I used to think that to be relevant as an artist was to participate in the logic of the market, but that changed in 2011…This visual reflection was published in Hyperallergic on the 10th anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.All original images are pen and ink on paper with digital color.
On Sunday, December 18th, Occupy Providence will stage a one day event at Roger Williams Park to celebrate Roger William’s legacy of freedom of speech seen in the new light of the OWS movement. Former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci will be speaking along with Occupy Providence people. I will head up there with the Aaron Burr Society to offer some perspectives from OWS New York.
For a few months in autumn 2011, under an enormous red sculpture, a privately owned public park filled with thousands of people who would not leave. Occupy Wall Street wasn’t only a syncopated response to what many considered a corporate coup in 2008. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and the 15M anti-austerity movement in Spain, Occupy was anarchist in spirit, rejecting institutional alliances in favor of horizontal decision-making. One occupied physical space with one’s body, but to occupy encompassed the struggle for the cultural, political, digital, and environmental commons. Utilizing an optimistic early stage of social media, the Occupy Movement quickly spread across the United States and to nearly 1,000 cities in eighty-two countries around the world.
Physical occupation helped creatively channel the anger of debtors and precarious workers. Parks tended to fill with artists; they become training grounds, perhaps even artistic experiments, for life beyond the imaginary of transactional corporate culture. Then, on November 20, 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s personal army—as he later called the taxpayer-funded NYPD—violently evicted the encampment at Liberty Park as part of a nationally coordinated action. But Occupy Wall Street continued in the mass response to Hurricane Sandy (Occupy Sandy), and internationally in Occupy Gezi (2013) and Occupy Central Hong Kong (2014). It awakened the American Left, feeding into successful grassroots movements and political campaigns. Yet despite its influence, Occupy represents a hard-to-recall optimism in the struggle for common space and democratic process, an improbable vision of a unified 99 percent.
Occupy resurrected class language for an age of extremes, naming the profiteers of 2008 “the 1 percent.” The diverging fortunes of the 1 percent and 99 percent were perhaps most evident in the art world. In 2012, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895) sold to hostile takeover specialist and MoMA chairman Leon Black for a record $119.9 million at Sotheby’s, which was, at the time, busy breaking their art handlers’ union. Occupy Museums, one of many groups formed in Liberty Park, organized direct actions with the Teamsters at Sotheby’s, MoMA, the Met, the Whitney, Frieze, and Lincoln Center in solidarity with people and issues targeted by the philanthropic class. Arts and Labor, another Occupy offshoot, focused on workplace organizing in museums and higher education. Occupy re-politicized the art world, reclaiming museums as political stages and helping spark the unionization of the cultural sector later in the 2010s.
I can’t forget the puzzling silence of Mark di Suvero…
(read full essay in pdf)
You can download the full article PDF here:
Aestheticization and the U-Turn
Thus, modern and contemporary art allows us to look at the historical period in which we live from the perspective of its end. The figure of Angelus Novus as described by Benjamin relies on the technique of artistic aestheticization as it was practiced by postrevolutionary European art.6 Here we have the classical description of philosophical metanoia, of the reversal of the gaze —Angelus Novus turns his back towards the future and looks back on the past and present. He still moves into the future—but backwards. Philosophy is impossible without this kind of metanoia, without this reversal of the gaze. Accordingly, the central philosophical question was and still is: How is philosophical metanoia possible? How does the philosopher turn his gaze from the future to the past and adopt a reflective, truly philosophical attitude towards the world? In older times, the answer was given by religion: God (or gods) were believed to open to the human spirit the possibility of leaving the physical world—and looking back on it from a metaphysical position. Later, the opportunity for metanoia was offered by Hegelian philosophy: one could look back if one happened to be present at the end of history—at the moment when the further progress of the human Spirit became impossible. In our postmetaphysical age, the answer has been formulated mostly in vitalistic terms: one turns back if one reaches the limits of one’s own strength (Nietzsche), if one’s desire is repressed (Freud), or if one experiences the fear of death or the extreme boredom of existence (Heidegger).
