The view inside the occupied clocktower after, as Aaron Graham describes it, “someone placed the ballons near the lights and we wanted to document the space.” (click to enlarge) (all images courtesy Free Cooper Union)

The recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” may be the most internet-friendly image of a protest movement that locked itself for a week in the clocktower of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan’s Astor Place, but that wasn’t the only work being made by the eleven art students who were fed up with the school’s plans to upend a 150+ year tradition of free education.

“Part of the problem we have with the administration is that we feel they aren’t being creative at all,” says fourth-year Cooper student Aaron Graham. “We feel tuition is the least creative option, and we want creativity to be part of this process.”

YouTube video

In the midst of their attempts to raise awareness about the problems at Cooper Union and the student discontent with the way things were going, the group members filled their free hours with small creative projects. One was a spoof video that riffs on MTV’s popular Cribs television show and walks viewers through the protest conditions for the Cooper 11. Made by Aaron Graham and Tyler Berrier, the video, the only one created in the occupied space, travels through the “Peter Cooper Suite” in a deadpan way, showing off their instant coffee skillz, their antique clock, their table beds, and media center.

It’s worth noting that last year, members of the group made two other videos, “Between the Spreadsheets” by Casey Gollan and “Cooper Union Tuition” by Aaron Graham; the latter plugs into the popular Hitler Reacts meme, neither of which went viral.

“Some people thought we would have a lot of time to watch movies or something,” Graham said about their preparations for the occupation. “While others wanted to work, work, work. Since we were all artists it was natural for us to want to create things.”

“We were doing a lot, but [during] any sort of downtime we were creating,” he says. Even if finished artworks were not the final by-product of their time in the clocktower, much of what resulted from the occupation was in the form of experiments and documentation.

“Our best skill is creating narrative though art. People get excited about looking at those images. It goes against the narrative of the administration. What we made was fun, and the administration doesn’t know how to react to them,” Graham says. “In order to go against the current, you need to create wild narratives that go against the status quo.”

A few of the images that have emerged grapple with the traditional artist/subject scene. In one photograph, a female painter renders a male model holding an orange with the all-caps words, “NO TUITION.” In another photo, a male artist transforms a still life of geometric shapes and an orange into “Fuck Debt.” These images, like many of the works that were created in the clocktower, were done as part of a collective.

This artist/subject photo series, Graham says, “started as a joke on art school and having to pay for it. It is about the language the administration uses, and how they don’t understand the language of art, and they don’t know what to do with it.”

The disconnect between language, subject, and artist is evident in the images. A good education, the images seem to suggest, involves a clear understanding of things, or at least the tools to discover them yourself, but here the disunity is obvious.

Graham explains that this is the first protest movement he’s ever been a part of and that “it gets him excited about future [protest] activities.”

“Creativity is so important. Politics and art come from the same seed, creativity,” he says.

Since the protest ended, Graham says there has been no awkwardness going back to the classroom; in fact, he’s found most of the faculty quite supportive of their actions. The biggest surprise has been something else. “What we did in the space felt real, but going back to talking about art as an abstraction has been awkward.”

Protesters attempting to make a rubbing of the Peter Cooper plaque in the clocktower suite

Ballons from a collective that sent them up to the group as a gesture of support

Smartphones, an essential tool of any 21st C. protester

One of the protesters asleep

Seasons Greetings from the Cooper 11!

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.