The Art of Occupation, Part II

This is a follow-up to a post written in November, The Art of Occupation, which dealt with the inception of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Museums, as well as their artistic components. In this post I continue by reporting on the art and activities of the movements’ participants as they evolve and expand. - Nadiah Fellah, San Francisco contributor

In 1938, Diego Rivera and André Breton signed a Manifesto for Independent Revolutionary Art, in which they declared that “true art is unable not to be revolutionary, not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society.” No stranger to controversy, Diego Rivera famously offended Nelson Rockefeller with a 1933 mural that included a portrait of Lenin. When his patron asked him to change the piece, Rivera refused and left New York. After his departure the mural in Rockefeller Center was covered, and within months, destroyed.

Diego Rivera | The Uprising, 1931, 74 x 93 ¾”, Museum of Modern Art

It was therefore symbolic when Occupy Museums held a general assembly that began in front of a Diego Rivera’s mural, The Uprising, during a Free Friday at MoMA recently. Rivera and Breton’s manifesto was then read in front of the 1931 portrayal of a labor demonstration. Occupy Museums went on to call for an end to the Sotheby’s lockout of Teamsters Local 814, art handlers who have been unable to work for the past six months. One speaker pointed out that Sotheby’s has spent almost as much on security against the striking workers as it would have to meet their initial contract demands. As the general assembly collected participants and onlookers, Occupy Museums ended its action in MoMA’s atrium. Among their critiques of the institution was the question of how a corporate-sponsored free day (MoMA’s are sponsored by Target) can truly be without cost for visitors. Occupy Museums has since followed the action with an open letter to MoMA, reiterating the terms of their demands, one of which is crediting museum free days to the Art Workers Coalition, their original sponsor.

Occupy Museums’ bold action on January 14th has been paralleled by a nation-wide call to action among artists, writers, and art workers in the Occupy movement. Particularly in the Bay Area, the Artists of the 99% have been instrumental in organizing panels and workshops for artists and community members. At a recent panel discussion in San Francisco, author Jeff Chang and artist Favianna Rodriguez argued that cultural change often precedes political change. They made the case that artists should not serve an auxiliary role in movements like OWS, but should instead take the lead. Both Rodriguez and Chang have used this tactic in organizing against Arizona’s 2010 anti-illegal immigration law, known as SB 1070. Initiating a delegation called CultureStrike, the goal has been for visual artists and writers to “help surface the narratives of people, especially youths, and to support the grassroots efforts to overturn SB 1070 and secure immigrant rights.”

During a rainy evening in Justin Herman Plaza, SF, occupiers collected and displayed ‘stories of the 99%’

A story-telling tent in Justin Herman Plaza, SF on January 20th

Favianna Rodriguez
| ‘The Artist Must Fight,’ screenprint, 2008, courtesy of the artist

The Beehive Design Collective, represented at the same panel discussion by Zeph Fishlyn, parallels the work that Chang and Rodriguez have done with CultureStrike. A collaborative group of artists and designers, The Beehive Collective makes intricate graphic posters that are used as educational and organizing tools. The complex imagery of works like The True Cost of Coal is organized into an overall conceptual structure, which breaks down into individual chapters or stories. By utilizing the posters in combination with story-telling, the collective travels the country to schools, galleries, and political events, effectively engaging with diverse audiences.

The Beehive Design Collective | ‘The True Cost of Coal,’ 2011

The Beehive Design Collective | ‘The True Cost of Coal,’ 2011 (detail)

At the January 20th Occupy Wall Street West action in San Francisco, artists and activists were in full-effect despite rainy weather. Jon-Paul Bail of Political Gridlock printed ‘Hella Occupy San Francisco’ posters on the sidewalk in the city’s financial district, a complement to his original ‘Hella Occupy Oakland’ posters from November. He explained the design as split into two sides, with the color red representing Marxism, and black representing anarchism. Between them stands the Transamerica pyramid, ubiquitous on the San Francisco skyline, and originally home to the Transamerica Corporation. Its top is capped with the Eye of Providence, recognizable from the US Seal printed on all dollar bills, and appropriated here as a symbol of capitalism. In the upper left corner is a star and crescent, representing solidarity with the Arab Spring. From the bottom of the poster rise flags, protest signs, and tents, imagery quickly becoming associated with Occupy movements the world over.

Jon-Paul Bail of Political Gridlock has been screen-printing political posters in Oakland since 1986

Throughout the day on January 20th, creative organizing manifested in dozens of actions, including flash mobs, 99% story-gathering, and stickers placed over Bank of America ATM screens which queried users as to where they’d like to invest their money—coal-fired power plants, housing foreclosures, or executive bonuses. One Bank of America branch on Market Street was taken over and became the People’s Food Bank of America, distributing hot food throughout the day.

Non-adhesive stickers were made by Rainforest Action Network activists, an environmental organization based in San Francisco. They were placed over 85 Bank of America ATM screens across SF in January.

As history has frequently shown, the idea of visual arts and culture as a catalyst for political change is not so far-fetched. In the mid-1920s, author and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois celebrated the work emerging as part of the Harlem Renaissance, citing parallels between freedom in creative endeavors and freedom from racial oppression. During the Cold War, the US government secretly subsidized the work of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock to illustrate the freedom of expression American artists—and by extension, Americans—enjoyed in relation to the communist Soviet Union. And in 2008, street artist Shepard Fairy’s ‘Hope’ Obama poster became one of the most iconic images of the historic election. All of these instances demonstrate that there’s an equal amount of power in the medium as there is in the message. Work that artists like Favianna Rodriguez, David Solnit, and The Beehive Collective are engaged in represents the rise of a new civil vocabulary that protesters are forging. It takes place in the form of public performances, collaborative actions, and creative production, but more importantly, is rapidly becoming a vital strategy for the Occupy movement.


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