But there is no indication of such a personal, existential turning point in Benjamin’s text—only a reference to modern art, to an image by Klee. Benjamin’s Angelus Novus turns his back to the future simply because he knows how to do it. He knows because he learned this technique from modern art—also from Marinetti. Today, the philosopher does not need any subjective turning point, any real event, any meeting with death or with something or somebody radically other. After the French Revolution, art developed techniques for defunctionalizing the status quo that were aptly described by the Russian Formalists as “reduction,” the “zero device,” and “defamiliarization.” In our time, the philosopher has only to take a look at modern art, and he or she will know what to do. And this is precisely what Benjamin did. Art teaches us how to practice metanoia, a U-turn on the road towards the future, on the road of progress. Not coincidentally, when Malevich gave a copy of one of his own books to poet Daniil Kharms, he inscribed it as follows: “Go and stop progress.”
And philosophy can learn not only horizontal metanoia—the U-turn on the road of progress—but also vertical metanoia: the reversal of upward mobility. In the Christian tradition, this reversal had the name “kenosis.” In this sense, modern and contemporary art practice can be called kenotic.
Indeed, traditionally, we associate art with a movement towards perfection. The artist is supposed to be creative. And to be creative means, of course, to bring into the world not only something new, but also something better—better functioning, better looking, more attractive. All these expectations make sense—but as I have already said, in today’s world, all of them are related to design and not to art. Modern and contemporary art wants to make things not better but worse—and not relatively worse but radically worse: to make dysfunctional things out of functional things, to betray expectations, to reveal the invisible presence of death where we tend to see only life.
This is why modern and contemporary art is not popular. It is not popular precisely because art goes against the normal way things are supposed to go. We are all aware of the fact that our civilization is based on inequality, but we tend to think that this inequality should be corrected by upward mobility—by letting people realize their talents, their gifts. In other words, we are ready to protest against the inequality dictated by the existing systems of power—but at the same time, we are ready to accept the notion of the unequal distribution of natural gifts and talents. However, it is obvious that the belief in natural gifts and creativity is the worst form of social Darwinism, biologism, and, actually, neoliberalism, with its notion of human capital. In his lectures on the “birth of biopolitics,” Michel Foucault stresses that the neoliberal concept of human capital has a utopian dimension—and constitutes, in fact, the utopian horizon of contemporary capitalism.7
As Foucault shows, the human being ceases here to be seen merely as labor power sold on the capitalist market. Instead, the individual becomes an owner of a nonalienated set of qualities, capabilities, and skills that are partially hereditary and innate, and partially produced by education and care—primarily from one’s own parents. In other words, we are speaking here about an original investment made by nature itself. The world “talent” expresses this relationship between nature and investment well enough—talent being a gift from nature and at the same time a certain sum of money. Here the utopian dimension of the neoliberal notion of human capital becomes clear enough. Participation in the economy loses its character of alienated and alienating work. The human being becomes a value in itself. And even more importantly, the notion of human capital, as Foucault shows, erases the opposition between consumer and producer—the opposition that risks tearing apart the human being under the standard conditions of capitalism. Foucault indicates that in terms of human capital, the consumer becomes a producer. The consumer produces his or her own satisfaction. And in this way, the consumer lets his or her human capital grow.8
G.U.L.F. Labor banknote designed by Noah Fischer for the Guggenheim protest of March 29th, 2013.
At the beginning of the 1970s, Joseph Beuys was inspired by the idea of human capital. In his famous Achberger Lectures that were published under the title Art=Capital(Kunst=Kapital), he argues that every economic activity should be understood as creative practice—so that everybody becomes an artist.9 Then the expanded notion of art (erweiterter Kunstbegriff) will coincide with the expanded notion of economy (erweiterter Oekonomiebegriff). Here Beuys tries to overcome the inequality that for him is symbolized by the difference between creative, artistic work and noncreative, alienated work. To say that everybody is an artist means for Beuys to introduce universal equality by means of the mobilization of those aspects and components of everyone’s human capital that remain hidden and inactive under standard market conditions. However, during the discussions that followed the lectures, it became clear that the attempt by Beuys to base social and economic equality on equality between artistic and nonartistic activity does not really function. The reason for this is simple: according to Beuys, a human being is creative because nature gave him/her the initial human capital—precisely the capacity to be creative. So art practice remains dependent on nature—and, thus, on the unequal distribution of natural gifts.
