• strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/customer/www/noahfischer.org/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 906.
  • strict warning: Declaration of date_handler_field_multiple::pre_render() should be compatible with content_handler_field_multiple::pre_render($values) in /home/customer/www/noahfischer.org/public_html/sites/all/modules/date/date/date_handler_field_multiple.inc on line 185.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_argument::init() should be compatible with views_handler::init(&$view, $options) in /home/customer/www/noahfischer.org/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_argument.inc on line 744.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_validate() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/customer/www/noahfischer.org/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 134.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_submit() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_submit(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/customer/www/noahfischer.org/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 134.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/customer/www/noahfischer.org/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 906.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/customer/www/noahfischer.org/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 906.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_validate() should be compatible with views_handler::options_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/customer/www/noahfischer.org/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 607.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_submit() should be compatible with views_handler::options_submit($form, &$form_state) in /home/customer/www/noahfischer.org/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 607.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_style_default::options() should be compatible with views_object::options() in /home/customer/www/noahfischer.org/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_style_default.inc on line 24.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/customer/www/noahfischer.org/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 906.
The Giant Pit

For L'Internationale Online, a graphic story called "The Giant Pit." The story is a meditation on art and the economy of the future, the legacy of the Guggenheim family, and a bleak journey into the future-past. L'internationale Online, is "the common platform for research, debate and communication for the confederation L’Internationale and its partner institutions: MG+MSUM (Ljubljana), Museo Reina Sofía (Madrid), MACBA (Barcelona), M HKA (Antwerp), SALT (Istanbul & Ankara), Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven), MSN (Warsaw) / NCAD (Dublin), HDK-Valand (Gothenburg)" This excellent issue focuses on Class and Redistribution. My graphic story is here, page 77. 

Thinking About Art on the 10th Anniversary of Occupy Wall Street

I used to think that to be relevant as an artist was to participate in the logic of the market, but that changed in 2011...This visual reflection was published in Hyperallergic on the 10th anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.All original images are pen and ink on paper with digital color.https://hyperallergic.com/677390/thinking-about-art-on-the-10th-annivers... 

"Why The Art World Needs Populism" essay and drawings in Hyperallergic


As we watched the outgoing president’s cult of rabid followers storm the capital, we spectators could at least feel secure in the knowledge that, although we might have witnessed the ugly truth about what America really is—that sort of populism is not a significant part of the art world I am part of. Far from converting us into his glazed-over MAGA army, Trump’s presidency triggered a shift in the opposite direction —art institutions mounted exhibitions by the very groups Trump was targeting. And problematic directors, professors, and top curators’ heads finally began rolling. Even trustees no longer appeared safe in their own institutions, as the activism-powered ouster of Warren Kanders and the opioid-pushing Sacklers seem to illustrate. Trump appears to have sparked a progressive uprising in the art world.

But it is not really an uprising. On closer inspection, there is an asymmetric battle between a grassroots struggle to redistribute power, and those who place institutional preservation at the center. Ironically, Trump, by dint of his very nastiness, gave the upper hand to institutional preservationists, and not just by threats to defund sanctuary cities, which cast institutions as victims. Because they specialize in representation, museums became exemplary producers of the resistance values newly touted on “This House We Believe” signs. Meanwhile, a labor union movement is rising among the precariat. Yet the very institutions mounting exhibitions aligned with the anti-Trump resistance, are snuffing out this burgeoning organizing. They are helped along by associations between Trumpism and a white-anxiety ethos, which now taints a working class orientation.

In short, these have been victorious years for anti-populists, who maintained their economic status quo while successfully rebranding exclusive cities, companies, and cultural institutions as the frontlines of progressive struggle. But what is populism, anyway?

Just about four years ago, President Obama said: “I’m not prepared to concede the notion that some of the rhetoric that’s been popping up is populist.” He was referring to Trump’s racial-bullhorn campaign rallies, and still believed the term to be contested — that it could mean standing with the people in their struggle against financial elites — the rhetoric he’d employed in his 2008 campaign. But after the 2016 election, US populism has been pulled into line with Europe’s decades-long use of the term to mean basically, nativism — and the hazardous and cynical manipulation of an ignorant populace by authoritarian leaders.

This negative framing of populism isn’t new to contemporary art. While major museums have long tipped their hats to popular tastes with exhibitions on Star Wars or motorcycles, skepticism of the general populace is embedded not just in the art world’s proximity to the one percent of one percent, but arguably in the socially vulnerable nature of the avant-garde. In the late ‘90s, for example, NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani deemed the YBA “Sensation” show which had travelled to the Brooklyn Museum, “sick stuff,” focusing on Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) painting as an offence worthy of defunding the museum.

(“The Moralist” (2021) 14” x 11” pen and ink on paper, digital color)

By the Trump era, contemporary art became an even juicier populist punching bag. “Spirit Cooking” (1987)a performance by Marina Abramovic, later reenacted at dinner gatherings, became the centerpiece of a massive conspiracy theory, which claimed to reveal child sacrifice and rampant Satan worship among Democratic elites — Abramovic received daily death threats as a result. As the capitol’s breach shows us, that is only a taste of the danger of right-wing populism. And yet, the art world’s anti-populism presents a different sort of danger.

(“Democrats at Art Gala” (2021) 11” x 14” pen and ink on paper, digital color)

In his short book What is Populism, German political philosopher and Princeton professor Jan-Werner Müller calls populism “the permanent shadow of representative politics.” His book argues that populism wherever it is found, is based on narrowly defining “the people,” so that populists always oppose pluralism. And yet, anti-populism conveniently justifies the rule of a benevolent elite, tasked to defend the nation against the uncouth, messy, and dangerous impulses of its masses. The book was assigned for the incoming Princeton class of 2021—an appropriate first instruction for a stratum preparing to helm the nation’s top institutions.

In a representative democracy, elites do, to some extent, have to contend with the voice of the street. Anti-populism therefore depends on incorporating popular imagery and language —even including the language of uprising— into the walls of their impenetrable institutions. The instruments of art, academia, and public relations/advertising are called on to perform this incorporation. Georgetown philosophy professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò explains how the concept of “elite capture” can be used to describe, “how political projects can be hijacked — in principle or in effect — by the well positioned and resourced.” In considering how Trump-era politics played out in the art world, I think we can perceive an example of elite capture in the controversy around “Open Casket” (2016).

The “Open Casket” controversy addressed a white artist painting, and the Whitney museum exhibiting, an image based on the famous photograph of Emmett Till’s tortured corpse. The ensuing protests seemed to bring the Whitney to its knees. Criticism by Hannah Black, the most prominent detractor of the painting, hinged on her belief that the subject was “not correctly represented.” Black’s open letter published on Tumblr, explained that: “The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.” All those pale faces — the majority of white US voters who had supported Trump, seemed to hover like a ghostly certification over this claim.

The narrow focus on representation was a gift to elites. It rendered gatekeepers, and especially, collectors, as the primary actors who could rectify the issue as it was being framed. Industry publications smugly labeled the ensuing spike in more diverse exhibitions and auctions, a “market correction,” a term which implied a faith not so much in social justice, as in commercial markets to uphold social justice — a faith which the market crash of 2008 should have shattered completely. Furthermore, this faith was placed in one of the most unregulated (corrupt) corners of the market.

Major art collectors (mostly white) were benefitting from the Trump deregulation and tax cuts, while investing some of their surplus wealth into the rebranding opportunity offered by the anti-Trump resistance. They could literally turn a profit on fulfilling the activist demand. As Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò summarizes: “elites get outsize control over the ideas in circulation about identities by, more or less, the same methods and for the same reasons that they get control over everything else.”

(“The Auction” (2021) 11” x 14” pen and ink on paper, digital color)

This sort of trickle-down scheme has never been an effective form of redistribution of power. As the one percent have reeled-in an ever greater share of the nation’s wealth, forcing a bitter zero-sum existence among poorer Americans, racial disparities have widened, a reality veiled by the landscape of increasingly sensitive corporate PR.

Cornell West calls an anti-populist stance “self-serving pragmatism.” It rests on the manufactured sense of impossibility that the system can be radically improved for the many — indeed that redistributing wealth and power is a desirable goal at all. Anti-populism thrives amid cynicism that working class people are capable of forming interracial coalitions and resisting bad-faith leadership. And in the wake of the 74 million 2020 Trump voters, it’s not hard to be cynical about this. But anti-populism suppresses a history of left populism.

The left populist tradition as it has emerged through US history seeks to bridge the gap between struggles around poverty and racial justice. One current example is Reverend William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign, an echo of the 1968 interracial march on Washington demanding jobs, unemployment insurance, and a fair minimum wage — the march led by Dr. Martin Luther King in the last year of his life. Dr. King called it: “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.”

This interracial optimism traces back to the original Populism of the 1890s, the Gilded Age, the last time inequality rose to today’s levels. Populism was primarily a movement of farmers (at the time, the majority of Americans) who were struggling to pay agricultural debts to the Wall Street banks. Journalist Thomas Frank in his book, The People, No, describes how the movement included more than one million Black sharecroppers and many suffragists.

From today’s standpoint, the messy problematics of that coalitional patchwork rise to the surface. While it’s true that Populists tried to bring down the “Bourbon Democrats” who were reconsolidating white supremacy in the south post-Reconstruction, and that there was mass collaboration between poor white farmers and Black sharecroppers in North Carolina (which inspired Reverend Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign); it’s also true that racist figures emerged within the movement. Sifting through 19th-century populist cartoons (a signature format considering the movement’s many illiterate followers) I find Sambo caricatures, and Jewish bankers portrayed as hooked-nosed Shylocks clutching bags of gold. This is exactly (contrary to the recent words of Joe Biden) “who we are,” and who we have been as a nation. Yet in the case of historical Populism, “who we could be” is also enveloped within the mess, as a seed is enveloped within muddy soil.

Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe in her 2018 book For a Left Populism discusses a messy, conflictual quality, which she calls agonism, as a necessary ingredient for a fully functioning democracy. This idea reminds me very much of Occupy Wall Street — a movement which gave elites little to embrace, by earnestly attempting to connect issues such as housing insecurity, the corporate conquest of government, the ballooning of debt markets that target the poor, the warming climate that Hurricane Katrina and Sandy illuminated so starkly as social justice issues, and to some extent but certainly not enough, racism. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, for example, has described Occupy as a prelude to Black Lives Matter.

But the politics of inequality are precisely what the art world is not built to handle. As Andrea Fraser wrote back in 2011, in an observation more relevant than ever, “art prices do not go up as a society as a whole becomes wealthier, but only when income inequality increases.” One could therefore conclude that left populism in the elite-dependent art world is hopeless. But one might also conclude it’s the only way forward.

(“Their Thrones” (2021) 14” x 11” pen and ink on paper, digital color)

The Trump years and the global pandemic have produced spectacular contradictions: the stock market surged while small businesses were permanently shuttered; essential workers were publicly celebrated by the same people who voted against their right to a living wage; and tech billionaires leaped to within striking distance of becoming the planet’s first trillionaires. We have learned that a campaign around institutional diversity of representation can gain steam, while, in parallel, the health and wealth of the great majority of Black people and people of color can radically plummet.

This double reality presents an incredible conundrum, because the institutions that seem best positioned to heal the continuing legacies of racism and classism and environmental destruction, have the deepest ties to elites. The one percent will not willingly give up the very thing that could possibly bridge the gap: their near complete control of political institutions and of the nation’s (or world’s) wealth, because anti-populism is baked into their worldview. And yet, its precisely this conundrum which seems to guarantee the rise of left populism.

Before the pandemic hit, museum workers and adjunct teachers at one institution after another were signing union cards for the United Auto Workers, and the International Union of Operating Engineers — thus pushing back on ingrained skepticism in the art world at alignments with the working class. This summer’s massive BLM movement arose close on the heels of the brief threat-to-the-status-quo of Bernie Sander’s primary campaign, and the substantial overlap indicates a bright future for interracial populism. And now, in the face of a white supremacist insurrection, as we call on the largest corporations on the planet (the very ones who enabled Trump’s rise) to save the day by turning off the far-right’s lights — it would do us well to consider that political horizons (and artistic ones too) exist beyond the anti-populist/fascist binary.


A small table set with an empty pie tin and a can of Reddi-wip. Fischer walks onto stage with a theater seat strapped to his body like a shield. Hello! We caught each other at a strange moment, not a particularly safe moment, especially for an activist. My name is Noah Fischer: I am an activist, or at least I was, before this moment. But I got myself all freaked out about the potential violence of the Left. And that’s what I’m working with now. So I’d like to get you freaked out too.

I’m going to begin by telling a horror story: a story about the near future. Let’s say that in 2020 Trump is again victorious. And in his second term a shadowy foreign group stages an attack at a college football playo¢ game and that’s the switch that was there the whole time, but now they £nally ¤ipped it. We shift into emergency mode, drive o¢-road, the gloves come o¢. 2024 there’s no election because in a time of crisis you need structure. The country needs a strong father not some activist former waitress like the Democrats are running and when there are massive protests, bigger than we’ve seen before, he tweets the signal, and his followers swarm out to the town squares and city boulevards where people are marching and they are armed, they are organized. They are ready. They have to be because they’re the embattled minority: their backs are against the wall; their personhood itself is threatened: their whiteness is threatened.

They are super prepared. Stockpiles of automatic weapons, grenades, war drones, armaments you and I didn’t know existed: they emerge from underground caches. They wear uniforms: fatigues with the red hat, the frog logo, other logos from 4chan we don’t know about. The militias have their own app called “Triggered” and use it to e«ciently set up checkpoints. They are searching for frizzy-haired snow¤akes and people who look like immigrants and the descendants of slaves. 

Some of the snow¤akes £ght back. Dsa Student groups, black bloc Anarchists, armed feminist cells, trans ninjas, the Socialist Ri¤e Association, New Black Panthers, and shamans, pagans, antiracist Buddhists are performing protection rituals. Artist come out with turpentine Molotov cocktails. Actors come out with theater seats strapped to their bodies for protection. Fischer loudly taps the theater seat strapped to his chest and then explains that he got it in a barter exchange from an artist at Occupy Wall Street. But it’s not a fair £ght because at the core it’s violence and violence isn’t our possession, it’s theirs. They’ve got a whole cult developed around it. They publicly torture and execute activists on livestream. A crowd of white faces pose with the bodies in a celebratory manner. This is nothing new: it’s a tried and true method. And it has a widespread chilling effect.

But we’ve got Silicon Valley and it now steps up to protect us. Amazon’s newly legal drone delivery service means that people can lock out the violence in gated communities if they can a¢ord to, or just not leave their apartments, going on with their lives sans public space and embracing a new culture called SafeWorld. The ransacked Universities, with classrooms and o«ces spattered with the blood of Decolonial antiracist Marxist professors, move their classes online. A 3d teleconferencing technology is unveiled. There’s less tra«c on roads, less planes in the air and in truth this is not a bad thing, at least for co2 levels. You know, there are two sides of every coin. Art becomes introspective because there’s no more public space, no more street protests. Businesses can operate with fewer checks and balances. New markets open and rise to recordbreaking levels. Corporate campuses have their own security forces. Amazon expands far into Queens, setting up a city within a city where its executives and workers can live normal lives. Jeff Bezos is appointed Mayor of the megacity that stretches between Boston and dc. There are prolonged negotiations with the Government and £nally Los Angeles, Denver, Miami, Boston, San Francisco, and the Eastern Megacity become freemovement campuses in exchange for tripling economic output. Aladdin, BlackRock’s market-tracking ai, selects the optimal governance team and makes policy recommendations. The real estate prices in the safe and successful cities shoot up astronomically.

Where does the creative community go? They are moved by decree to upstate prisons which have been rebranded “Live, Work, Repeat.” The prison population has expanded with the new BlackRock Debt Laws. But the prison buildings themselves have emptied with the greenlighting of embedded control chips, a new incarceration Upstate Prisons, watercolor with digital manipulation, technology developed by Koch industries that sends o¢enders out into the market and hands their controls over to the employer. So there’s new cheap labor and new real estate available, a win-win. Fischer takes o… the theater seat and leans it against the podium, in view.

Sorry. (Long, contemplative pause). I know this sounds bleak and not that creative: it’s an echo of bleakness that’s already out there. As an activist, I wanted to inspire you, I wanted to share a brighter future with you but something kept pulling me down. Pessimism. Isn’t it strange how pessimism became second nature? It’s so addictive!

And my question for all of us: what to do about this addiction?...


(read full text on the PDF)



For a few months in autumn 2011, under an enormous red sculpture, a privately owned public park filled with thousands of people who would not leave. Occupy Wall Street wasn’t only a syncopated response to what many considered a corporate coup in 2008. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and the 15M anti-austerity movement in Spain, Occupy was anarchist in spirit, rejecting institutional alliances in favor of horizontal decision-making. One occupied physical space with one’s body, but to occupy encompassed the struggle for the cultural, political, digital, and environmental commons. Utilizing an optimistic early stage of social media, the Occupy Movement quickly spread across the United States and to nearly 1,000 cities in eighty-two countries around the world.

Physical occupation helped creatively channel the anger of debtors and precarious workers. Parks tended to fill with artists; they become training grounds, perhaps even artistic experiments, for life beyond the imaginary of transactional corporate culture. Then, on November 20, 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s personal army—as he later called the taxpayer-funded NYPD—violently evicted the encampment at Liberty Park as part of a nationally coordinated action. But Occupy Wall Street continued in the mass response to Hurricane Sandy (Occupy Sandy), and internationally in Occupy Gezi (2013) and Occupy Central Hong Kong (2014). It awakened the American Left, feeding into successful grassroots movements and political campaigns. Yet despite its influence, Occupy represents a hard-to-recall optimism in the struggle for common space and democratic process, an improbable vision of a unified 99 percent.

Occupy resurrected class language for an age of extremes, naming the profiteers of 2008 “the 1 percent.” The diverging fortunes of the 1 percent and 99 percent were perhaps most evident in the art world. In 2012, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895) sold to hostile takeover specialist and MoMA chairman Leon Black for a record $119.9 million at Sotheby’s, which was, at the time, busy breaking their art handlers’ union. Occupy Museums, one of many groups formed in Liberty Park, organized direct actions with the Teamsters at Sotheby’s, MoMA, the Met, the Whitney, Frieze, and Lincoln Center in solidarity with people and issues targeted by the philanthropic class. Arts and Labor, another Occupy offshoot, focused on workplace organizing in museums and higher education. Occupy re-politicized the art world, reclaiming museums as political stages and helping spark the unionization of the cultural sector later in the 2010s.

Public Seminar: Artist-as-debtor, Debt-as-Creator The unseen debt sustaining the art market


This article is part of a series of texts published on Public Seminar in the lead-up to the Digital/Debt/Empire symposium in Vancouver in late April 2019, convened by Benjamin Anderson, Enda Brophy and Max Haiven.

Is there a better place to glimpse the logic of capitalism than at art fairs, those ultra luxury trade shows where art galleries show their wares? Contemporary art, as seen among the stalls of a sprawling art fair, might seem like a collection of styles, subjectivities, and strategies more or less randomly valued by an opaque corrupt global market (the art market is often considered the largest unregulated market). But there is a logic to its valuation and to understand this logic, it’s helpful to think about art as political narratives boiled down into object form, and offered for sale.

Think, for example, of the David Hammons piece Fur Coat, a collection of fire-singed luxury fur coats, part of the artist’s long history of working irreverently and minimally with symbols of race and class. The artist once stated: “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.”

