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.