The Art of Occupation

As the Occupy movement continues to grow, the lines between ‘artist’ and ‘activist’ have become increasingly blurred. Images, text, video and photographs convey the messages and events of the movement on every available surface, website, blog, and twitter feed. In fact, as Martha Schwendener recently noted, Liberty Plaza, or any occupation site for that matter, has “became a kind of art object: a living installation or social sculpture.”  - Nadiah Fellah, SF Contributor

A story-telling booth in Oakland at which participants were invited to share their ‘99% Story’

A story-telling booth in Oakland at which participants were invited to share their ‘99% Story’

At the Occupy Oakland general strike last Wednesday, various forms of artistic expression occurred in the central plaza: musical and dance performances, poetry readings, silk-screening, sign-making, and flash mobs. Throughout the week the world had shown solidarity with Oakland’s version of the Occupy Wall Street movement, particularly after the violent conflict with the Oakland Police that occurred the preceding week. (After midnight on the day of the general strike a small group of protesters butted heads with the police once again, although a majority of the day and participants were peaceful.) The visual features in Oakland were to some extent motivated by counterparts in other cities. One instance was the ‘No Comment’ exhibition at 23 Wall Street in New York. The space, inside the JP Morgan Building, and across from the New York Stock Exchange, was occupied by paintings, photographs, video work, installation, and performances inspired by OWS in mid-October. Planned as a 24-hour pop-up show, it was extended for a full week due to widespread interest.

‘No Comment’ art exhibition, 23 Wall Street, October 8-14

The OWS movement criticizes the existing capitalist system in which 99% of the population bears the brunt of high unemployment rates, housing foreclosures, and greater taxes on already inadequate wages, while wealthy corporations enjoy bail-outs and tax breaks. Out of OWS has emerged Occupy Museums, initiated by a group of artists and art workers in New York. They argue that museums have become alienating rather than inclusive due to primary emphasis on celebrity artists and a style of collection building that panders to art market trends. Because museums are largely funded by wealthy, private collectors, the choice of which artists to exhibit hinges upon donations from key benefactors. The mutually beneficial relationship that emerges helps donors to protect their art investments by ensuring that specific artists gain maximum exposure. As a result of this arrangement, museums like the MoMA may not be serving a diverse population to their fullest, as they have pledged to do.

Edible Art: Jos Sances (left) of the Great Tortilla Conspiracy prints political messages on tortillas with chocolate ink in Oakland

Students from Oakland’s Westlake Middle School participate in sign making during the General Strike

Notably uniting with the Occupy Museums movement is the Teamsters Local 814. These members of the art handlers union have been locked out of their jobs since a labor dispute with Sotheby’s in August. Sotheby’s is an auction house that grossed an astonishing $680 million in profits last year, yet has sought to cut wages for the art handlers and double the number of nonunion workers, effectively weakening the union presence. Occupy Museums has joined the teamsters’ picket lines since late October, and has also occupied spaces outside the MoMA and New Museum.

‘Hella Occupy Oakland’ posters printed and distributed still wet by Jon-Paul Bail of Political Gridlock, a street art collective in Oakland

Graffiti art by Youth Together, an organization based in the East Bay that educates students on community organizing

As the events and actions of Occupy Museums unfold, I can't help but draw parallels between it and the 1970s Art Workers Coalition in New York. Artists and critics like Carl Andre, Lucy Lippard and Robert Morris among countless others called for ‘total dissociation of art making from capitalism.’ They protested the problematic disconnect between museums so-called roles as representative institutions, and museum trustees like Nelson Rockefeller who both enabled and perpetuated the Vietnam War. Notorious for radical actions like releasing dozens of cockroaches during a Met trustee dinner, and the use of powerful imagery like the now-iconic “And Babies…” poster, the group's activities were ultimately responsible for gaining union representation among museum workers and the museum free days that now exist in cities all over the world. Given the remarkable and enduring impact the AWC was able to make in the short years it was active, I am hopeful for what can be accomplished by Occupy Museums, and the entire Occupy movement as a whole.

Art Worker’s Coalition, “Art Workers Won’t Kiss Ass” poster, 1969


Nadiah Fellah is a curatorial assistant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)