Hammons is represented by, and his work is prominently displayed at the Mnuchin gallery in New York’s wealthy Upper West Side. This gallery is run by class warriors: Mnuchin is a former partner at notorious investment bank Goldman Sachs who is credited for developing the “block trade” in the 1970s, allowing banks to sell large sums of bonds leading to the rapid growth of the financial sphere of the economy. Robert Mnuchin is also father of Trump’s current Secretary of the Treasury, the man primarily responsible for writing the 2017 tax bill that further shifted tax obligations away from the ultra rich. Why would Hammons want to show at such a gallery, and why would Mnuchin want to show “Fur Coat?”

For the last few years, I’ve been focusing my work as an activist and an artist on understanding how art functions under capitalism, regardless of the intention or politics of the artist. This question has led me to studying and seeking to intervene in both the financial and the emotional markets that prop up empire.


Since at least the early 1970’s, any form of expression, whether visual or invisible, permanent or ephemeral, has been accepted as art. At the same time, the cultural scope of art has been widening in parallel with the internationalization of art shown in museums, and sold on the art market. As a result, contemporary art is like a vacuum cleaner that can suck any kind of cultural expression anywhere in the world into its capitalist core. From this ability, art has taken on an important social function within capitalism: it transforms potent political capital into impotent aesthetic currency. The magic ingredient is abstraction.

I was born in 1977, and have therefore lived through the period marking the rise of the current neoliberal empire. Throughout my life I have witnessed the empire’s accumulation of literal and metaphorical territories: different spheres of existence have been pulled into the private market, from utility companies to schools, from friendships to attention to emotions. Throughout my life, I have felt a shift in democratic agency, but it had always been difficult to name .

In the financial crisis of 2008 it became clear that, just like contemporary art, the magic ingredient of the neoliberal empire was abstraction. We learned about credit default swaps and the other abstract financial instruments that triggered the economic crash, thanks to decades of government deregulation. Because these structures of at the heart of an empire of inequality were so abstract, understanding them (let alone organizing against them) was extremely difficult.

Existing left social movements in the US seemed incapable of contesting these new abstract forms of power until 2011, when new movements emerged who mirrored their complexity and network formation. Occupiers organized against austerity in Greece and Spain, against the capture of public space in Egypt and Turkey, against student debt in Canada, and against the overruling of democracy by the banks in the US. The movements were not only protesting against the status quo, they were also creating a pre-figurative culture of mutual aid.

Debt and The Occupy Movement

I joined Occupy Wall Street early on as an artist because I felt that art institutions would be a particularly important stone for the movement to overturn in its quest to demystify the tools of capitalist empire. I co-facilitated a group called Occupy Museums, which brought direct democracy tactics from the main protest encampment at Zuccotti Park to New York’s preeminent arts institutions, like MoMA. The assemblies we held outside museums invited the public to join in and give shape to the struggles and demands of the 99%. The collective and creative body we formed together contrasted with the tightly branded, narrowly curated voice of the museums, which are basically run as corporations. For the next few years we focused on direct actions meant to reposition museums as contested democratic spaces and political stages. We took aim at the philanthropic collector class (most of them the direct or indirect beneficiaries of an empire of debt) that govern museums, rebranding them as takers rather than givers.


In 2013 Occupy Museums shifted our approach toward a project called Debtfair, which focused less on politically shaming the 1% and instead on radicalizing the 99% of artists who struggle in relative silence and invisibility. We asked: how does your economic reality affect your art?

When we began Debtfair we thought of ourselves as an anti-startup seeking to set up an art fair whose economic activity would alleviate artist debt, rather than making collectors — and debt market-beneficiaries — richer. This idea was inspired by the campaign of another Occupy-affiliated movement: Strike Debt’s 2012 Rolling Jubilee that managed to “hack” the secondary debt market and crowd fund money to buy people out of medical and other debts. However, after a few experiments we realized that attempting to deploy this tactic in the interests of artists would rely on gaining the goodwill of those holding capital and asking them to shift their financial behavior. We didn’t want to re-empower this class with a new feel-good option but rather to build stronger bonds among those who are struggling at the grassroots.

The Morality Trap

The neoliberal debt empire is not only a system where many of us make endless interest payments without ever paying off the principal. It’s not only about how this payment regime demands we perform extra labor, taking time and energy away from our creative work and transforming us into precarious corporate workers. Debt is deeply connected to a whole system of western morality: a moral person is one who gives back what they have borrowed. American law builds on this by enshrining the rights to private property, rather than collective good.

This means that the system encourages amorality because today, going into debt is almost unavoidable for working people, but escaping debt is also almost impossible. Citizens of capitalism, reconfigured as debtors, therefore carry a burden of structurally encoded shame. Artists laboring under this shame are especially vulnerable to the art world institutions and the collector class who can seem to offer a balm for their lack of value and self-value with money or institutional acceptance.

While artists are generally known to be progressives there are strong libertarian strains. Perhaps this is because many artists are oriented toward the goal of participating in unregulated markets as entrepreneurs, rather than assuming the identity (and tactics) of workers. In this context, debt is seen as a necessary part of the risk-taking, instead of a trap. As long as the aspirational dream has a hold over someone’s life, it’s nearly impossible for them to achieve a structural view of power.

As in previous Debtfair projects, this time we issued an open call in which artists were invited to show their work collectively at Art League Houston. In return, we asked for them to provide extensive data about their debts, (most of which we kept private). We ended up displaying their artworks in the gallery in collective “bundles” based on to what institutions they owed their debts. Their artworks were accompanied by their testimonial narratives of their economic reality. These results were also posted on our website, debtfair.org. The narratives made class position and other experiences and privileges visible.

In this way, Debtfair is a tool to map the intersectional overlap between economic and social/racial conditions of oppression and marginalization. For example, we created a Debtfair iteration focused on Puerto Rican debt that made visible the connection between colonial debt and student loans, as experienced by the artists themselves.


As we accumulated data and relationships in the Houston show as well as other iterations of the project, including the 2017 Whitney Biennial, we wondered if it could be used to map empire. The artists were indebted to so many different institutions that our original goal of organizing a robust group of artist-debtors from one particular bank proved elusive. However, further research led up the finanical food chain, from the banks issuing the retail loans to the wholesale markets where these loans are traded. Huge financial players have developed Robert Mnuchin’s block trading of the 1970’s exponentially, combining these debts with thousands of other assets in highly complex bundles, sometimes called EFTs (exchange traded funds). We sought out a firm that was dealing in and profiting from all the various forms of debts our artist-participants were experiencing and found one: BlackRock Inc.

BlackRock is the world’s largest asset management firm and deals primarily in bonds (debts). BlackRock is currently managing 6.44 trillion worth of assets, a figure larger than the GDP of Germany and England combined. This scale makes it more than “too big to fail” and it wields an incredible amount of political power.

Before 2008, BlackRock’s assets were relatively modest for the industry. , It’s founder and director Larry Fink was called in to “clean up” the wreckage of the crash by valuing the “toxic” assets that the U.S. government bought from private banks as part of the bailout of the 1%. In this way, Fink gained access to the highest levels of financial governance, which BlackRock mobilized to corner the market and develop lucrative positions on the debt markets. BlackRock’s rise represents the post-democratic triumph of capitalism: it offers a good view of empire today.

Larry Fink is also connected to the world of contemporary art, including as a board member of New York’s trend-setting MoMA. He is quoted as saying that “The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today is contemporary art… and apartments in Manhattan, apartments in Vancouver, in London,” unintentionally exposing the fanfare of high dollar art sales as simply the flip-side of the much larger debt market.

For artists, the ultimate success is considered to be one’s work becoming a stable asset while in fact, the real source of capital propping up the 1%’s success is not the success of the few, but the failure of the many in the form of debt. BlackRock’s 6.44 trillion “fixed income” (debt) assets under management create the wealth that is able to buy luxury art and real estate. In the current era of capitalism, failure is like the raw material that fuels the production of wealth.

Noah Fischer’s drawings, installations writings, and performances bridge intuition and political struggle while his organizing practice engages it head on. Fischer is a founding member of Occupy Museums, a group that formed in Zuccotti Park and brought horizontal assemblies to MoMA, Lincoln Center and other cultural institutions. Fischer’s work has been seen with and without invitation at Guggenheim, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, ZKM and in the 56th Venice Biennale, 7th Berlin Biennale and the 2017 Whitney Biennial. He currently teaches studio art at Kenyon College in Ohio and Parsons School of Design in NYC.

Contribution to Monuments Issue, October Magazine

The bronze public monuments built to cut through time as Shackleton’s Endurance was built to cut through arctic ice are arriving in our present moment as anachronistic vessels. Whether appropriate or not, they refuse to budge from public space. This crusty stubbornness clashes with today’s viral consensus production: we like, share, tweet, and post for news, public healing, and entertainment alike. All of these are forms of voting. Embedded into this constant voting culture is the assumption that all things, people, and phenomena must eventually conform to the law of public opinion with binary options, in this case: Preserve monuments! Tear them down! What about a healing process that moves beyond the binary?

(read full essay in pdf)


The Silent Red Thing: Essay in ASAP journal

I can't forget the puzzling silence of Mark di Suvero...(read full essay in pdf)

The Ebbs and Flows of Resistance in the Art World

Pulished in Hyperallergic:


On January 20, 2018, I, along with hundreds of thousands, strolled down Sixth Avenue for the Women’s March. At route’s end I encountered a comrade from Occupy Wall Street who had been a facilitator of the Arts and Culture working group, the movement’s official connection between art practice and revolution. His partner works as an organizer with Planned Parenthood and she was busy getting activists on a bus back home. The anti-Trump resistance of the last year has been distinctly unlike Occupy’s direct democracy churning. Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and a lot of well-funded progressive organizations have stepped it up since the inauguration. Exciting new candidates are primed for the 2018 mid-term elections. The #MeToo uprising mostly plays out in media rather than on the streets. But that’s not to say all’s going according to plan: there’s the bundled setbacks of the Tax Bill, among countless reversals, plus fatigue from daily aggressions that make the future hard to see. And for me, there was something unsettling about the leisurely stroll of the march and silence of it — just a rare echo of chants. I’ve found the unified voice to be essential to protest, uplifting people into joyfully rhythmic bravery. One year ago, the voice was the main catalyst on the day of the current president’s inauguration as we, Occupy Museums, staged a Speakout that tried to spark the process of laying out a common political vision for the art world. One year later, can we still hear the Speakout’s echo?

Energetically, things could not have been more different a year ago. Caught in a dizzying though still totally opaque political realignment, we were contending with a new language. In particular, the word “fascism” loomed, a word whose use was quickly legitimized by Trump’s chilling inaugural speech, co-written by Steve Bannon. But there’s a silver lining to the shit hitting the fan: endorphins rush in and you get a burst of extra energy. That’s where we were a year ago: high on anti-Trump endorphins. It might have been a wave of shock, anger, and emergency, but there was a vital energy we could tap into and that made it impossible be idle. Protests and new networks bloomed in all directions. Busy co-organizing the Speakout with Occupy Museums, I remember breathlessly communicating, organizing, attending meetings, connecting with comrades all in exactly the same state of productive shock. Solidarity poured in from abroad. We had no choice but to launch a real resistance, a counter-inauguration, a strike, a shadow cabinet — whatever was needed. It seemed like the entire art world was in on this. But even during the inauguration, the art world’s anti-Trump alignment wasn’t as unified a block as it appeared — a fact made clear by revelations that art world power brokers had funded Trump’s Inauguration.  And eventually, banality set in as the stock market boomed and the powerful grew content and silent. Then there was the incongruous reality that despite the new government, things look about the same in major cities today as they did in January 2017. It wasn’t fascism like in the movies — at least not among the privileged in Brooklyn. But most of all, a frustrating truth about attention became clear: you can’t deal with everything when it comes all at once.

outside the Whitney Museum on J20 2017

In the summer of 2016, Occupy Museums was focused on the issue of debt. We had begun working with the Whitney Museum on our project for the 2017 BiennialDebtfair, which proposed a politics that intertwined the economic inequality focus of the Occupy movement embodied in the debtor/creditor relationship, with intersectional politics that made the conditions of Puerto Ricans struggling with state debt visible alongside student debt. In the middle of the development of this project, the unexpected election result arrived. When we got wind of the proposed art strike, our phone lines were already connected to the Whitney and we felt a responsibility to answer the call by connecting the political moment to the museum. Discussing among ourselves whether it made more sense to try to close Whitney’s doors or retool their platform into an historic civic forum, we went with the latter. Our strategy has always tended toward an abundance of experiments and engagement rather than a refusal (although we respect those tactics).

Recently, New York University professor Nick Mirzoeff reflected on the 2017 J20 Strike call, writing: “A strike is the refusal to comply with a normative regime because that norm sets the terms for existence in unacceptable ways.” However, as Mirzoeff also mentions, 21st century art institutions are not the same as 19th century factories. “Refusal to comply” is not necessarily most effective as a mechanical stopping, like jamming a wrench in a machine. In a networked social capital economy, denormalizing the regime doesn’t necessarily mean shutting institutional doors. It can mean dancing through and around them, perhaps taking them off their hinges and reshaping their function. J20 programs were being cooked up inside and outside of institutions by signatories of the call, from a sign-making workshop at the Queens Museum under the leadership of executive director Laura Raicovich, to a marathon reading of Langston Hughes’s 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again” at the Brooklyn Museum. However, there was no common forum proposed — no speak-out. I grew up in a Buddhist monastery in California: like anyone from a religious background, ritual and ceremony were everyday parts of my life, and their social function in gelling a community was always clear to me. Our side needed a powerful counter-ritual on that day that involved speaking truth.

*  *  *

There was a specific political intention behind the Speakout: conjuring a space for the different political factions and voices of the art world to come together and face a common threat. Both the primaries and the general election campaign had revealed the likelihood of fracture on the left: by January, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters were at each others’ throats on social media; factions assigning blame along ideological, racial, and gender lines were sharply drawn. Locally, the anti-gentrification struggle that dominated art world radical politics on both coasts was pitting one of the most powerful elected progressives in the country, Bill de Blasio, against activists. The New York City Mayor works intimately with developers on his housing plans, an unforgivable and impossible position. But a year ago the shock was such that even this gap could be temporarily bridged. The first step was to come together. I hoped this unified opposition would radicalize when it realized that you couldn’t separate Trump’s ties to hyper-capitalists from his knee-jerk racism, xenophobia, transphobia, and patriarchy. The Speakout was our own display of power, a power embodied not in Trump’s strongman mode of power over, but in the collective beauty of poetic, diverse, creative, and committed voices speaking.

image: Rally outside the Whitney Museum on J20 2017

Working closely with Megan Heuer of the Whitney, Occupy Museums invited a lineup of speakers that ranged from badass Brooklyn anti-gentrification activists like Alicia Boyd of Movement to Protect the People and the Chinatown Art Brigade to Madison Zalopany, coordinator of access and community programs at the Whitney, who delivered a powerful message of institutional inclusion. Artists Dread Scott, Mira Schor, Avram Finkelstein, Naeem Mohaiemen, Simone Leigh of Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, Tracie Morris with Vijay Iyer, and many others spoke and sang out. The event was like a quilted-together manifesto: each word projected with emotion, laying out a commitment to values despite the dark road ahead. Some of the commitments were personal, and some were institutional—bringing these together into potential agreements was the point. Carin Kuoni, director of the Vera List Center, said:

The imminent assault on our civil liberties is of such magnitude … I believe that if I want to remain effective and advance Inclusiveness, I need to turn to art and declare art itself a political practice.

Not because we can afford to turn our backs on traditional political structures; we need to be present there as well. But if we declare our artworks, our exhibitions, our critical discourse a political practice we can meet the challenges of this incoming administration — and Post Democracy in general — much more effectively because Inclusiveness will be implemented along a multitude of criteria:

If we declare art a political practice, we can operate along different timeframes simultaneously, pursuing immediate impact as well as long-term nurturing, such as education. If we declare art a political practice, we can spell out goals at different scales, from super- localized to global, and define distinct yet aligned sets of deliverables. If we focus on the formal qualities of art as well as its literal, material foundations, we can explore entirely new orders of an inclusive political practice that can reach beyond the human.

The Speakout’s theme was an accumulation of visions like Kuoni’s. This dimension was inspired by the urgent work of Queens Museum director Laura Raicovich, who was then working with her staff to create a visioning statement around the museum’s responsibility to its immigrant workers and community members in hopes of declaring the museum a sanctuary space. But the Speakout wasn’t all earnest, either. At the moment that Trump was being sworn in, Kalup Linzy was lighting up the room with a special rendition of “Asshole.”

image: Occupy Museums banner for J20 2017

At the time, I knew — and I think most people in that room realized — that there were two levels of politics at stake. There was the national transition happening down in Washington, but there was also our non-neutral stage: the Whitney Museum. Occupy Museums had become specialists in opening up radical spaces in museums. For J20, our idea had been to disrupt the entire flow of the museum by staging the event in the lobby. However, the museum had insisted on the theater and a ticketed (pay as you wish) entrance, which ultimately meant throngs of people were never able to access the event. We had attempted to temporarily “rebrand” the museum with a strong political sentiment, painting a banner the night before that rephrased a famous Warhol quote, proclaimed “Resistance Against Fascism is the Best Art.” But the prevailing corporate aesthetic plus the spectacle of ultra-luxury gentrification — speakers stood in front of a massive glass window overlooking the Hudson, which screamed luxury real estate — wasn’t so easily disrupted. Sitting in the Susan and John Hess Family Gallery (the Hess Corporation is involved in fossil fuel exploration and deep-water offshore oil rigs), we knew that even as we prepared for whatever was about to come out of the Pandora’s box in Washington, we were perched inside of a nest of the domination of finance over government — a fact bolstered by the Biennial’s core sponsorship by Chase bank.

The Speakout needed to challenge Trump’s new regime and the Whitney. Martha Rosler touched on this when she grabbed the mic and addressed the Whitney directly, saying: “Thank you and fuck you and we need you and you need us more.” But even this expressed a breathless J20 optimism. There was a question hanging in the air: could an extraordinary political moment like the January 2017 inauguration actually shift mainstream museums’ behaviors so that they recognized their responsibility to social, racial, and economic equity, a responsibility deeper than the need to burnish their brands by just referencing these issues? Could J20 mark a moment of choice that could end in a shift away from museums’ market-oriented drift and toward a more civic function — complete with free admission, equitable programming, and the cutting art market ties? We knew that most of the Whitney’s staff was behind the stance the institution was taking, even proud of their employer for stepping into the political ring (the Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim were dead silent about J20). But our research had shown that many trustees — the 1% of the 1% — were on another side. It was a longshot, but extreme outcomes seemed possible on J20.

*  *  *

image: The 2018 Women’s March in New York City

A year later, and just a few weeks after a historically free museum announced it would resort to mandatory admission fees, calling on mainstream, corporately funded museums to become more public seems naïve — and not only because corporate funders have a long history of dismantling fertile civic spaces. The other truth is that the leverage on the Whitney to make a hard-left turn depended on the heat of the moment, and political moments are short-lived. As Mirzoeff recently wrote, J20 stands as a moment more than a movement. Just like the oft-invoked possibility of unity and healing right after 9/11, the endorphin-fueled moments around Trump’s inauguration and the talk of widespread, sustained, creative resistance, and commitment to shielding threatened communities has not materialized, despite an early win when the New York Taxi Workers Alliance successfully shut down JFK, helping to temporarily halt the Muslim ban.

