Arts & Labor in the Age of Occupation

[With around 5+ subgroups each tacking different issues concerning the labor of artist, Art & Labor is perhaps the only arts working group within NYGCA that is still holding regular meetings. If you would like to join, they meet every Tuesday 7pm @ 60 Wall St, with the exception of the last week in every month when they meet on Wednesdays]


Publication: Afterimage
Author: Schwendener, Martha
Date published: March 1, 2012

In the fifteen years I have been writing and publishing art criticism, I’ve seen a few shifts in the art world. There was the rise of participatory art and social practice, and a version of these that flourished at biennials labeled “Relational Aesthetics,” which a fellow critic, Howard Halle, recently called “conceptualism for oligarchs.”1 There was the rise of interest in performance and calls to end object-making – although an artist friend recently asked, “Does that mean we’re going to leave it to Nike, Sony, and Walmart to put all the objects into the world?”

And then came the worldwide Occupy movement, influenced by the Arab Spring, the European Summer, and, in the fall of 2011, Occupy Wall Street (OWS). I was not involved in earlier iterations of OWS, like Bloombergville, an encampment near City Hall in New York that started in the summer of 2011. I became involved with OWS shortly after September 17, when the occupation started, and some of the questions it raised, naturally, involved how it might relate to the present and future of art.

Occupy Wall Street dovetailed in many ways with current strains of art, like social practice, in which artists function more as event planners, organizers, sociologists, and activists, and participation that involves art made or completed by groups rather than singular, individual “geniuses.”

There is also an overlap with the 1960s, which brought performance, video, installation, Land Art, earthworks, and the interdisciplinary mergers of media like dance, film, theater, and writing. It was also an age of radical politics, and although the failures of many projects were already obvious in the ’60s, some of these weren’t apparent until the ’70s, when Institutional Critique – which would become a recognized institutional form in the ’80s – entered the art world.

What the ’60s had that was absent except in a nostalgic, mannered, and aestheticized form until OWS, however, was a real sense of utopia and possibility. In the millennial era, one could be an activist-artist, but one was generally still working within a system of galleries, museums, biennials, curators, critics, collectors, interns, publicists, and other satellite figures. And neoliberalism, which had supposedly saved us from the economic crisis of the ’70s, had put into place a system in which artists who wanted to participate often had to incur huge debt to obtain BFA and MFA degrees – similar to professionals in other fields, except that art remained a precarious, risky venture.

So, when the Occupy movement erupted, it was speaking a language familiar to many in the art world. Historically, art has been funded – with exceptions, of course – by the wealthiest one percent. Only in recent years have trustees, collectors, and patrons moved into the foreground, influencing the production and exhibition of art – particularly with the rise of global art fairs. OWS’s famous call for “horizontality,” adopted from the “horizontalidad” used in the movements that erupted in Argentina following the economic crisis of 200 1 , called for a more equal distribution of management of power. But horizontalism could also be contrasted with art’s hierarchical pyramid, most notably in its system of canonization, which coincided with the rise of capitalism.2 Occupy’s main strategy, taking up residence in public space, echoed social practice’s attempt to move art into different spheres.

The crises highlighted by OWS resonated with some scholars and critics too. Critical theory, which entered art history in the ’70s and ’80s, had risen out of the revolts of the ’60s, but had become a somewhat stultified, boutique system of analysis and interpretation. And the financial crisis in journalism brought on by the rise of the internet – as well as the supplantation of critics by curators in the art-power equation – precipitated a “crisis in criticism.”

And then came a real, actual, and unexpected revolution: the mass protest movements that erupted on the global stage in 2011. The first art-related group I became involved with during OWS, formed in late September of 2011, was called the Occupennial. It emerged from a panel at an event held on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When an audience member challenged everyone to head down to Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park instead of just sitting there talking about OWS, a number of us did. The early occupiers asked for support, because there weren’t many of them and the story had dropped out of the mainstream media. Confronted with a need for “bodies,” this seemed a simple task: contact all the artists already engaged in similar activities and get them down to Zuccotti immediately. Within a week, we’d written a mission statement and a letter framed as a call to artists, and compiled a list of artists, curators, and writers to contact. Art would fuel this occupation, and it would also be an opportunity for art to redeem itself, to show that it wasn’t merely a luxury product funded by the one percent. Some of the artists contacted included Paul Chan, Tim Davis, Harun Farocki, and Sharon Hayes. Within the realm of photography, one of my areas of specialization, Davis’s “My Life in Politics” had been an inspiration, particularly with its ruminations on the failure of two-party politics.

