We were both pursuing graduate studies at CalArts in 2015 when Amanda Vincelli and I first met. I have always understood her to be a meticulous and driven thinker. I later became one of the hundred women to participate in Vincelli’s thesis project Regimen (2015—2017). It was a project that sampled and documented the medicinal regimens women in an urban capital may find themselves engaged in. The project explored observations on wellness, the body as a bio-political negotiation zone, as well as a machine for production and reproduction.
The project was influenced in part by Vincelli’s background in health sciences, her work as a creative director, along with her history of community-centered organizing within the arts. While in Los Angeles, Vincelli joined the community-building project, NAVEL which she helped stir towards the not-for-profit organization it would later become. NAVEL grew into a democratic platform with a strong focus on implementing art as a tool for social change. While there, Vincelli was continually driven to question and redefine the terms of participation and power dynamics in collaborative structures. Just this past September, Vincelli resigned from her position at NAVEL and returned to her home city, Montreal. She enrolled in a graduate program in Community Economic Development at Concordia University. I caught up with Vincelli for the following conversation in the midst of these transitions.
Before we caught up, Vincelli suggested I attend a virtual Assemblies meeting. Assemblies is a program Vincelli initiated and designed as an extension to the NAVEL community. Throughout the meeting, there was a consistent level of respect and close listening between the fifty or so present. I got a sense of the range NAVEL welcomes, its continued ambition, and the devotion of its community to social justice. I also understood how to share space even if it was within a virtual distance. In the conversation that follows below, Vincelli and I discuss further about the NAVEL and Assemblies initiatives among other talking points.
This is a moment when we need to come together, build coalitions and strengthen existing movements, and use our skills and talents to re-invent the economy so it doesn’t govern, but improve our lives.
Can you start by discussing where the idea for Assemblies comes from?
The book “Assembly” by Hardt and Negri is where the “Assemblies” title of the program comes from. Their argument around leadership was that traditionally a leader develops a strategy that is tactically implemented by the collective. They propose an inversion of that where the collective body comes up with the strategy and leaders develop and carry out the tactics. Hence, in this model, leaders are the stewards of the community’s vision. This framing has guided my practice at NAVEL, particularly its programming structure.”
Assemblies arose from my desire to invite community members to ponder the questions we were asking ourselves about NAVEL internally. Operating within a neoliberal context and depending on unreliable sources of income, how do we structure, run and distribute the resources of the organization in a way that is, as consistently as possible, in alignment with values of equity and kinship? How can we maintain an autonomous position and make sure that, in all that we do, we keep pushing towards radical social change? And what kind of a collective governance is most efficient and sustainable?
At the same time, more and more people were approaching us about hosting different kinds of working/study groups that resonated with our mission and these questions, so the platform grew organically out of these requests.
There is so much value in learning without any type of goal or outcome in mind—you don’t have to perform, you’re not working towards credit. The importance of this kind of learning environment where there are no experts and everyone is accountable for the learning is huge. Most of the time, you end up learning more from each other and working together than about the topic itself. And also from getting an opportunity to experience organizing and facilitating. Most of us don’t have access to a space to learn and practice these skills.
Do you see NAVEL as part of your artistic practice or as a separate entity?
I really don’t think of NAVEL as part of my artistic practice, but more as just part of my life practice to strive for more reciprocity and caring relationships with others and the planet. If you read the Rebecca Solnit article I shared with you, it sums up my perspective around projects that are so much bigger than you, which are only possible because of everyone that comes together to make it happen. It would be odd to take credit for a collective project like this. Since my experience at NAVEL, I also don’t really identify or rather stopped thinking of myself as an artist since I don’t make “art,” but if you think of an artist as someone who seeks to represent and create the world they want to be a part of, then maybe I am an artist in this sense. In the article, Solnit problematizes this hero narrative: it's simply popular because it’s easier to represent and understand. Why do we need to keep elevating the individual over the collective? Why are we not highlighting all the group efforts that led to change instead? NAVEL, as an organization and community, is trying to move away from this heroic, genius, solo creator narrative—the visionary, the entrepreneur, the Elon Musks of this world— to alter what society values. Instead, NAVEL emphasizes collaboration, group process, horizontal rather than top-down knowledge, resource sharing, and creation.
The main learning of this experience was a greater awareness of my blind spots and biases as a Euro-Canadian white person, with quite a bit of privilege. I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the power I held in the organization and this has a lot to do with the reasons behind my divestment. At the moment, I want to follow and support BIPOC-led social movements and community organizations whose leadership matters most and who have done this kind of organizing work for much longer (and more effectively). This impulse of creating, and the individualism of doing your own project—even when we are talking about a community-based initiative— is what I now fundamentally question. This is a moment when we need to come together, build coalitions and strengthen existing movements, and use our skills and talents to re-invent the economy so it doesn’t govern, but improve our lives.
What were the biggest influences and models that helped guide your choices in terms of how to structure events and offer different branches of opportunities for NAVEL community members?
There are so many. A lot of artist-run organizations which are part of the Common Field network, as well as more informal projects and collectives. In LA, The Women’s Center for Creative Work and internationally, Ada-X in Montreal, Beta-Local in Puerto Rico and the Casco Art Institute in Utrecht. I’ve looked pretty deeply into the DisCO (Distributed Cooperative Organization) Governance Model of the Guerilla Media Collective, but we didn’t get to experiment with or implement anything like it at NAVEL. And more recently, I am inspired by what the Activation Residency is doing.
For Assemblies, I’ve looked at many alternative, non-accredited schools and peer-learning initiatives which have been active in the last ten years. Initially, I was most inspired by Trade School (worldwide), School of the Apocalypse (New York), The Public School (Los Angeles and worldwide) and Spektrum communities (Berlin), but I’ve learned about many others throughout like BUFU’s WYFY and Cloud9 schools that are doing or have done incredible work. (There's a complied list here).
