Tag Archives: Occupy movement

Occupy Parnassus! Kirill Medvedev’s “It’s No Good”

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Occupy Parnassus!: Kirill Medvedev’s ‘It’s No Good’
By Garth Risk Hallberg
February 19, 2013

1.
In the fall of 2011, as the first protesters began assembling in Zuccotti Park, a different sort of occupation was underway in my apartment. My son had just turned one, and another kid was due in the spring. My life now consisted largely of early-morning adjunct gigs, late-night sessions banging my head against the writing desk, and afternoons measured out in the tiny spoons used to scrape the last bits of Gerber from the jar. Also: NPR. Lots of NPR.

By late September, the top of each hour brought new details about the methods and motives of “Occupy Wall Street.” Here, it seemed, was the cause I’d spent my twenties longing to throw my body behind. But now that it had materialized, there was a catch: mine was no longer the only body I was responsible for. I could take my son with me to the demonstrations, but did I really trust the NYPD to lay off the pepper spray, should he rattle the bars of our protest pen?

Plus who would take care of him if I got carted off to jail? Not his mother, whose nine-to-five job was our primary means of keeping the fridge stocked and the rent paid, and whose sick days would convert to precious maternity leave come the spring. There was always daycare, of course…but, then, as a would-be placard-carrying member of the 99%, I couldn’t even afford the hours of daycare I was already paying for. And here I ran up against the first great fallacy of the mainstream media’s OWS coverage. Of course the occupation as such was heavy on students, the unemployed, and men who looked like a cross between Santa Claus and Wavy Gravy. Stroller-pushing contingent-workers like me were constrained from spending all day and night at Zuccotti by the very conditions that made them want to do so. Thus does insecurity—financial, physical, psychological—become the stick that keeps us on the rutted path of late capitalism. (Consumer electronics being the carrot.)

Then again, another of the things too often glossed over in accounts of Occupy Wall Street is that it wasn’t a top-down program, whose output was a certain number of sleeping bags on the pavement. Rather, it was a piece of tactical hardware designed to execute any app deemed useful by its users—techno-utopian cant made collectivist flesh. This should have been apparent to anyone who spent more than half an hour down at Zuccotti. At first, you’d see the modest size of the occupation, relative to the number of cameras trained on it, and you’d think, Wait: Is this it? Then, out of nowhere, thousands of union electricians would appear, or affordable-housing advocates, or undergraduates, or, more likely, all of the above, and another drive or meeting or march would whir into motion. (As Michael Greenberg has noted in The New York Review of Books, those circuits would be reactivated after Hurricane Sandy to channel vital aid to the Rockaways.)

By October, my son and I had found our own way to take part. With his mother’s blessing, we pursued a sunshine policy, steering clear of martial-sounding or geographically marginal events in favor of those well-publicized enough to ensure my small comrade wouldn’t become another casualty on YouTube. We marched on Citigroup. We marched on JPMorgan Chase. We repaired to Zuccotti for pizza and purée, and then we marched some more. Well, I marched; he rode.

One memorable afternoon, in the company of a whole holy host of freaks and straights, aging lefties and juvie anarchists, friends from other events and perfect strangers—plus, this being a Saturday, my wife—we even took over Times Square. It was the same rainbow coalition I’d observed a decade earlier, marching against the Iraq War. In 2002, though, in the streets of D.C., everyone seemed to recognize that the switches on the war-making machinery had already been thrown. You could sense the inertia in the way the message decayed into calls for the abolition of the WTO and the World Bank, the liberation of Palestine and Mumia. Those chants that managed to break through the discord rang hollow off executive buildings emptied for the weekend.

By contrast, the message of Occupy Wall Street was so clear and so obvious as to subsume any ancillary concerns. Obviousness, in fact, may be why Occupy Wall Street proved such an effective counterweight to the Tea Party movement, with only a fraction of the money and organization and time. It takes great resources of all three to persuade Americans that Keynesian deficit spending is the source of our ills, because it’s total horseshit, whereas it takes very little to remind people of what they’ve already discovered in the most grinding, empirical way to be true: As an allocator of resources, our economic system is needlessly unjust, and getting more so by the day. And when the hoary old cry went up from Times Square—”We are unstoppable; another world is possible”—this, too, felt self-evident, assertion and evocation in a single stroke. For here was a halter-topped woman with frizzy hair leading thousands of people in social democratic chants from atop someone’s shoulders, and here was the commercial center of the world coming disobediently to a halt. Here were tourists taking buttons from engagé tweens and affixing them to jackets that would soon travel back to every corner of America. And here it all was again, up on the giant news screens overhead, the peak of a “high and beautiful wave” (to crib from Hunter S. Thompson). Under all those lights, we seemed to be waking, however briefly, from a long bad dream.

2.
Notwithstanding the Monday-morning harrumphs of the commentariat, that autumn of idealism has left behind consequences of the most solid, realpolitik kind. The ongoing debate over whether creditors—i.e., capital—or borrowers—i.e., you and me—will bear the losses of the Great Recession has been permanently rebalanced, to the great annoyance of the business class. (Last December’s $43-million PR push was not so much about how to “Fix the Debt” as about whom to affix it to.) On its own terms, though, the Occupy project remains incomplete. When we argue over whether to set top marginal tax rates at 35% or 39.6%, or what to do about the sequester, or the class politics of Girls, we have turned from debates about an unjust system to debates within it. And though the possibility of “another world” has been preserved from total eclipse, it now seems hazy again, as if glimpsed from the far side of sleep. We need some outside force to jolt us back awake.

All of which is a very roundabout way of trying to explain why It’s No Good, the first major English-language publication of the writing of Kirill Medvedev, is so necessary, and so timely. Medvedev is a Moscow-based poet in his late 30s, and the book, the latest entry in Ugly Duckling Presse’s redoubtable Eastern European Poets Series (and the first to be published jointly with N+1), assembles English translations of his most important “poems/essays/actions” from over the last fifteen years. This was a period of radicalization for Medvedev, and the work amounts to a guerilla attack on the stagnation of Russian cultural life in the new millennium. By itself, this would make It’s No Good an invaluable document. But for readers beyond the old Iron Curtain, there’s a further twist of the knife: as with the best science fiction, the outrageous world Medvedev brings so vividly to life starts to sound awfully like our own.

