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Book review: The art of protest in Yates McKee’s look back at Occupy Wall Street

A book on the Occupy movement offers a radical take on its art activism - It is just a pity that the author limits his audience.
Yates McKee’s book draws attention not just to the messages carried by Occupy activists, but also to the physical signs, often crafted from reused cardboard boxes, themselves. Above, two protestors in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in 2011. Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Yates McKee’s book draws attention not just to the messages carried by Occupy activists, but also to the physical signs, often crafted from reused cardboard boxes, themselves. Above, two protestors in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in 2011. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The idea was brilliantly simple. Having trawled the darkest corners of financial listservs, the artist Thomas Gokey had come across a debt buyer he would later call “Mr Red”. Mr Red agreed to sell Gokey some of the debt he had snapped up in the punishing aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The artist partnered with a group called Strike Debt, which is devoted to the concept of debt refusal, making a few small purchases with his own money before coming up with the idea of starting a “collective fund for debt cancellation” financed by anonymous donors.

Strike Debt, having bought a small slice of American indebtedness, would proceed to identify the debtors and cancel all their obligations. Gokey had been casting around for a means of confronting the burning injustice of 2008 – the banks that issued predatory mortgage loans were bailed out by the American taxpayer, while the owners of the now-worthless homes were not – creating a conceptual art that served as a symbolic resolution to an all too-real nightmare. The anthropologist David Graeber, who admired Gokey’s work, dubbed it the “rolling jubilee”, harking back to the Biblical notion of the jubilee year, in which debts were forgiven, contracts cancelled and slaves freed. This jubilee, though, would come more than twice a century; it would roll on, picking up momentum as it barrelled forward.

Yates McKee’s ambitious Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition highlights Gokey’s work as part of what it sees as a small galaxy of art, and artistically infused activism, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. This effort is, by its very nature, diffuse and disorderly, and McKee’s book is an unusual combination of focus and sprawl. I was thankful for the book’s attention to the artistic legacy of Occupy, even as its unyielding devotion to jargon was frustrating.

Strike Art wants its readers, who it presumes are admirers of Occupy Wall Street, to see the aesthetic component of the movement as inseparable from its political aims. McKee asks us to consider “the possibility that Occupy itself could be considered a kind of artistic project”. And in fact, much of what McKee highlights here betrays a fascination with a brand of art that has voluntarily evicted itself from the affluent neighbourhoods where much of contemporary art resides and found energy in the struggles of everyday people. Like the Serbian student activists of Otpor (resistance), who helped to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 through their politically charged antics, the best of Occupy and its offshoots sought to dramatise the undramatisable, transforming invisible economic trends into a theatre of suffering, anger and redemption.

As McKee astutely notes, the “artisanal crudity” of the homemade sign was essential to the Occupy Wall Street aesthetic. In 2011, leftist protesters, outraged by the financial crisis and its effects on ordinary Americans, seized a Manhattan plaza in the financial district known as Zuccotti Park and transformed it into a demonstration ground for democracy. The signs, placed flat on the ground to form a studied contrast with the skyscrapers looming above them, were made out of recycled pizza boxes, the occupiers turning the engines of their sustenance (often donated by well-wishers) into emblems of their resistance. The encampment was itself a symbol of its political claims, its existence on the brink of endangerment representative of the precarious economic situation of the Americans it sought to speak for.

McKee is at his best in creatively reading the symbols of Occupy Wall Street. A May Day poster from 2012 lists all manner of workers, from “service industry workers” to “art workers” and summons them: “ALL OUT.”

“All out – as in all out of the workplaces and into the streets,” McKee observes, “but also perhaps an exit or withdrawal from the limited identifications prescribed to different workers by the dominant order”.

“All Our Grievances Are Connected,” read the sign on one maypole, its extending tendrils, all emerging from a central hub, itself visual evidence of a political claim.

He betrays a sensitive eye to the nuances of its visuals and the intimate links between its aesthetic ideals and its political goals. Much of the work McKee highlights returns, as Occupy often did, to the themes of debt and property repossession. An Occupy group hosted an “Occupy Our Homes” campaign in Brooklyn, in which a tour of repossessed homes culminated in a housewarming party at one of the houses. It was a happening meant to reanimate the ghosts in every empty home. Another action had “sofas, chairs, tables, rugs and houseplants” dropped in front of a Bank of America office in Manhattan, bringing the reality of repossession to those responsible and symbolically repossessing the banks many saw as the root of the financial crisis.

After an initial burst of attention, the Zuccotti Park encampment was closed by local authorities and Occupy’s energies dissipated. Some of its allies joined associated groups like Occupy Sandy, which assisted the victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The link between climate change and economic devastation underscored by Sandy pushed many of the former Occupy activists towards such unions of art and activism as the People’s Climate March, in which hundreds of thousands of people paraded through the streets of New York in September 2014 demanding immediate action on the environment.

Much of the remainder of Occupy’s energy, McKee argues, was transmuted towards the nascent Black Lives Matter movement and the environmentalist cause. McKee is sharp on the visual aesthetic of Black Lives Matter, including the “Brechtian estrangement effect” of “hands up, don’t shoot” protests, but the link with the primary subject matter of the book feels tangential.

There is undoubtedly an overlap between the protesters of Occupy and those of Black Lives Matter, but Occupy’s concentration was the fraught subject of the financial crisis. The structure of the book, with its analysis of Occupy’s artistry bookended by a jargon-heavy introduction and a mostly misplaced postscript on the environmental and racial-justice causes, does McKee no favours. Neither does his occasionally overwrought language, railing against “class-cleansing” (read: gentrification) and describing the ultimate purpose of the Occupy aesthetic as the creation of a new survivalist radicalism for the era of climate-infused chaos. The repeated mentions of Black Panther Assata Shakur, named a domestic terrorist by the FBI, and the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions campaign against Israel are presumably here to perform a winnowing function, excising all but the truest believers in radical politics.

McKee’s zealousness in limiting his audience to only his pre-approved cohort is a shame, because Strike Art functions as a worthy postscript to the now-moribund Occupy movement. The book allows Occupy Wall Street to appear in its most appealing light, as an artistic jape directed at American finance run amok, born out of burning anger but delivered with a twinkle in its eye. McKee is seeking to trace out the tendrils of post-Occupy activism, a worthy task, but not entirely suited to the purposes of his book. Instead, his extended study of Occupy serves as a reminder that political struggle is often most successful when it engages playfully with its intended audience. This is a lesson occasionally heeded by both progressives and autocrats; who takes more evident delight in the work of upending others’ assumptions than that wannabe-Mussolini of Manhattan, Donald Trump?

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to The Review.

Updated: April 7, 2016 04:00 AM

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