PRESS / ILLEGAL!

Meurto
In December 2015 that year's last issue included the following interview.

"CHRONIC FREEDOM"
by Jacob Birch and Maja Aegidius

Initially, Scott Holmquist wanted to do an essay on the freedom peculiar to young men who’ve grown up as outlaw pot farmers in Southern Humboldt County, California – he ended up doing five books using the stories of three such young men who had recently died: the chronic freedom series. The books, which are all handmade, are not conventional books, more like artworks that have attained an almost mythological status; there are only ten full sets of the five, and they are not for public sale. Instead, most of them are offered to a handful of carefully selected people from the pot-growing environment that Holmquist has made it his mission to depict. Five of the sets are acquired by major collections, and the rest are kept for private presentations for people with a connection to the communities.

Jacob Birch from ILLEGAL interviewed the American artist on what he calls the only successful domestic insurgency against the US government, the inevitable failures of mass media covering illegal drugs, and the activation of his books.

A many-facetted work The chronic freedom project is a series of five books titled “chronic freedom,” “dirt,” “light,”“3 books,” and “Big Drug Factory - Unfound.” Together they represent a unified attempt to survey, collect, and interrogate traces of the histories comprising the back-to-the-land and marijuana production worlds as they evolved in Southern Humboldt County, California, from the late 1960s through 2010. All of the books incorporate objects, from bullets to pages from other books.

The artist behind the books is Minnesota-born Scott Holmquist, who had both published academically on the Swedish raggare(originally ayouth subculture) and worked as a researcher for The Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC before producing his first art works. These works have usually consisted of multimedia installations around texts, usually books, after long-term research.

To Holmquist—who hates social class divisions and who abhors how mass media inevitably distorts complex topics—it has been central to his work as an artist to address social matters. This is evident in the distribution of the chronic freedom series. Even though it has taken years to complete the books, the books are made for the tiny crowds of its subject and against any idea of a mass market. To Holmquist this is a political statement, a statement that is elaborated at the private presentations that are also key to the chronic freedom project. The presentations involve small gatherings(15-40 persons) in private settings. Presentation hosts, who also invite Holmquist, invite all the participants, usually neighbors in the surrounding hills. Here everyone flips through the books together sharing thoughts and associations. In the end Holmquist describes the making of the series and takes questions. The point of the gatherings is to present to pot growers their own stories on their own terms—terms that exclude the distortions of mass media—in highly crafted books that use materials they recognize, and to create a formal, sacred-like space, in which to reflect and discuss.

What was your motivation to get the chronic freedom project started in the first place?

The deaths, funeral and burial stories of three young men, two of whom I knew well, from the pot growing communities in Southern Humboldt County, CA made me decide to try to reveal and celebrate the freedom peculiar to their lives. It began when an old friend of mine called to tell me that his stepson, who had joined us all at dinner only weeks before, had just been murdered. This, and the other deaths focused my attention on the kind of life that had been possible for them to lead because of the establishment of a successful insurgency against the prohibition. They were actually enjoying remarkably un-alienated lives as young men, which made them vulnerable in a couple of cases and in some ways contributed to their being killed, or in one case, to suicide.

In what terms did the young men become vulnerable?

They grew up with parents and adults in outlaw insurgent hippie communities that were most often trusting and open to outsiders, which in some ways sheltered them, making them less prepared than they could have been, at least in one case, for how rough some people can be.

What are the stories of the three young men?

I am reluctant to answer this because of my commitment not to discuss details of their lives outside the books, but I will tell you this:

And please understand that while I did indeed also focus on their deaths, their deaths were absolutely not the focus, their lives was the focus.

One young man took his own life with a pistol he was known to always carry because of guilt for failing to backup a friend, as planned, during a pot deal many years before, a deal during which this then-close friend was murdered. Carrying a weapon may sound usual in outlaw pot country but it’s not at all and he was not a macho gun-guy; he just wanted to be able to always protect his friends. Key to this story was this contrast between his famous gentleness and always carrying large caliber pistols, along with the aftermath of his death. How his friends obliged the caretaker to help them remove his corpse from the regulation body bag for placement in a coffin built partly by the hands of his mother. How they, the night before the funeral, got stoned and drunk toasting him while digging an illegal grave on his own land. The next day they loaded his coffin into one of the friend’s large, fancy (but muddy) truck and later paraded him through town with loud reggae music thumping while hanging out the vehicle's windows, yelling Indian whoops in his honor, and leading a procession of dozens of others.

Another of the three young men was murdered in 1993 during the same pot deal I mentioned earlier, the one missed by the eventual suicide. His was the first and only pot-business murder of someone raised by hippie growers until the third young man I write about, who was well known for helping homeless people and welcoming strangers to town. Stranger-buyers, people he met on the street in town, shot him in 2003 when he was apparently pursuing them after what seems to have been a strong-arm rip off.. His body was not discovered until the next day when someone called his father who ended up staying with his corpse for four hours before the police arrived. Later on his father was repeatedly hassled by police who accused him of covering up facts in the case suggesting that the murder was an inside affair among dope growers.

As in the other cases, when it comes to the theme of police abuse, the police often behaved like an insensitive occupation army. Above all, the stories of the three young men brought out for me how unusually wide and deep personal connections were between different pot growing communities in Southern Humboldt County, particularly as these contacts crossed social and class lines.

But how did these stories turn into becoming an idea for a book?

I actually did not want to do a book—certainly not five. I wanted to write an essay on this freedom I saw as being peculiar to these young men. I wanted to write it for Harper’s, but what they asked for, and what other people in New York kept asking for was essentially—and these were smart people—a pot story. A stupid pot story along the lines of, “Hippie Children Gone Wrong: Getting Killed Doing Drug Deals, Buying Their Girlfriends Fake Tits.” And all that was true in some cases, but that was not what interested me, nor did it characterize what happened more generally. So to prevent this story from being lost or perverted by bad journalism, and in order to have a chance to really get at the subject—I spent a lot of time with both what I knew of the people who died and with the people who knew them—it finally struck me that the only way to do this would be to produce a book for the people that were part of that culture. During my research, one loved one for each of the men emerged as the logical person to give the first copy to, and so this kind of ritual delivery, repeated for each The next ritual act was trading the full set of five books for strictly illegal weed. After that, I organized the first private presentations of the books, which became ideal settings to activate the books.