The Arts of Occupation

The Arts of Occupation

Occupy Wall Street isn’t just producing art work, it’s challenging the boundaries of art and activism.


As protesters crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on the evening of the November 17 Day of Action, New York City’s skyline was subjected to an unexpected, surreal alteration. To the awe and delight of marchers, the facade of the Verizon Building, a banal grey monolith looming over the bridge, was transformed into a monumental screen onto which OWS slogans were projected: Mic Check; We Are Unstoppable, Another World Is Possible; This Is the Beginning of the Beginning; We…Are…the…99%. This last phrase was repeated for several minutes, creating a kind of interactive dance with demonstrators who chanted along with the projection’s pulsating rhythm. At one point the word Occupy appeared with a rapid succession of cities and towns flashing below it, ultimately culminating in the phrase Occupy Earth. Finally, a single image, "99%", appeared inside a circle, recalling the fictional Gotham City’s famous bat signal.

In the wake of the traumatic eviction from Zuccotti Park just two nights earlier, the projection served as a kind of birthday celebration for the movement. Appearing on the Rachel Maddow show the next night, Mark Read, a co-organizer of the projection, explained that it was the result of an ad hoc collaboration with Denise Vega, a single mother who allowed activists to use her apartment in a public housing project across from the Verizon building.

The N17 projection is perhaps the most photogenic example so far of the ways in which artists affiliated with OWS have transformed and contested urban space in architectural, visual and symbolic terms. As the movement enters its post-Zuccotti phase, now is a good time to assess the range of methods, styles and tactics adopted by its artists, as well as to probe some of the tensions surrounding the very category of art itself relative to what might be called the "spatial politics" of OWS.

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A logical if somewhat vexed place to begin is with the OWS Arts and Culture working group (AC). Founded in the early days of the occupation, AC has served as a meeting-point and occasional funding channel for a number of autonomous initiatives including Occupy Halloween (an infiltration of New York’s Halloween parade), Occupy Museums (which aims to highlight how 1 Percent interests pervade New York’s cultural institutions) and the Occupennial (an archival clearinghouse for OWS-related artistic activities). AC has also garnered attention for drafting an open letter to the artist Mark di Suvero, whose Joie de Vivre, a 70-foot steel sculpture on Broadway, was enclosed by police in late October, prefiguring the full-scale barricading of the entire park on November 15. Di Suvero, whose wife is Bloomberg’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, ultimately remained silent throughout the occupation of the park.

Significant as it has been in terms of drawing artists into the orbit of OWS, AC has suffered from questions about its parameters and purpose. What does it mean to isolate "arts and culture" from other elements of OWS? After all, artists and cultural activists were crucially involved in the inception of OWS itself—from the Adbusters network (which circulated the original #occupywallstreet meme), to 16 Beaver, an artist-run interdisciplinary space that issued the first call for a "General Assembly" at the end of July. Furthermore, working groups like Direct Action, PR, Internet and Strategy/Analysis have always been populated by artists, performers, photographers, filmmakers and other cultural workers. In a movement defined by creative protest, the designation “arts and culture” sometimes seems redundant. Indeed, the majority of high-profile interventions such as the N17 projection have come out of autonomous direct-action affinity groups rather than AC. Finally, the term "art" continues to evoke the elite realm of galleries, museums and celebrity artists who cater to the 1 Percent, and is thus held at a distance by many OWS activists.

A certain suspicion regarding art as a specialized realm is encoded into the DNA of OWS, partly reflecting the influence of the Situationist International (SI). A group of experimental writers, urbanists and filmmakers whose work played an important role in instigating the Parisian uprising of May 1968, the SI called for artists to abandon their vocations as individual creators of luxury objects in favor of collectivized praxis. Drawing on the legacies of Dada and Surrealist collage, the Situationist principle of detournement called for the hijacking of capitalist images, objects and spaces in order to turn them against their intended meaning or function.

