Give & Take: A Conversation with Exxon Mobile/Mellow Pages
(photo credit: JoAnna DeLuna of Bushwick Daily)
When news broke about the Mellow Pages “hoax,” I wasn’t laughing. Actually, I was downright pissed. After a few days, though, I realized that my anger didn’t lie with Matt and Jacob—or Mellow Pages or Exxon Mobile or Kanye West—but with myself. I reacted in a very solipsistic way: I had contributed to their Indiegogo campaign; I am a member of the library; I’ve donated (and will continue to donate) a copy of a Big Lucks book to the library; I’ve recommended that people check out the library and contribute to their campaign and visit the space and get to know those cool bros. I wanted them to stay open. But why hadn’t I done more? Do I even have a stake in Mellow Pages? Would things have changed if I suggested something besides “take the (fake) money and run?” And why does my opinion matter in the first place?
I mentioned to Matt and Jacob that I planned on writing about my reactions to their project. After a few emails, we decided it might be more valuable to just talk. The conversation is messy, disjointed, long, and probably very rudderless. But I still think it’s important. Because if there’s one thing this project has taught me it’s that there’s no cut-and-dry formula to support our community.
Of course, we’re all contributing something here. I am but one minuscule cog in the refurbished turbine engine that powers this rinky-dink dirt bike. Whether it’s money or time or love or futons, we all give something. But we can’t say that we all expect the same thing in return for our support. Maybe that’s not good. Maybe that’s a problem.
So maybe it is worth keeping this conversation alive.
Mark: When did you guys decide to go ahead with “#Mellowghazi?” Was it a spur-of-the-moment decision, or had you been plotting/planning for a while?
Matt: First off my man, Mellowghazi, the term, is not our doing. And isn’t in line with what we were thinking. We weren’t doing it to be funny. We took what we did very seriously. People feel quickly. Especially on the internet. Mellowghazi is a reappropriation due to that quickness, a way to divert direct contact with what was happening through a comedic cloud. People need time to think. I mean, I hate to start this way, but reflection eternal, like Talib says. You got to keep slowing down and think about the water, whatever the fuck that means.
As for how this Exxon conversation started, the source is one year of giving your life up for a dream. By the end of the year, we were drained. We were doing week long stints of events, each working two jobs everyday. We knew things had to change not just for us but for the library. The two became interchangeable. We had explored an outline of what we were to expect from the community at hand within one given time. The model of continual zero-intake somehow ameliorated by a month long frenzy of fundraising– that wasn’t going to keep us alive, but we tried it. Jacob and I had also felt like we weren’t doing enough, like, we were moving books and taking funny pictures, but what else could we do large scale? How could we change things and/or people? The initial plan was to tweet at Exxon until we got noticed, perhaps inciting a mass twitter bombing party by everyone. Here’s an example of how this could work that was ripped from my life. I was at a reoccurring potluck/open mic that happened to relocate for the night at a big, DIY house. Halfway through dinner, one of the hosts went up to the mic and said something like, “Hey, for those of you not from Bushwick, we’ve got this great thing happening currently. Exxon is paying for everything. So this soup, the beer, it’s all sponsored by ExxonMobil. Three cheers.” Now, he was poking fun at what he considered a local media phenomenon and probably at us as the anti-Christs of community-oriented purity. But for those who weren’t “from Bushwick,” he was making a joke solely at the expense of Exxon.
There are these layers of knowing happening for everything. How much information do you care about or are present to? Are there any major sticking points that cut through all the layers? Do you care about small presses? Do you care about corporate funding for the arts? Do you care about Exxon within the world? We were hoping for a giant twitter explosion by the masses, somewhat along those lines. Social media is flammable, able to move fast. We had just had a panel with the Underground Education System that touched on how to use social media politically if that was even possible. The responses we got from our ironic vague tweets was equally ironic and vague. I mean, we knew that everyone knew we were joking. But what if we weren’t? What would that mean?
Jacob: Our initial interest was in creating a type of bind I hadn’t seen before, by very publicly flooding a large corporation’s social media accounts with positive PR, in this case thanking the corporation for funding a worthy, small cultural entity like ours. I imagine there are only a couple people running any given social platform and that, if it came down to it, someone might mess up and interact with us. They might not check to see if what we were claiming was actually true: free positive PR and advertisement that is very public, very hard to assume as ‘unreal’ or ingenuine (because why?), and knowing, possibly, that allowing us to continue they are complicitly verifying our claims. Don’t they legally have to deny these things since they are in the public domain (probably not)? What interest would they have in denying this advertisement publicly? It seemed like the beginning of an idea. Like Complimentary Bullying. We did think, in a roundabout way, that if we got their attention, it may end up getting us funding. Not from Exxon (we would never do that) but from someone who saw it as a cool way to bug Exxon, who also were doing their own good thing. If nothing happened, then well why the hell not try? We have nothing to lose.
