Occupation Politics and Art

There I said it: politics and art.  The phrase alone can be enough to make you want to hide under a pillow.

In these days of Occupy Wall Street and all manner of in your face politics, what is the relevance of artistic experimentation? 

I ask this as someone who has a history of political activism (and who has been at the sympathy OWS marches in NYC) and who also creates theater (primarily) that is on the experimental edge of experimental, what some would uncharitably refer to as 'elitist' or if particularly miffed 'pretentious.'

I see the connection, but I can also understand if it's not crystal clear.  And there's the rub: does everything have to be Crystal Clear?  Am I being somehow self-indulgent or whatever by working in associative meanings, formal experimentation that creates new ways of seeing/creating?  I'd like to say no, of course I would.  And I do, and have, worked very hard to make these forms as accessible as possible without diminishing the quality of the artistic experiment.

But, I'm also aware now that I am teaching students who are in college who have a hard time writing even the most basic sentence, that to do what I do means having had access to a very good education, sets of ideas that are not generally disseminated and the concurrent sense of entitlement that comes with that.  I can - and do - tell myself all manner of post-structuralist stuff about how cool this work is and how it can disentangle fascistic molar meaning with molecular constructions that are liberating, etc.  And I do even believe all that.

However, does it matter?  Like at all?

My feeling on this now is: yes and no.

Yes in that at the far end of how we conceive of the world involves language and ways of framing our reality and any kind of active investigation into that is important.  But no in that the actions of a handful of people who started sleeping in a public-private park downtown has had more impact on shifting the way we see thing politically not only in this country, but in the whole world, than any number of artistic experiments combined.

But, that is also comparing apples and oranges to a degree, because for people to have the imagination to begin the occupation, they too must have been exposed to ideas - political and artistic - that led them to that action. 

My favorite origin story to what is shaping up to be a global revolution, is that many of the activists in Egypt and I think Tunisia as well were exposed to the work of a very old, but still alive, American academic, Gene Sharp who wrote a treatise on non-violence as a means to democratic change called from Dictatorship to Democracy.  I downloaded it from the NYTimes site when they posted it.  It's an excellent read.  And can you imagine that this fellow, 92 when Arab Spring began, could have imagined the impact his writing would have?

So I go back to my original hope that is: if experimenting with ideas and forms and if you have a political bent to begin with, which I do (as do many others), this can have some value.  The value is in opening up spaces for new possibilities, ways of conceiving other than what is given.  Everything happening now - that has been happening since the Arab Spring - is turning 'how it is' on its ear.  You have to know that's possible.  Certain kinds of artistic experiences can aid in that mind opening moment.

However, there are certain actions people can do in the world - sleeping in Zuccotti Park and not leaving - or setting oneself on fire in Tunisia - that - at the right moment (and timing is as key as action here) - can have a huge impact.  Action, bodies on the line, is what is most important.

And while it is not, nor meant to be 'theater' per se, these actions are highly theatrical (or in the academic parlance du jour - 'performative' - a parlance I use with somewhat gritted teeth having suffered enough getting a PhD and just wanting wanting wanting to go back to the old Strunk and White 2 cent words...)...And for all the social networking, which of course has had its place and been an incredibly valuable tool, without People on the Street, their Live Presence, Vulnerable Human Bodies on the Line, none of this would be happening.

This is the kind of action I dreamed of, this is the kind of action in my own little way I've tried to make openings for in my artistic work and of course all those seemingly futile political protest marches, sit-ins, teach-ins, articles, etc. I've engaged in, organized, written about...etc.

I am delighted that this generation of young people unlike my frankly sheep-like graze mindlessly to the slaughter generation (young in the 80s) is Awake and Fighting Back.  You guys Rock the House.  I would like to think/pray/hope those of us who kept the faith in the dark times kept open the stream for you, but no matter - you are doing it.  This is your time, and that's just great.

My little bit now is sending my kids from Bronx Community College downtown to check out Zuccotti Park, talk to people there and write about it.  They now see themselves as part of the 99% (not all of them but many - I'm not asking them to believe what I believe but simply to go see for themselves outside of the media filter what's up) and some are more engaged and enthused politically.

I also wrote a play in 2008 about the first financial collapse We live in financial times, Part 1: Blackberry Curve that resonates now more than ever.  I'd like to think this was my way of throwing into the ring some ideas that are now out there and having an effect.  We will be doing a reading of this play at The Brecht Forum in January, so stay tuned for that if you're interested.

This play, perhaps relevant to the subject of this post, is way more 'normal' in terms of form than my other work.  I did not decided to do it that way, it's just how it turned out.  The form falls apart by the end of course, but initially it looks like a recognizable play and story.  I wonder now if this was partially a desire, unconscious, to reach out to more people?  I don't know, but it's an interesting proposition.

I am, as the title of this blog indicates, in transition, so I want to take this valuable time to interrogate all my assumptions, including about what makes artistic creations relevant, vital, etc. and how that may or may not impact what I create.  I say may or may not because it's not always clear what will impact what.  I cannot make 'ideologically pure' art nor would I want to do that.  So, it's this balancing act that in my experience is worked out in the doing rather than the thinking.

I start writing a stage text and it comes out whatever way it comes out.  I start working in a rehearsal room or a lab space and bring in ideas to try but then they change.

Without this vitality art dies.

And I think, back to the Occupy movement, that they have remained so vital because they are not afraid to be in process, to Not know, to Not have an agenda, but be there anyway, saying: you know what: this isn't right.  We are the 99% and we are being screwed.  That's enough.  Yes, there will be calls to do this and that, and everyone and God with a half-baked progressive agenda will try to attach themselves to this movement, but at the core it's this: here we are.  We aren't going away.  Shit has got to change.

And it already Is changing.  News stories are being written that would never have been written a month ago, like the NYTimes article about how none of the presidential candidates are part of the 99% (except maybe one and they are not sure even about that one when savings are included).  That article does not get written in mid-September.  Bank of America backed off its debit card fees and now OWS even has port-a-potties.  Miracles do happen.  But not miracles, no, human action made this happen - real concerted action.

Rock on, 99%.  It's our time now.

I'm too old to sleep in the park with you all (plus teaching in the Bronx) but I will keep making my work, cheering you on at marches and fighting the good fight with my 'pen' (i.e. computer, blog, plays, etc...)

Julia Lee Barclay, PhD



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