How COVID Transformed An Artist Collective From Athens, GA

First, allow me to introduce myself, your oft-censored author, thought-crime felon, and founder of Rabbit Hole Studios - a music and arts community center and co-working space dedicated to being a nexus of art, creative freedom and collaborative fellowship in Athens, GA. As an artist who once dreamt of living on the road like Tom Petty, I needed a practice space where my neighbors wouldn’t call the police on us for noise violations. And so it began, the grand opening of our first rehearsal space, PA rental company and recording studio in 2018 that has since blossomed into the sprawling urban co-op that it is today. The first thing you should know about how this underground art space come to be is through the transformational experiences of rebellion, persecution and exile I have faced for over a decade. Surely I have suffered less than many other unfortunate people on the Earth and therefor need not your pity. I merely wish to guide you on the journey that led me to where I am today with some of the trials and tribulations along the way.

In many ways I have felt like the black sheep of my family and my community for going against the grain. I found immense healing from natural medicines like cannabis, magic mushrooms and ayahuasca at an early age and I’ve since had to live much of my adult life in the shadows, in fear of persecution from the corrupt authorities that have usurped our human rights and bodily autonomy since the Dark Ages they call the 1970s. I was expelled from my high school for possessing cannabis, forbidden from attending other high schools or even a decent college because of the permanent mark on my record, branded as a cast-away unworthy of any chance at a traditional life. It led me to become entrepreneurial - a workaholic dedicated to building the world of his dreams despite the disadvantage of being exiled from the career rails of modern academia.

Funny enough, I was chosen to play the role of Jesus for the high school play and they had to rewrite the play with the other cast members taking turns to say my lines - it almost became an analogy of the Christ Consciousness within everyone, as if it were one of those forbidden Gnostic or Platonic mythologies which the medieval religious authorities would burn you at the stake for believing in - ‘The Kingdom is Within You’… Apparently ‘anointing the holy oils‘ like Jesus once did is forbidden by the plutocrats and my little private school decided to ruin any and all institutional educational aspirations I had for . They said I was not worthy of knowledge because I refused to give up my human rights to ingest plant medicines. So I had to get my GED and chose to start my own business recording local bands, renting audio equipment, running sound for venues, teaching music lessons, and leasing office space and rehearsal space. I was evicted from my first studio space because the owner despised hippies who smoked the devil’s lettuce. He, too, was apparently brainwashed by the corporate media, which is largely funded by the for-profit prison industry and police unions, to despise and criminalize plant medicine and enrich the self-perpetuating, slavery-enabling business of prohibition.

Luckily, thanks to the privileged color of my skin, I have evaded the more violent forms of persecution from authorities such as the modern day firing squads or the ‘legalized slavery’ prisons so many of our colored brothers and sisters have fallen victim to throughout the long and sordid war on drugs. With this heavy guilt I knocked on doors to help elect commissioners and mayors that are sympathetic to the plight of natural medicine users where, in much of the South, prohibition enforcement rates are unsurprisingly slanted towards mostly black or brown people, despite there being nearly equal cannabis consumption rates between races.

To be fair, my early exile from society ended up being a blessing in disguise. I am so grateful for this oppression, because it helped shape me in the liberty-loving, independent, be-your-own-boss kind of guy that I am today. It helped show me the perils of tyranny and centralization of State power over our human rights - even the sort of tyranny demanded by populist movements, be it fascist or communist totalitarianism. Dropping out of high school gave me a head start at life and forced me to plan for a life of entrepreneurialism. Being evicted from our first studio allowed me to meet a landlord who was supportive of our aspirations and could offer us a much bigger warehouse to grow our business for the next few years until Covid hit and we are able to purchase an old bingo hall in disrepair. 5 years later and we’re a fully fledged maker space, community event space, musical museum, food forest and coworking space with non-profit events and activities 5 nights a week.

But it wasn’t easy to get here. The persecution didn’t stop at cannabis. The pandemic introduced a whole new set of hurdles to overcome. The endless lockdowns nearly resulted in my bankruptcy and the social pressure to conform to expectations of ‘voluntary house arrest’ severely hamstrung our business model to the point where I had to bury myself in a mountain of debt to stay open. My business never got any free money or grants. They just forced me to go into a lot of debt so I could stay afloat while community centers like ours were criminalized and our patrons branded as superspreader villains, despite our best attempts to offer free masks and sanitizer and encourage social distancing.

