An essay on tables, social space, and the creation of publics
Under Construction (for Missy Elliot, William Blake, and Matthew Stadler)
by Sam Gould
To begin, let’s list off a few other names for what this essay could be titled: The Long Table; How to Build a Table Out of Solid Air; Good Tables Make Good Neighbors [on second thought, I don’t like that one too much.]; and lastly how about the previous title before I edited it and came up with the present one, When we Get to the Table (Will we Know How we Got There?). So, you understand the idea. We’re going to talk about the elemental nature of The Table, its social, emotional, pedagogical, and yes let’s make the argument, political uses and potential. It’s a beginning. I’m still thinking this through, but I’d like to get started nonetheless. Let’s sit down…
When I was a sophomore in high school I decided to take an unexpected day-trip up North to Albany for that city’s annual Tulip Festival. I had no reason to do this other than that a teenager craves mobility, the unknown, entertainment, and the possibility that “something will happen.” Honestly, I would have been hard-pressed to recognize a tulip by sight at that moment in my life, so in retrospect I’m sure I was not attending due to the main attraction. I was concerned with other things. Getting into an older, drivers license holding, mutual friends 1985 Honda Civic hatchback, a handful of us hit the road, turned on Innervisions by Stevie Wonder, and mostlikely lit a joint. I was, admittedly, a closeted hippie at that point in time – a designation I continue to secretly maintain to some degree. There was going to be music at the festival, probably of the neo-hippie variety, and that was likely the driving force for us to venture up there in the first place. But, upon arriving and hanging around I quickly lost interest in the music and the scene. I got bored, so another one of my travel-mates and I decided to explore the city and find something to eat. Right off the bat we spotted a Chinese restaurant called Amazing Wok. Our plan was set. Albeit forgoing the Chinese restaurant, we adopted its name ceremonially as our own. We’d go on The Amazing Walk – a distributed meal, getting drinks, appetizers, second course, desert, etc, from restaurant to restaurant as we traversed the streets of Albany. And so two fifteen year olds explored New York’s capitol city, eating and drinking, considering where to go from one spot to another and expanding our table as the route progressed – a juvenile dérive thousands of miles and three decades or so from the Left Bank. Our tables and the street merged as one into a composite form.
What I hadn’t known at the time was that a parallel celebration of food, drink, and construction had existed in Albany, as well as much of the Hudson Valley and parts of New Jersey too, for African-Americans of the region, and had been at the height of its popularity roughly two hundred years up until the time my friend and I constructed our distributed table from restaurant to restaurant along that city’s streets. Pinkster was an annual celebration brought over from Holland by the Dutch who settled around the New York and New Jersey area. Still celebrated in Holland today, the Dutch who settled around the Hudson Valley celebrated Pinkster primarily as a religious holiday, a time for baptisms and confirmations, a time of rest and contemplation on the renewal that spring offers us as well as, of course, a time for a party. For the free and enslaved African-Americans of the region, it was a celebration of a different sort. Pinkster represented a time to celebrate, often for three or four days on end, a moment away from the watchful eye of the Dutch white majority. Like similar springtime celebrations of renewal, Pinkster would also invoke moments of temporary role reversal through mimicry and ridicule of those in power. African-Americans would perform dramas, sing songs, and voice speeches taking subtle jabs at the local white population. But it was as well, at least temporarily, a time of convergence for Whites and Blacks, who would perform dances with one another, mixing traditional African and Dutch steps together, some of which quite arguably were transformed in time into dances we’re familiar with today, such as Tap. In preparation both groups would construct small buildings in which to gather, sell drinks, oysters, flowers, sassafras bark, berries, and other goods. The African-Americans would construct buildings similar to those they had known, or for the many born within the United States, had only heard of, back in West African regions such as present day Sierra Leone and Liberia. In these Faux-African structures the Blacks of Albany, Brooklyn, and dozens of other Hudson River enclaves would be able to meet together, eat, drink, and celebrate in private as one, however temporary, autonomous community.
