Paper delivered at the University of Wollongong Provocations Conference November 2014
Since 1989 the world has seen the fall of Communism, the seeming triumph of globalisation and rising inequality both within and between nations. We are seeing the demise of the welfare state and the undermining of full employment by transnational corporatocracies. A growing global underclass or ‘precariat’ of casual and underemployed workers has emerged here. Friedman economics and wasteful privatisation helped cause the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 which has further impoverished millions and prompted the worldwide Occupy movement. In 2011, protestors swelled by the precariat, took to the streets against the oligarchs and demanded alternatives. They carried hand-made signs such as: ‘We are the 99%’ and demanded a fairer society. When tens of thousands rallied in Martin Place, Sydney, I saw Channel 7 television staff watching the unrest from their window while their cameras stood idle. Apparently it was unnewsworthy and like other mainstream media they maintained a news blackout for most of Occupy Sydney. Into this vacuum I wondered what artists could do to process this public phenomenon the plutocracy tried to ignore.
Staff at Channel Seven TV studio in Martin Place overlooking Occupy Sydney rally.
Many artists inspired by the Occupy movement have maintained blogs of photographs, video and commentary as an act of witnessing. This served not only as a corrective to the dearth of mainstream reporting but as an incubator for further cultural responses. 1 The GFC and its implications has prompted other ongoing responses from artists, curators, institutions and funding bodies in Australia. Prominently featured were installations, time-based screen presentations, social media experiments, artist interventions in public spaces and participatory art. Such cultural exchanges can be effective; however, aestheticising the politics of protest and re-presenting it in a safe gallery milieu can also render it impotent.
Disembodied from its social context, art may employ formalist devices and a seductive repertoire of visual language that can challenge aesthetic boundaries, while still obliquely reinforcing the social status quo. Yet some art has proved to be empowering and a key factor of cultural survival for those denied economic equality. With the benefit of partial hindsight, let’s sample these responses within Australia. Given the ongoing impacts of government austerity budgets, an evaluation is all the more urgent.
During Occupy Sydney, I met Jacquelene Drinkall an artist-in-residence at Art Space, Woollomolloo. Her art practice ranges from conceptual, installation and participatory art using telepathic themes or what she calls UFOlogy. Jacquelene’s approach to making art is sometimes tech savvy while at other times more craft-based. She became involved with Occupy Sydney after going to Martin Place to capture audio for a collaborative virtual world performance in Blue Mars Lite. She worked with Jeremy Owen Turner of Vancouver and nineteen other avatars using cutting edge software.2 When I viewed the project online it seemed slightly awkward but perhaps its value lies in the way it sets the stage and hints at collaborative possibilities for future online actions.
Jacquelene went on to help facillitate a cultural response for both Occupy Sydney and Occupy Melbourne. Occupy Sydney organisers tried to hold free classes in Martin Place, a public space in the heart of Sydney’s CBD but were constantly harassed by police. Their open school on how to use social media was endangered until Jacqueline made her studio available. Members of the general public were invited to learn how to use twitter, blogging and Facebook etc to organise protests, create information sharing networks and narrowcast alternate news. Compelling ideas for non-hierarchical forms of social organisation were also discussed.
For Occupy Sydney’s Creative Day of Action Jacquelene led a series of open workshops at her studio in which a banner and giant papier mache skulls were made. These props were used with sensational effect during the Occupy Sydney Tour of Corporate Greed. They blockaded Coles Supermarket to hear from former Baiada Chicken employees affected by workplace safety and underpayment. Jaquelene explained to me that this rally-tour was supposed to be as noisy and colourful as possible, so male participants put on her Weatherman UFOlogy dresses while others wore her Telepathic Balaclava Fascinators or headpieces handwoven from telecommunications wire. 3
The tour, which finished at Martin Place, made a provocative visual statement with skulls, reminiscent of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and men’s neckties cut-and-tucked into dresses. Normally business ties are recognised as signifying a man’s occupation and economic status. However this intervention, which spread throughout the CBD, challenged public perceptions of gender and class. It also lampooned the financial servants that brought us the GFC and resonated with queer culture. Jaquelene recalls that: “It was in the lead up to the monumental Marriage Equality rally, so the gender-bending worked well to show solidarity with that event”. Jacquelene Drinkall’s socially embedded praxis seemed far removed from the traditional white cube gallery exhibition.