An introduction by editor Keith Gessen sets the scene for Medvedev’s evolution. In “the years of mature Putinism, between about 2003 and 2008,” he explains, the atmosphere in Russia was one of “boredom, suffocation, and surrender…”

Nothing happened. No one wanted anything to happen. “Stability” was the word of the day and in service of this stability people were willing to give up a great deal. The liberal opposition that still made appearances in the New York Times not only had no real presence…[but was] also permanently discredited.


In the texts that follow, Medvedev will link this surrender to two mutually reinforcing phenomena, one political, one aesthetic. On one side was a problem of ignorance: Members of his generation, the first to come of age after the fall of Communism, “spent the 1990s not really knowing what politics was,” he writes. “We lived outside it; we never believed it could affect our private lives.” On the other side was a problem of sophistication: literature, which might have enlarged those private lives, had become content merely to reproduce them.

An exemplar here was the poet and impresario Dmitri Kuzmin, who published Medvedev’s early poems in his magazine, Vavilon…and who hovers over It’s No Good as a sort of Oedipal-Hegelian father figure, to be rebelled against and absorbed. A long, valedictory “essay-memoir” two-thirds of the way through the book may put some readers in mind of McSweeney’s circa 2003:

The central literary tendency of Vavilon was the so-called “new sincerity”: the appeal to personal experience (childhood; romantic and sexual encounters; family life) to the exclusion of social and political experience, justifying this by appealing to its authenticity (personal, emotional, etc.)


Of course, Russia’s liberalizing culture industry had no more difficulty assimilating Vavilon’s “authenticity” than the Politburo did assimilating social realism. As Medvedev sees it, this was art as gesture, as narcotic, as commodity, “a series of irresponsible infantile games and so-called independent intellectual proclamations – covering the terrain specifically assigned to such proclamations.”

The poems that make up the bulk of It’s No Good burst out of that terrain like bombshells. Superficially, their debt to Kuzmin is obvious. Medvedev’s voice, as translated by Gessen and others, is resolutely direct, colloquial, and personal. At times, it sounds like a Muscovite Frank O’Hara. “I don’t know why / I decided to work / at the nightclub Sexton / when I was eighteen,” begins one poem. Says another: “I really like when / a series of arches in moscow run /one after the other /creating their own kind of tunnel / out of arches.” As with O’Hara, the specificity of reference almost overwhelms argument; viewed from a certain angle, Medvedev’s poems might seem merely a catalogue of people, buildings, and foodstuffs signifying life for a young cosmopolite. Yet read him at any length (the poems are rarely under three pages, and sometimes swell to dozens), and it becomes impossible to confuse his urbanism with urbanity, or, as he puts it, “dignified aloofness” to the wider world. Medvedev complains, of one Vavilon-affiliated contemporary: “a person in his poems is always / returning from work / moving around the glaring twilit / cityscape / given shape by information streams.” His own Moscow resists such streamlined shapes. It is “glaring” in a different sense, made discontinuous by eruptions of frustration, pessimism, and rage. One moment, it’s true, we may be among the office towers, cruising through a catalogue

of everyone who turned out to be a computer genius
of everyone who became an assistant
to editors-in-chief
or a designer
for major fashion magazines….


But then suddenly, we are hearing

of all the half-drunk and stunted intellectuals
who (unlike me)
matured too early,
then burned out,
of everyone who found work in the morgue
of everyone who did time in jail
then died of an overdose
of everyone who worked at
the politician kirienko’s campaign headquarters
and then joined his permanent team.


The closing descent from threnody back to sarcasm bespeaks the scale of Medvedev’s loss of faith in that distinctly Russian class formation, the “intelligentsia.” These were the people who were supposed to lead his country out of its slumber and instead discovered a taste for Ambien. But the dramatic expansion of the point-of-view, the deepening of emotion, and the Beatnik anaphora holding it all together produce a countervailing movement: One feels the quickening of an almost spiritual belief. Medvedev wants his poetry not only to “appeal to personal experience,” but to transfigure it, to break it open, to disclose what is underneath. And what is underneath, he insists, is always already political. The meticulously name-checked fruits of bourgeois existence—parties, nightclubs, careers, and even much of contemporary art—are underwritten by exploitation, militarism, and a more nebulous brand of postmodern unfreedom. Reader, you are hereby called to consciousness. Or at least deprived of an alibi.

Alongside Medvedev’s messianic streak runs a notable impatience with the formal strictures of Russian lyric poetry—the elegant prosody of Anna Akhmatova or his beloved Joseph Brodsky. Gessen’s introduction presents these tendencies as merely coincident. But really, I think, one compels the other. Trained at Moscow’s famed Gorky Literary Institute, Medvedev has a considerable, if well-disguised, capacity for artifice—for finding Pushkin in the punkish. Still, his conception of poetry is one of vision, rather than of craft. This helps explain the porousness (some might say sameness) of these largely untitled poems, which tend to flow together into a single Poem. It also helps explain their peculiar rhythms, and their general aversion to beauty. They gather force not by rhetorical turns, but by incantation, as Medvedev strains “to see without distortion by one’s social position, without limitations by one’s artistic milieu.” The results are frequently startling:

we dance around others’ misfortunes like mischievous wolves like some sort of
lascivious bats in a frenzy
we make our way toward them by the light of bonfires on the outskirts of town
through desolate fields of garbage
we fall on them swoop down throw ourselves at them with all of our might oozing
the syrupy poison of empathy.

