Photo Essays

#OccupyWallStreet’s Art Exhibition: Celebration and Harsh Realities [UPDATED]

by Liza Eliano on October 10, 2011

This Saturday, I visited No Comment, an art exhibition in response to Occupy Wall Street at the historic JP Morgan Building. Sandwiched between the New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, this exhibition was the closest the protesters have gotten to actually occupying a Wall Street building with their signs and messages of economic struggle.

No Comment was born from a collaboration between Occupy Wall Street and the artist collective Loft in the Red Zone that set up a tribute to September 11 in the JP Morgan building in early September. Caught in the middle of the protest and blocked by police barricades, the 9/11 show remained empty for weeks. But on Saturday night the first floor of the JP Morgan building was packed with people, including protesters, artists and OWS virgins who came to see what the movement is all about.

The show was huge. It filled with painting, photography, video, installations, performance pieces and even a t-shirt screen printing station. Some of the work was good, some was bad and some was downright ostentatious. At one point a flag made of hundreds of real one dollar bills with burn holes was strung to the ceiling. Several visitors, many of them I recognized as protesters, began lighting the flag on fire as pieces of the bills melted off and smoldered on the floor. Considering that both Occupy Wall Street and Loft in the Red Zone were hoping to raise $5,000 that night to keep the exhibition space open, it was disturbing to watch all that money go to waste.

Yet the general vibe of No Comment perfectly captured what has been growing in Zuccotti Park and is now spreading across the country. Even though most of the works were laden with the struggles of the 99%, there was also a strong sense of community and celebration among visitors. With so much to look at and so much to discuss it was hard not to stay at the exhibit for several hours. Performance pieces also popped-up in the center of the gallery space so that crowds would spontaneously gather and disperse, reflecting the spontaneity of the movement itself.

While works in the show were for sale, this was anything but a typical art exhibition. Co-curator Anna Harrah told me that the show was all about creating  a conversation, which is something she feels rarely happens in the art world where only certain artists get a voice. “We are trying to get back to equality and challenge the hierarchical system in place,” she noted.

Below is a series of photos from the exhibition that attempt to capture the many voices heard at No Comment.

This sign at the entrance of the show made it clear to visitors that No Comment would challenge the conventional art gallery experience.

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The crowds at No Comment were a mix of protesters, artists and newcomers to the movement. Several visitors, like the woman crouching, brought their own hand-made signs to the exhibit.

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The collage of cardboard signs, one of Occupy Wall Street’s first art projects, was also on display, along with a performance artist who I spotted in Zuccotti Park last week.

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Several works in the show, including this flag, also doubled as message boards for visitors to write their thoughts and stories on. Equal participation is central to the Occupy Wall Street movement, and No Comment did a great job of replicating this in the art gallery.

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Visitors could also type out messages on an iPad in the gallery or text comments to a program called Vibes that displayed a running list of comments in real time. Comments pictured here refer to the large numbers of police outside of the gallery, plus a statement from one user who doesn’t seem to be too happy with the protests.

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In one pop-up performance piece, a man from New Jersey who calls himself Art O’Connor read a mock letter he wrote as a frustrated artist to the banks who have screwed him over. His act was a mixture of frightening rage and vaudeville comedy. Dressed in a tattered suit and roaring from a make-shift soap box, O’Conner looked like he belonged in a Broadway show about the Great Depression.

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Art O’Connor’s rage was not unique and the emotion of rage was reflected in several pieces, especially in this series of drawings by artist Kathleen McDermott  titled ArabSpring/IndianSummer/NY. It’s unclear if these are actual members from Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street or imagined faces, or if the figures are expressing anger or pain. Either way the drawings were some of the heavier works in the exhibition.

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This installation titled Hope: Temple of Forgiveness was a calming repose from some of the more aggressive and political works displayed.

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After the flag of one dollar bills was hung, visitors cheered and swarmed to take pictures. Things got a bit tense and uncomfortable though when visitors began to set fire to the flag. One of the show’s organizers soon told them to stop.

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A t-shirt screen printing station was set up at the far end of the gallery. Graphic artists printed the iconic fist created by artist Jon McCarthy for the Occupy Wall Street movement as well as any other design visitors wanted. The artists even offered to print graphics on the shirts people were wearing, as long as you didn’t mind getting half naked.

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Loft in the Red Zone curator Marika Maiorova and a member of Occupy Wall Street’s media team addressed the crowd using the human mic technique that protesters have been using to amplify their voices in Zuccotti Park.

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There was also a show outside the gallery in the form of police on horses and an entire street lined with cop cars. The police presence was definitely a bit intimidating when walking in and out of the exhibition. It was a harsh slap of reality after experiencing the celebratory and creative energy that flooded No Comment.

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No Comment was open to the public at the JP Morgan Building (23 Wall Street, New York) on Saturday October 8 from 6 – 9 PM.

UPDATE: Artist Kathleen McDermott informed us over email that “No Comment” has been extended until Friday, October 14, with a reception on Thursday evening. More artwork will also be added to the show.

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  • Anonymous

    we hope there are so few comments here because human persons are busy being out and occupying things!  thanks for posting this, since we are not in nyc to see!

  • Zak Vreeland

    It was a fun show– you forgot to mentionthe grub and wine and naked people and bands

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BEK7FXQRXXWIIF4OEQKDLK2YVY Tracy

    We were there with our son Jon the tee shirt designer.  The energy was fantastic.  We were very impressed. Good Luck with a good cause.  We are just parents from up state that really believe in  it all.  We struggle just like every one to get by in life. We are so proud of you all. Tracy Mccarthy

  • Heather Rogers

    Art for a change of paradigm! Can the next exhibition be in virtual space ‘online’ as well as in a real space? I live in New Zealand and would love to see it. Best wishes.
    Heather

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XOUBCF3IP72HKZOILJE5JBW3KM Sandy

    Is there any future shows?  I have a great art piece that I would like to participate in the show.  Please let me know!

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