Issue: №3 2014

Section: Reflections

Everyone’s Long-awaited Occupy

Everyone’s Long-awaited Occupy

The material is illustrated with reportage photography from the Berlin biennale, 2012. Courtesy: Dmitry Vilensky

Dmitry Vilensky Born in Leningrad in 1964. Artist, member of the working group “Chto Delat’?” [“What is to be done?]. Lives in St. Peterburg.

“Forget Fear” (curated by Artur Zmijewski),
7th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art,
KW Institute for Contemporary Art. 27.4.2012–01.7.2012

The direct integration of the “Occupy” movement into the art world, as it occurred in the most programmatic form during the 7th Berlin biennale, became one of the most anticipated, discussed and problematic outcomes of the development of contemporary art. And that is why it is worth attempting to analyze at least the main aspects of this process. The goal of the present text is to summarize the new tendencies as much in the development of contemporary art, as in the “Occupy” movement, describing them precisely as tendencies, that is, ignoring certain deviations in their practical realization that obscure the view of the whole picture.

To begin, it is worth asking the question, to what extent is “Occupy’s” format even compatible with the art system? Because for the majority of activists, this system represents a direct incarnation of elite politics of the “one percent,” and that means that one must not cooperate with, but fight against it, as much as one would fight with the rotten bank system. At the same time, it should be noted that successive political manifestations of the art system, created by a number of the most prestigious institutions[1], testify to its readiness to rethink the boundaries of its own legitimacy and its desire to acquire new audiences and spaces. Obvious sympathies of the precarious creative class towards the “occupants” create an entirely unique level of public and media attention. In this way, the attempts of the “Occupy” movement to seize new zones of the public sphere begin to resonate with the intentions of the art system, which also seeks new alternatives of attracting public interest outside of the established boundaries of the professional field, which does not at all contradict its ambition for self-sufficient development in the framework of the global cultural industry.

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Of course, “occupations” can be different—they are always derivative of a specific place and situation. And yet, it seems justified to state the existence of some common methodological substance, perceived by the “Occupy” movement as a type of franchise—almost everywhere in demand, and reproducible in the mode of “copy and paste.” Or, in other words, it makes sense to identify and formalize the existence of a certain set of “generic traits” of the “Occupy” movement. Thus, first of all, “Occupy” presupposes the occupancy of a public space by a certain number of people, who, by this very act of continuous presence (day and night) in the form of a self-organized camp, are attempting to present (not to represent, but to present!) in real-time their disagreement with a particular situation. Besides, “Occupy” consistently rejects any involvement of external political forces in the activities of the camp, and considers that within the limits of “occupation,” anyone could only act as an autonomous individual, renouncing any form of organizerly-political belonging and expressing their unique position at a general assembly. This assembly, founded on the principles of consensus, is open to anyone located on the territory of the camp and who participates in its life. The “occupation” could be based solely on the idea of an unconditional involvement in the here and now—it cannot have an external body of governance.

Of course, in reality, the foundational principles of the movement are often infringed upon, or disputed. Thus, an ongoing debate still continues about whether the movement should make political or social demands. One side denies the possibility and need of such actions, whereas the other considers any demands as inevitably totalitarian at their foundation, but tactically necessary. Also, depending on a particular situation, “Occupy” can severely limit the participation of political organizations in the movement, but at the same time, allow unions and social NGOs to campaign.

And here, arises the fundamental question of political legitimacy of “Occupy’s” organizational structure, so radically different from all the established political models of popular representation familiar to us, where the party represents its members, unions—workers, feminist organizations—women, etc. Different organizations could unite into blocks, movements, alliances, and submit joint demands in public space, including in the form of seizure of physical spaces.[2] Meanwhile, it is evident that the political meaning of unfolding events always has certain external organizational structures and is legitimated not only by the participants of one action or another, but also by all the “popular” subjects that this activity is meant to represent. Despite the common crisis of the system of political representation, the protest movement continues to rely on simple antagonistic schemes: unions fight with employers, parties fight between themselves for electoral votes, etc. In turn, “Occupy” attempts to propose a completely different model of politics, founded on consensus. Its political functioning is most consistently embodied in a populist paradox. The movement declares: “Here, in the camp, we represent all 99% of the oppressed,” but at the same time, the question is ignored of how, in a situation of a rigid denial of any kind of mechanisms of delegation, these “all” could receive a voice and influence the procedures of consensual direct democracy. The answer is obvious: they cannot, not in the least because of the impossibility of the simple physical presence of “all” in one specific place at the moment of holding the assembly. In that sense, the rhetorical thesis of pseudo-representation appears as a naïve wish of “everyone good” to rally against the handful of “villains” who are preventing people from living in joy and harmony.

