Conclusions from @CreativeTimeNYC curator @NatoThompson’s discussion w/@NAA_NYC’s Beka Economopoulos & Jason Jones
Note: Except where identified, the views expressed here are not those of the panelists, but the conclusions I drew from the information and opinions presented in the panelists’ discussion.
On June 19, the last day of Spring 2012, Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson lead a discussion with Not An Alternative’s Beka Economopoulos and Jason Jones about the effects of the Occupy movement and its strategies on current political activism. Held at Eyebeam as part of their Urban Research Group conversation series, the event was designed to focus “on the emerging confluences of art and activism as they relate to contemporary conditions of urban space.”
The takeaway: Spectacle and location are intertwined. Political theatre needs a stage. Occupy Wall Street became impossible to ignore and within a few months of the initial Wall Street occupation, “occupy” and “the 99%” became household words. The movement changed the conversation about political power by making the public realize and think about how wealth and power are connected.
Occupy’s current state, relative to its heyday, dominated a third of the panel’s time by my estimate. I think the movement lost steam because it broke into groups, also known as “working groups.” The formation of those working groups lead to the greater movement’s ethos dissolving. The working groups are still in operation, but they are essentially comprised of activists who’d be conducting the same work they’re doing now whether or not Occupy Wall Street ever took place. They’re just rebranded under the Occupy movement. Smaller groups also create less spectacle and so can’t achieve Occupy’s desired level of political theatre, and by the time working groups began forming, “Occupy” became a brand signifying political progressivism that could be attached to just about any concept. The social capital of “Occupy” was thereby co-opted by liberal movements everywhere.
The hipster’s role in Occupy’s current state of repose:
1. Hipsters, individuals who adopt a lifestyle based on certain principles, made up much of the movement’s informal membership. Nato Thompson presented a clear definition of a hipster in a March 2012 lecture on his book Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production at the Hammer Museum in LA: “The hipster is all of us terrified of being anything, but simultaneously having political effects in space.“ “Space and culture are radically intertwined,” he said. Think “Occupy” or “gentrification.”
2. The attention that Hipsters are willing to give anything has a short half-life, and it’s getting shorter. It is the nature of being hip.
3. Artists (who are not necessarily hipsters, but a sub-culture and socio-economic group with similar attributes and motivations) made up a large portion of the greater occupy movement. The Occupy Museums movement, deemed by some a “splinter group” comprised of artists, took resources away from the greater movement’s core. Let’s face it, artists play a large role in progressive activism, and Occupy Museums was a cohesive and effective movement. The greater movement could have used their potency for protest. (Update, 21 June: Thompson commented that he loves the work that Occupy Museums are doing. Fwiw, me too.)
4. There is a disconnect between the hipster individual seeking an alternative lifestyle and the Occupy movement’s ability to augment the dominant paradigm. This disconnect is summed up for me by a T-shirt designed by Not an Alternative (available for $10+s/h):
“Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens.” There are individuals willing to change their lifestyle to adopt a new identity (E.g. eco-minded urban farmer with chickens) - and their drive for individuality manifested as an ethos that has a definitive confluence with the occupy movement - but eventually that individuality lead to the formation of numerous working groups in order to address the interests of their respective group members.
Now, I thought the Occupy movement was successful because it combined the abstract and the practical:
The abstract: People are disappointed and angry that the system’s not working, our government is broken, etc. Occupy offered a counterweight to Tea-party movement, which actually has numerous basic similarities to the Occupy movement (see Lawrence Lessig: A Letter to the #Occup(iers)). The Tea Party movement was not discussed at Eyebeam’s event. Occupy’s initially resistance to make any specific demands or ally with any institutions enabled the movement to leverage the more abstract notions behind the general discontentment about class and plutocracy and focus on visibility (i.e. spectacle, political theater). In the words of Thompson’s description of the hipster, “To be something is to be vulnerable to your own co-optation.” The aforementioned resistance to being anything specific helped prolong Occupy’s half-life.
The practical: The United States is experiencing historical disparities in wealth, income, and tax burdens, and these things affect 99% (or more) of the population.
What’s next? Can and will the spirit of Occupy, or anyone that self-identifies as part of the movement, get people to vote this November? If one thinks the system is broken, they may vote for a third party candidate or avoid the voting booth altogether rather than attempt to support the incremental progressive changes that not having Mitt Romney in office gives all of us the chance to make.