Like so many aspects of our persecution, this period of upheaval allowed me to rethink my political ideals and ultimately led me to embrace philosophies and systems that value and enshrine the principles of individual sovereignty. Naturally, the decentralized Blockchain revolution became an avid interest of mine during the pandemic as I began to see how dangerous the centralization of power can be - how civil rights get thrown out the window during times of war, emergency or natural disaster. Are human or civil rights really even rights if a local government body, without ever polling their constituency or putting the issue to a referendum, gets to decide which days you get to exercise rights and for what reasons? I quickly saw how populist mania and ‘temporary’ emergency lockdown measures could reach a terrifying extreme that vastly increased centralized state power, oppressed individual liberties and deprived us of our basic human needs for access to community and recreation.

I began to see the parallels between the totalitarianism of Stalin, Hitler and Mao and the extreme lockdown measures we saw in places like New Zealand and China. I began to value the ideal of a constrained Republic, one constituted in the inalienable rights to liberty and sovereignty over one’s mind and body. A Republic beyond corruption by the whims of populist frenzy that might oppress our human rights in mass when deluded by the immense power of deceitful propaganda from pharmaceutical companies or the dogmatic oppression of fundamentalist religion. This age of centralized power we live in threatens the free flow of information, the truth itself, and incentivizes the hostile takeover of that power from those more violent or more affluent and self-interested. Power corrupts, absolute power…and so forth. When we give corruptible humans and bureaucracies too much power, they will inevitably fall prey to greed and blackmail and regulatory capture by the same bad actors we are trying to regulate. I’m not saying we need to get rid of regulations - we just need to provide more incentives for good behavior and to develop resilient, trust-minimized systems that don’t rely on centralized middlemen that are so easily exploited.

For example, our current monetary system and the entirety of the global economic fate largely rests in the hands of few old, rich white men at the Federal Reserve. The massive centralization of power into the hands of 12 corruptible men unsurprisingly created one of the biggest and longest-running insider trading scandals in the history of banking. Maybe it’s not such a great idea to give the greatest power on Earth to bunch of private banking families who just want to create more riches for the elites at the expense of the poor?

With all my free time from being forced to close my business for months at a time I began to study economics, governance, banking and came to the conclusion that our current socio-economic system is rigged for the benefit of the elite 1%, the landed gentry so to speak. The only way out of this is to create our own systems for assigning, saving and exchanging value with one another. The age of the corrupt, exploitative middlemen is no more. We now have the technological breakthroughs that allow us to exchange value/assets/currencies with one another that don’t require humans to intermediate. Artists can now fully own, publish, monetize and license their art entirely autonomously at a cost far cheaper and faster than traditional methods for less cost of energy than a few google searches.

After countless hours of studying throughout the pandemic, I realized that Bitcoin and Ethereum smart-contracts are some of the most groundbreaking inventions in the history of banking, governance and programming that will transform countless industries and bureaucracies by realigning incentives away from the abusive, centralized ownership class, and towards the peer-to-peer creative class - exactly the sort of vision of freelancers and resilient middle class crafts persons the founding fathers dreamt would form the heart of America. Utilizing peer-to-peer, composable networks can only be good for Democracy and bad for authoritarianism and corporate monopolies, despite all the Wall St propaganda designed to make it the boogeyman of technology. Blockchain, for me at least, is the only hope to build a world that is the antithesis of the corrupt China State model which is just the next iteration of the disastrous Stalinist experiment which turned into one of history’s worst genocides. This acknowledgment of the great peril of over-centralization of power led a great curiosity for DAOs and ultimately inspired me to begin working on the creative guild we call the Rabbit Hole Studios DAO and the Hidden Hare Record Label which we hope will someday take the reigns on governance for our community center and future franchise development.

So that’s the story of the Rabbit Hole and the blockchain arts guild that has formed within it. Let’s return for a moment to how we got here and how society’s reaction to COVID helped shape our ethos. The pandemic awakened in me a new set of values and political inclinations regarding our civil liberties and the unassailable sovereignty of our minds, bodies and souls and I don’t think we would have ever started the DAO if these past oppressions hadn’t inspired us to do so.

I was subject to numerous witch hunts and social media libel campaigns to have me cancelled for allowing our community space to be among the first to reopen and stay open throughout the pandemic. I was targeted and slandered for being one of the few liberal-minded people in town to not fire my employees for refusing to get vaccinated due to religious or other reasons (which are really none of society's business, frankly) and for being one who did not turn artists, craftsmen and freelancers away who came in need of a safe and supportive community or space to do their work. We all have a right to earn a living and to access affordable space for both work and play and to take risks with our immune systems and our communities. Life is full of lethal risks. Unless the government wants to pay us a full wage, not just cheap loans, each week to replace our lost income, they have absolutely no right to compel us to voluntarily imprison ourselves or bankrupt our businesses.