Telepathic Fascinator by Jacqueline Drinkall worn during Corporate Greed Tour
Sydney’s art institutions have also responded to the GFC by showing a selection of fairly high profile artists considered to have some connection with worldwide protest. At Cross Art Projects there was an exhibition of activist art called “Occupy the Future: Sarah Goffman, Mini Graff, Deborah Kelly and Fiona McDonald” shown in February 2012. It also featured artists’ blogs concerned with the Occupy movement.4 Sarah Goffman was involved as an artist with Occupy Sydney and meticulously reproduced dozens of cardboard placards which were exhibited as a wall installation. They included appeals from the disenfranchised such as “I need a job now” and “I am a human being not a commodity”. Her stated intention was to honour the 99% and bring new life into the placards as a unified art work. The installation was shown again in a more reverential setting at Artspace for the Everything Falls Apart (Part 1) exhibition in June 2012. Curated by Mark Feary and Blair French this exhibition explored “political and ideological systems collapsing around the world”. 5
At Artspace, people seemed to connect with Sarah’s installation, spending lots of time reading the signs and taking it all in. Many took selfies in front of the work and a sense of shared ownership was palpable. Rather than being the product of a sole creative genius this artwork is actually a mass collaboration. Some viewers may have even recognised their own Occupy placards now dignified within the space of a well funded art gallery. Of all the exhibitions I have seen, Sarah’s installation seemed the most respectful of the public will for political change.
detail of Sarah Goffman's installation at Artspace
Deborah Kelly showed her My Sydney Summer series at Cross Art Projects which was originally commissioned by Cambelltown Art Centre. Her art is influenced by anti-Fascist political montage and she is a member of boat-people. Deborah has collaborated with corporate sponsors re-directing their resources to fund art postcards, billboards and other forms of mass advertising to support refugees, peace, diversity and gender/identity politics. Her photographs for this show exuded a seamless professional quality suggestive of magazine advertising. The high production values were in stark contrast to Sarah Goffman’s humble cardboard signs. Deborah had merged street actions from all over the world into a single backdrop, showing Egypt during the Arab Spring and Sydney with St Mary’s Cathedral burning, then volunteers were rephotographed in front of it holding their own placards. Deborah regarded the photographs featured on the website of Cross Art Projects such as: “Be More Thoughtful” and “Consensus Not Conflict” as her least effective and emailed me others such as “US bases Out” and “Free Palestine”. All but gone were the desperate pleas for decent jobs and a fair go seen during the real Occupy protests. A simulacra that wasn’t quite real enough for me.
Deborah considers the whole of her My Sydney Summer series “a performance work whose traces were exhibited at Cross Arts, to be not very good or important” compared to her other work. This is a courageous admission by a significant artist and I applaud her candour however it indicates a problematic curatorial process. Its puzzling that the artworks Deborah regarded as her least effective were the very ones selected by funding bodies and institutional curators to respond to the Occupy phenomenon. What then are the policy criteria that art institutions use to curate cultural responses to social zeitgeist? One often encounters ill-defined standards of quality or excellence that can be used to exclude or squeeze the aesthetic space that artists have to work within. It is worth asking whether these institutional and aesthetic filters have sanitised the message of Occupy and muffled any real challenge to the status quo.