A year ago, the realignment of large museums toward non-symbolic social action — as sanctuary spaces for example — was earnestly discussed by many museum professionals. Now we are living inside the reality of immigrant communities being threatened daily, and the uncomfortable truth is that it really is happening, and the pressing need for sanctuary does not equate to an automatic transformation of cultural institutions to provide it, as seemed practically self-evident a year ago. In fact, now the backlash is coming into view. Laura Raicovich just announced, almost exactly a year after J20, that she is leaving the Queens Museum. She told the New York Times that some members of the museum’s board had objected to her decision to close the institution the day of Trump’s inauguration. She also told the Times that she recently made a proposal to the board to make the museum into a kind of sanctuary space connecting immigrants to social services. “It was made very clear to me that that was not something that was of interest,” she told the Times.

After J20, amid the dissipating energy of resistance, activist tactics also shifted. The Whitney again provided a stage, this time for a shift toward the public targeting of individual artists like Jimmie Durham rather than institutions like the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Identity politics had already been on the rise for at least three years with the long overdue and powerful mobilizations of the movement for Black Lives. Numerous controversies in 2017 around identity generated public debate but at times formed wedges among activists, demobilizing large-scale protest. The turning point for the art world arrived with the opening of the 2017 Biennial and protest over Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” (2016). The controversy consumed a tremendous amount of energy, which was not necessarily intellectually unproductive, but none of it was directed against Trump’s draconian policies or the corporate beneficiaries of his policies who are funders of the museum. By spring, the anti-fascist unity we’d felt at the Whitney a few months earlier on J20 seemed incredibly distant. The callouts then shifted toward the #MeToo movement, with patriarchal heads rolling in the entertainment industry (and the art world) at lightning speed. As an uprising tactic, it’s effective and divisive at the same time. It was not a development one could have easily foreseen on J20, which held a promise of coalition-building among the many aggrieved groups rather than the single issue/single movement politics we are seeing.

*  *  *

My favorite thing about museums is that they are everything a smartphone isn’t: spacious and slow. You bring your body to a space and you stand in front of pictures and things with other people, and this adds up to a publicly contemplative opportunity that can have the qualities of richness and depth. This winter, in a time of mixed resistance signals, it occurs to me that reflection and vision are the essential next steps. We can’t risk fatigue by attempting to match Trump’s reactivity. Artists can’t afford to binge on social media for days or stay in the streets forever either. At the Speakout, Mira Schor spoke unexpectedly about the potential political power of a painting of a flower. Then she stated: “In the months and years to come every force will militate against artists, including the duties of resistance.”

In my view, the forces aligning against artists that Schor was alluding to are primarily the forces of capital, which historically have come down the hardest on women and communities of color: life as debt, space as portfolio asset, labor as control. Our double challenge then is to emancipate ourselves from this dead-end system epitomized by Trump, while not misinterpreting the emergency resistance call as the necessity to value the protest sign or organizing campaign over the canvas and palette. Visionary images and non-images made with and for free minds are our strongest tools. But these tools become suitable for a justice warrior only when connected to the struggle to bring the framework of institutions such as museums and universities into the commons.

We are now heading into year two. Just like the last year, the news will punch our lights out every day. As artists and art-lovers we are fortunate to have a passionate community and a practice to rekindle them. But the times call for us to demand something more constructively autonomous and visionary because we clearly aren’t getting a future from those in power. Power begets power. Apple just saved more than $40 billion on taxes thanks to Trump: the company might have burnished its resistance brand a few months ago, but ultimately it will prosper under this regime while many communities are evicted and targeted. The art world is not a safe zone. Chitra Ganesh touched on this a year ago when she stated:

I am saying that, rather than seeing the current political climate as an external threat, we all have to take responsibility for the ways that this climate resonates with aspects of the art world in which we all participate. The events transpiring around us bring to light the predicament of ongoing exclusions and erasures in the art world itself, which some of the people in this room have experienced for years.

image: Trump poster after a protest march

Our community can be a cold-hearted place that has long tolerated Trump’s brand of crass ego-dominance fueled by money and power. It’s a financially unregulated space where capital is king, where the winners win big, and where art workers are preyed upon through a normalized system of high debts and unpaid or poorly paid labor. Most of our institutions are riddled with histories of racism and elitism to which they still cling. On J20 2017, Occupy Museums offered our vision that institutions large and small could begin to operate by an updated set of values that could run on mutual support and produce bravery in the face of fear. The vision is a two-way street. It’s a commitment to valuing the practice of art and to fighting for the commonwealth of museums as much as it’s a critical call to action.

In the pain and shock of J20, a long-term vision began to be articulated. Even if Raicovich’s departure from the Queens Museum exemplifies how forcefully the powers that be are blocking that vision from being put into practice, I hope to see it develop this year as people tire of the mental distraction and reactivity that has become our everyday under Trump. We need space for a long-term political vision to come into focus that bridges art with organizing and reimagines institutions. I hope to witness the unifying of voices not only because that’s the only thing that sends terror into the heart of those who currently hold power, but because when we do that, we create worlds. That is how we can create our own institutions and economies.

Hyperallergic: Why the Art World Must Not Normalize Donald Trump’s Presidency

Read on Hyperallergic

The electoral map made it look so straightforward: blue islands of social and racial progress voted overwhelmingly against Donald Trump’s white supremacy movement, but those voters had no idea just how large was the lake of anger festering in the sparsely populated red zones. Then the unthinkable happened. We are now far from prepared to accept the reality of a President Trump, with David Duke’s grinning visage looming right behind him.

In this picture, the art worlds of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago exemplify the progressive and diverse community currently in a state of shock and mourning. As soon as we finish crying on each others’ shoulders, we will begin to mount some kind of resistance against an administration that will be unlike any others we have ever contemplated — one that will swiftly drive out immigrants, topple all environmental regulations, and do much worse still. We will resist an administration filled with anti-culture warriors like Rudolph Giuliani, who are sworn enemies of the values of intellectual experimentation, multiplicity, and tolerance within the arts; who understand contemporary art primarily as a populist trump card, having accused Marina Abramovic of Satan worship on the eve of the election. This is an administration that will lead the United States under the flag of vindicated white supremacy in the second decade of the 21st century. The art world will act as a unified block of resistance against the coming wave of horror, right?

Unfortunately, this picture is most likely a mirage. Yes, there is plenty of crying on shoulders and even young people on the streets shouting: “Not My President!” Yes, art critic Jerry Saltz got so upset that he changed his infamous Bill Clinton Facebook profile picture, posting: “Till Tuesday I lived with the positivist idea that things progress, get better, twisted flaws and all. The old saw about the long arc of history bowing toward justice was true. … All this went out the window that night.” But we are also seeing an immediate normalization of a President Trump by parts of the huge block that seemed to oppose him and that now wants to simply get on with business. This was perhaps first enabled by the president-elect himself, who, in his victory speech, chose to pass on the hate speech of his angry base, instead offering an apparent olive branch to voters who chose Hillary Clinton: “For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.” The next day, President Barack Obama said: “We now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed.” Later, Obama even called the leader of the Birther movement “pragmatic.”

We must admit that Obama has a special historical role to fulfill. As the first black president­, he has taken it upon himself to be the most gracious and classy man on the planet, a project that did not stem a huge tide of racism directed at him in the last eight years. Despite claiming earlier that “the Republican nominee is unfit to serve as president,” Obama interpreted his immediate post-election duty as graciously passing the torch. Let’s remember that we have a different duty to fulfill.

It is not the duty of private citizens (or anyone, actually) to automatically line up behind someone who has scapegoated the most vulnerable people in the country and threatened peaceful protesters and his political opponent with violence in order to win — exhibiting the unmistakable qualities of fascism. Participation in US democracy has its mechanical dimensions (voting and accepting the results, living within legal parameters), but also its fluid dimensions, where the checks and balances of government must be further checked by an awake population that is ready to respond by ceasing business as usual and organizing resistance to bigotry and violence if needed. From time to time throughout history, it has been needed.

This turn away from business as usual and toward collective resistance looms in a very real sense as the only hope for progressive values concerning gender, race, the protection of the environment, and also economic equity. Progressive legislation from health care reform to climate change treaties will be swiftly overturned while extremist laws — possibly including mass deportations — will be quickly signed. Resistance of mobilized citizens will be needed to protect the vulnerable, block dangerous legislation, and build toward an electoral reclaiming of power from the alt-right. But to do this, people who are in theory opposed to bigotry have to stay vigilant to the extremity of the situation.

We are early on in the narrative-shaping process concerning the reality of a President Trump, and I have been unsurprised to see that he is already being vigorously normalized by members of the art world. In the past days, to make an understatement, I have been on Facebook a lot. Well known Los Angeles-based collector Stefan Simchowitz popped up on a thread on my wall. Sneaking a peek at his wall, I saw the following statement, posted the day after the election to the tune of over 300 reactions:

Congratulations President elect Donald Trump. The people have spoken. Gracious speech, nothing left to do now but stop bitching and griping and get on with the job. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and the DNC congrats to all on a battle hard fought. Back to the drawing board as they say in the classics. Don’t panic folks it’s not as bad as you think and who knows if we all work together as we should maybe we can get things done. This is no time to divide. This is what democracy looks like, a picture whose outcome you participate in but don’t wholly control. And if I were to bet money I would say Trump is a pragmatist not an ideologue and pragmatists make deals in the middle.

Among the more than 90 comments on Simchowitz’s post, a few people echoed the sentiment of “I am sure they said the same in the 1930s in Germany,” but mostly it was versions of: “Classy Stefan, well said”; “as heartbroken as I am, I agree it’s the only way forward”; and, “I agree he’s a pragmatist.” I do not know Simchowitz personally and I’m not sure who his friends are, but presumably many are citizens of the well-heeled Los Angeles art world. When I shared his post on the Occupy Museums Facebook page, editorializing it with “All that white supremacy stuff was just a mirage. Back to business,” Simchowitz replied. He wrote:

First of all I voted for Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris and donated heavily to both campaigns and raised them a lot more money then that, in addition to supporting Mike Bennet’s winning run in Colorado, one of the few bright spots for the democrats. So cut the crap with your BS please. Secondly I would say I hardly represent the view of the mainstream art world in the respect to my call for coming to together and supporting the new President Elect from hopefully understanding the true gravity oh his position and the importance of unifying a divided nation whilst providing the jobs that are so sorely needed to 60 million citizens who are calling for help….yes it is back to business for ALL of us. For us to unify the country, rebuild the DNC for the next elections and in my case to continue selling Art so I can support the dozens of hardworking artists and artisans who support them so they can put food on the table, build family’s and produce artworks to make this sometimes ugly world more beautiful. Whilst you can point you wagging finger at the wrong people, some of us just want to get back in the saddle.

Simchowitz’s claim of supporting artists hinges on how you interpret the concept of “support.” Known as a “flipper” who buys work as cheaply as possible from young artists, often in bulk, with an eye to reselling it at profit, he is one of the pioneers of testing the popularity of artworks on Instagram as a cost-effective stage in the process of transforming art into cash. In fact, Simchowitz has been called the “Donald Trump of the Art World,” “a heroic figure” ready to “initiate the paradigm shift” toward “this sort of ideology I invented” wherein art is “oil in the ground” that “needs to be mined, refined, and … distributed,” as he is quoted by Christian Viveros-Fauné.

But does the apparently progressive political stance of the “Trump of the Art World,” which so easily pivots to an acceptance of racist extremism, “hardly represent the view of the mainstream art world,” as Simchowitz claims?

To look at reports on the art world’s reaction so far, you would think it does not, and this is certainly true of many artists and academics this week. On November 13, Artist Naeem Mohaiemen wrote on Facebook:

Professors are cancelling classes and using that time to organize teach-ins. Art exhibitions are opening and thirty minutes later artists are sitting on the floor and discussing what is to be done. People are cooking dinners and inviting friends over. Community spaces are organizing all day events. Business as usual is at a standstill.

Progressive artists and academics are perhaps acting with a mixture of solidarity and self-protection as they will be under attack in coming years from emboldened bigots and anti-intellectuals.

However, I think that among the collector class there is a reason that the response may not be as urgent as Naeem’s heartening report from the grass roots. This reason traces its logic along the upward trajectory of the stock market in the last few days, in which the stock market has reached record highs, with the US Dollar soaring. Although there are connections between the art world and the new Trump administration — most notably the potential future Treasury SecretarySteven Mnuchin, who is the son of a prominent Upper East Side gallerist — the leaders of Fortune 500 companies overwhelmingly proclaimed to be “with her,” aligning themselves with another candidate whose deep relationship to the financial industry ensured that their interests would be well taken care of: Hillary Clinton. Mega-dealer Larry Gagosian even held an auction to benefit her campaign. We can now see that elite Clinton supporters faced a win-win election. Unlike much of the Democratic base, they were prepared to brush off the whole white supremacy revolution (because they are safe from it) and enjoy the coming rewards. Currently, portfolio managers are shifting stock into ETFs(securitized bundles) tied into private prisons, weapons, and pharmaceutical companies, which will swiftly be deregulated under a Trump administration. The inevitable massive tax cuts which we’ll see under a Republican trifecta will translate into a great shift of wealth to the top, most likely unleashing a blue chip art boom in accord with Andrea Fraser’s finding that the best metric for tracking a booming art market is economic inequality. Well, you might say, good for artists; after all, some of this wealth will trickle down to them. However, there’s a steep political price: if the collector class takes a “neutral,” get-on-with-business position on an extremist government going forward, this creates a major obstacle to the potential for the art world to act as an organizing hub in response to the coming political shift.

Artists and art institutions in the US depend almost entirely on the philanthropy and collecting power of our financial elites. On one hand, a major political transition is more directly impactful on the arts in countries where institutions are wholly state-funded. Currently in Poland, where the new Rightist Law and Justice party has recently taken root, some progressive museum directors have already been replaced. But because we rely on the private sphere here in the US, we face a unique danger of an “apolitical politics” that holds business and trade on a higher level than political participation and takes political disruption completely off the table. If the markets under a Trump presidency continue to generate profits for the 1% — even through policies toxic to ordinary citizens — the elites on institutional boards will have lost any personal incentive beyond mere sympathy to support a new role that art institutions might have to play. Art institutions nationwide that seek to readjust their missions to offer space for anti-Trump organizing, sanctuaries for victims of the the white supremacist danger uncorked in the election, or simply exhibit artworks that overtly challenge the regime, will likely bump up against funders who are keen to prop up business as usual because institutional meshing with business interests of galleries and auctions is working out well for them. The regulations against political advocacy that are embedded in the requirements to maintain non-profit status will provide additional barriers. Our neoliberal system of private enterprise and corporate-structured non-profits could trap us if we do not address it directly and respond to the conflicting interests it has set up.

The art world is a strange land. On the one hand, it’s a progressive echo chamber. But if you look through the lens of financial and social inequity, the picture changes. For one thing, it’s a space of overwhelmingly white privilege. Although many artists do not come from wealthy backgrounds, many in positions of prominence do, and the entire art infrastructure revolves around the 1% like planets orbit the sun. You cannot be in a room with more billionaires than at the Miami Beach Convention Center during Art Basel. After an election in which the Democrats were outflanked on working class issues like trade deals and where the business-friendly DNC may have lost the election due to its inability to understand the current class reality in the US, I think it’s wise to examine the class reality of the art world in relation to what kind of agency can be accessed heading into a Trump presidency. The call to continue business as usual is not a practical, universal message; it’s a message that now only makes sense for populations that are safe from what Trump has in store. It’s a message that is tailor-made for the 1%.

Many people have been remarking that the only people saying everything will be OK are white males. The stark reality is that since November 8, 2016, things have been far from OK for millions. People are not safe from the predatory drug gangs on one side of the US/Mexico border and predatory militias on the other; they are not safe in the Deep South from those who will now enjoy an administration that winks at the white nationalist awakening; people are also not safe from the mega-storms that will arrive before long as we roll back environmental regulation; and people are not safe from the rising rents and debts pushing low-income families, people of color, working folks, and artists out of the cities that are supposed to be safe zones for progressive values. The story about blue islands of social and racial progress surrounded by red seas is not entirely accurate. The Trump administration doesn’t represent an occupation of the country by the Bible Belt or Rust Belt so much as by a group of New York elites who are among those rapidly transforming the cityinto a playground for the rich, evicting families of the 99% from their homes and raising rents. We will have to fight on more than one front.

As we organize an autonomous people’s resistance in the arts community, we will need the fresh participation of people not used to organizing. We also need people from Simchowitz’s level of economic privilege to part with their immediate financial self-interest and help support a resistance movement.

Collectors often talk about having a “good eye,” but it takes no connoisseurship to see what is coming. All the signs of demagoguery exist in the figure of Trump and his closest allies. The links between his ascendance and the anti-immigrant wave of Brexit, the anti-democratic rule of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Law and Justice in Poland, are clear to see. Democracy never meant falling into line when the KKK gets a direct line to the Oval Office. It never meant business must go on no matter what. It means thinking for yourself and trusting what you see. We in the arts must be prepared to de-normalize, organize, and resist as we never have before.

ArtFCity: A People's Monument to Anti-Displacement Organizing
A People’s Monument to Anti-Displacement Organizing


“Gentrification is displacement and replacement of people for profits”

–definition from the School of Echo Los Angeles

This definition of gentrification sits at the top of A People’s Monument to Anti-Displacement Organizing, a new collaboratively produced art piece that is viewable, as a part of the Third Wave of the AgitProp! Show at the Brooklyn Museum. In the words of its curators, Agitprop! “connects contemporary art that advocates for social change with many activist movements throughout the 20th century,”

The Monument currently functions as a community educational board with a narrative that will change as actions or new information arises around Mayor DeBlasio’s rezoning plans. It features a black-led activist group called Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP) that is struggling against rezoning in highlights in Crown Heights.

Why did this Monument get built?

As two of the artists who have participated in the collective process behind the Monument, we want to lay out the unique community-driven process we went through to produce the monument. We also wanted to show how the Monument itself is a mobilization tool addressing today’s pressing issue of gentrification in Brooklyn and around the city.

Before we begin, though, it’s it’s important to lay out what’s at stake. Housing and gentrification is on everyone’s minds in NYC since just this past March, the city council recently passed the mayor’s“affordable”housing plan, known as mandatory inclusionary zoning. Critics of the plan say it would allow developers to build taller and denser buildings in the 15 neighborhoods he’s targeting for rezoning in low-income neighborhoods across the city – from East New York to Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. Mayor DeBlasio claims that as long as 25-30% of the apartments rent out at less than “market rate” value then the rest can be market rate – but the so called affordable housing is far from affordable for those that currently live in those neighborhoods.

There is a lot of money on the line and the influence of those who want more of it is beginning to look a little nutty.  For example, JDS Development Group and the Chetrit Group have put forward a plan for a giant skyscraper in downtown Brooklyn that is literally twice as tall as Brooklyn’s current tallest building, the Fleet Building which is 32 stories. The building serves as a metaphor for the current massive construction boom in luxury developments that promises to remake the city if unimpeded.  

In some cases these new buildings include so-called affordable units, a term so far from reality it’s laughable.  Most so-called affordable units will be priced at 60 percent of the Area Median Income, which means that low wage workers, even if $15/hour can be achieved, will not be able to afford them.  Making this situation worse, are the serial arguments in the mainstream press lauding the wisdom of answering the city’s housing crisis by building affordable units into giant luxury developments ignore that what is deemed “affordable” will still push low-income residents out.

Given that most rezonings are happening in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and the majority of NYC jobs since 2009 have been created in low-wage industries, the potential number of displaced residents could be much larger than current estimates. Low wage earnings do not even come close to keeping pace with market rents. DeBlasio’s plan simply does not speak to that reality.

