Yesterday and the day before, the Getty held a conference entitled “Perspectives on Progressivism and the Museum,” which was a laudable effort to gather museum educators and scholars from around the country (and from the UK) to reconsider the progressive role of the art museum in civic politics and social justice, with an eye towards the sweeping national initiatives of the Progressivist era of the 30s and 40s. I moderated an artist panel this morning called “Social Practice and the Institution,” which gathered David Burns from Fallen Fruit, Edgar Arceneaux from Watts House Project, and performance artist Elana Mann in conversation about their own socially-engaged practices and interfaces with institutions. At the very end of the panel, a comment from a respondent struck me deeply – how can the local efforts of these artists – whose progressive practices eke out new ways of thinking, leverage new networks, and build new capacities in the ways people live and interact – translate to sweeping changes in our greater institutions? How can we scale up progressive practices in order to change the way economies or states operate in relation to their people?
It is fitting to be writing this post just after Guy Fawkes day, with the Occupy movements in their fervor invading city streets and city halls. I have become aware of many artist friends who have seized upon this moment of protest and discontent along with so many others. In an effort to understand how artists with social practices who have been engaging with protest and activism and issues of social justice throughout their careers are organizing in response and/or solidarity, I have asked several artists involved in the Occupy movements to send me their thoughts. I will post several of these interviews every week for the next few weeks, and through the varied perspectives of these very smart and creative people, coalesce my own understanding of art and protest in this context. As the polyphony of these occupations seem to be moving from incoherence to some actionable goals – like National Bank Transfer day (which was yesterday) – I am interested in how process becomes message becomes action, how aesthetics becomes symbol becomes division or solidarity, and how leaderless protest translates to progressive policy (and if that’s even possible anymore). The conversations are complex and layered and entangled, and they are happening right now.
Adam Overton is the first artist I want to highlight – a performance artist focused on the subtle and meditative, Adam is part of a loose self-organized group of artists and other cultural producers performing actions and organizing events in solidarity with Occupy – they are called AAAAAA. His positive and laid-back message is a response to the criticism of Occupy’s drawn-out decision-making process and lack of centrality. He is pondering here as well on his role as an artist in the midst of such protest energy – how he both feeds upon and reflects it.
What are you making/interested in making with regards to Occupy LA & the Occupy movement in general? Why?
AO: Personally, I’m primarily interested in occupying space, with others, and also by myself. I’ve been going down to Occupy LA and working on stuff on the lawn (mostly writing) – I think of it as chillaxistance: engaging with everyday endeavours, and art-production, while basking in the occupy-energy.
Beyond city hall, I’m interested in the Occupy-movement continuing to spread into everyday life and surroundings – but not in some sort of manifest destiny, grabby, selfish sort of way. Rather, I’m interested in seeing folks reclaim various facets of their lives, big and small, and continuing to share (resources, skills, knowledge, energy, etc) the way i see people sharing downtown. Among other things, I’m interested in making nice-nice (as we say in the massage biz).
What role do you feel you/your work plays in interfacing with the protest? What role would you like it to play?
AO: I’m not really sure. I’m not that interested in serving as an example of any kind, but I am interested in being myself – an artist – down at Occupy LA, whatever that’s worth. This all somehow feels important to me to be down there, to be a part of what’s going on – both giving and receiving. There’s a lot of learning going on, a lot of witnessing. Many of the things I’ve done down there so far performance-wise have been pretty subtle; many things have been more like gentle quiet activities (giving out a hollah to the touchy-feely committee!!); I’m sure I could do some more “direct” and spectacular actions, but I’m not sure yet if I want to go there. I somehow feel very humbled by it all. Perhaps that will change with time? Maybe I’ll have more to share, or a more outspoken approach at some point? For now I’m just barely there, but still there (which feels like a lot more than not being there).
Many recent actions seem based on performing “scores” – why do you think this is, and how do you think these performances “perform” in the Occupy context?
AO: Well, not all of the scores that have been created and announced have been performed [yet]. Many of them are very thought-full, and represent how I’m processing everything intellectually. There’s a lot to process right now. A lot of the things I notice are subtle, or rhetorical, things that seem glaringly funny, or odd, or depressing, or troubling. The scores are sometimes a way to notice these things out loud, to transcribe them, to replay them, to turn them upside down, to play with them, etc – to critique them. And then they can be passed along electronically via email, facebook, etc. Sometimes it’s enough for the instructions/descriptions to simply be read/imagined. Some of the scores I’ve been enjoying reading/imagining/performing are by my friend Mikal Czech:
That said, I am interested in performing scores down there, and I have been, off and on. When performing alone, it’s been an interesting way of altering my sense of space, or reality, or personal interactions. Dérives are like that – they’re like drugs minus the drugs. They heighten my senses, draw out subtexts, present alternative ways of existing/playing in space – without all the forgetfulness and side-effects. It can sometimes be hard to notice where certain scores start and end, and I find that useful in terms of trying to expand the movement from Occupy LA to Occupy Everything.
When performing with others, it’s been a fun way of engaging socially in much in the same way that games do. Games/scores seem odd – they’re often life-like, but surreal, and give the persons involved permission to do and notice things they wouldn’t normally think they’re allowed to. They push you into another perspective. A lot of learning happens in scores/games. I’m not sure what is to be learned, but I’d like to think that the human population and/or spirit is somehow evolving with each game/score. It feels magical. I think it’s important to engage with magic and an evolutionary spirit in this space. Games/scores seem to be an aeffective way to engage serious matters playfully, and to model different ways of thinking, acting, and interacting.
How do you feel the AAAAAA list is operating? What role is it playing? What are the challenges or benefits of this loose grouping?
