IMAG-E-NATION the political & philosophical arts initiative blog


(re)imagining the political and philosophical in the 21st century


The Political & Philosophical Arts Initiative is interested in the ways in which people interact with and compose political and philosophical ideas and actions through the various, diverse media of technology and the arts. Participants in PAI seek to explore the ways in which poetry, literature, music, photography, performance and other creative arts interleave with the political and philosophical life, either as vehicles for criticism, elaboration, theorization, intervention or activism.
The Imag-e-nation blog is a forum for interested parties to share stories, images or other contributions. Contributors range from students and faculty to artists and musicians to professional and casual commentators. Pieces can be short opinions, re-postings of appropriate materials, or original compositions. In addition, the PAI at LUC will make a selection of relevant or provocative news items each week for (re)publication here.

Inquiries:
imagenation[at]politicalarts.org




Summer Disobedience School


Our final “Day of Action” as labeled in the course syllabus was fluidly designed to allow for a plan during the week to develop. As eventually we got to stage our own urban intervention on Friday, the plan to join the Summer Disobedience School (SDS) on Saturday would be a good call, allowing us to act together with some of the very core people of the Occupy scene. They run this program and participate in it as well. The format consists of meetings on Saturday, at which an action (a protest, a mic-check, a demonstration etc.) is planned and put in practice. This is followed by a debrief and a short conversation on what the action of next week should consist of. Then, a bottom-liner (the main organisor) and a small group of people are appointed to work out the action for next week. The practice of these different actions would enable them to learn from each others' wide variety of skills.


Upon arrival at the group of about twenty-five activists, it became soon clear that misinformation had taken place. We had been informed through Mark (our course convenor), who had explicitly been asked to be in touch with the bottom-liner, that today's action would focus around the theme of debt and that we would have a in-the-moment-right-here-right-now brain storm on what this action should consist of. The previous day we worked on making twenty flags around the theme of debt. However, the group had decided the previous week to do a protest against the conduct of Apple in China, as it has been reported that they run a sweatshop there for the production of its products. As the group decides with complete consensus (and in lack thereof holds a dialogue to discuss split opinions), we had to be included in the decision. Eventually we settled on the idea that some of us would join in the action low-key, by observing in the shop and popping up an online news article about the sweatshop on the computer screens. The activists walked nine blocks to the Apple store, to perform a mic-check there, where one person screams out a line and the rest of the group repeats it. They also handed out flyers. All in all it might not have been the most effective demonstration, as the mic-check got lost in the crowd and never fully entered the shop (it took place close to the entrance). I wanted to describe all of this, because it gives the context for my following discussion. The day, though it did not feel like the most effective way to have put our energy into something constructive, it did give rise to some important questions and discussions, some of which I will elaborate on with my own thoughts and those that arose at the dinner table afterwards. (This is the article that we loaded on the Apple computers.)


As the group discussed their action against Apple, one of the participants took an Ipad out of his bag to look up something online. Immediately I felt a little crunch in my stomach: this seems to be paradoxical. Do you not want to lead by example if you are protesting against such an issue by not consuming the products that have been made this way? All in all, this feeling comes down to the issue of hypocrisy. The argument of hypocrisy is used frequently against activists and can be quite a sensitive issue. However, there are some strong arguments to be made against this logic. Perhaps the most important one was raised by Savitri, Rev Billy's wife and co-activist, as she said that as an activist, you cannot claim or attempt perfection. If you protest against BP Oil, then should you be scowled at for driving a car? There are limits to the phrase “be the change you want to see in the world” that is so often quoted. Furthermore, in the protest against Apple, they were not protesting against the corporation as a whole, but against a particular conduct. This does not mean that they want the company to seize existing altogether. This is of course just the start of such a discussion, but I think it illustrates the importance of reconsidering your assumptions and immediate logic on which you base your arguments that support or not support an action. Nevertheless, there is also some sense in the argument that if you choose to focus on one particular issue as what you target in your lifetime, you can more properly devote yourself to this issue (for instance by not consuming the products). That is perhaps also a point of critique for the Summer Disobedience School: they focus on a wide variety of issues from week to week, as they allow other people to take leadership every week. This is good as it encourages and develops leadership skills, but on the other hand, it can take down the effectiveness of the action.


This trade-off between effectiveness and “democracy” also became evident today. As they would like for everyone to agree and participate, discussions can carry on. There is also the lack of a central leader, which can lower the threshold to participate, in particular as every week has a new bottom-liner, but it decreased the communication, as is illustrated by the misinformation that Mark received. There was also an ineffective use of space and resources today: the meeting took place at Washington Square, around which many of New York University's buildings are located, there were twenty “debt” flags available and a group of students. Why not shift today's action to make effective use of these resources? Instead, the action took place nine blocks away, not using any of those resources available. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the debrief at the end of the action, when they evaluate and reflect on learning moments. It is good for a movement, however loosely defined, to be critical and learn from past actions. And all in all, that is what SDS is there for: to learn from each other and acquire new skills.