So, that was the initial idea, which eventually evolved into something useful, which was the conversation that took place on corporate funding in the arts. What we learned was invaluable. Our members were full of ideas and insights on accepting the money. I know there are more questions coming but I think it’s revealing to note that 90% of people insisted we take the money. This couldn’t have been a hypothetical situation: no one would have answered honestly. That’s where we get into the performance aspect of this: it doesn’t matter that the money was never real, what matters is that while the money was real, we had to maintain the integrity of that situation so as not to taint the conversation. We never said it was ‘performance art’. It was indeed a performance though. We had to perform as though it was real, and for a while, it seemed like it was. My question is this: if you’re angry, how is it conceivable that accepting money from a corporation like ExxonMobil is LESS BAD than creating a conversation about whether or not to accept such money, if such a situation arose, and it does, more often than you think? These conversations don’t take place because if the situation had been real, we would have been risking the money to have the conversation. Therefore these things remain behind closed doors, and I think that’s part of the influence of money: it shuts you up.
Mark: When I had initially emailed you guys, you seemed upset with the way the media portrayed things in the International Business Times piece where they quoted the Exxon spokesman. Why? What was so troublesome about it?
Mellow Pages: Upset is an inaccurate interpretation (or, where are you getting that vibe from?). I think a more apt way to put it would be ‘intrigued’. Let’s lay this out in reality: We published an article on Fanzine. The International Business Times wrote an article about an article we published, unsolicited by us. The IBT did not contact ExxonMobil. Then they did. Then they wrote a secondary article claiming to have ‘caught us’ in a ‘big oil lie’. Now, let’s think about the word lie, and also, for a moment about journalism. The truth was always there. So was the lie. The definition of ‘caught’ seems kind of funny in this context. If we had intended to sustain our conversation ‘forever’, now, I guess we would have been ‘caught’. But that’s not the case. Someone did their job and came upon the thing that we we already doing. They ‘discovered’ what was already happening; a thing they apparently wanted to be a part of, because it was an interesting topic, and as a result they became part of our performance. As in, the purpose of our actions involved a question about journalism: is ‘objectivity’ attainable? Considering the tone of these secondary articles, where they’re (Brokelyn included) covering their tracks, they seem to be anything but objective. They are full of emotion and reproach. This caused them to report false assumptions, namely, that we were closing, that we were pulling a ‘last ditch stunt’, or a ‘hoax’, or a ‘joke’. These words seem to only be applicable to the articles themselves, or perhaps the writers themselves. They have no relationship to what we were doing. So, it is in the end kind of an intriguing thing. We are less upset and more proud to have found a fissure in objectivity.
Mark: You guys Tweeted at @exxonmobil about eight times over two days. What made you change course and email your members about the non-existent money?
Mellow Pages: The shift started in our heads as we tried to imagine the reality of Exxon money. What would we do? What’s the weirdest thing we would buy? A joke of a reality, yet it was cool to think about. This is a good point to take a detour. Throughout the Mellow Pages adventure, there has always intercoursed a deep feeling of being open and accepting to options, inventions, ideas. Sometimes I shit you not it was like being tapped into a universal vein. Everything was working. Fucking nails on a wall worked. And if an idea didn’t work then, shit, move on and don’t look back. Again, we felt like we could do something with the Exxon convo, make people think about a topic pertinent to our lives and our friends’ lives. So we did it. Onward.
Mark: OK, let’s go back to the beginning before we go onward: how did you guys feel after the Indiegogo campaign? Obviously, you were well short of your $20K goal, but $5K is a bit of a feat in its own right. Were you happy? Bummed? Pissed? Exhausted?
