A Place For the People
By Kevin Longrie
There isn’t much furniture in the Blood Orange Infoshop, a studio in downtown Riverside converted into a non-commercial, collectively-run space intent on promoting cultural and political discussion, art, and do-it-yourself lifestyle. About twice the size of a college dorm room, the Infoshop looks out over University Avenue and is accessible only through a narrow, orange-red door at ground level that resembles the entrance of a telephone booth. When I visited BOIS, it was early evening and several members were sitting around in an elongated circle, waiting patiently. There were a few occupied chairs, thickly populated bookshelves, and a short spindle rack filled with ’zines, but otherwise most people sat cross-legged on the wood floor, leaning against the art-covered walls.
Understand They are Misunderstood
Over the hour and a half that I spoke with the dozen members present that evening, a theme naturally emerged: The Blood Orange Infoshop is a group dedicated to a complicated, fluid set of ideas that everyone around them—including your correspondent—is trying to explain in a sentence, and they are understandably sensitive to the idea of misrepresentation.
The frustration cuts both ways. The collective feels it has been falsely portrayed in the press; they attribute this failure to a fundamental lack of understanding regarding DIY culture on the part of the reporters. They also feel that a particular piece written about them overemphasized the importance of the white males of BOIS, neglecting the contributions from women and people of color that also fill out the ranks of the rented studio.
The press, on the other hand, is having a hard time getting a firm grasp on the protean assembly. Any kind of definition seems limiting, but one must be made. The tension that arises between the group and how they are perceived comes from the simple fact that no representation can include every aspect of what they hope to accomplish. They are a collective, but they are individuals; they work together, but they are not strictly homogenous in thought or action. By trying to include all the divergent ideas of its members in a meaningful way, the group opens itself up to ambiguity, and therefore becomes vulnerable to misrepresentation. The one thing that the BOIS seems to agree on unanimously is that there will be disagreement. It can only exist in a kind of quiet chaos.
What follows this ambiguity is an unfortunate, if unfortunately necessary process of journalistic compression, during which the reporter sifts through the seemingly unrelated pieces that make up the BOIS and sharpen the points that seem most relevant. More often than not, the aspect of BOIS highlighted is its political presence.
“When you live in a culture that is very consumerist-oriented, and you try to create a space that is purposefully non-commercial, public and horizontal (collective decision making), you’re almost political by default because what you’re doing is so counter to what the norm is,” said Angela Asbell, an adjunct professor at CSU San Bernardino and one of the more loquacious members of BOIS. “People can’t believe that we just want to open an art gallery that anybody can join, where we can all educate each other and debate with each other about our different points of view and try to come to a decision together.”
Finding Their Place
Asbell described how BOIS hopes to provide an all-ages, non-commercial space in downtown Riverside where people can feel free from persecution. “There’s always been a desire for a place like this,” she said, “a collective space that isn’t commercial, that’s intended for the public and can be run collectively.” The political categorization of BOIS came from its non-traditional structure—the fact that it exists, as Asbell says, “counter to what the norm is”—but also from some ideological runoff from the underground arts community in Riverside which predates BOIS by decades. It provides a safe area for discussion and dissent where previously there was not.
“There’s definitely politics going on here, but we can’t say that it is just one kind of politics because we’re open to debate,” said Justin Nichol, a soft spoken but articulate member of the collective. “A lot of us are possessed of ideas that would be considered radical because we like to go to the root of the problem. But we want our space to be pre-figurative of the kind of society that we would like. Now the society that we would like is still fluid and it’s not like an ideology, so there’s still debate and we develop policies as we go.”
BOIS has attracted attention from and gained friends in DIY circles across the country, such as the Beehive Collective, a Maine-based group whose mission statement reads that they hope “to cross-pollinate the grassroots, by creating collaborative, anti-copyright images that can be used as educational and organizing tools.” BOIS has reinvigorated local activism and discussion.
“[P]rojects like the BOIS present our society with forgotten alternatives,” said Patrick Sweeney, former UCR student. “[They exhibit] other ways of relating in the social world that are more egalitarian, and not driven by profit.
Their practices lay the social, psychological, and material groundwork for a more just society by building alternative social institutions that show us the status quo is not inevitable.”
The group was not always as ambitious or as widely known as it is today. “We started just as a group of friends meeting at Back to the Grind and at people’s houses,” said Johnny F., a member of BOIS. That was almost two years ago, and a unifying issue appeared in the form of a Neo-Nazi rally. The protest was informal; it was not advertised in any papers or promoted heavily by one organization. But several people who now identify as members of the BOIS were present.