In short, today proved to be a good experience to learn from and reflect, from observing and participating at the core of some forms of activism, what works, what does not, and to critically reflect on our arguments and responses to specific actions.




P.S. As I wanted to discuss this experience in detail, I did not get round to discuss some of the points that were raised by Gayatri Chakravotry Spivak, a very famous influential thinker, who came to participate in conversation later in the afternoon.


By Laura Brouwer

comments


All y’all stop shopping!

Having experienced all the excitement of installing our installations with Not An Alternative earlier in the day, a seminar presentation would sound like a very boring thing. However, that was not the case at all! Mark had scheduled a session with Reverend Billy from the Church of Stop Shopping late in the afternoon. What the group does exactly will become clear while reading this post, but it is essentially a collective of activist using performance, singing, and comedy to battle “consumerism” Even though the group uses comedy to promote their cause, I admittedly was a little bit intimidated by their anti-Starbucks actions, which prompted me to quickly finish my frappuccino before entering the room.

The seminar presentation was given by Reverend Billy and his fellow activist -and wife- Savitri. The reverend was of course donned out in his signature look of a white suit and impossibly combed golden hair, like we know him from tv. To give an overview of their work three clips were shown. The first was the first ten minutes or so of the feature-length documentary they made called “What Would Jesus Buy?” (insert link? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBFz9XvJQqU). The clip basically depicted consumerism surrounding Christmas at its extreme through clips of news anchors blurting out things such as  “I do sometimes enjoy my diamond ring a lot more than I enjoy my husband”. Along with that were clips of people storming stores on Black Friday -the traditional day of mega sales kicking off the holiday shopping season. It all served to depict the idea of “consumerism” -being a broadly defined phenomenon of our role as slaves to consumption, advertising, etc. The other videos showed the group in action. The first being Rev. Billy and the choir staging an action in the Tate Modernin London to protest BP’s sponsorship of that public institutions and along with BP’s role in climate change and pollution (think the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico). The final video showed a spoof which heavily involved the choir consisting of 50 people -a vital part of the church’s activism.



The history of how the church came to be is quite interesting and reveals how they came to oppose consumerism. Billy explained when he started his activism it was the late 1990’s and he found himself in his 40’s, not conforming to the stereotypical middle-class image which advertisement always seems to assume -having a house, a big car, and kids. At that time he started visiting gospel churches, meeting a reverend that inspired him to spread his message using the mannerisms of a typical southern gospel reverend. Having moved to New York City, he started protesting the “disneyfication” of Times Square. At the time, Times Square was known as gritty, somewhat unsafe, but quintessential eccentric area. Mayor Giuliani was closely cooperating with Disney to clean up the area, and make it the tourist destination that it ended up being. This process inspired the focus the group lays of keeping the economy local instead of global, having corner stores instead of “big box stores” invading communities. This message has stayed at the core of the group’s activities all along. What has changed though, are the targets of the group. Whereas the group used to protest sweatshops almost exclusively, post-katrina they changed their approach to issues concerning the wider problem of climate change. Their engagement in activism for these causes in essence spans three areas. First there is face-to-face contact, second the pose themselves in the public sphere, and thirdly they set up high production value stunts focused on getting lots of media attention. They try to cover the whole spectrum of interaction with these activities.

Reverend Billy and the Choir staging a performance at the very place where their movement has its roots
What ensued afterwards was a very interesting discussion with the group, of which I would like to highlight some short bits. The first thing we discussed was the issue of “careerism” in relation to “activism”. Rev. Billy and Savitri always chose to not take the standard path in life, not even as an artist. Even as an artist, you often become part of an industry, and you have to play by a certain set of rules, which did not appeal to them at all. Many viewpoints on careerism arose. Some argued that careerism stems from a lack of creativity in life, while others see it as a consequence of it being the only safe path in life.

Some critical questions were posed regarding the group’s artistic choices and their ideological impact. For example, The group’s use of the symbolism and theatrics of gospel churches could for example strike some as a mere mocking of the church, thereby missing the actual message of anti-consumerism. Savitri explained that this does happen, but that its also the thing that draws attention to them. On the contrary even, it has helped their feature-film “What Would Jesus Buy?” to be screened in many churches around the country. Another student asked whether they felt that Reverend Billy himself hadn’t become the very thing they were fighting against, i.e. advertisement and a brand, especially in the light of them selling their gospel albums and films. While they see this concern as valid, they see themselves as “trapped” in the western culture’s tendency to always have stories surround just one person, (i.e. Rev. Billy) which is thus the most effective means to get your message across. With regards to the products they sell, they only sell stuff with actual content, so no meaningless reverend billy t-shirts, but quality products that help them to raise money for their cause.

While many of the students went into this session quite skeptical about Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, we were surprised by the honest, modest, and their elaborate views on not just consumerism, but on western society as a whole. Besides that, they are a prime example of successfully appropriating artistic tools for political activism.

By Chris Terwisscha van Scheltinga

comments


Showtime!


Today was the day. During the last of the workshop series by Not An Alternative, we placed our constructions at two different sites. Let me begin this blog post by revealing the content of our projects, after which I will turn to the course of events of today.

