalls, was first floated by Micah White, who’d also attended EGS and was a co-founder of Occupy.
A “jubilee,” in the biblical sense, is a remission or cleansing that occurs every 50th year, marking the end of seven seven-year cycles, during which debts are forgiven and prisoners are freed. As David Graeber recalls in his massively influential book Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, one of the demands made by the millennial anti-globalization movement was an IMF “jubilee” on third-world debt. In the iteration dreamed of by Micah, that would soon be developed by Gokey and a small, focused group of collaborators, funds would be raised to purchase student and medical debt. Once purchased, these debts would be publicly, spectacularly, abolished.
It was a brilliant idea. But, as Gokey recalls, Mikah knew that making it happen would be more than a full-time job. Also, they’d been led to believe that these bundles of debts couldn’t be purchased at auction without an attorney. To Gokey, whose first work out of art school had entailed a visualization of his massive debt through shredded currency, the idea of staging such jubilees was incredibly powerful. Not unlike LibraryFarm, it was in one stroke both a paradigmatic, symbolic action and a means of helping real individuals. As he told me on the phone, “Debt is such an immaterial thing, but I feel it in my body. I feel the stress of it, I feel the weight of it. As an artist I participated in some amazing performances created by Cassie Thornton, where people were asked enact to their debt, or give words to it.”
The first thing Gokey did was put an ad up on Craigslist seeking a lawyer. Within half an hour, two hundred attorneys replied. (“There are tons of under-employed lawyers with massive tuition debt,” he explains.) Still, the transaction implied some liability that none of the Craigslist attorneys were willing to assume. It wasn’t until being arrested that he met Mathew Cardwell, a cellmate, and a public defender in the Bronx courts. Cardwell agreed to purchase the first round of debt if Gokey could raise the money. As an experiment, Gokey used $466 of his own money to purchase $14,000 of credit card debt, a package comprised of eleven delinquent accounts. He didn’t know whether or not he should contact the beneficiaries.
Meanwhile, he was learning a lot more about the collections industry. Like most aspects of life in the US, the collection of debt is a fragmented multi-step industry driven at each juncture by individual profit incentive. When collection succeeds and the debtor pays, the original lender isn’t the beneficiary. The accounts were sold long ago to whatever collection agency enters the highest bid. High-pressure collection techniques are used almost exclusively within this secondary market. Their results, when effective, have nothing to do with resolving the original debt. They are the proceeds of pure speculation. Blame for this kind of systemic violence is hard to assign. Dozens of individuals are involved at each step of the process. To study debt is to trace your way into capital’s darkest heart; it is also to reveal its most potent psychic dynamic: individual guilt, self-doubt and shame. Preparing his first transaction, Gokey met a debt broker online, Larry T. from Milwaukee, an insomniac libertarian who turned out to be kind of a sage. They stayed in touch. Gokey recorded some of their late-night chats:
GOKEY: It’s a numbers game. If the 99% refused to cooperate, the 1% will be powerless. Classic Ghandi/MLK methods - just stop considering.
LARRY: TRUE – tell the 1% to stop selling the American dream But then again reality is a tough sale. There is a lot of moving parts.
The collections agencies that buy these bundled debts often recruit their agents among gang members. Collectors have threatened debtors with rape, they’ve threatened to kill debtor’s pets, and – in one case, where the loan was used towards a funeral – they’ve even threatened to dig up the remains of the dead and hang the corpse from a tree, to replicate lynching.
Less spectacular, but more prevalent, is the way justice courts are used to benefit speculators. Campaigns of terror are waged against debtors that can result in jail and court fines, even though debt itself isn’t illegal. One common trick is for collection agency attorneys to initiate civil suits against debtors, and obtain a court date. Procedure demands that the debtor – now the “defendant” – be personally served with written notice of the hearing. But, like everything else, even the service of legal documents is fragmented and outsourced. Collection agencies or their attorneys purchase bulk contracts with specialized agencies that do nothing but serve legal documents. But these agencies don’t use full-time employees to perform this service. Instead, they hire casual transient labor at contract rates of $6 per service. Factoring in the time it takes to locate the defendant and personally hand him the documents - not to mention the risk of street violence – it comes as no surprise that these documents end up in the trash. All that the court requires as proof of service is the server’s signature; not the defendant’s. Consequently, by the time the court date rolls around, even if the defendant or the defendant’s attorney were to look for the fictitious server, s/he is nowhere to be found. If a defendant doesn’t show up to court, the judge automatically rules for the plaintiff and issues a bench warrant against the defendant for Failure to Appear, a misdemeanor. The debtor now has an outstanding judgment. When this isn’t paid, collection agency attorneys routinely go back to court and file criminal proceedings. New York City advocates have filed a recent suit that calls for dismissal of more than 100,000 default judgments against debtors who were “sewer served” in this way. Hundreds of people have been arrested years later on bench warrants they had no idea even existed.
