Ori Alon is the Director and Founder of the Empowering Clerks Network (Center for Supportive Bureaucracy), the largest international organization issuing Playful Paperwork documents such as the Joy Permit, Forgiver’s License, Racism Release Form, Refurbished Report Cards, OK Parent Award, Peer Review Certificate of Recognition, Apology Declaration and more. He creates interactive street art such as the Hidden Fortune Wheel and Alternative Memorial Plaques, satirical government entities like the NY Diversity Authority which facilitated the White Men Registry, a comics series with postage stamps and children book series The Magic Bagel. Currently Alon is running for Mayor of Beacon NY, offering free ice cream for elders, 17% tax deduction for men who express vulnerability, spending zero dollars on the campaign and reducing the voting age to six, among other promises. Alon vowed to only say positive things about his opponents. www.supportivebureaucracy.org
spacecraft has been happy to join with the Office of Supportive Bureaucracy in the creation of a new document: the Hermit Permit. For don’t we all need a more space in our days?
The Hermit Permit is available for download at the following link (scroll down to page 33): www.Bit.ly/ECNvertical
More documents available here: http://www.Bit.ly/ECNhorizontal
Mothership (MS): In thinking of your work, I have pulled down off of the shelves Lewis Hyde’sTrickster Makes This World and historian Timothy Snyder’s 2017 book On Tyranny, which distills lessons and practical tips from his long study of the rise of fascist states in Europe. Snyder mentions (under tip number 8: “Stand Out”) one of the unknown heroes of the Warsaw ghetto, a young girl at the time, who noted that her “actions were normal,” a default human decency that Snyder points to elsewhere, under tip number 5: “Remember professional ethics,” where he notes that “If lawyers had followed the norm of no executions without trials, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent…if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would be much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it…”
Lewis Hyde speaks of this too, quoting a South Asian religion scholar John Stratton Hawley who observes that “We live in an age of savage order. We have seen bureaucratic finesse used to cause and justify unimaginable extremes of human suffering…” Hyde points out too the complacency that much of the industrial world slipped into recent past decades, a comfort that we had evolved beyond the old hard lessons, lessons like Arendt’s “banality of evil” that many felt we moved on from, but that we have not moved on from, for seeds bear fruit, and we need to continue to “make history”—reflectively, actively—together. And that brings us to the making you are doing, which is seriously good stuff, my funny friend. The brilliance of the Center for Supportive Bureaucracy is how you poke holes in our paperwork by remaking the paperwork for the sake of wellbeing—personal, collective. Could you share the origin story of the Center? What was your first document? What was the reaction?
Ori: In 2006 I started offering a service: I invited people to dictate letters to anyone they wanted to write to, and I typed it for them on my typewriter and offered an envelope, a stamp, a glass of water and my listening and suggestions (poems, quotes, editing etc) if needed. The work was very successful and many letters were meaningful and helpful to the writers and recipients. I used carbon paper and with permission made booklets with some of the letters, which added a documentation and somewhat peeking layer to the project. The 200 letters told many stories in vulnerable, honest, poetic and funny ways, and I was very happy to be a service provider in that way. I was also surprised that such service is in so much need, and that people were so open to share with a stranger about their private lives. (This was before social media).
Two years afterwards I co-produced a guerrilla art event at night in the West Jerusalem market and, at 2am, two guys offered me to ‘come to their office’, which was an empty vegetable stand. They asked me about a school year that was bad for me. I thought about it for a few minutes since I had many bad years in school—so many moments filled with shame, sadness, low self-esteem and lack of true friendships. I told them about my traumatic first grade experience in which I was shamed and bullied by my teacher for writing a story with the F word (I heard it somewhere). Then these two guys pulled out a blank old report card they probably found in the recycling bin and issued me a Refurbished Report Card that described me as a wonderful, creative child who’s developing beautifully and should skip first grade directly towards Creativity and Love Grade and not attend Boredom and Fixedness Class. This experience was transformative, healing and magical to me. I knew by then that report cards weren’t the word of God, but I never even imagined using them as a tool of such powerful yet silly emotional support.
