From the Voice of the People to the People of the Voice

 

Occupy LA at City Hall. Photo: Carol Cheh.

Now that several weeks have passed since the forced closure of Occupy LA’s site at Los Angeles City Hall, I’ve been thinking of various theoretical frameworks to talk about what happened there, and especially the part artists played in it. Time creates a different perspective. The rush of events and above all, sounds—the talking, the shouting, the chanting—have died down into a haunting silence. I especially heard this silence the last two times I walked near the now barricaded, DMZ-style site. Talking and silence played their various roles during the occupation, and strangely still resonate. The protesters’ phrases and demands have echoed around the globe, and though the silence that once surrounded the constellation of issues they addressed has receded from sight, the ghost of silence never disappears.

The physicality of City Hall made Occupy LA resonate differently from Occupy Wall Street. The building’s iconic 1920’s streamlined classicism radiates a certain kind of utopian civic spirit. It has both grandeur and human scale. For 35 years the tallest building in Los Angeles, the panopticonic tower disappears from sight when you are beside the building. The Occupy encampments snuggled around it on the east and west sides (sometimes known as the political and party sides), while the mostly unoccupied north side entrance often served as a stage for performances. With its promise of justice and civic action alongside its embodiment of power and wealth, it was a vital alternate to the ubiquitous image of Wall Street beamed around the world.

Strategies vs. Tactics

This municipal space got used in a way that playgrounds often are used. While the official architectonics are essentially strategies to get kids to play—in certain ways, within defined constraints, often around a discourse of public safety—the participants of OLA deployed tactics to engage in forms of discursive play, much like bratty kids play on railings, walls, and fences that are actually meant to constrain them. Skateboarders are a vivid example of this, using benches and ledges as ramps for acrobatics.

The play between tactics and strategies was first defined by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life. He links strategies with institutions and structures of power, which he calls the “producers,” while individuals are “consumers,” acting in environments defined by strategies by using tactics. In the oft-cited chapter “Walking in the City,” de Certeau asserts that the city is generated by the strategies of governments, corporations, and other institutional bodies who produce things like maps that describe the city as a unified whole.

Occupy LA pumpkin patch. Courtesy of ART BLOC LA.

In lively contrast to this were the ever-changing maps that the OLA check-in tent kept posting to guide visitors to the confederation of groups, events, agencies, and other parties bound together in the occupation. OLA was a kind of bazaar at the gates of power whose vitality endowed it with a new form of power, a discursive and carnivalesque power; it was a miniature city that overwhelmed the administrative center of the greater city around it. In that sense it remapped the metropolis into a federation of interests, all representing varied, sometimes competing, but mostly compatible positions, with an open stage for artists—a stage hardly available on any national, regional or even local public forum. The artists could be heard and seen.

It is in fact hard to distinguish between protestor and artist and doing so does not appeal to me. The art tactics adapted by protestors date from the movements of the 1960s, reaching an apotheosis with ACT UP and the anti-nuclear protests in the 1980s, and re-emerging at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. The party-protest aesthetic current today was honed by the Burning Man events from the 90s into the present. Many OLA sites such as the pumpkin patch of banksters and rogue politicians are in this vein, most of them by artist-protestors whose names I never learned.

The group of artists that continues to interest me includes ARLA (Vera Brunner-Sung, Elana Mann, Kristin Smiarowski, Julianna Snapper), Owen Driggs, John Burtle, Dorit Cypis, Robby Herbst, Emily Lacy, Anna Mayer, Nancy Popp, Christy Roberts, Adam Overton, and Mathew Timmons, among others. Many of us were connected via the Facebook group variously called ART BLOC LA or the AAAAAA list, which continues to host a spirited conversation on a set of questions around art, politics, and engagement. What compels me about this group is the way in which our conversations, tactics, and collaborations worked through different topics in what is generally called social practice or public art practice. Within these I’ll list some general tactical categories.

Polyphony and the Choral

Artists engage in a performative reading of Judith Butler's "Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street." Courtesy Anna Mayer.

I was powerfully affected by the tactic of the Mic Check, and found it both empowering and strangely stressful. First off, it gave us a way to speak forcefully and loudly without modern technology, and in the age of both social media and the city’s suppression of electronic amplification, it combined primitive choral power with emotional bonding. It’s a secular communion, making us all part of the same body. But latent in the Mic Check is something a bit Orwellian. People like me want almost pathetically to belong to a communal body but fear its dark twin, one of whose names is the Borg. I think it’s a condition familiar to many artists, a remnant of a culture of individualism that keeps us hungry for recognition even while engaged in utopian experimentation.

Some of the most powerful artist contributions for me were distinguished by what I’d call choral aesthetics. Mathew Timmons’ 2008 conceptual writing project Credit collects all the offers of credit cards and loans he received in mailings, advertisements, and letters—it’s the hypnotic chant of capitalism writ small. With the “personal” information blocked out, the published volume of appropriated texts demonstrates both the vocabulary and the urgency with which credit is thrust upon us. It resonates strongly in this era of unemployment, credit default and poverty.

Timmons’ performances of Credit at OLA and other sites were always choral, with the text spoken and sung by at least two performers, at turns harmonic and dissonant. The effect was church-like and disruptive, highlighting the spell of credit, how monetized our world is, and how pervasive the tentacles of capitalism. Behind it was the echo of the Mic Check, and Timmons’ serenades both resonate with and interrogate the idea of the choral. The fellowship of harmony seems somehow very communal, yet with its mercenary content the performances both critique and echo the hypnotic lure of capitalism.