I like building things. I am not good at math. I don’t follow plans, and even when I do I will often manage to get them slightly wrong, no matter how hard I try to the contrary. I embody inaccuracy and I am, to some degree, only slightly ashamed of that. To most, therefore, I possess attributes that might just make me an artist. But this is a poor way to define things. I’d argue most people like building things in one form or another, especially now that one hardly ever does. We often don’t have the opportunity to know why we should build anything, furthermore why we’d take the opportunity, through blind trial and error, to figure out why we’d build anything in the first place. Most of us, understandably, need directions, plans, a reason that follows a form of logic, a means to an end – take these pieces of wood, these fasteners, apply them in such and such a fashion, sit there and figure out something to do. And, in effect, this means we live in a world with a lot of crap that falls apart because we’re following other peoples plans, their desires often radically different from our own. This can be said of a table, as readily as it can be said of our more recent quotidian tools like an email account, or cell phone. Without at the very least modifying how we utilize the tools we access each day, our tools rapidly begin to modify us to their needs instead of our own. And this is important because even more so than, say, a hammer, our contemporary quotidian tools – our tables, our “social networks,” our cell phones – whether directly intended to or not, serve an often invisible and highly vital function in that they act as platforms for the consideration and actualization of how we observe and interact with each other in total. These platforms encounter us in our most rarified as well as our unrefined and unguarded forms. And so, we need to understand why to build something as much as how, because if we don’t do so it will start building us. It’s not important if we are, technically, good mechanics. The process will allow us to learn how we are engaged with the world around us. We’re stuck on learning how to build something, and subsequently we often fall short of the why, the latter being an elemental aspect of our true nature. And in this way plans and designs, however useful, when applied in mass, manifest as aesthetic fascism at the dinner table, in the living room, in bed, in our ear. The specter of Ikea and Apple lays waste to the landscape.
And so, while this essay, at heart, is concerned with everyday tools in general, how we use them, and how they use us, I am going to focus primarily on The Table in specific; as a schoolhouse, as a newspaper, as a community center, as a platform for intellectual, cultural, and political transformation.
Let’s travel back a hundred years or so, and consider the table as a meeting ground for opposing forces. I’ve told this story before. But it’s worth retelling. In 1897, about a mile from where I used to live in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, three men were arrested for publishing “obscene” material. These men produced a newspaper called The Firebrand, an anarchist periodical with an international readership. Henry Addis, Abner Pope and Abraham Isaak – the editors of The Firebrand – were briefly jailed, then run out of Portland, Oregon for good. They’re lucky they weren’t lynched. After a short stay in San Francisco, Addis and Pope resurfaced a little over one hundred and fifty miles northwest of their former residence, this time at Home, Washington.
Two years prior to the arrest of the Firebrand’s editor’s, in 1895, a set of three different men who shared similar philosophical ideals to the Firebrand’s editors, and had very little money between them, built themselves out of necessity a handmade boat and set sail out upon the Salish Sea, the larger body of inlets, bays and tributaries that make up in full what is more commonly referred to as the Puget Sound. The men were looking for an isolated clearing of land wherein they could establish a new community based upon, “the principles of Free Love and Pure Anarchy.” George H. Allen, Oliver A. Verity, and B. F. O’Dell found their spot near the southern basin of the Salish, roughly equidistant between Tacoma and Olympia, Washington. Between the men, upon making their decision, they put together a down payment of five dollars, reserving themselves twenty-six acres of land at two dollars and fifty cents an acre. Back in Tacoma and Seattle they went to work earning the remaining funds towards claiming the land as their settlement. By the following year, 1896, Allen, Verity, and O’Dell had moved their families onto the land, which they named Home, and began work towards attracting others with similar political ideals.
It worked. Home grew in size and membership relatively quickly. A meeting space – Liberty Hall – was constructed. Over the years it burned down on three occasions and was rebuilt after each fire. Home had no government to speak of. No designated places of worship. As one would imagine, Home had no police department either. And so, Liberty Hall became the center of town. Colony members would often gather to listen to lectures there, many by fellow “Homites,” on a myriad of subject matter. Home attracted speakers from across the country as well, including the likes of Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Eugene Debs, the perennial Presidential candidate of the times, as well as a host of others known and unknown then and now. In short order a newspaper was started, entitled Discontent; Mother of Progress. Many others followed. Discontent, in the words of Stewart Holbrook, the former lumberman and noted Pacific Northwest Journalist and Historian, was, “from a close look at the yellowing files to have been more about sex… than economics.” Shortly after the assassination of president William McKinley in 1901, Henry Addis – former co-editor of the Firebrand – wrote an article for Discontent, which came out full force against marriage. To Addis, marriage was, “the lowest form of prostitution.” The stage was set for a confrontation.
