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Cultural Producers
at the Wild Heart of Occupy Wall Street

Text / Nato Thompson

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi sets himself on fire after the police confiscate his only means of survival: the fruits and vegetables on his cart. His act of self-immolation lights the match that ignites a mass movement of revolt and demands for democracy, justice, and equality. It is the beginning of the Arab Spring. Throughout January 2011, protesters begin gathering in Tahrir Square in Cairo. After only a month of intermittent conflicts with the military, the situation reaches revolutionary proportions. By February 11, 2011, the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had served as the country's supreme autocrat since 1981, after replacing assassinated president Anwar el-Sadat, resigns. Since these initial leaps onto the world stage, demonstrations have taken place around the globe. From the anti-austerity protests of Athens and Bucharest to the reformist movement in Tel Aviv to the anti-corruption protests in Moscow to the uprising in London, the movement of people toward social action has been vast, surprising, and historic.

While there are certainly shortcomings to comparing these movements and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) actions that transpired in the fall of 2011, it is also an absurdity to separate them—both historically and practically. They are very much related. The spirit of revolution is in the air. As spring turned to summer turned to fall turned to winter turned back to spring, the movements worldwide feel the long road ahead. In every geography the battle is different, but in every place where the squares have been occupied and the people battered by the police and/or military, the people see how entrenched power truly is. In the United States, while there have been no violent deaths, the fierce repression of basic democratic principles has been documented and widely circulated in almost every major city, Meanwhile, the federal government has remained unfazed.

Police presence at Occupy Wall Street protest at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, October 20, 2011 (photo: Andre Tchen)

OWS was initiated on September 17, 2011, following—in part—a call for protest by the Canadian magazine Adbusters. The original intention was to occupy 1 Chase Plaza, the site of the charging bull sculpture by Arturo Di Modica. As the New York Police Department was quick to fence off the plaza, the protesters instead occupied nearby Zuccotti Park, which existed in a gray zone of private/public legality. Prior to the day of action called for by Adbusters, numerous meetings by the New York General Assembly had already taken place, including at the art-influenced social space of 16Beaver. From its inception, OWS was organized by cultural groups and individuals whose interests went far beyond the arts and into the realms of social justice. This is no small thing to bear in mind.

OWS gathered steam in the following months. As videos circulated of police beating unarmed protesters who were demonstrating against economic inequity, more and more people gravitated toward the squares. The occupations went viral, popping up in places like Atlanta, Portland, Dallas, Los Angeles, Oakland, St. Louis, Chicago, and even in the suburbs. With a decentralized organizing method based on consensus and daily general assemblies, the occupations became a living experiment in embodied democracy. Quickly subcommittees were formed, focusing on different issues and approaches: media, maintenance of the camps, direct action, police brutality, immigration, as well as art and culture. Occupy camps popped up throughout the nation, and the nation took notice.

An activist associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement holds up a sign in front a police line during a confrontation with the police at a rally in Union Square in New York, March 21, 2012 (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Police officers stand guard next to Arturo Di Modica's Charging Bull, 1989, as protestors affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement march in the financial district in New York, November 17, 2011 (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

This article focuses on the art and culture subcommittees of of the Occupy movement in New York City. Other cities certainly deployed vital cultural and political approaches. Here, however, by limiting my scope to OWS in New York, which I have followed and partaken in to some degree, my argument can be more precise. The art and culture subcommittees in OWS-NYC have the most members, a somewhat illuminating point. They include a large group of people deeply interested in both the arts and social justice. OWS has given rise to numerous culturally geared projects, including the "Occupy" caution tape used for various interventions, the Occupied Wall Street Journal,1 the organization Occuprint,2 which gathers protest posters and provides print facilities, Occupy Museums and Arts and Labor3—yes, there are many subcommittees. Over the course of the last few months, these groups have produced a number of interventions primarily targeting the art world infrastructure.

Institutional critique organizations have focused on the art world. Several interventions at the Museum of Modern Art, in solidarity with Sotheby's locked-out unionized art handlers, were noteworthy actions. These included a sudden forum in front of the Diego Rivera murals, kicked off by a reading of "The Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art," which is believed to have been written by Leon Trotsky and André Breton and which is signed by Rivera and Breton. Several spontaneous general assemblies were held throughout the museum, culminating in a grand flourish: a banner drop by the Sotheby's art handlers.

Philip Glass speaking to the assembly, Occupy Lincoln Center protest in Lincoln Center Plaza, December 1, 2011 (photo: Marisa Mazria-Katz)

On the brisk evening of December 1, 2011, a demonstration/interventionist general assembly was conducted at the final performance of Philip Glass' opera Satyagraha in Lincoln Center. As with numerous other actions, the New York Police Department was quick to show up and erect barricades. But as the audience left the theater with thoughts of non-violence, protest, and Gandhi on their minds, they were met with a contemporary parallel when the police directed them not to mingle with the protesters. Glass, however, had planned otherwise: leaving the theater, he moved swiftly through the police lines to join the general assembly, reading a text at the meeting's beginning.

The occupation of Zuccotti Park was ultimately closed down. Mayor Bloomberg, who probably rues the fact the he did not crack down on OWS immediately, eventually instructed the NYPD to evict the occupation, arguing that it had become a health hazard. Before the winter break, a last-ditch effort to move OWS to a new public space gained brief traction but then fizzled. Members of OWS focused their attention on Duarte Square, located at the intersection of 6th Avenue and Canal Street. Currently under construction, the site is owned primarily by Trinity Church, which had provided some space for OWS activists during their eviction. Efforts converged to convince an unwilling Trinity into accepting OWS into their park. A petition to Trinity Wall Street was circulated; a letter to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which programs that space for public art projects, was disseminated; a hunger strike was organized; and finally, on December 17, a concerted group of clergy and activists hopped the fence to be arrested in the square. There was a lot of energy and interest. But Trinity held fast, and the winter break swept that plan into obscurity.

