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


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.


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.



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”
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”

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

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.


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.


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.


I think you are spot on @DSWang , except for this -

“…transforming people untrained in making and/or not self-identified as artists into those who attend to the making of symbols and gestures.”

Art, certainly the idea of “Art” under discussion in an e-flux context, is a specialized, professional field. Merely “attending to” symbolic production does not make one an artist. I would caution that another type of specificity is demanded in this discussion - that art is not conflated with aesthetic practices. While “professional” artists may have been the instigators as you and others note, the question needn’t be “of art and life in mutual visitation,” rather we need a more careful understanding of the aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics. Katya Mandoki puts it much more succinctly:

“We will consequently have to veer 180 degrees the traditional approach to aesthetics by focusing not on the aesthetic effects of social practices such as art, fashion, or design, but on the social effects of aesthetic practices performed throughout a wide array of social institutions such as the family, the school, religion, the State, prison. The nature of specific aesthetic practices within each of these institutions is precisely the question that prosaics [her word for the aesthetics of daily life] will have to answer. The purpose is, thus, to study aesthetics not as the effect of art and beauty, but as constitutive of social effects.”

While the tools of art (and art criticism) may aid this, too often they act as inhibitors, trapping things in its funhouse mirror of academic jargon, but more problematic, it creates a category mistake in which art is seen as the source of aesthetic experience rather than the other way round. And that is of crucial importance if we are wanting to escape the dead end of avant-gardism as spelled out by others above.

Finally, as I commented over on facebook, a more alluring book to be written would have a slightly modified subtitle from this volume - Post-Art and the Contemporary Occupy Condition.


Response to Greg’s first questions:

Greg your intro to the conversation brings up very important questions, as I am still currently working through Strikes Art’s engaging read. As an outsider, and I mean this in the way one would describe the periphery of the theater world, as being off off Broadway. Granted, I am still nested structurally there somewhere in this worldly art system, even if precariously, on the back of it’s “forward” moving economy. This is important to state, because it constructs my precarious art world bodily engagements (Sholette’s notion of “Dark Matter”), that Strike Art skims (what I have read so far) as the book valorizes OWS, with interspersed “incorporated art” activist narrative constructions.

OWS in my mind was an important “psychogeographical” opening, and I read geo-graphy the way G. Spivak unpacks it, “how the world gets written”. OWS helped bring some of the “99 percent” white U.S. citizens out of the nightmare of capitalism as a political end game, after 9/11. This trance of white undead that OWS broke, by creating a surreal “event” of other political possibilities, give a select multitude permission to connect the dots openly, globally as well as economically to their neoliberal chains. Thus, if OWS functioned as a threshold to other anti-capitalist activist global connections, OWS described by Strike Art as an “intensification,” seems an appropriate opening storyline.

Even though I am intrigued by all the connections Strike Art brings to the OWS’s reality theoretical cite/site/sightings, the connections as they unfold in the book, fall together too uncomplicatedly, making OWS and it’s privileged multitude seem an inevitable outcome. There is a vanguard of sorts in this avant-garde preferred narrative trajectory, even if disavowed by Strike Art.

Look forward to reading more Strike Art!


Just a couple of comments, adding to this fascinating discussion on equally valuable book. When I read the excerpts of Yates McKee publication and think about responses to Greg’s insightful question, while living and working in Warsaw, Poland, one reflection pops up. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate, if the book’s title contained a bit more specific denotation of what it describes, like “Contemporary American art and post-Occupy condition” or maybe even “New York art scene before, during and after Occupy Wall Street” ? (I was writing this comment in parallel to @DSWang posting his very insightful critique re. Rust Belt and an American cycle of struggles).

This book is obviously a thick description and a self-ethnographic account of the political and artistic process, written from a position of an engaged practitioner. The title emphasizing the specificity of a context, to which the account refers and in which it is embedded, would make this narrative a great service. It would deflate some of the claims, which might be read, against the character of this narrative, as unjustified generalizations, like the one about the “end” of “socially engaged art” (is this claim valid everywhere, from Poland to Argentina? for everyone? why so? and why now?).