“It was just another example of the people that show up when shit happens,” said a member who identified himself as Fizzle. “It’s the same amount of people that show up and you recognize people. […] Now we have all these loose connections that we can bring together because we have a space.”
How They “Do It Themsleves”
BOIS has since grown and changed into something with variable concerns, each addressed at different times by different sections of the collective. This ideological heterogeneity keeps them from being easily categorized as a single-issue group. “It’s hard to have an overall agenda because everyone is influenced by and passionate about different things,” said Fizzle.
But when action on an issue is important and needs the full attention of BOIS, it can usually get it, even if that is preceded by hours of intense discussion. When the situation calls for it, Fizzle said, “we come together—like Voltron, you know?”
“This isn’t to say that what we’re doing is easy,” explained Elliot Fong, member. “We’re still learning together how to work as a collective and develop policy. We learn at every meeting how to deal with each other.” BOIS’ structure is the result of collaborative pioneering, built on certain non-commercial tenets but perpetuated by a certain optimistic perseverance. “We try our best to keep things on a positive level,” Fong added.
Although they try to keep an even keel, dissent is an inherent and inexorable part of the BOIS. “It gets heated sometimes,” Asbell said. “People will debate or disagree or even get mad. But what’s interesting is that this is one of the only groups I’ve seen that’s able to deal with that conflict and it doesn’t destroy us.”
The collective has figured out ways of diffusing tension, and it is no surprise (given the discussion-based nature of the group) that most of these methods involve talking it out.
Carissa Slayden, a member of BOIS, gave a hypothetical: “If somebody comes in and they’re throwing off the vibe in the space, what would happen is that I might turn to Justin and say ‘Hey, this guy is making me feel uncomfortable. How do you feel about it? Can we talk to this person and tell them, Hey, we don’t really appreciate the language that you’re using; it’s making us uncomfortable and this is why. Try to be aware of where you’re coming from because it’s upsetting people.’”
Ejection, though rarely used, is not off the table.
But the members of BOIS hope it never has to come to that. “This place exists to start conversations in the community,” said member Jenna Craig, gesturing to center of the room and to the shelves on the wall. “There are educational tools here: we have literature, we have a lending library. Sometimes it’s political, sometimes it’s not, but we’re here more to spark a discussion and interact with each other than to convert.”
The BOIS is, in many ways, a sanctuary of understanding. “Safe” is a word used often by its members to describe their intended impression. Wildly different views are encouraged and discussed regularly, as long as they are brought up and debated respectfully.
“If they’re coming in and preaching and dropping f-bombs, we’re not going to be receptive to that,” said Johnny F. He later clarified that the term f-bomb, as he used it, denoted the anti-gay slur, not the multi-purpose four letter word.
“It’s almost democratic, but majority doesn’t rule,” Asbell said about the format used for sifting through topics and choosing to move forward on actions as a collective. “If even one person isn’t down for something, that means we talk about it more.”
Given these guidelines, the BOIS is, if nothing else, a triumph of community thinking. Though this system seems like it would create endless delays and stand-stills, BOIS has been able to do quite a bit since it began in earnest last November. It has hosted traveling DIY bands, hosted speakers and film series from groups like the Inland Empire Feminist Collective, and a number of other events. And this is all on top of their regular weekly gatherings.
It’s not exactly a paragon of efficiency either; after a few particularly long sessions, a mandatory two-and-a-half hour cap was placed on meetings.
Making a Splash in the Community
The BOIS also has its hands—and its shovels—in collective farming and composting. Member Ula Chrobak built a relationship with the owners of a church near her house which allowed them to use a patch of land. In association with RCC Sustainability and Growcology, the group hopes to grow what they need.
This local, collective growing is an extension of their political philosophy. Rather than demanding something of a government institution, Asbell said, “we’ll try to make [whatever we need] for each other. We’re not going to appeal to somebody for what we want. We make what we want.”
The BOIS does not have decades of experience or a time-tested method of creating the kind of community change they discuss every Sunday night. As a social entity in the Inland Empire, it is still learning to stand on its own two feet. But it is nevertheless an entity, growing each day in influence and in impact—not to mention membership. The true power of Blood Orange rests in the hands of its dedicated members, who each have an equal say in how it will be used. It is a living, breathing possibility.