Occupy, Hope, Exchange

A (Sort of) Travelogue

Prologue: A Mockupy Performance At noon, on November 15, a small group of Brooks Brothers-clad protesters marched into the middle of a massive Occupy rally on the UC Berkeley campus to host an exclusive VIP-luncheon. These representatives of the UC Movement for Efficient Privatization laid out planters, bamboo stakes, red-velvet tape, and a pink princess play tent to mark off a most private space. One of the extremely well dressed elite (who looked a lot like me) hollered politely into the crowd:

Excuse me, Madame. Would you care to join the 1 percent? After all, we are the most fabulous and delicious percent. Please join our exclusive VIP-luncheon. Please join us for champagne-cum-sparkling-cider and a tasty mélange of local tomatoes and Camembert on crostinis (i.e., Dominos pizza). The air is so fresh in here, and you, Madame, are most welcome. All you have to do is commit to a lifetime of debt insecurity.

Like so many other faculty, staff, and students of the University of California, the UC Movement for Efficient Privatization, or UCMeP (pronounced “You See Me Pee”), is extremely concerned about the privatization of the world’s foremost (and formerly) public university. However, unlike these thousands of faculty, staff, and students, we at UCMeP are deeply troubled by the snail’s pace at which this “inevitable” transformation is proceeding. Since its inception in 2009, UCMeP has developed a repertoire of tactical performance-based projects to push the logics of the UC administration to their natural (and absurd) extremes. We’ve disseminated manifestos, auctioned-off campus buildings, hosted red-carpet events and award ceremonies, even produced instructional videos about how best to cross picket lines. The goal remains constant: to promote the swift and efficient privatization of the University of California.

At first, it was hard to convince those overeducated hippies to join our “mockupation” and imbibe with us. After all, thousands had converged that sunny November day to protest privatization, the increasing financialization of our everyday lives, and (as Colbert reported) the adept team of “crisis managers” (some say: riot police) that had so gently “nudged” (some say: beat and arrested) students and faculty who assembled peacefully the previous week to join in solidarity with Occupy and pitch a few freedom-hating tents on Sproul Plaza, the so-called birthplace of the free speech movement. Before long, however, the lure of luxury became too strong. We collected a great number of pledges and debt-certificates to help ensure and expedite the end of our rights to public assembly, to public education, and to public institutions writ large. It seems the crostinis were just too tasty.

***

Decoding Occupy I have been living and working in Berlin since early last year; working on projects that have been helping me to think about and explore the relationships between the public art we make and the public institutions within which we are enmeshed. Much of this work has come into focus in the midst of the many upheavals we have seen: Cairo, Tripoli, Madison, Occupy Wall Street, and beyond and beyond. Upheavals in which many of our (formerly) public institutions—and other institutions we have come to rely upon—have come under scrutiny for letting us down, for abandoning us, for capitulating to the violent logics of neoliberalism, for casting us into precarity without our permission.

In November, I had the opportunity to spend time in a number of different places across North America. What follows is an attempt to make sense of some of my conversations and experiences as I traipsed back and forth, from Boston, to the Bay Area, to Montreal, and New York; from the march on the Port of Oakland, to the attempted (and violent) liquidations of Occupy Oakland and other UC occupations, to conversations about performance and activism, hope and exchange at the annual American Society for Theater Research (ASTR) conference in Montreal, to—yes—Guitar Hero at the Abrons Art Center on the Lower East Side of New York. Occupy was on my mind most of the time. It was the specter (or not so spectral presence) presiding over almost every dinner (and breakfast and lunch) conversation I had on my trip. And the conversations were indeed varied. The potential of Occupy was exciting for some. For others, Occupy’s seeming opacity was frustrating, alienating even. As I left each conversation, I found myself thinking: How are we as “theater people,” as “those interested in performance” well positioned (or not?) to contribute to the Occupy conversation? What can Occupy bring to us, to our art practice, to our institutional structures, to our thinking about the different publics with which we are engaged? Further, in the face of financial crisis and austerity measures—and other systemic letdowns and failures—what are the roles of our public (especially arts) institutions? How might they boost us up, and not just let us down?

 

I found myself thinking: How are we as “theater people,” as “those interested in performance” well positioned (or not?) to contribute to the Occupy conversation? What can Occupy bring to us, to our art practice, to our institutional structures, to our thinking about the different publics with which we are engaged? 

 

protest posters
UCMEP at a protest. Photo by UC Movement for Efficnat Privatization( UCeMP). 

