When Protest Becomes Art: The Contradictory Transformations of the Occupy Movement at Documenta 13 and Berlin Biennale 7
When Protest Becomes Art: The Contradictory Transformations of the Occupy Movement at Documenta 13 and Berlin Biennale 7
Three years after the demise of Occupy Wall Street in New York in late 2011 and early 2012, it seems that the movement has come to an end, at least in the Western world. At first glance the situation couldn’t be more depressing for the activists: all of the camps and sites are evicted, apart from a recent uprising in Hong Kong. The occupations were systematically dismantled by state authorities, but the initial source of the protests, the worldwide economic crisis, has exacerbated problems and grievances in all parts of the world in admittedly very different degrees. Now a new level of economic and political escalation dawns, when the world powers fight for the vigor of their capitalist economy, the validity of their currencies and ruthlessly compete for declining business on their respective home turfs. With the implementation of austerity policies in Europe, entire countries continue to suffer from ongoing impoverishment and worsening social conditions for the sake of corporate profit. It is evident that the problems addressed by the Occupy Movement didn’t vanish, but have instead become even more pressing.
There are two watershed events that mark the decline of the movement, and involve collaborations with international art exhibitions in Germany. In 2012 Occupy activists gathered in Kassel, Germany to take part in Documenta 13 (June 9 to September 16) and in Berlin, Germany to participate in the Berlin Biennale 7 (April 27 to July 1). Both events endorsed the Occupy movement, but with rather diverse ramifications. In Kassel the occupants were approved by curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and the audience, both hailing the occupation a success. In Berlin the public considered the intervention to be kitschy, and it was referred to as a “human zoo.” Although the responses to each show initially appear to be opposed, both exhibitions document the transformation of Occupy as a political phenomenon. The question then is, what happened to the Occupy movement when it became part of the art world and was perceived as art? Did the movement give up its political momentum for the sake of aesthetic quality? This is a perspective that some critics, including Claire Bishop, seek to preserve for socially engaged art, even as it moves outside traditional artistic boundaries. Did the participations promote any of the goals of Occupy and hence serve the movement, as participants hoped for? Finally, did the participations create a similar, and perhaps even stronger, “force of spirited intervention” that Gregory Sholette described in relation to the art practices within Occupy Wall Street?
To answer these questions, I first want to take a closer look at what Occupy represented as a political movement; secondly look at the settings, goals and actions pursued by the occupants within the art context in contrast to the political movement; and thirdly discuss the outcome of the two art shows in light of their aesthetic and political implications.
Occupy as a political movement
Much has been written about the initial lack of political criticism of the occupants, their manifold and often conflicting ideas, their lack of a common list of demands, and the inefficient way in which the protests were organized. To reiterate these accusations is to miss the point of the movement. At no point was the activists’ intention to form an effective, hierarchical, well-oiled movement that would come up with a cohesive critique. Instead, the movement has always been based on an abstract and heartfelt “feeling of mass injustice” and the conviction of being “wronged by the corporate forces”, as stated in the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. This moral indignation to be in the right and to not have to suffer from global hardships translates into the world-view of the 99% and the call for “real” democracy. According to this world-view, a majority of the people, the 99%, serve without receiving any benefit, while the relentless 1% actually profits from the labor and struggles of the 99%. According to this logic, all kinds of grievances, including college debts, foreclosure, racism, environmental decay, declining wages, outsourced labor, federal bailouts, etc. become evidence of the illicit and corrupt power of the 1%. They maliciously influence courts, politicians and the media to cover up their machinations while killing people, destroying nature and gaining power over every single aspect of the lives of the 99%. With this world-view, the movement didn’t just occupy Zuccotti Park in New York City but also sought to construct a simplified and hermetic, moralistic explanation of their problems.
One of Occupy’s major political goals was to encourage the 99% to “assert [their] power.” The claim at the very end of the New York declaration reads: “Join us and make our voices heard!” Every single voiced critique of political, economic and social conditions was considered a valid contribution to Occupy’s general world-view, a world-view which claimed to become increasingly effective as more people joined. Unfortunately, when subsumed under the creed of the 99%, individual grievances and interests are thus simultaneously important and insignificant. This almost methodical copy of the existing democratic pluralism is implemented in the organizational form of the protest which is meant to practically oppose existing democracy: the General Assembly. The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City states:
What is a People’s Assembly? It is a participatory decision-making body which works towards consensus. The Assembly looks for the best arguments to take a decision that reflects every opinion – not positions at odds with each other as what happens when votes are taken. It must be pacific, respecting all opinions: prejudice and ideology must left at home.
