Issue #41, 2012
scene

„The Most Creative And Exciting Artistic Aspects Of Occupy Are Not Visual, But Rather Experiential.“
An Interview with Blithe Riley, Participant at Occupy Biennale, Part of the 7th Berlin Biennale, Realized by Raluca Voinea

Blithe Rileyis an activist and artist working with video, performance and installation. Her work investigates how labor influences identity and regulates everyday life. Her solo and collaborative projects have been shown in public, private, and common spaces internationally. Some of these include Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and P.S.1 MoMA in New York City, and Pittsburgh Filmmakers and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and Gallery Aferro in Newark, NJ and Overgarden Museum in Copenhagen. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

 

Raluca Voinea Where are you from and what is your association with the Occupy Movement?

Blithe Riley I live in New York City and became involved with Occupy Wall Street in late September 2011. I came to the movement via the encampment in Zuccotti Park, and eventually made my way to an Arts & Culture meeting, which was one of the first working groups that developed. From there, I joined two main working groups, Occupy Museums and the Arts & Labor working group. I helped to form Arts & Labor with other artists I met in Arts & Culture, as a way to extend the conversation around economic inequality into the art world, which in the United States is notorious for exploitive labor practices and market-driven corruption.

How did you meet the curators of Berlin Biennale? Within your group, how was the decision taken regarding your coming to Berlin? 

I am fuzzy on the specifics, but Noah Fischer of Occupy Museums first met Joanna Warsza. I am not entirely sure how they met, whether she came to an action, or if they met in another context. I believe the official invite came to Occupy Museums in early 2012.

There was a lot of discussion in the group whether or not to participate. We were wary of co-optation in Occupy Wall Street in general. Around the same time, many OWS working groups were discussing the implications of co-optation; „Occupy“ quickly became a brand that could easily be manipulated, and we saw the language of OWS being implemented by more mainstream groups. Additionally, within Occupy Museums there was also debate whether or not to work inside institutions, and how that related to co-optation. It is important to note that Occupy Museums is not unified in its opinion about these issues. Like all OWS groups, Occupy Museums is an open working group, which means that anyone can join and participate. While it’s safe to say that the group is unified in the belief that institutions of culture need to be interrogated, we all had very different ideas about how and why. This made for a very interesting, but also challenging space to work within.However, regarding BB7 we were able to come to consensus to participate. I can also speak for myself, but my reason for agreeing to the invitation was that I felt that the unknowns outweighed the problems. I saw the potential to connect with and learn from other activists internationally as a worthwhile opportunity and a good enough reason to participate. I think also as an artist, I wanted to believe that there was something valuable that the biennial context could offer. I wanted to believe that the framework could be generative in some way to the movements.

Another deciding factor was when the BB7 agreed to provide plane tickets for everyone in Occupy Museums. This made it so that we didn’t have to pick a representative, which meant that the diversity of opinions and voices could be reflected in the experience.

What were your initial expectations from this experience?

Again, I can only speak for myself, but I tried not to have many expectations before we arrived. I had been on the BB7 internal mailing lists, and had read a lot of the reviews by the art press, so I had a sense of the critique before we arrived. But in many ways, I didn’t feel that any of that mattered as long as there were interesting people to meet and work with. I was not all that interested in how Occupy was represented inside the museum or validated by the institution. What I was hoping for was a productive platform for a global convergence. When I got there I realized that separating the idea of representation from the people involved was shortsighted. I was surprised to learn that so many local artists and activists had boycotted the BB7 entirely, largely because of how the politics were represented. I also realized how the Occupy space was placed and organized had a big impact on the relationships between the people working there.

Did you treat KW as any other public space, just as good to occupy, or did you feel any limitations, specific to an art institution?

No, I think we definitely saw it for what it was. Within the group there was a lot of discussion about how the space was curated and how the aspect of „permission“ functioned. For me, it was very clear that we had been invited to Occupy, and that was a contradiction in itself. The way the space had been configured was also problematic – visitors looked down at the occupiers like they were zoo animals. People could view from above without engaging. It felt difficult to work inside the space without feeling objectified.

Aside from the space itself, there was also a lot of dysfunction within how it was organized. There was infighting and disagreement and some organizers had left in frustration.1 It was hard to understand how decisions were made, as the General Assemblies were sporadic, and often announced last minute.

I think these factors led us to largely work outside of the Occupy Biennale space. Aside from planned gatherings within the Autonomous University, we spent a lot of time meeting in the courtyard and in the surrounding parks. That said, once the biennale was closed for the day, the KW took on a totally different character. People inhabited it, drank beer, did yoga, and had conversations. But it was only after the general public had left. I should say that I did not sleep at the KW space, but many people did. I know the people who slept there had a very different experience and relationship with it.

Throughout the biennial, what were the most typical reactions from the public?