From my point of view, what is most important for the “Occupy” movement is precisely the gesture of self-legitimation and self-assertion. Moreover, this gesture essentially arises as an artistic practice. According to a number of commentators, “Occupy” is a fairly complete project of contemporary art, developing the tradition of the aesthetic of interaction, with its emphasis on the process and the communal experience of events. All the elements constituting the essence of the “Occupy” movement have long been problematized and tested in the art system, and it is even surprising how much, in this case, political life becomes derivative of artistic experiments. Velimir Khlebnikov, having proclaimed himself the chairman of the globe, is quite legitimate in this gesture of artistic positioning. Any small group of artists could demand the abolition of capitalist relations here and now, or declare that all the angels of the heavens stand behind them—such a manifest, if it is supported by a convincing artistic statement, will attract warranted attention to itself. The practices of the “Occupy” movement work precisely according to this logic, which, despite the political claims of the protesters, in reality appear as a collective gesture of artistic manifestation. On the whole, “Occupy” becomes quite a complete subject of a collective artistic expression—with its established aesthetics and easily decipherable political content—at the basis of which lies the idea of direct democracy, long sought out by art.


The Premonition of “Occupy”

The very logic of the development of the system of art and a number of contemporary art practices—tactical media, culture jamming, etc.—had in many respects predetermined the appearance of new protest movements. The role of the journal Adbusters in the formation of “Occupy Wall Street” has already been discussed at length. Intellectual hegemony in the critical academic environment and in the art of anti-representational theories, the refusal of the “politics of the one,” and the turn to the “politics of the multitude”[3] — all this prepared the theoretical ground for, amongst other things, the invasion/integration of the “Occupy” movement into the art world.

In the process of widening its borders, contemporary art confronted the necessity of overcoming the frankly undemocratic nature of the functioning of the art system. The selection of artists that have a right to express themselves about contemporaneity, and the weeding out of those whose voice is deemed old-fashioned (or untimely), still remains the prerogative of a fairly small circle of experts. Meanwhile, it is obvious (even to the experts themselves), that such a situation is a glaring contradiction to the main principle of contemporary art, according to which it is necessary not just to acknowledge that “every person is an artist,” but to realize “every person’s” right to expression. Proceeding from this, any excluding restrictions imposed on the direct process of creativity represent direct repression. An ongoing process of blurring conceptual boundaries over several recent decades, and the views of what is to be deemed contemporary art should also be considered. The world of art institutions has fewer and fewer possibilities for the professional discussion of what has or has no relevance and significance today. Moreover, the claims to such judgments are more and more frequently criticized as expressions of repressive thinking, while the hegemony of postcolonial discourse, the discourse of minorities and the cult of the multitude, close off any space for discussion about the possibilities of the formation of some universal concept of value. The use of ready-mades has stopped being the prerogative of artists—now, curators and institutions have also turned to this method, legitimating their right to declare anything that enters into their orbit of interests as art. Debates over the possibility of establishment of any kind of criteria for distinguishing art from non-art—other spheres of knowledge or life in general—are considered conservative and reactionary. Any curator or institution legitimate the exclusions occurring as part of their projects not as a systemic problem, but simply as a regretful inability to grasp the immensity within the finite and limited space of the exhibit.

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The fixation of this situation inside the system of contemporary art happens through the development of multiple platforms of “direct democratic participation”: community-based art, activist clubs, social forums, etc., have all vividly declared the openness of the artistic system to radical democratic tendencies, and have persistently demanded its transformation into a non-exclusionary public space. Evidently, the integration of the “Occupy” movement turned out to be a natural development consistent with this logic. The 7th Berlin biennale precisely manifested the new status quo.


Meeting “Occupy.”

