e-flux Conversations has been closed to new contributions and will remain online as an archive. Check out our new platform for short-form writing, e-flux Notes.

e-flux conversations

STRIKE ART, Question 1: Let's talk about Yates McKee's 2016 book on art, activism & Occupy

(See also Question 2: “Occupy and 21st Century Left politics?” and Question 3: “Is there an ethos of radical Left scholarship?”)

Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition
By Yates McKee, London & NYC: Verso Books, 2016

(Read a snapshot of the book here: STRIKE ART EXCERPT)

Gregory Sholette, April 2016


Welcome to our conversation about Yates McKee’s Strike Art, a book that transforms the event known as Occupy Wall Street (OWS) into both an analytical lens and an first-person narrative, while bringing into focus several urgent issues related to the intersection of Left politics and contemporary art within the US context roughly between the mid-1980s and today (see McKee pp. 13 & 37). Strike Art joins a number of other recent scholarly works that address questions raised by what seems to be a new wave of arts activism, though they do not always do so from an American perspective. In at least one aspect McKee’s project is especially unique. Strike Art is written by someone who was directly involved in the day-to-day organizing work of OWS, and who continues to participate in the movement’s afterlife. McKee’s book is therefore replete with granular information about the ambitious, and sometimes ambiguous, revolt of the 99%, details that other commentators can only address in a second-hand manner. In this sense he aligns his writing with Walter Benjamin’s well-known directive that authors become producers with a “tendentious” tilt towards working class struggles.

Partisanship so blatant rubs against the grain of traditional academic scholarship, generating a decidedly undetached approach to research and its object of study. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger if you like, another set of issues arises. “Who has the right to speak on behalf of the collective?” becomes a hypothetical question from comrades and collaborators (one can almost hear the mike check chorus starting up!). McKee is well aware of these tensions. And while I am in no position to judge the outcome of his efforts, Strike Art takes exceptional care citing the contributions of numerous groups and individuals. At the same time McKee is careful to hew as close as possible to his own academic discipline of contemporary art research, a tactic that positions his book in a complicated, even aporetic zone where large, abstract ideas uneasily wrestle with empirical, day-to-day observations about the Occupy Movement and beyond. In this case the “beyond” involves post-Occupy Movement’s relationship to issues of racial justice, student debt, and environmental activism.

Somewhat gingerly for my taste, Strike Art also attempts something much more ambitious by proposing a common thread linking together the fragmented, extra-parliamentary politics of the contemporary Left. That commonality involves the sensuous imaginary of art (242) understood as a process in which radicalized artists redirect “their creativity into an expanded field of organizing in order to construct a new—if internally fraught—political imaginary set off against the common enemy of the 1%” (from the Preamble to the book). The aim of this online e-flux conversation therefore is to develop a conversation about the ideas, assertions, and observations and to that end I am putting forward three questions over the next couple of weeks that focus on the following topics:

1) Occupy and the return of avant-garde art?

2) Occupy and 21st Century Left politics?

3) Is there an ethos of radical Left scholarship?

[Note: At the start of the Zuccotti Park occupation, curator Nato Thompson also participated in the direct action of OWS, an experience he discusses in his recent book Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-first Century. Other notable post-Occupy volumes about art and politics include: John Roberts, Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde; Stevphen Shukaitis, The Composition of Movements to Come: Aesthetics and Cultural Labour After the Avant-Garde; Marc James Léger, The Neoliberal Undead: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics; T.J. Demos The Migrant Image, The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis; Malcolm Miles, Limits to Culture: Urban Regeneration vs. Dissident Art; and W. J. T. Mitchell, Bernard E. Harcourt & Michael Taussig: Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience.]


            STRIKE ART! The First of Three Questions: 

1. Occupy and the return of avant-garde art?

“Occupy took the avant-garde dialectic of “art and life” to a new level of intensity,” Yates McKee asserts in Strike Art. (32) And certainly in so many ways the occupation did dissolve cultural practices directly into an encounter with political activism and its requisite modes of organizational labor. Yet is this truly an intensification of avant-garde forces latent within the “art system” (McKee’s preferred term for the art world p. 11)? And what are the stakes in such a return to, and repetition of, a legacy of protests and interventions in culture that oftentimes did not conceive of their activism as art? Or are we experiencing perhaps something new altogether, as Boris Groys has suggested in a 2014 e-flux journal essay “On Art Activism” http://www.e-flux.com/journal/on-art-activism/ ) ? Let’s say we did agree that OWS and its afterlife represents a significant shift within contemporary art and politics, what then is at stake describing this phenomenon as avant-garde, especially bearing in mind all of the historical, political, ontological, and aesthetic weight that this term inevitably carries with it? For if at a moment when enterprising business leaders describe not only their products and brands but also their very managerial style as avant-garde, what stakes then are involved with applying this particular locution of “avant-garde” to the various cultural practices described in Strike Art?

  • Background to the question:

There is one issue that consistently draws the ire of the artistic Left, and that is the apparent cooptation of the radical, even revolutionary ambitions of the early 20th Century Avant-Garde by what Julian Stallabrass labels “Art Incorporated”: a multi-billion dollar culture industry seemingly tethered to the interests of global capitalism. The “art Left” (if I can provisionally use this phrase) has typically imagined itself to be either completely outside of the machinations of Art Inc., or it thinks of itself as a kind of “Trojan Horse” operating transgressively from deep within the established art world order. As Group Material charged in their inaugural manifesto of 1980: “we invite everyone to question the entire culture we have taken for granted,” refusing to become part of some tired “pseudo avant-gardism.” Or as Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) proclaimed a year later, “PAD [/D] cannot serve as a means of advancement within the art world structure of museums and galleries. Rather, we have to develop new forms of distribution economy as well as art.” McKee’s Strike Art pivots on one particular event when the “art Left” was forced to confront its own political and artistic aporias. That moment came in the middle of the exhibition Living As Form: Socially Engaged Art, 1991–2011.

Organized in the Fall of 2011 by Creative Time’s Chief Curator Nato Thompson, Living As Form plays a key role in McKee’s Strike Art for two reasons. First, Thompson’s project sought to establish a common identity for a number of socially engaged artistic practices that had unfolded over the previous two decades. In this sense the exhibition serves McKee as the figure of a certain self-representation within the art Left itself. And second, Living As Form is significant to Strike Art not only because it took place precisely as the occupation of Zuccotti Park was initiated, but because of something quite singular that happened during its run. One afternoon in October of 2011 a group of people who had gathered for a program at Living As Form abruptly abandoned the exhibition to join the OWS protest encampment several blocks away. Seizing upon this moment as a demonstration of his larger thesis Mckee writes on pages 80 and 81:

“In a kind of historical displacement, contemporary art was suddenly thrown into relief as a distant prefiguration or prophecy of what was now happening in real time…as an historiographical provocation, one that admittedly borders on the eschatological, it might be said that this moment of passage represents the end of socially engaged art. I use ‘end’ here in two senses, neither of which are reducible to simple chronology. First, ‘end’ can mean purpose, goal, or destination, and from this angle, the crossing of the threshold from Creative Time to Zuccotti Park was arguably the realization or consummation of the deepest dreams and desires of the exhibition itself. Yet ‘end’ can also mean completion, termination, or even death, and in this sense the trip to Zuccotti Park might be considered a kind of self-immolation on the part of Living as Form, which had arguably represented the vanguard of contemporary art in the institutional art world—a vanguard defined by its very flirtation with dissolving the category of art altogether into an expanded field of social engagement. It would be a mistake however to see the move from Creative Time to Zuccotti Park as a move from the realm of ‘mere’ art to the immediacy of ‘real’ life. As we shall see, the OWS encampment itself would be widely described as a surreal environment, and many artists would be counted among its initiators—including some working directly in the orbit of Creative Time projects like Democracy in America and Living as Form itself.”

