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Some Reflections on Art and Activism: The Occupy LAAAAAA Interviews

In preparation for a recent class on art and activism I taught as part of CCA’s Social Practice Workshop, I had some time to reflect on the series of Occupy interviews with artists that I posted to this blog over three months at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012. Using Gregory Sholette‘s recent work Dark Matter and Dave Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology as touchstones work, I have begun to slowly peel back some of the complex layers of the many issues relating to the intersections of art and activism touched upon in the interviews. As the Occupy movement and the AAAAAA list are somewhat more dormant these days, though just beneath the surface, it feels a good time to reflect so as to gear up for future action.

The Occupy movement was born soon after my daughter, and when people began setting up camp in front of City Hall in Los Angeles, I was recovering from major surgery, sleepless, with a newborn. Yet something about this phenomenon happening in cities across the nation seemed beyond protest for me, it was an active practice of direct democracy on a scale not seen in my lifetime, a brave seizing of public land, a leaderless people’s movement with real momentum, and I couldn’t tear myself away. Unable to directly participate in General Assemblies or the physical occupation itself, I learned of several artist friends of mine (through Facebook and an email listserv encompassing a much larger group of cultural workers under the loose affiliation AAAAAA) who were organizing actions down at Occupy and directly participating to various degrees.

The inception of the Occupy LAAAAA interviews on this blog was due directly to my hunger to vicariously experience the sweep of Occupy, and to support the movement in the best way I could, which was to document and archive what was happening through the eyes of artists and thinkers I know. I asked some people I knew to participate in order to get the ball rolling, then invited anyone who might be interested via the listserv and met others that way. I took every suggestion I got, reached out to everyone I could, and thus chronicled the articulate musings of 10 artists over three months: John Barlog and John Burtle, Emily Lacy, Nancy Popp, Matias Viegener, Elana Mann, Janet Owen Driggs, Anna Mayer, Robby Herbst, and Adam Overton.

I asked artists first about their experiences with Occupy itself, particularly participating in the direct democracy and horizontalism of the General Assemblies. I was interested in getting the perspective of people on the ground, rather than the media-filtered commentary that was often bewildered by the dispersed, leaderless polyphony of the movement and its lack of specific “demands.” I then asked about how respondents negotiated their own roles as artists within a larger activist context, how they interfaced with the site, performance tactics they used (as most worked in primarily performative ways), and finally, their thoughts about the affinity group AAAAAA, to which they all were connected.

Though there is much to consider within the complexity and depth of their responses, I would like to highlight two concentric layers through which I have begun to access this broader discussion and formulate an understanding of Occupy and the artists working within.

The first connection, though I have rarely heard it described in this way, applies the work of Occupy to the anarchist project focusing on self-organization, voluntary association, and mutual aid. One artist paraphrased theorist Dave Graeber in response to my question about the lack of specific demands coming out of Occupy at first: “by not issuing demands you’re not recognizing the authority [of current social institutions].” It is fitting then, that Graeber talks about anarchism not as ideology but as attitude in his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology:

We are talking less about a body of theory, then, than about an attitude, or perhaps one might even say a faith: the rejection of certain types of social relations, the confidence that certain others would be much better ones on which to build a livable society, the belief that such a society could exist. (4)

This focus on interrelationships, engaging a vast and polyphonic landscape of different people and ideas and allegiances in a messy, often protracted consensus-based democratic process – that is the site through which Occupy gains its resistant power. “Answers are not the answer,” claims Adam Overton as Guru Rugu. Rather, demonstration is the answer. As Graeber describes anarchism as a creative rather than destructive force:

It is also a project, which sets out to begin creating the institutions of a new society “within the shell of the old” to expose, subvert, and undermine structures of domination but always, while doing so, proceeding in a democratic fashion, a manner which itself demonstrated those structures are unnecessary. (7)

With the destruction of the encampments, so too this “site of condensed difference,” as Matias Viegener calls it, was dispersed and diluted. It remains up to us to imagine Occupy’s potential beyond the encampments, and Graeber and anarchism can help us dream up the ultimate expression of these self-organizational forms, to connect the multiple “networks overlapping and intersecting in any way we could imagine, and possibly many that we can’t.” (41)

Secondly, the inner concentric ring of the Occupy-supportive artist affinity group AAAAAA (called “a loose affiliation rather than a coherent whole” by one of the artists and not part of the official Occupy structure by design), bounces up against its own framing inside and outside of both the art and activism worlds. AAAAAA cannot function as a demonstration of new processes in the way the encampments could, because the opposing forces within the group have not realized such a structure – for many valid reasons relating to the cultural precarity and economic balancing act its members are mostly engaged in. AAAAAA is split between a determined looseness tied to the ability to retain creative agency but also the need for a collaborative support structure with the potential to become a dynamic laboratory for ideas. At times, AAAAAA struggles with its autonomy from the larger Occupy LA, recognizing that its loose status cuts off access to the way art can engage with politics and activists can engage with structures of art. John Burtle and John Barlog describe this inner war of artist ego and political project:

We were trying to have the meetings operate on the same type of consensus model that Occupy does, but artists are too individualistic/egoistic to have that work successfully. You know, there are people who are very verbal, have a vision and want that. Artists tend to be bad at trying to manipulate things discretely, and it was pretty obvious that some people had expectations that the group would become some sort of modern day situationist internationale, so they were pushing for something more coherent or formalized that they could attach their names to. And other people, myself included, were not interested in that at all. The AAAAAA group works better as a loose affiliation, rather than a coherent whole.

So rather than a forum for “creating the institutions of a new society ‘within the shell of the old’” as Graeber describes (7), AAAAAA functions more as a way to draw a thread between what Greg Sholette calls the “growing illumination of creative dark matter.” To Sholette, creative dark matter is a metaphor for the strengthening collective force of “artists who self-consciously choose to work on the outer margins of the mainstream art world for reasons of social, economic, and political critique.” (4) Many of the artists I interviewed in this series would fall into this category, in spite of the great success and reputation many have within art institutions as well, because most have practices (by choice) that are indelibly separated from the mainstream market-driven center of the art world.

Sholette describes the activist work of many such artists not as the revolutionary avant-garde, but rather as reflecting Michel de Certeau’s notion of the “everyday dissident,” the tactical trickster who uses mimicry and flexible tactics as a dispersed form of resistance. Sholette writes, “As opposed to the committed radical of early decades who rejected capitalism tout court, de Certeau’s rebel consumer uses the power of the market against itself.” (34) Sholette cautions us, however, that such activities are not necessarily “intrinsically progressive” or imbued with any kind of moral imperative. How can we then realize the potential of these artist/dissidents, Sholette wonders, and draw connections between “occasional eruptions?” (44) Perhaps this is more useful way to consider the AAAAAA project, and to realize its potential for progressive political activity – as bridge, thread, connector that may someday coalesce small actions to effect great change.