However, many leftist and Socialist theoreticians remained under the spell of the idea of upward mobility—be it individual or collective. This can be illustrated by a famous quote from the end of Leon Trotsky’s book Revolution and Literature:
Social construction and psychophysical self-education will become two aspects of the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music, and architecture will lend this process beautiful form … Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movement more rhythmic, his voice more musical … The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.10
It is this artistic, social, and political alpinism—in its bourgeois and Socialist forms—from which modern and contemporary art tries to save us. Modern art is made against the natural gift. It does not develop “human potential” but annuls it. It operates not by expansion but by reduction. Indeed, a genuine political transformation cannot be achieved according to the same logic of talent, effort, and competition on which the current market economy is based, but only by metanoia and kenosis—by a U-turn against the movement of progress, a U-turn against the pressure of upward mobility. Only in this way can we escape the pressure of our own gifts and talents, which enslaves and exhausts us by pushing us to climb one mountain after another. Only if we learn to aestheticize the lack of gifts as well as the presence of gifts, and thus not differentiate between victory and failure, do we escape the theoretical blockage that endangers contemporary art activism.
There is no doubt that we are living in a time of total aestheticization. This fact is often interpreted as a sign that we have reached a state after the end of history, or a state of total exhaustion that makes any further historical action impossible. However, as I have tried to show, the nexus between total aestheticization, the end of history, and the exhaustion of vital energies is illusionary. Using the lessons of modern and contemporary art, we are able to totally aestheticize the world—i.e., to see it as being already a corpse—without being necessarily situated at the end of history or at the end of our vital forces. One can aestheticize the world—and at the same time act within it. In fact, total aestheticization does not block political action; it enhances it. Total aestheticization means that we see the current status quo as already dead, already abolished. And it means further that every action that is directed towards the stabilization of the status quo will ultimately show itself as ineffective—and every action that is directed towards the destruction of the status quo will ultimately succeed. Thus, total aestheticization not only does not preclude political action; it creates an ultimate horizon for successful political action, if this action has a revolutionary perspective.
Where is Occupy Now?
June 1, 2013. Answer:Turkey.
Gliding down Broadway last Saturday, the blazing-red Mark di Suvero sculpture known to arts professionals as “Joie de Vivre” and to Occupy Wall Street as “the Weird Red Thing” comes into view. The scene is familiar. Facing west, I see white-shirt cops on Broadway and Liberty and the Imperial Walker-esque NYPD surveillance tower perched in the lower right corner of the park. More friendly, are the falafel and juice stands lined up on the left. The 33,000 square feet of public/private space formerly known as Zuccotti Park pulses with energy: men and women waving red flags; shouting in unison and singing spirited songs in Turkish.
It is day one of #OccupyGeziParkNYC, an American offshoot of the Turkish #OccupyGeziPark, that began as peaceful sit-in demonstration against a shopping mall slated to replace Istanbul’s last major public square. The protest quickly morphed into a Tahrir-like movement to oust Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Tens of thousands of protesters in Taksim Square were tear gassed, arrested in the hundreds, some beaten and killed by the police. Within hours, a solidarity group called #OccupyGeziParkNYC had begun to organize a response. There were even those from the OWS movement who flew to the action, like Justin Wedes, a member of the communication working group in Zuccotti. “The revolution has just begun”, he tweets, the first of a day, in seemingly hundreds he sends out. (He also files regular posts atAnimal NY).
This converged last minute with a planned OWS re-occupation or “homecoming” action for June 1 which I was attending. Since the eviction of Liberty Square on November 15th 2011, big days of action such as May 1st (M1) or the September 17th anniversary (S17– we activists convert important dates into codes to make them sound ominous) partially fell into the shadow of the original Occupy season. Each big march provided proof that the movement is still here but dwindling. You’d see many familiar faces from the glory days of the park, but a reunion just does not equate to a movement that can take on Capitalism. Especially a slightly dysfunctional reunion. Occupy was slowly fragmenting into groups (though impressive ones); big moments where Occupiers came together were becoming less and less convincing.
