Today I am pleased to highlight artist, activist, writer and organizer Robby Herbst, who maintains his own interdisciplinary art practice as well as works with the LA-based collective Llano del Rio. A long-time activist, Robby’s critical questioning of the Occupy movement comes from his core interest and passion for challenging dominant hegemonies. Though he is undeniably supportive and excited about artist actions and self-organizing at Occupy, embedding and interfacing his current projects in that context, Robby asks some key and uncomfortable questions. How far does radical action extend? Can artists infuse political demand into the poetics of their practices? Does the professed horizontalism of the General Assembly only go as far as our dominant institutions of culture allow it to go? Robby has demands rather than hopes for this movement, and one of those demands is an evolution in how artists interface with their society.
What are you making/interested in making with regards to Occupy LA & the Occupy movement in general? Why?
RH: What I’ve been working on to date largely has been further developing projects that I’ve been working on since before the occupation movement. And the occupation has provided interesting places to develop them. With the Llano Del Rio Collective, I’ve been working on the “Antagonists Guide to the Assholes of LA” since at least this summer. It’s a guide that seeks to promote agonistic approaches to democracy by highlighting sights where assholes dwell (governmental, corporate, military, etc). Some of the public programming we’ve put together, which helps frame the meaning of the forthcoming guide, was going to take place elsewhere. However, the occupation at city hall has provided an excellent place to discuss artists claiming power over assholes. Also we’ve rushed to distribute some of the research we’ve done regarding contestable sights near the occupation, so that it can be helpful to occupiers and their supporters.
I’ve also been working on a project with the Dumbo Art Center in Brooklyn. A public performance for that project (which will have a gallery iteration in February) was originally planned to happen at Occupy Wall Street on its first weekend there in NY. However, for several reasons (including a strong desire to be in dialogue with LA), I decided to do these actions here in Los Angeles. The piece involves the creation of human pyramids that reflects on an IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) diagram created in 1911. The diagram is called Pyramid of Capitalist System and it depicts capitalist class structure as a human pyramid. Working with mostly novice dancers and acrobats, we are building class war human pyramids down at the occupation.
Other than these projects already in the works, I hope to contribute in making AAAAAA a forum of affiliation to scheme creative and critical actions which add to vocalization of the movement or an intensification of it here in LA.
What role do you feel you/your work plays in interfacing with the protest? What role would you like it to play?
RH: Anything that gets folks interested or present in the occupations is a great thing. That is largely how I visualize this interface. If any of the projects that I am doing beyond that causes people to think, act, or relate in another way than they expected to–then that would be swell too. If through our attempts at organizing in relationship to Occupy LA , our artist community more generally begins to consciously embrace a practice of demand along with their poetics–that would be a wonderful thing too.
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?
RH: I am not sure if I agree with your statement. While score-based work is the impetus for some people’s work, I can equally point at a larger number of projects that aren’t score-based. Perhaps if your statement it is truthful it could just be reflective of a peer group who are a part of this affiliation. It might also be that people who are interested in self-organized space are also interested in performative acts of autonomy.
Ultimately scoring is a straightforward way to do public space performances–subtly affecting crowds. I don’t need to talk about Kaprow and Cage nor the Situationists and their relationships to chance and serendipity and non-hegemonic ways of manipulating subjectivities, do I?
How do you feel the AAAAAA list is operating? What role is it playing? What are the challenges or benefits of this loose grouping?
RH: So much to say here…. But I’ll try to stick with what’s on hand.
It’s a networking group at the moment–folks share ideas, articles, thoughts and reflections. Folks give the thumbs up to projects in mind and completed. They share ideas and impulses. They share articles and news and opinions. They respond. They share discourses they’ve enjoyed from other communities of the internet. They throw their two cents in. Generally it’s a positive and supportive environment that ideally creates both a context for the presentation and discussion of perhaps offbeat or ideally radical public projects which aim to challenge, interface and engage the struggle. Generally there’s not many lurkers or (I think this is the right term) and inflamers around–this is a great thing. People who are talking are involved in places other than the internet.
