FOR THE PAST THREE MONTHS New York intellectuals have been climbing all over themselves to get a piece of Occupy Wall Street. Finally we can trade in all this thinking for doing, symbolic action for acting in the real world. Now is the moment to put that pet theorist into practice—Rancière or Agamben or Negri, the whole motherfucking Frankfurt School.
The weekend of December 17 revolved around an action that gave the art world an unusually central role: D17 Reoccupy, a call for an occupation of Duarte Square. Most of the site is used by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for its LentSpace exhibitions, and OWS has made it a target. The activities of the General Assembly’s Arts and Culture committee notwithstanding, the status machine of the art world has not yet been dismantled; if this column is covering political rallies, that means the operations of cultural capital have probably only been transposed into a strange new mode (in writing this piece, clearly, the author may be argued to be benefiting from them himself). Thus, LMCC was considered susceptible to pressure from within the arts community. A petition circulated; hundreds of New York artists, writers, etc., signed; but the document’s December 14 deadline for action passed, and LMCC did not budge.
The lead-up to D17 was quickened by the publication of two magazine articles: Yates McKee’s meticulous 3,200 words in The Nation elaborating the various OWS involvements of the art world and Time magazine’s announcement that their 2011 Person of the Year is “The Protester.” The former text is animated by a cataloguing impulse, and carries the bonus that, if you’ve taken part in pretty much any action in recent months, you can read the piece and feel personally validated. You could feel validated by Time too, though really only if you have megalomaniacal tendencies, or if you are one of the people actually mentioned in Kurt Andersen’s write-up, for example nascently famous anthropologist and author of Debt, David Graeber, and Greek-born artist Georgia Sagri, both cited for key roles in the early days of Zuccotti Park.
The Time package also includes a photographic portfolio of the figure at the heart of Athens’s Syntagma Square protests, Loukanikos. The only individual in an entire global movement that we can safely single out is a stray dog.
With Saturday’s D17 as a focal point, coincidental or otherwise, numerous other events were scheduled for the weekend as well. Some highlights:
Storefront for Art and Architecture launches a one-week, workshop-intensive exhibition called “Strategies for Public Occupation.” Up the street and around the corner, Anthology Film Archives kicks off a weeklong screening series, “Anarchism on Film,” with Lizzie Borden’s 1983 matriarchist revolutionary futurist tract Born in Flames on opening night.
In Dumbo, n+1 magazine and Verso books hold a launch party for Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America, which compiles the first two issues of the Occupy Gazette, published as a broadsheet and pdf by n+1 over the past few months. At the launch, perhaps two hundred people enjoy a view of the Manhattan Bridge so explicit as to be practically sexual. A laptop DJ plays 1980s and ’90s tunes that sound familiar but I can’t quite name, except for one by De La Soul. A video projection presents a loop of Zuccotti footage, which doesn’t seem that long. Every time I look up I seem to see Jem Cohen’s name on the wall.
Occupy!’s editors have been amply engaged in the cause, and profits go to OWS. But the slopes of marketing are slippery: The volume is plugged with the tagline “The first book to cover the Occupy movement,” and on the Verso blog the title is accompanied by a few unfortunately headlined posts; “Keith Gessen describes his arrest, and the lack of bathrooms in jail” taints what is, in fact, a highly self-aware piece by Gessen in the New Yorker. Such promotion, given that it surrounds the people who a year ago brought us What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation, gives Occupy! the air of a flag planted on virgin terrain. And like a premature major-museum retrospective, such a work threatens to mummify its subject, especially now that Zuccotti itself is dead.