The first project concerned CCTV (Closed Circuit TeleVision) camera’s in subway stations. Recent years have seen an large increase in security camera’s at all sorts of public spaces. To make people aware not only of the presence, but also of the incredible amount of CCTV camera’s, we created a sign stating that there are 4000 camera’s in New York subways. It said: “The Metropolitian Transportation Authority would like to notify subway users that there are 4000 security camera’s in the New York subway stations.” We used the exact same design as the MTA uses for their announcements, making it look very official. To give the sign even more authority, we attached it to a construction materials.

The other project was designed to fit around an ATM machine to make a seem like it was under construction. A sign was placed on the construction stating that the machine was out of order because it was being re-programmed so that people could “take their money out of politics”. We also made two stickers. One simply saying “POLITICS” to go over the big “ATM” at the top of the machine. The second sticker reads “Take your money out of politics here”, to go onto the machine itself.

Let’s move on to today’s workshop. Before turning to our urban intervention projects, we made flags for tomorrow’s protest. We sprayed two different texts on red fabric: “DEBT” and “OCCUPY YOUR CRISIS. DEBT STRIKE EVERYWHERE”. I think we made over 20 flags in total, so hopefully the Summer Disobedience School will be satisfied with our work!


Next up, it was time to shoot some videos. Our urban intervention projects will be the subject of an episode of “Occupied Real Estate”, for which most footage was shot yesterday by Limo. Today we just had to give a small introduction: “Welcome to Occupied Real Estate. We are a group of students from the Netherlands and we are taking a workshop on urban interventions.” Next, we had to briefly introduce our projects, followed by some action shots of us with construction tools. Jason is going to do the editing and hopefully we will see the episode soon!


Then, finally, it was time to install our constructions. We started with the MTA sign. We chose Greenpoint subway station. Laura and Chris put on construction helmets and vests and waiting with the construction while everyone else took their positions at various places nearby the station to watch and document the instalment. The intervention went very smooth. Chris and Laura looked like professional constructors and passer-by’s didn’t find their presence strange at all. After the instalment the sign immediately seemed part of the urban environment, exactly how we intended it to be! Hopefully, it will stay there for quite some time…


The second instalment was a bit more of a challenge. The selected ATM stood next to a shop/bar and shortly after we gathered around to corner, ready to do the job, the owner of the bar came out for a smoke. He lingered around outside for a while, and, after he finally went back inside, a police car pulled up. Luckily, it was only a tow car, and soon it left again. Thinking the coast was finally clear, Chris and Laura walked up to the ATM to put the first sticker on while simply pretending to take out money. Then, Anna and I, after putting on the construction helmets and vests, lifted the construction and began to walk towards the ATM. However, while we were crossing the street, a car pulled up, a man came out, walked up to the ATM, and opened the bottom of the machine. Immediately we realized that this must be the owner of the ATM and instead of turning right we just walked on straight pas the ATM and out of sight of the man. What are the chances that the one day and at the exact same time we decided to do an action, the owner of the ATM would show up, we wondered. When he left, we decided to give it one last try and just go for it. Anna and I walked up to the ATM, quickly deployed the construction, tied it with zip ties, put on the second sticker and walked away again. All in all, it was quite an exciting thing to do, especially because we had to avoid both the owner of the bar and of the ATM.

Finally, I would like to thank Not An Alternative for a fascinating, instructive, busy, slightly out of the comfort zone, but above all fun couple of days!

By Emma Romeijn
comments


Professional Pranksters

On Thursday we had a seminar presentation by one of the Yes Men, whom you may have heard of -- they've pulled off a number of high-profile stunts these last few years, some of which I'll discuss in this article. Andy Bichlbaum told us the story of how he and Mike Bonanno met and started their prankster lifestyle. He talked a lot and thus this post is only a very brief overview of his stories, mostly exploring how the Yes Men started and an account of their philosophy.

Andy started off giving the short overview of how the Yes Men started their work, which is that during the dawn of the Internet, around 1999, Andy was ripping off websites of major companies, like Shell and McDonalds, "just for fun," to see what technology could do. He then used these skills to copy the website of the World Trade Organization (back then also known as GATT) but including a few satirical texts that the WTO had supposedly said (still viewable -- http://gatt.org/). As you may know, the WTO was under fire during its 1999 meeting in Seattle and there were mass protests (some parts of which we looked at during the first leg of the course as many of them were artistic). The WTO then sent out a press release calling the fake website and the people behind it "deplorable" and said they "undermined transparency," but as they put it on their actual website, nobody read it as their website was anything but transparent. Weeks later they emailed Mike and Andy, basically saying that they'd angered the WTO so much that they had now sent out a press release... weren't they ashamed? Then, Mike and Andy decided to send out a press release about this incident and the email they'd received, which was quickly picked up by journalists and many news outlets focused more on this one website hijacking instead of the 30,000 people protesting the WTO in Seattle!

