Nato Thompson: Occupying Space and Time

As every cultural gesture reproduces existing power structures, art and advertisement begin to mean the same. Why artist-activists have to move on from tactical short-term interventions to strategic longterm movements and occupations argues Nato Thompson.

Before we discuss art’s role in social movements and activism, let us take a step back to appreciate a larger set of deployments of culture across the spectrum of power. Quite often the discussion of art leaves out of consideration the larger framework of culturemakers that have now become integral elements of the production of capital and power. Public relations departments, communications experts, designers, political strategists and marketing firms, as just a preliminary list of 21st culture makers, who certainly use similar skill sets of affect and representation that one might refer to as art (if one could tear the term art away from its ethical and ideological mooring). The rise of the advertising age and with it, the rise of Public Relations and Communications, has radically altered the playing field of culture in general. To consider the role of art in activism, we must first appreciate the role that the manipulation of culture plays in daily life.

The term “art” perhaps causes more trouble than it is worth. For if we used a term like culture or something a little less loaded in the history of art, we might actually begin to appreciate how much art has infiltrated the language of power. That is to say, in many cases the word art is so confusing it prevents us from appreciating its vast ubiquity. When we use the term culture, we have no problem understanding that it is everywhere and it isn’t inherently a “good” thing. For example, we can think of a PR firm for British Petroleum as culture makers, but most people wouldn’t think of them as art makers. If you call a PR firm for British Petroleum artists, some people get very offended that one is demeaning the word art or that art has a much more noble calling. It is a painful and familiar set of rhetorical battles that often lead nowhere. Before we tell ourselves that, of course, there are some very clear differences between art and these clearly propagandistic forms of cultural display; let us just appreciate that the term “art” leads to many confusions as to what people expect from this term. Perhaps there is an easier way to discuss the effects and affects of cultural production in creating the realm of lived experience.

This would be a hopelessly exhausting essay if I went too deeply into the classic riddle of what is art. That question is always being asked in the arts and at times, one can’t help but think of Ludwig Wittgenstein who thought that many of philosophy’s biggest questions were simply the result of poor uses of language. For maybe what art constitutes can be understood by just looking at how it materialises in the world. If we try not to extrapolate philosophically on what art is and more focus on how art manifests in the world, we find ourselves increasingly drawn toward a set of infrastructures worldwide that hold it together. If we look at the way that the term art is built into the world, in material terms, then we might escape the semiotic traps that often elude us. More than a range of skill sets, the arts have come to mean a loose-knit infrastructure of museums, galleries, schools, magazines, alternative spaces and self-described artists whose affinities and political perspectives are almost as far ranging as what they do.

This agglomeration of infrastructures built on the idea of art is useful to bear in mind, because they also define its limits. As we all well know, art is no longer simply drawing, painting, sculpture or even video. Instead, what has come to define art is more the stamp of approval from various structures that define what art actually is. No longer a set of skills, art is only art when people believe it is art. The question then becomes how do people form an opinion of what art is? But constructing how a vast public reaches a complicated form of consensus on this is a difficult question. What governs this perspective of what constitutes the realm of art, can be appreciated if one trusts that the aggregate of the opinions of the overall infrastructure of the arts, often results in a sort of ecology of opinions that produces the realm of possibility for the arts. Its limits and its potentialities are set by the aggregate actions of these shifting sets of cultural apparatus. Let me be more prosaic. If an artist shows in enough art spaces and museums, they will be part of the evolving discussion of what constitutes arts. If an artist is mentioned in enough magazines and alternative spaces, their practice begins to define this evolving discursive terrain. This is all to say that at this point in the history of art, now that the skill sets of art (production of affect, representation, drawing, sculpture making, installation, performance and on and on) have actually made their way into the broader logic of culture makers, the only things that hold the arts together are the infrastructures that govern its meaning.
This is a shorthand way to say that the arts at this point are more of a descriptor of a set of infrastructural spaces that govern its meaning. I make this point only to remove the discussion of art from the skill sets that have so long defined it. For art’s skill sets such as representation, performativity, affect and composition have over the course of the last one hundred years gradually immigrated into the larger functions of daily life. Thus when we speak of the arts as a series of skill sets, we are better suited to think of them in the context of the conditions of cultural production that are integrally connected to the production of our lives.

