AC Interview: Media Corp
Media Corp. is a small, mixed use creative space in Omaha’s Gifford Park neighborhood that has been making space and holding space for community centered programming since 2018. We sat down recently with Amanda Huckins and Jesse Fischer, co-founders of Media Corp., to talk about neighborhoods in transition, urban development, and the oftentimes contested roles artists play in the gentrification process.
Interviewer: Peter Fankhauser, Program Director at Amplify Arts
Interviewee 1: Amanda Huckins
Interviewee 2: Jesse Fischer
Date of Interview: Sept 9, 2019
List of Acronyms: PF = Peter Fankhauser, AH = Amanda Huckins, JF = Jesse Fischer
[PF] You're listening to Amplify Arts Alternate Currents interview series. Alternate Currents open space for conversation, discussion, and action around national and international issues in the arts that have a profound impact at the local level. This interview series is just one part of the Alternate Currents blog: a dedicated online resource linking readers to topical articles interviews and critical writing that shine a spotlight on artist-led policy platforms, cross-sector partnerships, and artist-driven community change. Visit often and join the conversation at www.amplifyarts.org/alternate-currents. We sat down recently with Amanda Huckins and Jesse Fischer, co-founders of Media Corp. in Omaha's Gifford Park neighborhood to talk about neighborhoods in transition, urban development, and the oftentimes contested roles artists play in the gentrification process.
[JF] I'm Jessie Fischer. I'm an artist, I've been active in the art community for 16 years or so, kind of on and off, but I do printmaking and painting and ceramics and all that kind of stuff. I went to UNO got a studio art degree from UNO.
[AH] I'm Amanda Huckins. I never really considered myself professional or an aspiring professional artist, but being a poet has been a really important part of my life. I got an English degree with a concentration in poetry but mainly, I think I started organizing through poetry in a way that I didn't realize until after I'd started community organizing, and then looking back and seeing that I started you know trying to build teams and hold space and plan events within poetry before I started doing that for neighborhood issues. And since about 2014 I've been slowly, as a volunteer and an amateur, just collecting methods and strategies in community organizing, trying to put some of that into practice in my immediate sphere.
[PF] So does your work at Media Corp. sort of serve that same goal?
[JF] We don't necessarily label Media Corp. as an art space, at least not strictly. I believe the kind of community organizing and/or activism political sort of aspect of Media Corp. is I would say as important as the art aspect. And ideally we aim to blend the two things in a way that is pretty seamless. We don't always try to define to ourselves or to anybody else which function we're operating in at any given moment.
[AH] I think I would say for me, it goes along with what I think about development and urban planning in general or about how communities change, and I think it's like, I want to elevate options for development that are cheap, slow, and community grown. I want those things to be the forefront. I don't want to have conversations with people who are trying to do some kind of big project because "this neighborhood that's disinvested needs a flagship project." I just think that's the wrong way to look at it. I think it leaves out all of the current residents almost always within the disinvested neighborhood. Or it leaves people feeling like they are just picking from multiple choice options instead of actually getting to say what they want. So I think for me Media Corp. was just like... and it's "Corp" or "Corps" like we don't even... it's like it can be any way.
[JF] The idea was Media Corp. originally because we were throwing around the idea of it being a dystopian kind of like Globo Comm or like Umbrella Corp. sort of name and then we threw out… someone said Media Corp and media actually kind of fits, I kind of like that and so we went with it. But almost everybody says “Media Corps” so we just stopped correcting anybody.
[AH] But it was also kind of Media “Corps” because I think part of it was also I wanted a space that could be like almost a headquarters for people who are doing political art. That's one side of it, so I guess in two sentences it would be: Make art practice accessible and visible, meaning that a lot of people who are doing art don't consider themselves artists or aren't granted the title artist by the rest of society, but they're making things that are important and they are artists. So giving them space where they can be artists is important. And then just having radical openness so that we hold the space but then what a community, what the community needs can begin to fill it. And of course people don't even know what it is, they can't do that super easily. But that's the goal is for it to be like radically open to the community using it.