Saturday felt different though, and it looked different, too. I saw very few familiar faces in the park, now filled with Turkish protesters. “It’s exciting” Occupier Marisa Holmes told me, speaking of the new upbeat energy in Liberty Park. This energy flows in from elsewhere causing creative hybridized memes to pop up like wildflowers. OWS posters from 2011 have been re-tooled for Turkey, yellow “Occu-tape” is wrapped around trees to highlight the eradication of green space in Istanbul, those famous ragged cardboard signs are scrawled in Turkish. Someone bangs a pot with a spoon in the protest style of the Quebec student movement or “Casseroles.” Others hold signs that say “Turkish Spring,” harkening back to Egypt and Tunisia. It’s as if all the movement memes from the last couple years have ended up in a common whirlpool.
By noon, the park was so packed that all I could see of the movement were those squeezed up against me. I made my way through the dense crowd to catch a better view from Zuccotti’s northern wall (hallowed site of the speakers’ area in the very first OWS general assemblies). There I met a Turkish woman in her fifties, Lutfiye Karakus, a nurse from Staten Island, who has been in the US for twenty-one years. She’s part of the 99%, having lost her home to foreclosure, and watched the American Dream slip away. She made it out to Liberty Park once in 2011 to join the protest.
This time, she tells me tales of Turkish corruption where the 1% straddle the financial and political lines, similar to the impetus for Occupy Wall Street. Luftiye was enraged at the Turkish media blackout, including even CNN Turkey, during the protests and police violence. “The police sprayed tear gas in people’s eyes and blinded them,” she told me.
The focus on Turkey– with red crescent flags, pictures of Turkey’s modern state founder Ataturk, and chants of “Turkiye! Turkiye! Turkiye!”– may seem strangely nationalistic for an Occupy movement. But Occupy doesn’t espouse a singular political view. The activist and anthropologist David Graeber reported from among the different political players in the planning stages before September 17th; not only Anarchists, but members of the Democratic Party and quite a few Ron Paul followers. (One of the “bottomliners” of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City was a big fan of Ayn Rand). And then once the movement went viral, hundreds of cities interpreted Occupy differently, from Oakland’s militant style to El Paso’s protests against the government.
After we parted ways, I began to wonder why Lutfiye and her Turkish community decided to use Occupy to raise their voices. A few years ago, she had participated in a large Turkish protest outside the United Nations. Why head down to Lower Manhattan this time? “Because they’re not appealing to the UN” Occupier Marisa Holmes told me. She believes the slowness of a bureaucracy is unappealing to many, particularly now that there’s a little Occupy-inspired Anarchism in the air. Appealing to fellow citizens directly may be more effective than the state, and Occupy is building a platform for it.
That’s exactly why it’s exciting. For one, the “Occupy” meme itself can be interchanged with other locations and causes like Legos (Occupy Gezi Park, Occupy the SEC, Occupy Museums, etc).
Second, it offers tools for communication, whether through social media mutual aid efforts or offline “social software”: the hand signs, and the people’s mic, which allow large groups of people to project their voices without speakers or microphones.
Third, Occupy serves up a toolbox of direct action tactics: the long-term holding of space (Tahrir Square, Liberty Park, and Frank H. Ogawa Plaza) shorter-term occupations (a 2011 sleep-in at Lincoln Center, a 2012 occupation at the Berlin Biennale, and last month’s occupation of the Ludwig Museum in Hungary) and spectacular actions (just today, Occupy Gezi crowdfunded a full-page ad in the New York Times).
Finally, Occupy offers a form of horizontal organizing which discourages the centralization of leadership. These tactics have diverse roots, from the Zapatista Movement of the 1990’s to Spanish Anarchists. But this time, an unprecedented ability to socially network makes it possible for these tactics to flow in bursts of energy across the globe, and also to rapidly morph and develop in a co-authored but connected way: kind of like the Internet.
Circulation is happening offline as well, as occupiers travel the globe to exchange movement experiences and tactics. Hundreds of occupiers, for example, attended The World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunis as part of a group called Global Square. Their attendance, fellow occupier Marisa Holmes told me at Zucotti, took the form of an occupation. “They didn’t know how to relate to us.” she said, explaining this was in part due to a generational clash and in part due to an entrenched vertical leadership. Still, group met every day, and over all, Marisa concluded that “It was really great for us.”
