The business of revolution
By Patrick O’Dowd
Walking up to the Lexington branch of the Land of Tomorrow gallery, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Earlier in the week, I had spoken to ELandF Projects founder Bruce Burris—the instigator behind this performance piece and countless others—and he had made it clear he didn’t have the slightest clue what Dakota Shaw and Paul Michael Brown had up their sleeves for the “Design Your Own Revolution” project. Burris even warned that it was well within the performers’ rights to not show up at all.
The revolutionaries-turned-startup-business-partners did show—or at least one of them did. Sitting behind a desk in Land of Tomorrow’s gallery space was Dakota Shaw. You might know him better from the local band Stoner Creek Boys, but I suspect it’s highly unlikely that when performing music Shaw is dressed up in a tie and tucked-in, button-down shirt—which he was today. The sight was some sort of cross between Office Space and the Brad Pitt character from that one movie about soap. When asked about the current location of his business associate, Paul Michael Brown, Shaw said he was busy running errands around town. They’re a young business on the rocks and certain hands about town had to be greased. Providing affordable revolutions in this day and age isn’t easy. It’s all about who you know.
The office of Revolting! Inc. was stocked with one table, two chairs, two pencils, a pencil sharpener, one copy machine, and 500 sheets of copy paper. The revolutionary businessmen also had 100 one dollar bills to bootstrap their operation and, like any lean startup, they had to invest wisely. On the wall behind frontman Shaw was a menu of available services that customers could choose from: “Fly The Coop,” “The Pink Slip,” and “Fuck The Man, Man.” Apparently “Fly The Coop” was their most popular item (a chance to burn some familial ties) but, being a discerning consumer, I opted to differentiate myself from the masses. I tried the more exotic options.
I started things off with “The Pink Slip.” Shaw provided me with a “snarky resignation letter” (a mad lib-esque form designed by Brown); a tie that could be thrown off in disgust; and a water bottle intended to be used as a projectile against my soon to be ex-employer’s person. After completing my letter and reading it aloud, I threw off my tie and joined my revolutionary life consultant in a shot of sparkling grape juice—this juice was one of the upfront costs covered by the dollar bills, along with a pack of cowboy killers intended to scare away parents in option one (“Fly The Coop”).
Far from sated by turning my professional life upside down, I moved on to option three. I was looking to disturb the peace, and boy did they have what I needed. The “Fuck The Man, Man” package included a cornucopia of tools with which to bring down your power structure of choice: a DIY paper megaphone to rally the crowds, a smoke bomb, a “stylish” bandana to hide your identity or keep the tear gas at bay, Arab Spring rioting tips translated into English, and a small white flag—not for signaling surrender, but scrawled over with “Bureaucracy” and ready to burn.
After filling out the prewritten form and adding my own calls for organized resistance (taking whatever form necessary!), my consultant led me outside for the flag burning and a second swig of sparkling grape juice. While the DIY revolution startup model is new and unproven, my experience with their project suggests that when the history books are written, partners Shaw and Brown will be heralded for introducing flag burning to the masses. State flags, national flags, corporate flags, nautical flags. Job-creating revolutionaries take note.
Revolting! Inc.’s initial round of angel investment—so to speak—was provided by Lexington performance art incubator ELandF. Started by local artist and Latitude co-founder Bruce Burris in 2006, ELandF was created to provide a support structure for artists in and around Lexington who otherwise may not have the resources or outlet needed to get involved. That kind of support is crucial in a city like Lexington where artists struggle to find a safe haven when not attached to large institutions. As an incubator situated outside those institutions, ELandF projects capitalize on public spaces in order to inject the artists and their performances into the community. In some ways, the gallery space lent by Land of Tomorrow to the “Design Your Own Revolution” project is the exception. Most often, ELandF projects take place in publicly available spaces around the city, whether it’s a rented parking spot, the city’s sidewalks, or a cab around town.
The individual performances themselves begin life as assignments. The DIY revolution project, for instance, started off as a call to the public, “You have been waiting for the perfect moment to design your own revolution. That moment is here… To apply: Please… No more than 50 words on why you wish to design your own revolution by April 25th.” That’s how Shaw and Brown became involved—simple as that. Before the “Design Your Own Revolution” performance, Burris said that what he really wanted with this project and the others like it “was an opportunity to interact with people and co-create some interactions. Then encourage those people who I was working with to take over portions of it. People still don’t feel really comfortable with that, but most of the more recent pieces are really about that—about saying, ‘Here, these are the elements of this thing…Beyond that I don’t have any expectations for it.’”
In that free-form structure might be the genius of the ELandF projects. There is almost always a perceived barrier in the process of creating art whether it’s inspiration, materials, exhibition space, credentials, or a desire for permission. Those barriers grow larger in performance art where the artist is even more intimately involved and exposed.
And that’s just for the artist. There are barriers on the participant’s end of the spectrum as well. Plenty of people will never find their way into an art gallery, much less to a performance art exhibit. Yet with ELandF, Burris has found a way to bring people around Lexington into direct contact with performative art projects by holding them directly in the public sphere and providing artists with just enough moral and material support to get them involved.
Revolutionary consultant Shaw admitted as much himself: “Performance art really isn’t my thing. It’s not something I really identify myself with. It’s his [Burris’] personality. He just has that effect on people’s lives. Setting up situations where there are no expectations; where they [ElandF] appreciate your efforts no matter what. Being very open minded and not saying, ‘Well there’s this bar you have to reach.’ It makes you feel more comfortable because it is putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation. I never wear a tie! He likes putting people in situations.”
It seems appropriate then, as Burris is setting to depart Lexington after 25 years, that his last project with ELandF will likely be “Design Your Own Revolution.” It seems to one writer that ELandF (as well as his countless other projects—especially Latitude) has been his own sort of answer to the “Design Your Own Revolution” assignment—challenging people to overcome that default position of hestitancy and dropping what they create right into the community’s lap.
It’s a further testament to ELandF’s success that, despite Burris’ departure, we aren’t seeing the incubator’s end. In fact, it is former ELandF participants, Kremena Todorova and Kurt Gohde, who are taking over what will soon be known as “ELandF East.” (Burris will establish ELandF West in his new home of Oregon.) Todorova and Gohde are professors at Transylvania University (you might know them best from “The Lexington Tattoo Project”) and have both been involved in ELandF projects in the past. They haven’t designed any of the assignments, but upon learning of Burris’ departure, they asked if they could help keep ELandF alive in Lexington.
Their new role places them in the position of operating what will be the “new” ELandF while Burris takes the “old” to his new location. But that doesn’t mean things are changing. When asked if they had any new plans, both Todorova and Gohde emphasized that they would like the project generator to remain the same. Gohde noted that “Bruce has never really visibly been ELandF. It’s never been ‘ELandF: a Bruce Burris project.’ It’s always been this thing that kind of exists relatively quietly and interfaces with people in smaller, more intimate situations which we hope to continue.”
It was on one of those more intimate moments that I left Revolting! Inc. after two more customers were treated to their own shots at bureaucratic upheaval. Together we stood with flags extinguished and a day of commodified revolt nearing its end, quietly watching the flags’ ashes—the ashes of a revolution—float off into the air. Our revolutionary consultant Shaw spoke the only words, suggesting I use that moment to close my story. An image like that could be good for business.