[JF] Yeah, I guess for me, I think of it as, I always really liked the phrase and the thought that you can do much more than you're paid to do. Which I think is very lost in our culture generally, so I kind of like the idea of holding space in a way that helps promote that concept, the idea of like what can you do that you're not paid to do that is still as meaningful. And I also like the way to describe it as essentially the Room of Requirement from Harry Potter that is just like could be about anything depending on what is needed.
[PF] I think it's interesting too that you talk about this context-sensitive approach to holding place and making space in a neighborhood like Gifford Park because Gifford Park is one of Omaha's neighborhoods that's super diverse. Probably the most diverse in Omaha?
[JF] Yeah, I think that's pretty accurate.
[PF] Just thinking about demographics, national origin, etc.
[JF] We're both new to Gifford Park in a sense, within the last year. I've lived in Omaha for 18 years I think now but for the last 15 of it I've lived in and around Midtown, but I've never lived in Gifford Park proper until about a year ago, when Amanda moved here from Lincoln. So, we often try to remember that we are new to the neighborhood and we aren't best suited to know what it needs. I think honestly; we could be doing a better job of responding to the neighborhood and the diversity that it entails. And we're always kind of trying to figure out how to do better, which is I think...
[AH] And that's where I think the openness comes in which is... we've been holding open hours on Sundays to try to let people organically, naturally drift in and engage with us. So that it's not like "Come in! We're having a this thing." and if you don't identify as a person would like a "this thing" then you don't come. So, it's just we have the door open, it just says come in anytime, and quite a few people wander in and say "The door just says come in. What is this place?" So it's almost like we're...somewhat passive but I think that it feels like that's like the only way to not ask people to engage with it. Because we want it to be used by a diverse crowd, so we're like "It's here if you want to use it." We're gonna try to let people know. Hopefully word of mouth spreads and as we have more capacity maybe we can reach out more, flyers or something, but it's just open.
[JF] This kind of jokey thing I say sometimes it's like that we don't want to be like the witch with the candy house trying to lure children in or something, you know we don't want to just think of our concept we're so excited about. All we need is people to show up. Then it seems like a top-down thought you know like a small-scale way. So, we try not to get too jazzed about our own ideas and just hope people show up. We try not to treat the public as getting bodies in the door to make our vision come true, you know what I mean.
[AH] Yeah which is I guess where the community development part of it comes in is... we are trying to learn to be responsible members of our community as well through this, and we're kind of riding this line between... we talk about the fact that we want to make sure people know that it's possible to do organizing or an arts organization without having any of the official trappings of what that would mean. You just have to be able to find space and find cheap space, and even find grimy space that's undesirable in some other way. That is also probably temporary because those kind of buildings are always kind of under threat of being knocked out so...
[JF] Ten years from now the whole block will probably be mixed-use condos. But for now, we got this weird little window of time to where it was an unrentable property, it was dilapidated. They didn't want to put the money into it to get it up to snuff to rent to someone to live in it. So, we put in several months of hard labor just cleaning all of the mouse turds out of it and tearing up floors and making it a place that people can stand to be in.
[AH] And we also have the benefit of social connection, which was how we landed in Gifford Park in the first place, and landlords were super community-oriented people. One of them lives like a block and a half from us. And so there's all these kind of really great kind of miraculous alignments that make it possible for us to do this, and so we want to remember that we have privileges that allow that, while also trying to demonstrate there's a lot of space between having to have everything you do in your house, and having a space that's state-of-the-art beautiful, well-funded space. There's a lot of gray area that you work with in between, and we want to make sure that we're showing people. Because people will come in and go "Are you the founders of Media Corp.?" and we're like we just have our stuff here, we make art here, and the door's open. And our landlords are letting us have it for cheap so, we want to use it as best we can.