I got that sense from other occupiers as well, but it’s important to remember that these movements have a darker side as well. Damage to the body can easily occur during protests, as police violence is common. Activists can lose jobs or damage professional reputations by standing up for strong political positions. The time and risk required in the heat of a movement can destroy relationships; a member of Occupy Museums went through a divorce, partly due to her strong commitment to the movement in 2011. Activists have power struggles with other activists, and most of all, exhaustion. Most of us have gone through some form of movement trauma.
At this point, Occupy Wall Street increasingly operates within totally separate networks. When the Turkish community began to thin out that evening, the tribe reconvened in little clusters to discuss re-occupation. I heard many woeful tales about power struggles, people’s Occu-nemeses, their banishment from groups, or just sense of burnout. Although there was a 6 PM assembly to discuss re-occupation organized by a group called Occupy Town Square, it became clear that any sort of large consensus wasn’t going to happen.
These may sound like big problems, but they don’t define the movement. It just means that the movement is moving along in stages. To name just a few of the many efforts in the last 9 months, Occupy Sandy has figured out a new model to provide direct relief to those affected by global warming-fueled catastrophes. Strikedebt has come up with ingenious new economic proposals such as the Rolling Jubillee, a crowdsourced fund to buy up personal debt, and it’s produced a manual for debt resistance. Occupy the Pipeline is putting up a spirited fight against fracking. The group I’m in, Occupy Museums, is launching Debt Fair: an experimental art fair spread throughout the streets of New York City that invites collectors buy art in exchange for artists’ debt.
These projects flow naturally from a view of the world you acquire by fatefully stepping into the public squares. But they take a tremendous amount of energy. As we enter the long-haul, this practice can seem like a heavy burden to bear.
Yet on June 1st, I remembered something that is actually totally obvious: Occupy is no one’s burden. It’s an uncontrollable open source project where all responsibility is shared, and in that way, I see Occupy as an alternative model for culture. For a generation, the private sector has been encroaching on the public, reenforcing the mentality that we must achieve individual goals at all cost to shared resources. As depicted in mainstream entertainment and news organizations, we are people who distrust strangers and associate the public realm with poverty. Occupying a park challenges these assumptions through practice. Serving food in a park, chanting, or organizing actions with people you just met points toward a culture based on shared, rather than private, space. There’s a sublime feeling of connection with fellow protesters anywhere in the world.
From its inception, it was a perfect storm of talent, wisdom from past movements, catalyzed by economic and political shocks. It’s always had a random quality: the name and initial call itself was coined by a Canadian magazine, Adbusters, who didn’t even show up to their own party! I have learned to suspend disbelief as the protest unfolded differently than any script I could imagine.
Yet another chapter is unfolding as thousands of Turkish protesters fill Liberty Park on June 1. This time however, the novelty has worn off, and Occupy is looking like a permanent part of our post-crash reality: a direct democratic forum for citizens to highlight and link political situations globally. And, as I stood there looking at a poster of Ataturk printed out on foamcore and decorated with yellow Occu-tape, I had another thought: Occupy just may be ahead of the curve.
Friday November 1 from 6:30 to 7 I was interviewed by Claire Lebowitz and friends on the Occupy Wall Street show on WBAI http://www.wbai.org/
Art Monthly/September 2012
One month into this edition of Documenta, a young German architect by the name of Alexander Beck carried out a plan to install 28 white tents in front of the Fridericianum, bolstering a small camp of occupiers that had been there since the opening. Erected in guerrilla fashion at sunrise, the simple white structures were adorned with words representing the ‘basic evils’ of modern life, such as greed, profit and pride, in a symbolic protest that strategically appropriated the codes of contemporary art to occupy a prime site on the museum lawn.
Fearing that doubling the size of the protest camp overnight would justify their instant eviction, Beck recounts that the occupiers ‘came to the unanimous decision to declare both parts of the camp, the wild and the well-ordered tent city, a total work of art.’ In fact, if anything was going to provoke the authorities into removing the mild-mannered protesters, then it was the pretension of calling their guerrilla action an artwork and thereby trespassing on the aesthetic sanctity of Kassel’s five-yearly survey of contemporary art.
