CamLab's final Engagement Party, Two in the Bush. 2012.
Last Thursday saw the final epitaph in a series of intellectual discussions on social practice put on by MOCA, a conversation between scholar Grant Kester and artists Janet Owen Driggs and Suzanne Lacy. With that contextualizing afterword (plus an upcoming book), we bid adieu to MOCA’s four-year engagement with Los Angeles social practice collectives in the form of Engagement Party.
I feel a resonant sadness at the passing of this platform, one of the few dependable spaces for rigorous socially-engaged practice within a major art museum in this city. Perhaps the work was not always so rigorous, and the structure was problematic, the collectives were not always collectives, the “social practice” looked more like straight-up performance at times, and MOCA itself became increasingly unstable territory for experimental work to find purchase. But Engagement Party mirrored my own love affair with social practice, way back when I saw the backwards lettering of the Finishing School poster suddenly clarify in the mirror of the USC IFT building’s women’s bathroom.
In the years since Engagement Party first took the ring, socially-engaged art practice has emerged in force - in critical writing, in MFA programs, in museums, in endless panels and symposia and professional conferences. It is far from ubiquitous, but the blank stares (or worse, scoffs) are less frequent. In some arenas, particularly contemporary art museums that like to push the envelope of audience engagement, the interest is quite rabid. “Machine Project, you say? Fallen Fruit, eh?” and so on.
But it is worth taking a moment to critically reflect on this platform, and what it means in the context of museum programming. First of all, working with collectives takes a lot of time, goes against the grain of how museums are used to working, and can be quite radical. Collectives necessarily have quite specific processes (after all, they had to figure out how to work and get along with each other) that can be challenging–and ultimately rewarding–for any institution willing to put in the time and effort. MOCA should also be congratulated for the consistency of its program - three to four artists per year, three month residencies, three events per artist. This platform has created a set of clear parameters for artists to work within and dependability for audiences. It has functioned to effectively raise the profile of these artists via its specific circumstances, its formal presentations of their work, its branding and marketing. The Engagement Party became a stage on which to launch a collective’s work to new publics and new heights.
Ojo's Engagement Party at MOCA. 2009.
Yet I am cautious in my lauding of Engagement Party, because I am not sure that it is actually a platform for social practice at large, and this is one reason that I was a bit confused by the Engagement Party Art Talks. Engagement Party’s structure is excellent for a specific type of events-based, performative collective, but problematic as a flexible and supportive curatorial program for socially engaged art. I never thought it was proposing to be such a program, but this is implied in the talks and the book. I am a little wary of every kind of “engaging” or performative work being shoe-horned into social practice. There is no hierarchy or judgment in this–just distinction. I have been reading Pablo Helguera’s clear and precise primer Education for Socially-Engaged Art and love this quote where Helguera gives his take on Jürgen Habermas’s A Theory of Communicative Action:
Habermas argues that social action (an act constructed by the relations between individuals) is more than a mere manipulation of circumstances by an individual to obtain a desired goal (that is, more than just the use of strategic and instrumental reason). He instead favors what he describes as communicative action, a type of social action geared to communication and understanding between individuals that can have a lasting effect on the spheres of politics and culture as a true emancipatory force. (7)
There is a difference between politically or socially motivated works that address these issues on a symbolic level, and those that control, direct, manipulate, or influence social situations by strategically orchestrating the relations and communicative actions therein in order to achieve some set purpose. The structure of Engagement Party makes this kind of social action difficult–it is a Herculean task for artists (and supportive administrators, in the Engagement Party Think Tank) to actively buck the audience’s party-at-a-museum expectations and resultant social codes. The product of the Party becomes the symbolic realization of a set of social and aesthetic circumstances, but can rarely go beyond to what Helguera calls “actual” practice: as he succinctly writes, “socially-engaged art depends on actual–not imagined or hypothetical–social action.” (8) Liz Glynn most appropriately played with this paradox of feeling uneasy and implicated in the structure of the museum yet still participating, though her events were very effective symbolic practices and did not attempt (purposefully) social action; The Los Angeles Urban Rangers broke out of the museum altogether, shifted everything possible about the context and relations available within the parameters of the project, perhaps coming closest to Helguera’s definition.
The Los Angeles Urban Rangers. 2011.
Ryan Heffington and the East-siders' Engagement Party, Get Your Lead Out. 2010.
Still, this critique does not mean that Engagement Party was not innovative and important to this city and to the field. I would love to see more such platforms. But this acknowledgment must be balanced with the understanding that work that more closely approaches social practice rather than performative or participatory art, cannot be effectively sustained within such a format. No one pretends that social practice is easy, and as a field, museum professionals do risk resting (as it were) a bit on their laurels. How is it possible to sustain social action as well as symbolic practice, as a Habermasian “emancipatory force” with reverberations beyond our own insular worlds? Probably in something beyond three parties…but man, were they a blast.