[JF] I think there's a correlation between our intuitive drive towards deep professionalism and it being kind of grubby I guess, and it wanting to be accessible to everybody and just the aesthetic image and culture of a place is exclusive to people. Even if it's Joslyn [Art Museum], for example. It's free to the public now. Anybody can come. Lots of people don't. It's still largely a certain class and type of person that goes to a museum, even when it's free and open to the public because it's just not a thing people are always comfortable with. They just don't feel like it's for them I think. I'm making a lot of assumptions and that's not the best thing to do, but I think that's a real thing and I think some people won't feel comfortable coming to Media Corp. because of the aesthetic nature of it being a dilapidated old house that doesn't make sense to them. But there's gonna be other people who are comfortable coming up to the house because of that.
[AH] And those are the people who are probably like have less semi-public space available to them. Is the people who are actually comfortable in a place like that. And most... I feel like it's house shows or things like that. We wanna be slightly more public than a house show but definitely less professional than a storefront gallery with white walls.
[JF] It's also an alcohol free, substance free space which is important because when it comes to kind of grimy DIY spaces a lot of partying and substance issues, and all the problems that come along with that, are kind of pervasive so to have an accessible, family-friendly in a sense (all ages) DIY alcohol-free space is I think something that's few and far between.
[PF] So is the hope that through this culture of openness, Media Corp. can kind of serve as an anchor for the neighborhood for a little bit of time to come?
[AH] Yeah for sure and I think even just specifically with urban development and things like that... we've had a series, I think we've done 4 now, and it will continue in the future. But there was a conversation around transit-oriented development that was happening because the ORBT (Omaha Bus Rapid Transit) line is going in right up the street from us, and yeah I mean, Gifford Park is full of incredible neighborhood advocates who have been in the neighborhood for anywhere from a couple of years, to 35 years, to their entire life. So it's there's a lot of people speaking for Gifford Park and fighting for Gifford Park, and that conversation about transit-oriented development was brought to the public forum space in the community right now. Yates School is where people have neighborhood meetings and things like that. But a couple of people who are leading that conversation wanted to try to get more conversations going in smaller spaces, so we started doing this thing that's called Residents are Experts, which is an idea that I have come to hold very dear to myself in my neighborhood organizing. It feels like professionals and experts and expertise and knowledge on stuff can only come from people who have certain titles, certain degrees, things like that when you're talking about neighborhood development. And I think that's the wrong way to approach it. I think we need to be honoring the expertise that residents who live in a community for 35 years have about their community. And so that space was kind of a place to talk about like what is development? Or what is TIF? Or what does transit-oriented development? So that people could just continue those conversations in a different place. And you know in the course of being in the neighborhood people will come up to us and be like "Hey you know there was that conversation going on? I was wondering if we could use Media Corp. to just have a meeting really quick about it?" And I think yeah... I almost would like to see it be the go-to, living room for that stuff where people are also leaving materials, and people are also putting information on the zine rack so that any other person who uses it for any other reason will have access to this material. And maybe run into some of the people who are doing this work so that all that knowledge can kind of combine and melt together in a physical space. Which we just don't... unless you rent out a very prominent, very usable, you know physical space it just doesn't happen naturally. People have their homes, people have libraries, people have churches and whatever but, those places can't just be like permanent anchors of information.
[JF] Yeah so some of the things we've had meetings about there have been almost people getting their talking points together and kind of divvying up who's doing research so that when, you as a group, go to the City Council meeting or the development meeting, or what have you, we all can mouth off on this as a unified front basically.
[AH] And I think really even just part of it is the aesthetic choices. There's a really great little coffee shop next to us that is super cute, and it's run by people who live in the neighborhood and the building's owned by our landlords, too. But we want there to be variety you know. I don't want everything to be rundown but I also don't want everything to be like out of a catalog, and I think that's the risk is when neighborhoods become just like so monocultural that they have to be one or the other, and there's not enough room for diversity. And I think Gifford Park is just like this really brilliant example of there being such a diversity in types of housing, and types of people, and you know jobs, and all that different stuff. So, it's not really that we're like against cuteness, we're just like that's the dominating force is that things are getting cute.