A few years later a friend found some blank parchment certificate paper and gave it to me, saying, “You’ll find something interesting to do with them.” I was mesmerized! I’ve never seen a blank certificate before! These are the ultimate symbols of authority and social structure, can they be used for play? I thought about the Refurbished Report Card I was issued a few years before and got the idea of the DIY Certificate of Recognition in which I interview the recipient about what they like about themselves and helped them phrase it if needed. Often it is very hard for people to celebrate themselves, and I have to help them ‘dig’ a little bit and ask questions about their lives. I don’t give compliments or say what I think about them but ask them to reflect about their lives. When the document is ready we find a witness, sign and seal it with the golden ECN stamp of approval, and when possible, I also offer a frame. Like the Refurbished Report Card I was issued, you get an official-looking personal document about who you are and what you are good at. I will never get bored of issuing DIY Certificates of Recognition to people, and I encourage you to try and do it for the people in your life (you can print it for free at http://www.supportivebureaucracy.org).
Afterwards I developed the Apology Declaration, Forgiver’s License, Joy Permit, Racism Release Form, Adults Special Achievement Stickers, Alternative Street signs and many other documents. In this way, the concept of Empowering Clerks and Supportive Bureaucracy naturally evolved. I communicate regularly with local and federal government by sending official letters with all sorts of offers for collaboration. People opened ECN branches all over the world, and translated Playful Paperwork to other languages and we estimate that about 250,000 documents have been issued so far. We hope to collaborate with governments around the world to issue 1.2 million documents by June of 2019. You can download an ebook of Regulations are Flexible here.
I often say that I make non-sexual toys for adults—if a joke on the DMV with a plastic card with your photo on it and an application that asks you how many people you wish to forgive or what happen to person C when person A forgives person B can help you forgive yourself or your parents or if a golden seal can help your self-esteem, why not play?
MS: Ori, April Fool’s is a deep holiday, given the foolishness of our world order, and while at first glance your work might perfectly place you there, it also fits Labor Day, as we are so serious about our work, so guilty if we are not busy until we drop from it, and yet so much of our hard work is in service of terrorizing each other and trashing the planet or simply frittering away our lives to fill a few people’s pockets. In this vein, I just read a post from you on being trained in the desert as a soldier and you “standing out” (to use Snyder’s term cited above from On Tyranny), saying you didn’t think that you could kill another person and how they regulated you to office work, but that you turned this into making coffee at 4am for the tired soldiers and the reaction of one of the soldier’s to this care, this small yet significant everyday care. So beautiful. This whole story seems like the roots of the Center. Could you tell us more about your life, about situations and insights that led to this work?
Ori: There is a mandatory army service in Israel, which was horrible for me, but I’m also very thankful for it led me to convert to Pacifism and oppose nationalism and militarism with all of my might. Similarly to the experience of inmates and other soldiers I also started to write and make art in the army—I used to isolate myself in the medic room with my newly found Hermes typewriter and write for hours (I believe it saved me from committing suicide). I often taped my musings, poems and absurd creative slogans I made (an early version of what I’m doing now) on the walls, which caused a lot of tension between me and the officers but gave me the first glimpse of having an audience, as the other soldiers enjoyed and appreciated of my artistic efforts! Three years ago I made a postage stamps comics book Checkpoint Charliein which I reflected on this experience in which I told my officers that I won’t be able to kill another human being and other experiences from my ‘service’. The process of making the book was incredibly healing for me.
My father was a taxi driver and was murdered by a drug addict when I was 18 (read a picture book memoir A Jew Killed). I remember soon afterwards thinking that this was a systematic issue of the War on Drugs and I was never really angry with the person who did it but with the system that enabled it. I think that other issues we face as individuals are also systematic problems and can be dealt with as such. Since this was a newsworthy story, I was often met with sensation rather than true interest, similar to having a Diploma that tells nothing about who you are, my father’s life was shadowed by the type of death he had. As an artist I want to portray and support our lives as they really are and the documents I offer are just tools to do that.
