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STRIKE ART, Question 2: Let's talk about Yates McKee's 2016 book on art, activism & Occupy


#1

(See also Question 1: “Occupy and the return of avant-garde art?” 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)

Question 2: Occupy and 21st Century Left politics? OWS: a prefigurative aesthetics of resistance?

What do we make of the undeniable and explicit organizing function that artists and cultural workers have assumed within various Left movements since at least the mid-1980s, though most explicitly within Occupy and its afterlife? Yates McKee vividly documents this tendency throughout Strike Art (136), but he also goes a step further by suggesting that an indispensable “artistic ethos” is at work within the “prefigurative” Left politics of the early 21st century (62). If this analysis is correct, then it requires a much smaller conceptual leap to suggest that this same artistic ethos could be deployed as common ground drawing together very diverse extra-parliamentary Left movements and organizations. But does art offer the emancipatory Left a long-lost “enabling fiction” or ontological imaginary sufficient to do battle in the messy reality of contemporary neoliberal society? Or is it the “mytho-poetic” (132) imaginary of prefigurative politics that is now informing contemporary art practice? After all, many of us know just how difficult it is to get even a few artists to work together on a project. But is the question at a deeper level, perhaps involving an underlying ethos or even ontological condition unique to contemporary society and neoliberal capitalism? Or is this an example of an ideological “méconnaissance” at play?

BACKGROUND TO QUESTION:

In my reading of Strike Art, McKee somewhat cautiously proposes a solution to a very challenging political conundrum. How does one articulate a common political thread shared by diverse extra-parliamentary movements that make up much of the Left today? Notably, these sundry activisms do not have a common political platform, nor do they even resemble the socialist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, or anti-colonial movements of past decades. The common enemy of what Bosteels calls the Speculative Left may indeed be racism and a flagrantly unjust economic system, but with few exceptions such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, or the Broad Front in Uruguay, these US activisms share only partially overlapping ideological, socio-economic or ethnic positions and vary in focus from environmental justice and Black Lives Matter, to anti-gentrification activism and debt relief campaigns. McKee’s Strike Art suggests that this multivalent Left activism might be more coherent than it appears. Occupy is his prime example because of the affinity developed between these diverse activist threads around three shared features. The first of these include anarcho-communist notions of autonomous self-organization and an unreserved investment in the transgressive tactics of civil disobedience. But it is the third characteristic of these anti-party political formations that is central to our discussion: the so-called “prefigurative politics” of OWS. McKee first draws our attention to David Graeber’s description of prefigurative politics in which the process of visualizing a non-alienated society heralds its future actualization. Graeber writes

“Surely there must be a link between the actual experience of first imagining things and then bringing them into being, individually or collectively, and the ability to envision social alternatives”

McKee then does something striking. He links Graeber’s notion of prefigurative politics with avant-garde art aesthetics, pointing out that:

“Graeber drives home the ethnographic surrealist dimension of his thought when he emphasizes the interplay between artists and indigenous people in the practice of what he calls “prefigurative politics … Graeber’s text is an essential point of reference in tracking the political and artistic ethos that would inform Occupy, an ethos that, as we have seen, developed in relative autonomy from the art world itself even while drawing nonacademically on the discourses of avant-garde art such as Dada, surrealism, and the Situationists.” (61-62).

McKee’s argument about the aesthetic dimension of pre-figurative politics is reinforced throughout Strike Art including for example when he references the late 1960s street theater of the San Francisco Diggers (28), or when he cites the integral creative practices of ACT UP in which artists were essential “not merely as decorators or designers, but rather as organizers and tacticians in their own right.” (41). And perhaps most emphatically he argues that Occupy might be considered a work of art itself:

“Occupy as a totality—rather than just this or that phenomena within 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.” (27)


STRIKE ART, Question 3: Let's talk about Yates McKee's 2016 book on art, activism & Occupy
STRIKE ART, Question 1: Let's talk about Yates McKee's 2016 book on art, activism & Occupy
STRIKE ART, Question 1: Let's talk about Yates McKee's 2016 book on art, activism & Occupy
#2

Only speaking for the networks and groups
that I have collaborated since the 1980’s all the questions you pose have been
at 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 manifested 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.


#3

#4

I appreciate this opportunity to talk about the term “prefigurative” in relation both to art and politics, because it is something that has bothered me for a long time. The career of the term is an interesting one. Originally prefiguration is a term from Biblical exegesis, by which Old Testament narratives or personages “prefigure” New Testament ones. So, for example, Jonah vomited up from the big fish prefigures Christ emerging, resurrected, from the tomb. Of course, Jonah knew nothing of this. The system requires a Christian exegetical framework that conscripts Jewish legends into a new theory of history. What matters for our purposes is that the notion of prefiguration implies figuration, the presentation of a figure to be interpreted, and this interpretation is something that can only happen in hindsight. On a basic level, (pre)figuration does not require causality—Jonah does not bring Christ into being—but rather, Jonah presents a sign that is to be deciphered by an interpreter, which ultimately confirms an orderly and predictable unfolding of sacred history (which is all history is).

What lingers from this sense of prefiguration in the political sense in which the term has been used since the 1970s to talk about the approach to politics taken by the New Left? The latter is a view of collective politics in which the end is no longer assumed to justify the means: rather the means must be consistent with the end. It’s a view not from after but from before incarnation (not of God but of the radically transformed society to come). We wouldn’t, however, like to think that it requires a future shift in historical framework as monumental as the disincarnate God becoming Man. In fact this notion of future historical rupture is exactly what it ostensibly works against. Instead it means embodying some radically democratic society in one’s daily actions. This approach to politics has long felt intuitively right to me personally, though what it actually means is totally open to debate. (And while philosophically the shift from “strategic” to “prefigurative” politics in the left bears some resemblance to changes in emphasis from product to process in art production, this also parallels the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy.) Finally, though, if in the exegetical sense the term is about representation, in the political sense in which it has come to be used, it is not at all about representation. It is about living something as a way of bringing it into being. To use another religious metaphor, this is not prefiguration; this is immanence. Perhaps we could call it radical immanence. Because the whole point is that radical society X is not the Messiah who will change everything. Radical society X is what “we” (whoever is operating in this mode) are beginning to build here now.

Uncomfortable as I am with the fit between the term and its current use, I suspect “prefigurative” holds appeal for art folk because of the implied relevance of figuration, figure, figuring to what artists do. To me what this does, though, is to emphasize the most problematic aspect of the term as used in politics. The way the question is posed here seems to suggest that the practices of artists in particular might “figure” a way forward, that art or artists might be a model or a motor to bring radical change into being (while not in fact—we assume—being the thing they represent).