And it certainly doesn’t speak to the reality many people of color face in the city. This process disproportionately affects people of color, because concentrations of more affluent residents move into neighborhoods to populate these developments. Federal studies show that on average the net worth of African American families is approximately one fifteenth of white families. So rezoning leading to extremely high market rate rents and those slightly below market contributes to the whitening of city neighborhoods.  

Leveraging Our Collective Power as Artists and Activists  

It’s important to note that our A People’s Monument to Anti-Displacement currently in the AgitProp! show at the Sackler Center is not the result of an invitation by the Brooklyn Museum but rather came out of a demand and subsequent negotiation between the museum and artists after the fallout from the Real Estate Summit in November 2015.  Activist coalitions like Brooklyn-Anti-Gentrification NetworkArtist Student Affordability Project (ASAP), as well as artists in AgitProp! like Like Not and Alternative and the Illuminator Collective organized large protests which were widely covered in the press, building up public pressure on the museum for a negotiation process to begin.  

Timing was everything. The show organization, which was conceived as an exhibition curated  in three “waves”— first round of artists, chosen by curators, were asked to choose the next round, who in turn chose the third wave— opened right after the protests against the Museum and the Real Estate Summit. This collision of the protests–clearly a source of embarrassment to the institution– with what was meant to be a historic political art show that would highlight their progressive cultural agenda,  provided a unique opportunity to pressure the museum itself to support an honest dialog about gentrification.

Come January 2016, only two months after artists and activists had put pressure on the museum’s tacit support of local real estate developers, a group of us met with museum curators Saisha Grayson, Jess Wilcox, Catherine Morris, Stephanie Weissberg, and the new director, Anne Pasternak.  In this meeting, we echoed the demands at the heart of the November protests, calling for the  museum to never again rent their space to a Real Estate Summit. Additionally we asked  museum to issue a statement that they would stand with the local community who is facing displacement and proposed adding an additional space to the exhibition for programming that spoke directly to gentrification. Although the Monument process has moved forward, we have yet to hear a response from the director regarding a change in rental policy or the proposed statement.

That’s been a great disappointment and one we’d like to addressed while the monument remains on view. That monument was produced in the period after the meeting—February through April—by a collective formed to to carry out anti-gentrification level of the show.  This  consisted of Agitprop! artists along with artists of color and most importantly people organizing against displacement in Crown Heights. Some of the artist collectives currently in AgitProp! like Not An Alternative, The Illuminator, Occupy Museums, Ultra-Red along with artists and cultural workers like myself (Betty Yu),  Sarah Quinter, Antonio Serna and Alexander Dwinell met with Alicia of MTOPP regularly for three months to sketch out the key concepts ofThe Monument. Far too often, we see social justice art, culture and media created by a small white group of artists who are removed and lack first hand experiences with the issues they are seeking to expose.  The group of artists who decided to donate their labor to help produce this wall – all in one way or another felt a visceral connection to the issue of displacement.  


Agitprop and Pop Ed Meet – So what is in the actual Monument?

One of our hopes for the monument was that it would debunk popular misconceptions about rezoning—he big one being that they are inevitable because development, like capitalism, is process that can’t be disrupted. Another pervassive myth  is that rezoning is, as Mayor De Blasio likes to purport, the best solution for affordable housing (which it is not).

More specifically The Monument features the local organizing fight headed by The Movement To Protect The People (MTOPP) a black-led community organization that has been successfully fighting upzoning of the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn for the two years. It shares effective organizing strategies and tips which has been successful so far in stopping the rezoning process in Community Board 9. The rezoning would allow for massive displacement of mainly Caribbean low-income residents and families in the part of Crown Heights that borders Lefferts Garden.

Through graphics, facts and visuals – the Monument illustrates the struggle against displacement of people of color across the city and presents specific information about the fight against rezoning in Community Board 9: the Museum’s own backyard. For example, we added a section called “Agents of Gentrification” which exposes all the parts that are working to displace and gentrify – particularly the NYC Planning, REB-NY, greedy landlords, politicians. We put together a map showing rent burden areas of Brooklyn, showing that communities of color are most rent burdened, meaning they spend upwards of 68% of their income on rent. And finally, we outlined “the Great Con” —tricks used to con communities into participating in the rezoning process, and a map called Displacing People of Color’ which shows the decrease black and latino populations and the growing white (non-hispanic) populations.

The video in the center of the monument shares MTOPP’s effective organizing strategies.  It also highlights the brutal arrest of Alicia Boyd, (one of MTOPP’s lead organizers) at a Community Board 9 meeting. Itshows the full arrest unedited – as Alicia is being dragged by 4 police officers with a table almost crushing her. This scene demonstrates the way police have been used to repress community opposition to rezoning and gentrification.  




Central in the monument is a six-minute video documenting the fight to stop the rezoning of Crown Heights/Flatbush, a fight that is occurring on the doorsteps of The Brooklyn Museum. The video highlights the insidious role of local city council members as well use of police force as an state apparatus to repress dissent.

The Urgency To Act

The monument also is intended to act as an organizing station against displacement and gentrification. We created sections entitled “Tips for Organizing Against Rezoning” and “Take Action” which invite people to participate in the fight to stop rezoning in Crown Heights/Flatbush and citywide. A petition demand no rezoning in Community District 9 (in Crown Heights/Lefferts Garden)  is on display for visitors to sign.

Most importantly, though we wanted to ensure that the voices of those most impacted by gentrification–namely people of color– guided the content and overall political vision of the piece. Solutions and ways for people to plug in were essential as well. As a group we were clear that The Monument must be a piece of “AgitProp” that serves its’ utility as art that can agitate, educate and provoke the public to help take action to help stop massive gentrification in New York City.


Betty Yu is a Chinese-American NYC-based interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, media educator and longtime social justice activist. She is a co-founder of a newly formed collective, Chinatown Art Brigade.

Noah Fischer is a Brooklyn-based artist and direct action organizer with Occupy Museums and Global Ultra Luxury Faction.

"Agency in a Zoo: The Occupy Movement's Strategic Expansion to Art Institutions" in Field Journal


Part 1: Introduction

It appears that the 2011 movements are now dead; we know for a fact that they were violently repressed in nearly every case. Today, protesters from Tahrir, Moscow, and squares in other cities continue to face harsh political retribution including imprisonment and torture.[1] However, the picture of a movement that ended after a few months in 2011 changes when we consider subsequent occupations such as Occupy Gezi Park in Istanbul (2013), Occupy Central with Love and Peace in Hong Kong (2014), World Cup Revolt in Brazil (2014), or the rolling #BlackLivesMatter protests in the United States (2014—15), we realize that the picture of worldwide revolt is not a painting from the past; that it is not even a picture, but a reality we are still living today. This confusion between image and reality of movements touches on the political challenge that is currently most central: the mesmerizingly visual quality of a market-dominated society, a space where one’s thinking is inundated with fabricated mini-narratives constantly trying to frame reality. Spin has never been as powerful as it is today: in the United States, democratic elections are flooded with capital and replaced with enormous public relations campaigns–parallel to other forms of entertainment. This is why current financial inequality and anti-democratic trends appear as cultural rather than political challenges. In this essay I argue that the tactic of occupation so central to the 2011 movements was a unique and effective response, dealing in a much more subtle way with the mechanisms of cooption than previous uprisings. I will argue that this phenomenon has everything to do with art: when the squares were evicted, the movements brought the strategy of occupation into cultural spaces and, perhaps most prominently, into art institutions.

Upscale art milieus–from upscale art fairs to major museums–in their surging economic significance and the popular fascination they arise, are being hacked to reveal a massive new wave of social, racial, and economic inequality at the epicenter of high-art luxury. In some cases this is meant to apply pressure on the 1%, with a leverage that would be nearly impossible to access in other spheres. For example, Gulf Labor’s campaign, now in a direct negotiating stage, is aimed at the new Guggenheim museum in Abu Dhabi, highlighting how museums are involved in the rebranding of migrant labor-abusing monarchies and oligarchies, whose actual repressive turns are remade to look like art-loving destinations for a particular global progressive class.[2] We have seen spirited rejections of curatorial programming connecting Creative Time with Israel’s military industrial complex,[3] and a successful artist-led call for Sydney Biennial to cut all ties from its founder and lead sponsor, Transfield Holdings, an investor in immigration detention centers. [4] We have seen #BlackLivesMatter actions staged at the New York Armory art fair, importing the issue of police violence and, beneath it, structural racism, to 1% watering holes without invitation.[5]

Yet the movement’s use of these art stages touches on a widespread anxiety. Generations have witnessed the absorption of political dissent by soft and cooptive, rather than antagonistic, responses from capitalist institutions–including advertising corporations, private academies, and art institutions. Therefore, it makes sense to take a hard look at whether art institutions only serve as traps set by the elite to absorb dissent or if they can contribute to the shift away from late capitalism that these political movements demand.

This question is posed in an essay published in the first issue of FIELD[6] where its author, Sebastian Loewe, argues against the Occupy movement’s use of artistic platforms and concludes by advising activists to address the systemic foundations of inequality instead of “migrating to the art world.” Playing the protagonist in Loewe’s sweeping portrayal of the Occupy Movement, and what Loewe characterizes as its “fatal flaw” of moralistic politics, is the figure of the movement-affiliated artist, whose artworks “express a longing for political morality through the means of art and artistic direct action.” The artist in Loewe’s portrayal is not only romantically naïve but lethally dangerous to the movement. Loewe theorizes that the Occupy Movement’s very last gasp of air and subsequent rigor mortis can be attributed to two art exhibitions that occurred in 2012: the 7th Berlin Biennale and dOCUMENTA13.[7] Protesters, apparently searching for opportunities to advertise the movement, instead led it into a fatal trap.

At the crux of Loewe’s critique[8] is the idea that representation and politics don’t mix. This is argued more or less in the following way: once inside the gates of the Biennale, the protesters gazed into the eyes of the art world and were turned to stone. The result was a transformation of political intention into immobilized aesthetics with the ultimate effect of reinforcing the status quo itself. According to Loewe, this occurs automatically when the image of protests is foregrounded as art, because the institutional acceptance of progressive values is fully demonstrated as a kind of righteous beauty, cancelling out the need to protest further. Loewe explains it this way:

“Once the camp is perceived as a work of art and not just a political occupation, it is connected to a longing for sensuous perception and the “satisfaction to higher spiritual interests”, as Hegel puts it. All initially political aspects of the Occupy camp are then bound to aesthetic pleasure, which means they are bound to the personal taste and mental stimulation of the viewer. Potential political activists thus become an audience.”[9]

My response begins with an attempt to bring this critique into proper scale and into the political realities of our present moment. By asserting that two German art exhibitions represent the entire transnational 2011 movements’ Waterloo, Loewe’s theory minimizes the primacy of asymmetric state violence impacted on the 2011 movements. Nearly across the board, we saw a coordinated demonstration of militarized police power, breaking its own laws and clearing the peaceful protest squares through beatings, unlawful imprisonment,[10] conspiracy, and subterfuge.[11] Meanwhile, the speedy passage of draconian legislation tailored to the occupations serves as a chilling reminder of the unification of lawmakers and industry against grassroots democratic movements, clearly registering a threat to future occupiers. This is not to brush aside the importance of the cultural stage, which is what I will mostly discuss here. However in this case,[12] to overly endow the art world[13] with movement-killing significance bypasses an opportunity to examine how hard-edged anti-democratic tendencies, including physical violence, emerged from behind a soft neoliberal veneer to snuff out grassroots democracy. This narrative runs directly counter to the illusion spun by capitalist democracies (an illusion only conjured for those with white privilege in the first place), which creates the image of a world in which police enforce laws protecting public free speech and public assembly rather than unleashing illegal violence on its practitioners. The fact that leadership was fearful enough of these peaceful uprisings to temporarily remove the veil and resort to autocratic methods is the key lesson about the end of the square stage of the 2011 movements.

Zooming back down into the art world and Loewe’s theory that it automatically aestheticizes protest, we might begin by thinking more about the illusions that the art world conjures about itself. Respected art institutions such as the Venice Biennale or the Museum of Modern Art in New York are still widely viewed as neutral spaces for critical thinking and aesthetic contemplation, somewhat removed from the aggression of market forces. Breaking this myth by showing that many art institutions function as core organs of neoliberal ideology production is a necessary step in understanding how the expansion of the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) into these spaces was of a strategic rather than naïve character. Within the first weeks of OWS, one of my groups, Occupy Museums (OM), planned actions at MoMA with the understanding that we were enlarging the domain of the contested spaces of Wall Street (via museum trustees, along with many other connections I will describe later) rather than “migrating” to neutral spaces in search of resources, as Loewe claims.[14] The Occupy Wall Street movement understood museums as viable targets to challenge normalized economic inequality—as extensions of Wall Street.

Yet Loewe’s discussion of the 7th Berlin Biennale and dOCUMENTA 13 concerns an interaction between activists and art institutions that was not apparently about “targets”–in other words, not antagonistic, but sympathetic, and it must be acknowledged that there is a difference between occupying museums with and without invitation, even if the final political intention is the same. This interplay between outside and inside seems to be the danger zone for cooption, but a deeper appreciation of the thinking of those involved in the movement reveals it as somewhat of a false duality—a claim that I will discuss in relation to the 7th Berlin Biennale, where the approaches concerning exterior and interior worked in tandem. The key is understanding the overall political challenge—not just that of the art world–as a problem of images.

Perhaps a metaphor will help paint a clearer picture of how representation and aesthetics might work in relation to occupation, and there is a very concrete one in the situation described at the 7th Berlin Biennale: the human zoo. In his essay, Loewe remembers: “In Berlin the public considered the intervention to be kitschy, and it was referred to as a human zoo.”[15] I propose to consider this zoo in greater detail—how was it constructed spatially and ideologically? How might the human zoo relate to the history of museums? And, also, could the occupied squares also be seen as zoos? If we ask ourselves in relation to the 7thBerlin Biennale about the border of this human zoo, we might realize that it was in fact borderless, and we might encounter a useful tool for understanding the nuanced tactic of occupation as it relates to the specific challenges of neoliberal culture-scapes, which are constructed around a borderless market.

Speaking of nuance, questions about the exact meaning of the Occupy Movement lead into a terrain of political, geographical, and temporal complexity that brings the actual life of the 2011 movements into view. In Loewe’s text, use of such phrases as “Occupy’s general world view”[16] confuses things because OWS, occupations in Hong Kong, Germany, and Madrid (which is the Indignados of M15 Movement preceding Occupy Wall Street) are all discussed interchangeably as one same movement called “Occupy.” However, the movements under the particular meme of “Occupy”–the more than 300 other US Occupations,[17] Gezi Park Istanbul, Central Square With Love and Peace, Hong Kong, and many others–often have no more in common with one another than what OWS shares with the politics of Tahrir Square (Arab Spring), the Icelandic Revolution, or the Israeli Tent Movement. It is not wise to conflate a movement challenging Wall Street’s dominance (OWS) with one concerned about China’s control over local elections (Occupy Central), yet the collapse of this complexity is convenient because it’s only possible to characterize an entire transnational political process as “moralistic” through artificial constructions. This can be avoided by referring specifically to movements (or groups) by name, such as M15/Puerta del Sol or Occupy Wall Street in New York. Or, when there is a reason to speak generally, referring to the 2011 Movements. When discussing the 7th Berlin Biennale, political parsing will add a lot to an analysis, since political differentiation was present in microcosm in the Kunstwerke.

Part 2: The Human Zoo in Berlin

I was a participant in the seventh Berlin Biennale, among those invited from the Occupy, Blockupy, and M15 movements by curators Joanna Warsza and Artur Zmijewski to make use of the main space of the Kunstwerke as, in Zmijewski’s words, “a situation that we don’t curate, supervise, or assess.”[18] As it turned out, this space, which had been laid out with temporary structures for assemblies, projections, and art-making by the host group, Occupy Berlin, sat below a public viewing platform. In one smaller adjacent room also within that same exhibition hall, invited activists cooked reclaimed food and in another one, we slept on mattresses laid out on the floor en masse. Biennale visitors did not tend to enter these rooms, so their main experience was peering down on activists in the main space working on computers, having assemblies, or spray painting signs that gradually crammed the walls with a mishmash of slogans and graphics .

As is now well known, the arrangement was quickly referred to by the press as representing a human zoo, and this name was also soon used by those of us participating. In fact, I am among those quoted by Loewe in his FIELD essay, stating that our occupation was a “human-zoo.” In the context of his essay, my statement sounds like an admission that the situation didn’t provide any meaningful agency for the 2011 movements. But Loewe misunderstood the meaning of my statement: this zoo-like quality was not inherently a problem. Rather, I saw the specular quality of our position in the biennial as a useful tool. To understand how this could be requires me once again pull back for a wider view of movement political thinking.

As Chris Hedges writes, “If we are not brutal about diagnosing what we are up against, then all of our resistance is futile.”[19] One possible understanding of neoliberal capitalism is to see it as a series of enclosures separating apparently free social space into racial and class-based containers, which, although minutely controlled, often have no apparent boundaries. Consider that Americans, citizens of a nation that relegates by far the world’s largest population of human beings to years behind bars and concrete walls, while separating itself from its neighbor Mexico via a militarized multi billion dollar fence still stand at the remnants of the Berlin Wall and wonder how such an ideological monstrosity could have ever existed. On one hand, this simply speaks to the persuasiveness of capitalist ideology to render physical control invisible. But there is also a grain of truth here: social control under late capitalism cannot be boiled down into a monolithic policy, it’s often carried out through a double system just now coming into popular consciousness through a closer look at police violence sparked by #BlackLivesMatter protests: physical force keeps legally disempowered immigrants and traditionally repressed black people in check. But instruments of distraction and social normalization, enforced through a logic of visibility are the favored weapons used to neutralize revolt potential among the rest of the 99%.

In this situation, citizens are now brought into total visual exposure to the market. With the continual tracking of metrics of personal information ushered in by the ever- accumulating technologies of credit cards, video surveillance, and the myriad forms of social media, we have lost control of our lives as non-abstract existences whose value lies beyond image. This loss of control allows the world’s largest corporations to easily hunt down citizens and non citizens with scientifically precise advertising weapons. This citizen is hunted not in order to be shot, stabbed, and eaten or displayed as trophy, but rather to continue their “normal” lives in a completely depoliticized dimension: atomized into a sub-sub demographic and matched up algorhythmically with the corporate bottom line which is extraction of common resources transformed into private profit. We can see how this system parallels the hunting of wild animals for display in a zoo, which is also a zone of total exposure to a market, where the normal existence of the animal is supposed to continue in a completely controlled and capitalized visible format. [20]

A second function of zoos is to display prone animals to visitors in order to demonstrate the superiority of one species over another. By this logic, the current near complete penetration of the market into private life signals the superiority of the 1%, who, taking the cue, began indulging in evermore reckless hubris such as the 2008 crash and subsequent public bailouts. But this of course has sparked a backlash in the form of the 2011 political movements and their continuation. This brings us to a theory of occupation: occupiers of Zucotti/Liberty park or Puerta del Sol rather than fleeing this zoo, voluntarily stepped into highly exposed public spaces for indefinite periods of time, often in 24/7 view of corporate television vans as well as media outlets and social media. The squares were watched from the inside and outside in extreme detail: sleeping, eating, yelling, organizing, and doing nothing? everything had an audience, as if the protesters were zoo animals. In most cases space was held not by any viable challenge to military or police forces, but rather through the temporal continuity of compelling public spectacle of the occupations themselves. Why did this ongoing living in public seemed to contribute the greater politicization of the occupying community and successful dispersal of its messages, rather than to atomization and extraction?

