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Low Lives: Occupy! Anti-Art and the Readymade Revolution

by Ashley Sanders

On March 3rd, thousands of people in over ten different countries will point their projectors to occupy building facades, movie screens and bare white walls with transmissions from a performance phenomenon known as Low Lives: Occupy! LL:O! is an artistic celebration of the Occupy movement that uses the medium as its message, pushing the grainy, live-stream, camera-phone-style footage that made Occupy famous to stage a series of simultaneous, real-time performances that interrogate, explore and push the limits of what Occupy means. The pieces will run the gamut from direct action to spectacle, and the audience will be equally diverse and democratic: anyone with an internet connection can gather with any number of people and watch as artists and activists from everywhere stage five minute pieces that blur the line between art, politics, and performance.

And why does this matter? It matters because, as cops in riot gear evicted Occupiers in Boston’s Dewey Square, a projection went up on a building façade behind them. It was written in scrawling font and it said one simple thing: “You can’t evict an idea.” And whoever projected that was partly right. The occupations that began last September were both physical and psychic; they were about people reclaiming public space as a platform for a giant shift in public imagination. It was about resisting physical eviction in parks so we could evict the CEOs in our heads—all the notions that told us that we were weak and worthless and wrong.

But Dewey Square did get evicted, at least physically, and the projection eventually went dark. Now thousands of Occupiers around America are wondering what to do with their un-evictable but homeless ideas.

It’s an old problem, one that has plagued both political art and resistance since its inception: the ability of bourgeois capitalism to eat up, spit out or assimilate its detractors. In fact, the Occupy movement bears some striking resemblances to the Dada art-resistance movement of the early 20th century. Both movements were filled with people who were convinced that society had become a sick spectacle—that war, technology and empire had employed the once-humanist notions of rationality, law and government in the service of profit and empire. This made the whole human project deeply suspect, or, in the words of Dadaist Marcel Janco:

We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa.

Art, politics and culture were broken, and so the Dadaists decided to fight using anti-art. If modern capitalism was a spectacle, they’d out-spectacle it, reading nonsense plays and angry manifestos in public spaces. And if bourgeois culture valued conformity at any cost, the Dadaists would defy convention, wreaking havoc on the outer boundaries of art and blurring the inner boundary between art and daily life. Dada insisted on gatherings of so-called disorder to call out the actual insanity of a world bent on growth and war.

Fast forward a few years, and you’ve got Duchamp submitting urinals to art exhibitions in a mockery of the establishment. He had his own word for his throwaway objects. He called them ready-mades, the detritus of a culture that could not see itself rightly.

And then, of course, the inevitable: Instead of blowing up the art world, Duchamp was absorbed by the ever-elastic establishment, becoming instead the iconic if defiant step-child of the bourgeois art scene.

The Dadaists had waged a brave experiment. They placed art outside the world they abhorred and used it as anti-thesis, a performance to call out performances, a spectacle on spectacle. Their art was necessarily outsider, eventually infiltrative, and ultimately adopted and neutered. Anti-art—art as social protest—seemed to have failed. The idea kept going but it had no public space, no gathering to inhabit.

That’s why I thought about the Dada last time I visited an Occupy camp, and laughed at how a bunch of kids were unwittingly riffing on a rich history. Here was a grand resuscitation of politics as public spectacle, a neo-Dadaist experiment where art was the performance itself. The signs were clear and earnest, but the bigger message was still a cipher, a babble of inspired incoherence at the sheer largeness of what they were fighting. And they were fighting, sadly, a lot of the same things as their predecessors: mad war, mad growth, and an economy gone wild. They came carrying their ready-mades: cardboard signs scavenged from a nearby dumpster, old camping tents. A deft use of everything usable for fighting empire. Above them were the towers of world finance, centers of industry and economics and democracy-as-capitalism, the establishment that rejected them just as soundly and as surely as Duchamp’s old urinal—the establishment that did not like to have its story of freedom and prosperity challenged.

There was one big difference, though, between the old spectacle and the new, and it was sayable in two words: camera phones. Everywhere I looked, people were filming. The most basic minutiae of the revolution was available at any given moment on YouTube.  I’ll spare you a quip on the tired phrase about the revolution being or not being televised, because I have a different point to make: the averageness was. Televised, that is. By that I mean that any grandma or surly teen or tech-savvy toddler anywhere in the country could tune in, live, to see the protesters ignored. To see them kettled. To see them bored and pepper sprayed. We were spared nothing—the dull, deadening doldrums of long passages of time, the occasional high points, the stuttering moments in The Great Speeches, the snide conversations carried on by the live-streamers as they went about their daily business. We saw a revolution in its totally mundane reality. We saw a digital ready-made of regular life in extraordinary times, something unfit for the sound bytes and high gloss drama of the media establishment. We saw anti-art step toe to toe with empire. In a throwaway medium, we saw what the culture did not want us to see about what it did not want to see.

Except lots of people didn’t want to throw it away, and lots of people wanted to see. Lots of people watched, singly or in groups, as the drama and the anti-drama unfolded. And that was the difference, the way that history was laughing at itself. If Duchamp and Co. fought from the outside, fighting the master with the master’s garbage, Occupy had somehow negotiated a halfway space, using the master’s tools to get live footage of the master’s house.

And so: Dada wanted to blow up art, and was consumed by it. Their idea did not die, but it was tribeless, homeless. Wandering. Then Occupy flared up, and tried to use the empire’s art against it. For a few moments, the old idea had a new home. And then we were evicted, too, and are wondering what to do with our big idea. Wondering: Will we resist being swallowed?

If Dada taught us one thing, it was performing the spectacle. If it taught us two things, it was that we are always situated in the belly of the beast, always fighting with what we’re fighting against, wanting success enough to be spit out but not success enough to be digested.

That’s why Low Lives: Occupy! is so important. At a time when many Occupies have been evicted, it provides a virtual gathering space in the service of spectacle. At a time when elites are trying to squash the idea itself, it’s a way of remembering. It merges the oldest traditions—gatherings, rituals, performance—with the wily, subversive anti-art of low-fi technology. It is an anti-bourgeois celebration of the low, the average, the mundane and a reminder of how big and bad and strong the low can be. It will blend art and action in yet another blurring of the line between art and politics, commentary and commentated, art and anti-art, the fighter and the fought-against.

This time we’re claiming our caughtness, our entrapment in the system of canonization and representation. LL:O! reminds us of our job in the mad resistance: to perform our outrage ‘til we know what it means.

About Author: Ashley Sanders

I am an activist fighting for democracy and an end to corporate rule. I first got involved in activism by organizing an alternative graduation when my college invited Dick Cheney to speak at our official ceremony, and haven't looked back since. I worked as the youth spokesperson for Ralph Nader’s 2008 presidential campaign, organizing people to fight corporations in their communities. I have also organized extensively for Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County, California, a collective committed to community sovereignty, bioregional democracy and alternatives to corporate control and capitalism. While there, I helped to launch the Campaign to Legalize Democracy/Move to Amend, a national grassroots campaign to amend the Constitution to abolish corporate constitutional rights and to organize local communities to declare independence from corporate rule. I'm now working to organize Salt Lake to support this national amendment and to wage a people’s battle against major corporate polluters. I also work on democratic community revitalization, feminist empowerment and political street theater, and am currently working on a play and book.

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