There have been a few announced meetings. The first two occurred the first week of the occupations and were unexpectedly large. It was enough perhaps to have such a big group come together to out themselves, as it were, to being personally passionate about this struggle for economic justice. That outing was the outcome of those meetings–that and that we would come up with a name and perhaps develop a website. (A calendar where folks could list what they were doing, and see what was going down creatively, along with the facebook page, was put together almost right away). Rob Ray put up a webpage for everybody–no meeting was had to make and do it–but that seemed to be ok with everyone. I had hoped that beyond this architecture we could articulate language that might frame a position and make a statement as to where we stood together as we did our self-organized acts. This group articulation hasn’t happened yet and at one point I was disappointed by that. It seems that the will to do the work of building consensus on ideas was beyond either the interest or ability of the group–so this kind of language, “what we stand for” is not outlined. I feel that having something to push against and with is important (even if it is water)–but the desire to go there yet hasn’t shown itself that fiercely.
Later meetings included a bar get-together where some folks got drinks and worked to get to know one another. This was an attempt, I believe, to develop working and political intimacy in a group that for many stretched beyond their immediate peer group. Then recently a group of folks got together from the AAAAAA group to plan an action in solidarity with the General Strike in Oakland. That project appeared very successful and I was happy that AAAAAA facilitated a format for its creation.
Otherwise, people who are planning projects that fall on the same day have co-publicized one another’s projects. As well, an Occupy LA reader was group-sourced and produced through the list. And it seems that a Free School of sorts was worked on through it.
The benefits of the group are all of the above plus the supportive environment.
The group is a work in process and I think people are discovering that it is what they make of it. Beyond the anti-police violence that occurred in solidarity with the Oakland General Strike, I am not aware of projects that have affected the stridency of intensified social protest. The group has not functioned as a creative agency, nor as something like San Francisco’s Art and Revolution. And this is both a good and a bad thing. It allows space for people to do their thing and provides a forum for people to dream together more vital actions–but it doesn’t necessarily spur vital action. It allows for it and facilitates it, but it doesn’t demand it. At times this feels like a problem, at other times, it feels like an opportunity that will (and has) make itself known. In my mind the loose structure supports a laboratory approach, where together we are experiencing (as LA artists) the possibilities of radicalized aesthetics playing themselves out here. That LA artists are embracing this experiment beyond the safety of galleries or schools, but within the complexity of independent space–that’s a big positive in my book. One I can support. AAAAAA is an evolution. I think both LA and LA’s art scene (institutional as well as self-organized) needs evolution. I hope that AAAAAA will continue to evolve to occupy the arts–in radical as well as formal potentials.
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?
RH: This is a tremendous question for me and I won’t get far into this at all. If I read into your question, then I apologize. But the very short of it is that for me this question has implications which directly connect with contemporary art practice, especially regarding the rhetoric surrounding the supposed openness of social or relational practices. Like the occupations themselves, these structures exist within certain ideological contexts. Just as art practices are frequently contained within institutions which themselves work to suppress underlying ideologies and structures, the utopianism surrounding horizontalism working within these movement(s) functions largely to make invisible pervading ideologies and structures which should also be subject to critique. The basic critic would be that the horizon of horizontalism can only go as far as that which can be articulated in a given frame. And the terrain of that framework is only described by those that control the institutional framework of a culture. So in LA, you get people who claim horizontalism as far as it doesn’t confront historical police violence, and in Oakland you get horizontalism as long as you don’t destroy property and don’t take over and demand collective ownership over foreclosed upon property.
I am not saying that polyphony is useless as many on the left and right declare. The only real power of OWS is in its current polyphony. That it as of yet has refused to be captured, it will remain an itch in the side of our culture until somehow perhaps it is regularized. But the manner that it will be regularized and the direction that this regularization takes will be defined by the demands that people make. And if the demands are only articulated through the horizon that dominates our contexts in Los Angeles, or Oakland, or the US – than I am aware that this horizon may not be quite as interesting as I could see.
What are your own hopes for the Occupy movement?
RH: Hopes–after Obama I am not so interested in hope. My demand of the occupy movement is that it continues to challenge dominant frameworks in the world which have placed the rights of private property far over the head of the commons.