Behind every battle, every love affair, everything, you’ll find a table. What happens next? The scenario seems so picaresque, so mindful, controlled, and reasonable, hardly what one might expect from two oft-times completing forces. I cannot help but want to travel back in time and be given the opportunity to stand on the sidelines, taking in the scene.
The post office in Seattle got wind of the issue of Discontent that published Addis’s article. For the local branch of the Feds it was the last straw. A year prior to the articles publication a gang of men from Tacoma set out for Home with guns, bats, and other objects of destruction. The rumors of the goings-on at the isolated Key Peninsula commune put the fear of bomb throwing bearded madmen into the minds of the citizens to the east. Only the sound reason of Ed Lorenz, and J.F. Doescher, the Pastor of Tacoma’s German Evangelical Church, turned them around. Doescher and Lorenz, a steamboat captain who regularly stopped at Home on his route, convinced the mob that, from firsthand experience with the members of Home they knew them to be, “sober and industrious people.” That time trouble was averted, but after Addis’s marriage article, and the publications subsequent exclusion from the mails, the Federal government got involved. Soon a Federal Marshall, guns set into the holsters on each hip boarded Lorenz’s Tacoma ferry expecting a confrontation. It is at this point that my mind beginnings to extrapolate. There isn’t much information concerning the incident in question that I have found in print. I have yet to even find the name of the Marshall who traveled to Home to arrest the editors of the paper. And so, with little information, I find myself attempting to look through the eyes of the Marshall, to see what he might have seen.
Home, like most of the upper Cascadian region, is a rainy place. Was there fog on Joe’s Bay as the ferry approached the dock? Did the Marshall stand at the bow of the ship, peering out, waiting to catch his first glimpse of the maniacs on the shore? Did he anticipate a bullet whizzing past his ear, ready to fire in return? What were his expectations that day on the ferry? I can’t know for certain, but I envision him standing expectantly in a wide-brimmed hat, coated with droplets of rain, dripping the occasional drop, as the boat neared the shore and the picture became clearer. What is known is that on the dock as the ferry arrived the Marshall found the inhabitants of Home waiting for him, but not as I presume he expected. On the dock little girls, hazy in sunlight, wore simple dresses. They stood expectantly, with flowers, men, women and small boys, along side them. The Marshall was greeted upon his arrival with open arms. The anarchists at Home prepared a great meal at Liberty Hall and invited the Marshall as the guest of honor. At a long series of tables, stretching the length of the hall, they ate and drank from afternoon into evening as they spoke with him about their town and their ideals. The sun beginning to set, they prepared to dance. They ate ice cream. A bed was made up for the Marshall, who slept overnight, leaving Home the following morning, as was his assignment, with the editors of Discontent. At the trial of the editors the Marshall testified in their defense: “if the men and women of Home are what Anarchists are supposed to be, then I’m all for anarchism.”
As with so many American stories the dinner at Home is full of possibilities, so many chances to take wrong, and deadly, turns. American history is peppered with intriguing scenes that vary in their levels of energy and poetics. And as with so many American stories, it’s centered round a table. The Marshall’s visit to Home, and the table prepared for that visit, shows us the opportunities inherent within the forms of conviviality (the quotidian and the celebratory alike) that we are so used to, the forms we encounter so often within our everyday lives; nightly dinners, barroom meetings, supper clubs, Grange halls, Elk’s lodges, birthday parties, weddings, and the like. We can begin to make a list: I am reminded of The Junto, a group of young mechanics that met each Friday evening in pre-revolutionary Philadelphia. The group, initiated by Benjamin Franklin in 1727, met at the same table on the upper level of a public house each week to discuss specified topics, debate, read texts written by its members, as well as talk about ways to improve their businesses and their town. Self-improvement and public works laid at the core of The Junto. I am reminded of the children’s breakfast programs organized by the Black Panther Party. You’ll remember the inception of the Youth International Party (Yippie!) began while discussing ideas for artfulness and action over a few joints at the kitchen table of Abbie and Anita Hoffman. Certainly many congressional and senatorial campaigns were declared while sitting at kitchen tables as well.