Was there a moment (or several) when you contemplated shutting NAVEL down in the past few years? What were the hurdles you faced and how did you adapt? When COVID-19 broke out was this an opportunity to take a new direction altogether and not return to some of what you were doing before?
Not shutting it down, but it’s been a while since new leadership and energy at NAVEL felt critical. Could new directors/stewards be nominated by the community knowing that our democratic approach is what created the richness of the programs? I always imagined that whoever leads the organization next would have free reign to radically alter the project, in a similar way that Michael and I did when we joined. It had no structure, legal or otherwise, and we [re-established] it into the non-profit community-based organization that it is today. We had a lot of freedom and the full support of the other co-founders who had already put so much energy and capital into creating the physical space. I did want NAVEL to take a more explicit political stance, to actively work towards social justice, and to support activist organizations more directly. We occasionally offered free space to abolitionist and advocacy groups, but that was not explicitly integrated into the organization’s mission and goals.
When we formalized NAVEL as a community-based cultural nonprofit in 2018, we had a launch party called Rebirth. When the pandemic hit, I had this vision of NAVEL having another rebirth. To me, the moment felt ripe for us to divest; to figure out a way to democratically hand over our platform and resources, and extend our support to empower community members and projects that felt most urgent and important, to a QTBIPOC-led abolitionist group, cooperative or collective.
Looking back on 2018, when you became a non-profit cultural organization, what did you learn that might be useful to others thinking of initiating their own cultural organizations? What would be some starting points for others interested in learning more about organizations, power, governance, and non-profits?
My main advice would be the following: be clear on the reasons why you are doing it and what you are trying to change. Is it really needed at this moment? Who is already doing the work in a way that resonates with you? What can you learn from them? Could you use your skill, talents, and experience to strengthen and amplify their work rather than create something entirely new? If you are, what makes you the right person to initiate this project and organize this community? Reflect critically on your position, privilege, and own theory of change.
Here are a few starting points that first came to mind:
- Clearly articulate your vision, mission and values: develop them collectively, keep revisiting and assessing them as a community.
- Prioritize accessibility, community listening, and participation in decision-making no matter how challenging or slower the process may be.
- Make the invisible labor (e.g. care work) visible, reward it and/or financially compensate.
- Keep things simple. Set things up in a way that makes it as easy as possible for everyone involved, and for anyone to get involved.
- Always remember that no one is ever too busy to put people and relationships first.
- No matter what your work is about, if you are working in groups (aka 2 people or more) keep educating yourself, and incite others to continuously learn about non-violent communication, anti-racism, anti-oppression, accessibility, facilitation, cooperative and democratic group processes.
Pre-COVID-19, we had started working on an organizational handbook to sort of break down how NAVEL functions. I was inspired by the WCCW’s feminist organization handbook and enspiral’s. But as I was writing it, we were changing our processes about every other month. The organization is really nimble, which is one of its strengths, but it can also be very challenging. I wish we would have been able to keep documenting because it would be nice to have a record of all these different iterations to reflect on how NAVEL adapted and changed over time, what worked and what didn’t. Navigating all the challenges of the pandemic, we kind of dropped the ball on it. I do believe it is an important exercise to create some form of an organizational handbook if you want to run an organization that is more distributed. This type of document, if done well, can be an essential tool for a community because it makes it easier for people to join, to understand what they are signing up to, and be empowered to take on more leadership and ownership of different parts of the organization. The process of making can also help clarify the inner workings of the organization, the governance, processes, and power relations.
You mentioned some differences between the US and Canada. Are there organizations you’d like to get involved with now that you’re back in Montreal or are you going to take a breather for a year or two?
I’m definitely taking a pause to take a back seat, reflect deeply on the ways I’m bound to perpetuate oppression as a white person, to learn more about community organizing efforts, cooperatives and solidarity economies. I also want to get more involved with activism and mutual aid networks. I don’t know enough about the non-profit sector here, but I imagine there might be more room for experimenting with democratic processes considering that there is a lot more public funding that provides organizations with more stability. There is also less need here to give board seats to connected and wealthy patrons who aren’t embedded in the community.
I believe deeply in the transformative power of art and community organizing (it changed my life). I imagine both will continue to play an important and central role in my life. But right now, I’m investing my time to study non-capitalist economies, cooperatives, social movements, and alternative organizational models. I have a lot to learn from the community sector in Quebec, which is home to the largest number of cooperatives in North America. In Montreal, I am very interested in the work of COCO, which provides resources, support, and coaching to a range of community-based organizations and Batiment 7, a collectively-owned building invested in the exploration of collective autonomy through a range of community projects, an urban farm, garage, school, brewery, etc.
I also want to stay engaged politically in the US. I’ve lived there for 11 years and I want to see significant change happen. I contribute to many POC-led activist groups and movements financially and plan to phone bank for the election, and volunteer for the sunrise movement. I’m also a member of The Future Left, a Los Angeles-based research, education, and activist group.
Which aspects of working on NAVEL were most rewarding and energizing to you, keeping you so invested in its potential and growth?
NAVEL has facilitated a bounty of meaningful encounters. I’ve witnessed many people change and expand their practice, collaborate, become tight friends, go off to start their own organizations, etc. I’ve seen it have a big impact on people’s lives. That’s what I found most exciting and grounding. To grow with, and witness others’ growth. The arts created the appeal, but in many ways, for me, it was more about practicing democracy and learning together how to be more caring citizens of this earth. NAVEL gave me so much hope in what is only possible when you struggle to enact your values and ideals in a group that’s diverse, and you learn to navigate the inevitable conflicts with compassion.