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Down From The Tower

Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers Tackle Art and The Academy

Todd Meyers

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 12/10/2008

Creative Capitalism Book Release Party

The Windup Space, Dec. 16

For those who still marvel at capitalism, one of its most mysterious and beautiful processes is that of "creative destruction," whereby things fall apart only to reemerge, in new forms, emboldened by the failure of their ancestors. Creative Capitalism, a Baltimore-based loosely formed collective of academics and artists, might best be described as a group dedicated to creative construction, resurrecting marginalized or discarded work that is unlikely to be appreciated in the culture industries or the academy.

Since its start in 2004--and the 2005 publication of the suitably named Friends of Friends of Friends book that featured art, writing, and media from the social network of its founders, Peter Quinn and Todd Meyers--Creative Capitalism has found itself quickly expanding into other publishing, music, art, and academia. This week, the group holds a release party for its latest book, Anthropologies, which includes contributions from Johns Hopkins University professors, a previously un-translated article from a preeminent French historian of science, and a video from a Malaysian filmmaker.

"When Peter and I first began Creative Capitalism, it was really conceived as an art collective," explains Meyers, an anthropology doctoral candidate at Hopkins, during a September interview at a local coffee shop. "It was less bound by something that was aesthetically rigid, more by what people were actually doing. It was also a creative outlet that wasn't connected with advertising."

With Anthropologies, Meyers and his co-editor, Richard Baxstrom, sought out work that was outside the boundaries of academic publishing, which is constrained not by advertising but by the expectations set by disciplines, journals, and departments. The book opens with an introspective essay by Lori Leonard, a Hopkins public health professor, about the consequences of taking photographs, a standard practice for any social science researchers, of people for whom it may carry negative religious, political, or economic consequences.

Meyers said that he and Baxstrom wanted to produce a non-traditional book. "Richard and I wanted to do something novel," Meyers says. "We wanted to do an academic book that would have broad appeal, but wouldn't be mainstream. In some ways, it's very subtle. You realize those images are what those essays are about. There's a lot of humility in these essays."

Baxstrom, who received his doctorate in anthropology from Johns Hopkins in 2006 and is currently a social anthropology lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, said the project, which might be part of a serial publication but is not intended to be a journal, is deliberately ambiguous in its intentions. "Of course you imagine the audience, the kind of engagement you're talking about," he says during a November interview. "We didn't imagine it too strictly. From a marketing perspective, we did a horrible job. We wanted to be kind of promiscuous. We wanted it to mean different ways."

This is particularly clear in the DVD that accompanies the book. Featuring four short films, one of which accompanies an essay in the book, as well as a sampling from the musicians on the Creative Capitalism imprint, Anthropologies sprawls without losing its core commitment to the relationship between texts and images.

"Creative capitalism [as a term] is very literal," Meyers says. "We're simply trying to utilize the creative energies of people. In order for the equation to work you need to turn on the creative potential of a lot of people."

Toward that end, the book includes work that might not have a home in either an academic journal or art magazine. In "Mapping the Conflict," Hopkins anthropology professor Pamela Reynolds reproduces maps that were annotated by young anti-apartheid activists in South Africa in 1998. With notes made in multicolor pen marking spaces as "war zones" and "secret meeting," the black and white architectural maps serve as both art objects and complex political histories.

Baxstrom reports that he and Meyers sought out people who had material that fit the criteria for the project. "We thought of folks who had some similar kind of engagement [as our own]," he says. "Not everyone comes out of their work with visual documents. Some people responded very positively. Pam Reynolds had those maps for many years."

By defining ethnography as a creative practice, not just data collection in the service of articles and manuscripts, Meyers and Baxstrom were able to consider material in new ways. "Ethnography is, in a general sense, a creative engagement," Baxstrom says, referring to one essay, by the French historian Georges Canguilhem, about the history of disease. "There's something very creative about this. He's talking about disease and diagnostics as a creative act on the behalf of physicians."

Although the book's official launch--which includes an introduction/talk by several individuals involved with the book, as well as DJ performances and a projection of some of the included films--it has been available for purchase since the summer. "Even without the heavy push, there's been a lot of positive and sometimes very audible response" about the book, Baxstrom says. "We're hoping to get more formal kinds of reaction, so we'll be sending it [to] visual anthropology journals and art journals to get reactions."

"We're very proud of it," Meyers says. The contributors "are a very diverse and accomplished group of people. To think that a Baltimore art collective that's fledgling is able to bring together these people is pretty phenomenal."

Meanwhile, Quinn and the others behind Creative Capitalism have found themselves in the unusual position of defending their term against colonization by Bill Gates, who used it earlier this year to define the use of market forces to serve the poor, particularly in developing nations. "There's been a battle on Wikipedia for ownership of the term," he says by phone, alluding to the fact that the Gates version of the term has now supplanted their concept. "I think there's going to be a callout for help to deal with that from a user perspective. We want to establish it in Wikipedia, because we kind of got kicked off of it. We plan on doing a piece about it, about the ownership of ideas."

"I don't know what it does to our brand name," Quinn continues, adding that the group plans to push back against this Gates' co-option of the term. "If anything, it just makes it weird."

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