[JF] Yeah if the whole strip of businesses along 33rd become all cute in the exact same matching way that then appeals to the type of person who loves things that are all cute in a very matching way. As long as it's diverse... I think that the coffee shop and the liquor store on the corner are equally valid stakes to claim as hubs of the neighborhood. They're both busy, people are going in and out of those doors all the time. And some people I think would make the argument that we want to promote more of what the coffee shop is and, if anything, less of what the liquor store is. And I think that's something that I would definitely push back against that I think they both have equally valid stakes to claim being centered.
[All speaking at once, some laughter]
[PF] Well it's interesting too that you're drawing a connection between the aesthetics, how the neighborhood looks, and how the neighborhood develops over time. Do you find that relationship is one that has come to bear on other cities like New York or Los Angeles where there's a more concentrated artist presence in a specific neighborhood...that the aesthetics that that produces is what kind of drives the gentrification that comes after?
[JF] I think that's one of the major factors. I think artists are used to give something street cred and to sell the “cool” of a neighborhood, because they can do that for relatively low overhead. If you want to... you know there's a thing that happens when you have a developer that has a space that is unused. They're not sure what to do with it. They're trying to drum up interest. They let artists use it for an undisclosed amount of time. It's a win-win that's similar to what we're doing, but essentially what happens in the meantime is you're drawing interest in it, you're kind of kicking up the cool factor or increasing the market value, kind of co-opting the kind of street cred of the artist class to increase investment value or sell an idea to the public is problematic at best.
[AH] And I think we have different ideas about what the means to the end kind of conversation looks like. I think I feel similarly but like with maybe a little bit more, but maybe not more nuanced, but I would describe it as: I think artists have a role, and especially as a poet I think that there's lots of ways to communicate information, and I think the more variety there is in the communication.. if there's a project that has to happen because it's what is gonna keep the river from flooding or whatever, or it’s going to keep...
[JF] Like objectively necessary.
[AH] It's just necessary for the world we live in. Maybe we wish it was different, but for the world we live in this thing is really necessary in a really meaningful way. How do we communicate to people what it is so that people can engage with it and talk about what they need from it? I want it always to be a dialogue. I think that artists being used to essentially advertise something that needs to happen with as little pushback as possible is not okay. I think welcoming, I think broadcasting information in lots of different ways with a plurality: with images, with a little more poetic language, with more technical language, all that stuff. Doing that in a way that tries to get people to talk back to the process is what I really really would like. And an example that I would give is there is this graphic novel that's called “No Small Plans” that I found out about from a City Lab article or something. But apparently like a long time ago, like 100 years ago, there was a manual that was essentially like an urban planning manual or a description of the plans for the city of Chicago that was taught in schools, so that kids had a sense of why things were the way they were, and where they were going, and how to participate in that. And so that idea was revived by this group that does youth education stuff, kind of like after school planning stuff. And they got some artists to make this graphic novel about the history of Chicago, the present of Chicago, and the future of Chicago. And how people could be more engaged in urban planning in a way that just benefits everyone. And I think it's a really, really interesting project and I love the graphic novel, I have it at Media Corp. so if you ever want to borrow it... But I think it's a really great example of something... And they're going to start teaching it, they did a Kickstarter project or IndieGoGo or whatever, and they were able to print enough of it to get it in high schools in Chicago so they can start teaching it again. And I think that kind of project just like immensely impactful. Offering a different way to speak about urban planning to kids who are growing up in the city to either have no power in it or to have a lot of power in it, and giving them the ability to decide how to engage with those structures of power is… that's what I think art can do. And I think all kinds of art can do that.
[PF] Can you think of other examples of projects in Omaha or outside of Omaha that offered that same sort of potential to rethink your position in the world?
[JF] One of my favorite projects that is very new to our neighborhood, our very endearing neighbor Aseed, and a couple other people, is the poetry post. The Midtown Poetry Prose Project which is literally a decorative post with an enclosed glass thing that they put poems on that people submit into a box. Some of them are like famous poems, some are like local people... could be a six-year-old kid, it could be a 90-year-old person who puts a poem in there, and they just post it. There's like two or three of them now and they're making more. But that's just like the type of wonderful, strange, like simple idea that just like... I can't not think of that concept of the poetry post and like not smile about it? It's just like so simple. I guess that's the type of project that I really like.
