Take Artists Space: Dissensus and the Creation of Agonistic Space

 
“What does it mean to be uninvited?” This is the question Benjamin Buchloh posed in response to the work of Christopher D’Arcangelo exhibited at Artists Space in October 2011. D’Arcangelo created unauthorized anarchist interventions into the gallery and erased his name from its exhibition records in order to reject the systemic circulation of artwork as capital in the 1970’s. In his commentary, Buchloh decried the “hidden violence inherent in display and cultural values” and lauded Arcangelo for “re-radicalizing the Duchampian principle that anyone can bring anything at anytime into a gallery space.”
 
Buchloh’s valorization of D’Arcangelo’s actions uncannily presaged Take Artists Space, an extraordinary 28-hour occupation of Artists Space that began on October 22nd. Also known as Occupy 38 (for 38 Greene Street, the address of Artists Space), Take Artists Space was initiated by Greek-born visual artist Georgia Sagri, a veteran of protests against austerity cuts in Greece, whose brother Tasos Sagris is also at the forefront of social movements in Greece and is co-writer of We Are an Image From the Future, a book about the 2008 Greek Revolt. I would describe Georgia Sagri as an “old soul,” a person of uncommon acuity and political instinct.[1] Amongst the many others who participated were: M. Peterson, member of the activist film and documentary collective Red Channels and H. Simonian, an artist and organizer of 16 Beaver Group, a unique political space for artists. Before Occupy Wall Street, Simonian had been an active participant amongst roughly 50 people who gathered at Tompkins Square Park twice a week in July and August 2011 and who had created the NYCGA (New York City General Assembly), eventually giving birth to the Occupy Wall Street movement itself in September.
 
16 Beaver, a central locale for processing what is happening in the OWS movement, held a 9 day OWS seminar this January where Peterson noted that in the first few weeks of Occupy Wall Street, each week there was an action to “up the ante” of the movement and expand public sympathy.  However, by mid-October, OWS had stagnated, and by late October, Oakland had surpassed NY in terms of being the forefront of the Occupy movement.
 
In the weeks leading up to Take Artists Space on October 22nd, OWS had tried but failed to occupy Washington Square Park as well as the BMW Guggenheim Lab. In the latter case, my sense is that the occupiers first attempted to negotiate with the Guggenheim Lab for a “sanctioned occupation,” which many occupiers felt eventually led them to being manipulated out of the space. So it was in the midst of a frustration with institutionally-sanctioned occupations that Artists Space became the next stop for a nucleus of artists and activists. On October 22nd at the end of a late afternoon gallery talk at Artists Space, the occupation was declared, and over the course of the next 28 hours more than 200 people came (many from Zuccotti Park and with no relation to the art world) to occupy Artists Space.
 
Take Artists Space: A Critique of Consensus
 
Take Artists Space was marked by a deep skepticism about the bureaucratization of the consensus process and the rituals of Occupy Wall Street, which was expressed by a collection of  long-time activists and intellectuals at the OWS Direct Democracy Working Group meeting at 16 Beaver on January 12th,  including L. Richardson (host of Occupy Wall Street Radio). As Murray Bookchin astutely observes, “Decision-making by consensus precludes ongoing dissensus–the all-important process of continual dialogue, disagreement, challenge, and counter challenge, without which social as well as individual creativity would be impossible.” Consensus is antithetical to “agonism,” Chantal Mouffe’s term for the conflict and disagreement that is not an anomaly or an aberration to be “blended in” to some overarching unity, but the constitutive element of democracy itself.Having participated in half a dozen OWS working groups at varying levels (i.e. Queer Caucus, Speakeasy/Safer Spaces, Occupy Museums, Arts & Labor, Arts & Culture), I will say that these groups can range from being extremely provisional and ad hoc in terms of attendance and members to para-professional networks with shades of encroaching institutionality. Whatever the case may be, they are not the “intentional communities” for whom consensus decision-making was devised. Intentional communities have thrown their lot in together, pool resources, and have taken it upon themselves to organize a parallel society. This is not what an OWS working group is–not even close. A working group at OWS can consist of 5 to 40 people you see once a week for one or two hours, some of whom you do not even know and may never see again, engaging in fairly bureaucratic procedural-oriented discussion about “planning for actions.” Even if you become great friends eventually, it is still not an intentional community. When consensus is attempted by an ad hoc group of people who may never have talked about their values, much less share them, it can become a recipe for stagnation.Consensus privileges the ideas that are the most palatable, not necessarily the ones that have the most merit. Although anarchists started the OWS movement, both the media and OWS subsequently marginalized (and in some cases demonized) them in order to appeal to a broader, Gap-shopping, Starbucks-drinking public that may have no prior experience in thinking about social or political change. Therefore, it is a safe bet to say that the “centrism” that OWS produces is going to be one that rejects an impulse for radical autonomy from institutions, a direct confrontation with private property laws, or other more experimental or anarchist ideals for social justice.
 