Last year a new development took out half of the sidewalk in Main St. Beacon where I live. There was a post about it that generated a thousand comments local Facebook page. I printed the entire thread and posted it on the construction site with blank pages and sharpies for more comments. The developer took down the wall two days afterwards. I guess I was just taping paper on walls, the exact same thing I was doing in my army service in an isolated army base in the desert… There’s a beautiful 18th century Hassidic story by Rabbi Nachman about seven beggars, each one with a different disability that later on in the story is revealed to be a kind of unique spiritual super power: the blind beggar sees the true meaning of life, the deaf beggar can hear all divine sounds and so on. The beggar who tatters walks all over the world and witness acts of true loving kindness, then he tells them to the Heart of the world, which sings them to the Spring of world and that’s how the world gets another day of life (hence without that tattered beggar the entire world will cease to exist). I strongly believe that this is true–we must perform selfless acts of generosity, compassion and kindness to balance evil and sustain the world, and we also need to tell these stories in art, history, relationships, science and in many other tools to one another and to our higher selves so our hearts can hear them and get more strength for another day. I consider my work a spiritual practice inspired by this story.
MS: To introduce folks further to your work, maybe we begin with a recent email from your organization, a message that invites folks to look at that bewildering blindness (“Barbarism!,” feeleth the mothership) of caring only for one’s own immediate family. (See Lewis Thomas’s reflection on the words “gene” and “kind” in his essay “On Various Words.” But be sure to come on back, to learn more about Ori’s great work!) However, to move beyond this regrettable myopia focused only on immediate family: As always, your organization goes beyond pointing out our cultural deficits. You offer other ways to see, and provide a first step, a reminder of this new view in the form of common cultural artifacts—in this case below, it’s a certificate, in other cases licenses, permits, park-bench plaques and street signs. Here’s the August 6th email:
My fellow Americans, Asians, Africans, Europeans & Australians,
August 6th is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, one of the cruelest war crimes in human history. The United States of America not only bombed innocent civilians of a foreign country but also destroyed the dignity and lives of their communities for generations to come. For years the Empowering Clerks Network has been contemplating on what is the proper bureaucratic response that will make it harder for countries and terrorist organizations to bomb one another. Patch Adams, MDsays that he has seven billion friends. What if we upgrade his statement and each one of us will have seven billion aunts, nephews and cousins? Research clearly shows that claiming humanity as one big family has 17.4% chances of stopping acts of violence and 521 Compassion Efficiency Points according to the AGLDRU (see resource below). Please used the attached Chosen Family Affidavit and use it to adopt a new family member.
We encourage you to think or look for a new family member who might live in a country that is hostile to your country, or someone who thinks differently than you but that you respect nevertheless. Look for someone you know for years or maybe surprise yourself and extend your family with a stranger. Maybe find someone you’re in conflict with but you are willing to take the step in making a commitment towards them due to the shared humanity and responsibility you both have to the future of humanity. Please make sure you add your initials to the statement and that you make clear that the Adoption document does not necessarily imply any financial obligations between you and your new family. If you wish to share about your extended family kindly reply to this email, use eye contact or social media #ECNChosenFamily.
MS: How was the response on this? I don’t recall too many emails like this from you in the past, but really appreciated how you linked one of your existing documents as an antidote to an awful anniversary. Can you share about any other documents that you’ve linked in this way to a particular situation—or perhaps share about a regrettable situation that gave rise to an antidotal document/initiative?
Ori: I was encouraged by this official memo from the Empowering Clerks Network and officially adopted the Foreign Affairs minister of Iran as my unclewith an official document and a personal letter. Many ECN documents are used to heal and sustain relationships, for example people use their Forgiver’s License or Compassion Card for that purpose, a friend of mine told me that an Apology Declaration that was issued to him saved a relationship, OK Parent Award and True Friend Diploma are issued regularly (one professor presents her OK Parent Award right next to her Diplomas in her office) and I can share many more stories with such examples. I handed many Certificates of Live Marriage and ECN Aunt & Uncle Adoption Certificates over the years but I don’t offer inspection services for these relationships unless someone share their stories with me.