[AH] Yeah. Well I mean there's other spaces for sure...like I really enjoy going to Drips. There's so many meetings and music events, there's vegan potlucks, all that stuff. The space holds a lot of the things or nearly all of the things that someone would be looking for in a community. I think something that's that flexible and it can be you know the place where you get breakfast, and the place where you have a business meeting, and the place where you later dance or whatever. It's like you could spend a whole Saturday there very easily, most Saturdays. And that's an invitation for people to engage with each other.
[PF] Do you think spaces like that, or the inclusion of spaces like that in urban development projects, can help us more ethically approach this idea of gentrification, I guess for lack of a better term?
[AH] Yeah, I feel like I don't know how this would work strategically or on paper, but I feel like if there was like money set aside... No honestly, I think Community Land Trust is where it's at, but... So, if development was happening in a in a way that you could set aside things. It would be hard to decide what to set aside, but like I would want free public community space to be set aside. Whatever that looks like.
[JF] I mean we do with golf courses. There are rules about how much green space we have and they can be privately run golf courses that exclude huge numbers of people. [All talk at once] So why can't it be an art space?
[AH] Like a public-use space that is in some way controlled by the community itself that would be amazing. I would love to see be in demand. I also think that there's an article that's called "Guide for Artist on How Not to be Complicit in Gentrification." It's about Boyle Heights. I read it years ago and something that I really have internalized, in order to be an artist or a person who is contributing to a neighborhood from the outside in any way. I mean we're new to the neighborhood so I feel like this is our position. We came into a neighborhood. We want to do what we do, find community in our neighborhood. But we have a responsibility to counteract possible negative influence that we're bringing to the neighborhood. Or the possible detrimental impacts to the neighborhood itself.
[JF] Even just simply by being there yeah, I mean we're kind of part of the problem just by being there.
[AH] Exactly. I mean like we're taking up a house, you know we kind of need affordable housing...probably not as much as other people might need the affordable housing we're in, so how do you make housing more affordable? How do you fight for more affordable housing? The Boyle Heights article: this woman was essentially saying like if you're going to be an artist in a gentrified neighborhood in L.A. you have to be a tenant rights activist also. You cannot be just an artist because if you're just an artist you're helping oppression happen. And I think I think that's a responsibility we have to think about as people who you know improve neighborhoods from the outside perspective. What are we doing to counteract our negative possible influence? So, I suppose like for me the space that we're trying to hold like physical and temporal space... so as a community organizer... I have considered myself a community organizer for sure since 2015. And that was all neighborhood-based stuff in Lincoln that I was doing. And it was mainly what I realized I was capable of doing was planning meetings and sitting at the meetings and taking notes and listening to people. And also, like holding the physical space of the storefront that we had. So that's what I see as my role in at Media Corp. too, is to just like provide the space to like maybe plan some events that try to get people invested in each other so that people who don't have very much power can accrue more power by being organized. And I think like organization or just like collaboration that feels meaningful to people drives people power. And we need more of that.
[PF] What do you think about the idea of conscripting artists into urban planning processes at the city level in the form of a residency or an actual hired and salaried position?
[AH] If there were limitations on who was hired, I think. We talked about this a little bit that I think it'd be really great for there to be a robust, like a really meaningful community engagement wing of the planning department. And there's a lot of lip service to that I think in most cities. I don't I really know what the status of that is in Omaha at this point but I think artists belong on some kind of community engagement council, but certainly local artists you know.
[JF] Not just academic artists you know like MFA's, the people with a long CV. I think that actually we both, I think, believe in de-elevating the status of the artist in a sense. Or at least the academic artists. More people that are not academically trained need to be elevated as true and meaningful artists, and that might entail lowering the assumed prestige of people with certain academic backgrounds and that kind of stuff.
[AH] So yeah, it's like almost across the board you would be like professionalizing art practice more than credentials.
[JF] Yes. Yep.
