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OWS Screenprinters Is Bringing Printing to the People

OWS Screenprinters

In the interview below, Julie Goldsmith and David Yap talk about the OWS Screenprinters, which is an autonomous, multi-faceted, print production cooperative that is looking to expand its social justice work and cooperative model through education.

David - During the first days of the Occupy Wall Street occupation at Zuccotti Park, artists came down to the park, and a few of them were screen printers. They brought some screens and started silk-screening guerrilla style right there in the park. Mostly, they were printing posters. Then, they started doing shirts, and it grew from that into this station with a dedicated group of volunteers. Hundreds of people passing through the park would get something silk-screened. They would often silk-screen it themselves. There was this really participatory art event that happened. Not only was it a great example of participatory art, but we also fundraised a lot of money for the movement. All of the proceeds went back to the general fund. At the park, we were the largest grossing source of donations.

Even before the eviction happened, there was talk about turning it into a worker’s cooperative. A lot of people who came to the park were like, “This is great. I’d love to get one for my family in Detroit who are facing the same problems.” We started shipping shirts to  different occupations. Our first big box got shipped to Chicago. We were collaborating with other screenprinters all over the country, so there was this talk already of starting this cooperative to serve not only people in Zuccotti Park and the movement, but also to try and demonstrate that you could create a different type of business that’s non-exploitative, that’s worker-owned and worker run, that has a higher set of values rather than just the bottom line. In January 2012, three of us committed to actually doing it.

Julie - We were working out of a donated space where a lot of the Occupy stuff had been stored—things people had donated, material supplies, medical supplies, sleeping bags, tents. After the park was cleared, we weren't able to have our screen printing station anymore.  It was really heartbreaking to watch our station get dismantled and thrown into the city sanitation trucks, but we did get most of our stuff back, so we still have some of our screens from the very beginning. When we decided to make a go as a worker coop, coincidentally, it was right at the time that they were closing the storage space that Occupy had. One of our friends who was a professional screen printer was opening her own shop, and she had volunteered with us in the park. She invited us to go in on sharing a studio.

In May of last year Radix Media moved in. At the time, they were Occucopy—the other emerging coop from Occupy Wall Street. Our little studio has turned into a full service print shop for activists throughout the city, and we do a fair amount of business nationwide as well. In our shop, we do custom orders up to six colors. We do tote bags, sweatshirts, t-shirts, posters. We’ve done some really weird stuff, like bandanas and large flags. Then, Radix does the paper printing—brochures, stickers, postcards and buttons. It really is a one stop source for all of the printing needs that people have.

David - The shop is in downtown Brooklyn in an incredible location. We’re unbelievably fortunate to be in a place that’s actually affordable and central. It was just brilliant getting our own space, and that allowed us to continue to do the live printing. We still would schlep all of our equipment out for Mayday or for when we were occupying in Union Square. We learned how to become incredibly mobile because that was necessary.

Julie - We’ve really run the gamut of organizations and interests. We’ve covered the Trayvon Martin and Kimani Grey cases and tackled Stop and Frisk. We covered Occupy Sandy, and we're working on a lot of anti-fracking stuff right now. We’ve shipped stuff all over the world. One of our clients has an animal care facility for endangered species in the Galapagos. We’ve done tons of work for him. Even when we were printing in the park, we were printing for people all over the world.

David -  It’s heartwarming to hear from people who say to us over and over again that we can be a source of inspiration for people who remember those days in the park. We are really grateful for all of the support that we have received.

Julie - The support and positivity that we’ve gotten from people has really been the factor that has kept this project going the many times that we had thought it was going to fail. We’re planning a fundraiser for April 19th. It’s at the Brooklyn Base. We actually have a huge announcement, which is why we decided to have the party. We just got fiscal sponsorship through The Alliance for Global Justice, which was Occupy Wall Street’s fiscal sponsor. Now, we have a 501C3 number that we can use to take donations and grants. We’re going to use that to launch a totally different wing of the project that’s going to encompass a community education project. We’ll still have our custom services, maybe as an LLC. We’re not really sure yet. Then, we’ll have a non-profit wing that’s going to be going into schools and teaching kids, which we’ve already started doing. It's been really rewarding.

We’ve done two lessons at the Lower Eastside Girls' Club—a screen printing and a color theory lesson. We’ve also gone into a technical high school in midtown, and hope to do more with them.

We've done lessons at Brooklyn Urban Garden School, which is a charter school for sixth grade only that has a sustainable curriculum focusing on urban gardening.

David - Our live printing has always been by donation. When we’re live printing, especially at events like in support of Kimani Grey’s family, we don’t want to be asking for money. The thing we don’t want to be thinking is, “Am I losing money at this thing?” We just put out the donation bucket. Sometimes we make a little money. For the most part, the materials and time are financed out of our own pockets or from what we earn from the custom orders. But now that we actually have the fiscal sponsorship, we can have a cooperative that’s for profit, where we can support ourselves in a way that’s cooperatively run and still have our ideals, and we can also do the live printing, which was never about profit in the first place. Now, we have a way to support ourselves through grants and donations. We won’t have to take money out of our pockets to do things we are passionate about anymore. There is grant money out there for people who are doing radical arts for the public good and for education. We’re really excited that we can expand our program and not have to think about whether or not going to print in solidarity with this cause is going to hurt us and make it so we’re not able to pay rent.