Honestly, I didn’t engage that much with the general public. Visitors came through the space, but they came as viewers wanting to look at us like a piece of art. Generally, biennial visitors aren’t looking to be activists. Because of that we largely ignored them and focused on engaging with people who wanted to organize actions and have discussions. Those people were mainly other activists who wanted to work together. We did that over beers and food, and sometimes in the Autonomous University. Also when we arrived, there was no info booth for the public to find out what was going on. This limited the ways the public could engage. I also sensed that the Occupy did not have enough resources. Occupy Biennale didn’t have access to a photocopier to make and hand out flyers, and wifi connection was spotty (although that did change). Overall, I don’t think public engagement had been thought through or strategized. That changed during the two weeks we were there, as occupiers made more demands from the curators and KW.

Eventually you came to be in contact with and to participate in discussions and events also with people and groups who distanced themselves and acutely criticized this biennial and its appropriation of a movement which should apparently be situated in opposition to any such event; how did you negotiate your position between being in the biennial and at the same time trying to be outside of it, with a constantly critical eye?

This actually happened quite quickly. Three days after we arrived we came to the Art Leaks General Assembly, which was one of the best entry points into meeting activists and artists in Berlin. In that short amount of time, many of us had already formed our own critique, but it was limited to what we saw. I felt very open to learning more about what others thought of the exhibition, and many people had first hand experiences with the curators in some form. I was very influenced by those discussions, and they informed how I related to the BB7 in general. From that point on I made a conscious effort to spend a good chunk of time outside the biennale.

At the same time, I felt that I had a responsibility to participate in the BB7 and work hard to engage and learn as much as possible from the experience. We had agreed to come, and it would have felt too easy to boycott it altogether. While there were some surprises, we had anticipated a lot of the issues and critique. I also didn’t want to privilege the position of the curators too much, and equate the critique of the exhibition with what was possible through interaction. There were many people coming through that space, and we started collaborating. We were meeting new people from all over the world, having discussions and planning actions.

That said there were a number of factors related to the organization of the Occupy Biennale that influenced the nature of our work there, and what we could accomplish in that space. Some of these were:

– Within the Occupy Biennale organizers there disagreed about what should be done with the space, and how decisions should be made.

– The majority of Occupy Museums was only there for two weeks. There was a pressure of time to work very quickly.

– The curators who invited the Occupy Biennale groups to organize the space, they themselves didn’t think like organizers. If they had, I believe different people would have been in the room to think about how the politics of a global convergence could be articulated. One of the main things that I learned was how important it is to understand the political context of where the different Occupy groups were coming from. Not all Occupy camps were alike, or had the same impact. In Berlin, many of the local activists we met referred to Occupy Berlin as „cut and paste“. The reasons for this were complex, but included the fact that most people don’t have personal debt (student or medical), that there is a strong history of occupation as a tactic by squatters, and that there is also a resistance to language against banks because of its similarity to the nationalist rhetoric used in WWII. Given these factors, and the general perception of Occupy by the left in Berlin, it seemed as though it didn’t make sense to limit the invitation to just Occupy groups. In fact, the curators put Occupy Berlin in the central role of organizing the Occupy Biennale (although this invitation split the group in half). When I asked the curators about this, I was told that they had to stay in a particular framework – the brand of Occupy – to have it make sense as an exhibition.

– There was no articulation of an outcome from the Occupy Biennale – by either the curators or the occupiers. Perhaps if there had been more involvement by the wider Berlin left, perhaps BB7 could have been an event that actually strengthened the local activity. For example, in Berlin the left is fragmented. Perhaps BB7 could have acted as a unifying force in some regard? I have no idea, but it would have been interesting to see that included in as one of desired outcomes.

– The power dynamics between the curators, the KW, and the Occupiers made it virtually impossible to practice real horizontal decision-making. There were many limits to what the occupiers could do within the institution. To radicalize the BB7 and turn it into a space for Occupation, the structure of the entire bienniale would have had to be dismantled. To quarantine an occupation inside an institution without interrogating the institution itself on the most fundamental levels (working conditions, budget, hierarchy) made the Occupy Biennale symbolic and weakened its potential.

In relationship to these factors, I will also re-iterate that Occupy Museums is not a unified group and we all had different interpretations of the situation and engaged with it in our own way. I took the approach of trying to connect with as many people outside BB7 as I could. This included people from Rosa Perutz2, the „I Love Kotti“ encampment, Haben und Brauchen3, Alpha Nova4, among others. One thing I will note is that the criticism of BB7 did actually open the doors for dialog with people around the city. I felt like local artists and activists were eager to explain the political dynamics, and why BB7 was so problematic. I was able to learn a lot through those conversations precisely because I was a participant. In that way BB7 was very helpful as an access point.