[AH] So you know somebody is a 50-year-old person that's been making art for 30 years just in their yard or something, like maybe they belong in a community engagement you know panel, or even in a position. So yeah, I think that pretty strict parameters on how that... I would want to know that the money that's used to supply that residency or that position, that paid position, is intentionally trying to...like affirmatively further fair housing. Like the report. I need to know that that art practice being incorporated is with the intention to give more power to people who are conventionally or traditionally disempowered in conventional systems.
[JF] Instead of bringing in artists to help people feel better about you know... oftentimes an artist is brought in to adorn a distressed neighborhood to help people feel better about their neighborhood. But it doesn't actually choose any of the realities of...
[AH] Yeah, we're trying to make the problems more beautiful instead of trying to solve the problems. I absolutely agree with that. Which is kind of what I said before about inviting a conversation to the process instead of just like selling it. Like inviting people to stand up. And in my experience in community organizing was that like often the people who are directing the project that was meant to improve the lives of the poor, when a poor person would stand up and say "This is why I don't like your project, and this is how it could be better," they'd be like "Oh my God, why're you being so mean to me?" People were not only saying "I don't like what you're doing." People were saying "I don't like what you're doing but you could do this and we'd like it better." And people with power we're still just like "Well I was just trying to do a nice thing!" I'm just getting so worked up about being told that it wasn't right for the people they were trying to help. I think opening the door to that conversation and trying to tone down the emotional feelings of people with power would be great.
[JF] I think oftentimes signs of poverty are considered an aesthetic menace. People want to… they think that they're improving neighborhood by covering up signs of poverty.
[AH] Well and this is internalized by people who live in poverty too.
[AH] People are...
[JF] I mean to some degree, I think a better use of arts in a public campaign would be to elevate the evidence of poverty. To actually make it impossible to ignore versus making it less hard to look at. You should be making it harder to look at, almost.
[AH] Yeah like easier to see, harder to deal with.
[JF] Maybe. Harder to ignore in some way.
[PF] Curious to know what you think about how we do that? I feel like Omaha's kind of operated in a specific way for a pretty long time. If we're thinking about sort of changing the status quo or getting a seat at the table that normally artists and people involved in creative industries wouldn't be welcome to, how does that happen?
[AH] Yeah, I mean for me the answer is always community organizing. Like there's just so many of us and I think we can change the narrative and I think artists have a responsibility to... I mean I think artists are experts at communication in their own fields. And I think that expertise... we have a responsibility to use it to make it clear how things are operating, and to make some alternatives clear. Also, to organize people around doing that. I think that there are lots of small pockets of this happening.
[JF] I think one simple thing that I think can be done as far as a better way to get artists a seat at the table or what they would do with that seat at the table, is take people from the kind of decision-making class on field trips, essentially, just get them out of their comfort zone. Instead of some local artists going to sit in a board meeting somewhere and just having literally a seat at the table of other people who are all traditionally in power positions, and this one artist is just kind of there as a token that chimes in. It's like what if it was flipped to where it was one of those people around a table of neighborhood people and artists? What if instead of meeting at the board office or the hall somewhere they all went to Drips? You know what I mean? I think literally like giving some artist control over the context in which they meet, on their terms, I think would be important.
[PF] I want to be sensitive of your time. I think that’s a great place to wrap up... is there anything coming up at Media Corp. that you'd like to talk about or plug?
[JF] Through the summer we did a monthly art series that we dubbed Third Friday's on 33rd Street because it's easy to remember and it doesn't compete with First Friday. But yes, that's the time that the market goes late and the music, so we can coordinate this with the market planning people.
[JF] So the music goes late, we have art shows, and people wander back and forth.
[PF] That sounds fun! You, Amanda, you have work coming...you have work in Ameen Wahba's show. His Generator Grant exhibition he's putting together for us...
[AH] Yeah. Next Friday, right? That's right I had a written piece that I recorded to be kind of mingled with a bunch of other sounds, and also like the other three poets that we included are great people, who have amazing work. So that’s exciting.