In the vision of the Declaration all personal political beliefs are sacred opinions, which are neither ideological nor really conflicting with each other. Occupy’s process of forming a political will is a contradictory process which leaves individual perspectives untouched while making sure that they all coalesce in a consensual political belief. This necessarily calls for openness within a rigid and fixed framework of moral beliefs, observable in the methodological injunctions for assemblies:
We use Positive Speech avoiding negative statements which close the door to constructive debate. It is a less aggressive and more conciliatory type of communication. It is useful to open a debate with the points that unite before dealing with the points that separate.
The People’s Assembly employs a method of discussion, also known as ‘horizontalidad’ or horizontalism, that fundamentally assumes every opinion to be a well thought out and nonpartisan contribution to a collective will. A will that is, aside from the 1% evildoers, uttered in a potentially harmonious society without systemic antagonisms.
The Occupy world-view has a fundamental flaw: it misinterprets worldwide damages to good life as products of immoral behavior, albeit the damages can’t be explained with personal viciousness. The fact that every modern capitalist society is regulated by a constitution and law, which is entirely irrespective of individual beliefs and behavior, should emphasize that. For example, the demeanor of a banker known as “greed” is indebted to a job description where he is obliged to risky financial investments and entitled to high bonuses. His actions are not prohibited by state law, but rather encouraged and endorsed. The moral perspective, instead of questioning the outcomes of systemic antagonisms, makes them a question of immoral misdemeanor: bankers are greedy, instead of being humble. It is therefore highly debatable that a critique of economy and sovereignty should be proclaimed in the mode of morality, as Occupy activists did. It is because of its idealized vision of a capitalist society, that Occupy could at the same time be considered a pro-capitalist movement wanting to restore age-old, reliable but forgotten principles of capitalism. For instance, Nicholas D. Kristof states that Occupy “highlights the need to restore basic capitalist principles like accountability”, admittedly a very irritating judgment in regard to the goals of Occupy. Political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who endorsed the movement, realized both the problem of “serious divergences within the 99%”, and the problem that this “kind of reasoning could easily remain at the level of a moral condemnation of the rich, instead of a political analysis of the complex configuration of the power forces that need to be challenged.”
It has been argued that art helped foster the success of Occupy by acting as a hinge between the movement and the public, and by “interrupting established perceptions and experiences of the city, politics and democracy itself.” Some even considered the entire movement to be art and believed that the camps were “permanent monuments to the injustice and inequality of America’s society.” Regardless of the intertwined relation between art and activism and the participation of artists in the movement, which some consider minimal and others to be crucial, one thing is for sure, namely that the artistic practices within the movement reference the world-view of the 99%. The artistic practices are based on the morality of Occupy’s tenets, illustrating the movement’s validity and urgency. One of the most disseminated art works of that time, the flow-chart image of the New York City-based artist, educator and activist Rachel Schragis, illustrates this well. Schragis took the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City and turned it into a drawing that shows the central hypothesis of Occupy, namely that “all our grievances are connected” by the immoral machinations of the 1%. In the drawing, bubbles containing the moral allegations from the Declaration as well as other “unjust” conditions are interconnected like a spider’s web, adding up to one giant visualization of the suffering and thus moral righteousness of the 99%. The same goes for the posters depicting red fists, tamed Wall Street bulls and smiling Guy Fawkes masks, but also for corporate logos mimicking stars on the US-flag, re-appropriated public art or catchy Occupy-slogans on building facades at night – they express a longing for political morality through the means of art and artistic direct action.
Occupy as an artistic practice of political commitment
The strategic approach that initially appears to characterize the Occupy movement involves subsuming diverse interests under the world-view of the 99%, and is both a necessity of the movement and the basis for the two collaborations within the art world discussed here. Occupy’s preconception implies that any injustice that is voiced can be incorporated into the movement, regardless of the content of the complaint, which is vital to a movement that draws its strength and eligibility from the number of participants, grievances and topics. This overall image of a powerful and multifaceted movement was translated into socially engaged artistic practices and politically committed art by activists in Kassel and Berlin. In both Documenta and the Berlin Biennale, the intent of participants was to occupy for the just cause, in an attempt to demonstrate the openness, breadth, liveliness and righteousness of the movement. Both were equally interested in winning over new followers and in multiplying the strength of the movement.
