October 18, 2011

Artists of the 99%: A Call to Action

Over the past month I have witnessed and participated in the local contingent of the now-global movement known as Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Together. The goal of this nonviolent movement, fueled by people in 1,497 cities throughout the world, is to challenge capitalism by protesting major banks, corporations, and the top 1% of people who benefit from our country’s current economic system. Through taking over public space, consensus-based general assemblies, demonstrations, direct actions, workshops, teach-ins, defense against police brutality, and collaborations with local grassroots organizations and various unions, this movement is full of energy, complications, and has the potential to get people talking about systemic oppression and building together to create some real change.

As an artist and one of the 99%, I keep coming back to the questions, what is the place of artists in this movement and what can we learn here?

Consider this a call to action! Let’s talk about our role in this movement. How are we already making our voices heard, and how can we put our creative efforts towards this movement? As the inequities of capitalism are exposed, how might we, as artists, reconsider our reliance upon this economic system? How is the financial sustainability and livelihood of artists in the Bay Area connected to larger movements for economic justice that have been fought here for years?

If you are a visual or other artist interested in engaging in conversation, action, and/or education around these issues and putting efforts towards building an artist contingent of the 99%, let’s talk! You can use the comment box below or email artistsofthe99percent@gmail.com.

Comments (24)

  • JA – touche I guess. I'm not really familiar with Bush v. Gore or with courts in general – just pointing out that it's possible a priori for a judge to overturn a lot of legislation without being judicially activist as I understand the term. Your original point was to come up with an objective metric for activism – I can't think of a way.

  • It’s about time sonmoee wrote about this.

  • Very nice blog! how can i sign up for you e-mail list ?

  • I hail from the san francisco art institute I wish to be on your e-mail list

  • I particularly enjoyed the exchange between Elizabeth Sims and Celeste.
    I participated in the protests here in SF that demanded a recount of the votes when Bush stole the elections, I also participated in a couple of anti-war protests, but no matter how much the people spoke up and protested, after 9-11 the fascist machine that is now the US government (evidenced by the government’s involvement in Abu Ghraib, torture, violation of human rights, genocide, etc.) kept going forward, making use of the “Patriot Act” and other Gestapo-like techniques to further their goals.
    I started to feel that we as a people had lost the war against the oppressive system that we live in, thus I was thrilled when the “Occupy” movement started and spread all over the world. Perhaps there is still hope, a chance to change things around and distribute the wealth more evenly….
    However I think that together with the peaceful demonstrations, it is also necessary to hit the capitalist moguls where it hurts the most, their wallets.
    The easiest way of doing this of course is to pull your money out of Bank of America and to avoid doing business with similar institutions. This can easily be done in an individual basis.
    Another action that will require more preapration and a substantial group of people, would be to stop paying our taxes, which are being used to fatten the banker’s pockets and to fuel the US army so that it can go abroad and bomb other countries to the stone age.
    A more artistic approach to this act of civil disobedience would be to pay our taxes by sending our art work (instead of money) to the IRS. I believe there is an artist that tried this before, but the name escapes my mind right now.
    Finally, the single most important thing that we can do to win the battle is to keep communicating our ideas to other people, to talk to each other (ether in person or via computer), to avoid becoming isolated and feeling defeated (like I have felt at times) and to keep informed (choosing our sources of information very carefully). All repressive regimes, wether from the right or the left, have allways relayed on keeping the people in fear, isolated, misinformed and spiritually and mentally defeated in order to fulfill their goals. That is why dictatorial regimes always make use of curfews and prohibit the free assembly of people, together with controlling the mass communication medias (sounds familiar?)

  • Thank you alison for the website. Really great images on your website!

  • I am an artist and member of the “gray market,” i.e. I have a number of under the table jobs. I have been attending the protests in Oakland and have started a website with another artist and web designer at http://www.99occupy.com where you can read updates and open letters, download images to print and contribute your own images. I have also printed and handed out stickers. The visual representation of any movement is important–not just the news photos and YouTube videos (although they have been instrumental so far), but images created by artists to promote it.