I would like to approach the fairly polemical position of Yates’ title with a very basic, and obvious call for specificity. It has been my experience, and certainly something I detail in my book Seeing Power that broad sweeping statements about art vs. activism tend to add obfuscate what is already a difficult situation to address. I am a fan of Yates in general and always applaud his deep commitment not only to social justice, social movements and their entanglements with art (whatever that term art might mean), but also in leading a critical charge to interrogating the issues therein. So, it is in the spirit of solidarity that I do approach the questions with a bit of criticism and ideally, some productive thoughts.

Perhaps it is a desire for poetry, or perhaps it is that kind of legacy of Continental Philosophy, that forces a certain kind of use of words like “the end” or even, sweeping generations regarding ‘antagonisms” and “participation” when it come to something as loose-knit as socially engaged art. I have to say that it is not that I disagree or agree with Claire Bishop nor Yates when it comes to art, but instead, merely, that I would have to know the artwork in particular and the conditions that brought it to light. Rather than talking about genres of art (such as socially engaged art), I would ask that we narrow our sites to moments that occur in space and time undergirded by forces of political economy, history, race, gender, sexuality, etc. It is a statement so obvious, I wish I did not have to repeat it. But for a field that loves to make generalizations, I suspect, it will be an ongoing and necessary preliminary statement.

But lets move on from the title as Yates himself seems to sort of disavow it as well later in the essay. I would say that broad sweeping concerns about antagonisms do not necessarily interest me. Nor do questions of participation and democracy. No offense to Bishop, but these kind of concerns in a vacuum don’t seem to do all that much. Arguing against participation and promoting antagonisms without context strikes me as liking more salt on your food no matter what. Doesn’t it depend on what it tastes like? I only say this because, when it comes to practices in the world, the tactics and strategies deployed must be interpreted in conjunction with the social and political dimensions in the sites in which they transpire. For Yates to assert that Occupy included internal antagonisms should almost go without saying. Most effective social organizing must wrestle, and appreciate, internal antagonism as a basic working method. I suspect Bishop’s critiques were not meant as an actual concern with the methodologies of grassroots organizing, so much as an appeal to aesthetic concerns (which is an approach I simply don’t ascribe to).

Rather than talk about art as an abstraction, I prefer to ground the term as operating either as a set of infrastructures (thus the term artworld) and a set of practices on the other (art practice). In the exhibition Living as Form, I worked with several curators to aggregate a vast array of practices who used strategies of art in their interest in shaping everyday life. Many of these practices not only resisted the art world (more of them did so simply because they were not getting any art money anyways), but also had complex understandings of collectivity, pedagogy, and activism. And as is the oft-difficulty of presenting site-specific projects, the exhibition itself predominately featured documentation of works abroad. Some of the projects included the community-based theater workshops of Los Angeles Poverty Department, the internet based activism of Wikileaks, the pedagogically infused urbanism of Tijuana-based Torolab, the queer activism of Bolivian Mujeras Creando, the very artworld friendly and conceptually driven art of Francis Alys, the community-based social center in Cameroon, Doual’art, founded by Marilyn Douala-Bell and Didier Schaub. This is just a few of the 100 projects listed.

I am not trying to highlight the show, but as it is gone to in some depth in the article, it is instructive to note that the exhibition itself, highlighted numerous projects involved in social struggle and frankly, had already left the artworld behind (quite some time ago). That said, other projects did exist within the infrastructure of the arts. Some were really arty and poetic while others were very social justice oriented or simply straight up activism. Rather than a catch-all term of art (which frankly as a term has more problematics than uses), it is more useful to consider these practices’ common thread in rhizomatic fashion (or another way of putting it), one would have to appreciate that these projects share commonalities only when considered in light of a vast ecology of complex differentiation that fuses culture and activism in the pursuit of transforming the world. Certainly, OWS became an important milestone in the ongoing pursuit for social justice on our planet, but I would say, it is hard to consider it as a particular transitional period toward one where art leaves art behind (only because such a statement makes no sense). And certainly, if anything, Living as Form highlighted not only tendencies within the arts to bridge activism, but perhaps more importantly in this context, that art had already been absorbed and deployed by activist movements long before.

What I would say however is that when the question is asked in terms of infrastructures, we can get a better grasp not only a particular turning point, but also get closer to Gregory Sholette’s question regarding co-optation and the notion of the avant-garde. Shannon Jackson once quipped something to me that never left my thoughts, “What if,” she rhetorically opined, “the U.S. government co-opted healthcare?” It was the kind of statement she made off the cuff, but the implications of it seem quite germane to both Yates’ concerns and also the question posed by Sholette. For in this light, I think of the United States government as a complex infrastructure not all unlike the artworld itself. The arts have galleries, museums, universities, magazines, non-profits, alternative spaces, biennials, blogs, etc. And the government, well, you get the point. But in light of this, the questions are not about necessarily co-opting of art, so much as they are asking under what conditions do they operate, whom do they speak to, what do they do. What, how and for whom as Lenin would say.

Obviously, I bristle at the use of the term “end”, but I do appreciate that a certain break has become all the more evident. When Sholette indicates, rightfully, that corporate culture has borrowed from the toolshed of the arts, and so too have activists, I think it is evident that the use of the practice of art has become a valuable tool in a world increasingly used to, and adept at, manipulating culture. While art has certainly become part of the language of speech, it nevertheless, seems to me useful to understand that the battle to overcome the domination of the planet by way of capitalism (amongst other forms of power including white supremacy and patriarchy) must challenge and make use of its infrastructures.

Words like co-optation have historically been used by the likes of the Situationists to make a mess of actual progress in favor of a rhetorics of purity. Occupy certainly wrestles with those demons itself. While certainly advertisements using revolutionary imagery might strike one as a form of co-optation, I don’t necessarily see the use of politically engaged art by art instutitions as a form of co-optation. In fact, I would say, reading the world like that falls into some really dated, and faulty, tendencies. It really depends on the specifics. And I would also say that drawing such hard lines in the sand over art outside of museums vs. in it, seems to simply miss the point entirely. It seems to me a massive mistake to leave the artworld behind. The artworld, in its vast complexity, hosts within it major infrastructures that need to be held accountable from universities to museums, from magazines to non-profits. They also can amplify and produce civic spaces that go beyond the limited arena of the arts (frankly, when it comes to audience, many art institutions long ago moved way beyond the demographics of simply art enthusiasts). McKee goes into this later in the book highlighting the work of both Gulf Labor and Occupy Museums. It should also be noted that Liberate Tate successfully got the Tate Museum to remove British Petroleum as a corporate sponsor. So, I know that he is quite aware and sympathetic to this.

So to, at last, answer the question, I would say that what is at stake is the production of a new world which also, implies the production of new infrastructures. It is critical that not only do we produce infrastructures that reflect the ethics and working methods we believe in, but also that we challenge, and make us of, existing infrastructures. Yes, this also means a certain kind of lack of purity and that there are political trade-offs that are always necessitated by the wrestling with political economy and power. But such is the way of actual social change and simply navigating political economy and life. Any large-scale social system that comes into being that reflects a dynamic of social justice and a challenge to capitalism will inevitably inhabit certain contradictions that one must swallow for the greater good. Rather than seeing this as a historic break, I see it as a transition to a world that appreciates the power of wonder that art can produce, in an effort to both put it to use toward social justice ends, as well as to simply appreciate the peculiar strangeness of pleasure, that also comes from that which we do not understand.

Early in his book Yates McKee discusses how the journalist Paul Mason interviewed a number of artists in the orbit of Occupy. I was one of those people. Mason asked if Occupy signaled a profound shift in art? To be honest I laughed, I thought the question merely a journalistic provocation. OWS did not even cause a flutter in the global art industry. I was not sure it was even necessary to call my project “art” even though I thought hard about its formal and aesthetic structure. In his book McKee takes the opposite position arguing that OWS did fundamentally change art to the point of embodying it in its very structure. He writes, “Occupy as a totality – rather this or that phenomena in it – can itself arguably be considered an artistic project in its own right, assuming we reimagine our sense of what art is or can be.” He goes on to describe how through the creative participation of its participants with banners, posters and performances the more recent social justice movements like Occupy Sandy, Climate Justice and Black Lives Matter can be thought of as a new form of artistic activity.