Additionally, a lot of energy went into turning out a series of actions around Berlin. An international action group formed and met at the KW. One of my favorite actions was the Caseroles march in solidarity with Montreal students on strike. It was the first march in solidarity with Montreal in Berlin, and students joined us from all over the world. People came back to the BB7 who had boycotted it before, for that action. The students in Montreal also adapted a stencil that was made for the march and used it in their protests. More actions that came out of this group are documented at occupymuseums.org.

Would you agree that the dynamics of the Occupy Biennale followed certain patterns and „rituals“ that one can find at most of the recent „occupy“ movements, with the same camp aesthetics, the same slogans, assemblies, invitation for participation, collective decisions and cooking, etc.? If we so reduce the movement to its formal characteristics, does it maybe appear that it is of less importance the place where it is „installed“ as there are the issues that it raises, the questions that it asks and eventually the hierarchies/ rules that it manages to dislocate (if it does)?

First, these rituals that you describe are not only unique to Occupy. If you are asking if enacting them inside the institution de-politicized them, I think the answer is yes and no. There were still people living in the KW for free, cooking and eating communally, debating about politics and acting together. Relationships were made. That was of course is very real. I don’t think we can discount what happened within the walls of BB7. There was a lot of generative discourse, relationship building, and work done.

That said, I do think that putting these rituals on display in an exhibition format was de-politicizing and I would go as far to say as destructive. How the space was curated showed the limits of these rituals. It was very clear where you could pitch a tent, and where you couldn’t. Because the Occupy Biennale was permitted, there was none of the energy and imagination of the unpermitted encampments in public space. So therefore those limitations were not political, and worked against the meaning of the Occupation. This distinction might seem obvious, but for me it was really interesting to see how these differences changed the context of what we were doing.

This contrast with my experience of OWS in New York was disheartening. I struggled with idea that the tens of thousands of visitors, who had never experienced Occupy before BB7, left the KW with that as their image of the movement. On the other hand, because I personally don’t think the framework of the exhibition space was broken or sufficiently interrogated, I take solace in the fact that BB7 ultimately was only an art show. I don’t believe it will have much impact on the strength of international movements or the potential for future actions. If Occupy as a movement is to fade, it won’t be because of BB7, it will be because of state repression.

Additionally, I have always thought that the most creative and exciting artistic aspects of Occupy are not visual, but rather experiential. They are within the unexpected collision of ideas and people in shared spaces. They are often performative and unplanned. It would be extremely difficult to achieve that same energy in an exhibition in the way BB7 was conceived. It is interesting to think about how institutions that truly want to support the movements could do so, but I don’t think that was the intention of BB7. I saw the intention more as a social experiment.

For me the question becomes about effective political action. After BB7, I believe it is safe to say that a curated occupation inside a contemporary art museum is not an effective political act. Could the challenges of the framework be overcome? In this case I don’t think so. I do think that the attempt could have been much more fruitful, if different organizational and curatorial choices had been made.

An art institution is also a place that puts things in a certain historic framework, it invites for the identification of genealogies, it is a place for creating cultural (and not only) memory. From this point of view I’d say it differs to a square in a city for example, which is much more open and informal (in the sense of unformed). Have you discussed about the potential and the future of the occupy movements from the perspective of the histories of protest? Did you use the context of the institution also as a protective shield that can allow you for reflection and a better coordination or did you mostly situate yourselves in opposition to the institution?

Each person in Occupy Biennale would answer this question differently. Within Occupy Museums there are a range of opinions about how to best engage with institutions, and this was reflected at BB7. Some people sought to create personal relationships with the curators, and felt like it was important to engage on that level. Others saw themselves as mainly in opposition. I felt like I landed somewhere in between, but remained largely skeptical and antagonistic. I believe this back and forth created a lot of tension within the group and also within our approach to the actions we took. I felt that it made it nearly impossible to work horizontally with these range of approaches.

I will say that BB7 was not a good space for reflection and contemplation. It felt more like a crazy circus where people were shifting roles and identities in relationship to various power structures. For me, it was completely confusing.

Part of this was because I found it extremely difficult to know where to put trust and energy. The curators joined our meetings and even participated in our actions. I wanted to trust and work with them as I would with anyone else, but the power dynamics made that impossible. The curators had the power to frame the discussion to visitors. They controlled the production budget (which included certain salaries and financial allocations to artists and occupiers) and were the liaison between the staff at the KW. The KW had the final say on much of the rules and regulations of the space. During the BB7, „the institution“ called the police on artists a number of times. Who exactly was the institution? Was it the curators, the director of the KW, the facilities manager? If the institution acted as a shield, there were clear limits as to what it would protect.

I think one thing that made BB7 so strange was that almost everyone involved was anti-institution in one form or another. Yet for each of us that meant something very different, and we all had different ideas for what the „rules of engagement“ should be. For some of us, those rules revolved around principals of horizontal decision making, for others insurance policies were at play. I think it was essential to understand those intricacies in order to know the ways that we could work effectively and at what scale. In retrospect it was virtually impossible to tease those different positions out in the two weeks that we were there.