As an immigrant I don’t have blood family in the US but I adopted one brother, seven uncles and aunts and one cousin so now I have big family all over the US (it gets complicated in the holidays though). In 2015 the sheriff of a neighboring county made an official statement that encouraged residents to carry more guns. A friend of mine had the idea of spinning his statement to carry musical instruments and hence came the Open Carry permits for musical instruments, one of the most popular ECN documents. I regularly see musicians sharing their permit on social media, often street musicians place it by their hat or guitar case and it makes me so happy—I have a terrible rhythm but I value music so much and have so much respect for those who make it, and I feel honored to bring a smile to their days. As it states in the document, one good guy with a musical instrument can prevent one bad guy from massive hatred. Recently I changed an existing sign to ‘I love my gun owner neighbor,’ as I believe most gun owners are afraid of their lives. It is crazy, even somewhat sadistic to have no compassion to people who are afraid of their lives, and that’s where the conversation should start in my opinion, and I hope my humor can help with that.
You were just down south with the Grannies Respond Team [add link] addressing ICE/immigration abuse along the Texas border.
MS: Can you share about the Center of Supportive Bureaucracy contributed? And what did you learn there from others? What did you see happening there that you can see carrying forward into your playful paperwork and other programs?
Ori: I volunteered to join the
Grannies Respond and helped with driving and logistics along the way to the southern border. This was an amazing experience and I have so many beautiful memories from our time together. We organized and participated in ten different rallies around the US and millions of grannies, activists and citizens from all over the world participated in the events, supported us or followed us on social media. I will never forget our greeting to refugees who just entered the country with singing at the backyard of the Catholic Charities in McAllen TX, an organization that helps refugees and gives them shower, clothing and the first warm meal in months. We sang to them, gave hugs and played with the children, who already saw more suffering then I can imagine. We were all crying in the end. I have shared some stories from the journey on Facebook and our trip was documented by national news outlets, blogs and on social media. As we prepared to visit an immigrant family detention center in Dilley, TX I remembered that the government declared that these were actually “summer camps,” so I made a flyer for recruiting counsellors to the camp, and printed and posted it along the way (see image below).
I also wrote, dedicated benches, posted signs and issued many Playful Paperwork documents along the way. I offered a Joy Permit to a Border Patrol unit we met but they refused to accept it. My new book, Brave New World, a Mayoral Candidate Journal will document some of the experiences along with official letters I sent to Jeff Sessions, the Queen of England, President Trump and others.
MS: I noticed a year or two back that you were thinking more directly about the role of the clown in societies. Can you share a bit about the social function of the clown? What have you learned in studying it (in books, from others)?
Ori: This is a piece from Not All Men Defense Testimonial that I think answers that question. Also Charlie Chaplin touched the depths of my soul in a way that no other artist has ever done. Whenever I need guidance or have doubts about my artistic process, I look up to The Tramp to get answers. His creative responses to poverty, orphanhood, fascism and McCarthyism were incredibly brave, human and open hearted. I consider his movies some of the most inspiring achievements of the human spirit. For me The Tramp is one of the most beautiful examples of what it means to be human: to love even when everything is against you, to fight violence not with violence but with a smile, and to stand up for your truth, even when the most powerful forces in the world are trying to silence you. Many people will remember Chaplin as the silent movie star whose first words on the screen are one of the most powerful speeches ever at the last scene of The Great Dictator (1941). But for me, Chaplin’s parenting example in my favorite movie of all time, The Kid (1921) strikes me far closer to home. His willingness to adopt an orphan baby and give him all of the love and care he could have, while showing him the example of how to survive in an unjust world is just as courageous (if not more) as it is to fight fascism. As a parent, my role model is Chaplin in The Kid. Chaplin’s contributions to humanity I believe are as beneficial as the teachings of Gandhi. I often ask myself, who influenced the world more—MLK or Chaplin? You can measure King’s achievements in a very practical way. But how can one tell the influence of a Clown? How can we measure what hope Chaplin seeded in millions of people’s hearts, or how would they have endured the hardships of the Great Depression without having The Tramp to identify with, love and laugh with? How can we measure the influence Chaplin had on generations of comedians who provide us with hope and ease during our most difficult moments?