Because of all this media attention, their own fake website climbed the search engine ranks and as such they started receiving emails that were actually meant for the WTO. Besides many angry letters from citizens and requests from governments for trade advice, they also received an invitation for a law conference in Austria. Eventually, they decided to reply with "The Director of the WTO is not available, but we'll send a substitute," and Andy went impersonating a WTO official and gave a satirical talk, all the while pretending to be from the WTO. This is how they started realizing that impersonation in both web- and real life-form were very useful ways to make fun of companies, and this led to 15 years of "doing wacky impersonations." This was also when they got their name the 'Yes Men:' they said yes to all these companies instead of protesting, articulating what organizations like the WTO should say, making jokes in a positive way.

Andy said that he likes to think of what the Yes Men do as "basically providing mainstream journalists an excuse to write about things that are important," which the journalists would want to cover but often can't because their editorial policy, or something similar, doesn't allow for it. An example of this is the Bhopal industrial catastrophe in 1984 -- its twenty-year anniversary would have gone by unnoticed (as these sorts of tragedies can be left out of the limelight if the companies behind them desire) if it wouldn't have been for the Yes Men impersonating a representative from the guilty company Dow Chemical on BBC news, which had contacted the Yes Men by accident. More info on this amazing impersonation can be found here: http://theyesmen.org/hijinks/bbcbhopal.

These last three years, the Yes Men have focused on expanding their line of work. Andy acknowledged that they had felt slightly uncomfortable with the results of their work, sometimes wondering if there wasn't more that could be done, but that they had recently realized that getting the public's attention was one step of the activist process and thus that they should continue their work, either by their own initiative or in collaboration with other movements, thereby making the world a better place in their own little way.

We discussed many more things, such as how Andy and Mike met (an amazing story that begins with the Sims) and a stunt that they felt was less successful: the 2004 Yes, Bush Can! Campaign, which Andy said failed because they "didn't think it through" but as they had received lots of money to do something they just decided to go out and spend it... As such "Money fucks you up," is one of the most important activist lessons according to Andy.

The Dow Chemical impersonation was the first time the Yes Men collaborated with GreenPeace, and the most recent time was the #ShellFail prank, which you may have heard of. I was actually fooled and had retweeted the link to their www.arcticready.com website a few weeks ago. The story of how they impersonated Shell (a Dutch company, which I thought a nice unintentional link to us) is incredibly interesting but as I'm running out of time and words, I'll link to other sources to examine this hoax:
An overview of what happened and when: http://storify.com/greenpeaceusa/starting-on-june-6th-greenpeace-and-the-yes-lab-to
A behind-the-scenes exploration of the event and a video: http://www.yeslab.org/shellfail-exposed



By Georgina Kuipers
comments


A Barrack in Brooklyn


The second Not An Alternative workshop took place on Thursday July 5th in a barrack in Brooklyn. After some logistical problems and intense metro rides - but do not worry: the McDonalds had been hit upon as usual - we all we assembled for the actual construction of the ideas we had come up with a few days earlier.


As I am writing this we are all preparing for an exciting day. Today we will execute our two projects. This holds that for now I cannot be too precise about our actions, later blogs will provide more information on what we have been doing. What I can do, however, is reflect on the last workshop from my personal experience.


First and foremost, there is more to organizing a protest than what meets the eye. Creating signs and other props requires preparation, patience, and resources. Not An Alternative is very well equipped when it comes to materials, and there is almost no plan or crazy idea that could not be executed. For our projects we have used materials such as plastic, plexiglass, wood, paint, and many others. The availability of these resources is a determinant for the effectiveness of a protest of the kind that we are executing today. To increase the chances of being taken seriously by the public, one must take on a sort of authoritative position. Professional props and materials contribute to one’s credibility, and thus to one’s impact on an audience. What I have learned from our recent workshops, is that not only resources are available for artistic practices: the willingness to participate is too. People care, and the occupation of Wall Street caused interest in artistic activism to explode - although New York City was renowned for its creative approaches to protesting already before this event. Participating in this summer school has showed me that even though we do not hear about protests every day, even though we are not confronted with images of protests every other second: there are people out there who spend their lives trying to solve smaller and larger problems in today’s society. The people from Not An Alternative, leading the workshop, are perfect examples.


During the second workshop, Not An Alternative asked us to film the work on our projects. This footage can later be used for promotion purposes by the organization itself. Images and other visuals are very important when it comes to mobilizing people. We hope that the film we have helped to create will serve this purpose.





Having had a long and tiring day at the workshop, we left the building around 7pm. After enjoying a good meal, we watched a screening of the movie E.T. near the Brooklyn Bridge. Beautiful views of Manhattan allowed for some well-deserved relaxation. However, this cannot last all too long: It is time to get fired up for action day.


By Simone Baardse
comments


Street Theatre Workshop

Monica Hunken led a, refreshingly different from the usual, workshop on street theatre that led to a wider awareness of our bodies and movement within a given space. This "awareness" did not arise out of a usual seminar set-up where we would only actively use our mind, but not our bodies; it rather arose from an intensive physical workshop where the use and movement of our bodies were crucial. Monica led us through some techniques used to summon large crowds of people and mobilize them in a certain way, explaining how these techniques, stemming from the branch of street theatre, were being used effectively within, for example, the occupy movement.