The incongruity of the two adjacent tent villages, one reflecting the image of anarchic creativity associated with global protest movements, the other mimicking the clean and orderly aesthetics of museum modernism, created a disconcerting semiotic spectacle. As a result, susceptible members of the public were at risk of assuming that this prominently-sited intervention, incorporating Ida Applebroog-style political slogans and elements of live performance à la Tino Seghal, was actually part of the official exhibition.
Refusing to rise to the bait of what could be taken as a parody of her curatorial approach, peppered as it is with references to the ideas and aesthetics of the occupy movement, artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev released a statement the next day ‘welcoming the <doccupy> movement in Friedrichsplatz’. While acknowledging that the camp ‘continues the wave of democratic protests that have been spreading across many cities in the world’ and ‘appears to be in the spirit of Joseph Beuys’, the diplomatically-worded press release goes on to ask the occupiers to ‘care for the square’ and ‘consider the citizens of Kassel’. As the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung put it, this was like a reluctant party host telling uninvited guests to ‘come in, but don’t smash up too much.’
The surprising decision to endorse rather than order the removal of the conceptual campers’ tent village reflected the opportunism of both the protesters and the curatorial team. While the occupiers loudly proclaimed their sympathy for the aims of Documenta 13, using their intervention as a platform for propaganda and self-promotion, but refraining from criticising the institution they were supposedly ‘doccupying’, Christov-Bakargiev’s instinctive reaction was to co-opt the protest movement, in order to bolster the radical credentials of an exhibition that comes over as an under-curated patchwork of progressive and conservative forces.
The occupy theme is indeed touched on repeatedly in the exhibition, although mostly to create an aesthetic effect and always somewhere on the periphery. While leading light of the movement Franco Berardi Bifo is hosting four seminars on life after the ‘dissolution of financial capitalism’, these are framed as a sub-section of the educational programme, one of a series of talks held at the Maybe Centre for Conviviality supported by Absolut, with vodka cocktails on hand to take the edge off the radical politics. By contrast, on the list of exhibited artists and with his own tower room in the Fridericianum, post-Adorno philosopher of the autonomy of art Christoph Menke is mounting an more prominent series of seminars that follow the anti-activist line according to which ‘art is the ability to be not able.’
Requisitioning the semantic space of protest for a post-modern art piece, Ida Applebroog produced thousands of flyers mocking the sincerity of political action, while hired protesters walk around wearing sandwich boards with slogans ranging from the feminist-surreal ‘Screw Mother’s Day’ to the ironic ‘Occupy Kassel’. Elsewhere a made-to-order artist’s collective, feebly entitled ‘And, And, And’, rehearses the clichés of the protest movement, holding asambleas and presenting their programme as a handwritten calendar of notes, but never going beyond utopian vagaries, let alone addressing the politics of the art event.
The case of the Fridericianum protest camp is illustrative of wider reactions to the occupy phenomenon in contemporary art. Curators are visibly torn between a desire to embrace the Zeitgeist symbolised by popular movements from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, together with their exciting new tactics of rebellion from the use of social media to the continuous occupation of public space, and wariness of the micro-political implications of the call to ‘occupy everything’ for their own power structures and practices. Looking down from the fortress of the chief gatekeeper of the contemporary canon, it is not surprising that the preferred conduit for dialogue turns out to be the arms-length formality of the press release, while the consensual and fluid forms of organisation that are essential to the occupy movement are an implicit challenge to the quasi-corporate hierarchy of institutions like Documenta.
If 2011 witnessed the euphoric phase of the movements as they burst onto the flat screen of global consciousness, 2012 has seen contemporary art rush to capitalize, with a stream of major art events referencing the occupy phenomenon both by borrowing its open source concepts and seeking direct collaborations with social activists. The latter have been understandably wary in their turn of the motives of art institutions in recruiting them for biennials, with everyone seemingly hyper-aware of the danger that once again the energies of popular revolt will be appropriated by the unwitting agents of cognitive capitalism.
