January 18, 2012
REFLECTIONS ON MY INVOLVEMENT IN THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT (First of Many)
In September 2011, I joined the Occupy Wall Street movement. Since then, what started out as a curiosity has turned into a much larger commitment. It has felt like the most important place for me to be. The movement has offered a place to find solidarity and build change in a way the previously hadn’t felt possible.
Below is a little overview on some of the work that I have been involved with in Occupy Wall Street. Note: these reflections are strictly my own.
My entry into the OWS was through the Arts & Culture working group (A&C). As an artist, I was looking to further the conversation that was happening around economic injustice in Occupy Wall Street into the realm of the art world. However I found that the majority of the conversations happening within the A&C were around creating art shows, or using Liberty Park as a curatorial space. This is not how I wanted to participate. As an artist that doesn’t necessarily make overtly political work, I was more interested in building solidarity among artists, who represent an exploited workforce.
One of the best things about OWS is that the process easily facilitates the formation of new groups and it is very easy to enter the movement and start something new! After a few Arts and Culture meetings I was able to propose the formation of the Arts & Labor working group, and got a few A&C members to join me in helping its formation.
The first few meetings were small, and a mix of people from A&C, and others I directly recruited to be part of the conversation. Among those were members of W.A.G.E (Working Artists for the Greater Economy) who has been working on pressuring non-profits and museums to pay artist fees (similar to CARFAC in Canada) since 2003. Greg Sholette also came to an early meeting, providing some historical context by sharing resources on past movements of artists organizing around labor Issues in New York City. Also around this time, a larger meeting was called in the Occupy Movement to talk about the role of the arts in OWS. I attended that meeting, and announced the Arts & Labor working group, and from there the group exploded. From that point forward, it took on a life of its own.
The next few meetings were between 40 and 60 people. There was a lot of conversation around exploitation of arts workers and, calling a general strike, and ways to draw artists to the movement. (You can find meeting minutes here) There was a desire to do something for the next day of action, which was November 17th. We decided that we would hold a General Assembly in Chelsea, a symbolic center of the art market in New York. We called it Occupy Lunch.
On November 17th 2011, on a city-wide day of action Arts & Labor held our first action, Occupy Lunch. The event took the form of a General Assembly on the High Line using the people’s mic. Over fifty arts workers came on their lunch break and spoke out about the working conditions and overall exploitation of arts workers. We handed out sandwiches and drank hot Chai. In the GA, people talked about how much money they make, how much debt they have, and the system that keeps them complacent. I found it empowering to hear from so many voices and to feel a sense of solidarity.
For more about Arts & Labor is up to currently: http://artsandlabor.org
At the same time as I started organizing with Arts and Labor, I participated in the first call to action of Occupy Museums, and soon thereafter joined that group as well. Occupy Museums is an action group that targets cultural institutions (largely museums) and calls them out for their relationships to corporate wealth and greed. Early on, Occupy Museums formed a partnership with the Sotheby’s art handlers, Teamsters local 814, who have been locked out of their jobs since August 2011. Occupy Museums has supported the union by protesting in front of Sotheby’s, but also organizing actions at MoMA that target board members who also play a role in auction house.
The strategy of Occupy Museums actions is to bring the General Assembly and people’s mic to the doors of the museum. This format is open ended and fluid, anyone can join and speak at anytime. Occupy Museums also opens up creativity for the structure of the GA. Past actions have included poetry and manifestos, dance, and singing in the GA. We have held discussions on philanthropy, called out conflicts of interest from board members and philanthropists, and envisioned ways the museum could better serve the people. Click here for a list of past actions.