What was the outcome of your attempt to change the way KW functions as an institution (hierarchy-wise and budget-wise)?

There were a few attempts at calling for greater transparency within the BB7; some were more successful than others. This process actually began before Occupy Museums got to Berlin, some of us had wanted to call a meeting with the BB7 staff, to learn about working conditions, budget, the decision making process, and how the exhibition was organized. One person in the group had come to Berlin a month before the rest of us, and had done a lot of work to build relationships with the KW staff to make an initial meeting happen between guards, administrators, and curators. For me, this meeting was our most successful intervention. I felt like we facilitated a conversation around wages and transparency that hadn’t happened prior in BB7. We blogged about it on the Occupy Museums website.5

When talking about these interventions, I feel it is important to note that the decision-making process within the Occupy Museums broke down significantly over those two weeks at BB7. I think this was because of the pressure of time, and how the power dynamics between the institution, curators, and occupiers eroded trust. In response to these factors, there was frustration within the group and people began acting either on their own, or in small clusters, under the guise of „autonomy“.

One of these autonomous acts included a series of private conversations with curator Artur Z˙mijewski in which he was asked to make a proposal to the Occupy Biennale, in response to criticism regarding his power and how decisions were being made. This proposal became a focal point, and a sub-group got together late one night and drew up a counter proposal. This counter proposal demanded that all decision-making, including basic BB7 operations, happen through the horizontal process of the General Assembly.

The implications of this were of course vast, and would have everyone inside the KW (down to the staff at the café). Without getting bogged down in the details of who said and did what this proposal was announced to the KW and the public at large before it had been discussed with the workers. This led to a lot of confusion and unease within the institution. The workers were upset and unsure about how this influenced their jobs. There were a few General Assemblies that happened to try to sort out the details, but they led to more confusion and discontent. In effect, the pace and methodology under which the proposal unfolded, led to a hierarchal imposition of horizontality. While I participated in aspects of this process, I ultimately came to see this intervention as unethical.

At this point, after negotiating the dynamics inside the BB7 for almost two weeks, I decide to pull out of the process. It was not a hard choice, as there were just two days left in Berlin (although some people ended up staying longer). For me, the process had broken down to the degree that my own politics were being compromised. I also felt that the way „autonomous“ actions were happening had overtones of patriarchy and sexism. I could not see a way to enact this kind of proposal ethically within the time frame that was left, or at the stage the exhibition was in. It seemed that the proposal could be nothing more than symbolic, and I found that to be antithetical to the reasons why we were there in the first place.

While I am not sure of the final outcome of the proposal, I do know that afterward an info booth was set up in the courtyard, Occupy was granted access to photocopiers, and a daily Occupy Biennale newsletter was produced that provided BB7 visitors an overview of actions for the day. I am sure the occupiers who stayed at the KW until the end of the exhibition would have more to say about how this affected the overall climate there. As I was leaving and saying my goodbyes, the KW director told me that the institution would think differently about how the next biennial is run. I am also not clear what exactly this will mean.

BB7 convinced me that the power to articulate and visualize our social movements, are best reflected in the spaces where they are created and organized. I believe that as activists and artists, when we work inside the institution we have to be vigilant and understand why. We must take responsibility for our involvement and not be seduced by the promise of exposure or validation. This might sound obvious, but perhaps we must continue to restate this to each other and ourselves. To quote the assistant curator Joanna Warsza, „Art is part of the problem, not the solution“.

Since the BB7, I have left Occupy Museums. I learned from that experience where I can and can’t compromise in terms of a working process. I am grateful for that clarity, and how it has also helped me articulate my own relationship to art and politics. I feel in a better position to evaluate the context for the work that I do. I remain proud of the work of Occupy Museums has done and some of my fondest Occupy memories from fall 2011 include our creative direct actions. A record of these actions and writing can be found at http://occupymuseums.org.



As a consequence of the meetings organized by the Occupiers, at bb7, with the KW and bb7 staff, regarding the budget of the biennial, the hierarchy of the institution and the working conditions of the exhibition guards, many of them students or artists with university degrees, their wages were raised from 6.50 €to 8.50 €per one hour and for the next edition of the biennial they were promised to be asked for involvement in the process of the biennial, especially concerning their role and responsabilities.

 

Notes:

1. ‑http://takethesquare.net/2012/05/31/open-letter-to-the-occupybiennale-do-artificial-contexts-pervert-replication/

2. http://perutz.copyriot.com/

3. http://www.habenundbrauchen.de/en

4. http://www.alpha-nova-kulturwerkstatt.de/

5. ‑http://occupymuseums.org/blog/report-back-discussion-with-berline-biennale-workers/