The realm of cultural production is a vast complicated terrain and like much of life itself, is dominated by the vast conditions of power. The United States right wing political strategist Karl Rove who was considered to be the architect of the election of George Bush and who now heads up the largest Super PAC in the United States would have no problem with the idea that elections are not driven by facts but instead by culture. With the assistance of focus groups and a vast calculated advertising strategy, the election of one of the United States’ most destructive presidents was done so with the use of the skill sets of art. He knows that people vote based on their own affinities, how they feel about a candidate, what they look like. The political candidate is a product and he is branded and shaped accordingly.
Karl Rove is an easy, and perhaps too literal, example of how art and politics converge. Advertising is clearly the more prevalent example in that we see the skill sets of language, affect, representation, demographic data and targeted marketing being used to produce a set of associative connections in a populace. Advertisers use culture to produce associations in our mind that shape how we feel about a product. Images of the Marlboro Man, the Geico gecko, the Budweiser Clydesdale, are all part of that pantheon of corporate image making that we have come to understand. The use of culture to sell products is now a familiar language.
But advertising isn’t limited to advertisements anymore. Public relations firms use language and images as a way to shape the opinion regarding a story or brand. They are a related set of specialties dealing with branding, spin and name recognition. The use of manipulative cultural devices to shape our attitudes toward a business, politician, person, non-profit or any other structure, are now a common part of the language of production. One doesn’t have to be one of the bad guys to use culture in a manipulative manner. One just has to be part of the world.

This is all a shorthand way to bring us back to the role of art in social movements. Because if we understand that the production of daily life is already deeply enmeshed in a coercive landscape of cultural production, then we can perhaps tease out different tendencies of culture making in social movements that aren’t necessarily hemmed in by the myopic needs of the infrastructures that constitute art. It almost seems absurd at this point to say that activists need to be aware of the role of culture in movements. For a very long time, activists and the printing press have been good friends. It would be near impossible to untangle the role of protest in culture to the role of the protest poster to protest. They are deeply related and very few would argue otherwise. But also, since the rise of the media and spectacle as important elements in the culture wars of political movements, the performativity and antics in front of the camera have also played an integral part. In the United States the Yippies and activists like Abbie Hoffman designed wacky performances such as trying to levitate the Pentagon in 1967 in order to gain the attention of the press. They were media savvy activists.

Increasingly, over the last decade, artists have played the role of the media jester. They are the ones who bring levity and visuality to protests. Most obviously artist-activists such as the Yes Men have infiltrated corporate headquarters as imposters, only to reveal the inherent contradictions and greed operating in the halls of power. During the post-Seattle alt-globalisation movement of ten years past, the anarchist group YoMango of Spain would use the influence of Abbie Hoffman to promote the repurposing of sweat shop produced clothes to give to homeless people in Spain. Working in solidarity with the social movements that are still sweeping the austerity assaulted country, the anarchist collective Las Agencias also produced clothing called Prêt-a-revolter, which were high fashion clothes to protest, that did such things as inflate in order to protect against police violence. Their strategies were to bring levity and hijinks to the often moribund atmosphere of protest culture.
As much as this kind of work remains part of the cultural scene of activism even today, a major shift has occurred which is notable. If the art of the last ten years could be described as tactical, that is short term infiltrations into space to disrupt power and spectacle, then the more recent forms of art and activism could be seen as strategic. The cultural manoeuvres in art and activism have been pushed from the tactical form of working to the more strategic long term. Even the occupation of the squares themselves, considered as a cultural form, would fit this description. Squatting in space over time, the movement shifted away from the one-off protest model that so typified past activism. This reflects other tendencies that have been occurring in the realms of activism including the global movement against the gentrification of urban areas.