Plugging into the buzz around occupy, the annual Steirischer Herbst arts festival in Graz opens this month with a 24-hour 7-day marathon camp involving hundreds of artists, activists and theorists who will ‘lecture, perform and play, produce, discuss, collect artistic strategies in politics and political strategies in art.’ Promising to be ‘not just another event about politics, but a political event itself’, the organisers claim that Truth is Concrete will also ‘investigate its own format and its own everyday decision making.’ The activists and artists invited to take part in the marathon camp show signs of resisting the tacit appropriation that is usually accepted as a quid pro quo for the public recognition entailed by inclusion in a major exhibition or biennial. Oliver Ressler, in an exchange with the curators on the festival blog, raises delicate questions about the ethics of expecting cultural workers on ‘starvation wages’ to in effect financially support the camp by making a loss, warning that the ‘underpayment of artists’ could become a central issue at the festival.
Echoes of these concerns can also be felt in the activities of The Precarious Workers’ Brigade, who highlight the increasingly difficult situation facing cultural workers in the UK in the wake of austerity (see their letter in AM July/August). Their focus is on the unfairness of a system that relies on an army of unpaid interns, along with a post-Fordist rump of freelance writers and curators, not to mention artists, whose dematerialised creativity is the surplus labour that translates into profits and a few jobs higher up the chain. With more of a stress on the impact of corporate censorship and political interference on independent cultural producers, the Artleaks collective has organised meetings in Berlin, Moscow and Belgrade and facilitates the outing of cases of injustice in the art world via their website.
What has turned out to be the most radical experiment to date in incorporating occupiers into a mainstream art event was this summer’s instantly notorious Berlin Biennial 7. True to the motto Forget Fear, the 2012 edition opened up to the unpredictability of the occupy movements, giving over the main space of the KW Institute of Contemporary Art to a vivid recreation of a protest camp, complete with real activists from high-profile anti-austerity groups living on site.
That the curator had less than straightforward motives in inviting the occupiers was immediately suggested by the fact that the floor above was taken up with the work of a conservative sculptor and his project to create the largest statue of Jesus in Poland, while the top floor of the main venue housed a cacophony of video footage of unidentified protests from across the political spectrum, producing aesthetically motivated juxtapositions that annulled the political significance of the movement.
Along with his favourite tactic of placing people of opposing political views in a competitive context, the artist-curator also set about appropriating the new forms of protest in order to produce what was in effect a meta-art work by Artur Žmijewski. The press conference exemplified his strategy, with journalists and protesters drawn into creating a somewhat farcical simulacrum of an activist General Assembly complete with special hand signals and a ‘people’s mic’, techniques developed by protest movements to encourage horizontal communication.
What turned to be most interesting about the Berlin Biennial was not its willful destructiveness, but the reaction of the occupy movements to finding themselves so thoroughly appropriated, and their attempt to turn the situation around. Within weeks of the opening, the occupiers began to turn on their hosts and rebel against conditions in the protest camp on the ground floor of the KW, which came to be known as ‘the human zoo’. Penned into a confined space and observed by the public from a viewing platform, ‘Berlin Square’ increasingly resembled a social experiment from Žmijewski’s own self-consciously exploitative art practice. Noah Fischer from the art-activist group Occupy Museums describes the biennial at this point as ‘a tomb where movements would come to die’, commenting that ‘rather than occupying, we were being occupied by the institution.’
As the frustrations became intolerable, the activists decided to ‘address the power hierarchy of the zoo’, attempting to turn the tables on Žmijewski and his co-curator Joanna Warsza, and re-appropriate the Berlin Biennial for the movement. Challenging the curators ‘to go further into their stated concept of enabling a situation that they ‘don’t curate, supervise, or assess,’’ they proposed using the biennial as ‘a platform to apply horizontality, radical transparency and sharing labour’, with working groups rather than curators making all budgetary and programming decisions. Although details are hazy as to how far this experiment went in practice beyond agreeing to refer to the curators as ‘former-curators’, the neo-Maoist implications of such as a radical transformation of biennial management could herald the end of the art system as we know it.
Art institutions are indeed finding that it is not so easy to appropriate occupy as it was previous social movements or, for that matter, rebellious artistic avant-gardes, which historically have been swiftly incorporated into the gallery system. What was notable with the Berlin Biennial was that the curator, in his utter disregard for the interests of the art world, chose to invite hardcore activists that were primarily focussed on social and political struggles beyond the frame of contemporary art and who, incidentally, also disapproved of what they saw as attempts by art-activists to capitalise in a careerist sense on their participation in Berlin Square. At the same time, without the knowledge and more specific focus of groups such as Occupy Museums from New York, is it unlikely that the issues of art and power raised by the biennial would have been articulated so effectively.