Perhaps the ongoing exhibition of grassroots democracy short circuited a capitalist imperative in which time not spent in the pursuit of profit becomes simply inconceivable and taboo–indeed the attempt to share power has been repulsive to free market ideologues for centuries[21]. But the success of occupation also makes me think about the primacy of artists and artistic tactics in the squares. Like grassroots power-sharing, non-market oriented art practice generates what capitalism can only understand as redundant production- a production which Greg Sholette calls “dark matter.” Sholette states: “I attempt to reveal dark matter as a potentially vibrant agency already engaged in proto political processes of non market gift giving, informal self organizing, and in some cases, overt political resistance.”[22] Perhaps this understanding of political agency contained deep within art practice explains why so many artists took part in occupations and why it is so easy to imagine the squares as giant conceptual art projects.[23]

Whatever the reason for the success of the occupation tactic, it certainly ended a cycle of protests as benign representations of “bodies in the street”, such as the massive marches of the Iraq war in 2003.[24] As a general result of occupation, we witnessed a temporary flipping of the neoliberal zoo logic: rather than citizens’ lives brought into total visual domination by the market, the power and corruption of the 1% was brought into a plane of higher visibility to the eyes of the public. Legible images and languages describing this power began to circulate.

As we wonder how the tactic of occupation might function within an art institution rather than in a square, we must begin by noticing that art no longer has the monopoly on transformation from politics into aesthetics—daily life and meaningful political process abstracted by markets are present as normal functions of every kind of institution, within public or private space. This is in fact the core condition sparking resistance in the first place. It does not mean that art institutions cannot be undifferentiated from universities or banks or sports arenas: indeed, understanding their specific qualities is the key to tactical success. But it does mean that Loewe’s advice to activists to depart from the art world in search of firmer ground[25] does not help, as no such ground exists. Instead, we are left to face the chilling scale of our challenge. From a practical perspective, the effective mentality in facing this nearly overwhelming landscape of market based control is to shed strict dogmatic formulations in exchange for an experimental approach. We search for effective hacks, cracks, and hidden political potentialities, which might be hiding in plain sight. This gets us close to a framework for understanding the Occupy Wall Street/M15 movement’s intervention in the 7th Berlin Biennale. But before we get into the specifics, it will help to look more closely at art institutions from a movement perspective.

Part 3: A Movement Analysis of Art Institutions as Targets

If we peer into the history of museums, doubts about their ability to aid the 2011 movements’ struggle seem well founded. Already in their early days as cabinets of curiosity, the 17th Century’s 1% amassed in them bragging collections out of colonial exploits, in what was seen as concrete proof of racial and cultural superiority (sometimes even exhibiting live humans exoticized like zoo animals). [26]. In this way, museums have long been official incubators of those cultural norms necessary for elites to illegally extract resources and abuse communities. Similarly, we see today a museum trend perfectly in line with rising economic inequality and its effects. Flet’s for example witness the rapid proliferation of US museums doubling as tax write offs and abusing loop holes regarding public service, where buildings attached to billionaire mansions on remote properties are considered public spaces.[27]

Art institutions are in fact core components of the Capitalist mother-board. Major museums and biennials, from MoMA to the Venice and Berlin Biennales, hover above a surging art market. The critical value they produce equals more expensive prices and ultimately, a transformation into stable assets of the art circulating through them, playing a similar role to that of a ratings agency. But in my view, their significance is not so much financial as ideological. The tight and opaque global network connecting museums, auctions, art fairs, and biennales functions as an informal networking channel for a global capitalist class while the image of this luxurious lifestyle and high production aesthetics are dangled before the noses of the 99% as the ultimate sign of aspiration: the juicy carrot on the stick. Meanwhile, the everyday functioning of these institutions -first through their construction, then their hiring processes, and their tendencies to employ unpaid interns-, incubate and normalize extreme versions of neoliberal precarity. In short, many art institutions have become weaponized as precise manifestations of a 1% worldview that the Occupy Wall Street Movement targets concerning the invasion of the public sphere by the private. Going back to the zoo metaphor, the entire art world would act as a tiger cage attracting crowds by the allure of beauty, exoticism, and power. However, it turns out that the crowds themselves are the ones being totally exposed.

Grey Zones

In the light of this exposition, the debate comes down to a struggle between a defense of art’s existence within the private sphere versus a notion of art taking place within the commons—as a natural inheritance of being part of a society. The Occupy Museums movement sees museums as contested sites: this grey zone is the fulcrum on which our activism balances.

Boris Groys has written in relation to the founding of the Louvre that “instead of destroying the sacred and profane objects belonging to the Old Regime, they defunctionalized, or, in other words, aestheticized them. The French Revolution turned the design of the Old Regime into what we today call art, i.e., objects not of use but of pure contemplation.”[28]

On one hand, this seems to support Loewe’s contention that museums automatically aestheticize and depoliticize their contents, acting as counter-revolutionary traps. However, if it is the icons of the 1% holding political power which are defunctionalized, then the politics are reversed, and activatinga revolutionary potential within the logic of display. The Louvre in Paris opened exactly a year after the death of the French king, allowing free entrance for the public. In its timeit was understood as a symbol of popular sovereignty (this historical contextualization renders the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a museum returned to conditions of repressive monarchy, especially depressing).[29] This history points to a promise implicit in public museums, especially their claim of non-censorship that famously echoed by president John K Kennedy in a Cold War context, when he stated that “the artist…becomes the last champion…against an intrusive society and officious state.” In their housing of this unfettered individual expression, museums are expected to create spaces for contemplation and exploration of political power, rather than for the superstitious belief in the latter’s legitimacy. This democratic function, though seldom is ever reached, and almost completely rhetorical and ceremonial, has nevertheless seemed to provide quite a bit of leverage to activists who know how to work with symbols. As Greg Sholette shows in his Dark Matter Archives,[30] a robust tradition of artist protest particularly from the early 20th century to the end of the Cold War provides credibility for the legitimate amplification of pressing citizen’s political issues in museums. This might also explain why protesters at museums act in relative safety from violent arrest despite the valuable assets held inside museums (compare police reactions with occupying banks or sports stadiums for example), and why subsequent interruptions of their temple- like domain have often provoked significant press repercussion.

Most of the historic actions such as Art Workers Coalition display of Vietnam War atrocities in front of Picasso’s Guernica at MoMA (1970) “Q: And babies? A: And babies,” (following a letter writing campaign to Picasso to remove the painting in solidarity) [31] are examples where the museum has been used to separate a persistently romantic notion of free speech and democratic values associated with art, from a hard edged reality of military campaigns and financial domination. This would not be possible with targets such as banks, the energy industry, and governments, all already reviled. Museums, as institutions well regarded in social life, are hence useful in exposing the contradictions between democracy and capitalism.

Interior Tactics

So far I have discussed how and why art institutions make good movement-targets, but what does it mean to occupy an institutional interior? Remembering that in every possible kind of space from the street to the office, people are under more of less equal exposure to the political force of the market, this boundary-crossing from exterior to interior might be less significant that it initially appears. However, it should not be taken lightly either, since it certainly means stepping inside the formal frame of power. Once invited in, activists are likely to be perceived as coopted, a perception with repercussions. From the experimental approach– a movement perspective, this means that sharper tactics are required for the operation, and that dangers need to be pondered in order to find counter strategies.

Activists accepting an invitation temporarily hold the institutional brand, becoming diplomats for the art institution, which compromises the credibility of their critical position towards said institution. This problem can be avoided by forfeiting the higher visibility usually generated by symbolic media-based action, and instead opting for the tactic of excavating deeper into the logic of the institution itself. This brings us to the 7th Berlin Biennale.

Part 4: The Occupied Berlin Biennale

We are now back in our activist zoo in Berlin, under the gaze of an art audience. From the vantage point outlined above, we can see that the “human zoo” is simply an outcropping of a much more pervasive condition where the neoliberal individual is brought into complete visibility to the market. This particular zoo was unique mostly because the paying visitors, media, and art world professionals viewing the Biennale, actually perceived it as a zoo, which was hard to avoid, due to the awkward concentration of the political dynamics of the gaze that visitors experiences in the Kunstwerke. The press immediately found this zooness distasteful, accusing the Biennale’s curators of having deceived activists for their own benefit. But by portraying the members of the squares as victims, many of these critiques revealed a deep seated political cynicism coded into the art world who mostly failed to pay closer attention to the actual political process or cede the possibility of agency to activists.[32] Was the curatorial thinking benign or ironic? Curators Artur Zmijewski’s and Joanna Warsza’s manifesto-like move to present only a concrete political function as art, rather than the usual pluralistic position favored by the market,[33] ran parallel to and was influenced by the 2011 movements, which had been unfolding in real time during their two years of research before the Biennale. As such, I would tend to see their concept as an effect of a particularly heightened historical moment, which swept their project up into its sphere of radicalization. However, their decision to designate a large portion of the Kunstwerke’s space to activists’ supposed free reign should not primarily be judged on the merits of authored concept. Seen as a rare movement/hybrid act, it might instead be a call to analyze the actual political dynamics that had entered the Kunswerke, to search for a new way to look at an exhibition.[32] I would suggest a few points of context.

The first key to understanding BB7 is that Zmijewski was a visiting artist-curator, rather than a permanent member of the institution. As primarily an artist (rather than a curator) already long acclaimed in Poland, he was not focused on maintaining the institution’s brand in the way that Richard Armstrong and other museum directors and curators continually defend theirs.[33] This meant that a potential wedge might have been driven between the curators and the Biennale institution itself. In my view, the barrage of bad press might have acted as this wedge, pushing Zmijewski into closer alignment with the goals of the movement rather than the goals of the Berlin Biennale Institution which is its positive branding and preservation.

The second key to understanding the occupied portion of BB7 is to see that it had been initiated, but not contained, by its curatorial premise. Though it is customary to see exhibitions as static pictures which is how most reviews of BB7 saw it, that was not the case in an exhibition that had invited actual movement activists from different regions for a long term stay. A political complexity unfolding over time emerged from this initial framework. For example, many participants were German—a nation then as now leveling austerity measures on southern Europe, while other invited activists had been key figures in the Puerta del Sol and other squares opposing these austerity measures. Berlin should not be considered a neutral political space. Although in Zmijewski’s previous video works such as “Others” he had gathered politically oppositional groups into the same space with a camera rolling, occupied BB7 concerned a much more subtle politics- a movement politics which has alignments and tensions which in fact have still not been well formulated. Dynamics and tensions inside this community opened a second track of the Biennale’s political content, worlds apart from available catalogs and wall texts, although paradoxically in an exhibition format, the invited public was not able to pick up on this content track.

The Biennale itself opened on April 26th with an assembly hosted by Occupy Berlin. Eventually, there were a few acts of vandalism lashing out against the institution itself: invited Spanish activists were expelled from the Kunstwerke for spray painting on the KW’s courtyard façade, while shortly after, Brazilian activists poured paint on top of Zmijewski’s head in the St. Elizabeth Church, an outpost of the Biennale which housed Pawel Althamer’s Draftsman’s congress. These antagonistic acts had served to further reify Zmijewski into a Kurtz-like figure, while dividing activists by allegiance vs. no allegiances to the Berlin Biennale, which generally echoed north-south European lines. However, this was only one stage in an unfolding picture. Occupy Museums was the one group in the “Occupy Camp” of Berlin whose practice had already been focused on the specific intersection between art institutions and the horizons Occupy Wall Street Movement. Although our goal for BB7 was primarily to build up a transnational action network on the artistic front, we knew that we would have to first deal directly with the power dynamics implicit in our relationship to the Berlin Biennale, as well as with the strange spatial fact of living inside of an exhibition. Our plan was three pronged: we would first publicly name the curators and the institution’s position of power in the situation- beyond the misleading “situation that we don’t curate, supervise, or assess.” (–need a reference–) We would then basically ignore the exhibition, using it only as a base to stage actions at targets around Berlin (banks and museums). Simultaneous to this we would quietly organize among the community toward more effective assemblies and working groups as a kind of Trojan Horse to infect that particular art world platform with the direct democracy spirit of the movements. We would thereby repurpose the Biennial, which we understood as a propagator of neoliberal political normality in its “default” state, into a useful site for our movement. We arrived in Berlin one month after the biennial opened, after the vandalism and schisms described above had already taken place. We also arrived after press reviews had mostly been written, which meant that we encountered a situation which was perhaps still alive politically but considered case-closed on a critical level.

Horizontalization Process

In the middle of June, after some preliminary actions which doubled as workshops to merge Occupy Museums together with activists from Spain, Germany, and Russia [34] we publicly challenged the curators with a statement called “You Cannot Curate a Movement.”[35] It read “All decisions will be made by the assemblea, which includes and embraces former curators, directors, workers, and the entire KW community.” We also proposed that “All… decisions pertaining to finance from the German Government [would] be made by the assemblea and mapped in complete transparency [retroactively] from the beginning of the biennial to the end.” Thus, we proposed to bring BB7 completely into the logic of the movement itself rather than a Biennale simply containing a specific zone for activism, whose perimeters were conceptualized by the curators.[36]

While such a proposal would usually be met with silence, or put through a beaurocratic process to defang and aestheticize it, [38] the fact that the curators were aligned in their interest to continue the experiment rather “protecting” the institution, and also the fact that the exhibition occurred in 2012 while the initial energy of the squares was still hot, led them to accept it, which opened the way for a historical experiment. Once accepted, the proposal was brought to a general assembly consisting of all KW workers: from directors to janitors and all staff members and guards, where consensus was reached. We then formed a number of working groups and further general assemblies to carry out the horizontalization process: each working group represented a merging of the Biennale/Kunstwerke team with activists. [39]

Subtle shift in power within the Berlin Biennale occurred simply through this act of congregating, proposing, and breaking the lines between curators, artists, activists, publics, and museum workers. When the guards brought up their unlivable wage in assembly (in front of the KW director as well as staff, actvists, and some visitors from the public), it resulted in a 30% raise at the following Biennale.[40] This small concrete win pointed to the fact that the biennale had become effectively politicized. From the activist’s standpoint, which at first had felt viscerally humiliating (visitors photographed us each morning as we walked through the courtyard to the only shower). It had meant regaining dignity, meshing more organically with the institutional staff and stretching out from the curated “zoo” beneath the viewing platform into the offices, exhibition areas, and courtyard. But it wasn’t only activists experiencing the transformation of the place. A number of Kunstwerke staff quit after the horizontalization experiment. As Zmijewski writes: “Political reality is brutal-after this experience the Kunstwerke went back to its former shape quite fast. But a few of the permanent Kunstwerke employees decided to quit their job. After the experience [that] they had during BB7 they were not able to continue work under the same conditions.”[41]

In claiming a kind of political success for this experiment, I note that most of the mechanisms of power such as access to German Federal Cultural Foundation’s actual budget, or financial decision making and especially the ability to break the temporal frame of Biennale programming were much too deeply rooted to touch in the few weeks of the experiment. It also did not generate the kind of withering media/shaming attention that Occupy Museum or Liberate Tate actions or Gulf Labor Coalition/G.U.L.F.’s uninvited actions tend to. However, the end goal of these high profile actions and campaigns from a movement standpoint are not only to enact reform on specific issues (with the exception of Liberate Tate) but rather to bring a movement horizon which is a post-capitalist horizon, into the art world. The horizontalization process was a successful experiment in transforming neoliberal hierarchies and temporal logic from the inside, even if temporarily, and along the way we won allies while strengthening movement networks.[42] It’s something of an irony then that the perception of a human zoo—as an object of ridicule, finally turned out to be an illusion that concealed a democratic experiment which was a genuine moment of institution-breaching by the 2011 movements. Since this process did not adhere to the codes of an art world where exhibitions consist of authored aesthetic or conceptual frameworks, and where political processes within art institutions are theoretically impossible, to most viewers, including Loewe, the experiment was automatically invisible. However, direct democracy and interior occupation do not depend on high visibility to function, they may even depend on invisibility within the art world context.


The years since 2012 show that the 7th Berlin Biennale contributed significantly to an international movement-affiliated network that continues to leverage the art world in the service to movement-horizons. BB7 participants followed up with similar institutional experiments including an attempt to horizontalize the Zamek Ujazdovsky in Warsaw, whose leadership was replacing permanent staff with a system of precarious labor. The campaign, called “Winter Holiday Camp” contributed to the ousting of the institution’s director.[43] Occupy Museums staged an exhibition called “Occupy Your BFF” at Momenta Art in Brooklyn, New York, which led to the reorganizing of its Bloomberg affiliated board.[44] In Germany, an occupation and physical intervention of the exhibition “Global Activism” at Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe challenged a logic of display which aestheticized global movements and editorialized their politics. In the ZKM’s exhibition’s version of global activism, Germany and its austerity program as well as its immigration issues did not factor into the global political picture. In turn, an international group including African refugees living in Germany physically altered the curatorial wall text scrawling missing voices onto white walls. Additional self made institutional experiments such as the recent Avtonomi Akadimia in Athens also share the DNA of BB7.[45] Where neoliberal gatekeepers try to self-servingly frame and coopt the politics of the 2011 movements, we have intervened, breaking through the professional anxieties which normalize and usually inhibit effective politics in a highly networked art world and conducting experiments with a political framework and artistic process that is inspired by the square movements themselves, showing that “you cannot curate a movement.”

The International cells resulting from BB7 have also proven to be an essential tool for waging international campaigns. In 2014 I joined the Gulf Labor Coalition campaign along with a small group of people who had been central players in the Occupy Movement, and transferred tactics developed with Occupy Museums and campaigns such as Strike Debt into an action campaign that turned up the pressure on the Guggenheim. Forming the Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) we occupied the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, finally forcing negotiations between GLC and the Guggenheim Foundation’s board of trustees—an important escalation after a five year campaign. The network forged in the shadows of the human zoo of the Berlin Biennale was the secret weapon that helped a mostly US-based group assemble a small army[46] to shut down a non-US branch of the Guggenheim museum. The action’s tactical complexity which included a number of boats to seize the Guggenheim Museum from the grand canal points to a new potential: a potential to act internationally at a high level has become an essential device for countering the global leverage exerted by the 1%. [47]

The current breathtaking recent global consolidation of power by the 1% has shifted the ground so that politics have totally ceased to function in the formal political sphere and the a logic of financialization has colonized a previously unthinkable portion of public and personal territory. market has seeped out from Wall Street into the financialization of everyday life. The battle for human equality and justice will find itself surrounded if confined to traditional political battlefields and dogmas. But with the understanding that “all our grievances are connected,” people are developing activists are finding threads to exert leverage in their own across many spheres; , and re-discovering the dignity of common struggle and solidarity. Artists are no exception to this process, in the occupation of art institutions we are seeing this struggle and this solidarity with the larger developing movements articulated with full intensity.

Noah Fischer is a New York based artist and activist. He is a member of Occupy Museums and Gulf Labor. Initially Fischer’s practice encompassed kinetic installations (Rhetoric Machine, New York, Oliver Kamm Gallery, 2006, Pop Ark, Kunstenfestivaldesart and Steirischer Herbst 2007) experimental theater (collaborations with andcompany&co), and object making (Monitor, Clare Oliver Gallery, 2008). Following the financial crash, Fischer exited from the private art market, initiating an inquiry into mechanisms of inequality through performance in public space (Summer of Change, 2011). This practice collided with the Occupy Wall Street Movement where he performed in the park as a giant talking coin, and then became involved in direct action organizing, initiating Occupy Museums with a manifesto on October 19th, 2011. Fischer has played a central role in planning actions and experiments at MoMA, Frieze, Guggenheim, 7th Berlin Biennale, KM, and CCA Warsaw, uncovering a network of allies internationally. He is currently working on a platform concerned with debt in the arts along with artist Coco Fusco, and maintains a studio practice in Brooklyn.