It is necessary to discuss several key differences between the Occupy movement in the streets of New York City or Madrid and the occupations within the art context. The crucial point is that the occupants of New York’s Wall Street were opposed to economic and political grievances which they believed should be eliminated. Therefore, they symbolically squatted some of the spaces most associated with their protest. The occupants in Kassel and Berlin, on the other hand, considered the art exhibitions to be a worthy basis for a slightly different goal, one than could easily be overlooked because it seemed to share some of its features with Occupy Wall Street. Instead of protesting, in this case they wanted to promote and advertise the protest by becoming a valuable contribution to the art world. In order to achieve this goal, becoming subject to aesthetic pleasure was the necessary requirement for the protest. Since the original image of the protest was that of a creative movement, this requirement didn’t seem to be much of an obstacle. But it turned out that the injunctions and unwritten laws of the art world were, in a way, just as prohibitive when it came to political expression as the police force was in New York.
If one considers art to be the appropriate instrument to promote political ideas, the next step is to declare the political action itself an art work. In Kassel, activists camped on the lawn of the Friedrichsplatz in front of the famous Museum Fridericianum. They considered themselves an “evolutionary art work”, adopting the slogan ‘Everyone is an Artist’ by famous German artist and former Documenta 7 participant Joseph Beuys. The activists in Kassel even considered themselves the “evolution of the Occupy Movement.” If one considers art to be the appropriate instrument to promote political ideas, it is unlikely that the target of one’s protest will be the art institution or the art exhibition that one intends to use. In Kassel, the result was that the initially intransigent method of occupying Wall Street to oppose grievances associated with the financial system was then turned into a method that endorsed the international art event as a suitable public platform. This led to the contradictory outcome of a form of protest that didn’t challenge the ideas connected to the space it occupied. An entry on Occupy Kassel’s Facebook page from June 14, 2012 is dead-on in this regard, reflecting this peculiar situation: commenting on an official appeal to participate, an activist states that whatever the camp’s purpose might be, one thing is for sure, that Occupy Kassel is not targeting Documenta 13.
To promote the Occupy movement by turning it into an art work also means to subsume the initial political world-view to a greater aesthetic experience. That means in particular that the camp itself, the arrangement of the tents, the tables, the small information shack, the political banners, the numerous cryptic art works within the camp as well as the people inhabiting it become a cultivated pictorial and poetic symbol of the Occupy protest. Once the camp is perceived as a work of art and not just a political occupation it is connected to a longing for sensuous perception and the “satisfaction to higher spiritual interests”, as Hegel puts it. All initially political aspects of the Occupy camp are then bound to aesthetic pleasure, which means they are bound to the personal taste and mental stimulation of the viewer. Potential political activists thus become an audience. By connecting their political arguments to the aesthetic appearance of the camp, the activists in Kassel also assume that tents, banners and people as installation actually militate for their protest, which assumes that the aesthetic experience of the whole arrangement adds something to their political argument, that they otherwise couldn’t express. Activists therefore assume that spectators would be politically ‘awakened’ by the aesthetic perception of the camp. Moreover, the protest camp becomes the object of a variety of aesthetic reflections on the “higher spiritual interests”, i.e. the question of values and meaningfulness art illustrates. Not surprisingly, the camp has been identified with higher values such as “anarchic creativity”, “political responsibility” or the advocacy of morality, meaning that viewers understood the political world-view of the 99% as a way to bring beauty, sense, and meaning into the world. This perspective is apparently a severe shift compared to the initial political criticism, since Occupy art is now proving the world to be a place that is actually full of good reasons and ultimate substantiations to be exactly the way it is. Protest art is perceived as an example and evidence of plenty of good principles that already govern this world; a world full of “anarchic creativity” can’t be that bad. To look at Occupy art and find a deeper meaning or sense of the world would be to stop criticizing the world’s miserable conditions. The Beuysian slogan ‘Everyone is an Artist’ illustrates these thoughts of justification very well: the slogan emphasizes the positive creative potential of every individual as a higher value, and shows how this expressed creativity produces a just society through social sculpture. But how can evildoers exist, if everybody is the epitome of good? Are greedy bankers excluded from that vision, and only 99% are actually ‘artists’? To swear by ‘inner creativity’ as a value that governs the world and mystically emancipates it from distress is to avert one’s eyes from the structural political and economic foundations of social inequalities.
