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Occupy LAAAAAA: Artists in Solidarity (Nancy Popp edition)

Performative reading of Judith Butler's talk "Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street" with Nancy Popp, Mathew Timmons, Anna Mayer, and other occupiers. October 2011.

Performative reading of Judith Butler's talk "Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street" with Nancy Popp, Mathew Timmons, Anna Mayer, and other occupiers. October 2011.

Today I’m pleased to be highlighting Nancy Popp, a Los Angeles-based artist who has been part of both the New York and LA Occupations. Nancy has been so involved in recent events in both cities, that her interview was written over several weeks. The normal text portions were originally written on November 7th, and the italicized additons were made on November 26th, once she had returned from New York. In the meantime, coordinated evictions from occupied public space have begun in cities across the nation, instances of police brutality have multiplied, and the Occupy movement faces a crossroads. Nancy draws upon her experience as an activist as well as her years of working and intervening in public space to weigh in on where Occupy has been, where it might go, and what needs to happen next.

What are you making/interested in making with regards to Occupy LA & the Occupy movement in general? Why?

NP: I’m interested in performative actions that create a ripple effect in the minds and bodies of those who experience them or participate in them. Public space and social context have been part of my work for over 10 years now; I tend to create interventionist gestures that are simple, but expand into multiple challenges to established structures or hierarchies by the way they take up or occupy public space. So the work functions as a singularly-bodied occupation of multiple sites, of myself and of the space and context being occupied.

Actions like these and their resonance can create connections between people, give them pause to question and think about their own roles, and encourage them to explore their own actions and gestures.
That moment of pause and resonance is so important; it’s the spark that allows the imagination to alight. If doesn’t always catch, and you can’t control it or foresee all the results, but that spark is so important to generate in another person…how that person responds is up to them.

Some examples of concrete actions: a performative reading of Judith Butler‘s amazing talk “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street” with Mathew Timmons, Anna Mayer, and two other occupiers; singing protest songs with Emily Lacy; a roving choir of Mathew Timmons, Sean Gall, Jordan Biren and others asking for Radical Proposals courtesy of Rosten Woo; posting the names of LAPD police brutality victims at the Oakland Solidarity protest with Adam Vuiitton, Ken Ehrlich and Sean Gall. I also have been wanting to manifest a previously-published Hammock intervention around the city, highlighting those structures as sites of occupation, identifying them as such.

We have an opportunity to bring ideas to a space to be rigorously played with. The more collective intelligence and creative problem solving we can generate, the greater the potential to discover strategies that work to challenge the systems we’re entrenched in. Whatever energy we put into this kind of creative imagining will manifest the strategies that will lead us to where we want to go. We’re generating the solutions through the struggle to find them.

Mostly, I’m interested in dialogue. To this end, a group of about five 6A‘ers got together and put out a reader to foster a dialogue that can travel through space, time and history. We asked other 6A’ers to contribute texts of any kind that were inspirational to or inspired by Occupy LA. We have nearly 100 pages of critical essays, speeches, poems, essays, experimental prose, performance scores and dialogue that resulted from the first round. We’re currently working on creating smaller PDF volumes to be distributed online, hopefully in conjunction with texts from other Occupations around the world. OccuPrint and the Occupennial are two possible venues which also showcase some remarkable work.

Draft one of the Occupy LA Reader can be downloaded here: ola-reader-full

I’m also interested in connections. I heard Gloria Steinem in conversation with Mona Eltahaway recently at the Hammer Museum; Steinem expanded on the oft-quoted Mies van der Rohe phrase “God is in the details” by reminding us “The Goddess is in connections.” Connections are powerful motivators and instigators. Part of what is driving this swell of occupations is making those connections in a society that fosters disconnection and compartmentalization. Another connection — Eltahaway’s recent physical and sexual assault at the hands of the riot police in Tahrir Square during the continued revolution in Egypt. This connects so many things for me in light of my recent experiences in New York- police brutality, patriarchal dominance in the public sphere, and the use of violence as a degenerative tool by unjust powers that will erode them from within. I also have a friend, a poet in Cairo in the movement there who I’m regularly in touch with; I think of her and that connection often and strive to make it visible here in the Occupation.

