4.18 / From the Archives: No Roadmap

Aesthetic Events in Occupation

By Elyse Mallouk October 31, 2011

Image: Los Angeles Urban Rangers. Critical Campout (2011). Courtesy of the Artists and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Christina Edwards.

Taking Form

Though not intended to coincide with Occupy Wall Street (OWS), the 2011 Creative Time Summit, Living as Form, took place on September 23, 2011, a week after the demonstrations began to materialize in New York’s financial district. The protesters at Liberty Plaza (Zuccotti Park) are motivated by manifold causes and constitute a range of official and unofficial groupings: underemployed post-graduates, union members, professional scholars, amateur philosophers, software engineers, and ironworkers. The movement’s persistence is matched by its capacity to repel summarization; its continued growth in the absence of an all-encompassing message suggests that its scattered nature is an asset, allowing people from diverse backgrounds with divergent aims to see themselves in it. Similarly, many of the speakers at this year’s summit on socially engaged practice identify themselves as artists, writers, curators, and scholars; they are also activists, journalists, radio hosts, and healthcare providers. Their practices bridge constrictive brackets, and their missions range from providing approachable care to altering preconceptions about the generation gap.

The summit opened with the sound of economic crisis: L.A.-based performance group My Barbarian asked audience members to hum notes signaling different levels of employment and healthcare coverage; a repeated slap on the leg indicated that none of the offered categories applied. Nick Szuberla of Appalshop, a media collective based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, presented a national program called Thousand Kites that encourages communication between people inside and outside the penal system via radio, web, video, and mail. A chess game conducted over radio and through the mail lasted months. Narratives detailing excessive violence and racism in supermax prisons were made public. Moscow-based collective Voina showed video in which the group dodged police, hastily splashing buckets of white paint on a St. Petersburg drawbridge. When the bridge was raised minutes later, a monumental, scrawled phallus pointed to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the organization that replaced the KGB.

Combined with the accidental context provided by OWS, the planned presence at the summit of practitioners with wide-ranging interests and strategies produced an argument: if the term “socially engaged practice” is to remain meaningful, it needs to be applied outside of the art world to discuss the forms artists and collectives occupy. Conversely, ideas discussed at the conference, many of which have a long history and continued currency in art discourse, could provide some of the language needed to understand events happening a mile and a half south, where OWS was beginning to take shape.

Art and activism are distinct practices and discourses, and the rift between them is reinforced by the ways the words have been claimed and put to use. While the impetus behind activism is the demand that needs are met and rights acknowledged, these things were among the preconditions for participation in early aesthetic philosophy. Though aesthetics began as an attempt to make sense not of art but of sensual perception, art and aesthetics have since become inextricably linked, and despite attempts to democratize both, the vestigial assumptions that privilege is part of viewership and that aesthetics is disinterested rather than engaged are hard to shake, even when being a viewer means becoming a participant. Art’s necessary elusiveness compounds this sense of exclusivity. While the effectiveness of an activist gesture can hinge on how clearly its goals have been articulated, the efficacy of an artwork depends on its ability to evade declaration and avoid cooptation. When dogmatic, it becomes propaganda. In order to be discursive, it has to leave enough space for its public to fill. The current protests occupying U.S. cities and the improvised art-like events cropping up around them call for art and activism to be thought into relationship; they require an integration of the way aesthetic events and pragmatic effects are considered.

In a working draft called “Principles of Solidarity,” the New York City General Assembly at OWS asserts: “We are daring to imagine a new socio-political and economic alternative that offers greater possibility of equality.”1 While the draft states that “demands will follow,” in its nascent stage, the occupation issues none and offers no solutions. Slavoj Žižek put it succinctly when he spoke to demonstrators on October 10, 2011: “The basic message is: We are allowed to think about alternatives.”2 If an aesthetic event is thought, as Jacques Rancière articulated it, as a breach within which the current distributions of space and time are rendered changeable, the movement’s open-endedness and resistance to hasty definition is not only a political opportunity, but also an aesthetic one. Central to both the Assembly’s statement and to this conception of aesthetics is a particular kind of equality: a belief in and affirmation of each person’s capacity to navigate a system of signs. Protest is a practical response to inequity, but it requires imagination: the ability to conjure an image of a society that does not yet exist. Likewise, imagination has a purpose. It creates a break in deterministic logic, introducing possibilities without capping their potential by calling them solutions. Art and protest can function in tandem to incite public imagination in public space. They do it best when they escape categorization: when each occupies the other and the question is about neither art nor activism, but about what each gesture proposes and proves.

New-York-City-General-Assembly-Hand-Gestures-2011

New York City General Assembly. The General Assembly Guide, detail; September 2011.