Community is a human right - a basic survival need - and access to the facilities that enable our connectedness is our birthright, even if it comes with the risk of heightened exposure to transmittable illnesses. I faced intense backlash from many of my peers and other community leaders for objecting to ineffective and economically-disastrous authoritarian lockdown measures, while simultaneously doing all we could to keep our friends and family safe with free masks, hand cleaning stations and ending all advertisements for our events. I believe that our mental health depends on having the ability to commune with our friends and coworkers whom we love and cherish as brothers and sisters. I know this firsthand after witnessing multiple members of our community get caught in a vicious cycle of depression, drug/alcohol abuse and rehab centers because their ability to be members of their community was criminalized or shunned.

Lockdown measures and compulsory vaccination wouldn't be the first or the last wedge that has been driven between the neoliberal/neoconservative orthodoxy and yours, truly. I have faced similar backlash for expressing a sigh of disbelief and questioning the logic behind my fellow liberals oppressing our bodily rights when it comes to vaccines. Before you fire up the witch hunt lanterns, I am in full support of public funding for vaccine development and distribution and I believe them to be a helpful tool in fighting pandemics. The vaccines were not necessary for most of us at RHS because we got sick early on and developed antibodies which are proven to provide longer immunity. We took multiple antibody tests to prove our ability to safely congregate. Why was it that many business refused to grant entry to their events for people with positive anti-body tests? “Vax-only” became just the latest form of irrational persecution by an Orwellian state/media complex that convinced us all to hate anyone who didn’t get the latest vaccine and deprive them of access to society and means of survival.

The thing about principles is, we can’t just pick and choose when we apply them. That just leads to hypocrisy. Principles like this are core, unalterable beliefs about the freedom and sovereignty of our bodies and who gets to decide what we do or don’t do with them. The pandemic taught me that some of our political leaders on both sides of the aisle have completely abandoned so many of the principles we hold dear, like the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of the heart to love members of the same sex, and freedom of the mind to use natural medicines. Abortion rights, as a matter of the same principles which guide my stance on non-coercive vaccine policy, are a core human right that shall not be infringed upon. I see the same extremist authoritarianism on both ends of the political spectrum and honestly I don't know which quadrant of the political spectrum I am most allied with anymore. If I had to choose, I'd pick socialist libertarian, somewhere slightly to the right of Noam Chomsky and maybe a bit further up the libertarian axis towards Nelson Mandela, if we're using the x/y axis political compass test. But I digress… If you’d like to hear more about the challenges we’ve faced, please visit my personal blog for an essay called “In Defense of the Naturally Immune”.

So… Now you know where we came from and how we got to be the free and open space for the creative class that we are today, despite the many hurdles we had to overcome. I’d like to leave you with a little taste of what the future brings. I envision us developing a decentralized co-op franchise model, governed through blockchain voting, that allows us to scale this concept nationally so that our artist members can hop between cities and always have a place to collaborate and network and work on their passions. Imagine a global network of WeWorks but more like WeCreate, where the goal is not to just work on personal stuff but to actually incentivize collaboration and co-creation. Imagine if EmpireDAO and CityDAO had a baby and then that baby had another baby with Songcamp/Elektra. We’re that baby! We’re honored to be teaming up with Sapien Network to build out the social media layer, discussion rooms, soul-bound badges, voting infrastructure and social currency management to help us govern at scale and remotely across the nation.

I see our name becoming an open-source brand that shares a constitution of values and ethics but allows for differentiation and ownership by members and employees, much like traditional worker-owned cooperatives. But that’s a long and scary road ahead. We face many challenges, ranging from oppressive zoning laws, legal complexities of forming a DAO-based co-op franchise model, and finding investors who want to join us on this journey. If you feel inspired to help, please DM me! Perhaps you have land to offer us or you know community of artists who need co-creation space but need help forming the infrastructure, business model, branding/marketing to make it work. Let us help you get it off the ground and offer mutual membership to our facilities so your members can travel and expand their network! After all, the network is our net worth. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk ;)

Keep calm and HODL on,

Nicholas Bradfield

CEO and Owner of Rabbit Hole Studios

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