The occupation soon took on a life of its own, however, and Zuccotti filled up with bodies. This presented problems for mounting an “anti-biennial,” since there wasn’t much space to maneuver within the park and we were, essentially, asking artists to venture into a zone surrounded by police and risk arrest, while offering no protection (much less compensation). We were putting out a call to like-minded artists, but in some ways it amounted to a dare.

The Occupennial provided a way, however, for me to think through the movement’s ideas. In addition to going to Zuccotti and meeting with different groups (and barely showing up to work), I was staying up until two or three in the morning every night, reading anything I could get my hands on: David Graeber and Naomi Klein’s early articles in The Guardian and The Nation, blogs, newspaper editorials, The Occupied Wall Street Journal, foreign newspapers, websites, zines, and journals. I was also involved in several discussion groups, including Art in the Age of Occupation, started by two Yale art history PhDs, and the Occupennial’s Facebook page, which included a constellation of artists, writers, curators, and scholars.

The Occupennial was later seen by some people as a kind of boutique, artworld wing of OWS, but I didn’t (and still don’t) see it that way. Nurses, doctors, librarians, chefs, spiritual leaders, union members, and computer programmers showed up to lend their support and offer their skills, and this is what we were doing as well. Art is just a little harder to inject into a movement defined – in a visual sense – by the handmade cardboard sign (which, as many people have pointed out, is the emblem of homelessness).

And then a new group formed: Arts & Labor, a working group of Arts and Culture of Occupy Wall Street. I migrated there, attending their meetings and participating in their online forum and doing some of the same tasks as I had been doing in the Occupennial – mainly a lot of co-writing, such as this mission statement:

Arts & Labor is a working group founded in conjunction with the New York General Assembly for #occupywallstreet. We are artists and interns, writers and educators, art handlers and designers, administrators, curators, assistants, and students. We are all art workers and members of the 99%.

Arts & Labor is dedicated to exposing and rectifying economic inequalities and exploitative working conditions in our fields through direct action and educational initiatives. By forging coalitions, fighting for fair labor practices, and reimagi ning the structures and institutions that frame our work, Arts & Labor aims to achieve parity for every member of the ninety-nine percent.

The statement reflects the shift that has occurred over time in terms of thinking about how to change underlying structures and rethink ideas like “art” and “labor” rather than recycling wornout concepts.

The group is young, and draws from the lessons of multiple precedents: ’60s and ’70s groups like Art Workers Coalition and Guerrilla Art Action Group, and ’80s groups like Guerrilla Girls, ACT UP, Group Material, Gran Fury, and Women’s Action Coalition (WAC). We held a General Assembly on the High Line on November 17, the two-month anniversary of OWS. Using the human microphone, people spoke with surprising candor about the problems they have encountered attempting to live a life within the arts. An older woman talked about how her Social Security payments are being garnished to repay school debt incurred decades ago. One man described making money in the art market during the ’90s, buying a home, and then losing it to foreclosure. Other people spoke out about precarious lives as adjunct instructors, art handlers, gallery assistants, and interns.

Within Arts & Labor, several working groups have formed. Spatial Politics and Anti-Gentrification takes as its starting point real estate problems that artists – and working people of all types – have faced in recent decades, as art centers like New York have used culture to create “luxury brand” cities, and the unwanted role artists have played as precursors to gentrification in neighborhoods like Soho, Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, and now Bushwick. The Mapping group draws connections between flows of capital and culture in the city and art and other institutions. Unionization explores the history and feasibility of organizing workers in the arts. Actions is devoted to direct actions – around, for instance, the Whitney Biennial, a major and contested art event, and May 1, which is slated as a great day of return for OWS. Alternative Economies takes the longest view, imagining a complete overhaul of social and economic systems.

Arts & Labor has so far been able to accommodate what have been loosely called “reform” and “revolutionary” strategies: unionization and reforms such as obtaining exhibition fees for artists – often in conjunction with existing groups like W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) – versus Alternative Economies, which imagines a vast restructuring of society, in line with someone like Lisa Fithian, one of the Occupy movement’s leaders and advisors.

The primary question, of course, is, Can anything be done? The institutional era of art – along with the age of corporatecontrolled culture – has been upon us for decades, and seems insurmountable. The Occupy movement entered the world when everything seemed hopeless, mostly because the culprit is something so large and established that it seems immovable: global capitalism.

Speaking in Zuccotti in October, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek said, “Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” Nonetheless, he said, “when you criticize capitalism, don’t allow yourself to be blackmailed that you are against democracy. The marriage between democracy and capitalism is over. The change is possible.”