Perhaps this is why many involved in the Take Artists Space action (such as Sagri) believe that the “consensus” that is held up to be a sacred cow of OWS is not a point of dynamism and growth, but a point of stasis. As Chantal Mouffe notes in Towards an Agonistic Model of Democracy, “We have to accept that every consensus exists as a temporary result of a provisional hegemony, as a stabilization of power, and that it always entails some form of exclusion.”[2] Delineating instead the attempt to create agonism, Mouffe continues, “Clearly those who advocate the creation of agonistic public spaces, where the objective is to unveil all that is repressed by the dominant consensus are going to envisage the relation between artistic practices and their public in a very different way than those whose objective is the creation of consensus, even if this consensus is seen as a critical one. According to the agonistic approach, critical art is art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate.[3]
 
Most befuddling to me is to see visual artists acquiesce to consensus. We spend 8 hours in critiques in order to problematize our relationship to our work, to destabilize and be in constant alienation from our own authority through self-critique — all so we can come to OWS to submit to the authority of the normalizing unanimity of “agreement.” Consensus encourages people to paper over differences, whereas visual art heightens difference, making more and more specific (even antagonistic) our ability to discern and distinguish difference. Consensus seems antithetical to the dialectical values of pushing boundaries, destabilizing norms, and exploding preconceived codes. Much of visual art is aligned with alienation, estrangement, negation, and extremity, whereas OWS encourages everyone to “get along” in the name of a unity that has scarcely ever been politically examined or interrogated.This is not to say that Take Artists Space was an artist project, which it was not. On the first night of Take Artists Space, in an attempt to get away from its connection to an art space or an artist project, the occupiers renamed themselves “Occupy 38” (although one person suggested “Plymouth Rock”). The rule was that no journalists and no cameras were allowed. Although the Artists Space staff initially permitted the occupiers to stay, there was considerable tension, as this was not a pre-planned and announced action.  Rejecting the recalcitrant dependency of Occupy Wall Street on the media, Take Artists Space was resolute in creating a non-mediatized environment. This was not an ideology, but simply a tactic used for this case.
 
Take Artists Space can be understood as an attempt by those who were amongst the originators of OWS to reject the T-shirt selling, media-crazed, faddish carnival that OWS had slid into and its concomitant predictable rituals of consensus in order to re-invigorate the movement with the bite of real-life insurrection. As Rosalyn Deutsche argues in Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics regarding public space, “a democratic rhetoric of openness and accessibility and rise to the defense of public space–are structured by exclusions and moreover, by attempts to erase the traces of these exclusions. Exclusions are justified, naturalized, and hidden by representing social space as a substantial unity that must be protected from conflict, heterogenity, and particularity.”[4] In a similar vein, Take Artists Space sought to shatter the ritualized “unity” propounded by mainstream OWS. Take Artists Space believed in a re-radicalization of everyday life outside the hyper-specialized division of labor into an endless series of committees. Take Artists Space connected sentiment to action; action to event; and event to transgression.The brevity of Take Artists Space was not a testament to its inconsequentiality. On the contrary–much like the cancellation of Manifesta 6 in 2006 curated by Anton Vidokle,Take Artists Space’s brevity was a testament to the fact that it had hit a threshold of power and had threatened a status quo, so rare in today’s made-for-institution institutional critique.[5] It delivered its critique of the institutions of the art world in a way they could not authorize, frame or choreograph. Sagri would not give in to Artists Space Executive Director Stefan Kalmar’s attempt to co-opt the occupation into Artists Space programming. As such, after much wrangling, conflict and disagreement between the staff and the occupiers, after 28 hours Artists Space hired a security force and evicted the occupiers.
 
Take Artists Space opened itself up to risk, antagonism, and punishment in a way that OWS art-related working groups could not. Like a stealth doppelganger of D’Arcangelo exhibition’s “unauthorized anarchist interventions into the gallery” from the 70s that had now been reified into a mere “authorized” exhibition in 2011, Take Artists Space came in through the back door and rendered sentient and palpable what had been a formal exercise in transgression. Take Artists Space broached open a discursive space in which to ask: What does it mean when an art institution says it is in alliance with OWS, and what are the terms of that alliance? Will an institution that says it is in alliance with OWS undermine its own authority and power?  To appropriate Buchloh’s description of D’Arcangelo, Take Artists Space represented “the mythical offer of de-hierarchization.” In this sense, it was the most sublime moment of Occupy Wall Street, and the one upon which all subsequent Occupy Wall Street art actions should be based.
 
Andrea Liu is a visual art and performance critic who has been artist-in-residence at MFAH Houston CORE Program, Ox-Bow/Art Institute of Chicago, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Millay Colony, Byrdcliffe Guild, and Jacob’s Pillow. She runs the Bushwick temporary gallery the Naxal Belt. 

Footnotes:

  • [1] A participant in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Georgia Sagri (Columbia School of the Arts ’06) is a visual artist whose performance work sometimes uses voice to uncannily inhabit the abandoned, most remote recesses of our psyche with an unsettling poetic dissonance, evocative of devastated shards of a seared and shattered memory imbued with an elegiacal beauty. http://vimeo.com/35369446
  • [2] Chantal Mouffe, “For an Agonistic Model of Democracy,” The Democratic Paradox, (London: Verso Press, 2000), 104.
  • [3] Chantal Mouffe, “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 2007): 4.
  • [4] Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), xiii.
  • [5] Manifesta 6 was a European Biennial in 2006 in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, whose stated mission was to “serve as a microcosm for critical reinterpretation of the complex colonial and post-colonial history of Europe as played out within this broader territory of contingency.” Although not a protest or an occupation, it is similar to Take Artists Space in that an institutionally sanctioned attempt at “edginess” and institutional critique was then “interrupted” by an actual intervention in real life to change the status quo (which was then staunchly rejected by the institutional authorities). Manifesta 6 was an attempt by three curators to hold a temporary school in both the Turkish and Greek sides of Cyprus (in a state of Cold War-like détente since the Civil War in 1974) that resulted in the Greek authorities abruptly pulling the plug on and cancelling the entire biennial 3 months before it was scheduled to open. Like Take Artists Space, it was only understood (if not pilloried) to be a “failure” in the art press and not examined for the wholly unusual, ambitious, and radical goal of using an institution of cultural production (Manifesta 6) to directly effect and galvanize political change (in this case, uniting the Greek and Turkish sides of Cyprus). http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/news/zenakos/zenakos6-5-06.asp

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