Such specificity would divert potential discussions from a well trodden path of ART versus POLITICS (always in capitals) debate. The problem with such dispute is that certain positions are entrenched on discursive battle lines, the concepts are there to be armed and fired, arguments are well rehearsed and ready to be performed. However, rituals are not particularly well suited to grasp new dynamics, which, I am pretty certain, post-artistic condition of Occupy Wall Street is an example of.

I do not think it makes sense to present and defend OWS as a cosmic EVENT (in capitals) which changed everything. Such thesis is neither defendable nor worthy to be defended. Our history is littered with such “events that changed everything”, just to name well known examples: for Spain it was 15M, for UK students protests, for Europe generally anti-austerity movements, for Argentina crash of early 2000’s, etc. Instead, one might draw theoretical conclusions in a midrange between bird’s view and wormhole perspective, in a direct relation with the granular reality of people involved in post-Occupy NY conundrum (so well documented in the book).

For example, one might ask, whether the contemporary fusions of artistic idioms and various life worlds and/or social fields, are a condition of emergence rather than an effect of OWS? (question asked many times here already, in different forms). Already in 1971 Jerzy Ludwiński, Polish theoretician of post-artistic times and a spectral patron of our current exhibition “Making use. Life in post-artistic times” (curated together with Sebastian Cichocki, at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw), wrote “Perhaps, even today, we do not deal with art. We might have overlooked the moment when it transformed itself into something else, something which we cannot yet name. It is certain, however, that what we deal with offers greater possibilities.” In this sense, OWS might be considered as a fruition of tendencies prompted by aesthetical revolutions eons ago, as an environment (not the first and one of many), where disobedient potentials embedded in what Ranciere calls “aesthetical regime of sensible” come into realization as a form of praxis. If we embrace their specificity, we might ask how do such environments emerge and what are their specific qualities, and to read them in a distinctive affinity with other emergent idioms.

By adopting a wormhole perspective (on the level of theory and claims), we would be able to conceptualize how, why and where do people formulate progressive responses to the general “expediency of culture” (industrialization of creativity, transformations of a class composition) in cognitive capitalism? We also might ask why does it happen so rarely, considering the scale on which art and creativity are currently subsumed in capitalistic circles of production and valorization? We also might skip the general notion that art is impregnable to an utilitarian capture. A more embedded theoretical perspective could prove helpful in discussing uses of art, distinguishing between various modes of usership (from below) and forms of its instrumentalization (from the top), referring to Stephen Wright’s interesting take on cultures of usership.

One might also read the history of New York Occupy as a formative moment for the emergence of yet another art world. I do not mean here the progressive transformation of “the art system” or taking over the infrastructures of artistic mainstream, in their totality. Again, I do not think that the binary concepts of mainstream versus off-scene, or totalizing misappropriations of Bourdieu’s theory of social fields (vide Fraser’s “1% is me”), are particularly productive to analyze the social complexity of post-Occupy condition of New York and American art worlds, 2011onwards.

I would propose to read post-Occupy art scene as one of many actually existing art worlds, some of which are alternative to the gallery-exhibition nexus (a current, capitalistic incarnation of a critic-gallery system). I prefer to use this last term, as it is more precise in pinning down and deconstructing so called “artistic mainstream”. The book of McKee meticulously documents this formative process, and is doing a fantastic job at it. Still, this process, instead of using binary categories (like a “movement of 99%” versus “institutions of 1%”) might be more insightfully analyzed without replicating a current ideological capture, which tends to present gallery-exhibition nexus as the only possible art world. Even the term “art system” suggests a social totality, which can be dominated by one specific mode of circulation and valorization. Interestingly though, the book of McKee provides yet another strong evidence in case against such misleading cosmology of art.

Art-related sections of OWS can be analyzed by referring to such concepts as Stephen Wright’s “art sustaining environments”, Basekamp’s notion of “plausible art worlds”, Greg Sholette’s analysis of mock institutions, or Gerald Raunig and Universidad Nomada’s notions of “monster institutions” or “institutions of exodus”. In so doing we could avoid repeating rather ritualistic debates about cooptation and recuperation, while not “falling in love” with fantasies about taking over the “infrsastructures of 1%”.


OWS: a prefigurative aesthetics of resistance?

