Past in Present
At a satellite space on Governors Island, New York, the International Center of Photography has opened ‘Occupy!’, an exhibition of images from last year’s huge anti-capitalist protests.
You may ask why a movement that was endlessly photographed, in images that circulated in real time online, needs to be recapitulated in a gallery. But ICP has a long tradition of looking at politics and photography (its founder, Cornell Capa, shot the famous image of a falling militiaman in the Spanish Civil War) – and anyway, ‘Occupy!’ isn’t even the first museum exhibition to historicize a movement less than a year old. (17 September marks the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.) Out in San Francisco, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is presenting images and ephemera from Occupy’s Bay Area manifestations alongside documents from the Black Panther Party and the 1964–65 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. Occupy may or may not be dead, but the inscription of it into a larger tradition of past protest movements is well underway.
The introductory wall text thanks nearly 100 photographers, but the individual images, which have all been printed at the same size, aren’t credited. And why bother? Whether or not the exhibition’s organizers want to gesture toward a collective voice of the 99%, the photographers have created one themselves out of a standard, highly predictable set of formal techniques. Portraits from Zuccotti Park are universally structured in classical three-quarter length, sometimes with Richard Avedon-style visible negative borders as a further mark of authenticity. Reportage, by contrast, is with few exceptions shot from an angle rather than head-on; the front line of a protest march, for example, usually appears at about 30 degrees to the horizontal, in search of a sort of Géricault dynamism. Police brutality is commonly signaled by a blurring effect, or by light trails.
And words written on signs – Occupy was full of bons mots about political economy, along with a fair dose of conspiracy theory and pleas for marijuana legalization – carry the bulk of the political meaning in most of the images. ‘I am proud to pay over 30% of my income in taxes.’ ‘No bulls, no bears, only pigs.’ Signs are front and centre in the portraits, while in reportage photographs they generally appear in corners or at the margins, like a caption. They do a lot of the work.
ICP surely wants the show to rekindle the debates about wealth and society that Occupy once broached. Yet these images do precisely the opposite: they harden what was once a broad, horizontal, fissiparous movement into something more like a hippie undertaking. They do not say ‘We are the 99%’; they say ‘I was there back then,’ and today that may be the more comforting sentiment.
Over the last year, the structures of our political economy have only hardened in the face of unprecedented popular backlash, in ways that are hard to accept. Not only has the promised grand debate about a new democratic settlement failed to take place. Worse, we haven’t even had any real impact on policy; changes to education, housing, or environmental programs remain totally unthinkable in America, while cuts are endlessly justified thanks to the dubious, Greek-inflected fiction that Paul Ryan, the dean of the budget slashers and the recently anointed Republican vice presidential candidate, thoughtfully calls ‘the debt bomb.’ (Though if you think it’s bad here try Madrid, whose movement of indignados directly inspired Occupy; after a year of trying, they have failed to budge two successive governments by even the tiniest fraction, despite the obvious fact, evident to anyone with a Bloomberg terminal or a Twitter account, that current austerity policies are in fact accelerating fiscal collapse.)
In the face of this, the desire among museums to inscribe Occupy into history – indeed, to inscribe it using a visual vocabulary straight out of the 1960s, with no acknowledgement of digital media or accelerated image distribution – probably has a compensatory effect. Shifting the movement from the realm of politics to that of culture, from Kent State to Woodstock, mollifies the sting.
But if you go to see the ICP show at Governors Island, you’ll do well to sprawl out in the grass and gaze at the skyline of Lower Manhattan, with Zuccotti hidden among the new, unfinished towers. All around the park, scattered around the main lawn and interspersed among the buildings, are a dozen sculptures by Mark di Suvero: an artist who was jailed multiple times during the Vietnam war, and whose Joie de Vivre (1998), a 70-foot-tall construction painted bright red, stood right at the centre of Zuccotti Park. Di Suvero’s work, it’s true, now decorates too many dreary pseudo-public spaces built by developers hunting for tax breaks – but even in one of those, as it did last September, once unimaginable collective action can still take place. And until it does again, we might do well to ask about the political valence of abstract sculpture and indeed of all art – how it lets us experience something beyond the world to hand, and in so doing may teach us more about our political condition than a thousand images.