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

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.