Julie - The party itself is primarily a celebration. We want to invite the people who have supported us all this time to come and participate and get some cool stuff before May Day. Molly Crabapple made us an amazing design. I don’t want to say what it is, but it’s beautiful. Also, we're hoping to put together some other new designs before then. We have a lot of ideas for raffle prizes. Although we are listing it as a fundraiser, we’re not necessarily soliciting donations from our community that’s already been supporting us. We’re hoping to make contacts with people who can help us find funders, to find foundations that would be interested in our work, to help us gain exposure and to announce our new status.

David - We went to Tuscon, Arizona this last fall for a conference hosted by Alliance for Global Justice, and some groups had an interest in starting their own screen printing cooperative there, so that would be an example of something we could use grant money for. We could travel there, set them up, partner them with a local screen printing shop there, so that they can get screens burned. Then, we can teach them how to print in the street, so that there are people there that can do live printing in the same way that we do it here. Having that art outlet at a social justice event is very useful and mobilizing.

Julie - It’s fun. It’s very participatory. Anyone can make a screen print. You don’t have to be technically skilled to do it. We really wanted to send one to Gezi Park or to Brazil, and we just didn’t have the resources for it. Now, we’re hoping when these uprisings happen, we can say, “Hey, we’re going to send you a custom screen and all of the stuff that you need.” Maybe eventually we can start traveling.

David - We’ll see how much grant money we can get, but it would be great if we could actually go there and travel and teach the live printing. There are screen printers all over the world, but live printing in the park is a special skill that we’ve honed over two years. That’s how I learned how to screen print. I didn’t learn in a shop. It was always normal to me. Over time, I’ve come to learn that it’s actually quite exceptional, and it encompasses a lot of skill.

Julie - It's a pretty unique skillset. We want to share it around.

David - In addition, we want to do our educational program for students. That’s proven to be pretty successful. Students really like it, and it’s also kind of radicalizing and good PR for Occupy Wall Street.

Julie - We’ve spoken with the Brooklyn Urban Garden School kids. We had a Stop and Frisk pin on one of our aprons, and the kids asked about it. I asked the principal if I could talk about it, and she said, “Definitely, talk to them. They know what Stop and Frisk is. Tell them what you think.”

David - At UASEM high school, we asked the kids what they knew about Occupy Wall Street. It was all negative stuff. While we were printing, we were talking about all the stuff that we stood for, and they were like, “Occupy Wall Street is great." That was completely unintentional. It turned out to be a happy coincidence that we were able to change their minds about what Occupy was. In fact, that happened a lot when we were printing in the park. People might have been turned off by the craziness. We would place ourselves a little to the side, and they would stop and see the message, and they were receptive to it. We were able to have conversations about issues that our images were speaking towards by having art that’s appealing to everybody. It’s really a great outwardly facing way to mobilize.

Julie ▫  We know that the system we live in right now is not sustainable, and we hope that it’s not going to last too much longer. Hopefully, we are able to put some of these practices into play in a bigger way. So it starts small. It starts with a couple of grassroots organizations saying, “Hey, we’ll take this chance. How can we look at traditional capitalist models and traditional hierarchical models of doing work and reformat it into a collective that works for us, and then take that and give it to other people?" We learned a lot by looking at the Park Slope Food Coop or looking at Rainbow Grocery,” which is out on the west coast. Maybe people will eventually look at our model and be like, “Hey, maybe we can do that too.”

Most employees are underpaid and overworked. A lot of people are not unemployed but underemployed. For us, smashing the forty hour work week paradigm has been huge. Are we still worthy or valued as workers if we only work eight hours a week? Sometimes there is only eight hours a week of work. Sometimes we pull off a fourteen hour day. It’s really important to me personally to not just smash the paradigms but to use what’s good in them to create a better vision and a better system. In the ideal better world, we’re still going to need services like printing. We’re still going to need places to buy provisions, or trade provisions if money isn’t part of the picture anymore. We can talk about it and read about it and theorize about it, or we can just open up a space and do it. That’s been primarily what we’ve been doing.

David - Personally, it’s been important to me because it’s been so transformative to my life and how I conceive of myself as an artist because I never did before. I didn’t know what screen printing was until I wandered into the park. I never thought of myself as an artist, and that completely changed. I saw that happen for a lot of people. When you get to make your own art, it’s really transformative. It breaks this idea that art is something that you consume rather than produce. It's been amazing being in a public space encouraging people to not watch someone make something but to actually make it themselves. There's a change in the brain that I love to watch every single time. It happens all the time, from old to young. I love that.

Julie - I think what we're doing will show how an artistic business can be run in an ethical and intentional way. It opens people up to the possibility that everyone has a little artist in them, and it breaks down barriers between people. If you’re a street vendor, it’s really hard to get someone to stop at your table, but once they do, you can engage them and start talking to them. It’s a point of entry where you’re able to maybe find out what their story is, maybe find out what their grievances are. I don’t want to say I’m set out to radicalize people, but I certainly am willing to help.

David - Opening up a place and time for people to actually have those discussions, radical or not, is lacking in New York City. You can’t really have an interaction with strangers unless it’s mediated by commercialism. People get advertised to all the time, and maybe because it’s so omnipresent people are just numb to it and accept it. If you want to have a message of substance, that’s almost seen as an attack, a visceral attack, but if you can mediate it with art, you slip under the radar.

Julie - It sort of softens it a little. People are willing to open their mind to artistic concepts much more than they are political concepts. I think it's important that we create space for more of that kind of communication.

You can find more information about OWS Screenprinters at www.owsscreenprinters.com, and their fundraiser here.

Originally posted on buildingcompassionthroughaction.blogspot.com.

 

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