The multiplicity of the exercises is what made the workshop dynamic and successful. An exercise that was especially interesting was when we were told to explore the space we were in by walking in a grid-like form. Although at first you didn't notice the forms you were making, there was definitely a clear system or structure you were, subconsciously, following. Once you came to the realization that your movements within the space were deliberate, with a cause, you started to notice the people around you, and how they're movements we're deliberate as well, simply because we were all together in that space. Eventually we were creating one big grid, which when looked closely, was quite detailed and thought out. The (invisible) shapes that were being made complemented each other and you start to realize how easy and powerful it is to form a collective.

Although familiar with drama games, I think that the majority of us were foreign with the idea of using your body in quite "different" ways. Surprisingly, the collectivity of the group was seen quite quickly as we all realized, through exercises as the one discusses above, that no matter how skilled or able we were to complete the exercise, we were all doing them together; the realization of this, seemingly simple, notion is what made the group "one". You start to realize that, beyond the perhaps quirky exercises, that we all fundamentally share a lot of common things, and that even in a group of quite different individuals, finding a "common" is not that difficult, making it also much more powerful. When thinking of justice, it reminds me of a Spanish sign I saw portrayed in an article once, stating; it is not about the right to be equal, but rather the equal right to be different.

Eventually the workshop did not just create awareness of our bodies within a given space, but also emphasized the importance of being aware of your body's role and eventual movements within a certain space. Especially when you start connecting the points to activism you start to notice through improvisation, image theatre, an exploration of space and many other drama games combined with group discussion that you can culminate, not just fresh original group performances, but also blueprints for theatre for justice, and thus eventually actual protests. In a climate where many of us just seem to be able to communicate "this is how it should be" , this workshop was very successful in clearly showing; "this is how you do it".

By Limo Baroud
comments


Not an Alternative workshop

On Tuesday July 3rd, Not an Alternative hosted us for the first of a series of three workshops. Today, we brainstormed on an intervention, Thursday we will construct our props, and Friday we will execute the intervention. The brainstorm session was preceded by a presentation on New York City urban art.

John Hawke's presentation.

What struck me most was the work by the artist John Hawke. The orange constructions he builds and positions in New York City and elsewhere look as if they belong in their urban environment: the wooden sticks, orange mesh, and orange cones used in his constructions are, as his website notes, “borrowed from authority actors” (sources for all citations: see link at the bottom): they are used as a “means of spatial agency”. Like this, on the one hand, his constructions blend into their environment and are automatically accepted by passers-by as props belonging there, e.g., used by and worked on by construction workers (in fact, as Hawke’s experience shows, by dressing like a construction worker, one can work on these constructions in broad daylight without appearing in any way suspicious, stressing the authority of certain signs). On the other hand, the constructions do look somewhat different than what we usually see, and additionally, when looking more closely, they offer new opportunities: Hawke installed a ‘bus stop’, but one which offered more shelter than official bus stops, furthermore it included windows, and most importantly, the benches in it were placed opposite each other to allow for more interaction between people waiting for the bus. As a matter of fact, people began to actually wait there, and the bus started to stop at Hawke’s construction.

Hawke’s bus stop. Duration: eight weeks.

"Open House". Duration: five weeks

His “Open House” is another excellent example of how certain signs exert authority (not only on citizens, but also on “authority actors” such as the police). People could use this construction to sit together, or eat together, but they were told to leave, as the police assumed it was there for construction workers. As Hawke added the white placards saying “Open House”, explicitly indicating people could use the installation, the police considered it legitimate. It remained there for five weeks, during which it was being happily used as a gathering spot by the people in the neighbourhood, and when it was eventually destroyed by the police – after a long research into the legitimacy of the construction – Hawke repaired it (conventional roles seem to be somehow reversed), talked to the people using it and learned they considered the spot “a feather up their ass”.

By putting up these kinds of constructions and signs, Hawke (quite inspiringly) acts as if he is the State, immediately and independently contributing to a neighbourhood by creating “new collective possibilities” (“Open House”, the bus stop) rather than saying what he wants the State to do.

Presenting our ideas to each other (there really was content on the sheet of paper!).

After the presentation, we brainstormed on our action for Friday. We came up with two projects, which we will disclose to you in our following blogs.


By Anna van Bloois
comments


Not an Alternative


On our first day in New York we were fortunate enough to witness a presentation by the people behind not an alternative. Not an Alternative is an art collective that seeks to alter the understanding of objects throughout history. They attempt to do so by operating on the nexus of material and immaterial space. While this might sound a bit opaque at first, if one spends a bit of time thinking about it is quite a logical train of thought. If, for example, we take a bright orange pylon in the material world it is just that; a bright orange pylon. In the immaterial world however exist the connotations that people have with the pylon; it signifies an obstruction ahead, maybe construction work or even a deadly cliff that we should pay attention to. The material object of a pylon has clear connotations attached to it that exist in the immaterial world.