David Graeber writes about prefigurative politics that “It’s one thing to say, ‘Another world is possible’. It’s another to experience it, however momentarily.” If there is figuration in this, the receiver of that figuration is the experiencing self. But if we imagine that the work of artists in particular or OWS is creating the figuration of a radical society for others, we also have to think about the social divides that this figuration inevitably embodies (this is similar to one way in which relational aesthetics was problematic, because whatever efficacy it had as representation of new or salutary social bonds came at the expense of those not able to participate). In part, Graeber’s statement echoes Toni Cade, who also suggested that living change was more powerful than just talking about it: “We’d better take the time to fashion revolutionary selves, revolutionary lives, revolutionary relationships. Mouth don’t win the war.” In contrast to Graeber’s focus (here anyway) on the fleetingly transformative experience—where we might see the before and after of the pre- and post-Occupy—Cade emphasizes duration, the daily labor of making involved in developing nonexploitative personal relationships.

Like @DSWang my view of the relationship of art and politics in this moment is conditioned by the experience of art and politics in the Midwest, where many artists have worked — with a remarkable absence of anxiety about whether this work counts as art — alongside and within political movements for years. There are moments in which artists create openings into which political action flows; there are moments when movements harness the particular skills of artists. I can’t really speak to OWS, but I did see the extent to which Occupy Chicago failed to connect with the broad and deep — and creative — political work already taking place through the city’s neighborhoods, especially around police brutality and torture, prisons, education, housing, and other issues of particular interest to poor and minority communities, or to represent itself as something other than a group of largely young, largely white folks. This isn’t to disparage the political moment it embodied or work it did, but it is hard to view it as transformative either in the sense of immanence or the sense of figuration.

But to get (finally!) to McKee, like many others commenting here I am immensely grateful for this account of OWS, the role of artists in it, and its powers of political imagination. I look forward to seeing how it plays this term with my students, who were in high school during OWS, and are entering into new political awareness now. How relevant does OWS seem to them? I wonder whether its potential relevance to them has not simply been overtaken by the highly visible conversations surrounding race and policing in America, and in particular, of late, in the Chicago area—and I would add, visible in ways that are also nourished by the strategies artists bring to the movement but may have little to do with OWS in particular. It’s especially for this reason that I hesitate to take OWS as transformative in the most ambitious sense in which the book suggests it was. McKee is appropriately hesitant about drawing any conclusions about the relationship of Black Lives Matter actions to OWS — it would be difficult for it to be otherwise, since the BLM movement is still so young. But the very structure of his narrative risks suggesting more of a relationship than it’s possible to claim. Perhaps this is a moment for those radicalized in OWS or around its moment, as for those radicalized in other moments, not to imagine their own experience as broadly transformative, but rather to think of its effects on themselves—as something that could enable them to develop a substantive relationship, as thinkers and as doers, to the urgency and movements of the present, without expecting to be the vanguard of anything at all.


#5

First we talked about “the avant-garde,” and I wondered about the unsung rear guard, for example all the black working women who sing, clean, and care, who don’t write, and won’t be written about. And now I continue to root around in the shadows and the margins of Yates’ book, and Greg’s question.

Greg’s second question asks how art can offer an “enabling fiction” to “the emancipatory Left.” It seems to me that “the Left” is already a fiction, which needs to be created and recreated in elaborate rituals. How can something that is already a fabulous construction need “art”?

The Left is a productive fiction. It is as much a cottage industry as “the art world.” Worrying about the Left, constructing the Left, studying the Left, is already an industry all its own. And judging by the representative list of recent books produced during and post-Occupy Wall Street, provided along with Greg’s first question, it would seem that the cultural production of “the Left” is an alarmingly efficient industry, dominated by white American/Western European men.

Let me give an example of what I mean when I say that “the Left” is a fiction that is produced by particular people, from specific cultural points of view. In his article, Yates conflates the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt and Greece with Occupy Wall Street, referring to all these events as the “Global Springtime.” This leads the reader to believe that something somewhat universal is happening, some emancipatory wave is sweeping the world, and this wave can be attributed to “the Left,” as led, or propelled, or paralleled by art and artists. What remains unaddressed is the specificity of each of these movements, the ways in which they resist collapsing into each other, and certainly into Occupy. The 2015 Economist’s Democracy Index ranks Greece at number 40/167, a “flawed democracy.” Tunisia appears at number 57, also a “flawed democracy,” after having recently jumped between “authoritarian” and “hybrid” regimes. Egypt is listed at 134/167, an “authoritarian regime.” The US remains at 20, the lowest ranked among the “full democracies.” In the space of four years, each of these countries has seen their political fortunes rise and fall at alarming rates, with the fate of Egypt being the most relentlessly crushing of them all. Whatever issue we take with “rankings” and “democracy,” I present them to illustrate a simple point: the conditions–political, economic, social, historical–in which Tunisians, Egyptians, and Greeks struggle for their lives are clearly not the same as those faced by (white, middle and working class) Americans. Our lives are precarious, but surely not in the same ways. When people sit in Tahrir Square and in Zuccotti Park, can they be said to “occupy” space in the same way? Do the gestures mean the same thing in such different contexts? What is the real basis of drawing all these people together into the same “wave” or “multitude”?

I think it is clear these realities cannot be easily reconciled. This is is why I refer to the work of cultural production which draws them together into something called “the Left” as a kind of creative writing. And we must admit that the infrastructure for spinning and distributing these yarns (written mostly in academic English) is very advanced in the US and Western/Northern Europe. Are artists necessary to this ideological effort? Why should artists work (for free, as usual) to support one fiction with another fiction?

But you know who is necessary to the production of “the Left” fiction? All those faceless people in Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, and even indigenous people! (“Graeber drives home the ethnographic surrealist dimension of his thought when he emphasizes the interplay between artists and indigenous people…”)

These “indigenous people” get to be in the multitude, but they can’t really ever get out of the bit parts in “the Left” fictions. While Yates and David, and “artists,” and others involved in this Left industry can dip into the multitudes and then head up front into “the avant-garde,” becoming individual people with “names,” and “thoughts” as they wish, the (mostly brown) multitudes stay faceless, like the multitudes in old Hollywood epics, such as The Ten Commandments. Well I say: “Let my multitudes go!”