We research politics, history and science, but we have very few tools to measure how important humor is to the survival and success of the human race. In the midst of the McCarthy era, the United States of America had chosen to deport Charlie Chaplin. Let that sink in for a moment: the strongest empire in history, whose core value is freedom, was so afraid of a little tramp that wore rags and walked with a cane. Very few artists ever exposed the emperor’s new clothes in such a way. I’d like to believe that we all have this power, and if we speak enough truth to power we too might get deported from the land of the mediocre to the holy land of answering (with a smile) the only question that is worth asking—what are we here for?
MS: It’s interesting to consider the intersection of clowning and protest. And here by protest I think of Clowning and truth-talk. Clowning and restoration. Clowning and care, in the sense of life-giving ways forward.Could you speak about this a bit? Could you share insights too from particular projects you’ve done or others you’ve seen?
Ori: Before the elections I visited Trump rallies, went to the RNC and DNC to issue documents to conservatives, liberals, independent, police and also homeless people or others who weren’t affiliated with these circuses. Many people who followed my journey commented on how it brought them hope during what they considered hard times for our nation. I think I was to them a sort of a positive do-gooder, like a ‘free hugs’ guy just with Joy Permits and a humorist-utopian approach to what Government can do, support the wellbeing of the citizens and residents. After the elections I think I rebelled against that persona of myself: I developed a Facebook performance act in which I often used dark and absurd humor in my posts, for example that it’ll be hard to facilitate concentration camps when so many people are gluten-free, I pretended to call the KKK customer service, made a series of music critics as Trump tweets and many other serious-silly jokes which challenge the medium of Facebook and bring Clowning to often serious discussions or protest what I consider liberal blind spots. I documented these interactions and discussions at Gender Neutral (Birth of Evil) which I hope managed to capture some of the craziness that swamped our national and social media in these two months.
I feel that this was my moment of ‘truth telling’, which in a way was more directed towards liberals than conservatives as I realized that this is my main audience, and I wouldn’t want to waste my time and their time telling them what they already know with content they can see at other platforms. A similar thing happened in the White Men Registry, in which I invited women and people of color to have more empathy for white men’s struggle with expressing vulnerability and guilt about sexism and racism. We need more love in the world, and such challenges (for example I invited people to wear a Make America Great Again hat and share how it feels) are a form of truth-telling where each participant can find out for themselves their own truth, and if that’s truth is that they hate my experiments that’s fine too of course. 🙂
MS: The performing arts community enjoys social experiments that disrupt everyday situations. One philosophical dancer noted that even a low-key, loose spiral movement in moving from the Starbucks counter where he picked up his coffee to grasp the pitcher of milk at the creamer counter would shock/disrupt people. This was a small thing, an informal experiment to see how people react to different ways of moving outside of the few boxy (mostly forward or sitting and standing) norms we are allowed. (Think of how poor kindergarteners are forced to sit in chairs all day—all the better to get us ready for being shackled to office chairs, as if that signifies “working”—though bodies are made to move!) This is mild stuff compared to some of what you are putting out there—the truth talk we’ve been waiting to hear and see in public. Thinking back to that moment in combat training and thinking of your work now clownfully truth talking, I think of the courage needed to stand up in this way. In feeling free to speak your mind, to go out on a limb what kind of family support did you have? Or if not family maybe wider cultural support did you have? What role models from books or films? What companions along the way?
