Thursday, March 2, 2017

Site Visit #8 IDA

The Dirt Palace is getting strategic (making a plan)! As part of this process we're visiting some organizations/space that we admire and hope to learn from. This post is part of a series of profiles of spaces that we have visited. This project is supported by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

At a Glance
Founded: 1993
Budget: 13k mortgage + ?
Staff: 0
Board of Directors: ?
Board of Advisors:
Residents: 6-10

Idyll Dandy Arts (or just Ida) is a Southern, rural community land project and educational space tucked into the hills of Middle Tennessee. The mostly wooded hollow provides space for a gaggle of queer, trans and gender non-conforming residents and their neighbors, friends and visitors.
The residents and the larger Ida community work to provide a safer space for queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people with varying experiences, identities, and abilities. Visiting Ida offers time and space for play and work projects and for making art and learning rural living skills and maybe most importantly–making connections with each other and the land. Ida is host to garden interns in the spring and summer and hosts artists residents and workshops and musical performances throughout the year. Idapalooza is Ida’s annual summer music festival and community coming as well as the primary fundraiser for Ida’s annual land payment.
Geographically Ida is located in a hollow, or maybe a holler, or perhaps even both in the Middle of Tennessee. Organizationally it is at a crossroads.  When we set out to talk to “like minded” organizations about strategies for change, growth and transition, we knew that we absolutely could have no idea of what we’d be getting into. When we first started the Dirt Palace, 16 years ago, we did a similar listening/meeting tour. However at that time, we only had the resources to dialogue with projects that were near by. Those conversations and experiences are burned into our hearts, both because they were so inspiring and also so intense. Our visit to IDA fits into this category of incredibly inspiring and also pretty intense.

It had actually been pretty hard to set up our visit with IDA. For a while no one returned the email that we had sent to the general email (which we can relate to - as the e-mail traffic controller for the DP, I can be SLOW!). So we tried a couple of other avenues, through friends of friends, and then we went down the path of trying to meet with someone who had lived there for a while, but had moved out and into the surrounding “neighborhood”. Then that didn’t work out timing wise, and then someone told us that NOBODY would be home at IDA because of Halloween. Then, just when we thought that our timing was busted, and that we wouldn’t be able to do a site visit, two leads worked out. We ended up having the opportunity to talk with Bren & Half Pint, and later in the day with Phil.

For how “middle of nowhere” people talk about IDA being, it was actually not so hard to find. As we drove down narrow roads, with sunlight dappling the windshield through autumn foliage, there was sense that we had in our stomach’s that this might be the most beautiful landscape that we’d get to see for quite some time. Upon pulling in and walking down the path towards what looked like a residence, we were first greeted by a dog and end of season black-eyed-susans. The dog was calm as we approached, clearly unphased by the comings and goings of visitors. We followed a “hello” out to the back porch where we found Bren who started out by telling us about how she had found her way to IDA after living in New Orleans, Portland and Oakland and ended up moving in around June. Though fairly new as a full time resident, Bren came off as a seasoned spokesperson for the project and named the priorities and responsibilities of being an IDA resident as: maintaining it as a community center, keeping up with the practical realities of the land, keeping it clean, keeping up with people’s needs and supporting people. While IDA’s neighbor, and one time fiscal agent, Short Mountain Sanctuary talks specifically in its outward facing descriptive materials about serving as a safe space for healing, IDA doesn’t. However, it’s clear that if this purpose wasn’t initially designed to be part of IDA’s culture and approach, that it worked it’s way into how at least Bren & Half Pint (who came to the table a bit later) conceptualize what everyone there is building together.  

Our conversation drifted in and out of talking about the change that was happening at IDA, which was characterized as a mass exodus about 2 years ago of the old guard, and a shift towards queer, brown, femme, younger people with less personal resources. The sense we got was that this transition had been difficult and was not without major challenges and painful situations for some of the people who had been there at the time. However, it seemed like Bren & Half Pint had gotten there after some of the most challenging times, and as a consequence had not been worn down or burnt out by the exhaustion of transition. They were incredibly energized by the new direction, particularly in its embodiment in the structure “Building Permanence”, an autonomous QTPOC (Queer Trans Person of Color) house, that is an embodiment of the potential of this new direction.  