Mellow Pages: Everything we’ve done so far has been an experiment to SEE something. Of course we were a little disappointed to not reach our goal, but we were surprised and super grateful for every donation we got. THANK YOU EVERYONE. It was amazing, really, to find out exactly what the community was capable of within our weird terms (perks), what it would allow us to do, and what we were left thinking afterward. In a way it made us feel like the ball was in our court a bit: we posed the question: How long do you want us to be here? and we got an answer: a quarter of a year. Of course this is hyperbole to our personal max. It wasn’t made explicit that our ideas were that far reaching, i.e. threatened by the potential to close. But why else would we do a fundraiser? We knew we wanted to do this much longer than a quarter year, so it was straight back to the same questions we had been dealing with before the fundraiser, with a short break in stress. Maddening might be a good word to use, with a huge Grateful superimposed over it.
Mark: Right, definitely hyperbole, but I can understand why you’d feel that way. It had to feel somewhat frustrating, though, right? There have been a couple of lit-based crowdfunding projects that generated much more revenue than you guys did. One of them right in your backyard.
Mellow Pages: Yeah we know Jason. He’s fucking rad and supported us from the get-go. He gave us a great shoutout during our fundraiser at one of the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series events. Who does that? Mentions another fundraiser while you’re doing your own? Great guy. That series is one of the first readings we went to when we got to Brooklyn. We’re in the same building as him. We know his father-in-law. The Brooklyn Bridge and Boost House with Steve, they’re doing great things. HUGE THINGS. Things that are necessary and primed to be fruitful. They have their passionate donors, be it quantitative or qualitative. Our gauge was different. We were less than a year old, with most of our patrons being those in the community, geographic and literary. They gave what they could and we are fucking thankful.
Mark: I love Jason, too–and Steve and Adam and Gabe and Coldfront and Gigantic. And you guys. I donated a small bit to each of your campaigns, and fuck, I don’t even want to think about how much money I spent on books last year. I’m not bringing this up so that you can take shots at other campaigns so much as I’m trying to point to the fact that we in indie lit have an issue with funding our projects. Do you think your challenges are unique (I mean, you are brick-and-mortar, for instance), or is this need to crowdfund indicative of a bigger issue?
Mellow Pages: Usually with crowdfunding, you’re looking at one goal. Release a chapbook, get a house, make a mentor-protege program. These are graspable goals. We were asking for a year of rent to offer a free resource that supports the works of writers and the writers themselves, through events. “Huh? Give them money for doing the same thing they already seem to be fine doing?” By never asking for money before, and not offering anything new other than our peace of everyday fucking life, why would you give? You had to know us, to be here, to see our struggle, or to at least understand it, which is why people like you, Mark, gave us money. You knew the reality of our situation. What we did was put an idea into motion. We never could’ve done a fundraiser before we opened. No one would know what this library would look like. We did our best to show it.
I mean why did you give us money, Mark? I think this would be cool if we asked you questions too.
Mark: Wow, nice. I gave you money because: 1) I love you guys and want you to have whatever it is you want; and 2) I love Mellow Pages—and I mean the physical space on 56 Bogart Street in Bushwick—and want it to be around for as long as possible. And I feel like maybe that’s why I felt so confused about my reaction—those two things might not actually line up with one another, you know? Because of financial constraints or physical/mental/emotional resources or just plain old sustainability.
Matt: I hear you Mark. But I, Matt, kind of want to go deeper b/c this is super interesting. Now, I’m not going to put a measure on love, but, I would assume you love your family or your old LI highschool doodz, and like, do you spend money on them on the daily? Or even, around the holidays or birthdays? This is weird and personal, and something that I do, but like, when I’m buying a book at a reading and it costs 15 bucks, the people I love, the people who aren’t involved in the written world especially, I’m not thinking of them, I’m thinking of this other group of people who are into the same thing I’m into who potentially don’t even know that my hair looks greatest after a lake swim. I’m giving this a bit more play in the machine than I initially thought, but, like, if we’re going to connect spending money to things we love, there’s going to be some levels coming into it. What do you love the most? Having a roof? Coffee in the morning? Having some vintage Airs? Like, do you ever find it strange that we give money at all sometimes? Like, any money I spend on others is money I don’t spend on me, theoretically. So there’s got to be more motive (cause it’s all about me in the end=death). It could be altruism, or it could be you think that buying that dude a drink is going to get you laid, or maybe you feel guilty. Whatever. Spending money on others is for some reason in this society one way we can affirm our love of them. But I think in our wordy world, and maybe it’s the same for painters, you support each other because it’s scary to think of the same world without them. Their survival is very much connected to yours. Even if it’s just in your heart. That they’re an example of doing it, doing something you feel is also yours at least in the abstract. Man I just went down a cat track.
Mark: No, I think you might kind of be onto something. Mind if I tell an anecdote? It’s related. Kind of.