The SI itself was famously hostile to mass-media spectacle, but many of its inheritors in OWS have adopted a more flexible and pragmatic approach, one that recognizes the necessity of entwining physical spaces and mass-mediated landscapes. This is an orientation indebted to the guerilla interventions of Greenpeace and the theatrical civil disobedience of ACT-UP. Alter-globalization media activists and the Yes Men are also significant for OWS, as are the cultural practices that flowered inside encampments in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the Wisconsin State House and Spain’s Plaza del Sol. Indeed, the very construction of a Tahrir-style tent city in the middle of the financial district could itself be considered an exemplary act of detournement. Whether one considers the rechristening of Zuccotti Park as Liberty Square, the proliferation of hand-made signs, the Occupied Wall Street Journal or the embodied media of the People’s Microphone, the Occupation has had an undeniable aesthetic dimension that goes far beyond art in the limited sense of the word. As Judith Butler (herself a speaker at Zuccotti in October) might put it, OWS has reconfigured the "space of public appearance," interrupting established perceptions and experiences of the city, politics and democracy itself.

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Much attention was devoted in the early days of the occupation to the participatory theater of the General Assembly, described by one critic as "a message entangled with its form." As early as mid-October, however, OWS organizers like Beka Economopoulos were calling for the Occupation to organize beyond the confines of Zuccotti Park. While affirming Zuccotti as the "symbolic heart of the movement," Economopoulos called for strategic “framing” and “messaging” in order to build alliances with labor, community groups and NGOswithout being absorbed by them or vice versa. A former media strategist for Greenpeace, Economopoulos is also the co-founder of Not An Alternative, a non-profit artists collective in Brooklyn devoted to facilitating collaborative projects between activists, artists and academics. NAA functions more as a think tank and workshop than as a space for viewing art objects. Though it occasionally engages art institutions such as the activist-oriented public arts organization Creative Time, it primarily partners with grassroots community groups like Picture the Homeless and Organizing for Occupation.

Surprisingly, the first experiment outside of Zuccotti was undertaken not by any OWS working group, but by an ultra-left anarchist group calling itself Take Artists Space. Without permission, the group set up camp inside the progressive non-profit Artists Space in Soho for twenty-eight hours on October 22 before being forced out by a private security firm. Take Artists Space called for the gallery to become an indoor squat open to anyone in need of shelter. Adopting a conspiratorial tone and committing petty acts of vandalism, Take Artists Space was denounced by the OWS Arts and Culture committee for departing from the principle of non-violence. Similar criticisms swirled around the short-lived, internally contested New School occupation that began on November 17, and it is no coincidence that the occupations share certain ideological and stylistic qualities, derisively described by one critic as the “Hipster Black Bloc."

Nonetheless, these tactics did raise a provocative question: on what terms, if at all, will nominally sympathetic institutions lend themselves to the Occupy movement? It’s a question that goes to the heart of how different strands of Occupy activists interpret the increasingly influential concept of "communization" elaborated most recently by activists in the University of California system. Is the capitalist control of social life best challenged through adventurist escalations on the part of self-selecting vanguard? Or is the project of reclaiming the commons best advanced through long-term coalition building within a plurality of social actors? Need these be mutually exclusive poles? And where does the work of artists and cultural producers fit? 

As a counterpoint to the small-scale institutional drama created by Take Artists Space, consider the much more consequential dilemma created by OWS for Trinity Church. Trinity has been a supporter of OWS since the early days of the movement, and OWS, along with its ally Occupy Faith NYC, have long attempted to radicalize this support by appealing to the Church to allow for an outdoor occupation of a Church-owned vacant lot at the corner of 6th Avenue and Canal Street. Matters came to a head on the morning after the eviction of Zuccotti, when OWS sent an emergency delegation of evictees to the Church asking that it provide refuge in the lot; when the Church wavered, OWS made a risky decision to escalate the situation.

At 9:00 AM a General Assembly was held outside the lot. Enormous yellow and black banners reading OCCUPY WALL STREET were festooned along the fence, along with mobile pavilions and stacks of cardboard shields reading I WILL NEVER OWN A HOME IN MY LIFE; I WILL NEVER PAY OFF MY DEBT; I WILL NEVER GET A JOB IN THIS ECONOMY. An OWS demonstrator announced that the lot was “private property belonging to an ally” and that Trinity was still “on the fence” about giving it over for occupation. Dozens of young people then began to scale the fence, and the pavilions were lifted off the ground and passed into the enclosed area. The fence was cut open and hundreds of demonstrators took the space.