Recently, there has been an incredible outpouring of writing and thinking, working very successfully to think through the many implications of Occupy. If this short piece makes just one contribution, I hope it encourages those excited, frustrated, or alienated by Occupy to engage more closely with this phenomenal, broad-based, and expanding collection of material. I hope it encourages a visit to an Occupy encampment, participation in the hard work of a general assembly, a willingness to keep (or to begin) having difficult conversations. I began with the UCMeP anecdote above because I think—I hope—it provides a way into these conversations by means of the medium with which we reading HowlRound are all familiar: theater and performance. I began with the UCMeP anecdote also because it represents, I think, an attempt by means of performance (and some satire) to interrogate the logics of administration calling for and themselves performing a privatization of our public spaces, public institutions, public lives. I would argue further that Occupy encourages us to perform such an interrogation of our own nonprofit theater system and arts infrastructures more broadly.

Profiting from the Not-for-Profit
Occupy most certainly raises challenges for the directors of many, if not all, of our theaters. Corporate donations and donations from the so-called 1 percent form the financial backbone of our American arts infrastructure. How, then, might we think critically about Occupy—even endorse Occupy—without risking our bottom lines, without endangering the work we create? A few years ago,  I wrote a short piece about the origins of our uniquely American non-profit system and tried to understand how the (performing) arts and its institutions entered the burgeoning non-profit discourse at the turn of the century, when our current tax code was first codified. Two key facts emerged from this research, emerged in tension perhaps. The first is that tax exemption for nonprofit—or 501(c)3—arts institutions and exemption for those donating to said institutions originated as a coordinated effort by the ultra wealthy in response to President Woodrow Wilson’s greatly expanded tax campaign. These elites rallied around arts and educational institutions as a way of maintaining liquidity by keeping their money out of the government’s hands, keeping their money in realms more traditionally in their control: operas, museums, theaters, etc. The second fact was that the “arts” are not listed per se as institutions exempted from tax. Instead, the “arts” were included as “educational” institutions—institutions funded and controlled by the 1 percent to “educate” the American public.

It would do us all good to dig our 501(c)3 forms out of the filing cabinet and read them anew, share them anew. We must remember the common history that we share, the common history that tacitly guides all our mission statements as public service organizations. What publics do we currently serve? What publics do we aim to serve? Have we been complicit in, even (non) profited by means of the growing wealth inequality in our country? Have we (non) profited by serving as storehouses for liquid wealth, storehouses that enable the ultra wealthy to keep disposable income out of public circulation? We must ask: how is this (non) profiting in line with—or directly contrary to—our public missions, our missions as public charities, the missions which permit the very tax exemption that allows us to function and create new work?

I am by no means proposing that we shame our members, our donors, ourselves. This is where I depart from those who recently called upon us to “occupy museums” as mere “temples of cultural elitism I am by no means proposing that the divide between Haves and Have-nots in our field is “unbridgeable.” Quite the contrary. I am suggesting, in line with P. Carl from a few weeks back, that Occupy be a call-to-arms to acknowledge and to further examine our mutual interdependence. A call to begin a public, structural conversation—even structural debate—about the kind of arts infrastructures we have and the kinds of institutions we want to be. A call to understand our collective histories and the (often implicit) narratives and politics structuring our work and the institutions that fashion that work. A call for difficult and productive conversations, transparent conversations, democratic conversations about our collective futures. Let us make space for these conversations.

Taking Opacity Seriously
“What is it they want? Just what is their message?” This was the tenor of a number of conversations with friends and family over the course of my trip (once I left the Bay Area); no doubt a response to Occupy’s open and deliberate refusal to make concrete demands, to appoint a “leader,” to tell just one story, to reduce the movement to that which is currently demandable. (I think Judith Butler’s “For and Against Precarity” in the inaugural issue of Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy is very good on this point.)

Please permit the obtuse association, but I think we face a similar challenge in our own field’s discomfort with “opacity.” Our critical institution often feels the need—it seems— to subsume “new,” “non-linear,” “experimental” work under a pre-determined set of criteria of what makes a well-made play well-made (or not). We often seem unable or unwilling to read and greet this work on its own terms.  This seems to be less of a problem in the European (at least German) context in which a tradition of “postdramatic” theater and performance has moved well beyond the fringe or off-(off)-scenes (see: Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theater). Instead of chastise our contemporary theater makers for their refusal (or even inability) to channel Arthur Miller and their desire to rethink what it is that is well-made, we must develop a new critical vocabulary to engage productively with such work that is not “well-made” and proud of that fact. I would go further to suggest that there is something productive (dare I say utopian) in the refusal of these theater artists to give us stories that are neat and clean (or even complete stories at all). What can we learn from the seeming opacity of this work? How does this work force us to develop new ways of conversing, new topics of conversation, new criteria for what counts as good, well-made, political even?