  • @ElizabethSims:
    First, I appreciate your thoughtful response.
    Ok I see your point, but I think we’re coming from different political points of view here. I would say that while creating pre-figurative structures (to the layman – striving to reflect the future society one hopes to create) can be informative, and can give us ways to explore various utopian ideals and ideas for how we want to shape the world, they fail to deal with the world surrounding them. Obviously, better funding for the arts is not the final solution. However, demands met beget more demands. Yes, I would advocate for the eventual overthrow of capitalism. Do I think that we are anywhere near that event? No. So what to do in the meantime? I argue that demands must be made of the system, and that making those demands does not pacify dissent. “With the eating, comes the hunger.” With each battle won, the movement becomes stronger, and demands more. With each battle, the movement learns, grows, becomes more organized, more educated, more courageous. Frederick Douglass said in the 1850s, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
    And as far as “support[ing] ourselves and our work autonomously” – capitalism has absorbed and dealt with autonomous structures before and will continue to do so, just as it channels our creativity and our dissent. Those that don’t challenge the system are allowed to continue, such as the Amish, those that come close to doing so are absorbed or defeated – such as the Paris Commune.

  • @Celeste

    Re: “if what we want is a radical transformation of society, why leave culture untouched?”

    Culture is not just music, art objects and other artifacts- it is social organization, values, and entire economic systems…the occupation is an opportunity to engage creatively in these most intimate structures of life.

  • @Celeste
    Thanks for the feedback-I don’t want my language to be alienating, but I will always use words that are meaningful, expressive and beautiful to me, and reference things that I find important. Some of the best things I have read have required me to bust out the wikipedia or the dictionary and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Nevertheless, point taken.

    With regard to the rest of your comment, I think it was made mostly clear through references to the Situationists, Social Practice, DIY culture etc, that I in no way believe culture to be monolithic, however though the “upper echelons” of the cultural elite may consist of a few figures, you yourself acknowledge their general monopoly on cultural production. And, although not all popular culture is explicitly sexist, racist etc., Capitalism has a vicious little habit of taking even thoughtful, important projects and turning them into, in your own words, “merchandising opportunities.” And what’s wrong with that? Well, this dynamic sells ideas-even radical ones- in order to uphold and perpetuate an inherently oppressive and exploitative economic system-Capitalism. All the reforms in the world will not change its basic nature, and while I hope that all people do indeed struggle for a system that better serves them and their communities, I don’t thing that Capitalist funding for the arts will do that. Funding for the arts amounts to a patronizing concession meant to pacify and recuperate dissent. In other words-our creative energy is supported as long at is channeled in the proper, harmless ways. We receive a little financial security, and Capitalism receives an opportunity to masquerade as radical, while keeping all the radicals busy making art. Instead of looking for more support from a system we abhor, let’s find more ways to support ourselves and our work autonomously.

  • Adrienne Skye Roberts says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments and thoughts. It is great to see how artists are already responding to the movement and to read the ideas around art as commodity, capitalism, and activism being discussed here.

    There will be a General Assembly for Artists in San Francisco next weekend, more information will be announced shortly. It is my hope that we can continue the conversations here at this meeting and figure out ways to plug into the movement, create a visible presence of artists and perhaps, our own set of demands.

    If you did not include your email address in your post and would like to receive an announcement about the upcoming General Assembly, please email artistsofthe99percent@gmail.com

    In the meantime, check out the Occupennial being organized through OWS in New York City: http://wallstreetoccupennial.tumblr.com/

    And if you are a musician, author, performer or anyone interested in live art, you can perform in San Francisco through the Arts and Performance Series at Occupy SF. Check it out here: http://occupysfseries.tumblr.com/

  • Christine Wong Yap says:

    Very exciting to see how artists engage in the Occupy movement. It’s a great time to be asking, who are the 1% in the art world? What corporations operate with impunity? And what can be done about it?

