Pro tip: if you are doing a public art project, and don’t make it very clear to your collaborator that it is an art project, it might not turn out to be a very good art project, but it might be a good lesson.
Houston Johansen’s 2012 campaign for Santa Fe City Council could have been a hell of a lot more fun if he we had devised the project as cheeky insurgent political art together and went buck wild before Donald Trump destroyed all milquetoast political conventions. Houston and I have discussed this numerous times in the years since. At the time, I was overthinking my relationship with politics, and I got the cerebral idea of exploring the political campaign as art form. It has all the dimensions of a socially-engaged art project: audiences, intermedia including print, mail, web, social, images, video, audio, radio, news, performance, public engagement, problematic participation, etc. But this was a formal approach that was exploratory more than it was assertive. We didn’t fuck with the system too much. We tested its limits. One of the lessons was: following convention leads to bland bullshit and losing. It’s a lesson that the Ds refuse to learn to this very day.
Houston is one of my best friends. He is from Santa Fe, a childhood friend of two of my buddies from art school. He threw parties in the desert and managed a sustainable, youth-centered coffee shop when I was a freshman at the College of Santa Fe. My first encounter with him was a long-winded conversation on the CSF quad about John Kerry’s flawed presidential campaign.
I remember the 5AM voicemail years before that inspired me. The important part of the long, intoxicated message is distilled as follows:
“Alysha. I just have to say I’m very, very impressed with what you were doing at the legislature. When I’m in town, I will buy you drinks, and we will trade war stories. When I run for office, you are going to run my campaign.”
I organized a legislative and municipal advocacy effort to save my college from closing. After graduating, and ultimately winning, I was recruited to staff five local New Mexican political campaigns in a non-stop year. Those experiences led me to the peculiar crossroads of broken idealism that informed the project. At first, I entertained the idea of running for congress as an intervention, but I quickly realized that I actually did not want to be elected into any office. This was a conceptual flaw that had to be fixed, and Houston was the perfect candidate.
Houston was 25, like me. He was living a stagnant, post-college lifestyle in Omaha, Nebraska, working a dead-end job that paid him $13 an hour, and entailed buying coffee for lawyers.
“Houston, do you want to run for office?” I asked
“Me?” He replied.
“Yeah. I realized that I don’t want to run for congress, and I think you would be a better candidate anyway. You’re from New Mexico, and you were born for this.”
“Well, I’m very flattered. You know, I’m very interested in this proposition. I don’t really have anything going on in Omaha. What exactly did you have in mind?”
“Well, you’re barely old enough to run for congress, so you could do that, but you’d have to challenge Ben Ray Lujan, and it’s doubtful that you could win.”
“City Council on the other hand is much more doable.”
“That it is.”
“It’s pretty thankless though, and the salary is $20,000 a year, but it could jump-start your career.”
“I like the way you’re thinking. Let me think about this, and let’s talk again about this in a few days.”
It didn’t take much consideration. Houston almost immediately agreed. Before I knew it, we were planning from afar, and Houston moved back to Santa Fe in the summer.
Houston would run for city council in district 1, an affluent part of the city that was notorious at the time for advocating in a strongly NIMBY fashion against an affordable housing development that ultimately never was built. They used the typical code words like “traffic” and “crime” to keep the specter of working people far away from their suburban southwestern homes.
Houston’s opponent was Patty Bushee, an 18 year incumbent who handily won elections against opponents typically in a 70/30-ish margin due to that NIMBY base. She was rumored to have once been more progressive. In 2012, the unions endorsed the 25-year-old Houston over her with glee like she was poison due to her policies and treatment of city workers. She did win the endorsement of the police union though.
A political consultant mentor of mine told me that she didn’t think Houston could beat Patti, but that we might have a fighting chance if we raised $30,000 or more in light of the $15,000 of public financing she would inevitably take. We should go negative, “present a choice,” as the politico said, sending at least 3-4 mail pieces out to a good target.