Rub in/Lube in at Macy's in downtown LA, December 2011. Photo courtesy Stephen van Dyck.
Today I’m pleased to present the latest installment of the Artists in Solidarity series, featuring the Johns (Burtle and Barlog, respectively), two artists who have been collaborating for six years to construct workshops, interventions, and public actions that catalyze awareness of one’s influence on their environment and community. John and John used my questions as a jumping off point for a fascinating and often funny conversation about pleasure, making art, optimism, and the possibilities for new networks of support opened up by Occupy.
What are you making/interested in making with regards to Occupy LA and the Occupy movement in general? Why?
John Burtle: (reads the question)
John Barlog: um
JB: As artists working with participation, seeing all the different ways people engage with the movement has been generative for me.
JB: I think that’s part of what. We were talking about starting with the why.
JB: Well there, are a lot of good things, and a lot of bad things with Occupy…
JB: Why? artists are like vultures. when they see you know something brewing that’s progressive, socially progressive they swoop in, insert propaganda and then ideally people start following it.
JB: Well that’s a very cynical, limited view, but I think it’s a little more than that. Well, I partially just like being part of it, as a body, a physical part of it. Like we went to that march the other day
JB: and we didn’t do anything except walk around
JB: and I don’t normally go to marches
JB: The why
JB: Oh yeah, the vultures!
JB: Well, it’s a relatively small space that’s open to…
JB: lots of different types of approaches to protesting broad themes of what? Economic inequality?
JB: Or that a relatively small amount of people made some bad decisions, some poor investments and now we all have to pay for it.
JB: And so much more though.
JB: And I think that’s something I like about it, is how the movement is conscious of how deep, widespread, interconnected the problems are. I don’t know what was your initial encounter with Occupy pie?
JB: I forgot where, but I think I saw a live feed of a General Assembly, and they were doing the people’s mic. Listening to so many voices enthralled with agency, participating in a direct democratic system was super fantastic. One thing I like about the people’s mic is the way it forces us to think about language differently– because it is coming out of our mouths but it’s not from our voice–it encourages criticality and demands empathy.
JB: Maybe, but just seeing a discussion of that scale carried out relatively effectively got me interested.
JB: And got us wondering about other ways that we could use the consensus model–
JB: Or what can be learned by applying consensus-decision-making to certain activities that we might not normally think to do so. Like giving haircuts?
JB: Screwing in a light bulb?
JB: Hockey? or maybe checkers…
JB: Reaching consensus on when it is time to break consensus.
JB: Making art?
JB: That’s a hard one.
JB: Like we are doing right now?
JB: But what do you normally think to apply consensus to?
JB: I don’t know. Protesting? Yeah, I don’t know but I feel like there are certain activities that applying consensus to is more absurd then others. And I feel like part of what this project would do is expose that preconception.
JB: I feel like we will also learn a lot about reaching consensus through it. About listening and communicating effectively. When consensus is possible, when it’s easy, when it’s painful and why.
JB: It was impressive to see people that woke up in the morning at City Hall and spent the whole day in committee meetings, working with consensus, having to deal with that, choosing to surrender aspects of one’s self-determination.
JB: The receptiveness of the group to participate in adapted forms of dialogue made us think about a project we had done previously and introduce it at the occupation.
JB:We have conversations using a version of English with a few revisions like removing the command form, or only using the pronoun “we/us,” or not using possessives like “my” or “his, or even just adding primal utterances to our routine vocabulary.
JB: And it sometimes changes over time, depending on who’s using and adding to it.
JB: It was great to use with occupiers to start conversations about how our language affect our perception and actions.
JB: Like the Lube in/Rub in
JB: The Rub in/Lube in
JB: The general idea of that action was to use the free lotion samples to give massages and get massages–it was at the downtown Macy’s mall, at the Macy’s store and the Bed Bodyworks and Beyond–wait there was no “Beyond,” wait no, just–
JB: We took it beyond.
JB: I was surprised how, well I’m not sure why I didn’t think it would go so far, in terms of the rubbing, but I’m glad it did, that felt good. I was surprised they didn’t ask us to stop until we had been doing it with our shirts off.
JB: We worked our way into it, starting with hand massages.
JB: Definitely pushed boundaries of pleasure in public.
