Last night, I sat in on an Arts and Culture meeting at Occupy Wall Street to check in on what the group has been up to. After keeping track of and participating in their Google group for the past couple of weeks (I currently have over 400 Arts and Culture threads crowding my inbox) it was good to finally put faces to certain names. The meetings take place every night at 6pm at 60 Wall Street in the building’s pristine atrium complete with palm trees and tweeting birds. The building, which serves as the American headquarters of Deutsche Bank, is taken over by several of Occupy Wall Street’s working groups by night where they meet to hash out ideas and discuss administrative tactics. Wall Street employees and other non-Occupiers also hang in the atrium after office hours, but they are far outnumbered by the protesters.
At Wednesday night’s Arts and Culture meeting many artistic voices were present — filmmaker, sculptor, art teacher and dancer were just a few of the ways members identified themselves. This night’s meeting was specifically for new proposals, or as the group dubbs it, the “art” section of the committee. During each week, the committee switches off between “art” meetings that are just for proposals and projects and “culture” meetings for establishing how the group functions. During “culture” meetings some of the more complex administrative aspects of running a horizontal group are tackled, such as creating a manifesto of goals and values, which the group has slowly been working towards.
Keeping issues of “art” and “culture” separate allowed the meeting on Wednesday to run somewhat smoothly, although some confusions did arise. As a newcomer to the group, I sat back and took in what appeared to be a highly organized and efficient system of discussion, but found it hard to really get involved in the conversation without knowing what to expect.
The meeting kicked off with announcements on projects already underway, including Occupy Halloween for which the protesters have gotten official permission to be a part of this year’s Village Halloween Parade. Members of Arts and Culture are planning to make costumes, banners and puppets for the event and are also calling for others to plan their own performances. Several members noted that the amount of coverage their participation in the parade would bring to Occupy Wall Street could be crucial to spreading the movement.
“Last year there were 60,000 people watching the Halloween Parade,” one organizer of the project mentioned. “This is our chance to show that the Occupation is organized with a purpose, but is also about celebration.”
Next proposals were briefly presented to the group and added to the “minutes,” a running list of what is said at the meeting typed by a member of the committee. These proposals are then discussed in greater detail and finally put up to a vote, or “temperature check,” that involves various Occupy-specific hand signs that include wiggling fingers up for “yes,” in the middle for “maybe” and down for “no.” Members can also call for a “block” (signaled by crossed arms) if they have an ethical issue with the proposal and strongly believe it should be dropped. Hand gestures are a key part of the way the committee communicates so that the group knows what type of comment a person wants to make before they even speak. There’s a “C” hand shape for “clarifying question” and a quick back and forth movement of hands to mean “respond back.” To a newcomer this is all gibberish, but members are in the process of creating a diagram of hand gestures to have at the meetings.
A point of tension throughout the meeting was how to properly raise and allocate funds for projects. As part of a movement that is against unbridled and unfair profiteering, the Arts and Culture committee is strongly against how money traditionally wields power in the art world. Occupy Museums, a plan to protest in front of New York’s richest cultural institutions today, takes this vow against the art world 1% to the extreme. Strangely no mention of the event was made at the meeting. Rather the recent controversy over No Comment, an Occupy Wall Street art exhibition, was brought up by A&C member Johhny Sagan as an example of what the committee should avoid in the future.
Several protesters spoke out against No Comment after the shows curator Marika Maiorova changed the artist contract agreements last minute and added several unfair provisions that included cutting the artist’s initial share of sales by 20%. Sagan noted that there may be several other off shoots of No Comment in the works, plus the show itself is planned to open at the Chelsea Museum. Sagan explained that Arts and Culture would do better to raise funds themselves through a transparent forum like Kickstarter and rent their own multipurpose space for art projects rather than look to art institutions outside the movement. He noted, “We need direct action art projects as opposed to shows and fundraisers. We need an independent space. No art sales or auctions.” Other members supported Sagan’s motion, suggesting that the priority should be towards donating actual materials for projects rather than just money.
But how is the Arts and Culture committee actually supporting itself? Other than Kickstarter campaigns for projects like Occupy Halloween, the group is also allocated funds of around $200 each day from the General Assembly, the movement’s main decision-making body that meets daily. If the money is not used towards anything that day, then A&C loses the money. A debate ensued over whether or not Occupy Halloween could ask for $2,000 from the General Assembly for the parade, with many people arguing that was way too much money and the GA would never go for it. The meeting’s facilitator, Will, brought up a point that is all too familiar when it comes to arts funding: The GA has a tight budget and is less concerned with funding Arts and Culture than other more pressing issues.
Of course in a movement that relies so heavily on its own resources, issues of food, comfort and livelihood in Zuccotti Park will take precedence over supporting the arts. But how long will Arts and Culture remain independent and will it even make sense for them to continue to do so? Also the issue of space is an increasingly important one. One member at the meeting briefly brought up the distinction between renting a space and occupying one. The point was quickly buried underneath other agenda items, but I found it to be the most interesting. The future location of Arts and Culture could greatly effect whether the committee remains its own entity or seeps further into the art world and possibly loses its conceptual and physical connection to the main action at Zuccotti Park.