Which isn’t to say that the artist-monk can’t be funny, because Medvedev’s puckish streak runs deep. It surfaces sometimes at the expense of others (“as a janitor / I was always beyond suspicion”), but more often at the expense of his own ambitions. One of my favorite poems in the collection concludes on a note of perfectly serious ridiculousness, or ridiculous seriousness:

misha is going to do everything right
in this life,
whereas I’m going to continue sitting here
deep in shit
with my principles.


3.
In 2004, Medvedev’s principles led him to make an unusual move: he renounced copyright to his own oeuvre. Henceforth, he declared in his “Manifesto on Copyright,” his poems would cease to be grist for the culture industry. They would appear on his website, and on facebook and LiveJournal, but reprinting them “in any anthologies, collections, or other kinds of publications” would be “consider[ed]…a disgusting manipulative action by one or another cultural force.” They were to be published

ONLY AS A SEPARATE BOOK, collected and edited according to the desires of the publisher, released in a PIRATE EDITION, that is to say, WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR, WITHOUT ANY CONTRACTS OR AGREEMENTS.


The “Manifesto on Copyright” marks a hinge moment in the book, and in Medvedev’s career. Immediately before comes the longest, finest poem in the book (“Europe”) and an incendiary essay called “My Fascism.” The poems that follow the manifesto are thinner—at times they feel like Medvedev doing Medvedev—but the critical essays, by way of compensation, grow richer and more prophetic.

In the piece on Kuzmin and especially in “Literature Will Be Tested,” from 2007, Medvedev begins to articulate a dialectical vision of a new global humanism. Its acolytes, he argues, must preserve “postmodernism’s irrepressible critical outlook.” At the same time, Medvedev departs from the main body of post-’68 critical thought by insisting on the value of “grand narratives and global concepts.” To forego them, he says, is to accede to “an idealized consensus between the goals of ‘diversity’ and the interests of the global marketplace.”

And as he pursues the links between the stagnation he’s been confronting in Moscow and the larger, global situation, parallels that have heretofore been sub rosa become explicit. For Russia isn’t the only place where the notion of a life beyond politics gained traction after the collapse of Communism. “The end of history,” we called this period in the U.S. And what were the results? Open-ended war, accelerated environmental destruction, and the further consolidation of class power. History, history, and more history. Meanwhile, “the idea of ‘contemporary art’” grew ever more attenuated, as every imaginable gesture of “authenticity,” literary or otherwise, became a fungible commodity—one whose sale or purchase gets broadcast to your social network. “You can’t change the world that way,” Medvedev reminds us. “You can’t rise to the next level of existence that way.”

After the bracing cynicism of some of the poems, this formulation might sound preachy. But as a craftsman and as a human being, Medvedev knows he must make the political personal, even as the arrow also runs the other way. Taken as a whole, then, It’s No Good is less a sermon on change than a narrative enactment of it. In aesthetic terms, the distinctions among poems and essays and actions come to seem as provisional as those subtitular backslashes suggest; there’s criticism in the poetry, poetry in the criticism, and action in all of it. And in political terms, we get a portrait of the poet’s awakening to futility where he’d thought there was power, and vice versa. The thing might as well be a Bolaño novel…albeit one with a happier ending.

In another of his more unguarded moments, Medvedev confesses

I think it was genuine contact–
when two completely different people
begin to understand one another
in my opinion this
is a real event
in art and
in life.


It’s No Good is just such an event. It awakens us to the contingency of contemporary reality’s ceaseless argument for itself, and to what might still be possible outside it. Archimedes famously said something like, Give me a place to stand, and a long enough lever, and I’ll move the world. Kirill Medvedev and his translators have given American readers another place to stand, a kind of Zuccotti of the mind. Now if only we can keep our grip on the lever.

Bonus Link: Four poems from It’s No Good

Image source: dominic bartolini

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Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy

Editor’s Note. By way of introducing our readers to Tidal, a journal and web site focused on the theory and strategy of the Occupy Wall Street movement, we are reprinting, below, Conor Tomás Reed’s excellent article on the movement, public education, and the right to the city, from the Tidal web site. You can find out how to donate to Tidal here. (Thanks to Comrade O. for the heads-up.)

_______

On the City as University: Occupy and the Future of Public Education
Conor Tomás Reed

For quite a long time now, we precariously situated students and faculty in CUNY have been practicing the art of what Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls “poor theory”—“maximizing the possibilities inherent in the minimum… being extremely creative and experimental in order to survive.” Unable to isolate ourselves within the velvety quicksand of armchairs and seminar table solipsism, we have instead pursued a kind of crowd scholarship that jettisons “interest” for “involvement.” Discussions among crowds of people—in and out of assemblies, street marches, virtual forums, shared meals, space-transformations, and yes, even jail stints—have assembled critical lessons and experiences not yet valued by scholastic frameworks of singularly rendered knowledge. Thousands have co-authored this document itself.

We are engaged in a process of defending our educational and social futures from a threadbare past and present. US student debt has surpassed $1 trillion—a third of this debt is held by graduate students. Crippling tuition increases and education cuts in some cases triple tuition and erase whole departments. Meanwhile, our campuses become increasingly militarized. As recently spotlighted in UC-Davis and CUNY’s Baruch and Brooklyn Colleges, administrators unabashedly welcome the surveillance, intimidation, and brutal arrests of students and faculty who peacefully dissent. But after our pulses shudder from being followed by armed officers, after our indignation roils from reading lies that presidents and chancellors print about our political acts, and after our bruised bodies heal from being treated like enemy combatants on our own campuses, we gather in crowds again because we have no other choice. In spite of these grim circumstances, we’re also witnessing and creating major explosions of resistance through education movements across the world—Quebec, Chile, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Spain, England, California, and around CUNY. Suppression of dissent is being met in resourceful ways. These struggles have demonstrated the power of creative action to mobilize millions—including street theater, public visual art, alternative models and sites of education, music, viral performance videos, and more. For activists in NYC, a few significant developments have arisen out of our own work—to conceive of education itself as a potential form of direct action, to rethink how we approach the call to strike, and to focus more acutely on dialectically connecting student/faculty work with wider community efforts at social change.