The head curator of Documenta 13, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, understood this transformation of the Occupy movement very well when she first endorsed and then officially welcomed it as a valuable contribution to the exhibition. Praising Occupy and its activists because they demonstrated the “ability to care for the spaces they occupy”, Christov-Bakargiev confirmed that the camp did not serve the purpose of criticizing her exhibition, but fit perfectly into its context. She considered the camp to be art in “the spirit of Joseph Beuys”, claiming that she shared the activists’ point of view, which was first of all to promote art and to add to the credibility of the exhibition. Christov-Bakargiev even reminded the activists to keep an overall ‘cleanly’ appearance of the camp.
The activists in Kassel kept holding on to their idea that positioning themselves in the context of the art world would add strength to the movement. Other than protesting against the resident arms manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, the protesters kept a peaceful relationship with their environment. They set up their own arty installation of 28 white tents, lined up in an orderly fashion, adorned with terms like ‘greed’,‘profit maximization’, ‘human capital’, ‘rebate’ and ‘anthropocentrism’, apparently pointing to the world-view of the aggrieved. The activists condemned “profit maximization” as an immoral behavior, assuming that the installation informs the viewer with the indignation they feel. But how can that function, if people already need to have a certain moralistic perspective in order to have an understanding of the criticism? The word “profit maximization” itself doesn’t imply critique, after all it’s every manager’s mantra. Even if activists and audience do share the same moral perspective, enjoying their own moral world-view in an art work doesn’t necessarily translate into political action.
At the end of dOCUMENTA 13 the activists performed their own eviction, reminiscent of the forceful eviction of Zuccotti Park in New York and final proof of how seriously they took the contradictory idea of an artistic practice of occupation in the service of the Occupy movement.
In Berlin, the initial position was similar to the one in Kassel, as activists (comprised of members of Occupy Berlin and members of Occupy Museums New York) didn’t oppose the exhibition itself, and even refrained from camping on site. The activists involved in the process of ‘occupying’ the Berlin Biennale primarily wanted to advertise the Occupy movement, win over new supporters and followers, and connect with activists internationally. They were also interested in training and educating themselves politically. Instead of considering themselves to be an art work, as the activists in Kassel did, the activists in Berlin understood their participation foremost as a political operation and as the creation of an exchange forum for the movement inside an art biennial. This intention illustrates the mindset of the activists, who considered the exhibition to be an impartial tool for the movement, simply providing a space which they intended to transform according to their needs. In preparation for the event, the activists felt the “risk of co-optation” and the risk of a certain “zoo-effect” deriving from “a static movement on display”. These issues were never resolved. Instead, the activists held on to the idea that the Berlin Biennale was a space that could be used for one’s own political expression.
The notion of an autonomous white cube that is ready to be used by the Occupy movement was promoted by the curators of Berlin Biennale 7: Artur Żmijewski, Igor Stokfiszewski, Sandra Teitge and Joanna Warsza, who believed the Occupy movement should neither be exhibited nor influenced by anyone but the activists themselves. They thought that the Berlin Biennale could bring public attention to the movement, and also that it could educate visitors on “alternative way[s] of dealing with social problems.” To fully comply with Occupy, the curators then declared the movement “independent and not obliged to follow the logic of the institution.” But what they had generously granted was not solely up to them. The “logic of the institution” was not suspended just because several authority figures said so. After all, it was an art exhibition that was being hosted in a state-sponsored art institution. Just because the curators abstained from curating the movement and asked Occupy to politicize the Biennale doesn’t mean that Occupy wasn’t transformed by the logic of the institution. This is especially true when one considers that the head curator Artur Żmijewski declared that Occupy’s contribution was in fact an art work, simply because its actions formed a Social Sculpture in the Beuysian sense, the same way the head curator of the Documenta considered Occupy an art work.
