Collaboration, Community, Memory, and Joel Jonientz

Two years ago today, my buddy Joel Jonientz died. I’ve posted about him on this blog before, but I urge anyone who cares about creativity, collaboration, and collegiality to surf around my archive of posts on Joel and his impact on my little community of friends and colleagues.

Go and look at this.
Listen to this song while you look at it.
I dare you not to cry.

Then to feel better, check out his podcasts with Bret Ommen, check out some of his insane videos, or head over to his website.

I didn’t quite grasp it at the time, but Joel’s passing marked a significant changing of the guard here in Grand Forks and at the University of North Dakota. There was this crazy moment from about 2010-2014 where it felt like a group of us had genuine synergies on campus across the arts and the humanities. I was lucky enough to hang out at the periphery of this group and watch them create podcasts, animated films in Mayan, video games, public art, some sweet posters, and other collaborative endeavors. Joel was instrumental in so many of these collaborations and was the co-founder of the The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota with me and Kyle Conway. He designed Punk Archaeology, which remains the most widely distributed and cited book from the press. We dedicated the book to his memory. Download a copy. Then, go write a review on Amazon, then buy a copy to support our little press, and give it to a local library!

As I looked back on those years, I feel intense nostalgia, especially today, but I also worry. I worry that we’ll forget the impact of Joel on our lives and on our community. After all, we’re busy, some of us have moved away, there is (always) a crisis on campus, most of us are overcommitted. I worry that is emblematic of a more alienated, individualistic, and atomized campus culture that recognizes community as only a manifestation of administrative structures, shared financial priorities, and ranks as faculty, staff, administrators, or whatever. Maybe we cling together when there’s a crisis and it seems mutually beneficial, but disperse to our private priorities and responsibilities when the crisis has passed. I know I’m as guilty of this as anyone. When I remember Joel, I become aware of how much less generosity there is in my world since he’s left. There is less collaboration, there is less mutual understanding, and there is less collegiality. More importantly, there are fewer bad plans. 

A few weeks ago, I was out for drinks with Mike Wittgraf, who was a close friend of Joel’s and a longtime and inspiring buddy of mine. Toward the end of the night, he said, “When I’m done my current crop of projects, I want to do something collaborative with you.” I was sort of stunned by this. I didn’t have any ideas of what that could be. The next day, I felt bad. This is the kind of thing Joel would have embraced in the most creative way possible. I need to get my act together. I need to understand that remembering isn’t just feeling bad, marking the date, or making sure I check in with old friends, but actually keeping alive some of the lessons that he taught me. Fuck.

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