In the City University of New York and around the metropolis more broadly, our experiences in the Occupy movement taught us decades of lessons in a matter of months. As Tidal readers know, many CUNY folks were an active part of Occupy Wall Street, helping to maintain a multitude of working groups during the swift upsurge in city-wide radicalization. We facilitated thousands-strong public conversations and direct action trainings, built the People’s Library, and connected a global art and design community through Occuprint. At the CUNY Graduate Center, we began to hold regular general assemblies using the OWS model of direct participatory democracy. We claimed campus spaces that had otherwise not been used for political discourse (such as the recent week-long “Transforming Assembly” interactive exhibition at the James Gallery), and encouraged deeper undergrad students/grad students/faculty collaboration (including multiple open letter campaigns).

We worked on outside free public education initiatives, such as the People’s University series in Washington Square Park, as well as multiple-week open forums on the general strike leading up to May Day, all the while engaging in constant discussions of how to alter our pedagogies and institutional structures. Students and faculty explored consensual direct democracy in our classroom settings. This semester, several graduate student adjuncts team-taught a course at Brooklyn College entitled “Protest and Revolution: Occupy Your Education,” in which the students and facilitators together shaped how each class was used. 

And yet, after the White House-directed nationwide eviction of Occupy encampments this winter, the movement’s future was by no means foreseeable. Furthermore, when the May Day general strike call came out, a serious schism arose in activist circles in NYC and around the United States about whether to frame our efforts as a general strike when we knew that this was an actual impossibility. We queried whether this political action term could be used more as an act of prescriptive manifestation, rather than of descriptive demonstration. Students and faculty in the CUNY movement decided to build for the day with affinity for the language of striking, but not going to such lengths as setting up picket lines at our schools. We considered more fruitful ways to engage in a strike action that wriggled out of the negation-driven rhetoric that dominated initial May Day calls. “No/stop/don’t/shut down” left very limited visions of what the day would actually look like. We recognized that Occupy’s spring coming out party couldn’t be simply a long laundry list of what we opposed.

In early 2012, several graduate students wrote a short piece entitled “Five Theses on the Student Strike” in Occupy Wall Street’s Tidal journal, which set useful initial terms of the kind of affirmational, go-power, strike-as-on-switch tactics and political vision we wanted to create for the day. We sought to invoke the most dynamic and capacious political rhetoric to envision our specific goal of educational direct action, while using the weeks leading up to May 1 to theoretically and practically build for this, instead of standing still to debate whether the day’s actions should be called a strike or not.

By the time May Day had arrived, we had amassed a coalition of students and faculty from almost a dozen schools to produce the Free University: a “collective educational experiment” that ended up drawing almost 2000 participants in what is now delightfully considered the sleeper hit of the day’s event in NYC. We wanted to provide the best of Zuccotti Park’s legacy—unpermitted reclamation of public space, heterogeneous gatherings for radical discussion, and, what is still one of the best organizing tools out there, free food. The big secret is that around forty people coordinated this event within about a month. Our call for anyone to sign up to hold any kind of class or skill share was met with a deluge of exciting workshop submissions. Our call for anyone to attend meant that tuition, ID cards, costly books, security checkpoints, and many other chains tied to higher education were easily dissolved.

Educators conducted over forty workshops, classes, and collective experiences during the five hours we occupied and transformed the park. Over a dozen faculty members contractually prohibited from striking moved their entire classes off campuses and into the park in solidarity with the call to strike. Attendees shared and learned from front-lines movement experiences on occupying foreclosed housing, student organizing and debate skills, indigenous environmentalism, open access academic publishing, and anti-capitalist approaches to math and science. Collective poetry readings brushed up alongside figure drawings and collage projects. We welcomed such luminaries as Drucilla Cornell, David Harvey, Neil Smith, Ben Katchor, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Chris Hedges to join large crowds that gathered and mixed freely.

However, our ambitions mustn’t be misunderstood as creating a Free University to be a temporary utopian enclave, full stop. We promoted these outside classrooms as areas for generating rooted political content that could be catalyzed into movement activity. Indeed, at 3pm, our whole Free U campus marched to the main Union Square rally location, and then later swarmed the financial district, book shields and banners in hand. To focus on education itself as direct action suggests that we can transform public space into mobile classrooms—in public parks and community centers, as well as in street intersections, board rooms, and bridges. Future Free University initiatives can include radical think-tanks, hosting classes inside other classes, projecting our stories on various walls around the city, and performing pop-up Free U’s at annual city-wide events. We’re establishing the foundations for future attempts at dual power with such projects as People’s Boards of Education that decide and implement our own education plans while refusing those dictated from above.

Crowd scholarship of education outside walls can focus on such anti-disciplinary subjects as the compositional practice of street writing. Science lessons can observe as well as counteract neighborhood environmental devastation. Social geography can be taught through power-mapping areas of surveillance and gentrification, as well as routes for resistance. Poetry writing as a social and bodily practice can be differently imagined when we see ourselves as stanzas marching in the street, enjambing past police barricades, and breathing new life into words made collectively resonant through mic-checks. We can crowd-source syllabi in becoming students of urban revolutionary life—featuring Michel de Certeau, Jane Jacobs, Samuel Delany, and David Harvey alongside community texts and memoirs that academia has long overlooked. Harvey demonstrates the reflexive power in embracing our entire cities as universities when he says: “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”

This work must also boomerang back into the academy walls in the process of ultimately decentering university spaces as the sole, tightly guarded sites where knowledge is made and trafficked. Each conference is a space to differently occupy, establish networks, and debate living strategies.  Each thesis and dissertation is an opportunity for multi-author, multi-modal scholarship to be evaluated by a committee of peers. Cross-department/cross-borough gatherings and actions can replace the vacuous insularity of academia. Our libraries can become true active repositories of 21st century movement life that is being daily archived in posts, streams, pamphlets, and feeds. Such participatory archive sources as occupycunynews.org and Interference Archive are excellent models for librarian archivists today.