Occupy Museums grew directly out of the wider Occupy Wall Street movement and continues to flourish in a more-dematerialised, post-square era. Their highest profile target has been the Museum of Modern Art, carrying out protests against its role as a symbol of the dominance of the interests of the mega-rich and position at the pinnacle of an art establishment that ‘resembles a pyramid scheme just like banks of Wall Street itself, where wealth and power flow up to the 1%.’ Art museums stand accused of acting like ‘corrupt ratings agencies’, holding shows to inflate the market value of ‘flimsy corporate art’ that they collect like ‘bundles of packaged debt,’ with personal conflicts of interest between those involved in the non-profit and private sectors an aggravating factor in the spread of art corruption.
Much as the Occupy Museums protests in New York have focused on MoMA, Tate has been a favourite target for art activists in the UK, notably the ongoing campaign led by Liberate Tate to force the institution to cut its ties to oil giant BP. In July 2012, the activists mobilised 100 people to carry a 1.5 tonne wind turbine blade across the Millennium Bridge and deposit it in the Turbine Hall, arguing that the work falls into the legal category of a ‘gift to the nation’ and must therefore be considered for the Tate Collection. Originating in an art-activist workshop led by John Jordan, previous Liberate Tate actions have also involved mini-oil slicks and dead fish, with the aim of drawing attention to the way the gallery promotes ‘the burning of fossil fuels by taking the poisoned ‘gift’ of funding from BP.’
Questions could also be raised about, for example, Tate accepting sponsorship for the Damien Hirst show from the Qatari royal family, who also happen to own the artist’s pill cabinet Lullaby Spring, bought in 2007 for a then record breaking £9.7m, and would therefore be beneficiaries of any inflation of market value provided by a triple-A rated museum show. What springs to mind is Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s relativistic answer to an American journalist’s question during the London Olympics about the contradictions of having a fast food giant as a sponsor, along the lines that you shouldn’t be too harsh on the sponsors, because ‘without them this event would not be possible.’
However, times are changing fast and this argument seem less convincing now than ever, with a model of the art world based upon the maintenance of unjust power relations in society appearing increasingly unsustainable. What is remarkable about the occupy phenomenon in contemporary art is that those who identify with it are not demanding an entrée into the artistic jet set; Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst – who in Michel Houellebecq’s parody of contemporary art The Map and the Territory are pictured dividing up the art market – are not their role models. There is a collective sentiment that it’s not worth compromising for the sake of sponsorship or keeping quiet in the hope that sooner or later you’ll be picked up by the system. The ambitions of the art occupiers lie not within existing power structures, but rather in creating something new in the spirit of the movement of the 99%. The future shape of an occupied art world, incorporating alternative models of artistic success, freed from the toxic effects of financial speculation and infused with the spirit of horizontal collectivism, is still open for discussion.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes
The Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) has altered conceptions of the international socio-political environment on the left, and has accordingly sent shock-waves throughout the realm of art and culture. In solidarity with OWS, artists took their work to the streets, creating on-site carnivalesque performances as forms of protest. Artists globally designed posters and logos to collectively construct the aesthetic appeal of the movement, and more significantly, diverse groups of artists organized to “Occupy Museums,” such as the MoMA, the Frick Collection, and New Museum, critiquing them as as “temples of cultural elitism.” Occupy Museums claims that the mainstream art world circuit is complicit in neoliberal capitalism and caters to the interests of the “1%.” Overall, OWS has renewed a sense of political urgency within the art world that has up to now been relegated to the margins. This panel critically investigates the role of art and culture in the Occupy movement, and how OWS has affected the infrastructure of the mainstream art world. What role does art play in the political struggles that OWS seeks to accomplish? In what ways is OWS a resource for creating change in the way art is produced, received, and distributed? These questions, among others, will act as the touchstone for artists and cultural theorists to asses how art and politics affect each other as the OWS continues to take form.