    This is heartening:

    Artists suing Christie’s and Soethby’s

    As well as the OSW movement disrupting a Soethby’s auction last month:

    …in solidarity with an art handler lockout…

  • @ Catrina – this is already happening at many of the Occupy sites. Oakland, with which I am the most familiar, has an arts and crafts tent to facilitate art-making projects, but also recently offered classes in fire-dancing and circus techniques. There are performances of music and spoken word as well.
    @Elizabeth Sims – while I agree with a lot of what you have to say, I wonder if your means of saying it are not just as alienating as the “privileged yet alienated status of culture-producer.” Not everyone here has read Situationist texts. I had to read your response about 3 times before I felt like I got the gist.
    Also, considering the role of the artist in Capitalism – I don’t know a single artist who is materially benefiting from this supposed role. No one is making ends meet solely as an artist in my community. While I agree that culture in the upper echelons can be a capitalist tool, most of the artists I know are laboring in obscurity for their own ends, using their own money to produce the work, and definitely not having their work exploited as a tool to reinforce oppression. I wouldn’t even say that all mainstream or pop culture reinforces oppression. Culture is too large and slippery to be used for a single end. Culture follows shifts in society at large – when the radical shifts of the 1960s took place, culture followed. Culture can be pushed and molded. The problem is that Capitalism funds so much of culture that it will have the final say. Capitalism has made movies into re-tread, re-make, merchandising opportunities where only a few with any substance manage to break through and get made. Capitalism has championed lowest-common-denominator pop music for decades, making it difficult for those with a message. But they do exist. Culture is never monolithic. I don’t think it’s self-serving for artists within the Occupy movements to address cultural issues – funding of the arts could give anti-capitalist art a chance to flourish, and demanding reforms in cultural spheres is also important. These issues should be part of the wider platform of the Occupy movements – if what we want is a radical transformation of society, why leave culture untouched?

  • Elena Gonzales says:

    Thanks for a great post and a wonderful ongoing conversation! My related question is what the role of curators is in occupying together. Are there examples already of our cultural sectors stepping into the fray? Perhaps a better response to the culture wars than self-censorship is occupation!

  • Thank you for this great conversation! Its a great question, and one I’ve been struggling with too. For October 05, I shared with the Occupy movement a short documentary about Native American Sacred Sites because I felt it was important that issues of importance to native Americans also be included – although I do not speak for all NA’s by any means. You can see the 9 min short at http://www.sweetentertainment.wordpress.com, or 1 min. trailer here: http://youtu.be/PjO2FPh7oqw. I also tried to contribute with a small piece called OccupyLove SF http://www.allvoices.com/users/FDMNews. Sharing these works by Twitter also showed me how Twitter really works in conversation which was really new. So far, I found these ways of reflecting as an artist on the mood of joining and being a part of the 99%.

  • Hello-

    My name is Mark Skwarek and I am an artist making work in reaction to the #occupywallstreet movement.
    Actually I started an augmented reality [AR] protest at Wall Street in the restricted areas where people could not protest. The AR protest has spread to Washington DC and Boston MA. Artist from around the world are participating.


    These projects allow people from around the world to participate at Wall Street.
    The augmented reality protest has a show at Devotion Gallery in Brooklyn NY.

    If we could spread the AR protest to you in SF that would be great or if we could work together-
    Please let me know if you are interested.


  • eddie colla says:

    My name is Eddie Colla, I am a bay area artist. A few weeks ago I designed this piece and released it online as a hi-res downloadable file http://www.flickr.com/photos/eddieicon/6205387698/in/set-72157627820934974
    Shortly after that as different occupations sprang up I began getting emails for versions that included specific city names. I created all of those as downloadable files as well here:http://www.flickr.com/photos/eddieicon/sets/72157627820934974/
    Most recently in collaboration with 57-33 we created a sticker campaign where people could email us there address and we would send them sticker packs of our image. We sent out almost 6000 stickers in about 4 days to 40 states and 12 countries completely free of charge. Pictures have been coming in form all over the U.S. of stickers that have been posted up. It’s a small thing but one way to get people more engaged in the movement and show support.