[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/apr/10/egypt army torture killings revolution

[2] http://www.tdic.ae/tdiccategories/cultural/pages/guggenheim.aspx

[3] http://hyperallergic.com/131497/over 100 artists and intellectuals call for withdrawal from creative time exhibition/

[4] Gulf Labor: http://www.gulflabor.org, Sydney Biennale Boycott: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/11/sydney biennale boycott victory shows that divestment works BDS: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/06/activists taking technion

[5] http://hyperallergic.com/189038/black lives matter demonstrators stage die in at the armory show/

[6] http://field journal.com/issue 1/loewe

[7] In this response to Loewe’s text, I will be discussing Berlin Biennale (BB7) and leaving out Documenta which I only visited for a day. In my opinion, Documenta was less radical of an occupation by virtue of not taking on its 1% institution more directly. It also contained a different activist context: either most of all German occupiers, while BB7 was made up of activists from Madrid, NYC, Berlin, Frankfurt, Turkey, etc. And in fact, it was mostly not the German Occupiers who were active in the institutional transformation described in this text.

[8] Two examples: “The attempt to frame political movements within an art exhibition, as in the oxymoronic ‘invitation’ extended to members of Occupy and the Indignados to inhabit the ground floor of KW, neutralizes their activism by filtering it through the lens of representation, rendering their action less urgent and their presence more harmless.” http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/7th berlin biennale/

“As some aspects of the recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations have shown, political discourse has become increasingly dominated by the impulses of neo anarchism, identity politics, post colonialism, and other intellectual fads. This new radicalism has made itself so irrelevant with respect to real politics that it ends up serving as a kind of cathartic space for the justifiable anxieties wrought by late capitalism, further stabilizing its systemic and integrative power rather than disrupting it. These trends are the products as well as unwitting allies of that which they oppose.” Gregory Smulewicz Zucker and Michael Thompson, http://logosjournal.com/2015/thompson zucker/

[9] http://field journal.com/issue 1/loewe

[10] http://gothamist.com/2015/04/02/ows_nypd_settlement.php

[11] http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2011/11/occupy protest coordinate crackdown wall street

[12] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lee camp/anti occupy law passes nea_b_1343728.html

[13] Which NYC mayor Bloomberg significantly called “my personal army” in 2011

[14] Here is Occupy Museums initial call to action: http://tumblr.artfcity.com/post/11652516894/occupy museums speaking out in front of the

[15] http://field journal.com/issue 1/loewe

[16] ”One of Occupy’s major political goals was to encourage the 99% to “assert [their] power.”[7] The claim at the very end of the New York declaration reads: “Join us and make our voices heard!”[8] Every single voiced critique of political, economic and social conditions was considered a valid contribution to Occupy’s general world view, a world view which claimed to become increasingly effective as more people joined.” http://field journal.com/issue 1/loewe

[17] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

[18] http://www.berlinbiennale.de/blog/en/allgemein en/7th berlin biennale for contemporary politics by artur zmijewski 27718

[19] http://www.salon.com/2015/06/04/we_are_in_a_revolutionary_

[20] Or held for eventual entertaining slaughter as the first zoos in Rome were, sited next to the Coliseum where animals fought humans.

[21] Alexander Hamilton, first American Secretary of the Treasury: “It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny? their figure deformity.” Speech in New York, urging ratification of the U.S. Constitution (21 June 1788).

[22] http://www.manifestajournal.org/issues/i forgot remember forget/artists embrace your redundancy introduction gregory sholettes dark#

[23] It it was a conceptual art project, it was one totally outside of the frame of the art world . When, in the first weeks of the occupation, Nato Thompson at Creative Time (and many others) attempted to organize a sanctioned exhibition in the park called the “Occupennial”, the idea quickly lost traction as the spirit of non-affiliation became apparent.

[23] https://www.greenleft.org au/node/53400

[23] “Instead of migrating to the art world and partaking in international biennials, activists should put effort into the analysis of the systemic, antagonistic foundations of inequalities, damages and grievances, in order to prevent moralistic criticism.”

[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saartjie_Baartman

[25] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/business/art collectors gain tax benefits from private museums.html

[26] Though many museum boards such as the Whitney are loaded with Goldman trustees. http://whitney.org/About/Trustees

[27] http://www.e flux.com/journal/on art activism/

[28] http://museologien.blogspot.com/2013/02/a question raised by french revolution.html

[29] http://www.moma.org/collection/works/7272?locale=en

[30] http://www.darkmatterarchives.net/

[31] (excepting the work of the Rolling Jubilee and related groups whose tactics have tried to hack into the market)

[32] “The attempt to frame political movements within an art exhibition, as in the oxymoronic ‘invitation’ extended to members of Occupy and the Indignados to inhabit the ground floor of KW, neutralizes their activism by filtering it through the lens of representation, rendering their action less urgent and their presence more harmless.” http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/7th berlin biennale/

[33] “In such a situation it’s not enough—in my opinion—to have art that only fights to keep its position, which just makes claims on public funds and participates in sharing the economic profits which it creates. That’s fine? but it would also be useful to have art that is smart and creative enough to take part in transformative social processes.” http://www.berlinbiennale.de/blog/en/allgemein en/7th berlin biennale for contemporary politics by artur zmijewski 27718

[34] Which flattens out all approaches, relegating “political art” into one possible sub-market among many potential options.

[35] Richard Armstrong’s letter to the editor of the New York Times: “Defending Plans for a Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/04/opinion/defending plans for a guggenheim museum in abu dhabi.html?_r=0

[36] (most of the Occupy Berlin activists stayed aloof from these actions and meetings.

[37] https://mbasic.facebook.com/148157235282782/photos/

[38] In fact, this is basically what happened with the proposal of Critical Practice to render the Biennale totally transparent. It was presented to the curators through official channels and foundered in the bureocratic process and was never realized. It lacked leverage or pressure on the institution. See this article by Critical Practice: https://ia601702.us.archive.org/20/items/ArtLeaksGazette/AL-Gazette-Crit...

[39] http://www.berlinbiennale.de/blog/en/comments/7th berlin biennale is moving towards horizontality 30631

[40] Which was actually two institutions, according to Zmijeski.

[41] During this time, the media working group was able to freely us the Biennale’s entire press list—not an especially comfortable situation for an art institution to be in.

[42] This is from an interview with one of the KW employees (preferring to remain anonymous) who participated in the process:

NF: “Did you attend any assemblies, and if so, how did you view the decision-making process?”

KW Employee: “Again, I liked the overall strive for consensus, but very often it resulted in too long processes to be able to participate on a regular basis. But due to the open atmosphere, I felt to be able to address topics with the curators that otherwise would go unmentioned….I know that some fellow employees had the hope that the experiment would have longer lasting effects.”

[43] http://www.revoltmagazine.org/Issue_03/Articles/BERLIN_BIENNIAL_article.htm

[44] Most centrally those affiliated with S.A.L.E Docks in Venice. http://www.saledocks.org/

[45] https://artsleaks.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/

[46] http://art leaks.org/2013/10/04/open letter to the workers and publics of cca ujazdowski castle from the winter holiday camp working group warsaw poland/

[47] http://artfcity.com/2012/10/03/the big trouble with bloomberg at momenta art/

[48] https://www.facebook.com/avtonomiakadimia?fref=nf

[49] http://gulflabor.org/2015/guggenheim in venice is occupied/


Glasstire: Debtfair Is All About Art and Here's Why


We couldn’t help but respond to Rainey Knudson’s recent op ed about Debtfair because she describes a project that we would not want to participate in. We see a different Debtfair—one in which art and artists play a powerful role in articulating the scope of the debt crisis, and illuminating possible ways out of it.

debtfair laura napier

“Sea of Oil”by Laura Napier, a Houston artist participating in Debtfair

Let’s be clear that Debtfair is an experiment and not a proven solution. It would be absurd for us to make claims on solutions to a crisis as out of control as indebtedness in the U.S. Within this picture, artists occupy a particularly precarious position due to low earnings and high tuition. There are exceptions, but by the numbers, this is fact. Rainey agrees on this point—it’s the search for answers in which we don’t seem to agree. Rainey offers the advice to basically not go into debt. The reality is that many are already in debt—not always for bad reasons, and many cannot avoid it. It’s a structural reality that has to do with the economy we live in. There’s also a complexity of this issue tied into issues of privilege, class, and race. Read through the artist narratives on Debtfair.org and you can see how it plays out in artist’s lives in great detail. One artist describes a typical conundrum:

“I always had a part-time job as a food server at a restaurant, so I have been working extra shifts. But soon I must consider whether I should go back to college and pursue something different and incur new debt, but maybe I’d find a better earning salary and position. No guarantees, except a debt to pay. Or just keep working in the way I can and save, save and save. I would have more time to create art this way and maybe sell a little more of it. It’s a gamble either way.”

debtfair ramirez

“Townhouse” by Fernando Ramirez, a Houston artist participating in Debtfair

We believe that respecting the specific complexities outlined here must be central to an organizing effort. This is where art comes in. Art is unique in that it thrives on complexity. It can express the spaces between, the becomings and the desires for what has yet to come. It’s natural territory is one of experiment.

Key to our experiment is whether artworks can help lay out the true scope of the debt crisis. We aren’t organizing the work aesthetically or by theme—the normal way that curating is done. We are issuing an open call within a specific conceptual framework in order to allow aesthetics that represent all artists and their economic realities—a view that is beyond the normalized gatekeeping conditions. Debtfair is and will remain open to any artist who wishes to share their work and their story.

debtfair James Scheuren

Untitled by James Scheuren, a Houston artist participating in Debtfair

But make no mistake, Debtfair is all about art. The project is inspired by a profound belief in art and the drive to make it. It’s a visual framework to harness the power, complexity, and range of artistic visions in order to open a dialog about the current debt crisis with the most powerful tool that artists possess, and that is the art itself.

Fernando Ramirez is one of the many Houston artists who recently joined Debtfair. His graphic pieces portray fascinating apocalyptic hallucinations that tie back to William Blake and medieval altarpieces. A subdued palette and scratchy cartoony linework pull them into another world. He writes, “I got into debt by funding my education with student loans in order to be the first in my family to complete a college education.” This reality points to the social complexity of the issue that we face. His work represents one node in a collective “bundle” of visions by artists who are managing economic realities not in isolation, but in solidarity.

We hope you will join us.

– Noah Fischer and Kenneth Pietrobono, Debtfair

"The Artist as Debtor" in Exploit/Milan

Translated into Italian and Included as "The Artist as Debtor" in EXPLOIT,edited by Giorgio de Finis, Fabio Benincasa, and Andrea Facchi.


From The Artist as Debtor website:

I’ll start by sharing how I came to organize this platform with Coco Fusco. I actually first met Coco while undergoing my own transformation into artist-debtor at Columbia University where she was a professor and I was getting an MFA. This is not to say that I regret the experience or feel cheated by it. However, it is remarkable to me how little I comprehended the intimate and long relationship with a financial institution I was entering into and how little this common reality was acknowledged among my peers at the time. I think most of us saw the loan as a good investment—letting our minds wander toward contemplating mechanisms of financial disempowerment were out of step with the gung-ho market-positive spirit of the early 2000s. Soon after graduating, I realized that the core political culture of the program (and probably many other MFA programs at the time) was basically Free Market Libertarianism. The assumed thinking was that we had all made an investment in our futures; the game was on, and it was natural to compete tooth and nail for success. We could not have foreseen the impending sweep of financial history, which would soon change the nature of the investment.

In 2004 I graduated into a red hot art market, a year after graduation had a solo show in Chelsea and work for sale in art fairs internationally as did many of my peers. Young artists- especially those in the circles of Columbia, Yale, and UCLA seemed to be regularly selling out their shows (I wasn’t one of them). Some were instantly able to pay off school debts while others got sucked into expensive lifestyles. Even though in reality most of us were not making much money, the increasing private infrastructure of the art world-more art fairs, websites measuring market value, and the like, seemed somehow reassuring. It felt that we were entering into a growing economy, which would support a middle class life or better for a lot of people. Soon after having that thought, I watched the economy screech to a halt, at least for me, and almost everyone I knew. After just a pause, while the extent of the damage to Middle Class America was still revealing itself—even before people’s unemployment support had run out, the blue-chip art world steamed on ahead: the top of the art market began setting auction records (and still is today). As I watched painters and installation artists enjoy shorts stints of selling followed by dry periods of head scratching about how the rent was going to be paid, the notion of one big tent-art-market was quickly exposed as more or less a pyramid scheme. Up until the crash I really wanted to believe in an art market that was democratic and accessible; a mechanism of support for the creative life. What didn’t cross my mind was that this free-market aspiration was no longer optional after signing the loan agreement. My $70,000 of debt needed to believe in it. This platform is about looking at this basic relationship artists have to banks in the financialized era, and brainstorming how we are going to get out of it.

The first step is pulling that ideology away from the eyes—a picture of market based success which deems everything else artistically uninteresting. Around 2009, after Obama’s cabinet choices meant that his hope and change campaign moment was exposed as status quo, and the wreckage of the economy and powerlessness against a 1% public resource grab was laid bare, I felt in my bones that a social contract had been broken at the highest level. Corruption-cases similar to those of Wall Street began to come to light and people began caring. The 2009 exhibition Skin Fruit  was a Jeff-Koons curated selection of Trustee and Greek mega-shipping magnate Dakis Jannou’s personal collection at the New Museum. Meanwhile, the worst-offending Hedge Fund managers like Steven Cohen were also busy cornering the art world markets, and I saw the art economy was not separate from derivative-era Capitalism in its conflicts of interest and speculative nature. The art economy was dominated by the very people involved in breaking the social contract nationally: the post-democracy billionaires who sit on museum boards and make up the collector class. I knew that this could culture not be confined to financial deals, that reified individuality, and assumed inequality was infecting the aesthetics, and social desires of the whole art world. This meant that my artistic aspirations could not then remain the same.

Reflecting back on my graduate school education, I began to see that market positivism had infected pedagogy: discourse and aesthetic preferences had intermingled sloppily with projections of success in the market. Though Coco had us read radical French thinkers from the 1960’s, Ethical frameworks as might be applied in our times were never discussed. Class was never discussed. The unstated peak artistic aspiration, supposedly based on merit, was an ability to command high prices. The unstated ethics was that anything necessary to get there was valid.

The crash short-circuited this way of thinking for me. As the damage from the foreclosure crisis gradually emerged, the picture of a country ravaged for decades by an elite power grab through deregulation, debt, rising tuitions and lower taxes and loopholes came to light. That the crisis fell disproportionately on the shoulders of black and poor communities long shut out of the American Dream helped wake up in me the value of social justice and solidarity which had been completely missing from my art education. This class solidarity made me highly skeptical of the position of artists in relation to collectors. An alliance with the 1% –a coupling of fates—started to seem like teaming up with the wrong side. Having dropped out of the gallery world, around 2010 I began to experiment with ways to challenge the ideological-financial context in public. Soon I was not alone in this wondering, but allied with a world-wide movement. I was heavily involved in Occupy Museums actions to highlight how financial inequality is structured into arts institutions. The actions such as uninvited assemblies outside and inside of MoMA, Lincoln Center, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were aimed at cutting through normative ideology where museums are considered benign houses of beauty and relevance. We wanted people to understand that as neoliberal institutions controlled by the wealthiest elites, museums have a role in disempowering artists and the public as they turn art into a new asset class whose value builds up and is harvested through public exposure.

The Artist as Debtor platform is a continuation of this work. It’s about shedding light on a withering pressure on our private and public lives as artists and citizens. Debt is so much part of American life that we have learned not to see it and taught ourselves to detach it from its historical connections to slavery and indenture. When it does make the news, large numbers pop out and grab headlines—like the trillion dollar plus debt load now riding on the backs of students and past students. But numbers mystify the situation as much as help it, because part of the danger of debt is thinking about it abstractly. It’s important to understand what is really at stake within a culture of growing financial extraction. The debt crisis is about stolen time and conquered dreams on one hand, and the build up of an ultra-luxury culture on the other. For artists who work in an industry that is already precarious, the specter of a personal debt crisis, along with rising costs of urban living are impacting on the core values of the field. Not only does the lifelong yoke of debt pave the way to permanent social inequality, homogenoization of race and class, but also ends up guiding aesthetic and political decision-making in the minds of artists. If artists need to keep two or three jobs to afford treading water in New York, they likely don’t have time to get involved in political organizing. Knowing that a political turn in the work is not likely to ingratiate them with collectors, these paths are simply avoided. Debt erases political agency.

Debt impacts visibility. Along with market success, minor celebrity status is a common goal of today’s artist. In a way contemporary art is more visible today than ever–for example, museums are getting good at drawing crowds with blockbuster shows and starchitect buildings situated in the new center of up and coming cities from Shanghai to Dubai to Dallas. Art has taken on a role as Globalism’s high-brow public relations. But along with visibility comes invisibility.

Greg Sholette’s Book Dark Matter helped me to think structurally about the part of the art world that doesn’t make the news media, not often seen in galleries, not found in art history textbooks, museums, not invited to the party at all, but invisibly generates value—this is the Dark Matter, a group of which I am a member. It represents a huge mass of labor; the labor of art workers from artist assistants and installers to museum guards to adjunct professors which craft valuable objects and exhibitions, and give the arts relevance and the intellectual legitimacy. All of this labor is extracted from the bottom of the pyramid by the ecosystem of tiered art world institutions such galleries, art fairs, art centers, and auctions, and congeals at the top ultimately as financial assets which are programmed to bring in windfalls for the capitalized and connected.

How does artist debt relate to Dark Matter? To the well capitalized, its another equivalent asset: stuff called SLABS which can be bundled repackaged and short-sold to the tune of big profits. However, the giant mass of art school debt is the darkest kind of dark matter because debt is future time, and it will therefore continue to keep people in the dark for years to come. It is enormously dangerous for the fragile future ecosystem of art.

A major challenge in the conversation about debt is that personal debt is tied into shame. Debt looks exactly like failure in a culture which idolizes and even requires success. In my experience, its a taboo in the art world to talk frankly about economic reality, class, and debts. So this platform is about dissolving shame in the acid of clear thinking, and letting some fresh air in. It’s about supporting a growing struggle in the most powerful way.


Sometimes it feels like turning one’s energy toward  the debt crisis, racial justice or the fight for climate stability is just too big,  just too depressing to talk about. We can wallow in this space of critical negativity and frame debt as narratives of victimhood which is maybe not so helpful. But there is something I find hopeful about debt: So many of us are in it. It seems at first to be about me and my own economic bad-decisions, as if my economic existence exists within a vacuum. But this debt was never really personal, our future money was immediately packaged into bundles by the banks when we signed the papers. And from our side, the fact that we are bound together by the same banks creates the best reason to embrace solidarity. Now what’s needed is to discover powerful tactics that will work the best in this age of the derivative. We need to reclaim our dignity from indenture. In my view, this road to empowerment also includes a new artistic direction in which we’ll need to reformulate aesthetics, authorship, institutions. I hope that this platform will be a place to deepen understanding about the relationship of debt to the arts, and to think aloud about what kind of art movements might arise when the shackles are thrown off.

The Dark Arts in The Enemy Reader

Imagine that you are in your studio, or at the desk of the office where you work, or in the classroom where you study. You are temporarily lost in thought about your creative process, thinking about what you will work on next, trying to make something of value. But how do you settle on a system that constitutes quality? How do you reconcile your own vision with the jury of institutional gatekeepers who curate artistic quality and keep score on your art practice?