Moreover, faculty nationwide will have to heed UC-Davis professor Nathan Brown’s recent challenge: “Student activists have understood the simple point that forms of action which do not pose an immediate and concrete barrier to the normal functions of the university will be ignored, deferred, and displaced. So they organize occupations and blockades. If faculty want to confront the totalitarian conduct of administrations, we will also have to organize and participate in occupations and blockades.” His jibe that faculty can organize international conferences, but not a twenty-person faculty sit-in, demonstrates how academics’ priorities will have to shift and grow, or else risk social irrelevance. I welcome our own CUNY professors to meet this challenge by considering the incredible power that mass faculty direct actions would contribute to our movement.

Occupy is at a crossroad, its development is not inevitable, we can become another mysterious blip (especially as the election season approaches), or we can do the patient and painstaking work of building a mass movement that will flourish in the face of what is an inevitable reality of further violence, crackdowns, and surveillance by the state. Academia has a role to perform in Occupy’s future, but one that employs both a step forward and a step aside. Academia must cede intellectual space for community members—the exiles of our current university systems—to raise their own critical voices while we listen and learn. And academia must also reconcile its own demons of the past 30+ years of significant yet extremely disillusioned and defensive theoretical positions. The current international spotlight on higher education can offer us the chance to make dramatic advances towards community control of our daily lives. Now that’s the  kind of education no school but ourselves can provide.

First printed in CUNY Graduate Center’s The Advocate.

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Occupy Everything (St. Lambrecht, Austria)

Occupy Everything
An exhibition organized by Oliver Ressler
for REGIONALE12 in St. Lambrecht, Austria, June 23–July 22, 2012

The financial and economic crisis intensified the related redistribution from the bottom up, this brought forth new protest movements in 2011: the Arab Spring, the movement of the squares in Spain and Greece, and the Occupy movement starting from the USA. Although these movements do not directly communicate with each other, they do have something in common: they are regionally active, non-hierarchical movements that reject representation and use direct democracy to make decisions. Occupying central public places serves as a catalyst to form and develop political projects and working groups. Successful occupations in one place can often inspire occupations in other cities.

The movements of the squares generally do not focus on particular grievances, but organize against the general way in which society and economy are controlled against the wishes and desires of the 99 percent.

The exhibition Occupy Everything in the pavilion at St. Lambrecht brings together projects that come directly from the square movements or deal directly with them.

The filmmaker Stefano Savona focused his film Tahrir, Liberation Square (F/I/Egypt, 2011) on the uprisings in Cairo, which ended with the resignation of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Savona systematically took the perspective of the insurgents at Tahrir, which he followed for several days without the camera’s view leaving the square even once. He makes tangible the conditions of a very specific time and place in the struggle that took place in Tahrir, which has since become synonymous with the possibility of successfully changing a social reality from below.

The New York artists collective Not An Alternative develops works to be used directly for occupations, demonstrations and other activities of Occupy Wall Street. They developed tactical and symbolic infrastructure that include eviction defense shields, multipurpose tents (“mili-tents”) and the yellow and black tape with “Occupy” lettering spread throughout New York. The works show the importance of practical artworks in the struggles for social change.

A central element in the pavilion is a 10-meter-long wall covered from floor to ceiling with 52 posters of the Occupy movement collected by Occuprint. The posters from around the globe have served to mobilize and disseminate political opinions; they express the amazing multiplicity of the movement. The posters come from activists, political groups and artists (including Paul Chan, Dread Scott, Noel Douglas).

The wall of posters has an opening that leads into the projection space of the 3-channel video installation Take The Square (2012) by Oliver Ressler. Three video projections show films of discussions that Ressler initiated with activists from 15M in Madrid, the Syntagma Square movement in Athens and Occupy Wall Street in New York. The video installation commissioned for REGIONALE12 re-enacts the working groups of the square movements; it deals with issues of organization, horizontal decision-making processes in the assemblies and the meaning and function of occupation of public spaces.

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Manifesto of the Occupy Movement in Russia

The organizing committee of the June 12 opposition march and rally in Moscow refused to let members of the Occupy movement read their manifesto onstage. Activists assembled a mini-rally at The March of the Millions and, using the “human microphone,” read out their manifesto along with sympathetic anarchists.

The text we are going to read aloud was composed collectively and publicly by members of the Occupy movement.

On May 7 we took to the streets of our cities and remained there. Moscow, Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Kaliningrad. When we were illegally detained by the police, when the riot cops chased us away, we returned again to our streets, we occupied them once and for all in order to liberate them from the violence of the authorities. This is our city! This is our country!

We took to the boulevards and squares, and began living together, setting aside ideologies and disagreements. We organized ourselves. We got field kitchens, security and public awareness campaigns up and running. We set up camps at various points in the city to protest day and night.

We learned to negotiate with one another and make decisions at General Assemblies, decisions that give every individual opinion the right to be heard and to influence the decision of the majority. We made mistakes, suffered divisions and came together again, for we had no teachers and no one to help us except ourselves.

Over this month of hard daily work we have gained practical experience: we have learned to organize ourselves and solve problems independently.

We do not trust the authorities. We do no trust the laws they pass, and we do not expect someone to come along and write better laws behind closed doors and make sure they are enforced without our involvement.

But we trust ourselves: this is how direct popular democracy is born. A democracy without leaders whom we only know from TV screens, leaders who are somewhere far away, while we are right here. A democracy without leaders who forget about us as soon as they have clawed their way to the top.

You cannot change the system by acting the way the system does. The goal of our self-organization is to build a different political system, a system based on the principles of horizontality and democracy.

Only the opportunity for each person to influence how decisions are made will enable us to live in our country the way we want to live.

Do we want Russia to join the WTO?

Do we want to live under the new law on demonstrations?