“The Left” is an active and powerful fiction (which often imagines itself as powerless, while overestimating it’s ability to “ally” with its “others”) that creates shadows constantly: Inspirational shadows, admired shadows, referenced shadows, but shadows nonetheless.

And so, it seems to me that any art that I value must strive to do any number of things: escape “the Left,” fiction, unravel it as necessary, but most importantly, relate directly to the details of actual lives lived and ended inside the multitude. Art should walk alongside those lives, be embedded inside those lives, and find no need to explain or further fictionalize them. Because they–we–are all very, very real.


#6

The question of organization that Greg’s second question opens with is to my mind one of the most important questions for the Left today. Antonio Negri and a good number of other movement intellectuals have started calling for more “verticality” from horizontalist social movements. Negri calls for a verticality “that’s able to express strength and political programmes.” Yates McKee says this about the “ecologies of Occupy” proliferating in such a way that they could be “scaled up” to build collective power. In her recent essay, provocatively titled “Against Activism,” Astra Taylor looks at the history of the use of the word organizer as opposed to activist, which at one time was used in a derogatory manner by conservatives to refer to leftist organizers. In the 60s, says radical historian Roxanna Dunbar-Ortiz, other terms were also in use: revolutionaries, radicals, militants, socialists, communists, and organizers.

It’s been very interesting for me in this regard to see how people in this eflux conversation have been responding to the use of the words avant-garde and vanguard. I was impressed when I first read Oscar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s explanation of their use of the term ‘proletariat’ in their concept of the ‘proletarian public sphere.’ Their reason was simple: to not allow perfectly useful and political terms to fall into disuse, or as Walter Benjamin might have said, into the hands of the enemy. I myself use the word avant-garde in the sense that Gene Ray intends it when he says that for good or bad no other word better describes the combination of art praxis and political praxis. I found it interesting how McKee contrasted in his book some of the activist groups organized around Black Lives Matter to that of Kenneth Goldsmith’s work about Michael Brown. What interests me most about Goldsmith is the Ubu Web website that he curates and the kind of work that you find on that site, which makes me think about some of the avant-garde artists who have passed away recently, fortunately not from the terror of police violence: Chantal Akerman, Robert Ashley, Amiri Baraka, Pierre Boulez, Vera Chytilova, Ornette Coleman, Harun Farocki, Eduardo Galeano, William Greaves, Charlie Hadem and Judith Malina. There’s a whole set of tools, techniques and use vales in the work of such artists and knowledge is a durable good. But it’s often nevertheless earmarked as “neo-avant-garde” and fodder for the culture industry, as people like Peter Burger and Benjamin Buchloh might say. But this kind of Frankfurt School pessimism is also inadequate for contemporary practitioners who want change in our lifetime. If the autonomy of the field of culture was hard won, as Andrea Fraser says, so has been the new field of engaged art and social practice that has emerged in what for me is the wake of postmodernism.

What does this engaged art offer the new forms of class struggle, collectivism, commonism, or communalization? It begs the question of what definitions of art we’re willing to entertain – not to mention what definitions of avant-garde art and vanguard politics we use. Greg refers to art here as an ontological imaginary, one that is sufficient to do battle with neoliberal society. A good start. In his lecture on activist art Alain Badiou agues that the language of democracy is too equivocal to be useful to us in this regard – everyone considers themselves a democrat, which is today a weak ideology. He argues that the Left today needs a stronger ideology. The idea of art as ontology is what Marxists at one time referred to as superstructural or ideological. Not only is art superstructural, so is politics, both of them to be distinguished from the capitalist relations of production and from the level of technological development. Today’s anarchist post-politics tend to collapse base and superstructure into the immanentism and metaphysics of media culture. Anarchists in this regard tend to have an even stronger sense of totality than Marxists. But how many people today are concerned with dialectics? Many writers put out stereotypes of dialectics as some kind of happy synthesis or teleological version of Soviet diamat. So it’s sometimes hard for people to appreciate the richness of theory. Certainly social constructionism and cultural studies have contributed to a kind of totalitarianism in contemporary thinking, with “no outside” to capitalism being imaginable, let alone desirable. People throw themselves headlong into animal studies and post-humanism in order to be at the cutting edge of the bad infinity of becoming – a puerile vitalism, according to Badiou, which affirms that “movement is superior to immobility, life superior to the concept, time to space, affirmation to negation, difference to identity,” and we could go on, the rhizome to the arboresque, the molecular to the molar – “a kind of speculative demagogy whose entire strength lies in addressing itself to each and every one’s animal disquiet, to our confused desires, to everything that makes us scurry about blindly on the desolate surface of the earth.” And why not? The end is near.

I’m not personally very sure that David Graeber has much to say about art. From what I’ve read of his you could learn much more from John Roberts. Anyone who’s moderately interested in the question of the avant-garde should have read Peter Burger by now but also John’s new book Revolutionary Time and the Avant Garde. It’s really the best thing since Burger. But Graeber is the author of Direct Action, and he’s been involved in organizing Occupy Wall Street, among other things. We need to put these kinds of projects together.

But to take up the question, I love Surrealism, and I’m Lacanian, so that keeps me in their orbit. Regardless, Henri Lefebvre in The Critique of Everyday Life made the observation: “The Surrealists promised a new world, but they merely delivered ‘mysteries of Paris’ [a reference to Marx’s critique of the novelist Eugene Sue]. They promised a new faith, but did that really mean anything? Oh Literature, what petty crimes are committed in your name!” The book is worth re-reading, especially insofar as Lefebvre was an important critic of orthodox Marxism and argued that alienation would exist even in a communist society. This makes sense to me as a Lacanian also. Misrecognition can’t be wished away. The unconscious can’t be simply pushed in the direction of consciousness. For Lefebvre, the Surrealist avant-garde had come to a dead end around 1930 since it translated struggle into literary alienation. If there was to be a revolution, for Lefebvre it would not be an armed struggle, but a revolution of and within the everyday. And Lefebvre was no slouch. He fought with the Resistance and with the Communist International during WWII and by the end of the war was giving lessons to French army generals on how to mount campaigns in the southern Pyrénées mountains. Like Debord he had read and understood Clausewitz.

