Power in the Edges: Goddard College MFAIA Commencement

I gave this speech for our last graduation in Port Townsend, September 2012.

This is the moment. This is the last time I get to have an opportunity to speak with you as an MFAIA advisee. So I’ve chosen to do so in the form of a letter. You know, of course, that at Goddard, the letter is a response to your work, your growth, and an invitation to dialogue. That means I expect to hear back from ya’ll even after you’ve walked up this aisle and out the door.

Dear graduates,

I often start my letters with a glimpse of where I sit, or stand. From where I’m standing today, the sun is shining (who saw the sunrise this morning?); it feels like a beautiful time to be alive. It feels like an excellent time to be conferred with an MFA. Now some of you might be thinking, what could she talking about? We have seen global crises on an unprecedented scale over the past year, as well as economic crisis, massive loss of lives, political turmoil, and spiritual bankruptcy in our leadership. But we’ve also seen responsive collective action like we’ve never seen before. Let’s listen to the poetics of words used to describe the collective actions of the past year—swarms of Occupy protesters, waves of demonstrations, Arab Spring…these words energize optimism about change. And while Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and the Tar Sands Action made history, it’s the reverberations at the fringes of society that are carrying the change forward. I want to congratulate you graduates with the optimism of these movements, and with a reminder that opportunities for beautiful action abound--at the margins, the edges, the fringes, of our communities. 

Last week at a screening of !Women, Art, Revolution in my town, we brought up the subject of movement-building. Occupy was a beautiful moment, we said, but what has happened to the movement? One panelist remarked how quickly it disappeared or got absorbed. Where is the movement now, she asked? One young woman in the front row spoke up. This is what we learned from Occupy. We saw how the media spun the story; we saw how the protest encampments got swept away, and then how the movement got co-opted. It’s not that we don’t care; we just don’t believe that protest works.” 

I could see the faces of the older ones in the crowd grow slack with dismay. I could feel my own face grow slack with dismay. And then the young woman next to her said, “you ask where the movement is. Well, I'm surrounded by crazy creative change makers! They're organizing re-skilling festivals and sharing gardening skills, printmaking techniques, and handcrafts. They're in the woods building tiny houses living off the grid! They’re making gorgeous political posters in community studios! They're building puppets and working in schools and dancing in hospitals! That's where the movement is. On the fringes.

I looked at her face and I said, you're right, Occupy may have been absorbed. Mass protests may be short lived. But those waves send out millions and millions of ripples. That's what long term social change looks like. Paul Hawken in Blessed Unrest showed us how hundreds of millions of change makers are remaking the world one city block at a time. The homeless are reclaiming foreclosed property one building at a time. The Transition Town movement is reinvigorating community rituals, changing the world one walkable neighborhood at a time. Terry Tempest Williams wrote in Finding Beauty in a Broken World about the brokenness of our community, the fragmentation brought on by domination of land and other species. Yet she also raises hope for the potential of beauty to construct a new landscape, a wholeness composed of mosaic. In mosaic, the play of light and line are the rules of the game. We need to stay at the edges. We need to see the landscape from a different, more expansive spatial and temporal scale. 

As many of you know, I've returned to graduate school again recently. And I just learned in my last reading, that the edges between ecosystems...ecotones, a place where ecosystems are in tension—is where shifts in domination happen. That's where it's at, folks. That’s where revolution is happening. At the edges. In a 1995 article, (read whole citation,  Wu, J. and O.L. Loucks. 1995. From Balance of Nature to Hierarchical Patch Dynamics: A Paradigm Shift in Ecology. The Quarterly Review of Biology 70(4):439-466), Wu and Loucks challenge the idea of “the balance of nature.” This is one of those big ideas that has come to seem irrefutable. For decades, ecology has been based on this assumption that disturbance or disruption is anomaly in nature, and that undisturbed nature is in equilibrium, and  stasis more common than change. But ecologists in the 90’s realized that this perception depends very much on the scale at which you’re examining a system. At the landscape level, ecological communities actually have far more edges than centers. The world is a mosaic of diverse patches rather than homogenous terrain. 

What can we learn from this as artists? I think we can learn that fear of change can blind us to paths of growth. As MFAIA graduate, Doug Miller, once wrote to me, “there’s power in the margins.” Most of you in your graduating presentations described feeling marginalized, pushed to the edge, weird, dislocated, incompatible with the mainstream, etc. Making art for many of us is a way to feel centered. You need that centering—a way home where you can reset. Refresh. But then you get up in the morning and walk out the door, or run out the door, and you find yourself at cliff's edge, or in that in-between space. What will you do? You could become a butterfly and ride the edge.

Let me tell a marginal story, a story about time. My father planted a grape vine on the edge of his parent's farm when he was a teenager. He tells me that when he left home for college, the vine was a scrawny thing just barely making grapes. When he returned from college, it had grown tall and full and produced a generous crop of grapes. The vine was still growing there when he returned home after teaching high school in Taipei. It was still growing there after he went to graduate school in Canada to start his career. It was still growing there when he brought my son, his grandson, to pay homage to the Lin temple. It was still growing there when we returned to bury my grandmother a few years ago. Grape vines can grow for 120 years. That sounds like a long time, longer than the average human lifespan. Yet on a geologic temporal scale, it’s about the length of a sneeze.

So Goddardesses, thank you for this weekend of creative interventions, for  enlivening the margins. In geologic time, this weekend may have been just a blip. But in human time, you gifted us with stories and images and experiences that will last a lifetime. You are creating a text so thoroughly embellished, illuminated, and re-contextualized by marginalia that it becomes a new story, a new book altogether. We may find an Edie Wells bottlecap chair or a Pi Luna deck of healing art cards in the corner of a prison; or we may gaze upon an Elaine Spicer encaustic or Dawn Sagar landscape in a hospital hallway; a Sue McFadden scroll in a school lobby or Rhonda Janke soil stained fabric print in a market window; a Mindy Dillard one woman show or Porschia Baker spoken word invocation in a Denise Auld Pink Tent on the edge of a peninsula. And wherever we come across your work in the future, we will see new evidence that women’s work is revolutionary work. We will find ourselves in the dynamic borders between your personal stories, the story of our beloved arts community in Port Townsend, and the all-embracing story of Gaia, the greatest work of art.

I want to end on the words of one you. Last night when asked one of our favorite questions, who is your audience, Edie responded, "I'm less interested in showing my art than in using my art." Change is life. We each have to make our choices about how to navigate change-- resist it or move with the wave or transform. However you choose to move, remember the power at the margins; its all in the edges, the fringe, where the shifting of dominance occurs. May you use your art well, in your communities, neighborhoods, institutions, and ecotones... to make the small, but many, many, many stitches necessary to piece together wholeness in our world. 

In gratitude and sisterhood,
Ju Pong