Lawrence-based artist Dave Loewenstein has recently completed his 2012 Rocket Grants project Give Take Give, in which he documented the informal gift economy that had arisen around a dumpster near his home. You can read his posts about the project here and here.
University of Kansas professor and author, Frank Farmer, chose Dave’s work to talk about the idea of a “citizen bricoleur” in his Keynote Address to the 2013 Rhetoric Society of America Summer Institute held at KU, June 3rd-9th. This idea emerges from his most recently published book, After the Public Turn: Composition, Counterpublics, and the Citizen Bricoleur (Utah State/Colorado, 2013).
Posted below is an excerpt from the Address, but you can read the whole text here: Making Stuff and Doing Things.
It seems indisputable that Dave is first and foremost an artist, and an exceptional one at that. But he is more than an artist. He makes stuff and he does things. He is a socially aware citizen of Kansas, a proud resident of the East Lawrence neighborhood, an activist, a writer, and sometimes speaker. He is also a rhetorician, though I don’t know if he would embrace that title for himself. But his is a certain kind of rhetoric, what we might refer to as a non-propositional rhetoric. To be exact, Dave’s rhetoric, especially in this project, is a rhetoric of bearing witness, a rhetoric that attempts to stand as an embodied testament to the possibility that there might be other economic arrangements than the one imposed upon us, arrangements not in thrall to the imperatives of scarcity, which seems to be the unquestioned orthodoxy of our moment. Such rhetorics as Dave’s are not so much interested in debate and deliberation, as they are in providing lived examples, lived alternatives of ways of being in the world, ways that stand counter to what we are incessantly told we have no choice but to accept. In this respect, the gift economy that emerged out of what Rachel Vaughn called “the little dumpster that could” bore witness to, and ideally prefigured, a very different kind of economy than the one that makes it necessary for some of our citizens to draw sustenance from dumpsters in the first place.
If you agree that Dave is an artist, and if you agree that he is also a rhetorician, albeit of a certain kind, would you also agree that Dave Loewenstein is what I have elsewhere referred to as a citizen bricoleur? Bricolage, as most of you know, refers to the various arts of improvisational construction, the everyday “making do” of the “handyman” or “handywoman” who, using those materials and tools readily available, fashions new objects out of worn ones, who imagines new uses for what has been cast aside, overlooked, or discarded; who turns remnant materials to new purposes; who deploys sheer resourcefulness to cobble together stuff that has otherwise been forgotten or scrapped. Certainly, on a literal level, our now famous dumpster provided ample opportunity for actual bricoleurs in the community to exercise their improvisational talents. But it also provided citizens like Dave to improvise something new as well. Dave did not make this dumpster, nor did he make new objects out of the items put in this dumspster. What he did make, though, were new meanings out of this dumpster. Those meanings include, as I earlier noted, “a temporary, autonomous zone of good will,” a thriving gift economy, an island community (so to speak), a new identity of sorts, and a certain kind of public within a public, a local public that, however limited or however temporary, confronted us with the possibility that there might be more fair, just and democratic ways to be with each other in our community. It is in the making of these things that I think of Dave as a citizen bricoleur.
We need to recognize another kind of citizen—not only the one who dutifully votes, who takes pleasure in exercising civic pride, who advocates for various causes, who participates in local governance, who devotes time and money to a favored candidate, and so on. Of course, we need such citizens. Any meaningful democracy simply cannot thrive without its received forms of public engagement. But we need another kind of citizen too, the kind of citizen who believes democracy to be something more than law or policy, who understands that democracy remains always a yet to be completed project, who knows, far better than most, that while any given democracy must be changed from within, it must also be contested from without by those who exist on the other side of the alley, who do not engage in all the usual forms of participation, and who, because of identity, language, style, or preferred ways of being in the world, desire nothing less than an alternative kind of publicness.