Even when Occupy activists did not intend to display a work of art, by being a valuable contribution to the biennial they turned their political activist practices into aesthetic ones. The transformation of political ideas within the Berlin Biennale was indebted to a perceptual shift which I already laid out in relation to the activist practices within Documenta. In both of the examples I have discussed, elements such as the arrangement of the occupants within the exhibition hall, the participation process, the educational program, the visual indignation and every last diagram and picture, were necessarily considered to be subject to aesthetic pleasure. Political peers became an audience, no longer engaged in arguments, but in shared aesthetic experiences linking political understanding to personal taste and stimulation. All of that was accompanied by the audience’s search for higher values, meaning and sense hidden in the Occupy art.
Not surprisingly, the public considered the occupation a work of art. For example, Carolina, an activist from Spain, complained in an open letter that people who visited the site of the occupation expected something to happen. They didn’t participate, but instead, gazed at the activists and their actions. In other words, they behaved like spectators of an exhibition instead of politically engaged participants. This contemplative behavior was spurred by the vast range of topics, the picture puzzle of artistic practices and contributions, as well as the often poorly attended assemblies. Journalists and art critics condemned the exhibition because it didn’t live up to their high expectations. Some considered it to be kitschy, while others described it as exactly what the movement feared turning into: a “human zoo.” Not surprisingly, some of the activists even described it as such. Noah Fisher, an activist from Occupy Museums, also referred to the exhibition set-up (the dispositif, in a Foucauldian sense) as a ‘human zoo.’ In the end, the Berlin exhibition failed to promote the Occupy movement, not because the activists didn’t come up with enough creative slogans and politically committed art, but because they intended to make the art exhibition their instrument, without realizing that this instrument had its own set of rules that actively opposed the movement’s goals.
In conclusion, the presence of the Occupy movement in Documenta and the Berlin Biennale turned out to be of little use for the movement’s political goals. In fact, the aesthetic transformation of political content harmed Occupy more than it actually benefitted it. The “force of spirited intervention” that Gregory Sholette discussed in relation to archival practices within OWS, and as a benchmark for art practice after OWS, turned out to be rather harmless and unproductive. It is exactly the art context that transforms the nature of the protest and diminishes what could be learned or at least be discussed. By intending to contribute positively to the biennial, the political judgment of the audience enters the aesthetic sphere. This operation mitigates the political arguments of the protest by dissolving them into questions of taste and sense, leaving almost no space for political agitation. Instead of migrating to the art world and partaking in international biennials, activists should put effort into the analysis of the systemic, antagonistic foundations of inequalities, damages and grievances, in order to prevent moralistic criticism.
Sebastian Loewe, born in 1978 in Potsdam, Germany, received a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in media and communication studies and a diploma in fine arts (M.F.A. equivalent). Loewe studied in Bochum and Halle, Germany as well as in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on a scholarship by a German research foundation. The working title is “Discourse On Kitsch”, a foundational study of kitsch theories as well as a discourse analysis of kitsch judgments in print media after 1989. Loewe also works in the academic and artistic field of art and politics, gives talks and workshops on topics like cultural policy, political art, political theater, self-organization in the arts or artists’ protest movements. He is the founder of the socially engaged art and discourse platform ufo-University, published in several magazines and recently edited the book “Das Elend der Kritik” (The Affliction of Critique), published by The Green Box Art Editions, Berlin. Loewe is a visiting lecturer at the University of Art and Design Burg Giebichenstein, Halle, Germany. He lives and works in Berlin, Germany.
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 Note that the often praised blurring of the lines between art and activism, politics and aesthetics, praised as a fundamental contribution of artists to the overall political process of the movement is profoundly put into question, when Schragis herself declares she wouldn’t want to contribute to the political process, but instead do her ‘job’ as an artist: “But my job in the movement is not to write the Declaration. I’m going to illustrate it as best I can.” JA Myerson, “How Do You Illustrate Corruption?.”
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 Demonstrating the constant search for value in the arts, German journalist Hanno Rauterberg stated in the well-established German weekly Die Zeit that Occupy and the entire biennale managed to annihilate the higher value of freedom, to which he views art as naturally obligated. The journalist’s elaboration on the question of whether or not Occupy’s contribution is serving a higher value, and not looking into Occupy’s political agenda, is the consequence of a protest movement becoming art. Hanno Rauterberg, “Die Ohnmacht der Parolenpinsler,” Die Zeit, May 5, 2012, http://www.zeit.de/2012/19/Berlin-Biennale/komplettansicht
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