The global pandemic has put the world on co-op. I say this because the essence of co-op is the question: “what do I do?” This question is repeatedly posed by people around the world as we face the multifarious impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak. It is being asked by us with an urgency that only a crisis can provide. I find myself asking it about situations of various scales as I attempt to balance inaction with anticipation. There’s the “what do I do?” response to the violence we are witnessing, to the economic catastrophe we are yet to feel the full effect of, to the lack of support for medical professionals and other workers, and to the death toll and infection rate. There’s the eternal daily asking “what do I do [today]?” How do I make use of this critical time, that is being overwrought with importance? Finally, there is the asking of the philosophical “what do I do?”; that is overarching, that is the reason people go to school and the reason our school has co-op. The terms of co-op we are given are months-long trial runs for what careers an Antioch student might seek out in the future.
This bigger question is why I wanted to pursue a college education and why Antioch’s co-op program was a major draw for me (as it is and has been for so many). Spring term 2020 co-op has this obstruction of national shelter-in-place rules which provides many people with the rare opportunity to face this question of “what do I do?” when it doesn’t relate to making money. Although the government has failed to provide enough financial support for citizens to sustain themselves, in many states the expansion of Unemployment Insurance (both in requirements and payout) is allowing a plethora of people the opportunity to not have to worry about income for a brief period of time where they can focus on doing something outside of capitalism’s rigged competitions.
The question of what one does is asked in an active voice but it is a reference to what one has done. It is almost irrelevant if one is still painting, or on hiatus from painting—the answer would still be, “I paint,” because of one’s past pursuits that they still deem important. Following this logic, asking “what do I do?” is the same as asking “what have I done?”—a phrase most commonly heard in movies when an innocent character has done something terrible; maybe they are asking it of themselves out of fear that whatever action they took is now something they do, that it is forever who they are.
This quarantine co-op has fallen in sync with some major changes in my family. My brother and his partner (who were supposed to have a wedding ceremony this summer before isolation was enforced) moved to a bigger rental in Detroit—a place with an attic and basement, and a guest bedroom I am lucky enough to live in at the moment. This windfall of space is fortuitous not only because my canceled co–op plans left me needing a place to live but also because the building that has been storing all of the belongings from my family’s studio and home is being sold and our possessions must be moved out. The closing of the studio we inhabited for almost a decade was sudden, allowing my mother (the sole person tasked with the job of packing up this industrial space) no time to decide what to keep and what to jettison, and so the storage she has been keeping is a fairly complete time capsule.
As my mother and I work through the twenty-seven palette boxes in storage, I am finding evidence from a time when I had a better sense of “what I do” than I have had in the last several years. I was a precocious home-school student for half of high school, a time I spent working at our studio learning Letterpress printing and making ‘zines, though my last term of senior year I spent with my family in Georgia where my father had a teaching residency. That term was especially productive for me, having access to a darkroom and screen-printing facilities. Even before high school, I would say I was a photographer. In storage, I disinterred rolls of film from that earlier time, as well as prints and proofs, the last remaining copies of ‘zines, projects I had only just begun, spreads from publications I thought I had sold out of, detritus from travels, and various odd collections of things, which I realized I should organize into an archive. Co-op has allowed me to do just that: I am organizing archive boxes of projects and collections, scanning all of the film, and going through my three external drives to organize a digital archive in addition to the physical one.
I am grateful to have the time in co-op to work through this material and organize these archives. I believe this is an important first step for what’s to come in my next years at Antioch where I will continue to ask “what do I do?”