Recognising this the collective then seeks not necessarily to create new things, but rather to alter the immaterial existence of objects so that people’s understanding of these objects changes. In this light they see the recent crises that are sweeping over the world as an opportunity, a ‘crisistunity’.  The crises upset the everyday routine of people and force them to alter their lives in one way or another to adapt to the changing circumstances. In this moment of change there lies great potential for collectives like not an alternative to upset the immaterial world and to change connotations associated with everyday objects and practices. As people adapt they are more open to changes in the immaterial world.

The potential for impact is thus reasonably high in the present; a possibility for not an alternative to create a massive action and take the spotlight. Yet Not an Alternative does neither seek to stage such an action or to take the spotlight. In fact they have been actively avoiding accreditation for their work instead seeking to collaborate with other activist organisations. For instance they have been actively cooperating with Occupy Wall Street providing them with all sorts of banners, building blocks with texts and video material. In their collaboration with organisations such as OWS they once again seek to change people’s perception of certain objects, occupying physical space to change an immaterial meaning. For instance they built cardboard signs that had messages of support printed on them. These signs could be used to build a shelter, but had straps mounted on the back so that they could also be used as a shield. If OWS would be evicted by the police and the situation would have gotten violent the media would have pictures of the police beating on messages of support rather than on shields. The police would in that case not be justified in their action of beating down violent protesters, but would instead be demonised as oppressing people holding signs of support. The intervention by Not an Alternative changed the immaterial dynamics and shows how they can be incredibly active in their ways.


By Boaz Manger
comments


Constellations of Stories






Drawing inspiration from Martin Luther King's campaign which sought to a societal shift from civil rights (which, according to some, only concern surface issues in a nation) to human rights (which concern the core of issues in society) whilst also acknowledging the importance of the arts to create change, Rachel Falcone and Micheal Premo proceeded to initiate their organisation “Housing is a Human Right.” They use narrative, story telling and images to create a space where people from all walks of life have an opportunity to share their meaning and experiences of (maintaining) “home.” In our second workshop of day one in New York, they hosted the conversation sketching the historical landscape of the current housing crisis, the associated organisations that try to tackle the problem and the role and method of their own organisation. It is very tempting to spend the vast majority of this blog post discussing the absolutely baffling housing situation, but that would take away from the perhaps somewhat unique nature of their organisation. Instead, I will explore their method and it's effectiveness.



Rachel and Micheal started out with audibly recording interviews they held with people who had become homeless one way or the other. Each story was edited into a short (about five minutes of length) clip and accompanied with photographs, exhibited as a constellation of stories. The location of their exhibition gives way to their mission: to create a space where these stories can be told. The stories were played out loud in a launderette, while photos were pasted on the walls above the washing machines. The launderette being a place where people of all sorts come, they allowed the stories to be heard by the entire collective of a neighborhood. I feel this is a strong method, due to its symbolic function: the stories cannot be ignored if one enters the launderette (you could close your eyes, but blocking of the sound is altogether much more challenging) and simultaneously, the larger issue of the housing crisis should not be ignored either. We could say that Housing is a Human Right has two levels at which it operates: the individual and the collective. For the interviewees, telling their story of home is a scary endeavor, due to feelings of shame and embarrassment regarding their (past) homelessness. Thus, by telling their narrative and having it exhibited, the project empowers the individuals and work towards release and healing. On the other hand, Michael and Rachel bring these individual stories together in a more cohesive whole as an exhibition. This allows for interesting dynamics between collectivity and individuality in an day and age that increasingly focuses on the latter. Furthermore, it may suggest a more universal nature to the stories and the conceptions of 'home,' there are people that have experienced similar experiences in the same failing system.


A second aspect to the organisation is the “Office of Human Rights” that they set up in a building in New York, where they host discussions and interactive installations. Particularly through this medium, they aim to bring 'human rights' into the public sphere, just like Dr. King had attempted before his assassination. One can  be critical to the effectiveness of the movement, in as much as they help achieve a structural change in the housing crisis, which would reduce the homelessness phenomena significantly. However, Housing is a Human Right plays, I believe, a different role in the field. There is a significant collection of movements such as Occupy our Homes, Organisation for Occupation etc. that utilize direct actions such as squatting and protest to the government. Housing is a Human Right, on the other hand, plays an important role for the local communities and individuals they work with. They have also collaborated with the United Nations Human Rights Council by bringing them in touch with the directly affected. I feel that the organisation is of great value, and arts (storytelling, narrative and exhibiting) is an essential aspect of how they create their value. Even though their objectives might be less tangible and measurable than for instance preventing family 'X' from being evicted, but they still contribute significantly to the ethos and the collectivity of the activist movements as a whole. Their workshop helped remind me that for every organisation and individual, there is a different role to play in the world. As long as we dedicate ourselves with passion and modesty to where we feel we can channel most energy into, we can all make a valuable contribution to help the world make a step forward.



