On Patreon and capitalism. On community and artmaking.

((This is a cross-post from my Patreon page.))

Happy new year!

I did a reflection of my 2017 and posted a year-end review to my mailing list, which you can read here (and subscribe here). It includes a handy-dandy list of all the comics I put out last year and some highlights worth celebrating. As I said over there, it was a rough year to make art, to be an American citizen, to just be sometimes. And I’m proud of myself for continuing to show up here again and again.

I launched this Patreon in the middle of last year, and I continue to be humbled and inspired by the fact that you all show up here again and again — for me and for any other artists you support. It may sound like hyperbole, but I truly believe that these are tiny revolutionary acts — the action of showing up, the action of supporting artists directly, the action of giving, the action of participating in new ways of doing things. Maybe Patreon is old hat to you by now, maybe you are used to this model from NPR/podcast sponsorship drives, maybe it doesn’t feel that different to you than backing Kickstarters…but I want to acknowledge that it requires a fundamental mindset shift to pledge money to someone on a monthly basis without a set transactional promise on the other side of it.

It’s a mindset shift for all of us, right, the creators and the patrons and the supporters and the readers and the makers and the audience. And in some sense, in my worldview, we are all those things at once — or rather we all embody those different pieces of ourselves and there is a lot of fluidity as we move from behind-the-scenes to onstage to audience member in the house. Maybe that’s why it makes sense that the people who are earliest to support via Patreon or Ko-Fi or whatever the newest thing is are other artists, because these tools become familiar to them first, because they understand in their bones the idea of throwing energy (in whatever form) behind the things that energize them. The ones who are the most supportive speak this language of community-supported arts because that is the ideal they are building towards, and those are the values they are living into their own lives.

I’ve been reading Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging, and have been rolling these words around in my mind. (highlights are mine)

“The context that restores community is one of possibility, generosity, and gifts, rather than one of problem solving, fear, and retribution. A new context acknowledges that we have all the capacity, expertise, and resources that an alternative future requires. Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness. The conversations that build relatedness most often occur through associational life, where citizens show up by choice, and rarely in the context of system life, where citizens show up out of obligation. The small group is the unit of transformation and the container for the experience of belonging.Conversations that focus on stories about the past become a limitation to the community; ones that are teaching parables and focus on the future restore community.”

“Community occurs in part as a shift in context, the mental models we bring to our collective efforts.”

It’s these shifts in our mental models of how things could be, that are truly revolutionary.

But I have to remind myself that not everyone speaks this language yet. Just as it took me many years to build up sustainable habits to become a “green girl” and who over time stopped needing to call herself that anymore because it’s embedded into the ways she lives, it takes time to move from a transactional view of artist-as-schiller-of-physical-objects to a Gift (as in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift) view of artist-as-community-supported-emotional-conduit.

Both ‘reduce your carbon footprint’ and ‘save the planet’ might feel lofty and impossible as goals, but in practice it boils down to small steps of transforming old habits into new habits. Keep a reusable bag in your vehicle of choice for grocery runs; turn off the light when you leave a room; bring your empty water bottle through airport security. And eventually your mindset follows your actions, and you find yourself saying no to plastic bags when you can just stash whatever it is in your backpack  and looking for ways to buy less packaging at the store. Hell you even start buying less in general because mending is fun.

Likewise ‘directly support artists’ and ‘create a new(old) gift-economy’ might feel idealistic and impossible as goals, but in practice it boils down to small steps of adding new habits into your rotation of existing habits. I feel like it’s cliché at this point, but when we say, “There are so many ways to support us”…it’s true! Throwing energy behind the things that energize you creates more energy in the world. And that energy can come in many forms:

  • sharing what touches you with your own circles
  • volunteering with the crew
  • buying physical products in-person or online
  • connecting at shows and in-person events
  • generous use of tip jars
  • signing up for subscription services
  • kickstarters, patreons, ko-fi’s >> follow wherever artists go, cuz they’re following you wherever you go
  • becoming a sustaining patron
  • bringing someone a snack or offering to cover their table for 10 minutes when they’ve been sitting behind a zine fest table for hours without a break
  • making fan art/fan zines
  • showing support on your sleeve via merch
  • signing up for mailing lists and following [insert channel here] for updates, so we can get in touch when new ways to support come up
  • sending a note of appreciation
  • engaging in the conversation
  • making your own art inspired by all the art you absorb

It’s magical. When we are tapped into the flow of that energy and the interconnectedness of our communities as humans, it’s electrifying. The time that most embodied this for me from 2017 was the weekend of Long Beach Zine Fest. I not only tabled but was also asked to host a zinemaking workshop around second languages, and I watched as Dear Daughter emotionally move someone to tears. In return, I felt moved to make more art. It was a reminder of why I do the work I do, and the people I met gave me so much that weekend. A true exchange.