Authorizing Ideals

Every evening, the New York City General Assembly holds a meeting in which hand signals are used to reach consensus. Raising both hands in the air with palms forward denotes assent; turning them down shows disagreement. Pressing fingertips together puts a hold on things; an X formed with fists blocks them altogether. Though the method for arriving at a mutually agreed-upon motion is slow moving, the hand gestures are a common language. Motions promote, suspend, and quash other motions. The movements affirm an equal relationship between a speaker who puts forth a proposal and the agents in the audience. Everyone present has a voice, and each is equally counted and respected. This organizational decision indicates a break with more commonplace, efficiency-oriented decision-making structures. It eschews echelons and hierarchies for an equitable process in which money and privilege don't ensure increased volume. The method indicates and asserts that efficiency is not a priority; mutuality supplants it.

An article published by the New York Times on October 8, 2011, describes the scene in Washington Square Park that day. Demonstrators had temporarily occupied the park after a march up Broadway. Caren H. Dashow, a notary public, operated out of a stand marked by a yellow balloon just outside the NYU Skirball Center where the Creative Time Summit had taken place two weeks before. She collected statements from demonstrators daily between 3 and 5 p.m. “about their notions of an ideal world—and [created] legal documents by notarizing them.”

Beyond recording the diverse desires of the people present, she shifted those hopes into legibility and legality. As a notary she performed her appointed function; administering oaths and affirmations and issuing protests are among the tasks assigned to the role in the state of New York. But as a protester, she occupied her authorization. She included herself among the demonstrators: “It’s about what we want, not what we don’t want.”4 Her actions created a structure within which incipient wishes for the movement could be documented and validated on behalf of the same governing bodies that provoked them. No judgments were made about the statements as she certified them; it was an unconditional invitation to have aspirations declared valid. Gestures like this one are not intended as artworks, but their aesthetic qualities are as important as their pragmatic impact. They not only create a framework that enables and validates speech but also argue for a definition of participation that is equitable. They propose that each participant and viewpoint has worth.

Performing Trespass

A gesture is aesthetic when it verifies the value of a previously undervalued voice. An action also has aesthetic impact when it enables access—physically, to a space, or metaphorically, to a symbol. No Comment was an art event necessitated by the collision of an existing exhibition with police barricades erected in response to OWS. When police fences prevented foot traffic to Loft in the Red Zone, a show reflecting on 9/11 installed in a vacant corner of the former J.P. Morgan Chase Building at 23 Wall Street, curator Marika Maiorova partnered with a member of the OWS Arts and Culture Committee to produce No Comment, a show within a show billed as “art inspired by the #OccupyWallStreet movement at Liberty Plaza.” It included the original 9/11-oriented artworks, cardboard signs protesters had held, and new drawings, paintings, and sculptures submitted in an open call. The decision to bring the protest materials into the corporate headquarters–turned–art space was questioned by some of the occupiers. The exhibition created a representation of the occupation happening just outside and had the strange effect of memorializing the event as it occurred. The curators selected artworks, replicating a familiar top-down system. The show’s aesthetic impact arose from an unexpected source. It provided occupiers with a legitimate reason to infiltrate the Wall Street block that houses the New York Stock Exchange, a symbolic site that had been off-limits.

Vaginal-Davis-the-Revolution-is-My-Boyfriend-T-shirt-for-Trespass-Parade

Vaginal Davis. T-shirt for Trespass Parade. Courtesy of the Artist.

In contrast, Trespass Parade, a curated art event organized by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Arto Lindsay in Los Angeles, involved no unanticipated transgression. Scheduled to coincide with opening weekend of Pacific Standard Time on October 2, 2011, it also happened to overlap with the first week of Occupy L.A. As protesters gathered at Los Angeles City Hall less than two miles away, amp-equipped floats progressed down South Broadway. The event was billed as a “symphony of creativity and free speech,” parade meets protest, and was followed up with a fundraiser and art party benefiting West of Rome, hosted by Vaginal Davis the following night.5 Tickets cost $200 each. For $1000, attendees could purchase an editioned, signed recipe for pizza and a vodka cocktail produced by Tiravanija in collaboration with a vegetarian restaurant called Pizzanista. Before the event, T-shirts bearing slogans written by L.A.-based artists were donated by American Apparel, distributed to participating schools, and sold on the Trespass website. The slogans are carefully considered and convincing: “Less Oil, More Courage” (Tiravanija), “The Revolution is My Boyfriend” (Davis), “Learn to Dream” (John Baldessari), among many others. But when viewed through the unintended lens of the concurrent demonstrations, the event itself rang hollow, in part because aspects of the multi-city occupation were already operating aesthetically. Tresspass depicted protest, hoping to illustrate what Tiravanija called “the breadth of free speech.”6 It looked like a demonstration, but it failed to bring along the form’s horizontal structure and its capacity to encourage pragmatic actions that indicate a dream of something else. Though it took place in the street, it was solidly planted in the art world; there was a firm line between the event’s creators and its revelers, represented if not caused by the cost of attending the party. As Žižek noted at Occupy Wall Street, “Carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after.” The next day in Los Angeles, protesters gathered again on the lawn at Los Angeles City Hall.

Occupy-LA-tents-October-_9-2011-Photo-Ed-Rampell

Tents on the lawn of Los Angeles City Hall, October 9, 2011. Photo: Ed Rampell for Back Page Magazine.