The critique of the term avant-garde due to its association with military metaphors kind of ignores the sources of the use of that term by the Saint-Simoniens of the early nineteenth century. Yes, they borrowed the term from the military but what they actually meant by it was the idea that artists would be the activists who would spread progressive ideas in society. So the critique of the idea of the avant-garde as a military metaphor falls flat, at least insofar as it refers to its original uses. When people more accurately refer to avant-garde as a military term they are referring to the “Marxist-Leninist” use of the term, which came into effect around the turn of the last century and with the emergence of a “vanguard” within the restricted field of art, retroactively, from Realism and Impressionism all the way to the Situationists (there is no such thing as Situationism). That narrative more or less came to a close with 70s pluralism and postmodernism. The Situationists borrowed many ideas from Lefebvre, least of all his emphasis on leisure and disalienation, but Debord wanted to provoke a crisis in advertising spectacle and leisure consumption. He was a serious person in comparison to some of the people he purged from the group. In Seeing Power Nato Thomson says we should build social capital rather then engage in those kinds of purist endeavours since it doesn’t build solidarity. I personally think we can afford to have all kinds of radical groups, from collectives all the way to communist parties. Even solo artists like Thomas Hirschhorn and Billy Bragg or intellectuals like David Harvey can make valuable contributions. Think of Trotsky’s great book on Literature and Revolution. He had his preferences and his agenda but he also had a great deal of respect and understanding for all kind of artists and movements.

The idea of prefigurative politics assumes perhaps that you can eliminate alienation. For Lacanians this is fantasy pure and simple. Yet the Lacanian injunction is do not give way on your desire. I’ve written elsewhere about avant-garde fantasy. For Lefebvre, being aware that you are alienated is the first step towards disalienation. This is exactly what the avant-garde supersession of art is about and this is why it is accurate to describe the many art practices involved in and around Occupy as avant-garde. After the dissolution of art after conceptual art and pluralism, the ontology of art was relativized into the expanded field of the social and the everyday. This allowed for new kinds of links to be made with the historical avant-gardes, whether in architecture, design or music. The philosophy of aesthetics was ostensibly dissolved by postmodernism and cultural studies into representation and discourse (only to come back with a vengeance in the 2000s). One consequence of this is that everything becomes aesthetic and performative. Zizek says something similar when he argues that the “art thing” as objet petit a can easily slide from the most meaningless everyday material to the most sublime: a Bernie Sanders T-shirt, a meme like the 99%, a cardboard sign that says Hands Up Don’t Shoot.

Art is conditioned by the biocapitalist mode of production and by the real subsumption of labour, which today involves social media and I argue an increasingly activist function. We need a new essay by Daniel Buren describing the function of activist art. The networks that extend communication and communities are the feedback mechanisms that Franco Berardi says increase in magnitude to the point of self-reinforcement and semio-inflation. Think of the Donald Trump phenomenon. The shift from mass consumption to prosumer mass customization replaces politics with technosocial automatisms. This is why the question of avant-gardism causes bewilderment to even those people who could most easily be considered in the vanguard. It’s a common symptom. Because people can no longer see themselves outside of these mechanisms they no longer try. This is a problem for not only art institutions. So we’re caught between two deaths, as Zizek says, between the ontological imaginary and the heteronomical immanence of biocapitalism. But what is the epistemological-ontological mediation and point of ontological failure? One word for this is ideology, or the subject in ideology (castration). The phrase Strike Art expresses this beautifully. The strike in this case is not simply aesthetic; it represents a largely unsymbolizable class struggle, the division between division and non-division.

This is another reason why the avant-gardes of the past are prefigurative. And so why not mention Surrealism? To do so is neither futurism nor postmodern pastiche, it’s part of what John Roberts calls end of art historicity as well as art’s ontology of conceptualization and non-identitary abolition of art as art. The relation between ontology and heteronomy is therefore one of struggle. The kinds of practices described in Strike Art create use values that lead beyond the art world and that fight against the devaluation of life and labour. It is a revolutionary politicization of art in advance of neoliberal culture and that renews the programme of avant-garde struggle. This renewal of the avant-garde does not happen just by itself but is the result of struggles in the present. Aesthetics do not trivialize the social causes to which artists are lending their efforts since art has an autonomy from politics that does not undermine revolutionary consciousness. When conscious of art’s oppositional histories and of art itself as a social relation, artists contribute to revolutionary consciousness.


#7

In contrast to Graeber’s focus (here anyway) on the fleetingly transformative experience—where we might see the before and after of the pre- and post-Occupy—Cade emphasizes duration, the daily labor of making involved in developing nonexploitative personal relationships.

YES! and YES:

but rather to think of its effects on themselves—as something that could enable them to develop a substantive relationship, as thinkers and as doers, to the urgency and movements of the present, without expecting to be the vanguard of anything at all.


#8

Perhaps there is a mismatch between the aesthetic form of contemporary political protest and the organizational necessities of political and social change. Neo-Liberalism may have ushered in an era of global flows and de-centered power, yet vestiges of the older regime, with its political, social and economic institutions, still remain. Significant decisions regarding policies on the environment, migration, education, policing, war, income redistribution and so on, can, and still are, made and carried out by recognizable, and ideally representative, institutions. In order to have a demonstrable effect on these institutions, protest movements must be able to interface with them.

Remember (I’m aging myself now) connecting to the Internet through a dial-up modem? Initiating a connection, one was assaulted by a strange melody of hisses and pings, bonks and beeps. This was the sound of the machines on either end of the telephone line working out a common protocol with which to communicate a message: a digital “handshake.”
What does this have to do with protests and politics? In order for social movements to have an impact on institutions of political power, they do not need to agree with one another, or share one another’s ideology, but they do need a shared protocol, something that allows them to communicate ideas, visions, critiques and solutions. This is true whether the political organization is one which shares the protestor’s aims or opposes them. The problem with affective protest may be that there is not a working interface with effective political organization; they may be operating according to different political protocols. For example:

Speed: Aesthetic protest is immediate, occurring over relatively short durations of time, and is then represented, communicated and distributed nearly instantaneously. Political organization, however, is built over years. The protests of the Arab Spring began and ended in less than a year; the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928. Occupations were a novel way of dealing with this protocol problem by creating a relatively durable protest stage for thinking, learning, organizing and performing, yet a few months of occupation cannot compare to decades of organization.

Structure: Contemporary protest prides itself upon being radically de-centered, with no formal leaders or organizational hierarchies, headquarters or bureaucratic structures. Yet political organization—even in a neo-liberal age of globalization—remains organized, with demarcated roles and structures of command. When the Mayor of Denver, Colorado asked the protesters of Occupy Denver to elect someone with whom the city administration could negotiate, the occupiers chose as their leader “Shelby,” a three-year-old Border Collie who had been hanging around the encampment. As a statement of their refusal to adopt traditional political structures, electing a dog as their leader was funny, provocative and symbolically sophisticated: an inspired demonstration of an ideal. It was also—at the level of interface with power—completely ineffective. Occupy Denver, like all the other occupations, was soon rousted by the police on orders of the city.