For more information on the organisation or for people's narratives, please do check: http://housingisahumanright.org/storiesinsound/


By Laura Brouwer
comments


Beautiful Trouble


On Monday morning at 10 AM, we were expected for our first official seminar in New York City. As we were severely jetlagged, most of us were wide awake at 7AM or before, and so we all took our chance to see a bit of NYC in slumber -- actually, going out at 8AM is quite nice temperature-wise and lack-of-tourist-wise, although of course many shops and attractions don't open up until 10.

In any case, after breakfast, we tried to find our way to the Hemispheric Institute, which is actually only a 5-minute walk away from our apartment in Greenwich. After my little group had walked past the building (oops!) we went up to the 5th floor and found the other group members in a lovely little room with a huge screen and a nice table set-up that seats twelve (our group of students + Cissie and Chris + two presenters). Around the room is a photo exhibition about the results of the Japanese tsunami and nuclear disaster last year. One that particularly sparked my interest is that of a white bunny that was born without ears. All in all, the room seems very suitable for our discussions about the nexus between arts and politics.

As for this morning's seminar, we would be on the receiving end of a presentation given by Andrew Boyd, the editor of Beautiful Trouble, a toolbox for revolution and a book that is filled with bite-sized tactics, theories, practices and case studies about (mostly artistic) activism. Our course convener for the NYC leg, Mark Read, was also there to welcome us (we'd missed him on Sunday night due to all our not-so-beautiful baggage troubles). He has also contributed to Beautiful Trouble and so occasionally jumped into the discussion and presentation with his comments. Many other contributors will be guiding us over the course of this week.

After teaching Andrew to say 'welkom in New York' -- 'welcome to New York' in Dutch - he got started. He explained that he would be visiting Europe in the fall to promote Beautiful Trouble, which has only recently come out. Andrew has a history in the intersection between art and activism, as he's done quite some street theater on economic inequality, taxes, affordable housing, etc.. Most notably he was a part of the action group Billionaires for Bush, which really came into force during Bush' 2004 re-election campaign -- more on that later. He acknowledged that the book was somewhat America-focused but that it also has some European writers, and that many of the principles are meant to be applicable all over the world. Andrew is also one of the founders of the 'subvertising' agency Agitpop Communications (a sort of PR agency for activists) and the network The Other 98% (which was created before Occupy Wall Street started framing themselves the 99% -- imagine how often Andrew has to explain how he's NOT copying OWS!).

The session was a showcase of a number of core concepts in the book. Many of us had read large sections of the book and so the seminar was more of a fruitful discussion than a presentation, but both audience and presenters seemed to prefer this format. Beautiful Trouble is made up of four sections: Theory, Tactic, Principle, and Case Study, and we subsequently went over examples of each of them.

Most importantly, we discussed the tactic of Direct Action. Direct Action interrupts business (and reality) as usual, seizes leadership (which can be in a democratic way) and injects a competing story into the public arena. An example of this is OWS, where the bankers may have been able to get to work as usual, but it changed the understanding of the banks and set up a society for itself with housing, etc. Direct action happens at points of intervention:

- production (picket strike)
- consumption (boycott)
- destruction (protest for logging)
- decision (UN/headquarters/WTO protest)
- potential (showing and experiencing unexplored power (of the people))
- assumption (such as showing that free market =/= democracy)

Furthermore we looked at the theory of Action Logic (the message must be inherently clear through the action), the tactic of Prefigurative Intervention (creating the world you want to live in through your activism, even if it is only temporary), and the principles of Maintain Message Discipline (be sure to present one clear message), Balance Art and Message (make sure to think about human creativeness as well as the message) and Don't Dress Like a Protester (as that grasps the public's attention more, as it is unexpected. Lastly we looked at some case studies, such as 'Whose Tea Party' in 1996, where they 'mediajacked' a Republican manifestation for a Flat Tax, and the F the Banks campaign, which we'd presented on on Friday and could thus have a good discussion on.

I highly recommend picking up Beautiful Trouble in e-copy or hard copy, as it definitely is a useful guide to civil disobedience, in varying ways of sincerity ;)

By Georgina Kuipers
comments


Lalala*

Handing out blank flyers to people is both highly amusing and thrilling.

It is quite interesting to watch people’s reactions. Will they be sceptical, annoyed, confused at first, or consider it a poetic action and appreciate it? Will they even think about it, when they are having a coffee later during the day?

An important aspect of art appears to be to stimulate people to think about, or to rethink, a particular issue. Without claiming to have created actual art through our blank protest/performance, the one or two moments when it appears that you confuse somebody, and cause her/him to think critically about what they just saw or heard, however cheesy it may sound, are genuinely exciting.

Was I thinking of our performances as if they were profounder than they actually were?