And to think about it in this way means it’s not one-way but multi-dimensional; it’s not all on us as creators either. It’s also on all of us as readers/audience members/consumers to contribute in multiple ways. We are all creative citizens in this ecosystem feeding the ecosystem.

It’s still easy for me as a creator to get sucked into the rabbithole of focusing on the numbers and dollar signs — the form of energy that capitalism’s taught me has the most value and meaning. For survival’s sake, I want to keep disrupting the brain patterns that value money energy over all other forms of connection. It’s why I’ve always tried to have a letter exchange or some kind of interactive activity at my zine fest tables that have nothing to do with whether you give me paper money in exchange for paper book or not.

In this interview between poets Vi Khi Nao and Jennifer S. Cheng, Vi asks: When do you feel least alive? What aspect of modern life stops you from breathing? And Jennifer answers:

“When I am in too close proximity to the capitalist/hierarchical/hegemonic machine I feel suffocated (as many do). When I have to socially perform inside this machine, my body breaks down (in the form of panic attacks).”

I think that’s what happened to me in December with this Patreon. When I reminded too much that all this idealistic striving for community happens on a platform that exists squarely within capitalism, I didn’t have a panic attack but I did freeze up and withdraw. I don’t know if y’all heard about the kerfuffle that happened with Patreon in December, but the short of it was that they decided to change their fee structure saying it was better for creators, and creators and their supporters went into an angry uproar on Twitter about it mostly because of undue impact on supporters at the $1-3 levels. This feedback did make its way up to Patreon’s team, and they decided not to update their fee structure after all.

By the time I was halfway through processing what all this meant, and how I felt about it, and wanted to write something on here about it…it was all over. (I probably would have linked to Amanda Palmer and Cory Doctorow; and mentioned that Gumroad is heading toward open source and that Ko-Fi doesn’t take any fees at all.) I think a lot of trust was shattered or lost those few weeks — and sometimes the trust between creator and audience gets tangled up in the mistrust we have for capitalistic systems…which only flair up every once in awhile (because we’re lulled into comfortable complacency most other times).

While intellectually, the whole thing resolved when they decided not to change their fee structure and I decided not to write a post here addressing it…something about the whole kerfuffle worked its way into my body. It fueled the doubts around my value as a creator — just in general, during a year where invalidation lurked behind every tweet and shadowed nearly every way of being in this world. I sort of just shut down.

I find myself feeling paralyzed still by some of these same entanglements. The co-existence of: on the one hand, the ideals of community and artmaking and blank space and co-creation that I want to explore and build and live into, and on the other hand, the ways in which these platforms are still oriented around money and art-as-business and hierarchy and one-way communication.

Writing this, I am coming to the realization that the thing I really want from this Patreon is more multi-dimensional communication. I have loved sharing time with some of you on our Zoom calls and writing circles, and I appreciate every comment or note that appears below. And maybe it is worthy of exploration moving forward as to how to engage here in ways that encourages your engagement back. I have many other channels where I speak into the void and never expect any responses (Twitter always, and more and more my newsletter too, which has been sad), and I don’t want this to become another place where I quietly shout into a void.

One fear that I have is that you’ll go away because I persist in writing so much about these meta-topics of my struggles with how to engage with this Patreon instead of just making my art and sending it to you. But I’m coming to terms with the fact that part of my art right now is wrapped up in figuring out how to live my life as an artist. Building towards the ideals I believe in and living my values into my life’s actions. And likely some or all of the above will work its way into some comic essays in the future.

So maybe I just need to talk to you, to ask you: Why are you here? What do you want from this relationship, from this community, from me? What are your favorite ways to support your favorite artists? And what has been challenging as a fan supporting artists on the wild internets? Am I expecting too much from you; maybe you’re not here for community; maybe you’re just here to receive comics in your inbox every once in awhile? Do you like reading about my thoughts on how I art? What’s been your favorite thing that’s happened here?

Feel free to comment, converse with each other in the comments, or email a reply directly to me.