On the other hand: “We should use celebrity status as a resource that gets coupled with a strategic objective.” So argues an author in the zine Tidal, launched this month, which I read on the subway ride to Duarte Square. Tagged “Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy” and printed on tissue-thin newsprint (also available for download), it features a gleeful hodgepodge of contributors; Judith Butler (also a contributor to Occupy!) and Gayatri Spivak share the table of contents with ND (author of the aforementioned “On Celebrities”), Suzahn E. (“An Occupier’s Note”), Rira (“Matrix as the Core Element”), and several poets, one of whom is identified as a fourteen-year-old. The slant is horizontalist, anarchistic, largely indifferent both to reality and to the use of full names. By the time I reach Canal Street several pages have detached from the stapled binding.
At Duarte Square, the light police presence is vaguely insulting. A chain-link fence about ten feet tall has gone up around the lot in question; beyond it is plywood about six feet high half-covered with a band of blue and silver metal discs, à la old signage—a still-installed LMCC commission from 2009 by the design firm Thumb. A barely intelligible and not very loud (noise ordinances?) PA speaker placed on the ground plays WBAI’s in-studio concert set, headlined by Dean and Britta, Titus Andronicus, and Lou Reed.
The afternoon drags on; the crowd’s numbers reach the mid-hundreds. I see X, Y, and Z young artists, a couple of other acquaintances, and Tony Conrad. Other notables: David Graeber (I think), the hipster cop, that guy who wears the Civil War cap briefly famous for having his interview with Fox News squelched for sounding too smart.
The attempt to reoccupy the park turns out to be entirely symbolic. After a brief fake-out march up along Sixth Avenue, protesters climb sturdy-looking homemade ladders, then submit mostly peaceably to arrest. As the cuffing commences, however, demonstrators begin to peel the chain-link off the ground and shake the fence. It could probably come down but something militates against it—the small but determined-looking contingent of riot cops, collective judgment. Within the movement, the violence/nonviolence argument remains perpetual. Police arrest a few credentialed members of the press. By day’s end, after an unpermitted march up to Times Square, which looks pretty fun on UStream, the day’s arrest total stands around fifty.
Today’s subway reading: the Sunday Times. Vaclav Havel is dead. “A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent,’ ” he wrote in 1978. “It was born at a time when this system, for a thousand reasons, can no longer base itself on the unadulterated, brutal, and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity. What is more, the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures.”
To mark International Migrants Day, a march takes place from Foley Square to Zuccotti Park. (Unsurprisingly, Googling this event turns up a lot more results for right-wing blogs than do the weekend’s other activities.) At 2 PM, artist Tania Bruguera reads the Migrant Manifesto she developed collaboratively at a two-day conference in Corona, Queens; parallel activities take place in locations ranging from Birmingham, Alabama, to Yokohama.
The New School hosts the Occupy! Gazette’s hastily arranged conference (“Sorry for the short notice”) Occupy Onwards, an afternoon of panels interspersed with check-ins from OWS groups. The audience arrays itself in rows facing experts behind a folding table. Panel one takes up the subject of the financial system, and in the end it has a microcosmic quality. The discussants come to rather sharp disagreements, essentially over the insoluble question of reform versus revolution, “touching faith in government” versus “touching faith in nonstate modes of organization” as two antagonists put it. During the Q&A, a young person goes down the line telling each panelist how he or she is wrong on exactly one specific point. The last of these corrections he prefaces with, “As someone who has been beaten by the police, and who has been arrested . . .” How these experiences bolster his analysis of fiscal policy is unclear.
While Occupy Onwards goes on, activists gather at 9 AM at Pace University for the all-day Occupation UnConference, organized by Pace and Netroots New York. The setup is for numerous brief small-group sessions and, in the afternoon, a large, hours-long assembly explicitly intended, like the n+1-affiliated event, to address the movement’s future. From the registration-table get-go, the UnConference is Zuccotti-ish in its mixed-up composition, energy, and flailing self-organization. I do not declare myself as a journalist, and as the sessions are open to the general public but not necessarily to the press, what I witness there I keep to myself, aside from one bit of intelligence that I hope is untraitorous to report: The chairs there are arranged in circles, not in rows.