After two and half years and four co-ops, I’ve noticed something interesting about co-op councils (“council” is the common term for the weekly or bi-monthly housewide meetings where the house conducts its business). There are certain kinds of topics that councils (at least in the Berkeley Student Cooperative, where councils consist of mostly undergraduate students) have rich discussions over, and other things that they have a hard time addressing.
Co-ops have a tough time, for example, discussing finances. We are the definition of “painting the shed.” Co-op veterans have this saying, that “the larger the number, the shorter the discussion.” This is most true at Board. It regularly takes us 20 minutes to spend $100 dollars, but only two minutes to spend $2,000,000 (true story). I think the reason is that people feel generally unqualified to voice opinions on large expenditures. With numbers that big, people feel intimidated.
The thinking goes something like this: “If we’re talking about spending this much money, it must have been very well researched, and it must be a complicated situation.” With small change, however, people can usually wrap their heads around the issue quickly, and take up far more time than is necessary to make a minor decision. It’s interesting to observe this pattern over time, and to think about what it means about the potential drawbacks of group decision-making.
Co-ops have an easy time, however, discussing art. In two co-ops, Castro and Kingman, I’ve participated in vigorous debates around the question of art in public space. It’s not hard to understand why–while not everyone can relate to finance, everyone has had some interaction with art on walls, art in hallways, art in bathrooms. It’s a shared issue which requires no technical expertise to understand.
At Castro, the debate centered around the question of whether it was fair to subject murals to the approval of council (so that an individual wishing to paint a mural would have to present the design in advance for approval).
The pro side argued that since these murals would exist in common space and would be highly visible by everybody in the house, the whole house should have a say in their content, and decide which images should be allowed in their environment.
The con side argued that the artistic process is one that should be kept the property of the individual, and not subject to the criticism of the rest of the community. They seemed to believe that the process of going to council for approval would throttle the personal and creative nature of the act, and render it dry and hollow. Further, they believed that having a group debate and critique a piece of art was inappropriate, as self-expression was not something which could be brought within the sphere of politics.
In the end, a compromise was reached: any mural approved at council would be “protected.” Once a mural was approved at council, no one else would be able to paint over it without getting further approval. Un-painted white space would be open to new “rogue” murals, but there would be no guarantee that someone else would not paint over it later. So individuals were free to paint outside the jurisdiction of council, but any of their work would be vulnerable to someone else painting over it. Only council had the power to protect murals from critics.
At Kingman, the debate (currently ongoing) is about whether bathrooms should be cordoned off as “free zones” for murals, without needing council approval. Unlike Castro, Kingman’s By-Laws state that all murals must be approved at council (at Castro, bathrooms were unrestricted by default). The issue is one of taste. And this issue is current–as of this writing, I am in the middle of a two-week process to revise the By-Laws to exclude bathroom walls from the regular restrictions.
The pro side (in full disclosure, my side) is arguing that by designating the bathroom walls as “free zones” we as a house would begin to tap into, as Gabe (a housemember) put it, our “inner culture.” In my experience at other co-ops, the bathroom drawings tend to be the most personal, the most uncensored, and in many ways the most thought-provoking. By placing the bathroom walls within the domain of council approval, we silence the deeper, more wild portion of our house psyche which could be coaxed out through clandestine bathroom art-making.
The con side has argued that opening up bathrooms walls would result in at least some amount of vulgar drawings and create a potentially unpleasant environment. The downsides of the negative imagery would outweigh the positives of the bathroom art, and therefore bathrooms should not be opened up as free zones. Further, while Kingman residents (“toads”) might not write vulgarities, it’s likely that guests might not feel the same sense of propriety in regards to the walls.
It’s hard to say which argument will win the day when we vote next week. Both have valid points, and the argument seems to be hinging on whether we’ll be content with what might emerge from the community’s inner psychology, as expressed through bathroom art, or “latrinalia.”
It’s fascinating to participate in such debates. While on the surface they may seem to be simple matters of personal taste, they really represent much deeper and more profound questions of individual freedom within society, of which there are no simple or clear answers.