  • This just in, sent to us from Seattle since they heard we were having art stuff. http://bretthorvath.thenewhive.com/occupyawall

  • Hi! I’ve been organizing the Occupy SF Art & Performance Series since last Monday. It’s been great; let’s do more. Write to me at occupysfseries at gmail.com, and tell me what I can do for you — I can’t do everything, but I’m meeting with the Art & Culture committee at the camp tonight, so please, please, join the movement. It’s your right to express yourself! I will try to help and so will lots of other people.

  • If art can be considered to contain a progression towards radical effect, this progression would generally be described in terms of it’s growing tendency to move out of easily commodified forms and into commodity-resistant ones, especially into social forms. The genre of social practice works towards realizing the Situationist ideal of subsuming creativity within social engagement. The participants in the Occupations seem to be involved in this practice in the deepest sense- working towards social change ostensibly without leveraging their accomplishments for status, celebrity, or personal exposure. As artists, this might just be the opportunity to relinquish the privileged yet alienated status of culture-producer, and step humbly into a more democratic space in which the construction of the impossible is a task shared by all.

    Though a diversity of ideological orientations inform the Occupations, the movement can be generalized as anti-Capitalist. It is therefore important to consider the artist’s role in Capitalism before determining the artist’s place in the movement. As Roberts suggests, rather than demanding reforms and subsidies for art-making, it is more productive to consider how artists might prefigure both autonomy and communalism both in this moment, and in general practice. Applying the ethos of DIY, free-skooling, and skill-sharing, artists can develop ways to share their speciaities with their communities.

    More often a propaganda tool of the elite than a means of self-expression, art is not an inherently liberating and enriching property of the people. It is the immersive visual, textual, and musical culture that reproduces oppressive systems of sexism, racism, class-ism and other social hierarchies. Those artists who have honed a sensitivity to the mechanisms of this culture may be able to develop this literacy in others. Furthermore, they may able to provide greater access to the cultural domain by sharing technical, technological, and aesthetic knowledge.

    Inasmuch as art a a field of production has taken on amorphous and ephemeral proportions, artists may also be equipped to facilitate interdisciplinarianism within the Occupation movement, exercising an imaginative agility in anticipating the potential for synergy within different disciplines-translating, transforming, transgressing. Fundamentally, this is the radical destiny of the artist- to leave the aesthetic exile of the art world, and nurture innovation in an un-governed and borderless field.

  • Catrina Sida says:

    I am in school to become a art teacher. The most important part of a art class is to facilitate a place where fostering confidence to speak out with a student’s individual opinion is the main focus. Most people use art as a outlet of some sort. Maybe our role is to help provide mediums for people to help them express. Example would be getting together various items and taking them to the sites and have people create. So say we create a statue out of card board or even get some spray cans even some recording equipment! This is close to the berlin wall and those protest. We as people have the right to fight for fairness. History is happening and art will document this evolution. Really, I do not know what the role of a artist is but know we have a role as humans to keep up the fight.

  • We have always been there as enablers, facilitators, and as supporters. Some of our work as artist is fueled by this struggle. We are usually the first to feel the blow from any attack. The first step is to recondition ourselves to believe art is a method of attack, then we can embrace this resource.

  • Agree with Geek. I have nothing to add in this moment, but I’d like to be part of an ongoing discussion.

  • It’s a little more design than art, but Edward Tufte-style “beautiful evidence” is very effective when the data is on your side, which it definitely is for the 99%. Thoughtful data presented in a visually striking way can go a long way to educate.

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