After the eviction from Zucotti Park, there was a consensus among OWS participants that they would regroup during the winter and work towards a global general strike scheduled for May Day. When the strike more or less failed to eventuate, three ongoing informal assemblies were left: Occupy Theory, Occupy University and Occupy Student Debt, which led to the activist group Strike Debt. In June, Gokey left for Sass-Fe, still thinking that Rolling Jubilee – at the time, he was calling the project “Debt Fairy” – would be small and autonomous. When he returned, he went to New York to see if Strike Debt would help him give it a push and amplify it. The name was debated, and David Graeber, who was at some of the meetings, had the idea of raising money for Rolling Jubilee through a telethon. Graeber encouraged filmmakers Laura Hanna and Astra Taylor of Hidden Driver (Zizek, The Examined Life), who were already a part of Strike Debt, to become its producers. From here, Rolling Jubilee’s core group formed, which would be primarily Hanna, Taylor, Gokey, Aleksandra Perisic, and a scholar and activist who goes by the pseudonym Winter.
In this way, Rolling Jubilee jumped from being a Syracuse-based artist’s personal project to arguably the most far-reaching, widely publicized offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. Gokey doubted they could raise the $50,000 Rolling Jubilee announced as the telethon’s target amount, but in fact, they raised $200,000 in online before the telethon. Comedians Janeane Garofalo, Lizz Winstead and musicians Lee Reynaldo (Sonic Youth), Guy Picciotto (Fugazi) and Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel) performed. That night, the group purchased $100,000 of debt for $5,000. As Astra Taylor told New York magazine, “The amazing thing about this action is that it’s both symbolic and real in equal measure.” Working within the system to undermine it, added Guy Piccioti, is “a really Trojan horse move … and that’s pretty badass.”
As of this writing, the group has raised more than 620K. Last April, they announced their 20K purchase of 1M medical debt in Kentucky and Indiana. The buy was covered by mainstream media like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, greatly aided by a local Kentucky reporter who tracked down 80-year old recipient Shirley Logsdon. Logsdon’s colorful analogy between debt and dog-shit – “When you step in it, it takes a long time to get it off your shoe. It just lingers and lingers” – was picked up by AP and broadcast throughout the US. “This is so exciting,” the director of a Kentucky non-profit remarked. “It’s like Robin Hood.”
Rolling Jubilee hopes to phase itself out by the end of 2014. Hanna, Gokey and Winter have started to talk about what a Debtor’s Union might look like. Before Rolling Jubilee got underway, Winter and other members of Occupy Student Debt started a website about student debt, hoping to find 1 million people willing to walk away from their debt. Five thousand signed up. “It didn’t feel very successful,” Winter told me on the phone. “We quickly found out people were very afraid.” The current Rolling Jubilee plan is much more specific. By creating a union for people in debt to the same lender - for example, Bank of America – they might re-negotiate terms of their debt. Or, as Gokey dreams: “If we got every single person who owes money to Sallie Mae to instead pay into an alternative fund, we could create our own lending service.”
Gokey and Backus moved south last year when she accepted another library job in Tennessee. He spends a great deal of time on Rolling Jubilee, often acting as spokesperson. Sometimes he wonders whether he’s drifted away from art, or gotten closer. As he says, “There’s a lot of other artists involved in Strike Debt, including some really brilliant art critics and art historians. None of us know what to think of what we do anymore. It’s like we’re all former artists.”
Chris Kraus is a writer and art critic based in Los Angeles. Her books include Where Art Belongs, Summer of Hate, Torporand I Love Dick. She is a co-editor of Semiotexte, and a frequent contributor to various magazines. She is presently working on a critical biography of the American writer Kathy Acker.