What role do you feel you/your work plays in interfacing with the protest? What role would you like it to play?

NP: Occupations are as much generative spaces where possibilities can be explored as they are protests. Of course this also means conflict will arise and conflicting methods/goals/agendas will collide against each other. This is totally to be expected and the energy generated from these conflicts can fuel the exploration towards broader understandings and solutions- but there needs to be something directing the energy in towards that, otherwise it will become destructive.

I see many actions being created as both responding to that energy and helping direct it towards generative solutions, rather than getting bogged down in destructive conflict; that’s the role I would want to see any action play. That and draw people to occupy, whether it’s a physical site or their own sphere, help create a space where people want to be, where they are seen, where there is respect for difference and otherness.

I also see artists as having had a lot of practice dealing with conflict and disappointment in persevering to create work and sustain a practice — whatever that means for each one of us. In that way, problems don’t deter us so easily. We keep trying to find a way to access and create what we need.

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?

NP: Scores can be shared, re-inerpreted, distributed. It’s a way to say to someone else, OK — now you try it. Make it for yourself. Make yourself. It’s a communal form of creating.

The scores I included in the Occupy LA Reader were written for Robby Herbst‘s Llano Del Rio Guide “Scores for the City” at his request. They were ideas I had for actions that I wrote in directive language; I tried to imagine others enacting what I wanted to do, and describe what would translate between me and another through the action.

Scores seem natural allies for occupying. Each iteration is different, unpredictable- and that’s part of it’s strength. This is very similar to the Occupations springing up around the country — each is unique and manifests unique strengths and flaws.

How do you feel the AAAAAA list is operating? What role is it playing? What are the challenges or benefits of this loose grouping?

NP: The operating of this group is constantly shifting and in flux. When Robby Herbst, Mathew Timmons and I met up on the first day of the Occupation, we hoped to gather a group of folks who would be interested in participating in creating actions and interventions alongside and interconnected to the Occupation. We weren’t sure who would show up or what would come out of it, but we knew there was a unique opportunity for dialogue and collaboration occurring and wanted to jump into that possibility.

We originally had a few large meetings; from there, folks got connected and inspired to create their own actions. It’s since manifesting a series of small groups who participate in realizing each others ideas; then the focus shifts to another idea or action and folks re-align.

6A functions really differently from other similar groupings I’ve seen in New York in that it’s not an ‘official’ sub-committee of the Occupation. I’m not sure what role it’s playing except to organize actions/projects/events/discussions outside of the formal structure of the Occupation — although many folks have participated in that formal structure; in most cases they felt it best to continue to create outside of it so as not to be limited to it.

There seems to be a need for both large group affiliation — for connectivity and broadening- and small groups- for facility, inspiration, spontaneity, intimacy. I echo Matias’s comments in that I would find it impossible to navigate this web of events and connections without social media. It completely shapes, creates, and makes much of this dialogue and connection possible. At the same time, the flood of information is so great that even with social networking, I can barely keep up. My concern at this point of a shift in the physical structure of the Occupation is that we won’t be bound tightly enough to continue operating in tandem or solidarity. We need to strengthen our conceptual/physical ties to one another to continue to retain the power that comes from numbers.

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?

NP: It’s important to notice who’s doing the critiquing and what their position is, what they want or expect. I love Adam Overton/Guru Rugu’s “Answers are not the answer!” Each answer becomes obsolete in time anyway. Believe me, I’ve felt this frustration myself! It’s hard to work in an unformed space and not expect- even push- for something to form! I think we’re fighting against the system of powerlessness manifesting within ourselves when we struggle with this ‘lack of clarity and goals’ question. I’ve seen some remarkable clarity manifest! And then it dissipates and you have to create anew.

I want to see more polyphony! There are huge issues of hetero-normativiy, gender polarities, mono-racial and -cultural dominance and a lack of transparency both here and in New York.

The goals critique is a bogus issue created by media and current power structures who don’t want to be confronted and outed. Naomi Klein’s recent piece for the Guardian, while melodramatic in tone, includes some very rigorous analysis of why the Occupy movement is so threatening to the status quo and our government.