Occupy Museums at MoMA, New York, October 20, 2011 (photos: Andre Tchen)

As the chill lets off, OWS is beginning to make itself known again. The social networks established through this vast movement managed to remain intact despite the evictions. That said, the occupations have also had to take on a different strategy for organizing. While intensely active on their own social networks, they have faded considerably from the mainstream press. This is one of the casualties of losing the squares that will inevitably have to be dealt with this summer.

And as the art season warms up, so too have the actions of the art-institutional critique wings of the OWS movement. As of this writing, the Arts and Labor subcommittee has engineered a critique of one of New York's most celebrated art events, the Whitney Biennial. In a widely circulated letter, the group writes,

We object to the biennial in its current form because it upholds a system that benefits collectors, trustees, and corporations at the expense of art workers. The biennial perpetuates the myth that art functions like other professional careers and that selection and participation in the exhibition, for which artists themselves are not compensated, will secure a sustainable vocation. This fallacy encourages many young artists to incur debt from which they will never be free and supports a culture industry and financial and cultural institutions that profit from their labors and financial servitude.4

Occupy Museums at MoMA, January 13, 2012 (photo: NERE photography)

In addition, a Yes Men–style website called feigned the position of the Whitney Museum itself, announcing, in press-release fashion, that the Whitney had seen the error of its ways and agreed to return corporate support from Deutsche Bank and Sotheby's. The first paragraph reads,

The Whitney will find a way to open the 2012 Biennial in spite of the Museum's difficult decision to break with the two major corporate sponsors of the Biennial. Regretfully, the Whitney entered into a sponsor agreement with Sotheby's before the auction house locked out forty-three of its unionized art handlers once their contract expired in July 2011. Last year saw record-breaking sales with profits over $100 million for Sotheby's; the pay of the CEO alone doubled to $6 million. Yet Sotheby's has sought to break organized labor by starving their workers into submission—locked out of their jobs and without wages since August, these workers and their families lost their health care benefits at the end of 2011.5

It seems absurd to say that artists are a central component of OWS. Not that this is inaccurate: an unusually high number of self-identified artists are involved in the movement. But while "artist" might have been used to designate a specific career or person in the early and mid-twentieth century, at this point, it is a catch-all for a generation brought up under vast cultural production. And cultural production isn't a job. It is a way of existing within space and culture. Identification with this "artist" demographic—people interested in manipulating the cultural symbols around them, aware and participating in the production of representation—is simply par for the course. Art, it would seem, is a central language of this movement.

Occupy Museums at MoMA, January 13, 2012 (photo: NERE photography)

This simple insight may help us make sense of the movement's perhaps disproportionate focus on the art world in New York City. As neoliberal capitalism sinks its teeth into every infrastructure, the contradictions between art institutions' stated public good and their economic support structures crystallize into new visibility. For many artists, the time seems ripe to expose the instances where institutions brush conflicts of interest and injustice under the rug. Of course, participants in these actions often meet with the readymade go-to reaction: their energies could be better spent by focusing on "real" targets such as Goldman Sachs, Halliburton, and other 1% corporate entities. OWS movement participants will be quick to point out that cultural producers are involved in numerous actions, many of which reach far beyond art institutions. It is a multivalent movement. However, the amount of energy being mobilized as a form of mass-movement institutional critique in the arts should not be underestimated. It also points to the reckoning that must take place: in the age of immaterial labor, arts and culture are no longer peripheral socially, politically, or economically, which means that cultural producers now carry a new burden of responsibility.

What differentiates art institutions from other parts of the built power structure is that they have a mandate to serve the public. This is enshrined in their mission and directly connected to their non-profit status. Their buildings, in essence, are meant for public gatherings—albeit often at the cost of admission. This could not be said for the lobbies of Citibank, Fox News, the New York Times, Goldman Sachs, AIG, or Halliburton. Occupations or protests would be quickly disbanded, resulting in severe fines.6 Private spaces are simply off limits. As such, the spaces that provide even a modicum of room for dissent quickly become the sites of occupation.

Ultimately, however, the movement wrestles a difficult situation. There remains a surplus of energy and interest. The social network communiqués are very much alive. But it must be admitted that the loss of the squares has been a devastating blow. Space has revealed itself as a strategic tool in the organization of mass movements. The state's criminalization of spatial occupation has been power's greatest weapon. As the movement reorganizes, it is forced to rely on social networks that begin to drift back to their original, digital roots. Issues are being taken on in a scattershot method, from banks to foreclosed homes to immigration to museums.

That said, the arts and culture subcommittees might need to take a step back and realize the responsibility they have as the largest of their kind. This realization does not come easily, but frankly, this is a different historic moment. As Gregory Sholette once quipped in a private conversation, "Art and life have finally merged. The only problem is... life sucks." To frame it another way, art and life have finally merged, and now the political landscape is all the more oppressive and confusing. One crucial notion remains particularly elusive: Since cultural production is a mass movement language, How can we deploy its battery of skills strategically across space to challenge the dominating control of power? While many artists are now focusing on the few institutions that define them as their constituents, these artists will need to expand that kind of steady focus to the more familiar institutions that command everyday life.

1., accessed April 1, 2012.
2., accessed April 1, 2012.
3. and, accessed April 1, 2012.
4. End the Whitney Biennial 2014, February 24, 201,, accessed April 1, 2012. 5., accessed April 1, 2012.
6. Several assemblies were held in the Deutsche Bank AG lobby, perhaps because its corporate philanthropy has played such an important role in the global expansion of contemporary art.

Nato Thompson is Chief Curator at Creative Time in New York.

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