Further, underlying this tug-of-war between vision and being viewed are the details and anxieties of your own condition as an economic self. Your time is limited due to work, or the process of looking for it, while the pressure to achieve the kind of production that will produce results fills every remaining free moment. Finally, if you are like the great majority in this situation, debt trails you, adding to your urgency, and translating into real-world pressure.

You’re trying to navigate the waters of success and freedom while managing the anxiety of your economic reality, shaping the way your artwork looks and operates in order to ensure that it fits into a perceived class context which can financially support your practice and pay off the very education that taught you to question authorities and experiment at will. It’s a creative narrowing based on a gamble that pulls you ever deeper into systems of extraction. What’s needed to break this cycle is to rethink the dynamics of artistic success.

Read the rest of the article here:



A Global Debt Museum in publication "To the Square2"


It was not hard to connect Wall street to MoMA: these secular temples double as factories where Neoliberal symbols are created and dispersed, reifying high value commodity, making labor vanish, and crowning the 1% figure of the philanthropist.  Museums grant visibility to artists and artworks, which in turn creates speculative value. The Mega-Collector/Museum trustees know well: whatever is displayed in a museum takes on instant cultural importance and increases in cash value.

However, visibility has its limits. Beneath the temple lie the shark-infested waters of the market: funding structures, financial behaviours and byzantine processes of valuation. Though we see a few splashes on the surface, such as the highly visible spectacle of auctions, the waters are clouded, and much remains invisible. But we are beginning to see mechanisms of deep poverty at play in the arts. In fact, the waters are full of deadly force: these are the murky depths of debt.

Perhaps the most daunting task facing the 2011 movements is shifting the economic behaviour that propagates inequality.  The core financial power-relation is owing someone money, being in someone’s debt. When inequality is codified and normalized, the roots of slavery grow strong. Today, people do not usually carry debt burdens owed to a single master; rather, our debts are bundled and repackaged anonymously, with no one taking responsibility. Corporations to whom our lives are numerical abstractions reinvest our debt to create a minefield which we must navigate. Artists are caught in lethal deep ravines of this financially-generated landscape.

Debt is about time: the minutes and hours and years of your life stolen. Indebted migrant workers in Abu Dhabi are building new Louvre and Guggenheim museums at this very moment.  They are working off the cost it took for them to travel from afar, and years of their lives are not theirs. Also their social relations and dignity waste away. In a very different context, artists in southern Europe and South America are having their public funding cut, their countries serving the highly selective debt-logic of the banks. So artists must navigate a path of obstacles to their creativity, placed in their way by trading partners across the globe who evade any stewardship of the cultures from which profit is gleaned. In the US, artists are drowning in the waters of  personal debt. The exorbitant costs of education and living imply a future of debt and interest repayment that diminishes the worlds contained in creative hours, alchemically changing them into leaden cheap labor.  Artists sit behind desks entering data for art galleries or pharmaceutical companies (it makes little difference), or stand on their feet as museum guards, ticking off payments on interest, never principle. Many artists today aspire to transform themselves into speculative stocks in a market known to be ruthless and fickle, for this is how debts are imagined to be repaid. This is the current definition of success.

Today’s museums are Debt Museums. These star-designed cultural temples function very precisely. They put a veneer of historical legitimacy and liberal rhetoric onto a project which one is otherwise bound to shrink from: the complete financialization of the cultural sphere, including creative play and the art-public. When the public is invited into such a museum, it’s likely a trap. The visibility of artworks, the buzz of exhibitions, are bait in the hunt for the public itself, which takes the form of reverence to the 1%, personal indebtedness, and ultimately, complete powerlessness before the financial institutions whose names are often inscribed on the museum’s exhibition halls.  

It’s time to unleash creative forces which connect debtor communities in every location into solidarity bundles. It’s time to build an ark which can weather these floods of debt.

"The Occupied Museum" in Artleaks Gazette

Artleaks Gazette, the yearly magazine of the international art organizing site Artleaks has published an essay which finds new connections in my artistic/poltical practice of the last years from Occupy Museums through GULF. Comments on the 7th Berlin Biennale by Artur Zmijewski. 

You can read the Gazette here

PDF of article here


"What happens when a political art practice collides with a global movement? My

answer is Occupy Museums, initiated in the most optimistic moment of Liberty

Square and still developing as a movement-affiliated practice long after the tents

were banished from public space. Like the OWS movement in general, Occupy

Museums (OM) challenges the structures and languages of economic inequality in

a highly visible cultural arena. This depends on rewiring embedded social assumptions

such as contemporary art’s default to luxury asset and a widespread obedience

to the professional aura of Neoliberal institutions. OM is therefore a march from

the conventions of the artworld toward a revolutionary mode. Yet conversely, we’ve

sometimes managed to complicate and refine OWS-style protest aesthetics and

tactics to an art form."

The Occupied Museum


Global Ultra Luxury Faction: March 2014 action at Guggenheim with OWS illuminator. Winter Holiday Camp, photo: Gabriello Csoszo.


This text is informed by my individual and collective practice since 2011.  The groups: Occupy Museums, Horizontal BB7, Debtfair, Winter Holiday Camp, and Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F) represent many divergent views, This is not meant to speak for these groups it’s one strand of thinking. I have asked Artur Zmijewski to add some comments.


What happens when a political art practice collides with a global movement?  This is my experience with Occupy Museums, a movement-affiliated practice, which has developed beyond the first season of Occupy Wall Street. At best, our practice has challenged the structures of economic inequality in a visible arena. We work to deprogram contemporary arts default to luxury asset and rewire from obedience to the professional aura of Neoliberal institutions, to a free and radical politics. Conversely, weve sometimes managed to complicate and refine OWS-style protest aesthetics and tactics to an art form.  But who is this “we”? In my view, the glue that held us together in Liberty Park still holds; we are a kind of entity. Occupy Museum’s core group, through a series of collaborative “cases” and often in coalition with other groups, has blossomed into an international network.  It can use different names and strategies at times, but always revolves around a core critique and practice.  We share an arsenal of tactics and an archive of common memory across borders and political contexts. We practice deep ongoing online organizing in order to meet up offline in substantial groups- temporary squares- to catalyze live situations. We are young and old, well-known and unknown artists and non-artists, museum guards who paint and sculpt, writers who act, academics, curators, unaffiliated thinkers and debtors. Among this community there is a potential to move beyond protest, extending the Occupy Movement into an art movement and offering revolutionary resources to a public sphere.  I propose to think of this entity and as an institution: the Occupied Museum.


Museums create enriching symbols and experiences, but these days, meaning-creation is undermined. In order for artworks to circulate as highly speculative assets, in order for luxury museums to garnish an ever-richer elite in the US Midwest, or in UAEs Abu Dhabi, certain boxes must be checked, and hefty cultural frames become indispensable. Museums guarantee importance—a key metric for market value.  As art gains stronger S.W.A.G


asset status, and a small group of art institutions and artists trade heavily on perceived importance, they devolve into emptied-out brand names turning out the highly visible “expected unexpected” which circulates on a global market. But this visibility depends upon the invisible labor (abuse)


and invisible debt relations


churning at the base of the pyramid. We know that the phenomenon of art masking over economic inequality stretches back into time: the history of museums runs parallel to the Colonial pillage of the Global South and museums like the Metropolitan in New York and Pergamon in Berlin are still today filled with stolen objects, even stolen temples.


But the age of the derivative and its crippling economic counterforce of personal debt along with the deterioration of the public sphere, represents a new crisis. It’s troubling to realize that the frames of visibility employed by museums support this crisis, and that they, among all the Neoliberal institutions have proven especially adept at veiling it.  

Occupied Museum practice, a community flowing through frames. Drawing by Noah Fischer

The Occupied Museum exhibits a continuous revealing of the private lines that permeate the faux-public space of Neoliberal institutions.  From the breaking of these lines flow art forms: the spontaneously unfolding performances, scripted interactions, illuminated projections


, collective sculpture, painting, and writing. I understand art as necessarily the outcome of an economic and cultural conflict. Its a creative clash between visible and hidden populations of a public and between visible and invisible art histories. This museum exhibits antagonism as a form of beauty and also as inspiration to act.


Visibility works in reverse in the Occupied Museum because the public is not defined as cultural consumer.  Sometimes the most important “exhibitions” are intricate, even boring or aggravating horizontal group processes which, although not crowd pleasing, explore the potential democratic (crowd-expressing) functioning of the frame in which we understand art.  Sometimes the hidden brutte-absurdity of power relations act as protagonist: police appear en masse in front of MoMA, the main gate shuts in the face of an elderly black lady during opening hours at the Museum of American Finance.


Other exhibitions have all the aesthetic spectacle of a blockbuster show, but without an invitation:  Philip Glass mic-checks the end of his opera on the streets in front of Lincoln Center while police standing in a long line barricade off a public plaza


or, hand-drawn dollar bills rain inside the “debt spiral” of an aggressively globalizing Guggenheim and there’s a moment of complete quiet.


The police always seem to appear to close these exhibitions.


In Liberty Square and other occupied squares around the world, many people had a collective vision of a culture transitioning beyond Late Capitalism.


Occupy Museums practice flowed from this optimistic early moment. As its trajectory moves through a series of “cases” or “frames” from Museum of Modern Art, to the Seventh Berlin Biennale, and CCA in Warsaw, the network itself, which acts as catalyst, is slowly evolving into a shadow institution. Because we propose a different cultural space around and inside of art institutions, our practice equates to collectively writing a mission statement, labor rights manual, organizational chart, and exhibition program for the Occupied Museum. With each case comes a unique political context, whether short-circuiting museum PR departments as they unethically expand to the Gulf Region, or figuring out how to communicate the urgency of the global debt crisis in a country like Germany where its barely felt, the Global Occupied Museum reappears in sharper focus as a global entity which can trace flows of global capital, across contexts. An arsenal of tools crack open impossibility, while a growing list of press contacts and friends within museums create greater impact and precision. Sometimes we work from the outside, choosing the date and time of unannounced “exhibitions;” sometimes we leverage invitations such as exhibitions or symposiums into radicalized occupations. Sometimes we find ways to merge with a museum, and even on good terms. I couldn’t give you an exact address, but more and more the lights of the Occupied Museum are flickering on.


First Occupy Museums action at MoMA, 2011,  Marching model of Queen Mother’s Home to the Museum of American Finance


Public Sphere: From Claiming the Streets to Unlocking the Zoo


Standing in Liberty Park in early October 2011, there was wide understanding that the Occupy Wall Street movement pointed to more than the 2008 financial sector abuse, it concerned a crisis in the definition of a public sphere. My experiences had led me to believe that the visual arts; one of the worlds largest unregulated markets, was central, not tangential to this crisis.


The visual arts holds a strange contradiction: pure symbolic and public value on one hand (culture) and cold hard asset on the other. These are two sides of a coin.


Rather than primarily highlight the auctions, galleries and art fairs which represent the private market, I thought to challenge the “temples”- the authoritative public-facing museums, where cultural capital is created on which all the speculation depends. Since this authority comes precisely from the canon: the very social relevance which is being privatized and fragmented through conflicts of interest,


it seemed logical that if one loves art museums and wants them to continue effectively serving the public, one would occupy them. Three weeks after the Occupation had begun, I wrote a manifesto called “Occupy Museums” which went viral, and soon became an OWS style horizontal action group, meeting on Mondays in 60 Wall Street. From October 20th, 2011, Occupy Museum went on a kind of weekly action rampage, cooking up different ways to challenge MoMA, Sothebys, Lincoln Center, many NYC museums.


In the first season we extended Liberty Park to the museum, holding general assemblies on the sidewalks in front of MoMA.


These were institutional collisions. We represented OWS, counting on our networks abundant resources: free printing, reclaimed public space, internal organizing lists, and our own media (livestream, blogs, social media) plus key relationships with mainstream press, won at the height of the movement. We stood in solidarity with the OWS governing structure, seeking consensus in movement-wide assemblies or working groups


when needed. At this stage, we were practically evangelists from what seemed like a radical new culture; an energy-producing hyper-connected human engine which was Liberty Park.  An infusion of this culture might make contemporary art institutions not just less speculative and corrupt, but also much more interesting than the stiff and corrupted institutionalism represented by MoMA.



Horizontal meeting at BB7 2012 photo: Max Liboiron, media working group at BB7


We often wondered what an ethical museum might look like. Maybe Liberty Park was already a kind of  museum? However, we had no chances to know whether  contemporary museums could be transformed from the inside since there werent invitations coming from US museums (who get most of their funding exactly from the 1%) to come and occupy them.  However, pretty soon, one arrived from Europe. We accepted an invitation from Joanna Warsza and Artur Zmijewski


and arrived at the Seventh Berlin Biennale a month after it had started, after the press had already declared it a failure.


Artur Zmijewski: We were trying to invite people from different ‘protestmovements and convince them to ‘take partin 7th Berlin Biennale. Our people were travelling to Madrid, Barcelona, New York, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and so on to meet and talk to people from Indignados and Occupy Movements. We started this work in 2011 and on this direct way the process of trust building begun. In the interview with Noah Fischer conducted by Joanna Warsza, Noah was talking about MOMA curators who are confronted with Occupy actions, but do not want to meet activists. So, we decided to invite activists. But with certain hope, that they can do what we are not able to do - to open art institution and start a process of the transformation of it. I did not want to exhibit them, I did not want to create a ZOO - I wanted to offer them institution itself - Kunst-Werke - which they could hack and use freely for their purposes. Thats how the invitation was formulated.  The first action by Occupy Berlin was occupation of Biennales press conference. It was a proposal by two representatives of this group: Grischa and Mario. We accepted it and during the press conference members of Occupy movements started to moderate it. They presented their manifesto and started open debate with journalists about “what each of us can do for global change”. It was a first moment when the art institution was really challenged by the autonomous action. As a Biennale we paid a certain price for it - we lost sympathy of the journalists.


Not being afraid of conflict is an essential tool for challenging institutional structures. Absorbtion  and other forms of cooption presents much greater challenges that open conflict, where dynamics can quickly flip. On arrival at the KW, we felt immediately trapped. We were led to a large bare-bones exhibition room in which to lay down our sleeping bags at night (passing KW visitors each morning to brush our teeth or take showers) and the main space, set up with circular benches for our assembly, felt exactly like a human zoo due to its architecture. Visitors would watch us from a viewing platform elevated about the large pit area. This reduced all political possibility in the assemblies to a performance of the behaviour of surveilled activists. In retrospect, the visibility and tension of this zoo was helpful.  It was a catalyst for the situation to unfold antagonistically. We moved our meetings from the zoo-space to the upscale courtyard where we planned actions at Deutsche Guggenheim and Pergamon Museum. At the same time, I began a series of private conversations with Artur. I saw that the negative press was to our benefit and challenging him to “go farther into his concept” and unfreeze the institutional frame which seemed to have cynically captured the movements. If this was not his intention, we would have to accept a way forward and out of the trap. Our group formulated a proposal called “You cannot curate a movement”


which stipulated that he and Joanna step back as curators and join us to try out horizontal direct democracy in the whole institution of KW, or as far as we could go. The offer was accepted.


Artur Zmijewski: I would say that they had some interesting tools, but these tools were not tested inside the formal institution. They had experiences from the squares, but not from daily work inside the formal institutional structure. So, the opportunity for Occupy Movement was to use their tools developed on the squares inside the institution of culture. It was not easy - for example majority of the activists were busy with “asamblea bureaucracy” - they had group meetings every day, but without conclusions. They did not know how to drill a hole in the institutional walls. Occupy Museum was the first group busy with the institution. Via their actions Occupy Museum was constantly provoking us - they asked to write them official letter from KW [signed by the BB7 curator and the director of KW] that they are artists and that their action is a part of the BB7. They wanted to give it to the police in case of troubles. We signed such documents, but we were not informed about the scenario of planned action. Finally we had a meeting in front of former Deustche Guggenheim in Berlin, where they made one of their actions. After the action they started to talk to me and started to treat me as ‘empty figureof art functionary, blaming me that Im paid by the German government and that I cynically built human ZOO in KW. It was difficult, but interesting moment, when the negotiations between us started. The whole conversation happened just on the street, when the group was surrounded by police which was protecting main entrance to the Guggenheim gallery. As a result we had a “street” or “square” agreement:  we will meet next day and both sides will have proposals ready to be discussed. I wanted to propose them to be a curators of BB7 together with me and Joanna Warsza. Their proposal was more radical - they wanted us to became ‘former curators, and to decide about Biennale and about the KW together with Occupy movement. Because both proposals were quite similar, it was easy to find a consensus. We agreed on activists proposal. We became former curators and activists started to penetrate KW.


The horizontal process began with a series of general assemblies attended by a wide range of KW workers and public including director Gabby Horn, former curators and museum guards. There was a mixture of skepticism and excitement and those present consented to try the experiment for a limited time. We quickly formed working groups to merge the workflow with the institution of the KW: there was a media and communications group, a focus on direct actions, on managing the space of the KW itself and on the research to make KWs budget fully transparent. I was in the media working group along with Artur, M15 activist Hector Huerga, and the whole  KW/BB7 media team, it became possible to change the official website and send collectively written texts as official KW press announcements to their complete mailing list.


Of course, horizontalizing the institution’s PR messaging center was a lot easier than navigating the deeper institutional levels of KW: only a first small step.  But meaningful research which would not have been possible before had begun and the discussion in the horizontalized working group was intense. Occupy Museums member Tal Beery canvassed the KW offices with a questionnaire, also interviewing Director Gaby Horn about the budget. (the director finally released a full budget to us, but we felt that there was more to the picture). The zoo was unlocked, and the practice of Occupying  Museums was turning toward reformulating museums based on what we had learned in the squares.


Artur Zmijewski: Certain period of time when the KW employees, former curators of BB7 and activists from Occupy Museum were working together I would call ‘carnival. The whole process was long - we were working one year to make 3 weeks of this carnival possible. But the institution became partly open and temporarily horizontalized. Activists from Occupy Museum tested their tools and shared their knowledge with us. We were able to practice alternative institution together with them. Political reality is brutal - after this experience KW went back to its former shape quite fast. But a few of the permanent KW employees decided to quit their job. After the experience which they had during BB7 they were not able to continue work under the same conditions.


In the end, the Occupied Berlin Biennale was a rich but confusing experience. It wasnt clear how much of the horizontality had been real, how much of it was a game in the KW sandbox. The general public was confused about what had happened. The attempt at horizontality between artists, staff, and public, and of total financial transparency dissolved soon after we left, presumably most old rules either never changed since we didnt penetrate the institution enough, or were reinstated precisely on the exhibition schedule following our departure. Even when it appeared that the museum guards has been given a raise in wages following their speaking up at the assemblies, I was skeptical that the happy concrete outcome might also mask a lack of engagement with the heart of our direct democracy proposal and its challenge of Capitalist normalcy.


Artur Zmijewski: Its a bigger problem. I did not realize on the beginning that KW and BB7 is one institution even if it looks like two entities - there is a permanent loyalty game. Employees are loyal to the director - when the new curator of the Biennale comes, they have to transfer a part of their loyalty on him or her. Mix of this loyalty and trust allow them to follow curatorial proposals. In case of Occupy Museum proposal, it became a problem. Curators agreed to be ‘former curators- they made a kind of risky step. Loyalty and trust allowed KW employees to follow the process, but not fully. The mid of biennale is a moment in time, when BB curator starts to lose his or her authority - loyalty of the employees goes back fully to the director of the whole institution. Even if they participate in transformation of the institution, finally would rather declare that ‘it was nothing significant for them. The curator will disappear in a few days - they will stay with the director. This loyalty game is another level of the Occupy Museum intervention. One of the employees who quit his job in KW after BB7 was a head of press department. He actively took part in the horizontalization process. Maybe he became more loyal to the transformation process, than to the boss and he was not able to invert it.