Incompatibilities in speed and structure point to a larger problem of protocol: negotiating between Tactics and Strategy. Protests are a tactic: an action in a particular time and space, often fleeting. Yet what is needed for substantial and sustainable social change is a long-term plan into which these actions fit: strategy. Art is primarily tactical: the immediate expression of the artist’s vision, perspective or idea, communicated through an artwork that has immediate impact. The artist may hope for a longer term æffect of their work upon their audience, but it is not something they can command and control. Approaching art as an instrumental means to a larger end, and as one step amongst many along a pre-planned path, is largely anathema to the modernist aesthetic tradition; it is what separates “art” from propaganda or advertising. Creative forms of protest, following this artistic tradition, result in the privileging of the tactical at the expense of the strategic. All strategies depend upon tactics, yet the artistic impulse which animates much contemporary protest means that the link between tactics and strategy is under-considered, or worse: not considered at all.

Following this line of argument leads to a depressing conclusion: contemporary protest works as performative spectacle, as media-ready communications, and as affective expression. But it may not work as a form of organization and power that can bring about sustainable social change. As such, it is an image of politics without any of its world-changing capability.

But then, lwo nights ago, just a few blocks from home there was Bernie Sanders, running for president, standing in front of nearly 30,000 people, taking about a “political revolution” in the name of the 99%. Or last year, in Spain, when Podemos, arising out of the occupation of Puerta del Sol, won mayorial elections in Barcelona and Madrid. So the translation can be made.

It is an old, and tired, criticism to juxtapose the artful politics of affective protest to the “real work” needed to bring about effective social change. I don’t mean to make that point here. As Marx writes in Capital, “what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality” Social change needs to be imagined, and acted out, if it is to ever be realized. It’s just that we should be careful in mistaking the performance for structural and organizational engagement and change. We need both.

Sorry to go on at length, but I’m on a very long bus ride upstate.


#9

“In Western society, we are given examples of the vertical: The rocket, the skyscraper, Reagan’s and Bush’s Star-Wars system . . . it’s all about up. I want to contest and challenge that. In the crawl pieces, like Great White Way, I’m suggesting that just because a person is lying on the sidewalk doesn’t mean they’ve given up their humanity. That verticality isn’t what it’s pumped up to be.” - William Pope L.


#10

The question of ‘prefiguration’ in relation to art and politics is a fascinating one. The posts above raise some important lines of thought in relation to this idea, I think (in particular @rezorach and @RicardoDominguez).

Picking up on their observations, the ‘prefigurative’ has a relationship both to immanence and the ‘future anterior’. In this sense, it is an immanence that is not exactly anticipatory, but that identifies in the being and working of a group – a protest, a collective – the production of the future at the point of ‘next steps’. The future comes to permeate the present via the intersubjective experience that accompanies working to achieve it. The manner in which that work is done becomes an object of absolute concern.

This is a powerful way of conceiving of political activity, which perhaps explains why it has endured at a time when other organizational forms of the Left have been in decline. At the same time, as @rezorach observes, it may be that this way of thinking is suited to the way that subjectivity is structured under neoliberalism. To use a frame of reference that can be divisive, but is not intended to be here, it can be understood as a ‘spontaneous ideology’.

Art is often conceived as oriented to a community that is ‘to come’, a conception that can be traced at least as far back as German Romanticism (and therefore to emergence of art in its modern sense). Prefigurative politics asserts a community that has arrived, or begun to arrive, in advance of its future. These two lines of thought are related but different. They seem to sit uneasily together in the convergence of art and activism, but the uneasiness is productive.

I think that the political potential of this space needs to be understood in relation to crisis. Neoliberalism is too often represented as strong when it is weak. As the economist Wolfgang Streeck has observed, capitalism is experiencing ‘a continual process of gradual decay’ (p.38), though one in which there seems to be no programme – no enabling fiction of the Left - formulated to succeed it. Streeck speculates that this decay might last for a long time, a slow disintegration. In his terms:

What is most likely to happen as time passes is a continuous accumulation of small and not-so-small dysfunctions; none necessarily deadly as such, but most beyond repair, all the more so as they become too many for individual address. In the process, the parts of the whole will fit together less and less; frictions of all kinds will multiply; unanticipated consequences will spread, along ever more obscure lines of causation. Uncertainty will proliferate; crises of every sort—of legitimacy, productivity or both—will follow each other in quick succession while predictability and governability will decline further (as they have for decades now). Eventually, the myriad provisional fixes devised for short-term crisis management will collapse under the weight of the daily disasters produced by a social order in profound, anomic disarray.

Capitalism is a force that lays waste to the world and permeates subjectivity – the effects of this process are clear. But these effects are intensified by its weakness. Capitalists, in their mutual competition, are not able to sustain the kind of consensus that would be able to make an ideology of endless expansion convincing. Even art, that was once the lodestone of the timeless value of bourgeois culture, has begun to disintegrate. Capitalism, in its most developed centres, is losing its relationship to the future – it can no longer export its contradictions into the future in the expectation that they will be resolved there.

Another way of putting it is to say that capitalism is locked into a phase of ‘combined and uneven decline’, a counterpart to Trotsky’s famous diagnosis of combined and uneven development. The relative decline of the centre leaves open the potential for the margins – China - to appear to ‘catch up’: although wealth is still massively concentrated in the Global North. It is a decline with unlikely-seeming effects, and spaces of revolutionary tension. One such space is the changing intersection between art and politics – forced into new configurations under pressure of crisis. This, of course, is one of the most powerful implications of Greg’s ‘dark matter’ thesis.

I am not suggesting an analysis, in the sense of a worked through theoretical framework, but a heuristic. If the subjective conditions that favour a politics of immanence are produced by neoliberalism, they are not necessarily controlled by capitalism, but are formed by pressures that are part of the disintegration of capitalism. The power of immanence – in prefigurative politics and in art – has to be integrated into the enabling fictions of the Left. This is not because prefigurative politics contests the future that capitalism offers, but because they offer one of the few spaces in which a future is produced at all.