JB: Well, some people took it as sexual. Stephen seemed to think the lady walking around saying “Oh my god. Oh my god! Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god! Oh my god!,” he seemed to think that she was, like, slightly aroused, but I think how it relates to the larger movement in general is–that it’s looking at public space scripted by corporatism and how we can interact with those spaces in ways that makes our dreams for a better world come true today.
JB: What’s that Rem Koolhaas quote? Other then the internets, “Shopping is the last form of public activity”
JB: So just spending time at the mall on a rainy day, having good fun not shopping, just sampling is a form of resistance. But it’s also indulging in taking consumerism to the extreme, till it caves in on its self–not even having to buy the product when using it excessively. Real serious stuff.
JB: I think what you were saying about enjoying spending time in public space with a group of people, is partially what I was feeling about serving food at city hall. It was a lot of fun setting up a huge spread of food for people, engaging with strangers over an inherently generous activity. I think the food tent was one of the strong points of the occupation in the beginning. It was a space that literally nourished the community and it provided an access point for many people engage in occupation. People could go there and eat from a bounty and find out what was going on. But, also it was a place for people to contribute and get involved. There was one person who brought sooo many cookies she had baked for us, literally like twenty trays. And they were good! Maybe she didn’t feel like she could be camping or go to GAs or maybe she just didn’t want to or whatever for whatever reason, but contributing cookies was a way she could participate.
JB: It’s helping a basic need to be met–that makes people feel good about what their doing in relation to that, which in turn grows support. And when people are well fed they are less likely to be cranky and more likely to participate generously.
JB: Something else food brought up is the issue of trash and waste, as the occupation at Solidarity Park/City Hall functioned as a space to figure out what possibilities for a society could be on a small scale, I think that it was good for us all see trash pile up. For people to be confronted with how we do rely on municipal and state and private structures to take away our trash and deal with that.
What role do you feel you/your work plays in interfacing with the protest? What role would you like it to play?
JB: I’d say it plays a kimmelweck roll
JB: What’s that?
JB: It’s a type of roll with salt and caraway seeds on it.
JB: Oh, that sounds yummy
JB: yeah it’s delicious but I’d say, that maybe our work, especially now that, at least in a lot of cities, the occupation part of the Occupy movement, the physical occupations for indefinite periods of time um, with those being somewhat past– sorta a lot of our work is deals the with temporary occupation of spaces, inserting dialogue into places that aren’t normally places of criticality or reflection. I think now the Occupy movement is gravitating towards actions like that.
JB: Things like occupying foreclosed houses, or housing auctions, or–
JB: Which I think also gets into what you were talking about later, people setting up support networks for each other as a way of getting away from the cash economy.
JB: And I think this is something people in our community do frequently– like bringing soup to a sick friend, participating in someones project, hooking somebody up with work, or donating to a local art space…
JB: or helping pay your friends bail (THANK YOU!).
JB: But, I think kinda we are digressing away from the question.
JB: That’s not a bad thing.
JB: Yeah, but let’s return to it.
JB: How does our artwork interface?
JB: Face to face interface?
JB: Well on a level of verbal communication are we are involved with it, is that what it’s referring to? Smoothidarity?
JB: I think there is also face to face interface where conversations that happen with us and other people at a march, or an email to AAAAAA or facebook or… umaum um. It’s like everybody is just throwing ideas into the pond and were all just fishing and seeing if anything is going to bite
JB: You lost me.
JB: Yeah, me too.
JB: That’s okay.
JB: But, well you know, it’s like all our conversations are ingredients in a big ol’ pot if soup, and we’re seeing what it will taste like then maybe, we’ll add some more of this or that or pepper or…
JB: Sometimes I’ll go to the meetings and just listen, how’s about that?
JB: Just be there
JB: Maybe some hand signals?
JB: Na, not even
JB: Yeah, just being a body is a huge way we interact. Maybe that’s not so much being our work as being present. And I think that’s important. And I feel like getting arrested, was something like that, where it wasn’t so much an artwork as it was just about being a present body.
JB: Emily poetically said in the last one of these, “We must bear witness to these acts which are taking place around us. We must bear witness to the churning of ideas and dialogue, and be willing to see in person when a great shift of power or space is set to be contested.”
JB: That’s so beautiful.
JB: I know right? I wish we had things like that to say.
JB: It’s also just nice and affirming to find people who are doing similar things and having similar discussions.
JB: I’ve had good conversations with people I’ve met there. And there are more people doing creative overtly politically engaged actions and there is more visibility and dialogue regarding those actions. That is a good thing to me. Things like trying to cash a jumbo check for $673 billion, made out to the People of California, or theUC Davis students’ silent protest.