So one must ask what is at stake when a social movement becomes coterminous with art? One problem, as both Sholette and McKee note, is that ‘art’ is ubiquitous these days. When Subway calls its minimum wage workers “sandwich artists” and everyone curates their lunch, a world where according to Boris Groys everyone with an Instagram or a Pinterest account is an artist, do we really need more art? Art is all too often the sugar that masks the bitter taste of social inequality. It is nice to be creative. It can even be dubious enticement that encourages people to work for free. At the same time in New York’s gentrifying neighborhoods awash in galleries I feel often that I am in an artistic desert. When it comes to the designation “art” let alone “avant-garde” perhaps less is more?

I do not believe that art and politics – though they might form very close alliances can be collapsed into each other. Because an artwork is in support of a good cause, or has its heart in the right place, doesn’t make it necessarily a good artwork. Equally to call political actions or movements ‘art’ one is in grave danger of trivializing them. While OWS might be thought of as an extraordinary form of political theater, it was never meant to be a real city in miniature over the long term but showed concretely that another kind of organization of society is possible, I would hesitate to call it art. If OWS is art, well why not the Black Panthers? I don’t think this would do them justice, even if they created new forms of social participation and had really cool posters. The Paris Commune, though it involved many artists and craftspeople opened up a new social imaginary, not a new art form. Courbet was very clear that as a Communard he was much too busy to do art. And the idea of calling Courbet’s toppling of the Vendôme column an act of radical performance art avant la lettre is quite horrifying.

One could argue McKee’s argument makes sense on a more practical level. In his careful and detailed description of various marches and actions, banners and posters, he validates the hard work and creativity of so many unnamed people who are never normally recorded in the art historical record. Perhaps this might encourage more young artists to stop trying market themselves as nth generation abstract painters and find more socially progressive ways of expressing themselves.

The artists of left avant-garde from the first half of the twentieth century wanted to change the world and they felt that the old languages of art and theater and cinema were not adequate, that new forms, new ways of seeing where needed, and that is something that artists could do. That would be their task. It was enormously optimistic and also utopian – they would engage people in a whole new way of experiencing and understanding the world. Their work wouldn’t just extend to big productions or spectacles but would include the making of humble day-to-day objects, posters and even children’s books.

As we know radical form severed from function became an aesthetic end in itself easily siphoned off into museums. But what if we refuse to let the story end there. The left artists I admire engaged in an impossible high-wire act. On the one hand they wanted to make art in a generous spirit that would speak to everyone but at the same time create language or montage images and sounds that would open up new ways of seeing and thus new ways of imagining and being in the world. This is not easy. To even begin to do this they had to have a critical distance and be prepared not only to bite the hand of the oppressor but also if necessary challenge the very movement that they have aligned themselves with. To use a simple example, the film “October” did not simply illustrate the October revolution, it was not ‘affirmative” in McKee’s terminology. It did something different that also had to do with a revolutionary visual imaginary. Eisenstein had to have a lot of faith in himself and his audience. It is not enough simply to use sleight of hand to collapse art into life or into a political movement however progressive.

I think of the artist, singular or in groups, as a form of engaged public intellectual, particularly in a world of academic insularity and specialization. It is artists who are taking up the challenge to debate ideas in a public arena – in their own particular languages or forms in a way that is rigorous and open.

There was a time when left artists fought with each other, in print and through their work. I think of the arguments of the artists around the LEF journal in the Soviet Union or between Adorno and Brecht, the former accusing the latter of “intellectual hooliganism”. This was much more than infighting. Dialog really inspired these artists to think rigorously, reevaluate and be able to defend their ideas. Mckee is so polite, so American, he affirms everyone whatever his or her contribution. I wish precisely because he is an insider that he would likewise ask hard questions and challenge today’s art workers to rise to the occasion.


Two points, one theoretical, one art historical.

First up, I’m uneasy about the use of the term ‘avant-garde’ to describe any work in the latter half of the twentieth century. The term seeks to validate contemporary art by attaching it to a genealogy of art that was (1) connected to a pre-existing political party (often, but not necessarily, the communist party) and (2) precisely about the rejection of artistic tradition. Socially-engaged art from circa 1990 onwards strikes me as an artistic form unmoored from an organized politics (which is why there has been so much fretting about its politics/ethics), while OWS strikes me as a political moment without a coherent aesthetic–ranging from the Hirschhornesque hand-made signs of the camp at Zuccotti Park to the polished logos of The Illuminator. The term ‘avant-garde’ prioritizes ideas of novelty and originality that don’t feel relevant to this moment.

Secondly, McKee’s framing of OWS marking the ‘end’ of socially-engaged art made a great impression on me. In retrospect, it does seem that so much art of the 2000s (exemplified by Hayes’s In the Near Future and Zmijewski’s Democracies, but also found in the work of Temporary Services or 16 Beaver or any number of pedagogic art projects) was suffused in melancholic resignation resulting from the failed anti-war protests of 2003, the unstoppable march of neoliberalism, and a sense of political impasse. I think McKee is right to identify a change of mood with OWS, at least in the US. The question for me is what happens after this triumphal moment of rupture and experimental community that marked this lived experiment. For sure, some artists have bifurcated their practice between their personal work and their collective efforts in Gulf Labor or Strike Debt. But I don’t have a clear sense of what has displaced it. (Naturally, the market proceeds as if nothing has happened.) But the visibility and forms of post-OWS art seems important to identify and characterize (pace Thompson) - especially with the rise of the nationalist right all over Europe and a new phase of disenchantment kicking in.

One or two quick thoughts… personally I’m finding it a bit difficult to evaluate the claims about OWS as representing a shift in art / politics precisely because it’s I would have been immersed in myself had I not moved to the UK several years before. So it’s weird to think about in the sense that it both feels familiar to me, but weirdly distant. Secondly in asking these questions in the way that Greg has posed them here it would be very easy to get into a typical discussion around names and boundaries, as in “Did OWS represent a significant shift in art? was it an avant-garde phenomena? Well depends on how you definer them” - and then you can cue a longish and predictable discussion about the nature of art, can we talk about the avant-garde anymore, etc… But let’s not do that.

What strikes me as being more interesting is asking what it does to understand OWS as art. What does that do for those involved in it? I remember having a discussion like this a few years ago with Alan W Moore about some squatting based art project he was involved in, and I asked what was gained by describing or understanding it at art at all (rather then say the overcoming of art through its integration into everyday life). His answer was basically that the framework of understanding it as art allowed for a sense of experimentation and ability to act but without necessarily worrying about the conditions of whether or not it has “succeeded” in the same way you would tend to do when employing a political rationality to the same situation, or a political measure of success. And I suppose here you can recall some vaguely Kantian notion of purposeless purposiveness that seems useful to hang out, despite all the other problematic things it might be attached to.

But stepping aside from that I would suggest rather then asking if OWS represent a shift in art / politics perhaps a broad questions would be what shifts in an overall political economy of cultural production does it connect with and come of? And partially that is a question about art but also one broader then it. It seems rather to be a shift of life possibilities that were realized to have waned for those involved, the graduates with no future, lots of debt, and disillusionment with electoral politics that brought their skills, dreams, and energy along to whatever was going to happen. You might say that it was a shift in the ‘dark matter’ of the art world, to use Greg’s phrase for it, but a shift in the dark matter of not just the art world but more broadly.

In that sense I would see that OWS represented the visible manifestation of a shift in class composition more broadly. Whether or not it represented a significant change in art is not an especially exciting question for me personally. But I do find Yates account of the usage of what might call artistic approaches and tools interesting regardless of what you call it (especially in the later part of the book in the section on ecology and Black Lives Matter).

