Earlier this week I was anonymously given images of anti-Barclays street art spotted at the newly coined Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center subway stop in Brooklyn.
As the blurry images show, the work uses the Barclays name and funding of the station to highlight the recent LIBOR fixing scandal and the role of mega-corporations like Barclays in political turmoil throughout the world.
The role of major banks in scandals, foreclosures, depressions and general economic woe for the average person has been a key topic of the Occupy movement, so these works were fitting. I wanted to know more about the work so I asked a couple of questions. Although their answers are filled with Occupy Wall Street language that sometimes can feel a little isolating, I agree with the message and I wanted to know more than their first statement provided.
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Ben Valentine: What is the role of art in Occupy?
Unnamed Occupier: Social movements have long co-opted the artist in the same exploitative manner as the capitalist system, asking of artists that they do work to dress up content that is created elsewhere. This is true even of movements where artists were central actors. It seems as though the relational vocabulary implanted in us by capitalism runs that deep. Groups within the Occupy networks have repeatedly attempted to move beyond this form, by engaging art and artists as agents and subjects of revolutionary change. Examples include the many campaigns of Occupy Museums, which sought to undermine the hierarchical nature of art production and consumption. Another is the massive mutual aid network for artists that sprung up to support May Day, where nearly a thousand participant-creators helped realize fifty public art projects throughout the city, using resources and support provided to them by other artists and members of the Occupy Wall Street network.
By resisting the notion of art-as-product, we help to disintegrate the boundaries between art objects and the broader world, revealing a far deeper, mutually beneficial relationship for artists and art-lovers alike.
BV: What is the ideal interaction with this work?
UO: We’re pretty sure it’s already been taken down. Like most public art, interaction with it happens more at the documentation level — it’s an anecdote of something you saw, or a picture you share on Facebook. You interact with it by talking about it. At the very least, it encourages a viewer to go learn more about something (e.g., Barclays’ history, which was totally shady before LIBOR).
Ideally, it encourages them to act: by making public the things they learn, or by taking direct action against the institutions that we are indicting. We hope to inspire more informational actions, along the lines of our own.
BV: Why do you risk arrest for this work?
UO: There is seemingly no mechanism to actually hold too big to fail institutions accountable for their actions. The state sure as hell isn’t doing it. Banks don’t really care if you parade a giant puppet outside their building. They don’t care if you start an intentional community and get off the grid. But they notice when you fuck up their stuff. They notice things that make them look bad, or weak, or foolish (the Yes Men’s Bhopal apology is a really good example of this).
This specific action is pretty low-level and still mostly symbolic, but we’re doing things that put us at risk because they make these institutions understand that they are at risk, and they are going to be held accountable, if not by the state then through other means. Part of our goal is to highlight the divergence between the amount of real risk that we realistically face by performing this small act of civil disobedience, and the nearly nonexistant risk faced by the institutions perpetrating these massive crimes. Governments and institutions have shown no interest in correcting that divergence, but the banks are still vulnerable to the withdrawal of participation by the subject-citizens they prey on. Therefore, we begin to disrupt that divergence simply by highlighting it.
It is true that much of street art is witnessed through documentation, and unfortunately this work was poorly documented. However, I believe that the power of political street art lays in it’s surprising setting. Many of my friends like street art, and are happy to see political street art with a message we can get behind. Yet, the online documentation on websites are already filtered for viewers that identify with the work; Hyperallergic will most likely not cover Neo-Nazi street artists anytime soon. So, the question becomes, how long was this work up, who saw it and did it effect them in anyway? I don’t know, but I like to imagine a large morning commuter crowd being confronted with some new left-leaning information about their subway stop, and maybe, just maybe rethinking their bank or their vote.
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Editor’s note: Next week on Hyperallergic, Neo-Nazi street art … just kidding … maybe.