Dynamic Collectivity: Artistic Direct Action, Economic Sustainability, and the Punchlock Printing Collective
Hayes, Ryan Ramin
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Through a case study of the Toronto-based Punchclock Printing Collective, this paper considers how experiments with prefigurative politics and collective cultural production pose alternatives to hegemonic power structures, and just as importantly, what kinds of contradictions and challenges these endeavours face. I begin with a personal story about my relationship to art and politics, a brief introduction to Punchclock, some theory I’ve found useful, and an overview of my research process. These sections set the groundwork for a detailed case study based on interviews I conducted with members of Punchclock. The first part of the case study explores how Punchclock formed and evolved over time as a social entity born from artistic, political, and economic desires. My research suggests that from 2003-2013 there were three discernible acts: a founding by two activist artists who brought a range of other people on board; a second wind of political and cultural activity under new leadership, which was interrupted by economic pressures, a stark turnover, and internal tensions; and a deradicalized third form in which Punchclock continued to function as a collective space for art production without direct engagement with political movements. The second part of the case study analyzes Punchclock’s activities in more depth: Who are the members of Punchclock? What are their relations of collective production? What is the meaning of their political graphics? What kinds of contestations of power are taking place? This approach is otherwise summarized as: WHO, HOW, WHAT, and SO WHAT. The reflections of Punchclock members offer complex and nuanced insights into these questions, which I hope will be useful for socially-engaged artists and anyone with an interest in cultural production and social movements. I found that when a group of outsider artists with activist backgrounds coalesced around Punchclock, new collective relationships allowed them to transcend their singular capacities and make important artistic, political and economic contributions to social struggles. These contributions were shaped by the hybrid and ever-shifting nature of their collective organizing, which brought activist artists together with musicians and other cultural producers. However, Punchclock’s eventual reversal in core membership from self-taught activists to art school graduates is indicative of the challenges with sustaining prefigurative collectives. Internal tensions are often exacerbated by the difficulties of surviving within a hostile political climate. Along with external factors, including aggressive gentrification and the onerous task of ethical sourcing with little money, internal tensions abounded: the effects of a wave of personal transitions and health crises were compounded by the lack of an access mandate, loose operating principles, and a devaluing of this work by movements themselves.