We ultimately didn’t take this advice, because Houston didn’t feel right about it. He accepted the suggestions for a while, until he realized how corrupt it made him feel, and how alienating both of those choices could have been for him. We might have had a better chance of winning, if we did.
As the campaign escalated, politicos and publics loved him and his speeches. People lapped up the charisma of the 25-year-old do-gooder who wanted to make Santa Fe better. Houston was a public person now, and everywhere he went, people asked him what he thought about this thing, and that thing—usually arcane zoning issues and other NIMBY stuff. Months into it, Houston said, “I’ve already been transformed by this process.”
In addition to the unions, the local alt-weekly paper, The Santa Fe Reporter, endorsed Houston for Santa Fe. The alt-weekly passively compared the 18 year incumbent to an African dictator in their endorsement. A flame war of polarizing comments on their website included:
“You all should be ashamed of yourselves for endorsing Houston Johansen. You are endorsing the wealthy, straight, white candidate because he’s young? He’s pretty much never held a job, and you want him to be responsible for the city of Santa Fe? I guess in this time of George Bush as President having credentials doesn’t actually matter. Anyone with the money to be a politician can do it. And if you’re young you have new ideas. What about supporting the queer community in Santa Fe? Our large community is honored to be representation on city council — a place at the table, so to speak. That matters.
For years I have taken the reporter’s endorsements into the polling booth with me because I trusted your progressive voice. Now I wonder.”
We hit the doors almost every day each week for months. We never had a very reliable volunteer base. Most of our volunteers were young and had never worked on a city council campaign before. People who signed up to walk on a Saturday morning would call you with hungover, gritty voices, apologizing for their absence. In the beginning, Houston did this too.
I usually knocked on doors every day Houston hit the streets. This was unusual for a campaign manager, but Houston’s campaign was as scrappy a campaign as you can get. I enjoyed the door-after-door experience of seeing every type of yard and front door imaginable. Every knock and ring of the doorbell left a silent cadence of waiting for the moment that someone might answer. In the moment of answering, you had to persuade the person to want to talk to you, before you could persuade them to vote for Houston. As a female canvasser, this usually entailed raising the timbre of the voice, looking friendly, happy, innocent, and excited.
Once the conversation was initiated and you were talking about the issues that were important to the person at the door, the human elements would bleed onto the processes of politics. Stories that ranged from struggling on state assistance with two kids, to hating the neighbors, to being burglarized, to remembering water in the river as a child would soak these conversations. Neighbors don’t usually knock on their neighbors’ doors, and few people are ever asked about what kind of changes they’d like to see in their communities. These aspects of the conversations were always profound.
The icky truth is that the most important piece of these conversations to campaigns is the “voter ID,” the “who are you voting for” question, and whether the voter has been persuaded to vote for your candidate. The arguably more important human and communitarian aspects fall through the cracks of campaigns, which traditionally only activate people to get politicians elected. Although we were different in many ways from traditional campaigns, this normalcy rang true for us, presumably because we were obsessed with winning, and we were working in the same old way. It didn’t help us though, it hurt.
Houston and I were limited by following the traditional advice of targeting likely voters and how we spent our money. Our message became increasingly conventional—it all boiled down to jobs and the economy. Houston tried to win the support of constituencies he didn’t like. Attempting to appeal to the police union was the biggest ethical compromise for him. He talked about zoning, historic preservation, controversial condoizing, and crime, crime, crime, again and again. I can’t count the number of times he used the term “working families.” He needed to support the city bond questions in order to win the support of the labor unions, and he eventually realized that the bonds he campaigned on were problematic.
However, there were significant differences in our campaign, and they existed in the candidate, in the events we hosted, in the media we used, and in some of the issues we talked about. Few politicians would point to the economic horror that young people perpetually leave Santa Fe, demonstrably making Santa Fe’s economic future, sustainability, and culture more precarious. As Houston talked about this, others picked up on it and reiterated it. We even saw these messages repeated by candidates running for different local offices years later. “Diversify the economy! Invest in renewable energy! Creating jobs will fix crime!” The message that said “It’s time for new energy in Santa Fe!” appeared in English and Spanish in mailboxes, videos, and on the radio. Houston’s name recognition improved exponentially. We hosted a live-streamed forums and other discourse-based parties and coffees to try to generate ideas about how we could make the city better.