Ori: My wife is the best!! I always share my ideas with her, and her feedback is always on point, although often painful… I love you Ana!! And I was lucky to have many great role models and artists who inspired my work. I’ll share a few:For over a decade I was a die hard fan of Israeli cartoonist Zev Engelmayer (a teenager who’s a fan of Justin Bieber kind of fan), until one day we became friends. When we meet, I still need to pinch myself to remind me that I’m not dreaming. Zev is a genius (he even has a Diploma for that) of merging high culture with street language, of delivering a thought provoking message with a kick in the balls and a loving hug at the same time. I don’t think I’d have the ability to merge compassion and bureaucracy without my ten years of obsessively reading his books and learning carefully how he merge Biblical Hebrew and slang in such a smooth way. Most of his work is very hard to translate, but recently he’s been performing a lot as one of his characters, Shoshke, and you can follow her on Facebook or see a short video in English about Zev’s visual work here. Another work that changed how I think of art is Shma (Listen) by Guy Briller (who was my mentor in art school) in which he conducted an acupuncture healing session for the city of Jerusalem. I find such imaginative, optimistic and outside of the box thinking to be very inspiring and I always look for new works to fuel my own creative engines. Other artists who influenced me and helped me figure out what I want to do in this world are Marina Abramovic, Sophie Calle, Chaplin which I mentioned before, the Yes Men, Sacha Baron Cohen, Neil Young and Louie CK (sorry is that ok to mention his name already?) and the list can include many other authors, artists, mentors and friends who supported me along the way.
MS: Because we grow up here with such a falsified history, we need ways of correcting the record, of informing the public of the harm done to so many people by our leaders. Your park-bench “Alternative Memorial Plaques” bring a burst of sweet relief every time I look at them—a sense of “Finally!” What kind of feedback have you gotten on these bench plaques? Do people leave them undisturbed? And where can we go to sponsor these?
MS: I loved your renaming of a local trail the Howard Zinn trail. You got some pushback on this, but I hope the sign held! Have you done other renaming projects that were especially memorable? (I’ve been calling Reagan National Airport Walt Whitman National Airport since they did that to the place. I think James Baldwin National Airport would be more fitting for many reasons, the least of which is that it is actually an international airport.)
Ori: I am not sure if that’s just my experience or it’s actually different, but I feel like in Israel many more public places carry national memories in such ‘official’ way—more often streets, parks, benches and public buildings are dedicated to dead soldiers, national figures or historical events in a way that I find much more intense than in the US. The calendar is also filled with different memorial days that aren’t focused on shopping, from the Holocaust to contemporary wars and the remembrance day for the destruction of the 2nd temple 2,000 years ago, which is practically a national day of mourning (it’s interesting to find an actual research comparing national memory in different countries). Of course, all of these ignore any mentioning of Palestinians or almost anyone who’s not Jewish, similarly the US don’t have a national monument to celebrate the contributions of draft dodgers to end the evil Vietnam War. And shouldn’t we honor them? Without them we could have been still there… I’d like to challenge this national narrative and that’s how these benches came to be. Most of them, as far as I know, stay intact. I noticed that memorial plaques that challenge militarism like the one in honor of draft dodgers of the Vietnam War or in memory of torture victims or civilian casualties of the Iraq War are often taken down faster but since I mostly dedicate them when I travel I can’t really keep track of them. The Howard Zinn trail sign stayed there for a month and generated interesting response on social media (see below).
Then I made the Clothing Optional sign on another trail and immediately got a threatening phone call from Scenic Hudson, and both signs went down.
MS: What projects were especially exciting for you? And what had a powerful effect for others?
Ori: I always try to stay away from any comfort pit. When I feel too safe comfortable doing the ECN I will do comics or write or look for other places to explore. Currently I’m running for Mayor of Beacon NY, and my platform consist of free ice cream for elders, 17% tax deductions for men who express vulnerability, a full merge of the ECN and the City Clerk office, I vow to only say positive things about my opponents and my campaign will cost zero dollars. I also send numerous official letters to many officials. For example I ask Jeff Sessions to lower the voting age to six and base this law on the Bible, and I tell the Queen of England that she’s not welcome as an official guest of the City of Beacon because she’s not an elected official and so on (a new book is coming soon!) Being an actual Mayor if I’m elected frightens me a lot, but I think there is a great potential to explore a merge politics, art and satire, so why not try?