As a means towards problem solving this platform of subtle negotiation – The Table – affords us a familiar, if not all together neutral, ground on which to converge. A table provides a space known to all, used by all almost every day, to discuss new ideas and new possibilities. A table is a tool. A tool so elemental we’ve stopped viewing it as such. There is good reason we’ve lost sight of this fact. How do you discuss something that you use everyday? If there is a problem, this is where it lays. As a form I understand what the tool is. I understand what the tool can do. How much does one need to elaborate upon why the tool achieves what it does? A meal, or getting together for a beer, at the table, as a tool, is like a hammer, an inclined plain, steps, or a pulley – all the “simple tools” we learned about in elementary school. A table is so intrinsic that we don’t find the need to define it. A hammer is an extension of our body, a means towards augmenting what is already within us. Convening at a table with friends and strangers is an augmentation of what we need to do to survive – eat, talk, listen, observe with as many of our senses as we’ll allow ourselves. So in the end is the more important thing to discuss, not how the table works, but what we plan on doing with it? To begin, maybe the thing to do is get rid of the table in its physical form and consider, instead, how we plan to use it. This tool, which we access everyday, a tool so plainly remarkable in its simplicity, should we not think first about how we construct its ephemeral use as the initial step towards the construction of its truly operable physical self?
On a winter’s night in early 2003 the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) raided a former African-American Mason’s Hall confiscating thirty-five dollar’s worth of extremely poor quality vodka, which I had intended to use the following morning for a monthly event I organized around that time called Bits & Pieces. I’d been planning to make Bloody Mary’s, a lucrative offering for the breakfast rush. With the loss of the vodka, and some quick thinking on the part of my wife Laura, we served Red Death’s instead – a Bloody Mary served with Pabst or its equivalent instead of liquor. All was well. No one protested.
Bits & Pieces was a café which materialized as a monthly lecture and performance series wherein for five dollars or so attendees experienced, among other creative endeavors, Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A performed by Linda K. Johnson, or a keyboard and percussion duet with Tim DuRoche and Carei Thomas, the latter an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, accompanied by a full breakfast. Under fire, during the run of the series, I became a pretty efficient short order cook, serving forty or more people breakfast during every program. Early each morning of the series we’d gather the round tables, and as the blue and silver light particular to the Pacific Northwest bled its way into the rooms of the building, we’d roll the tables into place around the old hall. Then I’d begin to prepare the meal. Matthew Stadler came to these events, and between us we’re pretty sure this is where we first met.
Matthew understands the uses of the table pretty well. While still living in Seattle, in the mid-90’s, he started a weekly class, advertised through friends and fliers tacked on to telephone poles, which took place around his kitchen table. Around 2006 he revived this concept, again meeting around his kitchen table, for a class entitled Using Global Media. Matthew resides within a long line of admirable and effective table-makers: persons who know how to use the intrinsic elements of the platform to energize a larger set of interests. It starts with sitting down, addressing the situation, setting the parameters, and letting go. Once the table is set you needn’t rearrange the place settings. It will only disrupt the flow.
Sometime around 2004 Matthew proposed to our friend Michael Hebb, who along with his then wife Naomi Pommeroy, ran three highly regarded restaurants at the time, that he be the restaurant’s “writer-in-residence” in exchange for free food and drink. Who knew what this meant at the time, but what it became was a series of reports in the form of letter-pressed table setting. These table settings featured literary analysis of the inner-workings of the restaurant, its kitchen, its butchery, and the like. As well, Matthew’s residence included some organized mealtime discussions. A few of these occurred before they formed into something more linear in explanation. In time they became the backroom, a series of intimate and highly decadent and drunken meals. The backroom, as a form, continues today. It’s heyday, it’s beta-version, ran for a few years, ending roughly around 2007 with the publication of The backroom Anthology, a collection of essays commissioned for each meal by that evenings focal point of discussion. The original essays would appear as the first item available to consume on your plate for the evening in the form of a small, again, letter-pressed chapbook. The guests whose essays we would take home, and who would instigate our discussions, included among others Gore Vidal, Walid Raad, Wayne Koestenbaum, Gregory Crewdson, Lawrence Weschler, and Mary Gaitskill, with music accompanied by cocktails before dinner by the likes of Stephen Malkmus, Dirty Projectors, The Microphones / Mt. Eerie, Lucky Dragons, Calvin Johnson, YATCH, Carrie Brownstein, The Evolutionary Jass Band, and others.