1 Like

Armando Hart once said that to confuse art and politics is a mistake, but that to separate art and politics is also a mistake. In his famous 1936 essay on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Walter Benjamin concluded that the task of engaged artists was not to aestheticize politics, as Leni Riefenstahl had been doing for the Nazi regime, but to politicize aesthetics, let’s say, in the manner of someone like John Heartfield. Closer to us today, Slavoj Žižek has suggested we turn around Benjamin’s longstanding injunction and reverse it, all the while decrying the “culturalization of politics” by liberal multiculturalism. Žižek’s call to radicalize the post-political left is well-known from the speech he gave at Occupy Wall Street, where he warned the young protesters to not fall in love with themselves and with the spectacle of the encampment, that the hard work of real social change comes the day after the moment of carnivalesque upheaval. McKee’s excellent new book is dedicated to art that is embedded in direct action and social movement activism before, during and after Occupy. It’s also, you could say, a book that dwells on this Žižek meme. In Lacanian terms, Strike Art understands that Occupy is not a unified, coherent movement, but it also understands that the “situational apperception” that conditions its “ideal ego” is that of an unacceptable neoliberal end of ideology. In this regard I hesitate to use the word “world” when, as Badiou says, the world in which we presently live is wordless, denouncing the democratic materialism of languages and bodies. McKee uses Badiou to refer to Occupy as an event but given that Badiou is not dead yet and has spoken on the subject, he could have looked into Badiou’s critique of multitudes massism. Badiou is the one who said that politics are generic - it’s not something you can impose on one person or something you can keep under your hat subrosa, like that Nazi guy Karl Schmitt would have said.

Like the group Strike Debt, Strike Art uses a Derridean deconstructive register to place the word Art “under erasure.” This refers to the strike as a tactic of worker revolt as well as its uses by other kinds of groups in such actions as the student strike, the art strike, and the climate strike. It’s interesting to compare Occupy, which pretty much floundered in Montreal, to that of the Quebec student strike, which was based on combative syndicalism. In any case the strike in strike art also alludes obliquely to Marxist dialectics when it suggests that the groups that have emerged in the context of Zuccotti Park, are “engaged in a simultaneous negation and affirmation of art itself." McKee refers to this as a renewal of the ambition of the avant-garde to sublate art into life, or in more specific terms, the “dynamic articulation” of art and direct action. While such an assertion might elsewhere lead to an extensive philosophical and theoretical expose, McKee’s book is short on art theory and long on examples of art activism (social movement praxis), which he narrates deftly as someone who has been directly involved in movements for social change. Because he is both committed to what he recounts but also nuanced in his criticisms, his book is an excellent presentation of the new kinds of activist art that we have seen emerge since the development of social media and by and large after the emergence of the alterglobalization left in the late 1990s.

On a theoretical level, McKee wishes to make a few modest claims. He is not concerned to determine the aesthetic criteria of art made in the context of social movements, as might for example Claire Bishop. By the same token, he is not trying to invent a new category of aesthetic practice, in the manner for instance of Nicolas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics” or Grant Kester’s “dialogical aesthetics.” McKee is clear that many different strategies and tactics could come in handy in the process of “creative direct action.” Taking the “New Anarchism” as his political reference point, and bypassing the limits of class analysis for the new age of general intellect, McKee argues that the imaginaries of social movements like Occupy take us beyond contemporary art and beyond the control of art institutions like museums and universities. Autonomous movements and activist groups do not entirely dispense with art and its institutions, however, but “leverage” these according to the needs of the moment. For McKee, art has lost the superstructural autonomy ascribed to it by thinkers like Theodor Adorno and is now thoroughly embedded in capitalist exchange relations. This concession to biopower, which one finds in the anarchism of autonomist thinkers like Hardt and Negri, or in the analyses of David Graeber, is what defines the vanguardism of Occupy as “creative direct action.” The sublation of art therefore implies that Occupy has superseded the discursive parameters of social practice art and socially engaged art, which McKee identifies with the moment when participants at the 2011 Creative Time Summit decided to leave the conference and join the people agitating in Zuccotti Park. This moment, he says, “represents the end of socially engaged art” and its dissolution into “an expanded field of ‘social engagement’” that repurposes art as a form of “collective creativity.” This is a complex example of supersession that could be examined in more detail. Certainly John Roberts would have interesting things to say about that.

Unlike some of the avant gardes of the past, Occupy’s critique of capitalism is not articulated as an attack on bourgeois ideology. Rather, the operative term here is the commons, a concept that acts as an ontological placeholder for the shift away from both social democratic Keynesianism, unionism and welfare state reform, and from the representational politics and state control of communist parties. McKee is therefore keenly aware of the contradictions of Occupy. While the concept of the 99% cannot incarnate the abstract universal of identities, its noncompliance with neoliberalism allows for “cross-sectorial alliances” that are coming to terms with the concrete universal of capital. This is important for even him to understand. Affinity among different groups does not necessarily solve the problem of collective precarity. McKee mentions in this regard a question posed by Gerald Raunig, who wonders what it means to strike when the idea of the working day has been relegated to the Fordist past. The current struggle of French workers against the proposed labour law, which would cut down on overtime wages and extend the working day to ten hours, is only a partial answer to this enigma. Another contradiction that McKee rightly acknowledges, this time in relation to Sandy Relief, is the fact that such new autonomous biopolitical infrastructures are filling in the void created by negligent state authorities. Such emergency relief groups are poorly compensated and in some cases may have less expertise than public infrastructures that have already proven to be effective. Assuming that the neoliberalization of everything continues as planned, we could imagine the eventual need for Occupy Mail, Occupy Firefighters, Hospital Relief, Police Relief and so on and so forth.

McKee is really at his best when he describes the many facets of Occupy and its proliferation of experiments in self-organization, from assemblies to slogans, embodied technologies and popular kitchens, practices of commoning knowledge and resources that lead to new subjective and affective assemblages against the undemocratic forms of state and capitalist control. He is cognizant of radical precedents to Occupy and dedicates many pages to political groups such as the Situationists, Black Mask, the Motherfuckers, the Diggers, the Black Panthers, Art Workers’ Coalition, Reclaim the Streets, Direct Action Network but also to the “social aesthetics” of people like Krzysztof Wodiczko, Allan Sekula, and Martha Rosler, and “art” groups like ACT UP, REPOhistory, Critical Art Ensemble, Temporary Services, Yes Men, 16 Beaver, W.A.G.E., MTL and Not An Alternative. When he comes to the subject of Occupy Wall Street he doesn’t spend much time describing the emergence and eviction of the occupation itself but focuses on the “aesthetico-political antinomies” that would come to structure Occupy, from its “psychogeographical dramaturgy” to the site-specific aspects of the encampment, its “formal” properties, its new performative signals, as well as its new lexicon of class warfare of the 99%. The result is the construction of a “biopolitical assemblage” that involves “embodied assembly” and “technical mediation.” These forms had a durable structure and after the eviction would move to other sites of struggle and what Stephen Duncombe refers to as “ethical spectacles.” Among those described in the book is the conjunction of Duarte Square, Occupy Faith, and Occupy Arts, as well as Occupy Museums, Occupy Homes, Arts and Labor, May Day, Strike Debt, Rolling Jubilee, and Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.).

McKee proposes a critique of Occupy as put forward by what Marxists would have at one time identified as problems of uneven development, described by him as the “universal culpability” of the life and death issues surrounding global warming and struggles by racially marginal communities against systemic state and police violence. In both cases, whether we are talking about the “survivalist communization” of groups like Black Lives Matter and Direct Action Front for Palestine, or the “eco-socialist planning” of groups like Liberate Tate, Art Not Oil, 350.org and Flood Wall Street, such “ecologies of Occupy” represent the rhizomatic proliferation of biopolitical infrastructures that are concerned with social reproduction. “Strike art” is therefore art that is embedded in the “living fabric of collective political struggle” and as such challenges the complacency of the contemporary art system. This “post-Occupy condition,” according to McKee, upends existing institutions. While such efforts may not be successful in terms of revolutionary goals, he says, they could be scaled up to build collective power, and, one might assume, lead to a fabled communist or commonist transition.