MS: How has your worked changed in the last few years as we have seen more evidence of overt racism, of state sponsored violence against people of color, and as we have watched the worst aspects of our collective culture come to power? (Trump is the ugly yet logical sum of one way of American seeing/being taken to its conclusion. It all feels to be a killer clown car, killer for people and planet, so we need life-sustaining clowns like you all the more.) What new chances have arisen in the past two years for helping people wake up more as they wake up to poisonous seeds of our culture bearing fruit?
Ori: My work changed a lot since the election, I started to work more on social media, my humor became a little dark at times and I became a professional instigator and often shine light more on places where liberals have blind spots rather than make jokes about Trump—I figure that Colbert, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah already doing that so well, so I don’t want to take their business. I did a lot of performance on Facebook and then documented the conversations in printed books (in Gender Neutral Birth of Evil, I tried to document the fear and loathing experience on social media right after the elections, in Resistance Diary Self Help Guide, I presented a hopeful yet silly picture of the #Resist movement, and Not All Men Defense Testimonial is a silent prayer for healing of our public discourse. I see the 2016 elections as an opportunity to reflect, change and make our world a better place, and as long no one presses the red button we can still repair the damages. I know this may annoy some people, but I believe the #MeToo wouldn’t be as powerful without Trump, so in some absurd way he helps the progressive movement. I think the public conversation is in a very bad shape, often we don’t really listen to one another and I try to do my share to improve it with public art that infuses dialogue with some provocative tools too, for example the Hidden Fortune Wheel which invites people to practice empathy is a work that I probably wouldn’t do if Hillary was president because I might assume that it’s not as necessary.
MS: So spacecraft enacts the magical web (apparent in that it seems to attract the oddest coincidences), the kind of web that a most marvelous child whom I don’t see enough intoned when she was too young to know such things, (and had never heard me speak of them). Her words say it best: “We are all connected. In a web. Like the force.” (Yes, her papa likes Star Wars.) This is one way, what feels the way of our actual nature, the way of life. But Hyde’s web imagery reminded me that webs can be thought of as traps. Being stuck in a death-dealing web, rather than being an interconnected weave of life-sustaining shared lives.
And in the spirit of Labor Day [when this interview was taking place], it’s not only the slide into fascism, not only the obvious state-sponsored violence we have been seeing, but also the slow yet relentless erosion of quality of life for workers in which we are all complicit yet also feel trapped in the web of—mental flash of iPhone making slavery in modern China, mental flash of Bezos making slave conditions in warehouses around the world. Hyde speaks of this moment when we find that “the way we live closes in around us, feeling like a web woven by strangers, a deadening pattern and not an enlivening one, then, if we are lucky, the [trickster] will [appear]. Your bureaucratic paperwork, reflects the realm of institutions, of power, of permission. You open up what we are permitted to do or not do, making us braver whilst making us laugh, which itself stokes the fire of bravery, thanks permits to open-carry our instruments, permits that it is ok to feel joy. Hyde said it well that that “when human culture turns against human beings themselves the trickster appears as a kind of savior” (not to give you a Messiah complex, Ori, but to invite us to save ourselves…) Could you share about this idea of permission and other openings/reversals/corrections/ that your paperwork provides?
Ori: It is quite simple. We often depend on others to tell us what’s allowed for us or recognize us. It starts with our caregivers and goes on and on to teachers, academic world, employers, generals, government and so on. So often we don’t question authority or put ourselves down just because of habit. I try to change and challenge that habit with my work, and I’m lucky to find a method that helps people to reflect on that matter in their life using humor. Last year an inmate who murdered a taxi driver applied for a Forgiver’s License and described in his application how he forgave his mother who wasn’t present in his life, I think the humor of the form maybe helped him to release some of the resentment, others share similar stories in their applications and paperwork. Humor heals and releases tension, it’s quite scientific actually, and a lot of research is done to prove that point.