JB: Yeah, and there is a bunch of things like that I think have come out of this movement and even, there are a lot of people that have been doing this kind work for a long time and it is good to hear and see how they approach it. Like the Rev. Billy, it’s been good to see speeches he gave on Wall St, but it’s always good to hear what he has to say.
JB: Is he a libertarian?
JB: I don’t know what his deal is
Many recent actions are highly performative - how do you think these “perform” inside or outside of the Occupy context?
JB: Apart from the 6A group, I don’t think I can really identify somebody who’s using scores. They may be doing highly performative actions for definite audiences–like occupying foreclosed houses or those people that rolled themselves out under a red carpet– but I’m pretty sure they aren’t thinking of them as scores.
JB: Yeah, but I’d say a lot of those actions are, a lot of scores are like, well you know there is that Allison Knowles score “make a salad” or a lot of scores are just “do a thing,” “try this action,” and both those examples are like that: “occupy a foreclosed house.”
JB: Hmmm, free hugs there is a lot of free hugs.
JB: Yeah, lots of free hugs.
JB: Yeah, I think there are probably a few historical performances like that
JB: Historical meaning they happened …?
JB: in the history of performance art… I learned about um
JB: Duchamp, Free Hugs?
JB: Yeah ya I swear
JB: Janet (Owen Driggs) talked eloquently about about how a score is a “simultaneous reach for authority and avoidance of authoritarianism.” A frame or prompt that invites interpretation. And the Occupy movement does function in that way where different people are involved in numerous ways. In different cities General Assemblies function slightly differently and the actions they carry out are all different but many are similar and for the same causes– and there are lot of people traveling between them and discussing ideas and ways of operating.
JB: Occupy is like a score in that it is a basic outline for people to interpret–some people want to end corporate greed and feed the hungry, others are just really upset about chem trails.
JB: Right, and I may not agree that chem trails–
JB: Yeah, sure
JB: We also passed out some xeroxes of drawings that are kinda like scores, and the Citizens Promoting a More Pleasurable Public zines we put in the library have first hand accounts of actions and events that I think function as scores because they are clear enough descriptions of performances that someone could read it and then do the thing.
JB: There is also that language piece that is kind of like a score–there is a general idea for how the piece is done based on conversations and past experiences. It’s been written down in different ways at different times, there are ideas how the piece is and it changes from one setting to the next. It turns out a lot differently depending on who’s participating and if it’s at someone’s house versus at an art gallery versus at city hall. It’s not like all performances should be performed multiple times or by different people, but those performances that are easily adaptable have an affinity with a movement like Occupy.
JB: I think we were talking earlier about open source culture on the internet, and how that relates to occupy. And, there’s been a lot of activist organizations or movements that have that umbrella system right, like the ELF, ALF, Anonymous, Bubble Fountain Internationale, and now Occupy
JB: People doing sort-of similar things under a single name, or using that name to add an agenda to an action that maybe would have otherwise not been explicitly political. It also opens it up for anybody to become a part of it–like if some idiot started jumping from penthouse corporate suites to “Occupy Space,” who could really discredit him as part of the movement? That’s actually not such a bad idea… But there’s the Occupy Tundra lady, Diane McEachern, and she is able to just bring it and be part of it where she is, regardless if there aren’t any politicians or people to pretend to listen.
JB: I love McEachern’s direct words, “I am a woman. The dogs are rescues. The tundra is outside of Bethel, Alaska. The day is chill. The sentiment is solid. Find your spot. Occupy it. Even if it is only your own mind.” This type of thinking seems so relevant to the movement now.
JB: Well, There still isn’t any real spokesperson or leader or easily identifiable face, thankfully, at least on a national level, so it really opens it up for participation of any kind from whoever identifies with it in whatever way. For better or for worse, but…
JB: And we’re still talking about scores?
JB: Yes, we are still talking about scores.
How do you feel the AAAAAA list (or other Occupy affinity groups) operate? What role do they play? What are the challenges or benefits of these groupings?
JB: Well it’s a place for sharing and discussing things, and for finding participation.
JB: But it’s also with focus, because you could also find all of those things at the occupation just as easily.
JB: Yeah, people that are familiar with a certain vocabulary and informed about a specific discourse.
JB: You could call it that.
JB: People that went to art school.
JB: That’s not necessarily true.
JB: One of the things about it is that there have only been about four meetings with the group as a whole, two in the beginning and the others more recently, and I only went to those first two and that was–
JB: There were four or three total
JB: Yeah, those were frustrating–
JB: I feel like we tried that and people who are interested in doing that will continue to do that, and there are other people are less interested in that but are still want to do other things with the group and they’ll continue to do those things. And, since they aren’t in opposition, both ways of interacting with the the network can coexist.