In 2010, not long before the “Occupy” boom, the group “Chto Delat’?” [“What is to be done?”] was putting up another educational play, “Where Has Communism Gone?” [“Kuda podevalsia kommunizm?”]. In the process of the collective development of the scenario, the theme of “occupation” spontaneously emerged. After a scene of a communist psychoanalysis session dealing with the participants’ dreams in a sort of theoretical artistic seminar, a character appears on stage calling on everyone to finish this stupid exercise and to urgently go occupy something together. This call immediately garners the attention of the group, and with the joyful cries “Occupation, Occupation now!” everyone invades some kind of an art institution. In the following scene, the director of the institution meets the “occupants” with words of welcome: “We are so happy that you have decided to occupy precisely us! Of course, we will meet all the necessary stipulations so that your occupation will be useful to everyone, and so that everyone will learn about it”.[4]

This unexpected, even for us, improvisation by the director was to be repeated almost word for word in two and a half years by the director of the 13th documenta, welcoming the appearance of the “Occupy” camp on the square in front of The Fridericianum—in the very heart of this enormous exhibit. The critics of the last Whitney Biennial expressed themselves with that same spirit: “The unexpected presence of Occupy was an aberrance that accidentally fulfilled the 2012 biennial curators’ effort, as discussed in their conversation in the catalogue, to call in artists who would ‘show up and create a live, unpredictable scenario. Which, in a way, is the whole Biennial.’”[5] All this clearly confirms that between the “Occupy” movement and the progressive world of art, no conflicts or even frictions should occur. Moreover, precisely the presence of “Occupy” in one or another institutional event, immediately becomes a confirmation of the latter’s truly democratic, open character, and the legitimation of its eventive worth. The exhibit, which does not become “occupied” in some way, becomes completely irrelevant and extremely problematic. Even at the 3rd Moscow Biennale for Young Art, the first thing that we see upon entering the Central House of the Artist [“TsDH: Tsentralniy Dom Hudozhnika”] is a tent inside a display window—an empty symbol of the movement.


“There is something wrong at play…”

It would seem that everything is wonderful—and yet, it is worth asking what hides beneath these “harmonious” models of involvement, and how they influence the development of politics and art today.

It should not be ignored that the summons of “Occupy” onto the territory of the Berlin biennale caused a storm of criticism in the artistic environment. Zmijewski could have been forgiven anything at all, except this. What ultimately emerged, was a demonic image of a curator, who, guided by evil intent, “stole” “Occupy” from the Reichstag into the comfortable space of the Kunst-Werke. Of course, Zmijewski is a known master of manipulation and provocation, however, such an interpretation suspiciously denies any kind of subjecthood to the “Occupy” movement, liking it to a sexist image of a woman, whom successful men could easily “steal,” “pick up,” etc.

Meanwhile, it should be duly noted that of course, Zmijewski was not capable of “stealing” anyone. The appearance of “Occupy” activists at the biennale was obviously the result of a well-thought-out decision made during a number of assemblies. However, the problem is that it is practically impossible to garner any kind of information from “Occupy Berlin,” or any other “occupies” about how the decision was made, how many people participated at the assembly, how representative the assembly was that made the decision—all these records are seemingly lost. Meanwhile, attempting to mentally reconstruct this situation, an accidentally captured scene of one of the “Occupy” assemblies at the Berlin biennale appears before our eyes: seated around a small table at a café, approximately five activists together with the curator are attempting to reach consensus about the decision that from that moment on (practically a week before its closing), all the Biennale activity, comprising all the participants of the process—from office workers and artists (the majority of whom had already left Berlin at this point) to the janitors and caretakers—will have to submit to the decisions of the general assembly. After a number of tactical objections, Zmijewski gladly agrees to take this step, and is pleased to proclaim himself an ex-curator, after which the Biennale soon ends, and the “occupiers,” along with the other participants of the project calmly return home.

I present a detailed analysis of this specific situation in order to once again pinpoint the problem of political legitimacy of any assembly structure of governance. It is important to see that behind its declaratively democratic structure hides a multitude of possibilities of manipulation, disregard and discrimination. And in this, it is once again possible to trace its similarity to the art system, also aspiring to an unconditional democratism and involvement.


Conclusion—art is…?

Amongst artists, the line of rupture today lies between those who consider that art can and must be founded on radical democratic procedures of participation,[6] and those who defend a contrary point of view. Art can and must serve the establishment of democracy, and moreover, it is capable of visionarily invoking the incarnation of the most radical form of democracy—communism, but the manner of its functioning is not democracy itself.[7] Contemporary attempts to prove the opposite turn out to be, in my view, extremely problematic examples of the assertion of false consciousness, caused more by the logic of the development of creative capitalism, than by the politics of liberation.