When that day comes, weather permitting, people will be relatively free from alienated labour and will be able to determine for themselves, as well as with and for others, what forms of art they wish to pursue. In his concluding note, to come back to Žižek, McKee refers to this collective liberation or art as not an ideal image of harmonious identity but as an activity that never comes to an end. Lacan referred to this as the “infinite quadrature of the ego’s verifications.” A further enigma, about not “falling in love” with ourselves, has to do with the difference between the genuine event of falling and arranged marriages, or what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as “amor fati” and “odium fati,” but I won’t get into that here.

To begin with I will say that I agree with those above who find McKee’s Strike Art a scholarly and extremely informative study of the involvement of art with the Occupy protests, and the legacy of Occupy in art activism. As Gregory Sholette states in the introduction, it is a work that is full of ‘granular detail’, which I have enjoyed reading.

I also entirely agree with the sentiment expressed in McKee’s introduction, that critical work of this kind should ask ‘how a politics of solidarity can be articulated that works against ongoing dynamics of white supremacy, patriarchy, and class privilege in organising spaces while constructing a common horizon of the Left’ (7).

On the other hand, I think that McKee should be pressed on some of his claims, because ‘solidarity’ has to mean more than going along with a very broad Left consensus. With that it mind, I think there are some criticisms that might be made.

The ‘militant research’ of Strike Art avoids generally avoids antagonism of the avant-garde type, and in this respect it might be praised for avoiding stereotypes of militancy. The closest the book comes to an avant-gardist claim to supercession is where Occupy is tentatively posited as the ‘end’ of socially-engaged art (p.81), a ‘completion’ but also a kind of ‘self-immolation’ of Nato Thompson’s Living as Form. Thomas Gokey is cited as saying something similar (p.164), so it may be that this idea has wider currency among the artists that McKee discusses.

I think that the idea is very problematic in a way that points to an issue with the theoretical framing of the book. McKee demonstrates, in great detail, that Occupy New York involved artists in prominent roles. But this means that within Occupy as a ‘collective’ work, unavoidably given the art historical framing, some participants are more anonymous than others.At the same time, granted the status of an artwork, Occupy New York tends to stand in for the global Occupy movement. The relationship between the collective and the individual alters with the identification as ‘art’ in this context.

To pick up on Stevphen Shukaikis’s point, for me there is something ‘lost’ in the choice to discuss Occupy as an artwork. Another loss is that the book does not engage with any political critiques of Occupy. The decision to frame Occupy as an ‘event’, or as an artwork, tends to neutralize the difficult questions that are part of its legacy, and its enduring critical vitality.

Of course, one book cannot cover every perspective on such a complex phenomenon as Occupy was. But for this reason, it would have been better not to simultaneously abstract the movement and collapse it into contemporary art, as in this statement:

‘Far from two separate entities, Occupy and contemporary art were in fact immanent to one another, involving a dual dynamic in which artists who engaged with Occupy undertook an exodus or desertion from the art system, on the one hand, while taking that system itself as a target of action and leveraging on the other’ (p.25)

Both contemporary art and Occupy mediated the social relations of capitalism, that’s true. But that commonality raises difficulties that are not considered by the book. It is questionable whether there was a ‘desertion’, because art is a term that tends to keep pace with those that leave it behind, as avant-gardes have often discovered.

I am dwelling on tensions here, because they are important and revealing. The introduction to Strike Art dispenses with Andrea Fraser’s misgivings about art’s relationship to politics a little too summarily, perhaps. Whatever her failings, she does inherit an important form of avant-garde self-criticism from the 1970s. In ‘Strike Art’ the problems Fraser raises are avoided by the pragmatic assertion that art institutions can provide useful spaces of resistance, even though they are also expressions of a capitalist ruling order. This is true, but there is still something that ought to be retained from Fraser’s version of institutional critique: what problems does art have to overcome in order to put itself at the service of politics? What self-critical tasks need to be addressed in order for artists to achieve art’s negation, or even more difficult, its ‘simultaneous negation and affirmation’? In fact, this last feat is attributed to ‘insurgent multiplicities’ but, as we have seen, Strike Art cannot help but have art practices stand in for them.

These critical problems derive from the contradictions which multiply at the meeting of art and politics. I would have liked to have seen more consideration of such contradictions in Strike Art.

In John Roberts’s recent book Revolutionary Time and the Avant-garde he emphasizes the discontinuity between what he terms the suspensive avant-garde, and political activism. The adisciplinary, and theoretical research project of the avant-garde, while it is embedded in politics ‘cannot submit itself completely…to the tactical exigencies of political praxis’. For Roberts:
‘In its heteronomous encounter with capital, art must offer a place, a memory, a set of relations, modes of cognition and learning and mapping, that provides a different space of encounter between art, praxis and truth – a place that sustains an open and reflective encounter between art and the totalizing critique of capitalism.’ (35).

Now, there is no reason why Mckee should agree with this, or any of the artists that he discusses for that matter. However, Roberts’ reading of the avant-garde at least raises some of the intractable problems that continue to exist in the difficult terrain that the artists considered in Strike Art inhabit. Their work is important, often inspiring – and it is worth reiterating that the detailed consideration of this work in Strike Art is its strength. But the theoretical framing, and the consideration of the problem of the art institution in particular, are less satisfying for me.

1 Like

Having read the very interesting contributions above I would suggest to change the perspective over McKee’s book. As other conversationalists noticed, I found extremely important the molecular narration of the practices of OWS, especially because it was this decisive biopolitical feature, combined with the molar opposition of the 99% against the 1%, that produced the growth of OWS and allowed it to have a global influence. At the same time I think that (this is one possible example among others in the book) the attempt to compare the use of cardboards made by the activists with that of Thomas Hirschhorn in his installations (though is an exercise that I practiced too, while being involved in demonstrations, occupations or direct actions) is not really the most urgent issue.
Concerning the theme of the avant-garde suggested by Sholette, I must say that while I’m aware of the importance of re-thinking the function of this very category (@kcharn1 mentioned the book by John Roberts), I’m also quite doubtful about discussing it in the classical terms of “dialectic of art and life”, because any art happens today potentially subjected to the present conditions of capitalist production. When, as McKee recognizes, the rhetoric of creativity has infested labor in general from the most humble jobs to the highest peaks of management, I really find it difficult to see where art and life diverge, on the contrary I see a merging that I don’t like at all. Art has already become an integral part of the neoliberal form of life.
I don’t want to be misunderstood, I am not paranoid (I think this is clear for those who know a bit about my history with the S.a.L.E.-Docks collective in Venice), I only think that those who want to liberate the arts from the above mentioned neoliberal co-optation must correctly identify their battlefield. So, to pick up on @natot contribution, I must say that I agree when he affirms that the point is not to avoid the existing art infrastructure (though sometimes could be done), I think that the point is the subjective position from where the artist (or the curator or the cultural worker in general) addresses this very infrastructure. A strike against the current conditions of valorization of art and culture is a complex matter and it involves both the drive over new institutionality (this is where we find the most evident difference with the artistic practice of Institutional Critique) and the problem of blocking and forcing the present institutions into a process of transformation (as most of them work now through a governmental logic that opens spaces for critical practices while at the same time being completely compatible with the neoliberal mode of production).
Finally what is this change of perspective that I suggested at the beginning? I read “Strike Art” as a product of the post occupy condition itself. I must say that living in Europe unfortunately I did not participate to OWS, but many friends who did, told me about it in terms of a life-changing experience and I was myself recently involved in a wave of mobilizations in which Italian artists and cultural workers where at the forefront. So I think that it is not foolish to affirm that OWS opened to many artists (and not only) new possibilities of subjectivation outside those allowed by the neoliberal framework, often perceived as “natural”. In Europe this neoliberal device would work with a double rhetoric. The most conservative governments would cut funds for culture describing the artist as an unproductive parasite, living on a welfare definitively gone. On the other side there is the corporate/creative class discourse which chains the artist to the figure of the entrepreneur of the self, so no matter how engaged your art is, its space will always be defined by the market (the private one or the one funded by public commissioners). Reading “Strike Art” (of course keeping in consideration the differences of the context) I had the impression that OWS broke this device, giving to many the possibility of seeing a renovated social function of their work as artists (or cultural/cognitive workers) and of directly experiencing the possibilities of a collective machine of biopolitical creation consciously dealing with its semiotic potential.
That’s why I definitely stand on McKee’s side. Despite all the possible different opinions I think that this book should be used, I mean it should be recognized that its point is not to present OWS as an artwork with the goal of push it within the art system, subordinating it to its disciplinary debate and to its goals. On the contrary I think that “Strike Art”, if properly handled, could help with forcing that institutional space, maybe taking it a little bit closer to the purposes of Occupy Wall Street.

