On Sunday I finally made it down to Occupy Wall Street, and arrived there in time to hear Slavoj Zizek speak to the crowd in Liberty Square. While his back was toward me for most of the time, this enabled me to fully experience the human crowd microphone that everyone has been talking about. I only heard his words through the collective voice of other people in the crowd listening as well. While there was one main “echo” after he spoke a sentence, there were other echos of his words trickling back into the far part of the crowd. “Mic checks” had to happen several times when the system started to break down (usually when peoples’ voices got tired of shouting), which got the crowd back into repeat mode. But the message did go through, albeit with these delays. Someone standing next to me remarked how this could be happening 2000 years ago, and the same techniques to amplify the message would be used. Besides the livecam in use nearby, I definitely saw his point.
There were a lot of wonderful things happening down there. I was impressed by the ability of the protestors to organize on a practical level – feed themselves, to set up communication with the outside world (the online stream has been crucial to getting their message out) – but mostly I appreciated the kinds of conversations that this movement has made possible. I hope that it continues – that the protestors are able to reach out to the majority of the American electorate and make people realize that a lot of them vote against their best economic interests. I’m not sure what will happen once the weather changes, but I think most people there know that they won’t be in that square forever. And I appreciated that a lot of peoples’ questions to Zizek were about how to speak to the people who wouldn’t consider protesting themselves, but who are very much in the 99%.
After OWS I headed to the Living as Form exhibition on Essex St. It was interesting to go to this right after what I’d seen downtown because the mood was markedly subdued. For an exhibition about social practice it felt very static and somewhat disconnected from the largest socially motivated protest movement New York has seen in a long time. There was an attempt to make connections to what was happening at the protest with a wall of protest signs, but I’m curious whether the signs would have served a better purpose (or made a better statement) at the protest itself instead of mounted on the wall of a gallery.
A project that I really did enjoy at the Living as Form exhibit was Suzanne Lacy’s The Roof is on Fire. Suzanne Lacy worked for a number of years with teenagers in Oakland, CA, as well as the Oakland Police Department, in an attempt to make each group better understand one another. The impetus for the project was a youth riot in June of 1993, which was spun to blame teenagers for starting it, but was definitely exacerbated by police present. One week later Lacy gathered 220 students from Oakland Tech High School on top of a roof top. They sat in open cars talking openly about issues affecting them and their community – violence, sexuality, race, economic disparity, lack of opportunity. NBC news and CNN were there with cameras covering the event and broadcasting their message.
I appreciated that the description of the piece explains that Oakland youth were used to attention by the media, but were generally portrayed in a negative light. This event (organized by Lacy and TEAM – a group of teachers, educators, artists and media workers) was designed as a “positive media spectacle,” where young people could be seen as citizens “instead of liabilities.” Lacy helped to facilitate a spectacle which gave a group of misunderstood people a platform to express themselves, and create a different discourse in the media and other communities.
This project also resonated with me because in 1993 I was 10 years old living about 5 miles away from where this event took place, but completely unaware of the world these teenagers were living in.