Seated side-by-side at long tables, food served family style in abundance, much good wine – and later in the evening to accompany the discussion El Presidente Brandy – drunk, the backroom served as a kind of gustatory salon, a space for intellectual investigation and argument swathed in decadence and pseudo-glamour in a city that, at least for the city I inhabited at the time, had very little money or patronage. I wasn’t the only one who never paid for a place at the table. Those who could afford to pay did, those who couldn’t, paid with their intellect and wit.
Why did we construct the table in the first place? What is its social and emotional purpose? The Shakers knew. Pier 51 does not. Mother Ann Lee, the matriarch of The Shaker sect, offered this dictum to follow, “Every Force Evolves a Form.” The Shaker’s would wait for signs from above before they would begin their work. I’ve stood in the rooms of buildings they’d constructed around the border of Kentucky and Tennessee and hummed with questions, humbled but unsure of the knowledge I was receiving in the forms presence. A mystical experience can be a secular experience, an experience filled with knowledge in context in which the content of that experience is hazy at best. And yet, we understand that knowledge was in some fashion transmitter and absorbed. We sit at a table. We talk, we drink, we eat, and we observe the space that the table demarcates for us within the room it inhabits. And, on the best of occasions, we leave the table feeling that something very important just happened, but it wasn’t any one comment per se. It wasn’t any one person, drink, dish, or story. And yet, we know that we’ve gained something, something within us has changed. What is it?
We need to build our needs for our own sake, because the outcome is our lives and how we live them. When the most elemental is decided for us – like where and how we eat – the most elemental core of us begins to alter. The majority of us, by necessity, purchase our lives out of a box. And from one home to the next, one box to the next, we begin to look and act the same, following the plans designated for us. We begin to shift from our singular selves to the hive-mind of mass consumption and production. The production of the hive-mind grows even more insidious when our homes become our factories, when we take home the table in a box and break out the tools cast specifically for one use before they’re tossed away, creating the factory from afar, in which we paid for our own labor rather than got paid for our own labor. Self-assembly, as opposed to construction, becomes another extension of our elemental shift away from connecting to one another as individuals to just being another worker for The Man. Humorous, but really, I’m serious here. In the interest of full disclosure, I am sitting here on an Ikea dining room chair. The company calls it a Bertil. It is modern looking, unfinished wood. It has clean lines. It’s comfortable. When assembling these chairs one evening this past winter, I bought five, one for each family member, my daughter pulled part of one of the chairs down on top of her head and cried. I held her, thinking to myself, “I’ve got three more of these damn things to put together.” I couldn’t help but listen for the factory whistle screaming out marking the end of the workday, telling me I could stop assembling the chairs. Maybe the whistle was actually Honora crying?
A table’s function is as much emotional and social as it is literal. We need a table to act as a meeting ground for our day and how we place the considerations of that day in a larger context, inasmuch that “the table” acts as a vehicle for us to frame and place the food and drink we consume in the context of how we received it, inasmuch as “the table” acts as a platform, an object that compels us to stop and consider who we are sitting with and why we love, hate, admire, desire, or are suspicious of the people next to or across from us. Tables do lots of stuff they aren’t supposed to, at least in the way we normally think of the function of a table. Tables are special. They allow us to figure out how to consider the space between us, and where we’d like to situate ourselves in relation to others. I’ll stand by this argument: the table is the simplest and most readily available tool with which we defend ourselves against the encroaching specter of the hive-mind. You can stand up now.