MS: In On Tyranny Snyder cites Vaclav Havel’s remarks that “by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game, [we] mak[e] it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place.” Snyder asks us what if no one plays the game. Your work takes a path between, playing with the appearances of the game. A few questions may be in this one: This appearances of the game is subtle…you take on the appearance of the wolfskin, but are not a wolf…And you give us new games to play…Can you speak to that? And could you speak of play? The power of play—that really feels lovely to keep in mind for Labor Day…
Ori: Once I offered Joy Permits to a clerk at the State Department. I embossed them for her with the official ECN Seal and offered her to take some and issue to her friends. She was very uncomfortable—‘but I don’t have the embosser!’ she said. I told her that a Joy Permit is valid even without the official seal and that they already have a pre-approved seal on them. I created a new playful bureaucracy, and because it looks like a real one people sometime naturally want to follow orders. I’m aware of this and I specifically encourage people to break my own rules: the ECN declared a strike (#ECNstrike) two years ago, which I broke consistently and was called a scab for that by the ECN Director.
The Center for Supportive Bureaucracy offers Empowering Clerks to issue documents legally or they can also be undocumented clerks and print documents on the website for free and without registration. I think the most interesting story about this was when I revoked the Forgiver’s License Class A of my Congressman, Sean Patrick Maloney after he voted against Syrian refugees. I posted the revocation announcement and many people cheered it, as if it was a real punishment of some sort. Then two friends of mine were very worried—one very intelligent friend was upset that I might revoke his documents if we ever disagree and the another friend thought that the ECN should stick to the positive message and not become a ‘bad cop’ and start punishing recipients even if for progressive reasons. The ECN held a special committee that declared the right to forgive is irrevocable and Maloney’s license was reissued and no more ECN documents were revoked afterwards, besides Rachel Dolezal’s Prophecy License that was suspended only 12 hours after being issued. It was a heated discussion in which I was blamed for making the world less safe for black and trans people and received a Racist Asshole certificate. I find this experience very troubling.
I think we need to play more. Due to the development of social media we have millions of online public discussions and most of them are humorless. We take ourselves too seriously sometimes. I intentionally try to add some Clowning to these, both simply to add humor to the experience and to subvert authority. Since most of my social circle is liberal, I tend to poke holes in notions that are common to these circles, for example many people have a blind eye to militarism in general or to the horrific drone warfare program that was developed by the Obama administration. I got into some trouble and burned a few bridges with such criticism-almost instantly I become the enemy of the people to some liberals. I guess that’s my role in society…
MS: Lewis Hyde speaks of how powerful figures (gods/eternals) in myths are “vulnerable at their joints” and that the joints are places of contradiction. He speaks too of how humor is part of what oils the joints, preventing polarity and conflict. (Hyde delightfully traces the root of words including articulation, art, and arthritis, suggesting that trickster art can help loosen socioculturalpsychospiritual arthritis.) We certainly find ourselves in a time of polarity in the world today—of minds set and set against each other. What have you seen in terms your humor helping to collapse some of the tension in the joint, open the joint back up? Have you experienced a lot of push-back? Has humor helped? Has it opened up dialogue? Can you give an example?
Ori: Yes, quite often unfortunately. The most painful one was when I performed the White Men Registry last winter. After Charlottesville and #MeToo I offered to give compassion to white men so they don’t become Nazis or predators, and I offered an ‘I’m an ally to white men #BeTheChange’ small and large buttons to supporters (you can read the full statement here). I combined satire of the word “ally” and how we understand racism and sexism and basic knowledge we have of why these men become who they are. I offered to have empathy for Trump supporters by wearing a MAGA hat and share how it feels and treat them like victims of the media, education and financial systems. I got called a “Neo-Nazi” or “stupid” for that, lost friends and followers and had many people upset with that kind of humor, which also holds some truth in it. There was also a lot of support, laughter and many meaningful discussions held in the gallery, which made it all worth it. One of my favorite parts was a young Black guy who just laughed so hard he almost peed in his pants. I needed a lot of time to recover from this project, and I was very worried that I’d be labeled as a racist, which can really challenge my white fragility and damage all my other projects too. 🙂