At the same time, capitalism does not end in a protest, or a festival. The translations of political movements into forms that can operate within political systems of the state are important. The political agency of immanence – the now - has to be judged against the work of generations that is likely to be required. Whether it is possible to think in these two temporalities simultaneously, or to think in a way that holds their discontinuities together in a productive way, I don’t know. It is perhaps a task to which art is suited, even as its identity is transformed.


#11

I don’t think Antonio Negri is talking about Bush’s star wars system and I don’t think he would have any issues with William Pope L, an artist whose funky superman crawls I think are terrific. But this does bring up the question of science and maybe even space exploration. Some people think that with so many humans on the planet it’s best for us to stay in cities, which is maybe not so good for raising your own chickens. In The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, David Graeber asks why it is that we have exponentially more research today but fewer and fewer important discoveries. I don’t have the stats on that, but yeah, I love Neil De Grass Tyson and his predecessor Carl Sagan.


#12

One byproduct of writing histories of modern and contemporary art is that one inevitably becomes a historian of the new, of the process that Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction” and Marx even more famously described with the phrase “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Understood in narrow art-historical terms, the new is a product of Romanticism and can be set against the old of Neoclassicism on one side and the ground or materialism of Realism on the other. The old that Neoclassicism reached for was republicanism, of course, or, roughly in the terminology of the question, parliamentarianism. The new that Romanticism reached for in turn was something like the prefigurative or extra parliamentary politics alluded to—it was a politics not so much of revolution in the traditional sense of taking over the state and making it more rational and just according to its understanding of the classical model but instead in the sense of art, in the sense of creation itself. Peter Weibel once characterized this as the impulse of the “artist as monarch” and we might think of it in such terms regardless of whether the artist in question is understood to be an individual, a community, or a movement. It is the impulse that we all share to prefigure or imagine or create a better world as opposed to the republican impulse to beg off on that question in favor of defining the rules or processes of discussion, negotiation, and decision-making. Realism’s ground, by contrast, is neither Neoclassicism’s process or Romanticism’s prefiguration but instead a sober assessment of basic human need and what is involved in meeting that need. Realism’s political ideal is neither parliamentary procedure nor the movement imagining but instead what used to be called “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

To answer the question directly, the “ontological condition unique to contemporary society and neoliberal capitalism” is the same as it always was—that of the artist as monarch or creative destruction. The effect of this is to throw us off not only parliamentary politics but politics as such and into the netherworld of “cultural politics” or the realm of belief famously summarized with the slogan “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The great advantage that comes with living in our neoliberal age is that we can now see much more clearly than before that that netherworld is none other than the market itself and that there is no difference between prefiguration and entrepreneurialism. Of course, this is more or less inevitable—we cannot help but be a product of our times and our times are indeed dominated by a prevailing economic theory. This is not the only economic theory with popular traction, however. Just as Obama and his supporters like Paul Krugman have struggled against the processes of creative destruction to make the case for their brand of neo-Keynesianism and with it Parliamentarianism so too we might see the likes of Syriza, Podemos and even our own Bernie Sanders doing their best to shift the discussion toward Realism’s pragmatic approach to human need, to the realm of true popular rule, to, that is, something like a dictatorship of the proletariat rather than the increasingly draconian dictatorship of the bourgeoisie that we live under now.

Art, of course, plays an outsized role in all this just as it always has. We model human freedom, human autonomy, for our audiences. Just as during the Neoclassicism-Romanticism-Realism development, there is a lot at stake in getting that modeling right, in highlighting and fleshing out the right historical forces at battle in the world around us. Hopefully, through discussions like this one, we’ll get there.


#13

Thanks to Greg for the initiative and Yates McKee for an insightful book. Full disclosure: my privileged academic position’s dysfunctional elements have so far prevented me from reading more than half of the book. To me, accounts like McKee’s are valuable for many reasons. Partly, they show that too much reinventing of the wheel happens: we should be learning from one another more. If I had already been better informed about more of the details of OWS’s tactics, we could have been even more imaginative in our University of Amsterdam-based protests here over the last year and a half.

Secondly, it’s difficult to transfer experiences, insights and lessons from one site of protest to another. @natot has called for specificity and @Adeola has differentiated “the Left”. I can only echo both. Indeed, what emerges for me is that each situation and context bring with them their own needs, restrictions and possibilities: work is (or should be) calibrated to this, rather than exercising an ideal notion of a certain practice. That includes political / activist work, art and academic work. How far we are now from the debates on what social practice is or should be (more aesthetic or more efficacious). We have learned (from Peter Osborne e.g.) that the aesthetic encompasses discourse - and has done so from Jena Romanticism onwards, i.e. it’s constitutive of our conception of art.

How art has to be broadly understood is one of the aims of McKee, although he often puts it the other way around: as an end to the narrow understanding. “[M]any artists withdrew from the confines of the art system altogether, undertaking their creative work in an expanded field of organizing” (135). That rests on a number of questionable assumptions. @natot has rightly critiqued the metaphor of the end. It is predicated upon a concept of art that has not existed (other than maybe in “the market”) for a long time. What were Beuys’ 7000 Oaks if not a mammoth exercise in organization (one that continues as a collective effort)? The Beuys example (his “expanded concept of art” more than Rosalind Krauss’ should come to mind) also points to more boundary-crossings and calibrations: OWS as a proto-academy, in addition to a work of art (for some) brings to mind the Free International University of Interdisciplinary Research, a project that for Beuys was art, but that was also allowed to be a “real”, although dispersed “university” for others, just like the many proto-academies that are currently operating, both as art(ists’) initiatives and as working sites of learning and exchange.

And whether an activist initiative or “university” is an art project or not doesn’t even seems to depend on the moment or person involved alone. I wouldn’t have a problem with saying that a particular initiative is an artwork for some and not for others, even when these others are artists. Sometimes it is necessary for artists to separate their (necessarily too triumphalist or spectacular) activism from their art practice, as with Samuel Beckett’s work for the résistance (see Terry Eagleton’s Political Beckett?, which Paul Chan reprinted in his book on Waiting for Godot in New Orleans).

We seem to be at a most fascinating point in the reflection on the possibilities of resistance and democratisation: institutional critique (including the exiting of “the” art frame or “the” university) and new institutionalism - or better experimental institutionalism (Charles Esche) – go hand in hand, are calibrated to restrictions and possibilities, as well as to the people with whom one can work (or not) in certain institutions. Indeed, (@DSWang): there is no end and no beginning. Of course, needing to conclude that this kind of maneuvering in messy institutional and other contexts is necessary implies an analysis of the socio-political state of affairs that is not favourable, but rather depressing: repressive orthodoxies abound.