AO: AAAAAA is nice – people write emails back and forth, facebook posts back and forth – right now we mostly seem to be sharing information, knowledge, opinions, ideas, videos, articles, proposals for action, critiques of things that have happened so far, etc. For me, its foremost role has been to encourage me to continue thinking about all this Occupy stuff, everyday. I read messages when I wake up, during my breaks, on my phone, when I’m procrastinating, and before I go to bed. I’m immersed. If I was just on my own, not engaged with this group, I might only hear about things every few days or weeks; in other groups I’d likely encounter the kind of uncritical rhetoric that really turns me off, and that further alienates me. If I didn’t have people sending me stuff, I might think that everything had petered out, or that it’s not my movement, not for me. But instead I see my friends thinking about it all, being concerned, being excited, being worried, wanting more, asking for help, proposing meetings, encouraging discussion, and going down there and doing things. I can’t help but feel infected by this and want to stay involved. AAAAAA encourages my continued engagement.
I’m fairly wary of the rhetoric of large groups. I like mission statements, but only up to a point. As much as I like scores, I generally don’t like to participate in things I’m not concerned enough with or connected enough to. I generally don’t like being a part of things that involve a lot of finger-pointing, finger-waving, or righteous indignation. Except on a handful of issues, I’m just really uncertain about how to aeffect change in a way that agrees with me. So, as a whole, AAAAAA is really working for me right now. It so far seems to simply represent a group of concerned beings, mostly [only?] artists from our community. People tend to function autonomously, doing things when they want, or not. There has been no specific pressure placed on anyone to participate. I like this. A challenge of this is that it can be hard to keep certain kinds of momentums going. For instance, I spoke to a friend today about how we had wished there had been more large group meetings (there were only 2, right around the start – the rest has been small clusters of folks). There are several reasons why folks haven’t met as a large group since then – people are busy, and there have been a lot of calls for “action” rather than more meetings – but I actually think the main reason more large meetings haven’t been called is that folks have been afraid that calling a meeting might push them into some sort of leadership spotlight. I certainly feel that way – if I’m always the one pushing for meetings, do the meetings then become “Adam’s meetings”? I don’t think anyone wants to become seen as an owner of the group. I think it’s a nice sentiment, but it can also slow things down, and fewer meetings are called – everyone waits for someone else. I might be totally wrong about this – this might just be my own paranoia. Anyways, I’m a firm believer that unexpected things emerge when people meet, both online and off.
Another challenge has been catching folks up, making newcomers feel welcome. It’s hard to do that on a mailing list. I get the feeling that most of the people who have been participating lately on the list and on-site have been participating from the start. Folks coming to the list late might be more hesitant to jump in to something that feels like it’s already moving, or something that feels dominated by folks who are already active. I think those sorts of boundaries get lessened when we actually meet in the space – but not that many physical meetings have been taking place. Again, I might just be assuming a lot of bullshit! But there are challenges, and I think it’s been mostly good.
There has been criticism of the Occupy movements and the horizontalism of the General Assembly model – a polyphony of voices and lack of clarity in message or goal. What are your thoughts on this critique?
AO: Sure, I think the argument is that the clearer the message gets, the more easily the “problems” can be treated – but who’s going to treat them? And if they whittle it down to the 2 most popular ones and then treat them, does that mean we go home? What happens to all the other concerns? There are so many issues at play, so many to deal with – to dumb it down into one thing seems incredibly frustrating, and exclusive. I love how many voices there are. I think there should be even more. I cannot stand when folks say dumb things like “we’re all here for the same reason.” No, we’re not! Stop trying to unite us into your false karass! Things are much more complicated and nuanced, and the confusion of not having a clear message has caused people to talk, and talk, and talk, and talk – and debate. People are learning a buttload. From each other. At least those willing to listen. Many people down there are much worse off than I am, economically-speaking, educationally, politically, etc, so I’m mostly there to listen. Simplifying their many arguments into a few, dumbing them down is not the answer. Answers are not necessarily the answer (though that might be a privileged thing to say…).
To anyone complaining about the messiness of horizontalism – get over it. It’s giant fucking sandbox. Get dirty. And, it’s only reeeeallly messy if you’re in a hurry and trying to get-things-done. Trying to set a deadline is often an exercise in futility and frustration. The General Assembly and endless dialogue at Occupy LA and online suggests that folks move from being end-focused to being more process-focused – shifting things away from
fast-food politics, rhetoric, and discourse. If you’re only looking for results – for immediate change – then you’re going to hate life while attending a General Assembly, or an affinity group meeting. I’m there for the process, to learn from people, to hear voices that I haven’t heard before, to consider their arguments I haven’t considered. And to state my mind, to support others, to point out things that rub me the wrong way. I’ve witnessed some hard-blocks down there – and more often than not they’ve brought up really interesting and valid critiques of the action or decision that was about to be made, that everyone seemed to be completely on board with a moment earlier. If anything, in this day and age when
libertarian, anti-government messages seem to be all the rage, the messiness of the process at least makes me appreciate the level of skill and attention to detail and process that seems to go into making government a not-as-messy place. The messiness of Washington makes a different kind of sense.
What are your own hopes for the Occupy movement?
AO: More conversation, more learning, more hope, more minds changing, more radical juxtaposition, more reframing, more rehashing, more investigating, more restating, more paraphrasing, more mediation, more meditation, more introspection, more disbelief that a person like “that” actually exists, more awe with how many people are here and actually care deeply about some of the same things as me, more gentleness, more humble occupation, more complexity, more creative approaches to radical everyday existence, more acceptance, etc.
Less aping of politicians’/pundits’ rhetorical flourishes, less demonizing of the Other, less finger-wagging, less interrupting, less yelling, less anxiety, less stress, less worry, less anger, less simplification, less declaration, etc.