We tried to make the city better, and the election different. Despite our small successes, Houston lost. I watched his depression and anger peak amongst a group of dedicated friends. I watched it slowly calm throughout the night with the help of the nice bottle of mezcal he bought for the victory party. Within days, he became more relaxed and free again. He cared less about public appearance and activity. The invitations to do great things increasingly filtered in:
“Houston, will you become the President of the Young Democrats of Santa Fe, and build a leadership and engagement program to activate young people?”
“Houston, will you join the Board of Directors of the Solace Crisis Treatment Center?”
“Houston, I’d like to appoint you to the Charter Review Commission.”
Houston was irreparably transformed, and still remained ever himself. He evolved from a college graduate lost in a midwestern limbo, to a public person people wanted to consult. Years later, he still lives in Santa Fe, and he attributes that to this harebrained project I invited him to undertake. He has since forsaken politics, due in part to a lack of trust in many of the people engaged in it. He lives a happy life without social media, running a home improvement company he owns.
In the moments that we became aware of our devastating loss, I wondered if this loss might in fact have been the best outcome. Whiskey shots, sadness, and hours ripping out hundreds of yard signs by the polling locations were familiar swan songs of campaigns. You work and work and work and work and win or lose. That’s a major flaw of the process: the winner take all, the vicious end, where all of your dedicated supporters go back to their normal lives, and the organization dies.
After the campaign’s swan songs and embarrassing regrets, I tried to reassert my purpose and direction. A friend who relentlessly criticized this project throughout its duration invited me to go wheatpasting a couple of weeks in advance of May Day. I was delighted. I admired street art, and I wanted to learn how to propagate my own.
The first night we went out amidst crowds of young KONY 2012 kids, who were wheatpasting their own propaganda. Their enthusiasm was encouraging, and their presence made our work easier. My buddy carried a Whole Foods bag that concealed a bucket of wheatpaste, and I carried the posters. We walked through the city talking, discretely placing the layer of glue, then the poster, then the glue again on walls, electrical boxes, windows, bus stops, and light poles at major intersections.
The activity felt like liberation. Again and again we went out, later and later in the night on bicycles. My friend contextualized our work as resistance. I loved the thought of people walking down the street, stopping to read the unexpected posters. I liked the idea that the presence of the posters might trigger an unraveling in someone’s perception, a spark of a freeing train of thought. The transgression of using public streets as canvasses for deconstruction offered me a solace, a release, a possibility beyond the socially legitimized forms of activism I increasingly couldn’t believe in.
On the last night we wheatpasted, I carried the glue this time. We used a gas station soda cup as the vessel. It was slippery, and fell out of my hands easily as we rode through the night. We still had enough glue to visit some spots, and we covered a lot of ground: by the co-op, by a hip cafe the entire city visits at one point or another, and on an electrical box in the middle of Santa Fe’s busiest intersection. It was here that we saw 1, 2, 3 cop cars pass by in the midst of our work. It was 2AM.
We rode our bikes down backstreets to finish our work. My heart raced, as I felt the potential gravity of the work we were doing. I was reminded of some texts that my friend had shared with me. One spoke of something called “consensus reality,” of the socially constructed and collectively enforced norms of what is permissible that limit our perceptions of what is possible. It described seduction into transgressive actions through invitation, actions that transformed participants. It talked of play, of the notion that we could disrupt reality through conscious intervention and improvisation, that we could break through the veils of our mirages of what was impossible, and chart out some unknown territory beyond.
As we rode to place a poster on our final spot of the early morning, I realized that I had been seduced and transformed. Creative actions that disrupted the conventions and oppressions of daily, normal life were the most exciting possibilities for change I saw.