1 Like

From a position within the wave that Yates describes in Strike Art, I have very little perspective on the question posed, but can report that joining the Occupy Movement had a transformative effect on how many of us relate to art institutions and aesthetics. The movement also introduced tools wielding substantial political agency on a scale that previously seemed impossible. This was achieved through an alliance of many cultural producers with a social movement that was larger than the “art system,” so I don’t want to minimize the process by bringing it (art practices within the movement or the movement itself) into an art historical framework fit for consumption by existing institutions. However, in my view, and I think the view of Strike Art, it’s impossible to pull a diversity of art practices neatly apart from the Occupy Movement, or from each other.

Describing the shift on a concrete level we can name a set of movement resources and a radical set of possibilities arising from them. Artists involved with the movement have not had to completely rely on the support of art institutions to rise out of an atomized state and to address the public sphere as for example Thomas Hirschorn relied on the Dia Foundation to produce Gramschi monument. The movement itself has acted as a powerful institution at times providing food, housing, transportation, meeting space, legal and spiritual support, skills trainings, facilitation, and especially media connections. Perhaps you could say that the movement cracked open a window in the impenetrable wall of circular logic where politically left oriented art is supported by institutions which are in turn supported by the 1% and embedded in their economic system of concentrated rewards and debts. The question Greg poses is what are the artistic implications of this new possibility of affiliation not seen in a generation?

The various definitions of art contained in the movement which Yates chronicles with much detail (although not with 100% accuracy, there are some mistakes in describing Occupy Museum’s history in relation to the Teamsters 814 campaign) resist facile summation and Yates mostly avoids picking and choosing occupy practices in favor of laying out the wide aesthetic and political territory which more accurately maps a definition of art in the movement: one that is unruly. Maybe not accentuated enough is that practices described in Strike Art are often oriented toward different audiences/worlds. It’s a point Yates does touch on—especially describing the dynamics of the Climate March/Flood Wall Street but some of the groups he shouts out address a fairly mainstream public, operating like NGO’s (and often organized in tandem or embedded in NGO’s as Climate March did), some are deeply nested in radical anarchist circles and do not cooperate with mainstream institutions, some operate in critical left circles, some in an international section of the closer-to-mainstream left artworld even with high-profile international biennales. Others operate in or partly in academic circles. The incongruent aesthetics from professional/clean to noncompliant/messy and differing use of language from theoretically inclined to populist also reflect varying sets of values and different spheres traversed by the Occupy community. Nato’s recent book Seeing Power makes a call to name the different kinds of cultural capital embedded into the activist and visual art worlds because we need to know these intentions in order to read varying political and artistic strategies and avoid everything being sucked into one framework. We are speaking about different definitions or art, really, and it should ward off sweeping claims about art and the occupy movement. But its precisely this non-specialization which itself pushes against late-capitalist logic, which is the refreshing lens that Occupy applied to art.

The amazing thing about the early stage of the movement was how myriad political strategies and aesthetics held together into one space that was multilayered but cohesive. For example, for the first few months there was an official Arts and Culture Working Group (initiated not by an artist but a Brazilian doctor—Alexandre Carvalho) connected formally to the General Assembly. The Arts and Culture working group in turn contained sub groups representing all sorts of different approaches and relations to “bright” and “dark” matter: figures such as critics and curators densely networked into the art world, puppeteers, vagabonds, students, sunday painters wanting to help with signs, etc. The A & C working group represented, essentially, a non-specialized definition of art, which is rarely if ever embodied in a hyper-professionalized economy. Occupy Museums, an early movement group, arose directly from this body and in its composition has reflected some of the randomness of the movement. The affinity groups that formed after the park tend to be more specialized in their composition. But the interrelation between the many groups and their various political campaigns and artistic tactics described in Strike Art still continues and the heterogonous network itself is to me what is new even if some of the practices aren’t so new.

There is still a haunting question though about whether the art arising from the occupy movement might be some kind of aesthetic or conceptual step forward. While for many groups in Strike Art such as the People’s Puppets, this question would be sort of irrelevant, it’s a little more approachable for Occupy Museums and G.U.L.F direct actions which have developed as a merging of artistic and political practice in close relation (even if conflictual) to the art system. But I’m even more haunted by who does it serve to prove that the work is a legitimate branch of avante garde and who gets to decide? The question actually gets smaller the more I think about it. Any reasonable measures of quality are lacking. In my view, effective politics doesn’t replace the work of trying to advance aesthetic and conceptual practices without almost certainly instrumentalizing art. The onus is on us, if we continue to work as artists- to push our art forward toward creating unfamiliar spaces and aesthetics, even objects and experiences from within a movement framework. It appears to me that concrete political wins—at least in the short term, have mostly to do with strategic organization and a close relationship with the media. True, strategy and organizing can also be an art practice, but its not automatically an interesting one.

However, I do think that our work has thrown into question many of the capitalistic assumptions woven into existing institutional support (universities, galleries, museums) behind practices considered advanced aesthetically and theoretically. And with it, the notion of artistic quality becomes unmoored. This is obviously not true for the entire art system, the giant commercial part of which, in a surreal way since 2008, smoothly trends on seemingly severed from social realities. However, for a few years now, an Occupy network, resulting from an intense moment of solidarity, has allowed many of us to sustain and expand a politicization of our work and powerfully scatter these politicized practices into public space. Strike Art is an unprecedented recounting of this terrain, which contains contradictions that if not abandoned, could truly short circuit the definition of art at the center of the art system.

For me as somebody who lacks first hand experience of OWS and precedent social struggles in the U.S., Yates McKee’s detailed description of how the practices of artists are intertwined with various protest movements provides precious insights. However, it is not enough to judge the significance of the specific moments he is focusing his analysis on, and my estimates can be made only in a general manner.

If Yates McKee claims that artistic practices that have their place in the art world and are labeled within the institutional discourse “socially engaged art” are immersing into life and transform into political action, he implies that OWS has truly changed the world, has suspended the law of infinite accumulation, has suspended capitalism, at least for a certain time and group of people. It seems to me that he uses the comparison with the historical avant-garde here with a certain political purpose as to provoke discussion about the status quo.
From a historical perspective this claim is misleading, as the historical avant-garde took place within a completely different ideological and social setting than today’s practices, and, although the aim was to erase the difference between life and art, the position of the avant-garde was clearly an ideological one. In the capitalist societies avant-garde practices dissolved into commodified practices that have been in many circles recuperated since, while in socialism they competed with politics for ideological primacy – and unfortunately lost the battle.

I won’t recapitulate the discussion about the historical avant-garde here, but it leads us to some aspects, that I could call the political subtext of McKees observations.

Most striking and insightful for me is that McKee shows in his elaboration how art that has been valorized in the art institutions (e.g. through the programs of Creative Time), seeks to (re)-connect with political practices of the social movements.
How did these political practices develop since the time of the historical avant-garde? After WW2 a new form of political grassroots action gained significance in liberal democracies: since then various forms of non-violent actions constitute the core of protest practices that aim for changes in society. Social movements organize marches, sit-ins, mass performances, symbolic processions, all with their distinctive audio-visual imagery.
The more institutionalized these practices for social change became in the civil society organizations, the more decisive their representational layer became, having to compete with the overwhelming production of all the other cultural practices. Professional campaign makers started to appropriate techniques directly from the arts, and today engage a whole network of art-activists that culminates in projects like “Beautiful Trouble – Tools for Revolution” http://beautifultrouble.org.
It is a common place that politics has become a cultural commodity and it is hard to see, how the re-connection of “socially engaged art” with social practices of resistance could make a substantial change to this. In my view the desire of the arts to re-connect to the “real” is a function of the ideology of utilitarism attached to the profile of “socially engaged art”.