Cross Art Projects online webpage
Deborah’s latest series “No Human Being is Illegal (In all our Glory)” was commissioned for the 2014 Biennale of Sydney. Transfield, a major sponsor of the Biennale, had won the government contract for detaining Australia’s asylum seekers and refugee advocates were calling upon artists to boycott the Biennale. In one art-blog review, a visitor had unkindly commented that Deborah should have joined the boycott which is a little unfair considering she was active in the artist group calling for divestment from Transfield.6 Not only that but all successful artists need the patronage of corporations, institutions, powerful curators and wealthy collectors. This puts artists in an impossible position: either accept art funding and ignore the elephant in the room ie. our brutal economic system or accept total obscurity. Many artists from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t even get to make that choice because they lack career networks.
In her book Artificial Hells, Claire Bishop mentions how at one stage the British Arts Council was controlled by the aristocracy which meant only art that propped up their class interests was funded and disseminated.7 There are parallels to Australia when one considers how lower socio-economic areas such as Western Sydney, Wollongong or Newcastle are denied an equitable share of arts funding. Funding bodies may underwrite artists who deal with cultural diversity yet ignore class diversity. There is funding for art that speaks out against formal racism but not postcode classism. Economic apartheid has meant that under-resourced ‘Westies’, too poor to live in city centres, are consigned to the margins of society. Issue-based art is only funded so long as it doesn’t mention the class war or the interests of the precariat.
It was revealing to see how the 19th Biennale of Sydney artists dealt with the implications of the economic crisis. Nathan Coley’s Honour series uses black and white photographs of political demonstrations, concealing their slogans with gold leaf. The viewer is left to insert their own meaning into the blank space of the protestors’ placards. The date given for one of the works, 18.10.11, indicated that it was around the time of the worldwide Occupy protests but we have little other contextual information to go by. Nathan claims that he is honouring the protestors by covering their signs with gold but his strategy could be perceived as censorship or mockery of an already silenced underclass. The last gasp of postmodern irony has been used to deconstruct the very idea of public protest.
In the work of Hubert Czerepok there also seems to be a playful detournement or trivialisation of public dissent. Let’s Change It All is a performance in which children were asked to make placards demanding positive things and march in the streets ‘in support of freedom and frivolity’. On Cockatoo Island kids marched with placards calling for “more sport” and “Save the Great Barrier Reef”. Basically Melbourne based Biennale curator, Juliana Engberg and the sponsors weren’t overly concerned about austerity so the cultural responses to it seemed rather anaemic. Art that questions economic equality, affordable housing, job security and welfare just didn’t get selected. Censorship by omission perhaps.
Occupy Sydney, Martin Place October 15th 2011
Lastly I turn to an academic cultural response to the GFC. Glenn D’Cruz and Dirk de Bruyn’s performative, multi-media lecture called Click if You Like This, or OCCUPY as Spectacle: Situationism and a Technological Derive. Coming from an experimental film background Dirk de Bruyn’s skill in weaving disparate images and sound into a coherent whole is apparent. This visually dense text used Guy Debord as a point of departure but I found a somewhat paternalistic voice overwriting the meaning of the imagery.
Referring to Occupy as the ‘detritus of the worldwide spectacle’ the mainstream media’s view that it lacked leadership or a program of demands was rehearsed. At one point the authors declared: “Everybody at Occupy Melbourne appeared at some point to click, tap, snap or excitedly stare into some kind of mobile device. It’s impossible to know exactly what they were doing with these devices.”8
Impossible? Was it really so impossible just to ask Occupy Melbourne participants what they were doing rather than speculating on some mute other? Dirk and Glen might have learned something - such as that Occupy protestors had no choice but to broadcast their own news through social media because of the mainstream media news blackout. When I wandered around Occupy Sydney there were dozens of people only too eager to discuss why they were there.
Artists need to beware of a holier than thou approach when creating aesthetic responses to such a complex and ongoing mass action. They need to remember that they are drawing on powerful forces in motion that are beyond just aesthetics. The spontaneity of the Occupy movement threw up appropriately self-generated cultural responses. Frequently short-lived, not precious as to their longevity, these works are of the moment even if they draw on the continuum of responses going back to the Paris Commune.