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Occupy and the End of Socially Engaged Art


“We strike art in order to liberate art from itself.”

In the fall of 2008, at the height of both the electoral season and the global financial crisis, a sprawling exhibition entitled Democracy in America was set up by the public arts organization Creative Time for one week inside the Armory building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The title of the project at once ironized de Tocqueville’s infamous celebration of the “exceptional” nature of US political culture, while also alluding to Group Material’s groundbreaking Democracy counter-exhibition staged exactly twenty years earlier, with Dia Center for the Arts.

The centerpiece of Democracy in America was what curator Nato Thompson described, drawing on the lexicon of alter-globalization culture, as a “convergence center” in the gigantic training hall of the building. The hall featured murals, installations, performances, projections, a modular amphitheater, and even a cooperatively funded “soup kitchen” by the Alternative Transmissions and INCUBATE collectives in the midst of which left intellectual luminaries such as David Harvey would lead free-for-all seminars regarding the then-unfolding crisis.

Democracy in America also distributed several satellite projects throughout the country, including a series of “town hall” meetings among artists and activists in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Baltimore concerning the meaning of democracy in the current historical conjuncture. Among the art projects was Mark Tribe’s Port Huron Project, which involved the site-specific performative reenactments of iconic New Left speeches by Cesar Chavez, Howard Zinn, and Angela Davis, as well as Valerie Tevere and Angel Nevarez’s Another Protest Song, a participatory archival project concerning the affective connections between popular music and protest that culminated in a “sing out” karaoke party at Flushing Meadows park. Another such commission was a work by Sharon Hayes entitled Revolutionary Love, in which the artist assembled groups of radical LGBTQ people to collectively recite oblique first-person love poems on site at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in the summer of 2008, highlighting both the heteronormative parameters of mainstream US political culture and the subversive joy of queer collectivity.

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