JB: I wouldn’t, at least based off those two meetings. 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 6A group works better as a loose affiliation, rather than a coherent whole.
JB: Anna said something good about that, “I’ve struggled somewhat with the idea of artists organizing in a way that’s overtly autonomous from the OLA infrastructure and/or in a group that’s too tightly packaged, because that makes it easier for the effort to be only about art concerns/careers rather than about the protest.”
JB: I also think there is something important about the 6A lists that involves people seeing a lot of their friends or people they’re familiar with doing things with the occupy movement–talking about it attending events, making art there–it all provides access points for people to enter it
JB: I wouldn’t say so much it works the other way around
JB: Like bringing activists into an art circle, but that’s just conjecture… does it?
JB: Probably not.
JB: Why is that?
JB: Maybe because it’s not directly affiliated with Occupy LA?
JB: If it was, there might be more of a chance of people not from an art background to become acquainted with contemporary models of practicing art directly engaging with politics. Though, I also understand why the 6A group isn’t an official committee.
JB: There are and were valid reasons.
JB: But that would have been one benefit–
JB: But a thing we were talking about earlier is that artists want their autonomy, so it made the consensus model an uncomfortable one to work with.
JB: Often artists want to do something, they have their mission and their vision, and sometimes it’s very hard to let go of that. With the consensus model you can keep the mission, but you better drop that vision real fast because everything that you want to see is not going to be the same exact thing 100 other people want to see, let alone come to consensus about. Most artists also like to receive credit for what they do, building up their cultural capital and art world cred in order to stake their place in a history that, like all other histories, is bound to be forgotten anyways.
JB: Even when I work with little kids in art class, and we are all making a project together, and we all finally agree on something to do. Then halfway through the project, one of the kids is like, “I want to put a mustache on it,” and the rest of the students says, “no way,” “what are you talking about?” and the kid says “but I really want to put a mustache on that. It needs it, it would be so good.” And then he has a meltdown. Sometimes I feel and see other artists and people in general feeling like that kid.
JB: Sometimes mustaches look good. And you could always shave them off, but I guess not the other way around…
JB: What? You could grow it back.
JB: Well definitely with all the support after getting arrested, that’s the time I felt the most part of the group.
JB: Yeah, that’s definitely when the group functioned most as a support network, like what I’d expect the legal committee of an Occupy group to do–I guess they (Occupy LA) didn’t really even have much of a legal committee, they were proposing the formation of a new one at a GA meeting I went to a week ago–so they really didn’t provide much support.
JB: I think this also brings up a large question about what is a manageable-sized support network. When something gets too big things are going to get missed, it’s nobody’s fault stuff just slips by, it goes under the radar. I think that is one of the big problems in our government and also with large corporations. So many people got arrested, the OLA infrastructure wasn’t prepared and they were overwhelmed and that’s why it was good having a group like the 6A group that could do that, to raise bail for us.
JB: Yeah, it’s like a group of friends would do.
JB: Well it is what a group of friends did.
JB: And I think that some of the people who had complaints about it maybe didn’t understand that it was a group of friends helping each other.
JB: But I could see how people would be upset if they see a group of people, artists already having separated themselves from the broader movement, a separate group, having a fundraiser for themselves at a place where public events are held, and it’s advertised on facebook. Also, in terms of demographics, I think that, compared to Occupy LA, the 6A group is predominantly white.
JB: I don’t even have a facebook.
JB: Oh yeah, We should talk about that.
JB: Cause I feel like the majority of the AAAAAA discourse is on facebook.
JB: I guess that’s kinda why I feel like I’m kinda an outsider on the 6A group too.
JB: That’s ruff. I don’t think it’s good that people feel alienated from our group.
JB: Whatever, well I posted one thing to it.
JB: How did it make you feel? Dirty?
JB: Well nobody responded to it.
JB: Well one person.
JB: Oh yeah, Louie.
JB: Let’s not include this.
JB: I think it’s important to talk about because the group is so dependent on this one system for discussion. In some cases it’s great, but it’s also highly flawed.
JB: It’s also flawed at a level of security culture–if people were trying to do serious arrestable actions, they certainly couldn’t use the 6A group to coordinate that. Or in your case, if you’ve done something that lead to an arrest, bam!, everybody knows your ass was just in jail. Which is good because you get support, but then you get your family or employers knowing about that. Not good for living double lives, which is extremely important to me. Sure, if I had facebook I would be privy to more forms of discourse, but I could say that about facebook in general. And, well, there are people that don’t have email too, let alone facebook and they wouldn’t be part of it at all except for those few meetings.