Do we want to have commercialized education and medical care?

Will we continue to let ourselves be duped during elections?

Or do we not want all this?

Or can we take to the streets and begin acting independently? Right here, right now, without waiting for help from the authorities or media personalities?

We can make our own education by organizing free lectures, seminars and discussions. Make our own decisions and prove ourselves by getting things done. Make our own public television rather than waiting for Channel One to tell the truth. Come to municipal governments with ready-made solutions rather than waiting for them to figure out how to improve our lives. Form cells on the ground that will organize society around them and become district councils. Take to the streets with public awareness campaigns, telling people about the crimes of the regime and how to stop them.

Each of us who begins doing something in their cities, in their districts, lays the foundations of self-organization along with their friends and neighbors.

We are asked, “If not Putin, then who?”

We reply, “Who if not us?”

We ourselves, our self-organization, are the powers that be!

Occupy in order to liberate!

(The original manifesto in Russian has been posted here.)

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Notes from Blockupy Frankfurt

edu-factory.org
Notes from Blockupy Frankfurt
Monday, June 11, 2012

by SANDRO MEZZADRA
May 22, 2012

1. This is what democracy looks like

The meeting, on Thursday May 17, is in Paulsplatz, a place full of significance in German political history. Here (in the Paulskirche) people met after the March revolution of the 1848 constituent assembly that proposed the first German constitution before being overwhelmed by the reaction. Many of the protestors that approach the plaza in small groups have another Constitution in mind, that of 1949 federal Germany, and they carry signs recalling the articles about fundamental rights. For two days, Frankfurt lives a grotesque state of exception, with the consequent suspension of fundamental rights, principally the rights to demonstrate and freely express dissent, in theory (and for obvious reasons) strongly protected in Germany.

The concentration in Paulsplatz has also been prohibited, called for by a coalition of associations in defense of basic rights. When we meet in the streets in groups of a few hundred, the police shut down all access. Every time that someone speaks through a megaphone, the police loudspeakers repeat that the rally is prohibited, the power of decibels choking the voice of protest.

A few hours later, while groups of protesters are surrounded by police in other parts of the city, many of them detained and driven away from Frankfurt, in the city’s central square (the Römer) three hundred people manage to come together. A tent is erected and suddenly it is made clear that the police won’t tolerate such a thing. Thousands of agents immediately surround the plaza, they intervene forcefully, picking each protester off the ground, carrying them out of the plaza. Many of us continue showing the police the Constitution, the adrenaline of the men and women in uniform, children and old people being dragged out, someone ends up hurt. All of this to dissolve a peaceful sit-in.

These scenes are repeated on Friday but this time the police can’t stop a group of protesters from occupying a small space in front of the fences erected to protect the headquarters of the European Central Bank. The police pressure continues to be suffocating but anyone who has managed to make it here can console themselves with the view of Frankfurt’s financial district apparently paralyzed. A first account begins to circulate that will be used by the historic liberal newspaper “Frankfurter Rundschau,” after Saturday’s protest: the bankers have shut the banks, the police have blocked the city…

Mixed feelings after the first two days in Frankfurt: the press’s reaction is decidedly positive, more than a few will write in the main newspapers that Blockupy Frankfurt has won. Apocalyptic scenes constructed by the police to justify the massive security measures (five million euros, a considerable amount, even in Germany) are superposed with images of old women being grabbed by agents dressed as Robocops. Someone joked about Merkel’s indignation over human rights violations in Ukraine. On the other hand, the sensation is of having participated in a staged event, and, at the same time, in an experiment. There couldn’t be a more effective representation, in the heart of Europe’s financial district, of the gulf between capitalism and democracy, which is one of the themes that underlines the crisis in this part of the world. The crisis of capitalism’s legitimacy in the economic crisis has been made clear in Frankfurt in all of its potential violence, with a kind of experimental anticipation of what could happen if the celebrated “German model” begins to fall apart.

“This is their democracy,” chanted the protesters on the streets of Frankfurt. A slogan with a double meaning: “their” democracy is the police’s state of siege, “our” democracy is the real one, that of the encampments and the Occupy movement, and it is what feeds resistance and struggle in and against the crisis. There weren’t many of us in Frankfurt on Thursday and Friday: many buses were stopped at the city’s entrance and sent back, the climate of fear created in the previous weeks has certainly had its “effectiveness,” and every time you moved you physically felt the limit imposed by the police presence. But the determination and even the joy of those that were there was a great expression of their consciousness of being part of a much larger movement, materially building a horizon of a radical alternative to the crisis.

2. A-anti-anticapitalista

The day started early on Saturday, with meetings and preparation for the demonstration, the only authorized demonstration among all the initiatives planned by the Blockupy Frankfurt coalition. Once we arrived to the concentration, it was clear it would be a large protest. Buses and trains arrived from the Frankfurt region, from all of Germany, from across Europe. There are the banners of Attac and Linke, some trade unions (especially of services, verd.di), anti-nuclear ecologists, but above all young people. The atmosphere is serene, joyful, but there is also much concern: they are saying that the police will do anything to provoke, to obtain “images” that justify the state of emergency, that would somehow erase the images from Thursday in Römer….

That’s what is repeated during the demonstration. When the “anti-capitalist bloc” joins, the police surround it, attempting to break the protest in two. But this time they can’t: Attac and Linke, who find themselves in the back and at the head of the “anti-capitalist bloc,” reject every attempt by the police to separate the “peaceful” protesters from the “violent” ones. For hours the demonstration travels the streets of Frankfurt and arrives intact to the square where it’s scheduled to end. More than 25,000 protesters (German, therefore accurate, numbers) give a different meaning to the actions of the previous days, and above all, represent an optimal base for a political gamble over the future of the Blockupy movement in Germany.