Silence and Listening

Even the most partisan observer at OLA quickly noticed how difficult radical democratic practice actually is. I often found myself cringing at the paralyzingly slow participatory conversations, sometimes akin to witnessing the reinvention of the wheel. You hold your tongue because it’s clear that oppressive power relations can only be tamed by building democracy through difference, dissent, and consensus. Artists and intellectuals are no more impatient than others, but their resistance is often shot through by a sense of superiority and already knowing better.

The ARLA collective was brilliantly engaged in active listening performances and workshops at OLA, building off Jungian psychology and listening strategies developed by composer Pauline Oliveros. The collective works with large papier-mâché ears and their sonic performances are followed by discussions of listening and silence—all aspects of active listening, manifesting presence and connectedness. The work also points to the need to understand what the real questions are.

A different set of connections is forged in Adam Overton’s meditation (as Guru Rugu), “Answers are not the answer!” Based on a text by Veranda Moot, the meditation plays New Age spiritual practice with terms from neoliberal politics, causing a web of contradictory associations to resonate. The Draconian conservative proposals with which few of us would agree are set off against the spiritual quest that is largely sympathetic to Overton and his collaborators. I see this as a serious appropriation of the spirit of Burning Man to create new discursive spaces without jettisoning rational leftist alternatives.

Overton (with Signify, Sanctify, Believe and the Experimental Meditation Center) and his collaborative work with numerous artists embodies a vibrant LA strain of social practice. From a background in experimental sound practices and energetic work, Adam’s projects articulate new collective modalities. Over the past three years I’ve worked with him in a variety of meditations that really played into the new configurations of the Occupy movement. Like Timmons’ Credit, also three years old, it’s clear to me that many of us were already attuned to the economic, political, and existential malaise that has fed into what is becoming a global popular movement.

Heterotopias

Utopian leftist movements mostly speak in terms of homogeneity (who are we and what are our demands, what is the platform?), while I am interested in heterogeneity, contradiction, and what Foucault calls heterotopia. Utopias take place in unreal or imaginary spaces, while heterotopias are real but exceptional—they temporarily suspend or resolve both contradictions and hegemonic conditions. They may be hospitals, asylums, or prisons, but they may also appear under the radar, as in a city park that becomes a cruising zone for gay men at night.

I see Occupy as an accumulation of differences, a site of condensed difference. This interaction of unionists, anarchists, the homeless, artists, and grassroots activists creates proximate density—a form of intelligence. There’s a frenzy of transformative systematic thinking, a liveliness and almost delirium—what Henri Lefebvre describes as Dionysian Marxism. I’m wondering if this new historical moment, this heterotopic moment, requires us as artists to create new forms and new modalities—participatory, performative, and expressive modalities—not to represent the moment but just to keep up with it. It feels to me like history is moving faster than we are.

The Carnivalesque

The carnival, once known as “the feast of fools,” is where things are turned topsy-turvy and thereby celebrate the death of the old and birth of the new. Like heterotopias they are often temporary and sometimes invisible, but they presage profound social transformation. While a lot has been written about Occupy Wall Street and the carnivalesque, other more participatory forms of it were disgorged in OLA.

My favorite example is Performing Public Space’s Octupy, an enormous octopus puppet built with plastic shopping bags and recycled materials—petrochemical by-products. The octopus is a recurrent metaphor to describe totalitarianism, Plutarchy, empire, and the military-industrial complex. It was first built and performed at OLA and then appeared vividly at the end of the Rose Bowl parade, sweeping through the crowd and variously exchanging the position of spectator and participant. The octopus is a tangible way of describing corporate power, a useful metaphor, but turning it into a participatory performance re-appropriates it. Built with garbage, it becomes a public toy; it may be playful, but it’s serious play.

The octopus’ deployment works on multiple levels: the one vs. the many, the controller vs. the controlled, and the opposition between corporate bodies and natural bodies. This “body” is both natural and artificial, a corporate body (lots of people in there) and a mythical body. Without making an actual sound, it is both monophonic and polyphonic. It incorporates both a choral effect of many bodies and the silencing of bodies swallowed by the maw of capitalism.

Détournement

Another way of framing much of this work is through the Situationist practice of détournement, a sort of turning of expressions of capitalism against themselves, especially in forms that seem less like negations or critiques than dissonances that “turn” hegemonic circumstances around.

Call for participants for a cleaning action. Courtesy of Tucker Neel.

In November Tucker Neel and I gathered a group together via AAAAAA/ART BLOC LA to stage a cleaning performance at City Hall. Inspired by Mother Art (the Angeleno feminist collective from the 80s), and by the Maintenance Art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, we took soap, water, mops and brooms downtown to clean the contested spaces of the Occupy movement. It was a few days after the eviction of Zuccotti Park, and we were thinking of the charges of uncleanliness and lack of sanitation by which Bloomberg justified his decision. (The use of “public safety” in relation to revolutionary politics has its own bloody history; in the French Revolution it led to the Reign of Terror.) Whose dirt is this, we wondered, especially in the age of reduced city and social services everywhere. The dirt is pervasive. It’s not so much on us as it is all over the system, but then it gets on us, somewhat like the octopus. Simple binaries are shown to be both arbitrary and reversible.

Cleaning actual dirt was energizing—doing something that is mostly private in public. We worked silently for the most part, except when people questioned us. The silence was important to me, as I hear too much, read too much, and my head often feels as if it’s bursting at the seams. Three women from Mother Art joined us, and we were able to talk to them afterwards. The connection with other generations working on similar issues with related strategies was energizing.

Matias Viegener is an artist, author, and critic who teaches at CalArts. He is one of the founders of the art collective Fallen Fruit, which has exhibited internationally. He writes regularly on art for X-TRA and ArtUS, has recently published in Cabinet, Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, Radical History Review, and Black Clock, and is the co-editor of Séance in Experimental Writing and The Noulipian Analects. His book 2500 Random Things About Me, Too is forthcoming from Les Figues Press.


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