Since that time, a tent city has developed there as part of Occupy L.A. Exactly a month before the first stake was driven into the lawn, Critical Campout took place on the plaza at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). The one-night event, organized by the L.A. Urban Rangers and the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), addressed a regulation that prohibits lying down on the city’s sidewalks and in its parks between 10:30 p.m. and 5 a.m. The law is enforced everywhere in downtown Los Angeles except within a fifty-five-block section of the city, Central City East, also called Skid Row. Rangers led attendees along a trail that began at MOCA, crossed into Skid Row, and progressed back up Bunker Hill to the museum where a series of “campfire discussions” contextualized the changes hikers observed in the urban landscape. Participants learned to spot offensive architecture (such as armrests that protrude from the center of park benches preventing people from lying down), and heard about initiatives to provide affordable housing and services to the population that camps downtown nightly. Those who had reserved campsites set up tents and slept on MOCA’s outdoor plaza. Though not linked, Occupy Los Angeles began shortly thereafter. Approximately four hundred campers have erected tents at City Hall since the protests began.7

Skid Row’s tent city is iconic; it stands in for the city’s inability to provide for its entire population and speaks to its strategy for containing rather than addressing homelessness. Critical Campout diffused the stigma of erecting a tent outdoors by turning the activity into a way to participate. The occupiers putting up tents on the lawn are taking part in a similar aesthetic maneuver. In the process of claiming the space as one that belongs to them, they are turning the tent into a symbol of power and persistence, rather than one of desperation or incompetence. The occupiers’ evasion of the city’s ordinance not only argues for the protesters’ right to occupy public space; it also creates an affinity between the campers at City Hall and those who occupy Skid Row. It has a practical effect: every night, it requires the government’s tolerance of tents to seep out of the ordinary, authorized borders.

Constituting Definition

At the end of the Creative Time Summit, curator Nato Thompson urged attendees to be present at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. The call was met with some skepticism. The movement was not yet legible as one, its goals had not been stated, and its struggle to find form was what defined it in infrequent media portrayals. Its inability to declare its sole purpose seemed reason to dismiss it, or to wait and see before showing up and aligning oneself with unarticulated ideals. As the crowd stays and grows larger the refusal of a single message is becoming one of the occupation’s most compelling qualities, keeping it from being easily summarized and set aside. But making sense out of the outpouring of diverse forms of expression at occupation sites around the country will require getting specific about the kinds of proposals being presented in each circumstance: what does each gesture claim, and how does it shape a developing definition—not only of the Occupy demonstrations—but also of democracy, of participation, and of social engagement? How does each prove or deny the existence of a thinking, speaking public?

The struggle is in large part about names: about whether it’s a movement or a mob; about whether the space a block and a half from the bull is called Liberty Plaza or Zuccotti Park. It’s a fight for the agency to self-define and to include ambiguity and the unbridled potential it entails in that definition. The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a four-page broadsheet independently produced by a small group of emerging and established journalists, artists, and designers, asserts that there are no demands except one: that the people involved in the movement will be the ones who shape its narrative.8 An editorial note claims, “We are speaking to each other, and listening. This occupation is first about participation.”9 For the moment, there is no responsibility to summarize. Communal decisions such as holding consensus-oriented assemblies combined with individual actions such as pitching a tent or authorizing a statement will accumulate to produce a form. Whether or not these actions are called artworks, they are turning the park into a site where dreaming is regarded as an urgent occupation. Art is not the sole arena in which an aesthetic experience can occur; it is one way to imagine. Gathering together with purpose, without solution, is another.

 

 

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NOTES:

1. New York City General Assembly, “Principles of Solidarity,” October 7, 2011. http://nycga.cc/2011/09/24/principles-of-solidarity-working-draft/. Accessed October 10, 2011.

2. Slavoj Žižek, at Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park, October 10, 2011. http://occupywallst.org/. Accessed October 10, 2011.

3. Al Baker, “Occupy Wall Street Protests Visit Washington Sq,” The New York Times, October 8, 2011, http://mobile.nytimes.com/article?a=852144&single=1&f=19. Accessed October 9, 2011.

4. Ibid.

5. Trespass Parade, “Participate Now,” http://trespassparade.org/participate-now. Accessed October 9, 2011.

6. Rirkrit Tiravanija, “A Message From Rirkrit,” Trespass Parade, September 6, 2011, http://trespassparade.org/news-and-updates. Accessed October 9, 2011.

7. Liz Savage, “Is the L.A. Occupation Permitted and What of the Farmer’s Market?” Occupy Los Angeles, October 24, 2011, www.occupylosangeles.org/?q=node/1103. Accessed October 25, 2011.

8. The group is organized by Arun Gupta and Jed Brandt of the Indypendent, has received promotional support from Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men and Michael Moore, and was funded in part by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

9. “Editorial Note: No List of Demands,” The Occupied Wall Street Journal, Issue 2, October 8, 2011.

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