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This conflict is a consequence of a broader paradigmatic rupture—a rejection of the politics of the one/truth and the establishment of hegemony of the politics of the multitude/relativism. It seems that today we witness its culmination, with extremely ambivalent consequences for politics, art and thought. It is obvious that both paradigms are in a profound crisis and the question arises of how to overcome it (if that is even possible). “Occupy” invites us to engage in the construction of a politically conflict-free organization (in the framework of the assembly, a multitude of singularities seemingly synthesize their positions into a “unified opinion”) on the basis of a procedure for achieving universal consensus, serving as a counterpoint to the politics of the one at the basis of which there always lies the idea of rupture, of negative formation, and of the struggle of distinct truths.

Art is a space where different positions about what is or is not valuable at the present moment are tested. This process is connected to the politics of truth, which acquires its legitimacy not because of the approval and consent of some “majority,” but through the expression of passion of a minority in their assertion of one or another idea in its antagonistic conflict with other ideas also contending for the status of truth. The thesis, “every person is an artist” is an important statement in recognition of any person’s innate capacity to create freely, and to share this creative space with other people. But in the conditions of false totality of capitalist society, it would be a mistake to perceive this capacity as a source of authentic political or aesthetic consciousness. The assertion “every person is an artist” presupposes a real battle for the formation of other forms of social relations, in the framework of which human abilities would be able to develop harmoniously. The system of art—as much as any other sphere of human activities—is one of the fronts of this battle, and its essential significance is in the potential for comparison between, relatively speaking, “fake” and “true” forms of creative realization. The demands for the democratization of the art system are meaningful only in those cases, when democratism is understood not as a populist call for discarding any criteria of value in favour of the ideals of participation, consensus, and the instrumentalization of art under the auspices of business-social effectiveness (the politics of artistic NGOs), but as the readiness to consistently defend the possibility of a search for new forms of realization of the politics of liberation, in which will be reflected the struggle for the creation of new communal forms founded on the rupture (negativity) with the consensual notions of the creative possibilities of politics and aesthetics.

The assertions of politics of truth in art are—to an even greater extent than in real politics—connected to the development of various strategies of representation, always founded on the principle of estrangement. Art is intrinsically different from a direct, immediate action. It can include various manifestations of political practices in itself, but their existence on the territory of art is always mediated, estranged. This necessary dose of estrangement precisely constitutes a space, which, in my view, is necessary to preserve as the space for art.

The reduction of an artistic event to events of real politics, everydayness, or the media, significantly restricts the potential of art as a practice of emancipatory political formation, and asserts the contemporary aesthetization/mediatization of any political event.

For the art system (despite all its declarations, remaining rigid and hierarchical all the same), “Occupy” becomes a very “convenient” subject of outsourcing, as would be convenient any practices based on a radical anti-representational gesture. This is understandable: if an artist or a political movement is not concerned with questions of self-representation and protocols of participation, then others will take care of it—the world is not without its good people. All this leads to confusion characteristic of the present historical moment—as much in politics, as in art. And yet, it is hoped that “Occupy” (and its dynamic relations with contemporary art and the public sphere) will be remembered in history not only as a vivid symptom of the current critical situation, but will create an impulse for overcoming this crisis.

St. Petersburg, 2012


  1. ^ The Berlin biennale is tied to the top of power of the contemporary art system like no other: it is conducted by Kust-Werke, the governing board of which comprises the chief MoMA curator, Klaus Biesenbach, amongst other highly respected representatives of the world of art.
  2. ^ For example, in the ‘90s, Russian miners quite frequently held “occupations” in the form of tent cities in downtown Moscow.
  3. ^ The slogan “Become nobody, demand nothing, occupy everything!” formulated by the Tiqqun collective, became the ideal expression of the specifics of politicization of the new generation.
  4. ^ See the full video documentation of the play here:
  5. ^ O’Dwyer D. Before Nostalgia: The Whitney Biennial 2012 //
  6. ^ Here, it would be interesting to analyze the ideas of Jean-Luc Nancy, which he outlines in the book “The Truth of Democracy” (Nancy J.-L. Vérité de la démocratie. Paris: Galilee, 2008). Nancy talks of contemporary art as a space of the most consistent defense of the radical democratic idea.
  7. ^ I am grateful to David Riff, in dialogue with whom I was able to formalize a number of ideas expressed herein. 

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