“A-anti-anticapitalista” is the chant that’s repeated throughout the demonstration, first from the anti-capitalist bloc (the most numerous) and then by everyone. A slogan that’s maybe too “basic” but acquires a precise meaning in light of what’s happened in Frankfurt during the previous weeks and in general during the European crisis: the “real democracy” of the encampments and the Occupy movement can only qualify itself inside the anti-capitalist struggle. Today if we are witnessing a tendency toward a divergence between capitalism and democracy, the reinvention of democracy – far from being located in the sphere of “pure politics” – has to pass through a radical critique of capitalism.

3. Solidarität

As soon as the Blockupy Frankfurt proposal began to circulate, I began thinking about what was important in that proposal: the reason that it would be worthwhile to go, was precisely because the mobilization was in Frankfurt. The reopening of the initiative of the movement in Germany seemed to me essential from the point of view of struggles in Europe. The rupture of the consensus that the “German model” enjoyed, the development of conflicts and political initiatives around the cracks, like the “reform” of the welfare state put in march by the red-green government (the so-called Hartz IV), the politicization of the precarity that is so widespread today, above all for the youth… all of these are essential steps for the construction and consolidation of a European space of struggles. Obviously, this is not to deny that the impact of the crisis in Germany is different from in the rest of Europe. On the contrary, I think that one of the most urgent tasks is to reconstruct the crisis’s geography, the heterogeneity of its modes of manifestation and its different effects in different contexts (in Europe and at the global level). But this “cartography of heterogeneity” of the crisis’s effects has to be combined with an understanding of its systemic dynamics, of the interdependence based on which it unfolds. Above all in Europe.

From this point of view, the events of Frankfurt represent, without a doubt, as the comrades from Interventionistische Linke (http://www.dazwischengehen.org/) write, “a beginning.” There was important European participation, despite the emergency situation in which we had to move, and there were important moments of discussion between activists from different countries. However, we cannot deny that in the weeks prior to the days of action, communication was difficult; there were continuous problems of “translation,” in the literal sense (banally, the majority of the documents that circulated before and during the days of Blockupy Frankfurt were only in German) but also in the broader sense, in the difficulty to translate not only different languages, struggles, cultures and practices but also profoundly heterogeneous experiences of the crisis. In a way, we can say that in respect to the most recent cycle of struggle of of the global movement of the beginning of the century (being more “rooted” in specific situations), there has been a recession in Frankfurt in terms of working in network and of activism at a “transnational” level. This seems to me where we need to begin to work immediately, as much in the practical construction of transnational encounters for discussion and organization as in the more general problem of a “space” for political action.

From this point of view, the rhetoric of “solidarity” (with the Greek people, the Spanish people, the Italians…), dominant in both the planning and during the days of action in Frankfurt, is decidedly problematic. On the one hand, it proposes a language (that of proletarian internationalism) today that – far from being able to be reactivated in its classical terms – indicates the terrain where it is necessary to put to work the movements’ power of invention and theoretical production and, on the other hand, it suffers, limiting itself to a mechanical reversal in terms of “solidarity,” the representation of power relations within the European Union. The idea of the dislocation that is needed today, the invention of a new common area of struggles and movements, ends up being overshadowed.

4. Blockupy Europe

The days in Frankfurt highlight the problem of Europe, of a new European dimension of the movements’ struggles and actions. Within this dimension, as we have said many times before, we can (and we should) experiment with a combination of rooting the struggles in specific metropolitan areas and the construction of a space in which these same struggles can multiply their force and begin to construct an alternative political program. I’m well aware that this is only stating the terms of the problem, not a solution. But it’s a statement that should first assert its political realism: it’s only through the struggles’ capacity for dislocation within a European dimension that we can oppose the growth of the old and new right-wings in their attempts to “occupy” the spaces and rhetoric of national sovereignty; it is only within the European dimension that we can aim to build a new favorable relation of force with financial capital. In Frankfurt, also from this point of view, we have participated in a new “beginning,” we have seen the potential and difficulties. Already in the coming weeks, before falling to the times of crisis around the Greek question, we will not lack opportunities to test ourselves.

Originally in Italian: http://uninomade.org/note-da-blockupy-francoforte/

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Everything Falls Apart (Sydney)

Artspace, Sydney

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Tony Garifalakis, “Anti Christs” (detail), 2012.
C-type print. Courtesy of the artist.

Everything Falls Apart
Part I: 
27 June–5 August 2012
Opening: Wednesday, 27 June, 6pm

Part II: 
10 August–16 September 2012
Opening: Thursday, 9 August, 6pm

Artspace, Sydney
43–51 Cowper Wharf Road
Woolloomooloo NSW 2011
Sydney, Australia
Hours: Office 10–6pm, Mon–Fri
Gallery 11–5pm, Tues–Sun

T +61 2 9356 0555
artspace@artspace.org.au
www.artspace.org.au

Part I: Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck in collaboration with Media Farzin, Jem Cohen, Phil Collins, Sarah Goffman, and Sarah Morris
Part II: Vernon Ah Kee, Zanny Begg & Oliver Ressler, Jem Cohen, Tony Garifalakis, and Merata Mita
Curators:
Mark Feary and Blair French

Everything Falls Apart brings together several significant works by international and Australian artists presented over two exhibitions. Overall, the project focuses on works examining the collapse of ideological and political systems—actual, imagined, desired—be this via specific events or through broader consideration of the dissolution of or confrontation with capitalist, colonial, or totalitarian regimes. The works often draw on existing footage, personal recollection, and reconstitution. They form around relationships between the individual and the mass, felt or articulated through interwoven conversation, testimony, and narrative.

Part I clusters works that act as reflective analysis in and of the aftermath of system disintegration, including ecological and cultural belief systems. Part II homes in on the moments and territories of conflict—the abrasive meeting of institutionalised power and its counter-energies and structures. With an emphasis upon video work, woven together by new installation interventions, common threads connecting these distinct works become apparent: failings of the state, crumbling ideologies, dissolving authoritative measures of control, the generative energies and collective impulses of anti-institutional collective cultural and social identity, the failings of history as both efficacious event narrative and discursive form, the individual as both the subject of and counterforce to the dominance of the mass.