Only speaking for the networks and groups that I have collaborated since the 1980’s all the questions you pose have beenat play to one degree or another. Often not so much in terms of our own disposition of art qua art, but art as disturbance of these questions or codeswitching the use of the “enabling fiction” or the “mytho-poetic” or playing with “ideological méconnaissance.” This bound, I think, to question of “tactical” vs. the “strategic” (while understanding that there is not much difference between them), they still created a sensibility of difference.These artivist gestures I participated in, and still do, were often framed as tactical in relation to aesthetics, media, networks, and the streets. And in each case from Critical Art Ensemble to Electronic Disturbance Theater 1.0/ 2.0 we have been able to reconfigure our tactical gestures in response to the larger activist strategies from ACT UP to the Zapatistas to Alter-Globalization to No Borders to Occupy to Ayotzinapa both directly and indirectly.

In terms of Electronic Disturbance Theater development of Electronic Civil Disobedience (ECD) as a practice verses how ECD was established by Critical Art Ensemble speculative model (of a technological elite cadre) was based on our encounter with the Zapatistas pre-figurative actions in 1994. For
the Zapatistas the pre-figurative was revolutionary shift from the imperceptible and instead create a plane of consistency, not by bringing the imperceptible to perception, but by changing dominant conditions for visibility or what can be made visible. The Zapatista Mask manifeste transparency/visibility, opacity/invisibility, and most importantly translucent pre-figuration future anterior: “In our dreams we have seen another world…This world is not a dream from the past, it was not something that came from our ancestors. It came from ahead, from the next steps we are going to take.” (Marco 1994). This sense of Zapatismo, that it came from ahead, then allow us to tactically imagine ECD as messages from the future that could route around the present bound to only the past. This of course is all layered in a strategic response to the neo-liberalism(s) own war machines of the future now. And it also changed the tactics that EDT manifested by moving us away from a technological action to an aesthetic disturbance-one that would a deeper alter-kinship with Zapatismo’s pre-figurative strategies.

The McKee’s mapping the after-life of OWS perhaps echoes this moment of “it came from ahead” and that at the core of the book and using the art historical process of framing via the listing of names, groups, gestures, struggle, and entanglements to anchor disturbance aesthetics to the future anterior OWS.


For the second question in the discussion on Strike Art, go here:


From my perspective the evolution of the collaborative process is most key aspect of Yates’ book. The early Modernists were all collaborations based on radical politics. And though the Dadaist claimed to be apolitical, their called for the end of western civilization which might be the most radical position.

I was part of REPOhistory and was invited to 16 Beaver soon after they acquired the space. I immediately realized that they were different, not just a reading group but more of an open forum to discus ideas, strategies and tactics. In the decade leading up to the occupation of Wall Street, 16b was a radical hub for international art, activism and theory. As noted by Yates, this process culminated in the August 2011 gathering of Beyond Good and Evil Commons: Debt, Economic Crisis and the Production of Commons. And 16b continued to be an important through the occupation and even more so after the eviction from Zuccotti.

On the first Tuesday of the occupation, the power and beauty of the people’s mic enabled the general assembly. OWS had previously decided to adapt the anti-globalization policy from Seattle and refused to issue demands. But on that night the assembly’s breakout groups discussed formulating a response to multiple requests from the media for a list of important issues. Our groups of about a dozen people could not come to agreement on a single issue. When we rejoined the assembly the other groups had come to the same conclusion. But instead of creating division, our collective decision galvanized the occupation. It gave us agency to work collectively or autonomously on any and all issues.

This agency went beyond the NYC occupation as a sign of solidarity with the global occupation movement. These alliances continue to play out on many levels from local house rights in NYC to immigration reform to the $15 an hour movement. Earlier this year I collaborated with artist from the Polish movement. And I am currently collaborating with a physicist from the occupied Berlin Biennale.


So if we want to read OWS as a form of Carnival redirected by the 99 percent embodied at Zucotti park encampment (I am from Trinidad and Tobago), This carnival in practice should be an intersectionality of activities that mocks all forms of privilege and power through a specific cultural hybridity of representational forms. Did OWS embody this intersectionality to antagonize all all forms of oppression? Yates M. does a good job of pointing out this lack in OWS, and the dominant lines of concern of OWS, but I don’t have a good sense from his book why this was so. More of the back story please. I know there were folks of color involved in OWS. I would of liked to hear more on the power struggles specific to issues of race in OWS.