Richard Wolff and Naomi Wolf made similar statements. At a teach-in at the short-lived New School Occupation, Paul Mattick, Jr. offered a quick historical analysis: over sixty million people were killed in World Wars I and II in an attempt to preserve capitalism; the ’60s provided a moment of revolt followed by a neoliberalist system in which we were reassured that deregulation (among other things) would solve our problems. Others have pointed out how the fin-de-siècle anti-globalization protests garnered attention, but were shut down after 9/11, when the United States reverted back to the war model (and now the U.S. has been at war for the longest period in its history).

The point, from the standpoint of Arts & Labor, and Occupy Wall Street, is that there can be no meaningful change in art – or science, education, banking, politics, ecology, food, or health care – on its own. The entire system has to change. Hence, a list of “demands” won’t suffice. An earlier echo of this idea was heard in the ’70s when artists like Karl Beveridge and Ian Burn wrote an open letter to Donald Judd, an avowed activist, declaring that artists could no longer be political and still work within the art system. To exhibit or have your work supported by the one percent meant you were supporting that system, plain and simple.

As I’ve said, attempts at change in the art world were already underway in the decades before OWS. Something like social practice crystallized this, so that getting a Master’s degree in urban planning or geography has almost become more legitimizing than an MFA. It offers a connection with the world that feels more vital and less co-opted, and provides the grounding for interacting with – and possibly affecting or changing – the world.

The Arts & Labor discussion threads are filled with arguments about everything from general strikes to feminism, gender, race, immigration, and communization. Interestingly, however, the groups that have been primarily devoted to theory (over praxis) – like Art in the Age of Occupation and an online Communization reading group devoted to reading European texts by collectives such as Tiqqun, Endnotes, and the Invisible Committee – have crashed after only a couple of weeks of discussion. This is a moment for action – a moment in our lifetimes when something might actually happen – and to spend one’s time merely reading and discussing feels beside the point.

A certain strain – mostly young, white men – is pushing for May 1 and the summer of 2012 as major moments of cataclysmic change. But quieter elements in OWS, and the most productive groups I am in, are pushing for something different: building coalitions and creating alliances with older artists and activists (for instance, Lucy Lippard, who was in Art Workers and is rumored to have started Guerrilla Girls), immigrant and housing groups, and various community organizations. These groups are committed to bringing OWS ideas into a post-Zuccotti landscape of contested spaces – for instance, the Lower East Side, which is still a diverse community, but now contains over eighty art galleries and the New Museum on the Bowery and is threatened by an impending, radical rezoning plan, which would favor development and eradicate affordable housing.

Why is Arts & Labor any different from earlier art or activist groups, and why should it exist at all? Simply because OWS brought together people who were having conversations in their separate spheres. Suddenly we were in the same online forums or sitting across from one another in meetings or bars, discussing intersectionality, insurrection, feminism, art history, zoning, direct action, police brutality, Oakland, black blocs, general strikes, or Egypt. Suddenly it wasn’t only about art anymore, but alternative banking or science or farming. Something shifted, and we banded together to see if we could continue to make it move, to drive it from the initial occupation into a full-blown movement.

But Arts & Labor also comes at a unique moment, after several decades of intermittent protest movements – whose participants are often still alive. We have attended teach-ins and lectures with members of ACT UP, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Weather Underground; civil rights leaders and labor organizers; radical art historians, feminists, economists, and artists who have been committed to changing not just the “discourse,” but the system of cultural and economic exchange, for decades. In its earliest incarnation, OWS, like most movements, favored action – and, specifically, occupation. But this is only one component of a social movement. And since OWS has its roots in people’s movements from Argentina to Tunisia – even the young Serbian revolutionaries who overthrew Slobodan Milosevic and ended up advising the Egyptians in their Arab Spring – there is an urgency to keep this conversation going and make connections with the recent past. For those of us who experience much of life through the filter of art, there is also the imperative to understand how the terms of this engagement have changed – and, more importantly, how we’ve suddenly been given an extraordinary opportunity to help shape and effect that change.

NOTES 1. See 2011=0,1,2. Giorgio Vasar and Karel van Mander wrote the first major modern European books citing individuals for their genius and achievements, and were based in developments centers of capitalism: sixteenth-century Italy and seventeeth-century Netherlands.

Author affiliation:

MARTHA SCHWENDENER is an art critic for the New York Times and the Village Voice and has contributed extensively to Artforum,, Art in America, Art Papers, Bookforum, Flash Art, New Art Examiner, The New Yorker, Time Out New York, and other publications.

Read more:

– – –

note: footnote 1, should be Last retrieved May 7th, 2012.