JB: Who doesn’t have email?
JB: If there was no internet would any 6As really ever exist?
JB: Probably not? How ’bout that.
JB: Or if it did, it would have to be much more formalized. The internet allows for a kinda a gassidarity, like what we were talking about open source movements. But the 6A group doesn’t really have a platform except that it came about in response to Occupy, so the internet is the glue and now is an important time to be exploring how we can use these tools and see what can come out of it.
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?
JB: Okay, Horizontality!
JB: Alright, you want to read this one?
JB: Okay, there has been a criticism of Occupy’s horizontalism.
JB: polyfoney, pollifauny
JB: What does that mean?
JB: It’s like, multiple foneys.
JB: Oh. Okay.
JB: multiple voices
JB: Let’s double check.
JB: Pu-lifony…po·lyph·o·ny, pl. po·lyph·o·nies. Music with two or more independent melodic parts sounded together.
JB: (Finish question… )
JB: Okay, I think you hear that criticism coming the most from the mainstream media because it’s driving them crazy. They can latch on to the catch-phrases like the 99% or whatever or the vague idea of economic critique but they’re not even really addressing that so much, as just sort of… I think much of what the mainstream media is doing is using that to kinda make it into a kinda wingnutty thing which, actually because it is so polyphonous, there are elements of that sort of dome conspiracy theory shit, which is totally regressive. Um, a but, I think within that though, ahh, I think it’s a good thing, in some ways. By not issuing demands you don’t have a specific platform so that a multitude of people can latch onto it that are either moderate or just crazy too. You can project yourself…
JB: –into whatever this thing is, the critique of our current economic situation and all that surrounds that. But also, like the person at the GA said when she was quoting David Graeber, and lots of people have said it. “by not issuing demands you’re not recognizing the authority.” But then there are people that are issuing demands and that are working with the city and are total reformists.
JB: Right, Democrats, as Vlad would say.
JB: Right, people that think that we can go to the people that fucked everything up in order to fix it. But there is a place for everybody, and there is a place for those people, as long as they are a part of a whole rather than commandeering for political agendas a movement that potentially transcends the norm of US partisan politics. I have to say though, hearing all the initial praise and cooperation of some of the Occupiers with the LAPD and City Hall really made me have serious doubts, but I realized these people, again, are part rather than the whole of this. I also figured that the LAPD and the city were only going to be buddy-buddy for so long, and those people would end up looking like their lackeys once the authority showed itself. But, as we said, and what is really commendable about the whole thing, is that there is a place for everybody that feels that the playing field is far from level, for lack of a better description at the moment.
JB: There is, and I appreciate that. Both how people are working in that way and that there is space in this movement for so many diverse ways of working.
JB: I’m totally into trying to fix the dominant system before we burn it down. Cause, who knows? The kindling might go out before the whole thing ignites.
JB: Yeah, they got their thing. It’s certainly better then bombing children. There are worse things that they could be doing.
JB: There have definitely been times when I’ve been in a committee meeting when a drunk guy comes over and just start shouting over everybody about unrelated issues then what the committee is talking about. Then he gets on stack and everybody gives this comrade a chance to speak and they go on and on about more unrelated issues that may be interesting but are totally unrelated and everybody tells them to wrap it up and he keeps going and we all have to mic check him to get through the meeting. It’s super frustrating but
JB: But, sometimes that guy…
JB: He says good things.
JB: Yeah, the guy that kept saying, “We are surrounded by assholes!”
JB: Yeah. and he has great things to say. He is a total globalist, which is great. He swept the park everyday–that sidewalk had probably never been so clean.
JB: Yeah, so he deserved that mic check, as does everybody.
JB: Yeah. Oh no, I meant we all mic checked over him because the group basically came to consensus that he wasn’t contributing and to continue the conversation we mic checked over him till he shut up. That is frustrating. But when it does work, when there is a huge GA, hundreds of people, and we all come to consensus–when it works like that it feels sooo good! That much energy behind an idea is spiritually moving for me. Or when as a group we are looking at a document, and an individual steps forward and says that they block the document. Then they give a specific part they have a problem with and make a proposal for how to change it. And after discussing it everybody is like, Oh yeah. That is better. That does make more sense. That’s so wonderful to see that kind of collective energy. That so many people are working within the assembly to contribute and have their voice be hear. I’m continually blown away and inspired by that. To me it’s worth the times that you have to wait through the drunk guy.
JB: And like I said, sometimes he has good things to say.
