Today, Janet Owen Driggs (writer, curator, artist, and member of the two-person collaboration Owen Driggs with Matthew Owen Driggs) writes eloquently about the many-armed metaphor of the octopus, and its relationship to the Occupy movement. While at first a seemingly straightforward symbol of the stranglehold corporations have on our society, Janet unfolds the many possible meanings of this mollusk, including its relationship to the tentacular city map of Los Angeles and the distributed intelligence of a leaderless movement. Through this lens, she contextualizes her actions as well as those of her AAAAAA colleagues, meditating on authorship and collaboration, public space as a site for art and action, and the power of horizontal society.
What are you making/interested in making with regards to Occupy LA and the Occupy movement in general? Why?
JOD: With artist friends and people we’ve met through AAAAAA and Occupy LA, Owen Driggs (that’s Matthew Owen Driggs and me) is organizing construction of a giant octopus puppet. 70 ft long and 20 ft tall, the puppet is made of bamboo, old bicycle inner tubes, and plastic shopping bags. It will be wrapped around Los Angeles City Hall in a performance on Sunday November 20, at noon.
In a very straightforward agitprop fashion the conjunction of puppet and building is meant to represent the way corporations entwine with and corrupt our legislative processes. But four other things also inspire us:
First: the necessity of performing public space, which “must be actively created and self-consciously sustained against the grain of an architecture built as much for machines as people, more for commercial than common use…[It is] the result of constructive intervention rather than laissez-faire disinterest” (Benjamin Barber). Not surprisingly the Owen Driggs website is: http://performingpublicspace.org/
Second, the history of Southern Pacific Railroad – “the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil” that Frank Norris described in his 1901 book The Octopus. Most particularly, we are interested in its relationship to land speculation in Los Angeles and its role in the birth of corporate personhood.
Third: the history of propaganda – late nineteenth and early twentieth century cartoonists used the octopus to characterize corporate form, detail the complex operations of such corporations as Southern Pacific and Standard Oil (check out Vulgar Army), and variously depict corporate operations as overwhelming, insidious, deceptive, seductive, brutal, and/or alien.
There are certainly references to the corporate octopus happening now – Zina Saunders Kochtopus Attacks and Molly Crabapple’s Vampire Squid for instance. And there are undoubtedly other visual metaphors in play – the fat cat and greedy pig being the most common I think. But the older cartoons suggest that the octopus affords a visual metaphor that can speak to more than just greed and grasp.
Which brings me to the fourth influence: the octopus brain. Rather as corporations have ‘person’ status in the US so octopuses, by virtue of their intelligence, have vertebra status in the UK. More than just smart though, scientists speculate that these creatures, which have over “half of their 500 million neurons…in the arms themselves”, may have “a collaborative, cooperative, but distributed mind”. This seems a really rich model/metaphor by which to think about the kind of non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian organization and relationships that the occupations aim for.
So, partly to have the image happen in the world and partly to create opportunities for talking about all the above mentioned, we’ve organized a couple of conversations at Occupy LA, we’re working on an update of those nineteenth century cartoons, and every Sunday we’re on the steps of City Hall all day building the puppet with anyone and everyone who’d like to join in. We’ll be there again on Sunday 13, as well as on Friday and Saturday 18 + 19 November, with the performance at noon on Sunday 20. Please join us to build and perform – contact email@example.com, or just turn up.
What role do you feel you/your work plays in interfacing with the protest? What role would you like it to play?
JOD: Most of my thoughts about this are in my first response above – but at root the puppet is part of my attempt to support and contribute, as a non-resident occupier, as much energy as I can to something that is more than a reactive protest.
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?
JOD: Do they? Certainly some of the artists in the AAAAAA group are utilizing scores. In accord with a traditional musical score for example, Mathew Timmons’s book Credit has been “sung, shouted, whispered, scatted, chanted and droned”. While chiming with the more recent traditions of performance art scores, Nancy Popp’s “Scores for the City” are in the forthcoming Occupy LA Reader, and Louis Vuitton described suggestions for action in his email call to support the Oakland Strike: “SCORE”.
There are complicated things going on here I think – or at least things clashing in my brain in response to your question. Is the word ‘score’ being used to describe directions for participation in political action? If so, why call it a score rather than, say, ‘directions’ or ‘instructions’? Because the word ‘instructions’ suggests a more authoritarian position than the word ‘score’ perhaps? Or because a ‘score’ is not only something of an invitation to play, it also invokes the cultural provenance and attendant authority of venerable performing art ancestors?
If this is a simultaneous reach for authority and avoidance of authoritarianism, then I think the artists concerned have found an interesting way to navigate some difficult waters. Waters in which, though the individual Author is apparently dissolving, authoring still has value. The performance of scores occurs to me as a way to swim back and forth between the roles of author and collaborator. And even between the islands I’m going to barbarously shorthand here as the “white cube” – a place where individual abstracted revelations of interiority and/or inherency are valued – and the public realm, where art has traditionally been a vehicle for narrative or rhetorical information and meaning is created collectively.
How do you feel the AAAAAA list is operating? What role is it playing? What are the challenges or benefits of this loose grouping?
JOD: In my experience the list is a place to share information, build alliances, test ideas, meet (somewhat) likeminded others, and offer and recruit help. It has all the limitations of any email list and all of the networking, “I’m not alone”, strengths. I particularly cherish the two big ‘analog’ meetings we had early on at Occupy LA – frankly the LA art world will never feel quite so alien again!
There has been criticism of the Occupy movements and the horizontalism of the General Assembly – a polyphony of voices and lack of clarity in message or goal. What are your thoughts on this critique?
JOD: I am a big fan of horizontalism as it is defined in Marina Sitrin’s Horizontalism: voices of popular power in Argentina: “democratic communication on a level plane (that) involves – or at least intentionally strives towards – non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian creation rather than reaction.”
Yes, the General Assembly (GA) can be both frustrating and tedious. But any process that challenges the verticality of authoritarian, politics-as-usual – anything that challenges the engrained habits of monovocality – is bound to feel polyphonous.
And, while there may not be a five-point list of demands that fit nicely in a press release, the range of opinions represented at Occupy LA are united by the demand that our social, political and economic structures stop servicing corporate greed and re-calibrate to assuage human need. With politics-as-usual leaving no choice but submission to a system that prioritizes the pursuit of profit over absolutely everything else, our gathering together embodies that demand.
The power dynamics of capitalism determine contemporary social relations. Non-hierarchical and non-authoritarian relationships will not come about until those dynamics change. Horizontalism does not defer social change to a later date; instead participants create the future in their present social relationships. It is both a goal and a tool by which to approach the goal.
What are your own hopes for the occupy movement?
JOD: I read in today’s Guardian that the billionaire Koch brothers are about to launch a nationwide database of Americans who share their views. Named Themis for the Greek goddess who imposes divine order on human affairs, it will “give concrete form to the vast network of alliances (they) have cultivated over the past twenty years on the right of US politics,” just in time for the 2012 election.
A couple of weeks ago Brian Holmes wrote on his blog about “the strength of a movement that can be leaderless because it is based on principles that all can uphold and that no one can appropriate as personal property and power. Such a movement can grow without being instrumentalized, coopted, reduced to the travesty that defines our totally corrupt society.” I second that, with all of our tentacles. We are doing politics differently.