Matt: Go go go go as they said.
Mark: A couple of years ago, Ben Fama did a Kickstarter for SUPERMACHINE. He was trying to raise money—$3K I think—to
do a print run of their journal print two issues. They got the money, the issue(s) came out (it was AMAZING), and then, like, 6 months later, they shut themselves down. I remember being incredibly, incredibly upset—there was a night when I was in grad school (I studied fiction) where I picked up an issue of SUPERMACHINE, read this great poem by Emily Pettit, and then boom I was a poet. I loved SUPERMACHINE, so I was mad. But what I eventually came to realize is that it wasn’t up to me or the other funders or anyone to tell Ben what he could/should do. Ben’s a brilliant editor. He still is. That’s not going to change. What right did I have to be so upset?
Mellow Pages: It’s interesting you bring that up because about a month before the new year, this place called 3rd Ward closed down all of a sudden. It was a DIY, woodshop-heavy, take-skilled-classes type of place. And it closed. Out of the blue. And people were pissed. More because 3rd Ward did a fundraiser about a day before they closed. Tons of people had paid for classes and weren’t going to get a refund. Even more members had to find new work spaces, within the week. There, people had things to lose. Personal things and spaces that they paid for big time. BIG TIME. With SUPERMACHINE, Ben did what he told people he was going to do. It’s the same case with us, we’ve been open and plan to be open through February with the money people gave. Except we want to go longer than people told us to. That’s our own choice, and we don’t expect it to be easy. But, we’ve got the same amount of support. If we close, it’s on us because it’s basically our money. We give back the books from our members, maybe the presses feel bad because they donated books, but it’s not like we’d burn those books. We’d give them to other libraries or people who would read them which would get at the same goal. If we close, we lose. Other people would lose too, lose a home or a community, god I fucking hate saying that word now, but it’s something like people aren’t looking at the atoms. What moves so this place has some initial energy? Man I sound like a prick. But, like Jacob and Matt are two people. We are two human beings. Too much.
Mark: You’re 100% right, but I have to ask—and this is me reaching to the absolute worst part of me and playing devil’s advocate—but your contributors are just atoms, too. I want you guys to be there for as long as you want to be there. I truly do. But I, on my own, can’t pay your rent for the year. I’m not saying this to chastise you, though, because what I keep going back to is sustainability. Does it matter if you’re not there? Aren’t you two going to be the same, beautiful, hairy atoms? I think you are.
Jacob: We’d all like to think it would matter if we weren’t here. Maybe it doesn’t, though. Was this whole thing a performance? We wouldn’t play it off that way, but in the end, if we close, it says more about the state of everything than us two hairlords could ever on our own.
Mark, do you ever feel like, I’m doing this whole thing for me? I doubt it. With Big Lucks, isn’t it a fucking great feeling when you see your contributor’s face (yeah?), like don’t you feel good doing good?
Mark: Yeah, I always feel good about it, and I’m not doing it for me. If I was worried about myself, I would have stopped a long time ago. And to be honest, I think that’s why we’d all be bummed if you have to close —because everything you guys do is so utterly selfless. We don’t want to see it go away. And (this is only ½ hypothetical, I think) maybe we want to see you “fight” a little more.
Mellow Pages: But for a provider (editor/librarian) the ratio of good for you/good for me, at least as smaller guys, is much larger than as the contributor. The contributor is based god because he/she just got some shit published, fuck yeah. Maybe they feel good for you in that they are making you money or upping your cred (real humble right). But as the provider, the almost giver of these services which prop up others, we’re at a fuck, not disadvantage, but, in a scary position if you feel a certain way. It’s almost possible to feel at the whim or care of those that you’re providing. Fuck where is this going. Ahhh, like, if you want to publish only good shit, but then only the bad shit is hitting you up, you get scared. You’re dependent seemingly on your constituents. Why? You should be valued. You should value yourself. YOU=NO ONE right now. The ETERNAL YOU.
Mark: Absolutely. It’s one of the hardest parts about doing this—having to tell your fans/contributors/constituents that something has to give. But you guys don’t really seem ready to stop yet.
Mellow Pages: We are a bunch of sick fucks in a way. Maybe we enjoy struggling, but that’s a bad narrative we’d like to end. The problem is, good things go through this process, and then, they figure it out and become other things: some of them continually beneficial. Others go down a path we don’t end up hearing about. Call it stubborn, or call it plain dumb but we really feel like we want to change things a bit. We want to find a different way to make this happen. So that we’re not beholden to anyone other than our supporters. Maybe it’s a bit too hopeful for the current state of things. But damn, what if it isn’t? We’re the sick fucks who want to find out.