It might not be a coincidence that this kind of ecstatic mutual reappropriation happens in a time when in the art world two experiences of pseudo-avantgarde practices come together: the Western experience of a “secondary adaptation” of cultural jamming, situationist derive and other counter cultural techniques by civil society organizations (institutionalized social movements) and the experience of an art-driven “secondary adaptation” of social activism that was promoted by cultural institutions in the post-socialist and other countries to support so called democratic changes and transition to capitalism, an artistic practice art theorist Miško Šuvaković has called “Soros Realism” http://www.ljudmila.org/scca/platforma3/suvakoviceng.htm.

While the historical avant-garde was directed against the institutions of art itself, I doubt if this can be said about the artistic practices McKee describes. He thoroughly figures out the role of the art institution Creative Time and mainstream organizations for social justice in facilitating and financing forms of artist-led activism. I would say that institutions and the institution of art in particular are vital for “engaged artistic practices”, as without the institutional protection many of these practices wouldn’t get support or be criminalized from the very beginning. On the side of the institution it seems that art indeed is in need for verification and valorization in the social field.
Here the recent announcement of the Deutsche Bank artist of the year 2017 comes to my mins, who is described as “… representative of a new generation of South African artists who work in all different kinds of genres and media in order to develop new artistic perspectives and narrative modes, as well as new forms of political action.”
Deutsche Bank http://db-artmag.com/en/92/news/kemang-wa-lehulere-is-deutsche-banks-artist-of-the-year-2017/

Is there no way out from the trap of recuperation? Not at all, there are plenty of examples of groups and practices of artists that do succeed in taking politically clearly articulated positions that allow them to target art institutions and to wage art-related social struggles in coalition with non-art social movements. The reason for their success lies in the fact that the political weight of these groups is rooted in the production and labor conditions of the art field itself.

Noah, I think you bring up some excellent points. Particularly when you write “But I’m even more haunted by who does it serve to prove that the work is a legitimate branch of avant-garde and who gets to decide?” This is why I think it is a red herring to connect a social movement with art – what is gained by this? A social movement should by its nature open to all and everyone’s creative input should be supported and encouraged. Judgment has no place here. I also agree with Claire Bishop that the words “avant-garde” today connote novelty and also the idea of being ahead, an advance guard that leave others behind – and therefore have no place in a broad based consensus driven movement. I like the fact that a place like Interference Archive does not call itself an archive of art but rather an archive of material culture.

“Art” has different criteria and they are very fraught to say the least. Thomas Hirschhorn and I had a lot of discussions about art and making judgments when I took his art class at the Gramsci Monument and sometimes our arguments were fierce. He is smart, I think to insist on calling his work strictly “art” and disavow any kind of social practice.

Truly, this question worries me. Zoe points out, in reference to Claire Bishop, that the avant-garde “connote[s] novelty, and also the idea of being ahead, an advance guard that leave[s] others behind.” She has a concern with positionality vis a vis Occupy: that those who leave others behind are not, in fact, the 99%. I firmly agree with that, and add a second point: the avant garde, militaristically speaking, were certainly the 99%, but in its worst moment – those sent ahead to be slaughtered. On paper, the purpose of these troops were to seek the enemy and secure terrain to prepare for the approach of the main force. On the ground, I suspect the experience was usually much worse than simple preparation.

But in fact some of this can be said about Occupy as well. On the ground, the experience was sometimes much worse. My least favorite parts of 2011 involved what seemed like an ill-fated camping trip; my most favorite were those that approached the form of an ideal classroom. The pedagogical strategies developed and strengthened through 16 Beaver, various working groups, and towards ongoing strategies for communication that we’ve continued to use both in public engagement and in protest (not that the two are mutually exclusive) seem like the most meaningful residue I can conjure from a passionate and chaotic time.

For those with continued etymological curiosity, I’ve just learned the elements of an army’s vanguard: foreriders, civil officials, trumpeters (message bringers, those who demand surrender), workmen who clear obstacles, and harbingers who secure shelter. Metaphorically, I can place a map of these roles onto Zuccotti Park’s temporary institutions: mic-check the trumpeters, news network the officials, kitchen, among other things, a shelter. But what does that mean in a condition where rather than advancing against others, a movement is staying still, gradually being encircled and eventually removed? How do we behave when we are trying to hold on to what we have, rather than pushing to conquer others?

Ok, so likely this is both too literal and too metaphoric; Occupy was not just the park (thank god), and we are not like (or as) an army. But one point holds: even if we survive the first great push, perhaps there are better comparisons to make. What is the artistic movement term for the second line? Does it matter that we don’t have one? Is it amazing that, perhaps, we don’t need one?

Hi: I was surprised to read this assessment of Courbet at the Vendôme column: do we not remember André Breton’s epigram in Nadja:‘The magnificent light in Courbet’s paintings is for me the same as that of the Place Vendôme, at the time the Column fell.’ (15) A year later the Surrealists produced their map of the world that erased the United States and centered on the Pacific. Bringing down the column ushers in a decolonial practice. In the same way, OWS was a carnival, yes as Claire Tancons pointed out here in 2011. Why is that a bad thing? In colonial New York, enslaved human beings and free people of color celebrated carnival annually as Pinkster. It reminded us in 2011 that Wall St was built by the enslaved to keep out the Native population. That Wall St was where the slave market was. I say bring down all the columns, like the one at Columbus Circle or the other colonial statues that litter this city #RhodesMustFall.

Traveling, just arriving now in an NYC hostel in the Queens Plaza area, and facing the city in all its ferocious extractive power, molecularly expressed in unceasing noise of traffic and construction – I am picking up now on Greg’s thread on Yates’ book, and Greg’s indispensable digests of the first wave of comments. No. Yes. The angel of history has never stopped moving. Occupy is forgotten in any public focus. But it is still working, now arising again in Paris, in the squares which are being torn up for plantings. Because some people remember; it is their task to remember. Remembering – this is Dada’s centennial year! That is the job of the avant-garde, to remember and to act. Activist or artist, like all human beings, moving forward into unknown territories on the feet and wings of past practice. Strategizing disruption, devising the possible in the conditions of the present, as Stevphen writes of the SI. One uses the tools one has and knows, a pen, a crowbar, a hacksaw, a paint brush. I go this weekend to talk squatting at the NY Anarchist Book Fair. I have written and edited for years on the cultural usages of occupation. With increasing state repression and evictions of political projects in Europe, there is a lot of dejection. Political occupation in the USA has withered to invisibility. This is catastrophic for our future prospects, not least because we’ll need very soon to work through the “jobless future” which is already here, hiding behind every sofa. People without capital, with only their labor power to move them forward, will need to figure out how to live, and what they want to do. How can they do this? Artists are going to help. They’re going to throw up images, models, practices and usages, sayings, depravings, diversions and amusements. Those who are conscious of their key historical role, their debt to futurity, those who remember – those are the avant garde.

Dear Greg and fellow conversationalists,

Coming from within the movement, I have had the privilege of working closely with Yates at various times during Occupy. Strike Art makes the case for an expansive and revolutionary art, and Yates’ writing on the historical and historiographical implications of the art arising from within and alongside the movement is remarkably nuanced.

It is precisely because of Yates’ position as an insider that he can approach an authoritative history of what was a dynamic and heterogenous process that demanded direct engagement. The obvious contradiction of his position - using his privilege to speak for the group - is consistent with my experiences in Occupy Wall Street in general, where we often wrestled with the tension between autonomy and consensus. We made a constant effort within the movement to reduce or eliminate these contradictions, often unsuccessfully. It was our goal to merge the internal politics of our group and our movement with our externalized messages. OWS was often criticized for lacking clear political demands, but our demands were baked in, as it were, to our processes and values, which were shared by every working group regardless of their proximity to the history and theory of contemporary art.