JB: It’s definitely an ambitious decision-making process to work around. I think I’m not sure if other people, um, er I don’t think its been given credit as much as its been critiqued to shit because everybody is so caught up in the snap, snap, snap. They don’t want to have to think about things for long. People aren’t used to really sitting down and talking through things intensely, giving everybody a chance for their opinion to be heard. We’re used to either doing what someone tell us to do, or to just do what we want–synthesizing those things to come to a decision for “us” rather than “you” or “me” takes so much more time and energy.
JB: That’s our culture in general really.
JB: I mean shit happens so fast. So, you can’t, people are… it’s hard to keep up with. I guess perseverence has to be to behind a mass consensus model like that. Um, because if it’s not there it’s, not going to happen.
JB: And I think it’s important because there is such a lack of a space for people to participate in our government right now. You know?
JB: Mmhmm. Or none at all. But if there was space to participate, I wouldn’t want to . When has the government really given fair representation for all? Even if I was participating, somebody else is still getting shat on and left in the dust because “representation” by nature is exclusionary. That’s why we need to look to ourselves for representation and action, not putting hope in others for ourselves.
JB: We have so little agency within that system that this model that does offer us a way to get shit done that we want to get done within this large social project, that is really powerful.
JB: It’s a clear example of direct action. We don’t believe that the people that represent us at the various levels of government– our interests are not their priority. So instead of continuing to put faith in them, we represent ourselves in our own movements and daily actions and attitudes towards each other.
What are your own hopes for the Occupy movement?
JB: I don’t know, the word hope is so loaded these days.
JB: But um,
JB: Well it’s “hopes” not “hope.”
JB: Yeah, I think, ahhh well, I hope that… guess it’s going to get optimistic up in here.
JB: Let’s just get (inaudible)
JB: Naw na na, let’s get beyond that.
JB: Aawww yeah, ice cream.
JB: I hope that we don’t even need banks, just turn the banks into some other thing, like museums to commemorate the fall of financial tyranny. Turn the credit unions into some other shit. We don’t have to use money anymore. We don’t have to have jobs. We’ll just ahh
JB: Just chill.
JB: Just chill on the beach.
JB: on the beach
JB: and ah.. we’ll do our own thing well all have to pitch in. We’ll all have to do the dirty jobs, but we’ll all pitch in.
JB: What could that support network look like now?
JB: Well there are a bunch of ideas, like time-banking. But that still has a problem about the quantification of labor… I mean, how do you get past money?
JB: Yeah, I don’t know, go to the beach?
JB: Yeah, but I don’t want to go the beach tonight, it’s cold and rainy.
“hopes for…” take two
JB: Ok, ummm hopes.
JB: Okay, so I feel torn between two ways different ways of answering this question, one is for moving to a place where we don’t need money anymore.
JB: Ahh a Utopian answer.
JB: Yeah, like one of the demands, I don’t know if it’s from Wall St. or LA, is to turn all undeveloped property into land for public use, which…
JB: Er, yeah, and why stop there
JB: Yeah, let’s look at those demands
JB: But okay,
JB: This it?
JB: Yeah, good enough.
JB: Hmmm, free college education, I hope for that one.
JB: One trillion dollars for infrastructure? Seems like not enough.
JB: Across the board debt forgiveness.
JB: Yeah, across the board debt forgiveness for all, Oh boy, that’s sweet.
JB: That’s going to be a tough one.
JB: No, that’s not happening.
JB: Right so that’s one way of answering that question, but through the immediate future I’d like to see the movement continue to grow to include even broader populations, because our strength lies in our numbers. So I hope that we keep welcoming everyone into our movement, and that we don’t get paralyzed by over-critiquing each other. That we continue to encourage participation and not shut it down.
JB: Yeah, I think consistently welcoming everyone into the movement is vital, even if we are in some ways ourselves outsiders. Whether it’s at a dinner table, on a bus–or like I made a point to have discussions with the police that arrested me at the raid about how the “economic crisis” had affected them and explaining that that was part of what we were protesting. They talked about things like how their pensions and overtime had been cut — Many of them were extremely receptive and in some cases even appreciative to what we were doing. I go back and forth about what role the cops have in this thing but I use it as an example as to how I’d like to see us interacting with people that feel they are outside of the movement.
JB: Or, I was talking to one person who was always afraid to answer the phone cause it would usually be someone calling about how he owed money. But the for the last two months he had been excited to talk to the bill collection agencies because he would just talk with the caller about how he had been going down to the occupation, about how messed up everybody’s situation is, and about predatory lending and other things the banks did that fucked us all over and all the other Occupy stuff. He seemed to be totally empowered by the whole thing. I hope that there remains to be a vast spectrum of ways in which people participate that are useful for them.