Mark: So what does that mean for the future? What are some different ways?
Mellow Pages: We’ve been inundated with ideas in the last couple weeks. Sure, these ideas may have come as a result of provocation, but that provocation made people answer with emotion. If we had sent out an email asking people for ideas, well, we still would’ve gotten a big response. But we’ve been doing that the whole time: we’ve been open to peoples’ ideas. We’ve heard the shakedown on becoming a non-profit, gone down those avenues and found them to be completely antithetical to what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to erase bureaucracy. We’re just a fucking library. We’ve heard the suggestions to get more people involved on the material level, like volunteers, and there are many willing. We’ve tried that too though. Maybe we should try again. What we do here isn’t complicated.
Mark: But are you still hopeful? What else can we do to keep you guys around?
Mellow Pages: People have brought up the physical space as a good place to jump off of in terms of comparisons. If you have a reading at a bar, the bar says bring a whole bunch of your wino friends. If you have a reading at a bookstore, the bookstore says bring a whole bunch of your well-read friends. Even most “other” spaces pass around a hat. We tried a few things, and other people tried their own. But it hurts us that we aren’t getting help financially by what amounts to a space rental. This is the bare ugly bones of it. We’re just trying to get up to zero. What we might try is asking from whoever is asking to read to chip in for the night. Somehow bring us $40 or $50. Either by selling beer, selling books, or just passing around that hat. Here is some trickle down economics: Matt and Jacob pay rent paid for by [Enter Host’s Name Here] paid for by the multitude buying beer. By dividing the monetary responsibility, we divide the workload.
Or, take other examples. APRIL does a great small press pop up one weekend during the festival, I would hope they take a cut. But imagine a rotating monthly pop up bookstore in Mellow Pages for small presses with tie-in readings throughout the day, dual fantasy palm readings by Starkweather and Lasky (mixing presses, I know, so shoot me), maybe go outside and throw the pigskin with McClanahan or Escoria.
Mark: I like the idea behind a pop-up roadshow-y bookstore thingie, but it’s still going to take a lot of hustling to make rent every month, especially since you guys both work two jobs. I think Russell Jaffe raised some great points on your Facebook wall about how you kicked the pillars out from underneath you. I think he’s right that a lot of people/members are going to stay mad about the lie. Are you concerned about those people? Do you worry about winning them back?
Mellow Pages: I have to ask. What pillars? In a way this response only applies to Russell Jaffe. Who is Russell Jaffe? Apparently he is a high school teacher in Iowa. Okay. It’s interesting to see the reactions of strangers. Our members and especially our donors are our constituents. If we kicked out the pillar then those that stood atop us are gone. Get off. Stay away. Or come back if you want. Stand next to us. Help support, right? We feel like it’s important to open up the dialogue with everyone, everywhere, but how much water does it hold? How much water does a ‘pillar of indie culture’ status hold? About as much as a quarter year. Those things literally DO NOT MATTER if the pillars don’t hold the structure. For those people who are mad, I’d have to ask what kind of interests they have. Are they interested in conversations, debates, new kinds of fiction that play out in reality? If not, okay, there might be another library out there for you. I think the government runs some. If you don’t like those ones, you’re free to start your own. This one is the one that does things like start meaningful conversations. And we aren’t ashamed of that. We are doing what we can. For those members and donors who are angry: we aren’t different people. We’re different for having done this, sure, but we’re still just a couple dudes who started a library you like, who are still running that library, and who still want to run it, even if it means we’re doing it alone.
We are genuinely sorry for having created a negative reaction in others, but when it comes down to it, we want to see things change, especially people. This is a cloudy subject that implies a trust we may have lost in some people. We’d love to get those people back, and we hope that eventually they do see something in all of this. It seems like those who want us to fight more are suggesting something different, that is, we need to lay things out in a way that makes our survival sustainable. This will require a higher price for things. It will require a more expensive membership. It will require dues for hosting events. But those things can’t be seen as ‘negative’ changes. They are positive, because they’re about our survival, getting up to zero, and if all the work behind that still goes unpaid, we’re glad to have this place remain where it is, and glad to figure the rest out ourselves. Because this is a choice. This library and this work is our choice, and we want it stay.
I want them to stay, too. Do you?