We talked about Idapalooza, which we’d been hearing about for years, and came to learn was the main source of funds IDA. Traditionally Idapalooza nets enough to pay the $13,000 a year mortgage and cover a number of expenses for the year. The past few years, Idapalooza attendance has been record breaking (around 700 people) but the funds raised have decreased, which Bren & Half Pint attributed to the shift in demographics (a fan/user base with less money to contribute).  IDA as well as Short Mountain have long standing NOTAFLOF (No One Turned Away For Lack Of Funds) policies around their annual gatherings. Idapalooza is important to IDA in terms of fundraising, but also as an outreach and community building event. Most people discover IDA by coming to Idapalooza, and the scene and culture around it is legendary. Half Pint tells us about cleaning up after it this year. She does her best to channel non-”neighborhood” locals, staring at them in disbelief, wondering why the hell they have a pickup truck full of broken tents filled with lizards and maggots. Both Half Pint and Bren talked with a lot of pride about how this past years gathering involved a lot of intentionality about how purpose was communicated and about how POC were really front and center...and correspondingly how the music was really good & everyone was really cute! (cute is apparently young person slang that we didn’t really know about - AGGGHHHHH!!!!Showing our age!!!)

They characterized the moment that IDA was at as very exciting, but also very fragile. We talked about how different people had different relationships to the space: for some it is a place to call a home base amidst a backdrop of frequent travel, for others it is a place to nest more deeply into. They characterized these relationships to IDA as based on different needs, and we got the sense that there was a lot of understanding and comfort around how this would work, but that it hadn’t totally all played out yet. However, amongst the crew that was there currently, that there was a decent amount of trust and compatibility, as well as drive to get things done.  Most of them are Sagitariuses and Libras.


At risk of casting a metaphor that comes off as way too woo, sitting down with Phil was an experience for us not unlike deciding to pull a single card from a tarot deck and realizing that the card that you drew was exactly the card that you needed to see at that moment.  

After spending the morning with Bren and Half Pint, we went and sat along the dry river for a bit and ate almonds and bread. We walked towards the house and studio that had been pointed out to us as Phil’s, and attempted to figure out what door to knock on. We walked around to his studio and spied a face through a window. He came out and greeted us warmly...but then let us know that he was a bit in shock, having just received an email notifying him of the imminent death of a family member.  Having both gone through some experiences with death in the past month, the complexity of those moments was tangible and close to us. We don’t have to talk we said - whatever you need. “I’m not sure” Phil said - “I think that I need to eat first and then I’ll know if it makes sense to talk to you about IDA now or not - give me a few minutes, i’ll come find you”.  We went and sat down in the grass near one of the somewhat baroque outhouses that they refer to as “shitters”. This one looked vaguely like a UFO. The one closest to the main house is a white victorian with red detailing. The victorian “shitter” is one of the fanciest structures that I’ve ever seen, but I have a hard time not imagining it covered with snow and ice. From there, I confront one of the practical things that seems like might be very hard about living at IDA...trekking out in the snow in the deep of winter to take a morning shit.  We’ve had some times at the Dirt Palace, particularly in the early days, when the creature comforts weren’t very comfortable, but nothing that can compare to a February outhouse situation.

Phil came and found us and invited us up to a platform on the side of his house. It was kind of like a second story deck. We talked casually about how much transition and change he’d seen in his 24 years living at IDA, and how the whole thing had started in the early 90’s from ideas spun at a gathering at Short Mountain. Even in the visioning stage there was a strong philosophical/spiritual component to how the project was conceptualized and gained momentum. Phil told us about a circle ritual that ended with people who were ready to jump into this new land project, that would embrace some of the values and cultures of Short Mountain, but also focus on creativity and art, very literally, stepping forward. The cast of those interested twisted and turned even back then, but there was a core enough group to sign a lease in ‘92, and eventually get started building in ‘93. We talked a bit philosophically about identity politics and separatism vs openness, and if separatism was still relevant at this moment in time. Then we started to talk about structure. For the most part in conversation, Phil stayed away from declarative or prescriptive statements, always holding open a window crack for various possible ideas and approaches. But on this topic, there was no grey. “IDA”, he said, “will be saved or lost through structure”. There was no declaration of what that structure ought be, but only that having it would be critical. This is something that we could relate to for sure. The more clear our governing doc’s have gotten over time, laying out expectations, the easier working together has been. Trust and actually really liking each other and feeling connected goes a long way, and feels great when it’s working. However, when things get hard or stressful, having concrete and clear descriptions of roles and responsibilities pertaining to both practical matters like rent and taking out the trash, and approaches to consciousness and communication, help a lot - like a lot a lot.