JB: The 99% tumblr is another good example of a very clearly intentional way people participate that doesn’t require a large amount of time or commitment.
JB: There are also realistic things is I can see happening like the amendment regarding corporate personhood getting overturned. And the city of Los Angeles coming out and supporting it getting overturned is one of the clear example that we are putting pressure on our governing bodies and I hope that pressure will escalate and other reform like that will happen. I think that stuff is totally doable but…
JB: Yeah, but that’s just reform to a completely fucked system. I think we really need much more than things like that. Until competition and accumulation of capital isn’t at the forefront of how countries and economies function, we won’t see big issues truly resolved–like climate change or poverty. Hyper-corporate capitalism holds only the short-term dear, and what follows is for the next bunch of competitors to sort through. We really need an attitude shift, stop being so selfish, and I’m not sure, but I hope Occupy can tackle that–we need to move past the idea of scarcity and start to provide for each other whenever or however we can, start production that doesn’t just end with consumption; production generating production. Does it mean expropriation? Or just reallocation of resources? I don’t know, but our current approach to the idea of property is leaving billions in the cold, or the heat. I think we need support networks not operating on the basis of profit that will supersede those offered by the dominant system–and we’re already seeing them, but not enough. How does that happen on such a large scale? Participation from all, but also people who can provide specialties, like healthcare or construction. That’s the hard part.
JB: But we’re going to be hoping.
JB: Hoping. Always hoping.
JB: Hope usually means that it’s not going to happen.
JB: Ahh ha, I don’t know about that.
JB: Um ahh what’s his name? But that’s something that ahh ahh, that guy that people think are smart?
JB: No, that funny lookin’ philosopher guy um, it doesn’t matter. He said…
JB: Yeah, he spoke at Liberty Park and was like this is sweet, what you are all doing is super great, but ahh um, in the next few decades due to global climate change huge sections of Africa are going to get so hot that there will need to evacuate entire populations and the big question is how do we do what you’re talking about, create these support networks that can support communities, but then also be able to do that on a global scale without people in power manipulating the situation for their exclusive benefit and control?
JB: Well I think a big problem is not so much money as scarcity; the idea that there is not enough to go around. But, there probably is enough, or there could be if we changed what it was we produced and the way we value goods.
JB: What else am I hopeful for? Oh, I hope that it doesn’t get co-opted by the Democrats.
JB: Urban Outfitters
JB: But that can, I mean maybe it’s or it can be argued that that is a good thing. But, I would hope that it …
JB: That it doesn’t capitulate?
JB: I think that capitulate is a good word because it’s like it doesn’t lose it’s potency.
JB: Mhmm, yeah
JB: Cause it’s like, sure, it’s great if the Democrats pick it up but I don’t want it to become…
JB: Yeah, I don’t want the demands to become really actually what a politicians or political decision makers could view as a realistic list of demands.
JB: You want debt forgiveness for all to be on the list.
JB: Exactly! Because, if you set back your demands for what’s achievable there will be nowhere further to strive once those demand are met. So fuck demands. By keeping our goals “unrealistic” over time, it keeps people stretching further and further what could be realistic.
JB: I think this is also gets into the larger discussions around what is the role of a radical social movement like this one is. Is it is more effective as a resistance or revolution.
JB: Tell us more, John
JB: There is a great interview with Chris Hedges speaking at Wall St. and he pointed out that in this country, the social movements are considered successful — the ones that brought about widespread change like the Civil Rights Movement, the Suffrage Movement, the Labor Movement never actually came to power. They never actually came to be in the dominant position in the government, and there is value in that because once you take power it forces you to give u your ideals, your demands for justice — you have to compromise, and really none of us want that…
JB: Um, and maybe now that the different occupations have been dispersed, a diversity of tactics have gained attention.
JB: At the last GA we attended there were lots of conversations around flashmobs …
JB: Yeah, that was a great one to attend. The conversation about direct action, people recognize a problem and try to do something about it. Either fix it or bring attention to it. Things like filling a pothole on your street with bright green cement because you know the city isn’t going to do shit.
JB: So yeah, new tactics emerging or, or you know, what seemed more logical to me from the start is occupying foreclosed houses, is starting to happen. And claiming them for people that are evicted. That’s starting to catch on because that directly addresses the issue. That takes it straight to the actual site.
JB: Yeah, that the port shut down, and the occupation of the old Rampart police station…
JB: Those sounded great, I didn’t go to them though.
JB: Yeah, I think that is really great that so many actions are happening and I hope that there will be lots more of that. And I feel like in some ways that the fleeting moment we are in is a bit of the party is over, time to go back to work.
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.
Photo courtesy Glenn Primm, 2011.
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.