The occupation lasted only 30 minutes before Trinity called the police to have the protesters evicted, and the Church immediately released a statement affirming its support of OWS while expressing its condemnation of the occupation-attempt. While the strategic virtue of cutting the fence of a declared ally is debatable, the Trinity event nonetheless marked an important moment in the overall expansion of OWS and highlighted the significance of artistic matters at several levels. First, the site in question has recently been leased by Trinity to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) for occasional public art events. Part of the strategy behind the intervention was to leverage the influence of this important artistic institution relative to Trinity. While Trinity has made its position clear on the prospect of an occupation of the space, pressure continues to mount on LMCC to take a position regarding the use by OWS of the space in question.

Secondly, the Trinity event marked the debut of what NAA co-organizer Jason Jones describes as a color-coded “tactical and symbolic infrastructure” designed to assist in visually staging conflicts over the control and use of space. Evoking at once a crime scene and a construction site, this yellow-and-black signage has recently taken the form of security-tape reading either Occupy or Foreclosed. Designed for rapid guerilla application to urban structures, the tape was prominently deployed at various stops along the Occupy Our Homes foreclosure tour in East New York on December 6. The tour culminated in a media-friendly "housewarming party" thrown for a family illegally occupying a vacant home with the support of OWS, complete with balloons, music, food and gifts. The occupied structure was surrounded with black-and-yellow banners, pavilions and shields, galvanizing visual attention to the site in order to help defend against the possibility of an eviction.

Along with its contribution to such direct actions, NAA is also involved with the creation of new forms of public research and pedagogy. For instance, it has partnered with the architecture group DSGN AGNC on #whoOWNSpace, an experimental mapping project that takes as its point of departure the legal, economic and political questions concerning the ownership and use of “privately owned public spaces” (POPS). In the words of project director Quilian Riano, “it is the very ambiguity of these spaces that makes them amenable to creative experimentation. Who or what is the public that is supposed to enjoy these spaces? When we read that they are intended for ‘passive recreation,’ what does this mean? These are questions that need to be subjected to a rigorous test.” One such test was Occupy Broadway, a 24-hour performance-festival staged on December 2 in an outdoor POPS several blocks from Times Square that included acts like Reverend Billy and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra.

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If groups like Not an Alternative largely bypass the economies and institutions of the traditional art world, the recently-founded Arts and Labor (AL) branch of the Arts and Culture working group sets out to challenge and change that world. A key catalyst for its formation was the ongoing struggle of art-handlers from Teamsters Local 814 who have been shut out of their jobs for the past five months by the Sotheby’s auction house—an institution unabashedly defended by Mayor Bloomberg’s girlfriend, who sits on its board of directors.

Looking to the unfinished projects of groups like the Art Workers’ Coalition (1969-1971), the Arts and Labor mission statement reads:

“We are artists and interns, writers and educators, art handlers and designers, administrators, curators, assistants, and students. We are all art workers and members of the 99%. Arts & Labor is dedicated to exposing and rectifying economic inequalities and exploitative working conditions in our fields through direct action and educational initiatives. By forging coalitions, fighting for fair labor practices, and reimagining the structures and institutions that frame our work, Arts & Labor aims to achieve parity for every member of the 99%.”

An important question surrounding AL is to what degree art-related work can be connected to other forms of work in the cultural industries. After all, along with the finance and real estate sectors, the culture sectors—from art to food to fashion—are major economic drivers of New York as a global city. It is thus no surprise that people working in these industries, which often involve high levels of cultural capital but precarious and informal working conditions, have been quite engaged with OWS. Yet what does it mean for such cultural workers to identify with the “99%,” especially considering their privilege relative to those who work at lower echelons of the service-economy, including art handlers, street vendors, ushers, janitors or dishwashers, for example?As AL member Chris Kasper has noted, the art world has it own peculiar cultures of work that make it difficult to organize in the formal way that the television or theater industries are. Art is still widely seen not as real work but as a “labor of love.” The supposed higher reward for artists—only a tiny fraction of whom will ever actually make enough to survive from their work alone—is a rich creative autonomy denied those who clock into a 9-5 job. This myth tends to envelop the entirety of the work that makes the art world possible, with the legions of “gallery girls,” multi-tasking maintenance workers, administrative assistants and unpaid interns constantly being reminded how lucky they are to work in the proximity of artistic greatness and its associated rituals of celebrity, glamour and 1 Percent excess.  

