The art world has a tendency to make everything about itself, and some of the art happenings at Occupy Wall Street are no different. Contentious art projects that have spawned from the movement like the No Comment exhibition and Occupy Museums have sparked important discussions, but also remain somewhat insular. While it’s certainly worthy to critique and examine the art world under the lens of Occupy Wall Street, artistic responses to the movement should also aim to educate and entice more people to join the ranks of OWS. NYU Gallatin‘s exhibition This is What Democracy Looks Like, which opened last Friday, makes such an attempt to extend a hand outward.
Curated by artist and NYU professor Keith Miller, the show simply asks, “What exactly is the Occupy Wall Street movement? What language does it speak?” Miller’s answer takes a page from the study of Visual Culture, and specifically how images and new media have been central to the spread of Occupy Wall Street. According to Miller, the protesters have ushered in a new age for media that puts a wrench in the mainstream system. He writes in the exhibition’s wall text that “it is clear that this disparate group speaks in a vernacular that can only be understood as of the internet age, and does so horizontally instead of the traditional print-based verticality of the past.” OWS’ non-hierarchical language is also a key reason for why the movement is so misunderstood — a fact that didn’t really sink in for me until now. Growing up in the internet age and working for a blogazine, I often forget that people still prefer hierarchy when it comes to media. When there is only one voice disseminating information, it appears easier to know who to trust and easier to grasp the situation.
Yet the cacophony of voices in This is What Democracy Looks Like flies in the face of a single point of view. The small gallery space is packed with photos, videos, text and drawings that retain the energy and urgency felt at the actual site of Occupy Wall Street. Miller sent out a call to artists to contribute work for the exhibition, stressing that the work had to be made recently and in response to OWS. Amongst these artist pieces (none of which are labeled), ephemera from the movement are also mixed in — editions of The Occupy Wall Street Journal, cardboard signs from Zuccotti Park, a livestream of Occupy movements across the country and short documentary films by Meerkat Media Collective and the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. The works are all arranged as a giant collage along the gallery wall, which Miller described to me as “salon style meets ADD.”
The exhibition’s title did strike me as a bit too prescriptive for a show that resists singularly defining the movement. After all, what is the true face of democracy? Luckily, artist Dread Scott, who disagreed with the show’s title, brings dissidence into the exhibition concept itself. His series of photographs that include images of lynchings in the South and casualties from the Wounded Knee Massacre expose the cruel realities of a so-called democratic system. Scott also created posters for the show that declare “We are the 99%” in several different languages that push the slogan to an international level.
In terms of reaching out to new audiences, This is What Democracy Looks Like is a powerful tool, even if it is slightly limited to the NYU community. There were several NYU students at the exhibition, many of whom have been studying Occupy Wall Street in their classes and getting inspired to visit the protests. One student, Emma Podietz, told me that the protests are “all my professors want to talk about.” She also mentioned that she noticed some students who were initially unaware or dismissive of the movement have gained new interest from learning about it at school. Michelle Persad, Podietz’s fellow classmate, even contributed to the exhibition with blank letters from the 99% to the 1% for visitors to fill in with their demands. Persad also took this project down to Zuccotti Park and has a website, Occupedia, where the letters are documented.
I asked Miller if he had faced any opposition in launching the show from Occupy Wall Street or the Arts and Culture group who tend to be wary of outside institutions speaking in their stead. Miller told me he was nervous about co-opting the movement, but didn’t feel it was important to get approval from OWS to hold the show. “They have a lot of work to do, and we have a lot to do as well. Co-opting is a worry for me, but this show spills out into the real world,” he noted.
This is What Democracy Looked Likes opened on October 28 and will be on view until November 18 at NYU Gallatin Galleries (1 Washington Place, Greenwich Village, Manhattan). Events will be held in the gallery space throughout the show, including open classes with Gallatin and NYU professors and a participatory discussion at the close of the show on November 18 at 7:30pm.