As I sat in the Abrons Arts Center watching Julia Jarcho’s stunning, difficult, not “well-made,” and brilliant, new piece, Dreamless Land, I found myself so thankful that Richard Maxwell had taken a chance and invited this piece into a space, and invited others to see it. I felt thankful for the piece’s beautifully genre-bound depictions of married life as horror flick, workplace banter as action-adventure-espionage, adolescent romance as only viable by means of Guitar Hero. I felt thankful for Las Vegas showgirls, for apple-martini Chapstick, for the challenges of teen love turned young adult love, for the dream of an escape to Newfoundland. I felt thankful for Jarcho’s incredible sense of the poetic in the mundane andin the poetic itself.  (Full disclosure: Ms. Jarcho is a friend of mine.)  Yet, I also found myself challenged to engage the piece, challenged by the critical press’s need to fit into a particular black box and then criticize it for not fitting in that box, challenged to articulate just what it was that impressed me so much, and how to talk about what it was doing and was doing so “well.”

This challenge is what I find myself trying to articulate to those critical of Occupy for its seeming opacity, for its refusal to produce demands, for its refusal to set itself up to be immediately mediated and mediatized. I find myself wanting to encourage all of us to invite such “opacity” into our spaces, and to engage with the seemingly opaque on its own terms. How might we appreciate it for what it is doing in its refusal to be “well-made,” easily digestible, subsumable into a sound bite, or a 495-word New York Times review? In its very formal refusal of the status-quo, it looks toward—and provokes us to look toward—a future that is fundamentally different than the one we are in and yet refuses to provide a sound-bitten demand that can be co-opted, exchanged, bargained down, brushed aside. Let us make space for such radical performance.

Towards a Public Theater?
I have been struck and encouraged reading HowlRound these past months, struck and encouraged by our descriptions of and dreams for our institutions as “civic theaters,” “cultural centers,” “gathering places for the community,” true public forums. As Meiyin Wang (who works with the Public Theater) wrote recently, our “future” theaters “will continue to open their doors to the outside world and deepen the dialogue between arts, culture, and society, bringing the arts back to the table of civic discourse, leading the conversation in society, instead of having a conversation with ourselves.” Occupy provides an opportunity now to make good on Wang’s “theater of the future.” If there is one thing to which many “theater people” have access, it is space. Yet we must continually ask: Are our spaces really public spaces? Are they privileged spaces for subscribers and an elite group of invited artists? What would we be risking by inviting Occupy into those spaces? By providing shelter? By mobilizing and facilitating new, alternative systems of care? The winter is upon us; it is cold; the police are out in full force. How invested are we in becoming “centers” of “deepened dialogue”? What is at risk? Where might that dialogue take us? Might it destabilize our footholds? Might it create a mess? Who would clean up that mess? Who would pay the lighting and heating bills? Might it call for institutional reorientation? And if it does, then what?

Occupy offers up a challenge, a challenge that is by no means easy. It is hard, often frustrating, sometimes annoying to sit through (and I image even harder to facilitate) general assemblies. Tens, hundreds, thousands of people working together, working through one another’s opinions, working to make strategic decisions, to debate, to share, but also to face our differences. Occupy challenges each of us to see just how difficult this work is, how far we have to go towards developing sustainable institutions of civic discourse and civic care, to have conversations on a large scale, how hard it is to do democracy directly. And the results are unpredictable, undoubtedly messy, full of discord, and varying kinds of decisions. It is this possibility for unity, but also for dissensus that makes Occupy exciting. If we want to continue to think of our theaters as democratic spaces, spaces of possibility, public spaces, then let us invite our varied publics in to occupy our spaces. Let us open our doors. Let us provide the major resource to which we have access by the very definition of our art. Let us make space for theater, space for a public theater.

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Fascinating article! I wish I had read it before yesterday's HowlRound. :-) ___ I read the New York Times review of "Dreamless Land," and I succumbed to the assumptions it had about what plays, and theater as a whole, ought to be. I wish I could see the production. ___ One of the most brilliant pieces of theater I saw last year was "Robopop," a collaboratively written piece based on 1980's pop videos. It didn't have a "well made" story, and it was wonderful.

This is an apt comparison. Fundamentally, theater is about bodies in space. So is Occupy. Both are radical in this digitized age: at a time when we can so easily hide our vulnerable, imperfect bodies behind screens and keyboards, theater artists and occupiers are putting their bodies right in the thick of things, where they can be injured and scorned.

It is that chosen vulnerability - to arrests and criticism - that makes live bodies so powerful, as art or as protest.