Tim Devin is the brainfather of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra and started a national dialogue with his Somerville Stock Exchange project. Emily Luce connects to ask a few questions on Tim’s recent practice and thinking around Complex Social Change.
1. You have an experimental art practice that is deeply embedded in community activism. Can you quickly outline a couple of your greatest hits, and/or projects near and dear to your heart that would be of interest for people who are looking at complex social change methods/practices?
Sure, yeah. One of my first large community-based projects was “The History of Somerville, 2010-2100.” I asked residents of Somerville MA (which is next to Boston MA) to share their hopes, fears and dreams about the next 90 years. Somerville was going through pretty heavy flux at the time (and still is, actually). With this project, I wanted to capture that mood, but I also wanted people to hear each others’ concerns, and hopefully work together to take control the direction of their city. A number of people connected with each other because of ideas they’d expressed through the project, and the History eventually attracted the attention of local politicians and members of the city’s planning department, which meant that the ideas I documented were being listened to by the Powers.
Another series that might be relevant here are some alternative walking tours I’ve given. The first was an exploration of Boston’s airport that focused on security culture, and the airport’s constant expansion into wetlands and residential neighborhoods. The other one was put on by my group People’s Tours in 2012. We walked around Boston’s South End neighborhood, and learned about the area’s history of “slum clearance” and community-based efforts to fight it– and along the way, we discussed how you can defend and improve your neighborhood without getting priced out in the process. Both tours shared a theme of celebrating communal action.
I do projects like this because I think that building and celebrating community is important. I personally want to live in a more friendly place, and I think most people do, too. But more importantly, once you have an engaged community, people are more likely to band together and work for the change they feel is necessary. Something I did to promote this ideal this are my “Street Surveys.” They’re simple homemade flyers that ask things like “do you feel you have a say in local government?” and “do you feel a sense of community where you live?” Since passersby can answer them by removing a “yes” or “no” slip, it’s a visible record for others in the area of what their neighbors think. They’re available as PDFs from my website, so anyone can test out their own neighborhood, and get the conversation started.
2. We talked with Peter Hall about using the process of failure to observe design beyond the analysis of glossy photos. Your projects look so amazing, complete, and effective from this distance. Obviously that kind of mastery comes with years of practice. Any advice or stories for our young change makers?
Well, failure and mistakes are definitely something I know a lot about!
I’ve learned a lot from each project, and have tried to feed what I’ve learned into each subsequent project. One thing I’ve always got on my mind is how to package ideas so that people will pay attention to them, and so my message will get across. Marketing, basically. I don’t pretend I’m an expert, but it’s something I try to focus on. For instance, back in the winter of 2010/2011, I made some demographic maps here in Boston that showed income levels and crime statistics– maps that I put up around town on poles and walls. They were pretty well-received, so when I was part of a residency in Los Angeles a few months later, I thought I’d make some out there. The problem was that no one really walks in LA, which means that small posters on the street aren’t the best way to communicate. Lesson learned: what works in one area won’t necessarily work in another.
Outreach is another tricky thing that I’m always learning more about. Every situation is different, but some of the ways I’ve done outreach have been through social networking (both online and in real life); by having public events; through tabling at other people’s events; by putting up posters and flyers; and through standard PR like press releases and articles. Reaching out to existing organizations is also crucial. If you don’t you’re just going to alienate people– I found that one out the hard way with The history of Somerville.
3. What’s capturing your attention these days, in your part of the world? Any links and/or names and/or work we need to know about?
Lately, I’ve been brainstorming a project about employment and work culture, and doing research has showed me an awful lot of amazing groups out there. (That’s one of my favorite parts of starting a project– learning about everything people are doing already. Although I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’m reading “The Harvard Business Review” for fun.)
In the process, I’ve been learning about what’s called the “solidarity economy”– basically, sharing in an organized way and buying locally as ways to change consumption patterns; worker coops and workplace democracy as ways to change working patterns; and viewing work as a social enterprise, rather than focusing just on the profits. Talk about complex social change!
There are a number of people and groups working in this field. Transformation Central is a nice site with essays and a map of Massachusetts’ solidarity economy. There’s a large group called the US Solidarity Economy Network that’s involved in these issues. And then there’s a wonderful organization here in Massachusetts called Toolbox for Education and Social Action that promotes social justice and economic reform through workshops and games.
There’s also a move to tie all of this in with environmental justice, which is deeply exciting. Basically, if your goal is to live and work more sustainably and ethically, then this should naturally involve living in a more environmentally friendly way as well–and vice versa. Here’s a Nation cover story that explains it all far better than I ever could.
And speaking of environmental justice, Public Lab is a local group that’s trying to address one of the central problems associated with environmental justice: how can private citizens with limited resources test their soil, air and water? They’ve been building low-cost sensors to test water quality, and sell lenses you can put on your smartphone to turn it into a spectrometer to test for other types of pollution.
Tim Devin’s projects deal with community and social change. His work has been included in art and urbanist shows across the US, Canada, and Europe, and have been featured in such news sources as NPR, CBC and, more locally, the Boston Globe.
Tim’s a member of the Rise Industries art group, and a politically-minded alternative walking tour group called People’s Tours. In 2013, he helped form Space Equals Work, which is a loose group of artists who aim to preserve and expand small business and artist space in Somerville MA. He’s also the chair of the Somerville Arts Council’s advisory board, and is the proud father of a tiny human named Mack.