Everything Falls Apart will be presented at Artspace in the organisation’s twentieth year in the Gunnery building fronting Sydney Harbour in Wolloomooloo. The exhibition series forges connections between the work of major international artists such as Phil Collins, Sarah Morris, and Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck (in collaboration with Media Farzin) and projects by Australia-based Vernon Ah Kee, Zanny Begg, Tony Garifalakis, and Sarah Goffman. The two parts of the project are linked by a number of film works by American filmmaker Jem Cohen, with Part I of Everything Falls Apart featuring Cohen’s Gravity Hill Newsreel series, and Part II presenting the film Little Flags (1991–2000). Everything Falls Apart will also feature three screenings of late New Zealand filmmaker Merata Mita’s Patu! (1983).

Symposium
In association with the exhibition, Artspace and the National Institute for Experimental Arts, University of New South Wales will present a one-day symposium, Another World, on 17 August 2012. Another World will ask how twenty-first-century global crises—whether financial, environmental, social, or political—have transformed the context of art practice and analysis. In the face of the Occupy movements, the Arab Spring, climate change, and environmental disaster, what new aesthetic tactics and strategies are emerging? How do new ways of operating challenge existing modes of representation, exhibition-making, and theoretical analysis? Do we need to rethink our disciplinary practices in response to the demands of the momentous events that shape contemporaneity or the new everyday? Participants will include Jill Bennett (National Institute for Experimental Art, UNSW), Blair French (Artspace), Nicholas Mirzoeff (New York University), Kim Simon (Gallery TPW, Toronto), and Terry Smith (University of Pittsburgh).

Artspace is supported by the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State, and Territory Governments. Artspace is assisted by the New South Wales Government through Arts NSW and by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its principal arts funding body. Artspace is a member of CAOs (Contemporary Art Organisations Australia) and Res Artis (International Association of Residential Art Centres).

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Occupy Moscow in the News

Two fresh and surprisingly sympathetic mainstream Russian TV news reports on Moscow’s nascent Occupy movement — the first, viewable here; the second, at the link:

  • Anastasia Pak, “Occupy Moscow,” Nedelya [The Week], REN-TV, May 19, 2012

Meanwhile, Radio Svoboda (RFE/RL) shot this video in and around Moscow’s Arbat neighborhood on the evening of May 19, the fourteenth day of continuous protests:

The Moscow Times has more details, including of the State Duma’s plans to fine protesters into the dirt:

Round-the-clock anti-Kremlin protests drew hundreds of people to the streets over the weekend for another creative stroll, and the police forced the opposition’s outdoor camp to relocate to another site in the city center.

Police made about 70 arrests at the opposition’s Occupy-style camp, which moved from Kudrinskaya Ploshchad to the Arbat.

Following the example of a writers’ march a week earlier, a group of artists took a walk Saturday along downtown Moscow boulevards, carrying and rolling works that included caricatures of President Vladimir Putin, a model tank and piano on a cart.

The event came after several prominent writers on May 13 led a crowd of more than 10,000 people on a stroll designed to be a peaceful opposition demonstration.

But the artists’ stroll — dubbed the Nomadic Museum of Contemporary Art — was planned as a less politically focused event and coincided with the annual Night at the Museum, when the city’s museums and galleries work late.

Organizers estimated that the art show, whose works included many made by children and teenagers studying art, attracted some 2,000 people. Well-known modern artists who participated included German Vinogradov and Nikolai Polissky, among others.

The head of City Hall’s culture department, Sergei Kapkov, who was spotted at the walk, said it should not be seen as a political action.

“Culture and modern art are broader than politics, so politics have become part of modern art,” Kapkov said in comments to Dozhd television.

Police didn’t intervene in the artistic demonstration. Instead, they cleared the opposition camp at Kudrinskaya Ploshchad on Friday night.

The camp had settled near the Barrikadnaya metro station after protesters were forced from Chistiye Prudy early Wednesday following a court ruling. The Occupy Barrikadnaya camp was scattered without any court hearing.

About 2 a.m. Saturday, a riot police officer approached the camp of several hundred people with a loudspeaker and ordered everyone to leave “because public events are banned after 11 p.m.” The campers didn’t resist and started packing their belongings.

But even though the crowd was obediently leaving, some 20 people were detained by riot police, apparently at random, including several who were walking by the U.S. Embassy.

The police later issued a statement saying the camp had been cleared “because of complaints from local residents” and violations of unspecified sanitary norms on food eaten on the square.

Dozens of evicted protesters moved to the Arbat, while others settled at Nikitskiye Gates around a monument to Kliment Timiryazev, a prominent Russian physiologist.

The Nikitskiye Gates group was broken up later Saturday morning by the police, who directed the campers to walk to the Arbat, where at least 50 were detained during the day, RIA-Novosti reported, citing police. But people at the new Occupy Arbat site — located around a monument to poet Bulat Okudzhava — reported that dozens of new protesters were joining the camp on Saturday and Sunday. As of Sunday evening, the police hadn’t intervened.

Another group of opposition-minded citizens arrived Sunday at the Sakharov Center, which was celebrating a city-sanctioned Festival of Freedom on the eve of what would have been Andrei Sakharov’s 91st birthday.

Meanwhile, the State Duma on Friday postponed the first reading of a bill that would significantly raise fines for illegal protests. The bill, criticized as a measure to stifle dissent, would increase maximum fines for participating in illegal demonstrations from 2,000 rubles ($65) to 1 million rubles ($32,368) and for organizing them from 5,000 rubles to 1.5 million rubles.

The opposition has announced plans for what’s expected to be the next large-scale rally on June 12, the Russia Day holiday.

The march is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. near the Belorusskaya metro station and march down Tverskaya Ulitsa to Borovitskaya Ploshchad, which abuts the Kremlin walls, opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov announced via Twitter.

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