Lastly, let me give an example that exceeds the US-focused horizon of McKee. J.M. Coetzee’s much-cited comments on the current managerialised and financialised university was that it may call for remembering the strategies developed in the 1970s and 80s behind the Iron Curtain, where academics held the more meaningful seminars and discussed the more important texts with their students in their kitchens at home, rather than in the university. The visual art equivalent from the same context are living room exhibitions, mail art and performances to very small audiences. The artists who interest me at least were not allowed to practice “real” art, but expelled from artists’ associations, i.e. “the art system”. They created more or less clandestinely, read, discussed, performed and organized – and to as large an extent as with occupy – were at the forefront of bringing about the peaceful revolution. McKee unfortunately makes a disparaging side-remark about “we are the people” (now of course commodified and even hijacked), but @derszer has thankfully already mentioned Poland. Clearly, it should be a warning that oppositional / civil rights / democratization movements are sometimes not just by the regimes they fought but also retrospectively silenced, even though successful, when their context was particularly restrictive so as not to allow spectacular visual or material culture (incriminating evidence). We should not let that happen. The prehistory of Occupy is not only to be found in the US, and we need to know more about each other to see where in certain activist histories the “prefiguration” value (akin to Adorno’s “it can be otherwise”), as well as the successful examples or the warning precedents lie.

In art history today, we’re possibly now doing somewhat better than before in paying attention to historical specificities and previously excluded stories, including investigating the intertwined the force field of activism and art (Rockhill), rather than worrying too much about what exactly the “art” is about a certain movement, exhibition or object. Maybe we’re beginning to understand things in their calibrated nature. That may also be called making Greg’s Dark Matter brighter – or even developing a strategy out of many tactical maneuvres?


#14

#15

The notion of the prefigurative politics that OWS embodies – namely that whatever could have been demanded or achieved was on some level already enacted by the people taking part in the encampments, the assemblies etc. - was a feeling that I believe anyone who took part in the movement shared. I am tempted though to reverse the idea of prefiguration from emancipatory politics to precariat labor protocols. It was not so long ago that we acknowledged that our practices as cultural producers have prefigured the social order of labor relations we’re in (from the artist’s atelier to project deadlines, artistic critique of alienation etc.). Therefore, rather than as Avant garde, which comes from a different bourgeois social order, we should consider prefigurative politics as another form within neoliberal politics. By that I mean that if we do address the question of Left politics in the 21st century seriously, there seems to be a need to learn from past successes (and failures), mainly from the reality of socialism in the twentieth century. The speculation/counter-speculation modalities we are entrenched in, sometimes constellate reformist presidential campaigns and sometimes autonomist networks like the encampments. My feeling is that this is a good moment to reintroduce some of the Soviet experiences.


#16

When McKee links the notion of prefigurative politics and artistic imaginary of OWS I think of a term “pre-enactment” coined by political theorist Olivier Marchart. Pre-enactment means art that has the ability to anticipate a hypothetical political event, it is a kind of rehearsal or renewal of a possibility yet to come, such as in choreographies of Public Movement, or actions staged by Christoph Schlingensief, or to take an example from OWS itself – as in the wild anti-consumerist gospel choir of Reverent Billy. Billy, a performer and activist, when a momentum came simply shared his “good message” not with the theater audiences but the OWS crowds.

It is rather along those lines that I would trace some affiliations between ontological artistic imaginary and OWS. When we talk about artists within Occupy and within social movements in general, we can ask whether the fact that you are an artist makes you any different beyond being a citizen and an organizer in the first place, and if so, which is what McKee suggest, how does it make you contribute, how “various kind of resources at our disposal might be channeled into movement work”? When you are a medical doctor and you find yourself on places like Tahrir in 2011, it is clear that you can be very much needed also in your professional capacities. But as an artist? One example could be the film and activist collective Mosireen in Cairo that set up Tahrir Cinema, where the mainstream media and other broadcasts were critically questioned and de-ideologised every night.

But generally I would not overestimate arts capacities in this regard. As an artist or curator inside the movement, it’s perhaps a little pretentious to think that you are somehow special. In this regard it might be interesting to trace the wave of boycotts that popped up with striking regularity in recent Biennales such as in Istanbul, Sao Paolo, St. Petersburg or Sydney. Most of those boycotts meant to challenge the politics of art, end the artwashing and probably stemmed from recent political upheavals such as Occupy, the raise of artivism in general, and also perhaps from a willingness of art to overcome its own self-critical dimension. But in most cases those boycotts, perhaps different to OWS and its aftermath, were mostly symbolic since they did not seek a long-term alliance with any political activism or movement, they rather operated with the economy of momentum, the symbolic power as well as the notions of strike and withdrawal from the art institutions.


#17

Big thanks to Greg Sholette for engineering this forum. I’m interested in connecting some of the responses to the first question with those of the second. My thoughts might be framed as a consideration of whether the “art-into-life” paradigm is adequate to the pre-figurative needs of whatever we think that the “21st century” might be.

A few weeks ago at Berkeley, we hosted a conversation on recent environmental art, one that featured actions linked to COP21; after hearing about a range of recent work, one of my students noted that she was inspired by the activist art projects but wondered if there was anything particularly “environmental” about them. Indeed, the same techniques and forms could be found in many other activist art projects that all of us had witnessed and many had organized—projects on student debt, on gentrification, on immigration, etc. It seems like Yates’s book offers one kind of response to her query. While his book is motored by many things, one seems to be the question of whether there is an “OWS style,” the idea—as Greg Sholette says above—that post-Occupy activist art has a certain kind of formal coherence that links a range of practices. So, if there is any pre-figuring going on, the methods of figuration seem to share the same vocabulary, whether they are addressing gentrification, debt reform, racism, or environmental justice. You might lose a degree of domain specificity with this frame, but the upside is that you bring formal coherence to linked modes of activist art. One might then ask what happens to other artists working on gentrification or debt or racism or environmental justice for whom ‘post-OWS style’ is not a preferred mode, or who simply don’t find themselves in conversation with a style that measures its distance from “contemporary art.”