Walking through The Hague with blank banners, new, unthought-of interpretations of the meaning of our banner and flyers emerged – for example, as we passed two tourists speaking their own language, it came to mind that our ‘message’ was interpretable for anyone speaking any language, since it did not contain any written or spoken language. Accordingly, it did not exclude anyone from thinking about it in that respect, and this non-exclusiveness could be considered an inspiring message in itself (or does this actually make the message somewhat bland and wishy-washy?). Nevertheless, the question is whether this is too much analysis on the sending end, and whether the ‘audience’ is able to get a gist of what you mean to say through the visuals (or audio, etc.) you use. Of course, what we did was squeezed into a short time frame and the goal was to get a feeling of how organising and executing a performance/protest/intervention works, but nevertheless these questions are interesting to explore. I am not really taking a stance here, however – though I tend to lean towards thinking that what we did actually was interesting and stimulating (but I might be biased), and on a small scale managed to at least make people wonder for a moment.


Since this blog post was actually supposed to be about the presentations we did for each other on Friday – but I could not stop myself from writing on the performance –, I will give you a short description of the presentation on the organisation ‘F the banks’ (F standing for ‘foreclose’ ), which exists since February this year. Through showing telling videos on how the organisation emerged, we got a clear picture of the organisation’s strategy and convictions. One video, which revealed the inspiration for the F the Banks movement, showed an American couple from Florida which was sent foreclosure letters by the Bank of America (BoA), meaning they were to leave their home since they supposedly had not paid their mortgage fees. However, the couple did not in fact have a mortgage, and therefore, the BoA’s letters were illegal. They successfully sued the BoA, which subsequently had to pay the couple damages. When the BoA refused, and so was legally in debt, the couple asked for BoA Florida’s foreclosure – and so it happened. Due to the many foreclosures taking place when people are unable to pay their expensive mortgages, F the Banks stages many actions clearly uncovering the unfairness of this situation. An extremely effective and comical way of showing this is turning the circumstances around: F the Banks activists occupy a bank by taking couches, plants, chairs and tables into the hall of a bank and comfortably seat themselves, happily chatting and laughing: if the bank can take our homes, we can use their space as a place to stay. This video, which went viral, shows this action.



On the dark side, there was some criticism on the way F the Banks uses social media – not very coherently or frequently, which is a loss, since it is more difficult to stay updated in this way. This is something we can consider ourselves, when we deal with our use of social media.

To wrap up, throughout this week, with academic and practical background information, concrete tips, and actual experiences, we got a taste of what it is like to organise a protest or a performance – however small – and to work together and stand for a particular cause (however much open to interpretation). It tasted like more.
 

* Songs and adapted songs are often used to accompany action, as audible in the F the Banks video in the link above. Just to see how song on its own may also successfully disrupt normal order, please watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3X89iViAlw, where activists from Organising for Occupation (O4O) manage to stop a foreclosure auction of several houses, which otherwise the owners would have had to leave (probably, the houses were still sold later – please read Boaz’s blog to inform yourself on the usefulness of addressing the effect of the flaws in the financial system – or how people behave in it – rather than addressing its root cause, in solving the problem).

By Anna van Bloois
comments


Strategies for change

Yesterday the group was split up in two groups each presenting on a different occupy inspired activist organisation in New York. One half of the group presented on the F the Banks organisation and the other half presented on the organizing for occupy, o4o, movement. Both the groups focused their discussion on the tactics employed by both movements towards attaining their respective goals. At the end of the last presentation this sparked an interesting debate about which of the two strategies would be more effective. As the time for the debate was limited this blog post will attempt to address some of the issues that were left untouched.

Briefly paraphrased F the Banks is targeting the Bank of America who is largely responsible for a lot of the foreclosures American citizens are faced with. On the other hand the Organization for Occupy movement is trying to stop people from being evicted from their foreclosed homes. F the Banks is thus trying to take on the bank that is responsible for the foreclosures whilst Organization for Occupy is fighting the effects of the policy of the Bank of America.

In the debate the statement was made that F the Banks as an organisation was more useful in that if it were to reach it goals the impact on society would be far larger. Stopping a bank from backing predatory loans, stopping them from robosinging (the practice of approving foreclosures without verifying basic loan information) foreclosures and addressing systemic corruption would be a change that would have an impact on a larger number of people than preventing a handful of people from being evicted.

On the other hand it was argued that the organization for occupy movement by setting themselves smaller goals would easier achieve something concrete. Through achieving something concrete relatively simple it was argued that the organisation would be more accessible and would draw in more people. People want to be successful and if they have to bash their head against the brick wall of a bank all day or instead successfully prevent an eviction the choice is made easily.

Or is it? Ultimately I believe people care about the impact their actions have on the world and while it might be satisfactory on the short term to help your neighbour in not getting evicted this week, he will still get evicted eventually if the system that is evicting him is not being changed. What is necessary is people that set themselves achievable goals, but that do not make these goals achievable at the cost of having these goals mean something. What is necessary is for people to smash their head against a brick wall long enough for it to fall, so that the problem can be addressed rather than the symptoms.

By Boaz Manger
comments


SEE OLDER POSTS...



recent posts

    Stacks Image 3470
    PAI is hosted by Leiden University, The Netherlands
    Stacks Image 823
    Stacks Image 821
    Stacks Image 808
    Stacks Image 825

    mailing list

    to receive news about PAI and its activities, subscribe to the mailing list.