As arts groups in Occupy and then after, the practices we developed were done so from within the crucible of this movement that sought to merge the internal and external. Nevertheless, I would not go so far as to argue that it represents a new avant-garde. Although it may be appealing, I agree with Claire Bishop that it may not be accurate or useful to do so. Wherever Occupy fits within the taxonomy of aesthetic practices, and I do not agree that it signals an end to socially engaged art. I believe it offers new horizons for the category.

Although there certainly were active discussions within OWS Arts and Culture groups about the art historical questions raised here, the urgency of our “movement moment” generally superseded the need to define our activism as art or our art as activism. These questions only began to arise after the police invasion of Zuccotti Park, when the vibrancy and exceptionalism of the time began to fade. And once it did fade, questions like the one posed here became increasingly common, and strike me as regressive. Therefore a resounding “Yes!” to Noah’s question concerning the beneficiaries of such a framing: “who does it serve to prove that the work is a legitimate branch of avant-garde and who gets to decide?”

Excellent points Nick,
I’m all for decolonizing architecture and bringing columns down! But I understand Breton’s writing as a reflection on how for him, Courbet’s political imagination lit up all of his landscapes which is quite a lovely idea. For me this means that the Vendome action was more that just an artistic gesture. Breton’s remark suggest how art and politics can indeed illuminate each other.

1 Like

Greg and Yates, thanks so much for getting this going.

"Let’s say we did agree that OWS and its afterlife represents a significant shift within contemporary art and politics…. "

I am not sure that I do agree. For the hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life who found themselves transformed in the raucous campaigns that sprung up in opposition to specific reactionary moves in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and most especially Wisconsin in the months prior to the rising of OWS, daily life had already become hyperpoliticized. Viewed from outside of New York, OWS appeared to be a movement in the hunt for its target, the constellation of institutions termed ‘Wall Street,’ a shorthand with pre-existing recognition but less physical centralization than, say, a state capitol building or a governor’s mansion. The struggles in the Great Lakes states were battles of the moment, movements that assembled to contest budgets and new laws in the process of being rammed through. Life hung in the balance—the fight was over an extremist agenda that might slash your child’s school’s budget by a third or decertify your union, thereby guaranteeing you job insecurity and a substantial pay cut. Antagonisms were delineated along contours as precise as a worker’s classification. It felt different from the retroactive assignation of accountability that informed the beginnings of OWS. Thinking of the elemental effects of Rust Belt austerity is a less academic and possibly more meaningful way to consider the question of art and life in mutual visitation, and the degree to which they mesh. Another way to think about it is to see the midwestern struggles as interpellating politically mobilized people as artists—ie transforming people untrained in making and/or not self-identified as artists into those who attend to the making of symbols and gestures. This was a case of life falling into art more than art into life.

From this perspective OWS was not a shift of greater significance than what had rippled out from elsewhere around the country and around the world. In spirit it was of a piece; in design, it was a successfully contrived next step. By the fall of 2011, all the insurgencies were visible to one another; Bloombergville, the small tent city demonstration that now seems a temporal foreword to OWS as cited by Yates, was itself informed by the ‘Walkerville’ encampments that followed the expulsion of occupying citizens from the capitol building in Madison, and probably the tent city protest of Tel Aviv as well. From the text it seems that Yates sees continuity and slippage between all these differently placed struggles and that OWS stands out for reasons other than it marking a singularly significant political shift, not the least of it having to do with, as Greg says, Yates being an involved witness to an uprising at a ‘granular’ level. In an echo of Nato’s response to this first question, I see an analysis of OWS being most interesting in its specificity. A wide-angle question such as that which has been posed—ie using OWS as a springboard into a conversation about where it fits into of the whole history of avant gardes—tends to obscure what may be the most valuable lessons from the OWS experience.

As for the question of whether Occupy signals the return of avant-garde art, my short answer is No. Obviously there is plenty to be elaborated regarding the blurred lines dividing art and politics and how OWS did or did not travel the paths traced by the historical avant gardes. But I leave that discussion for now. Instead I wish to put attention to how another avant garde legacy failed to return in OWS, that of aesthetics. Avant-garde legacies—received, even if distorted—are equally those of transgressive aesthetic disruption, gestures often vacated of, or indifferent to, any specific political intent. One could say these histories of provocations are political in the sense of targeting bourgeois values, liberal political culture, and conventions of good taste, insofar as these elements of establishment society form the pillars of the capitalist superstructure. But I make a distinction between these works, acts, and ways of being and the considerably more focused requirements of organizing toward a specific desired political outcome on the level of policy or other official action. When Greg makes reference to Group Material’s opening statement, I take it as evidence that already by the early 1980s the transgressive streak as intrinsically threatening neared its horizon.

Skipping over the Culture Wars and the radical production of subcultures of transgression through the 1980s, it seems the post-9/11 world has settled into a very different aesthetics of dissent. Now citizen opposition exists under circumstances of presumed total surveillence and government paranoia. In an equally insidious wedding of Foucauldian self-governance to economic hegemonies, neoliberalism has assimilated values of individual expression, personal evolution, and visionary creativity into its market logics. These twinned conditions—a security state hitherto unseen and the final conquest of cool—set the stage what we saw over and over in 2011, occupations in which the occupiers self-organized and publicly performed a kind of basic social responsibility. People in Tahrir Square organized food stations and clean up crews. Occupiers set up a first aid station and a media center inside the capitol in Madison. Instead of trashing the plaza, folks in Zuccotti managed trash removal, and then put together a library. Though at times intoxicating in the pace of events, the gathering of bodies, and in the sheer realization that political sparks had finally caught, the occupations of 2011 and since have not been Dionysian affairs. The libidinal energy of an avant garde worth the name seemed absent, replaced by the General Assembly, a collective performance of radical civility and radically respectful multi-logue.

This tells us two things. One, that performing social responsibility at the base level of a DIY-style consideration for community is a favored radical gesture in a world in which being an asshole is criminally rewarded, as represented by the necktie barbarism of Wall Street hedge fund managers or, if you like, the tyranny and corruption of Mubarak. And two, that without the liberatory potential of the shocking gesture or the outlaw life, or, at least the negation intrinsic to the transgressing of a rule, politically committed artists have moved to modes of confrontation and engagement not in keeping with the notoriety of the historical avant garde. While a good high and an unmistakable “fuck you!” still ring in a sort of hedonistic truth, detaching from ‘tune in, turn on’-type directives as effective political messaging is overdue given our post-9/11 conditions. For having done this, OWS, precisely because it was at crucial points artist-instigated and artist-organized, marks neither an end nor a beginning but rather a confirmation and furthering of a direction.

1 Like

Being a background singer is about being a team player, having a servant’s heart. --Judith Hill

It’s important to me that people know that these are some of the greatest singers in the world… [We] made a lot of hits with these artists that we have sung behind for so many years. --Merry Clayton

All this talk about the avant-garde, the vanguard, the leaders of the charge, the “innovators,” the “lead singers,” makes me think of the backup singers, the maintainers, the REAR GUARD. In the rock performances I like, I can only find anyone like myself in the back, way in the back. What are those other black ladies doing, I wonder? Well, in black women’s and black gay culture we would say they are serving. They are amazing singers, true artists, raised in church, in large families, with deep cultures of harmonizing, calling and responding, moving together in time. Their voices in concert is always a revelation and the revolution. What are their names? I know some of their names, because they are my grandmothers, mothers, aunts, friends. They are working women. They have the strongest hands and the strongest voices. They are all heart and soul. They are shrewd and they are willing to sacrifice. They do windows, and floors, and wash underwear. They clean toilets. They take care of you and your children. I learned from these women how to be powerful enough to live with great injustice.

Mostly, they don’t write books, and few write about them, or really want to be them. But to honor them, I don’t need to write books. I simply need to live with a servant’s heart, hands and voice.

1 Like