What are your own hopes for the Occupy movement?

Here are a few ideas:

-Remain generative, with a level of spontaneity that allows it to be sharp, intelligent and responsive

-Continue long past our truncated, amnesiac election cycles and develop an active, aware, engaged body or populace that engenders engagement

-Become inclusive of difference-of race, ethnicity, gender, class, education and economics

-Seek justice as opposed to power

-Expand in unforeseen, creative ways and find allies in unlikely spaces

And, at this timely juncture, find a way to sustain our connections, collectivity and action — through temporary centralized physical sites, or by reconstructing the relationship to the occupation of physical public spaces.

As someone who has spent time in several Occupy sites across the country, how would you compare them?

My experiences are in New York and Los Angeles, and soon, Buenos Aires.

I haven’t been as compelled to participate in the organizing bodies of the Occupation here in LA; in New York I found those bodies totally compelling and interesting, and so I was more participatory there. The dialogue was rigorous; participants had a higher degree of skill in facilitating and negotiating in groups. At the same time, there were similar problems in the consensus process that I’ve seen here in LA. There have been issues of transparency and self-appointed leaders operating in cooperation with the city government and LAPD without the GA’s knowledge, as well as incidents of racial discrimination and intimidation; these issues have been a part of Occupy LA from the start.

There is also much broader support for Occupy Wall Street amongst local unions and organized labor, churches, and community centers; many meetings I attended were in labor union offices. The day of the raid a large number of clergy came out to support the movement and offer an alternative site to occupy. This has been a major hurdle here in LA, both politically and geographically — contacting and developing allies to create a broader social support for the Occupation.

There’s an emphasis in Los Angeles on social practices and the physical Occupation site as a space of investigation and exploration that is uniquely suited to the psycho-geography of this city. I didn’t see that in New York; there the actions by artists are much more concrete in the sense that they are modeled on previous forms of action/protest, or information-disseminating, or materially-based forms (film making, design, drawing). I met many of the artists organizing in OWS; to me they seemed like a series of guilds, highly productive and structured. Here in the west, there’s much more space, all is looser in terms of identification and definition. This has relative strengths and weaknesses, and influences how we operate and associate in so fluid a manner.

I’m excited given the history of activism and protest in Buenos Aires what I may find there. From what I’ve been able to ascertain it’s not a large movement, and there may be some skepticism about how serious we are in the U.S. given Argentina’s very deep history of political dictatorship, injustice and brutality … but I am looking forward to learning as much as I can.

The contestation of space (and particularly public space) has been brought to a head in encampments around the country. What are your thoughts on this, and how do you think the Occupy movement should respond?

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal since the Liberty Park evictions and witnessing the responses in NYC last week.
The occupation of public space is very powerful and, although in some ways symbolic, represents a real threat to the control of society and enforced codes of power. Otherwise there wouldn’t be such a strong response to evict the occupations from their physical sites. It’s paramount to strategize a way to continue to occupy public spaces.

An interesting development was the planning and strategizing for OWS has moved from Liberty Park to a privately-owned public space on Wall Street; most sub-committee meetings happen there, it functions as a nerve center for the organizing of the occupation. When Liberty Park was raided that space was shut down simultaneously. The separation raises questions about hierarchies of organizing but also shows that the physical site of occupation is a part of a larger organizing body. My sense is both are needed.

However, a single site is too precarious, and can become too much a point of contention rather than a placeholder. Ideally, multiple sites are the most effective, and require a tremendous amount of energy to seize and retain. Although I’m not sure this is the best use of the energy and resources we currently possess, I envision temporary pop-up occupations in numerous sites in the same city to be an effective gesture to occupy and hold space. The question of how temporary sites could meet the basic needs of those who live in them would be an important one to address.

A recent article about the codification of public space by Anna B. Scott lays bare the tangled mess we’ve wrought through re-development and arts funding.

Although each Occupation will have to solve this issue as it relates to their site, networking across Occupations is incredibly important, to build a larger community and learn from each other.