Phil’s lived at and has been involved with IDA for 24 years. It was only so long in the course of conversation before we could ask with both awe and curiosity how he’d managed to pull off such a feat. He looked at us knowing that that question was on the way. “I think”, he said, “it’s the balance of two things at this point, one is a certain amount of detachment, coupled with a very deep dedication”. Again, this was something that we could relate to conceptually, but haven’t always been able to pull off practically….”So on a practical level” we asked  “how do you do do you strike this balance”.  With deadpan delivery Phil replied, “Well to start off with I don’t do any dishes anymore”.  He elaborated, “I strongly believe that if people can’t handle the kitchen chaos here, they’re just not going to make it - it’s like essential to be able to live with a certain lack of control, an uncertainty, and at times that means giant piles of dishes...when I say that I don’t do dishes, to some people it sounds like I’m not helping, that I’m a part of giving up...but actually a big part of being able to be here long haul has been the realization that you personally can’t be saddled with carrying all of it, and to realize what strengths you have - there are some things that I do, and do well, and I focus on making sure those are done.”  This was hard for us to wrap our brains around, and I think in part because it points to a core difference between us and IDA, which is that on the spectrum of full individuality to full collectivity, we’re a good deal further away from full collectivity than where IDA positions itself on this spectrum. We don’t cook together, and only eat together once a week. So dishes are a personal responsibility, rather than a collective one, that if one person stopped doing, it would be like a nightmare. On the other hand, we could totally relate to understanding that being able to let go of ab reactions to chaos, particularly kitchen chaos, is a valuable skill for co-habitating in these alternative experiments. It’s been our experience that when collective kitchen mess has started to feel to certain people like signs of bigger issues, like lack of respect on a personal level, rather than simply the chaos of living with 7-8 people, that it is a sign that that person is moving towards no longer wanting to live collectively, or feeling the need to have some control over some of the mundane aspects of living day to day. Emotionally this makes sense. When the chaos of the world is pressing into your psyche, the need for some control of the small things can loom large.
Phil’s method for dealing with stress was his ability to recognize that his fears were really located in past or the future and then to stay focused on living in the present.  Although there’s been a good deal of transition over the past two years, and as a person from the old guard he’s seen and felt a good deal of tensions with these transitions, his way of intersecting with new folks (and this is by no means his first set of “new folks”) is to be really chill with them and not offer lots of unsolicited opinions or advice.  He’s learned over time that it feels better to him to let people figure things out for themselves.

Phil expressed concern over a dwindling sense of transparency particularly in regards to finances. It’s not clear that there was ever total transparency around how much each of the residents at IDA were contributing in the form of rent, but rather a neighborly assumption that all residents were contributing equal shares, which at some point stopped being the case. Rent was never a steep contribution (from my pieced together math, less than $200 a month), but concerns about difficulties for some members to be able to earn income in rural Tennessee led to a change in practice where rent ultimately became the discretion of the members and then no longer a requirement.
Today as we sift through our notes to put together this blog post, it happens to be the day after halloween.  Halloween is kind of a big deal in Providence and the kitchen is strewn with costume scraps, candy wrappers and a bunch of dishes. Basically the reasonable, yet chaotic remains of a night of excitement and wildness not exactly focused on kitchen clean up.

Xander: did you go into the kitchen yet today?
Pippi: yeah did you?
X: yeah
P: Did you think about Phil?
X: Totally...I think that I did it.
P: Did what?
X: Successfully blocked out giving a shit about the dishes.
P: Cool, yeah me too. I’m feeling comfortably detached.
X: I have a feeling that we’re going to think a lot about some of the things that Phil told us going deep into the future….or at least attempt to channel him a lot in the kitchen..

P: totally