OWS Screenprinting: Markets, Commons, and Questions, Part I

Jesse Goldsteinby Jesse Goldstein, City University of New York

This past week, the OWS Screenprinters Cooperative had a table set up at Hunter College’s Women’s Day Fair, screenprinting and selling tee-shirts, or as they call it “anti-retailing”.  The Coop emerged out of the OWS Screenprinters Guild, with whom I have been, and continue to be, involved.  The Guild (not the Coop – it gets confusing) emerged as a staple of the Wall Street occupation, printing tee-shirts and patches on the north side of Zuccotti Park up until Bloomberg finally succeeded in clearing out the space.

Since then, the Guild has continued to function, maintaining a small public presence at Occupy-related events in the city, though the winter – mild as it was – finally got too cold for our ink to cure outside.  We have a print shop set up in a former Amalgamated Bank office on the first floor of a building owned by the United Federation of Teachers. The space, which is called SIS (Shipping, Inventory, Storage) was the OWS receiving space for in-kind donations and acquisitions when they were flowing in last fall, but has since become home to the OWS Library, Medics, Archive and the Screenprinters.

Photo by Jesse GoldsteinThe Screenprinters Guild is a unique OWS working group: whereas most of the working groups (most notably the food working group) need to tap into the OWS General Fund, which at its peak held over $500k, the Screenprinters actually generate revenue for the movement.  When we first started printing in Zuccotti Park, our intention was to provide a free and fun service (see here for some first-person accounts).  But right away, we saw that money – that ubiquitous and universal symbol of social wealth – was going to be pushed upon us.  From the very first pulls of ink, passers-by would donate anything from a few pennies to a few twenties in exchange for screenprinted shirts, even if the garment was initially theirs to begin with.

Over the course of the occupation, these financial exchanges became increasingly entrenched in the moral economy of the Guild, and at times it could even feel a bit like we were manning the movement’s souvenir stand.  No one was turned away for lack of funds, but there was clearly an expectation that tourists should be paying, especially if they were taking a shirt that we had to purchase ourselves.

Photo by Jesse GoldsteinA full day of printing at Zuccotti Park would net the Guild as much as $2,000 in our big blue bucket, which we’d periodically empty into a plastic bag to take over to the accounting tent and deposit directly into the General Fund.  Even though we’d get a receipt each time we made a deposit, we never kept track of exactly how much money we made – because it didn’t actually matter.

However, the Screenprinters did ask the GA for money.  At the height of the occupation we were approved to spend $20k on blank tee-shirts, always with the guarantee that this expense would be repaid twice over through the donations that our printing generated.  We spent the last of that money around New Years, and now have nine large boxes of tee-shirts stored in Brooklyn, waiting to be put to use.

Photo by Jesse GoldsteinDuring the winter, as OWS’s collective energy was no longer focused on maintaining occupied spaces, other sorts of projects emerged.  For the Screenprinters, this meant working with the Alternative Economies Working Group, and more specifically, with a network of people from various groups (Food, Tech, Screenprinting, Legal, and Alt Economies) to discuss the possibility of transforming parts of our respective projects into workers’ cooperatives.  All of us had created such incredible infrastructure for the occupation, yet without an occupied space, the question before us was whether any of this infrastructure could be maintained within the market economy that we were struggling against.

This raises some interesting questions about the relationship between the markets we make and their relationship to the commons that we want. Others may disagree, but I do think that the infrastructure we were producing as part of the Zuccotti occupation was an infrastructure of and for commoning – it was that connection that made these projects feel so important, so meaningful, and so generative.  But now what?  Now that the Park is no longer serving as our geographical locus – our commons – is it possible to maintain or recreate these same sorts of relations in other contexts?

For the Guild, one approach has been to transform itself – in part at least – into an “anti-retailing” workers’ cooperative.  In the second part of this essay, I’ll explain a bit about how that’s going, and see if it can open up some more interesting questions for us to consider.