The correlation between space and the symbolic cannot be emphasised enough in the ongoing denigration of meaning perpetuated by the growth of capitalist cultural production. This is all to say that the growth of capitalist cultural production has made the production of something that matters to people culturally more and more difficult. We can call this the flight of the sign. As every cultural gesture seems to increasingly register as produced for the purposes of reproducing power (generally consumerism, but there are other forms as well), the meaning of the sign is reduced. Everything begins to mean the same thing. Language deteriorates as everything comes to mean the same thing. The tactical over the last ten years also suffered from this logic as increasingly interventionist models of activism began to be incorporated into the Red Bull-style logic of capitalist advertising. Interventions in space were the purview of not only the Spanish anarchists, but also Borat, Urban Outfitters, Red Bull, skateboard commercials and the content of numerous advertisements. To rescue themselves from this growth of capitalist consumption, artist-activists were forced to dig deeper into the production of alternative infrastructures that could resist the destruction of their meaning.

We thus see the rise of anti-gentrification projects as well as the growth of arts as infrastructure. Alternative housing models, alternative schools, alternative food systems, alternative long term social movements that occupy space, became the new language of aesthetic production. All of this can be considered an on-going fight for the production of meaning in culture where so many cultural gestures can easily be dismissed as culture made by power. This again re-enforces the concept that ultimately the form of the occupation movements themselves are in part related to the incorporation of culture into the logic of power. The flight of the sign has resulted in a form of resistance digging into space over time. Duration is a weapon and one that social movements are eager to retain.

This is not to say that contemporary protest culture doesn’t include the skill sets that we have come to think of as the arts. Media stunts, interventions and clever uses of over identification are still in the purview of what we know as the cultural lexicon of protest culture. Recently, an artist-activist group led a campaign called The Tax Dodgers which used the language of American baseball to propel the concept of the top 1% as avoiding their tax obligations. There is also the re-occupation of foreclosed homes as a partially tactical, partially strategic campaign to bring attention to the foreclosure crisis. But here in the United States, the language of interventions has changed. The language around cultural production has shifted from one where the arts exist to bring pleasure and visuality to the movement, to one where the arts exist to brand the movement in a more strategic light. The very language of capitalist cultural production has woven its way into protest culture, perhaps because it is all the more effective. Antics, actions and campaigns that demonstrate the anarchist youthful qualities of the movement are often frowned upon as they are seen to produce an alienating brand to the larger American public. While art actions that galvanise a vast sense of identification (such as the brand of the 99%) are celebrated as populist cultural inventions. In essence, the language of culture, power, technique and strategy has become the necessary language of a calculated social movement vastly overpowered by the forces of capitalism.

In the United States, subgroups of the Occupy Movement such as Occupy Museums and Art and Labour have focused their attention on the large components of the arts infrastructure. Focusing on art institutions such as the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, these groups have taken the language and vast ideological critique of capital to the doorsteps of the arts infrastructure. Occupy the arts has been their call. In light of the previous discussion of what currently constitutes the definition of the arts as governed by its infrastructural composition, such a critique and set of actions has obvious validity. But as the large-scale movement of Occupy shrinks, their assault on the infrastructure of the arts begins to feel all the more tenuous, as it becomes a specialty issue in the face of larger structural issues.

At this particular moment, the crisis has become all the more real in the places where obviously the crisis is all the more real. Greece and Spain continue to galvanise vast actions as the austerity movement of the European Union has forced a relentless assault on its people. Here in the United States, the viral success of the Occupy Movement was so pronounced that the entire government has made it quite evident (where it is legal or not) that they will no longer allow anything remotely close to an occupation of the squares again. Once they were systematically removed at the end of 2011, there has been a tacit agreement between mayors and police forces country-wide to never let the long term occupation of space (a most powerful strategy) return as a method for the contestation of power.

What role do the arts play in the movement at this time? The question is in fact what role does the production of culture play in the shaping of the actions of people on a day to day level? And of course the answer is that culture is a massive motivator of consumerism and behaviour. Knowing that doesn’t make the task of contesting power much easier because ultimately, the odds are clearly in favour of power at this point. That said, the use of culture in confronting these conditions is not some option, but in fact an obvious necessity in the ongoing battle for a semblance of equality and justice.

Nato Thompson is chief curator of Creative Time, a New York based nonprofit organisation that commissions and presents public arts projects. Previous to Creative Time, he worked as Curator at MASS MoCA where he completed numerous large-scale
exhibitions such as “The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere”, a survey of political art of the 1990s. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, recently he published “Living as Form”, an “encyclopedia” of socially engaged art from 1991 to 2011.

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