According to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, Labor day is, "a celebration of the American Labor Movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of their country."
RENT Poet is a project about labor, fundamentally. About the value and meaning of artistic labor, how we quantify it, and who gets to be its patron and judge.
Screenslaver said some interesting things when I told him about the project. He asked:
"Can people in a city snap out of their usual mode of consumer capitalism, where the logic is IF PRICE, THEREFORE VALUE? Can YOU snap people out of that? Challenge them to recognize the RISK you're taking on, the courage you're showing, and decide, alone, how much the piece of art is worth, with no MARKET to verify? Another interesting question [about busking generally], why should people be less willing to compensate you knowing it's going to sustenance only, rather than to PROFIT a big company?"
Amanda Palmer, formerly of the Dresden Dolls and, before that, a busker, has an excellent TED Talk on crowdfunding freely available music in which she compares it to street busking. She talks about it as stopping for a moment to really connect with people and hold space for them. She talks about providing your art for free and trusting that the people receiving that art will catch you financially. The equivalent of a stage dive. Trusting that THIS, this trust itself, has a value. It goes back, in my mind, to ideas I first read about in David Graeber's Debt. The idea that commerce, as it exists now, exists to facilitate us NOT having relationships - we exchange things for money and never have to let people get in the way. He argues that debt, in its original sense, was about creating relationships - it's not an exchange, its a deliberate unbalancing of the equation that means that both parties have a vested interest in continuing to interact and exchange in mutually beneficial ways.
Back to labor day. In a sense, the relationship of workers to employers is always one of unbalanced exchange - debt. But not in a good way. Nick Hanauer, a self-proclaimed '1%er', has a great article calling for the American top 1% to pull a Ford and pay workers a living wage. His suggestion is born of self-interest in having a consumer class free from debt slavery that can afford to consume the products they themselves create without fear of default and burst bubbles. It's a good argument, very in vogue in that it's 100% about markets. But absent in it is the idea that workers contribute to the "strength, prosperity, and well-being" of anything through their hours of concerted effort.
This is especially troubling for artists, whose very product, I'd argue, is in the vein of the whole "strength, prosperity, and well-being" shebang. Like Amanda Palmer, the cultural world is trying to re-invent the wheel of what artistic labor and its products look like, and how we pay for them. The internet has led to the sudden availability of everything, everywhere, for free. We can't fight that. It's up to us to embrace it as artists, our new status as 'buskers' whose product is freely available and on display to be judged by the masses. As the gatekeepers of art shift from institutions (who, in the bygone era, 'collected the rent' from arts patrons) to the patrons themselves, we have to shift our relationships and way of working accordingly. Not to be a kitsch factory, but to enter into meaning relationships and conversations - and, yes, indebtedness - with our patrons. Shameless Patreon plug, come be my patron.
So I have spent this Labor Day sitting with my buddy Bobby Gordon of the Melrose Poetry Bureau typing up my first commissions to mail out to Berkeley and London, type-writing my address on envelopes, and coordinating making an appearance at The Last Bookstore's open mic tonight at 8pm in Downtown LA (you're invited!). It's been a labor of love.