I ask that question in order to find my way back to the Greg’s first question. Re-reading the eflux excerpt of Yates’s book on Creative Time’s “Living as Form” brought back so many vexed and hilarious memories. I was one of the many curators who contributed to that exhibition, and I was also a speaker at the 2011 Creative Time Summit. Nato had asked me to suggest artists and groups who hailed from theater, dance, and community art traditions, those who might not be on Creative Time’s social practice radar. LAPD, Cornerstone, and Urban Bush Women were amongst the groups I suggested, and I remember him telling me that ‘my’ suggestions were particularly hard to work with. These groups didn’t have high-resolution documentation and struggled with the idea that they would be in “an exhibition.” One of the great strengths of a contemporary art frame is that it brings one kind of conceptually rigorous debate to long-standing discussions of aesthetics and politics. One of the casualties of that frame is that it seems to route every social art practice through the professional apparatus of a contemporary art world—its markets, its museums, its vocabularies, its display strategies, its galleries, its limited editions, its avant-garde histories—in order to stage its own departure from that world. I appreciate that Living as Form endeavored to open the door to a range of groups for whom that routing seemed odd, boring, and sometimes politically regressive. I also know that it risked featuring work that others might have thought odd, boring, or politically regressive for entirely different reasons. I’ll never forget standing in the wings of the Skirball theater at the 2011 Creative Time Summit, checking texts and emails with news of a group “taking over Wall Street.” I was waiting my turn while watching Urban Bush Women talking about their youth leadership program for young women of color. Another speaker standing next to me leaned over and whispered. “Zeir use of zee term ‘leadership’ is very problematic.”

The question of which forms do adequate pre-figuring ends up returning me to “avant-garde dialectic of ‘art and life.’” I keep wondering if there is something ‘20th century’ about this dialectic, especially when one ponders what we think is meant by the word Life. Too often, the Art/Life binary seems to invite the problems of another 20th century invention, the Work/Life binary. Within these frames, “Life” ends up connoting a space of unfettered spontaneity and freedom, as if such a space of personal self-fashioning isn’t entirely dependent upon a raced, gendered, and classed apparatus that sets up and cleans up so that others can Live. If Life in the Art/Life binary is thus defined, we shouldn’t be surprised that it has been so easily appropriated for neoliberal ends; Art-into-Life promises an exuberant merging that doesn’t have to avow the labor (often the labor of women of color) that has set you free.


#18

For the third and final question in the discussion on Strike Art, go here:


#20

Sorry, this does not engage directly with the Strike Art conversations, but maybe it does, regarding how left politics in our current political climate, is informed by the ripple effects of OWS. The one percent and their business ontology peddlers, are not concerned with any bottom up democratic collective future.
The 99 percent are just “resentful” customers, not people, so the growing class stratification (“caste”) is good for capitalism.

No More Tourist Upgrades

Executives describe the virtues of elite segmentation with a directness that might well serve as fodder for supporters of Occupy Wall Street or Senator Bernie Sanders. At its debut in 2006, the Haven was swamped by tourists from regular quarters who paid $200 to upgrade to one of its 40 or so rooms, Mr. Sheehan recalled.


#21

Strike Art was written by Yates McKee, an embedded researcher and manic producer within the Occupy milieu. As such, it offers an indispensable vantage on artistic organizing practices appearing during and after Occupy Wall Street. McKee should be commended for this. Likewise, he deftly navigates interlocking struggles against debt servitude, white supremacy and climate chaos, attending to the specificity of such issues without losing sight of the common enemy that binds them together: the capitalist system.

Yet, reading Strike Art, I cannot help but return to its stubborn and undefended horizontalism. McKee’s perspective is tied to an unwavering faith in direct democracy, prefigurative politics, and direct action, commitments that place it squarely in the frame of what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams call ‘folk politics’. Privileging temporary and spontaneous gestures over long-term strategic planning, folk politics has composed the political common sense of the radical Left since the movements of 1968. The folk-political language of prefigurative politics and direct democracy punctuates Strike Art, appearing, statistically, about once every 8 pages. This is not a problem in and of itself. However, McKee’s adherence to the horizontalist position—put in play through a wholesale endorsement of Hardt and Negri—is assumed rather than fought for. This places Strike Art on unstable ground.

McKee knows he is playing with fire in a field of ideological conflict. In his opening pages, he flags the dissenting views of Chantal Mouffe, Jodi Dean, and the Endnotes collective. However, he does not interrogate them. While the interpretations of Occupy presented by such figures are “of interest” to McKee (p. 18), they diverge from his own approach, and with that, they are excised from the field of struggle as it appears in Strike Art. This is a missed opportunity, and a particularly problematic one given that Dean’s perspective on Occupy—perhaps most quickly summed up by the catchphrase “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens”—was developed alongside an ongoing and long-term collaboration with Not An Alternative, one of the collectives whose work McKee describes at length.

The effect of this excision on the parameters of McKee’s study is significant. It permits him to amass a list of collectives working on the grounds of Occupy, while placing any attempt to parse the conflicts and divisions between them out of bounds. Disagreements between factions working within the Occupy milieu were not insignificant. For Not An Alternative, “Occupy was powerful not where consensus worked but in instances where groups and individuals showed a commitment to a collective idea even when they disagreed.” Even practical disagreements—regarding the merits of the general assembly, for example—indicate more than the substance of fights within the Occupy milieu. They also indicate the fault lines fracturing the post-Occupy Left.

By adopting a set of assumptions about political radicalism that privilege process over strategy and prefiguration over sustained struggle, and by supporting a “diversity of styles and tactics” within its frame (p. 5), Strike Art presents itself as generous and inclusive, but in its inclusivity, it subsumes counter-positions that question the ideal of direct democracy and the efficacy of direct action.

Thinkers like Dean, Srnicek and Williams, and Philip Mirowski have recently argued for an alternative Left formation that finds strength in a return to tight organizational forms and institutional structures capable of galvanizing a collective political subject not easily fragmented and absorbed by neoliberal forces.

The Bernie Sanders campaign might be cited as an experimental test case for their hypotheses and a turning point in the post-Occupy condition. In “Occupy the Party: The Sanders Campaign as a Site of Struggle,” Not An Alternative argues that the Sanders campaign presents a vehicle to force a split in the Democratic party: “Instead of treating the party as some kind of authority with the power to co-opt our message, we need to treat it like any street or park and occupy it.”

The terrain of the post-Occupy condition is shifting. Beholden to the horizontalist position, Strike Art is left to stumble relatively flat-footed when faced with the renewed interest in the party form, as well as the previously unrecognized mass of “independents” politicized by the Sanders campaign. Such engagements with electoral politics force us identify a new collective political subject assembling under and struggling over a common name. It also forces us to imagine a new insurgent politics that seizes not only public space, but also institutions hollowed out by neoliberalism.