Rising together

This Artist Residency Is Demonstrating the Power of Mutual Aid

Activation has come to represent a future in which mutual aid efforts center accessible care and creative expansion through community solidarity.

Last fall I attended an artist residency that reconfigured my expectations around creative community.

Exiting the bus from the familiar chaos of New York City into the verdant curtain of the Catskill Mountains, I spent four days immersed in nature, social consciousness workshops, mutual care exercises, and more. These practices hit a reset button for myself and the other artists in attendance, the ripple effects of which are still expanding.

Activation Residency is flipping the script on traditional artist residency frameworks. The four-day mutual aid residency has evolved into a self-sustaining network of creatives, built on a foundation of equitable wealth distribution, digitally and physically accessible programming, and resource sharing, where solidarity―not charity―is the central goal.

The term “mutual aid” has circulated widely since COVID-19 began. Individuals are increasingly pivoting toward deeper community awareness and resource sharing. The practice of mutual aid, however, isn’t new. The term itself was coined by Peter Kropotkin, a revolutionary anarchocommunist thinker, and mutual aid networks have developed organically in various communities and collectives throughout history.

Photo by Landon Speers

In a recent teleconference, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and activist Mariame Kaba detailed the importance of collective need and resisting hoarding tendencies, especially in times of crisis. Their toolkit defines mutual aid as “cooperation for the sake of the common good,” whereby individuals come together to meet each other’s needs, through recognizing that human survival is contingent on interdependence.

Activation is one such community. Through collaborative effort and relentless dedication, it has come to represent a future in which mutual aid efforts center accessible care and creative expansion through community solidarity. And, in the face of this global crisis, this community is exemplifying the inherent power such practices hold.

Practicing collective care

Increasingly, initiatives across the country are building mutual aid networks to help serve their communities during the pandemic, but Activation was doing this work long before.

Since 2018, Activation community members have gathered in residence yearly in the forests of upstate New York, communing with nature, sharing musical and creative performances, and engaging self-evolutionary workshops exploring Decolonizing Non-Violent Communication, ecstatic breathwork, rest as political resistance, astrological study, play advocacy, aromatherapy, more.

The residency is designed to holistically “activate the creative practices of trans and queer Black and Brown artists and practitioners,” though it does also open its doors to allies. The four-day gathering and year-round community offerings afford artists an opportunity to “get closer to their creative practice through access and collective care,” explains Activation’s founder, Kamra Hakim.

Activation was designed as a direct response to the homogeneity of art spaces, festivals, and experimental community gatherings Hakim had previously been a part of. They were compelled to curate a space that centered the needs of marginalized artists and rejected the exclusionary practices―such as financial inaccessibility, program fees, travel costs, and other economic barriers―often perpetuated by mainstream artist residencies. By deprioritizing capitalist ideals that push creative production, craft development, or project completion, Activation Residency has emerged as what Hakim calls a “horizontally structured healing justice and arts organization that responds to an incessant need for healing.”

Inadequate government provisions have rendered mutual aid absolutely essential in marginalized communities—especially now. And Activation is designing a new standard whereby cooperative support is leveraged to bridge survival needs and creative growth, which also means rising to meet the economic needs of community members.

In addition to their residency, Activation has a Co-op Fund that is dedicated to centering marginalized artists through circulatory wealth redistribution. The fund is, as Hakim explains, “experimental, reparations-based funding and investment program that accumulates funds through member contributions.” It then redistributes funds to members and the residency itself through a cooperative decision-making process.

Creatives from backgrounds as diverse as somatic therapy, painting, photography, poetry, textile arts, and beyond, have benefitted from this program structure. “Activation believes that when artists are well cared for, it is reflected in their creative practice,” says Hakim. And this intention is certainly having an impact.

“For the first time in years, I found myself in a safe space to share new video work, read poetry for the first time, and engage with some of the most talented and diverse artists,” says Brooklyn-based artist JJ of their experience at Activation Residency. “[They] have since become some of my biggest inspirations, closest friends, and community.”

Carving out intentional space

Activation is rooted in a belief in brighter alternative futures. “Everything is possible,” says Hakim, for whom the residency’s ethos is reflected in the name. “I feel so much fervor around what it means to experience activation, to be transformed, to come out on the other side of an experience changed. There’s something so deeply meaningful about that and I think it’s something we all deserve a shot at. We all deserve to get activated.”

Each experience offered by the collective is purposefully oriented to inspire and compel artists toward an “activated” social creative praxis through alternative modes of creative engagement. “I was so inspired by Solange’s record this past year,” Hakim continues. “There’s a line in there that says ‘do nothing without intention’ that resonates so deeply, and I see it in my practice every day.”

To be sure, Hakim’s intentional curation positions wellbeing and accessibility as non-negotiable facets of community-building. With napping rituals, dancing or playtime in the meadow, somatic healing sessions, and locally-sourced, organic meals—prepared by Babetown or members of the collective—Activation residents radiate the benefits of intentional community planning. “We eat so well. We rest guilt-free,” says Hakim. “We practice patience, loving-kindness, and collective solution-building.”

Activation has transformed participants’ perceptions of what community can be by centering artists who are most in need of radical, collective care. “I was given the chance to play, learn, rest, and more importantly, connect with those that have since gone on to be creative partners, friends, and dare I say it, family,” says Okcandice, a Berlin-based writer, artist, poet, and curator who attended Activation in 2019.

Embracing evolution

In order to remain aligned with whatever contemporary vision best serves the entire collective, Activation evolves each year as needed. “The residency centers healing justice and collective care work as its core tenets,” says Hakim. “If it is not accessible to all bodies, then it is not healing justice."

Activation seeks to adopt Carolyn Lazard's Accessibility in the Arts practice by providing workshops with measures like ASL interpretation, free childcare, wheelchair ramp rentals, menstruation products, justice pricing infrastructure, and Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART). “The goal,” Hakim explains, “is to create the most accessible and sustainable Activation model so that it may nurture the community it has fostered as well as interrogate the ways in which the space still bars many from accessing it.”

As social distancing timelines remain uncertain, Activation is exploring alternatives to community gathering by initializing online programming, digital training workshops, and eventually land ownership goals. Though Hakim founded the community, they are interested in untangling notions of leadership as Activation continues to expand. “I’m trying to position myself as a harmonizer, someone who sees potential in folks and calls them into that potential,” says Hakim.

Ultimately, by producing sustainable cultural practices and embodying the collective vision they hope to see in the world, Activation is dreaming mutual aid and collective care into existence. And it's doing so at a time when such initiatives are more crucial than ever. “I’m truly honored that I was able to experience this at such a pivotal time,” says Okcandice. “I gained so much insight [and] I hold so much love and appreciation. We are all deserving of such spaces.”

Ivanna Baranova is a Guatemalan-Slovak poet and writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blush Lit, Cosmonauts Avenue, Los Angeles Review of Books, Newest York, and elsewhere. She is the author of CONFIRMATION BIAS (Metatron Press, 2019).

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