The first public action undertaken by Arts and Labor involved an implicit reflection on the relation between the cultural sector and the urban economy. On the afternoon of the N17 day of action, Arts and Labor held an event called “Occupy Lunch.” The location for the event was the High Line, the abandoned train track running through the Chelsea art district reprogrammed in 2008 by architects Diller/Scofidio + Renfro as a photogenic post-industrial park. Despite providing a valuable public amenity, the High Line is also bound up with the ongoing culture-led gentrification of Manhattan, providing a kind of infrastructural backbone for new ultra-high-income residential and tourist spaces like the Standard Hotel. Furthermore, the park rules are designed to inhibit certain kinds of uses—an official permit is required for a gathering of more than twenty people, for instance. 

Occupy Lunch’s outreach and media campaign—which involved flyers, a Facebook page and a slightly sinister Anonymous-style fax sent to galleries—was a relative success, bringing more than 60 art workers together on the High Line at 12:30. Free sandwiches were distributed, and the Chai Party Movement was on site to provide steaming cups of chai to "warm the bellies and support the bodies of protesters." A General Assembly was called in the covered train shed at 16th street, where the acoustics of the cavernous space doubled the amplification provided by the People’s Mic. Several police officers were called to the scene, but they kept a distance despite the group’s lack of a permit. Participants shared a number of stories and grievances: the day-to-day feeling of precarity experienced by an artist who doesn’t have health care through any of her part-time jobs; the psychological toll of working under a tyrannical boss in the absence of any formal work-contract; the unlivable salary of the adjunct art professor still mired in student debt; a call for the largely white group to think about the historical complicity of the art world in processes of gentrification and displacement.


Still a work in progress, Arts and Labor takes up in its own way the injunction to occupy everywhere, extending itself into a cultural realm (art) that is traditionally assumed to transcend workaday realities and crass economic interests. The 1% is deeply invested—ideologically and economically—in the myth that art is a realm apart, enabling figures such as the Koch Brothers to acquire a veneer of cultural legitimacy by attaching their names to artistic institutions like Lincoln Center. The show of support by Phillip Glass for OWS last week on the concluding night of his Gandhi-themed opera Satyagraha at Lincoln Center—coordinated by Occupy Museums and an OWS affinity group—could be a major turning-point in highlighting artistic institutions as places of conflict well as in leveraging the reputations and resources of high-profile artists and other celebrities for future OWS initiatives. As noted by Natasha Bhagat Singh in the recently-released journal Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy: "We should use celebrity status as a resource that gets coupled with a strategic objective….We do not want our movement mainstreamed in order to make activism cool for people to join. Our movement should radicalize people to act in a civil and disobedient manner." Especially significant in this respect was the participation of Laurie Anderson in the Glass event at Lincoln Center given that she is also an "arts advisor" to the executive board of LMCC—the very institution currently managing the Trinity lot briefly occupied on November 15th.

OWS has announced that it is looking to occupy the 6th and Canal site on December 17th and has called once again for Trinity to act as a supportive partner in establishing a high-visibility "model occupation." At the same time, a new arts-based initiative called Occupy Art NYC is focused on LMCC as a potential leveraging point and has released an open letter and petition calling for the organization to endorse the "creative occupation" of the space. Efforts are underway to mobilize artists in advance of the 17th, which promises to be a high-point in terms of artistic engagement with OWS.

Whatever the tensions surrounding such initiatives, they demonstrate that OWS has involved a game-changing challenge to business-as-usual in the arts at every level, and there is no turning back. 

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