Skeptics could and did reduce it to a performed politics- a charade. On the other hand, most protests are essentially performances, which attempt the impossible and in so doing, make power relations visible and more malleable. The performing of horizontality at BB7 had uncovered potential strategies but also exposed Liberal mechanisms for dismantling or minimizing radical change.  One example: consumption-focused art media cant effectively communicate the process of an unfreezing frame. The Occupied Museum had to learn better strategies to co-create the narrative.


Meanwhile, the energy of the movement continued to dissolve, leaving us on an uncomfortable cliff of political relevance. A few further significant “cases” occurred at Momenta Art in New York


  and Truth is Concrete


in Austria but we did not succeed in going farther than BB7 in 2012.



Drawing to plan “Institution in Crisis”banner at CCA, WHC members holding up banner in front of CCA, 2013.


Winter Holiday Camp (WHC): Merging with an Institution in Crisis


If possible, uninvited or only partially-invited practice is probably the best case for radical political practice in museums.  It removes a “debt” to the institution, so when antagonism arises, we can proceed freely. In the art world, invitations, favors, and scratch-my-back connections among an endlessly networked community of individuals, each striving for the next opportunity, creates significant blocks- even self censorship again harder-edged political activism. The very real possibility of alienating one's powerful connections: curators/collectors/friends weighed against the professional and economic pressure to keep good position in the arts network is a losing equation for radical politics. There are few gates of entry, wealth is concentrated and the professional network is super dense.


,all functionally de-politicizing the field.  Committed “activist art” is quarantined into a sub-field.  On the other hand, creating a parallel, dense, radicalized network is a strategy of OWS and the Occupied Museum.


A year later, a case arrived where we could revisit horizontality in the museum, but this was a very fragile case. I was summoned to Warsaw to join Artur Zmijewski and Pawel Althamer in planning an invited project at Zamek Ujazdovski, which was itself undergoing a public crisis. Director Fabio Cavallucci was locked in a struggle with nearly the entire museum staff, the Solidarność union was going public about the matter. We began the project by forming an international working group, about half Polish and half from abroad, rich in experience of Post-Occupy institutional practice. After months of research which included invited visits to Warsaw and interviews with many museum staff


and after we publicly supported the workers, the project proved too threatening and was cancelled (with a budget-alibi). Finally, the group decided to go anyway, uninvited.



Hacking Institutional Logic:  Re-framing,  Acquiring, Opening


In the first days, we re-framed the entrance to the castle with a suspended sign. Occupy Museums member Tal Beery and I fashioned it from sticks which the whole group had ritually gathered  these in the Polish woods.


The sign read:  “Institution in Crisis.” This wedded the  conflict to the museum’s own visible brand, and at the same time, announced our arrival.


An essential situation for initiating the horizontality of the Occupied Museum is a truly  open meeting- it breaks hierarchic normalcy. This appeared hard to do as uninvited artists without access to the internal structure of the museum. However, when we ran into director Fabio Cavallucci in the galleries and offhandedly suggested an informal meeting, a seed was planted.  We occupied the meeting, growing it into a public event with the press, staff, friends invited. In this meeting we strongly voiced the fear and desperation of the unfolding worker-precarity in front of both director and workers, breaking through fear and silence. When the director tried to leave, he was blocked at the door by artist Joulia Strauss: a performed reversal of power. In the meeting, we also offered the Winter Holiday Camp project (including the meeting itself) to the acquisitions committee.  Later our offer was accepted.


The acquisition made use of a much adhered-to institutional logic whereby value and importance is attached to a thing once it is collected by an institution. Usually museum collections are treated as value-enhancing stamps of cultural capital, however  being in the collection comes with a kind of permission, a collected artist becomes a kind of diplomat for the institution, bearing a trace of its authority. We had first discovered this transferred authority as a positive aspect being exhibited in the Human Zoo of the Berlin Biennale.


Director Fabio Cavallucci signs the WHC acquisition document, WHC members at the Ministry of Culture. Photos: Gabriella Csoszo. 


Horizontality and other tactics concerned with institutional logic contain an inherent problem in relation to the public sphere: they are usually non-visual, unspectacular, and unsexy. They often consist of long meetings in which an agenda struggles through the filters of group dynamics. They can be far more interesting to those involved than an “outsider” Unfortunately- these outsiders are the general public, who are also supposed to be the voting constituency of museums.  We needed an opportunity to create a stronger connection to the Warsaw public as we had failed to do in Berlin so we planned an open event.  The Exhibition called Fragment: Collection had never been officially opened as it was intended to fill a gap in the program resulting from the early closing of a previous show whose high expenses had been used to argue for the cancellation of Winter Holiday Camp.


We used social media to autonomously host a opening – the “opening of the open institution” inviting local artists, CCA curators, and even the Director to prepare speeches.  During the opening, Occupy Museums member Imani Brown led people in a vodou cleansing ritual to rid the CCA galleries and offices of spirits.


The frame radically un-froze and we used the spaces and images of the museum differently:  the artworks on museum walls became catalyst for a collective political story-telling ritual. Artist Agnieszka Polska whose work was displayed in Fragment:Collection, sprinkled vodka on the each office door as a group of WHC/artists/public danced through the museums restricted office level. Pawel Althamer painted with children, irreverently spray-painting a mural in the middle of an installed gallery.

Artur, Noah & Pawels drawings in preparation of WHC, April 2013.


Circling Back to Visual Aesthetics

Though most Occupy Museums members are visual artists, we had generally downplayed the importance of visually beautiful or highly-produced aesthetics.


Instead, our actions opted for the less visual functionality of communication­,  usually in circles and using the human mic.  If we needed signage it was often made in haste.


Since the beginning in the park, we had defaulted to the OWS “pizza box” aesthetics which was partly due to urgency, partly as a sign that we are in solidarity with the movement, and partly to highlight democratic communication above commodifiable art objects. Experience told us to be careful with visuality: the moment we had stepped into the Zoo-like “Occupied” space of the BB7, it was clear that all the signage representing activist activity was working to counter-effect, the signs were like scalps collected by the institution- they didn’t signify empowerment.  Visuality was too-easy a target for co-option.


But I was sure that Occupy Museums wasnt necessarily a “post-studio” practice which entailed stepping away from the refined visual art processes. In drawing or painting one can access a free, non-verbal intuition, which we would not want to throw out in favor of countless meetings and digital communications. I joke that organizing museum occupations is quite a sacrifice for people who love to make things with their hands-we  essentially assigned ourselves unpaid part time office jobs. (To be fair, I’ve come to enjoy meetings, and especially the ubiquitous collective writing practice). We took this on in order for the international collaborations to function strategically. Returning to visuality was possible, it was just a question of discovering how such process could be reclaimed from market forces, which privileges all that is visual and mute and has a habit of defanging initiatives to change the status quo.  


In Warsaw, Pawel Althamer and Artur Zmijewski practice a painting/conversation which develops without goals.  They brought the tool into Winter Holiday Camp. This dance with the subconscious proved very effective for brainstorming the main strategy for the Occupation of CCA, and we also circulated the paintings themselves differently. A collective painting became the official document of acquisition of Winter Holiday Camp by the CCA, while a series of paintings we given out as awards to staff members. Some galleries were filling with collective murals. The Occupied Museum was now filling up with an abundance of visual art, distributed through a gift economy.  


Intervention at the ZKM “Global Activism” exhibition January 2014.  Manifesto hung on the wall of Guggenheim, first Global Ultra Luxury Faction action, March 2014


Public Space on Museum Walls

Though in Berlin we had requested that curators “step back, we had not dealt with the rest of the artwork in the Biennale and with exhibition logic in general: walls are the main tools of museums. At ZKM Museums “Global Activism” exhibition co-curated by Joulia Strauss of Horizontal BB7 and WHC, an international group was able to first employ the tactic of “museum wall-chatting” Following our invitation to participate in an activist assembly


we began pinning notes from the assembly onto the exhibition walls,  right next to artworks.  Artur and I began to use markers and paints to permanently complicate the authority of the curatorial text, the group joined in a “jam session” to chat on the walls. In this way the museum walls were opened to additional commentary and voices, turning them from a single institutions voice


It occurred to me that the whiteness of museum walls between installed artworks represents the taboo of purely private untouchable property- a property which ought to be public but is shifting from the public to the private domain. Recently built “speculative museums” such as New Museum in NYC often feature larger and larger expanses of such white space, echoing blue chip art galleries.  Does it devalue the public’s experience with an artwork to claim this patch of public space?


Wall chatting seemed to add more. We repeated this tactic later in a Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F)  action at the Guggenheim New York, taping a silver manifesto to the Guggenheims exhibition walls. The taboo of an uninvited addition to the walls charged up the manifesto with political relevance: people immediately assembled to read it. A security guard ripped the manifesto down within minutes, but at ZKM we experienced very little resistance- the museum countered our tactics quite successfully with absorbtion and lack of antagonistic engagement.

Design for dollars dropped inside Guggenheim, G.U.L.F. drawing by Noah Fischer, Shot of the action, photo: Nitasha Dhilon.


Later, on a “campaign” of actions at the Guggenheim to highlight labor practices in the new Abu Dhabi branch, the Global Ultra Luxury Faction foregrounded visual tactics when we realized we were directly battling Guggenheims PR department. Image trumps written messaging on this public stage, and and we went highly visual, displaying shiny mylar banners in the rotunda, beaming light onto the museums facade, and “making it rain” dollar bills inside the museum.


We decided not to use the peoples mic but instead let the silent “illegal” collectively experienced beauty work its own magic. By now we had fully re-admitted visual art practice to the Occupied Museum as potentially effective politics. 


Horizon: The Museum exhibits a Debt Market


Occupying the “Temples of Culture” might be effective for shifting a conversation, but this conceptual shift has limits. Beneath the temple lies the shark-infested waters of the “free” market, and a challenge on the horizon is shifting the economic behavior that propagates inequality. Debt churns in the “dark matter”


of the invisible part of the art world,  circulating in the form of packaged and sold off relationship to banks creating a near-permanent power imbalance that modifies daily life. Like many US based artists, I am deeply in debt for my masters degree, and in early 2013 inspired by Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee


I began to model an exchange system


that tie the value of art objects to the debt of their creator, trying to replace speculative value with mutual aid. In Spring of 2013, Occupy Museums developed this concept into a modified art fair called DebtFair, where artists revealed their debt information publicly, and traded art objects directly for debt bailouts. We launched it that Summer in New York. There was enormous potential to create an artists “debt-community” and we were inundated with information from hundreds of artists who are deep in personal debt from credit cards, mortgages, but mostly student debt. However, acting as a volunteer public service organization proved beyond our capacity, and we had to put the project into temporary hibernation.


Its clear that a fully realized/horizontalized Occupied Museum requires an Occupied art market. The current market system has too much monopolistic power and will quickly find a way to absorb or gut the research unless we figure out non speculative mutual aid systems to support each other and gain greater economic autonomy from Capitalist preferences. Highlighting debt is a way to make art world class relations visible and tangible. One way to think of it is that out of the spotlight of auction records and gallery sales, a different exchange is already going on. In the shadows of a collector purchasing an art object from a gallery or artist studio, the collector is likely to be making large profits from investments in the very companies engaged in speculation  on the artists existing personal debt load. In other words, the artist and collector have a pre-existing relationship which is determinative. Interest-laden debt which is increasingly the price of entry for the arts, creates a necessity for the artist to seek out the collector, or perhaps a precarious job servicing him. Groups like StrikeDebt have begun to expose it and play with it, and Debtfair is a model for the arts which makes this hidden reality visible and one day, a new exchange system viable.


Artur and Noahs collaborative drawings of the Occupied Museum trajectory. 2014.



A Museum, Flowing Beyond the Land of Impossibility


The selling out of the public sphere by Neoliberal institutions (from government branches to global museum branches) can be thought of as a crisis which also creates certain opportunities to break a longstanding impasse to real alternatives. The institutions actual legitimacy in serving the public is dissolving. Massive PR campaigns are increasingly required to cover over this weakness. This weakness can be harnessed by taking an actively experimental rather than simply a critical position: making proposals, hacking existing frames. The challenge is to break the normality of Late Capitalism: the corporate aesthetics, the institutional hyper-bureaucracy or hyper hierarchy; the tendency for understanding global situations as disconnected; the passivity of viewing public- to do this right in the most visible center, to let it be known that this is the most important current story.  Shifts can occur through cracking open glimpses of a cultural which is more alive, more inclusive, more interesting, and much more connected to the challenges faced by those speculated upon.


It’s true that uninvited art practice and self proclaimed institutions are nothing new. However, the degree of global connection and network potential is immensely powerful, and the takeover of public institutions by the private sphere is unprecedented.  Occupy showed how these conditions combine to create potential mass movements, and theres more reason that ever for a larger part of the world, and art world, currently gaining little benefit from the pyramid of abstracted value and precarious labor, to shift practice outside existing the frame and existing professional goals and begin hacking the frame.


When I hastily wrote the first Occupy Museums manifesto from the euphoric height of the Movement, much of the press reacted with vitriol or dismissiveness.  A few years later, it seems like assumed wisdom that the arts is infected with economic inequality. We have even seen  some recent wins.


Many groups such as Art Leaks, Gulf Labor, Arts and Labor, and countless others have developed strategies for the present climate. The issues of out-of-control student debt and global labor abuse are gaining traction.  Yearly auction spectacles are routinely seen not as indicators of general market success but rather as an exclusive party going on at the disconnected top of the pyramid. Stopping its development is another question.


Sustainability is of major concern.  Many activists in my network are living on foodstamps, battling foreclosures or rental evictions as they battle the PR machines of mega corporations. It’s an unfair fight against banks that manipulate money for the 1%, the museums that launder their profits and administer their tastes to a public, and the anti-protest violence of the police who are paid off by the same group.


Resources are needed, but it doesn’t help much if the price is switching sides to become part of a corporations PR machine. This is why Post-Capitalist value systems, support networks, physical spaces, and institutions are needed to support a robust shift away from the status quo. The Occupied Museum offers resources to a politicized shift: The healing and strengthening solidarity and material mutual aid of the post Occupy network in the arts. A set of horizontal communication tools. The high-visibility of uninvited access to top museums and mainstream press where otherwise hidden subjects and realities can be exhibited.  The beauty of collective/historic spectacle (I’m thinking of a moment when Lou Reed joined us on the streets in front of Lincoln Center) which nurtures the art public through collective ritual and the recapturing of meaning. The open source research from the horizontality experiments in institutions.


On a broader level, we try to offer free permission. The critique of museum’s social legitimacy is meant as a green light to artists and citizens everywhere to autonomously occupy the visible centers of culture; to experiment. I imagine a movement by artists from the “dark matter” of debt bondage to re-use the most corporate of museums and other faux-public spaces, a mass culture of uninvited interventions until participating in the sanctioned art frame becomes passé.  


It all concerns a particular definition for art and even a faith in art.  I believe that art is powerful enough to break through the faux-public mirage of “classless” society.  It can dignify people across lines of public/producer/worker. It can engage with the complexity of reality in a fearless way. The Occupied Museum is a space for such art. Each time an exhibition from The Occupied museum breaks through impossibility, a new dimension of the Museum is revealed, it becomes slowly more real.   


-Noah Fischer


silver, wine, art, and gold: tangilble assets.







  Alexander Carlvaho organizer or first OWS Arts and Culturel Working Group, Email October 3, 2011:


“Many of us in the movement believe we are at the brink of a new aesthetic school. A new historical art period, that reaches beyond the nihilism and hopelessness of post-modernism to a time of agency, belief, and hope. Virginia W. once wrote that "around 1910 everything changed" to announce that modernism came to make a revolution. Maybe we, in 2011, a century after, may be entering the same flux”...


A decision to bring my practice outside of this frame after working with commercial galleries had delivered me to Occupy Wall Street in the first place. In the Spring of 2011, the Aaron Burr Society and I developed a series of collaborative performances orating about economic inequality and redistributing money (coins) on Wall Street while wearing a coin mask, called Summer of Change. By the last performance in the series, the Occupy Movement had begun, and I joined it as a talking coin. www.summerofchange.net


These first actions we often planned with the Teamsters Art Handlers Union in Solidarity with their struggle against Sotheby’s action house. OWS and Union members were able to successfully mix approaches, and messaging.


By November, these larger organizational structures had deteriorated and become irrelevant.


The genesis of the invitation was no exception to art world network logic. I had worked with German curator Florian Malzacher a few times over the years. Joanna Warsza and Florian were visiting NYC during early days of Occupy. They came to an Occupy Museums action at the David Koch dinosaur wing of the Museum of Natural History highlighting the “menace” of philanthropy. An interview turned into an invitation, and Occupy Museums took weeks of open meetings to accept.



Nitasha Dhillon, Occupier, member of Tidal and G.U.L.F was a big proponent of the horizontalization strategy.





 When we opened Momentas space to general use by the Occupy community and held a series of public discussions about the Bloomberg Family Foundations conflict of interest, Bloomberg-connected board members of Momenta art resigned, striking a serious financial blow to Momenta. This seemed to highlight the precariousness and self-censorship involved in private funding, but our refusal to diminish the critique came with serious fallout for good people who were on our side.

“Truth is Concrete” was curated by Florian Malzacher and consciously meant to take an opposite approach from the Berlin Biennale. The institution presented movement politics in the frame of hyper connectivity and productivity: a 24/7 marathon camp for discussions and performances which favored constant communication and networking over open experiment.


Finally, a small group succeeded in pulling the general assembly out of the curated frame and onto the streets. To the curators,  the action was an embarrassment of performed faux- politics. In my view, it was an opportunity to solidify a political artistic community and exchange tactics through practice.


Mostly conducted by NYC based artist Maureen Connor who brought her “embedded practice” to OM


Housing was provided by Pawel Althamer and Artur Zmijewski who also supported some travel expenses. WHC members funded their daily work and materials for the project. 


rituals or “private performances such as these are often part of the Occupied practice.

 We had used the Acquisition tactic twice before: in 2012, we accused MoMA of “unilaterally acquiring” our banner when they confiscated it during an action, and this accusation loosened MoMAs lips, setting off a public back and forth in the press.  In an action at the Museum of American Finance, we offered a cardboard model of a foreclosed home to their permanent collection.  After an initial refusal, they accepted the model which we presented on Occupy Wall Streets International Day of Fighting Foreclosures.


At CCA, This new permission made it impossible to prevent our horizontal process and we set up a series of meetings with the staff to begin rewriting the CCA constitution.


The Show, British British Polish Polish was also a subject of political attack from the Catholic Right which resulted in a blasphemy trial. We ended up supporting CCA in this context in an action at the Ministry of Culture.


Many actions had strong elements of performance or ritual but that’s another topic.


Sometimes a visual accident happened such as the 2012 Occupied Freize Art Fair, where our protest was penned.  We decorated the pen to create a “freedom cage” an analog to the art fair booth.


this was also clear when the highly produced and super-visual issue of the Occupy Wall Street Journal appeared in an exhibition on the wall of MoMA. No challenge to power norms there.




A German Refugee activist named Napuli wrote her story on the wall to add a viewpoint missing from the exhibition, and we painted a collective map of activated cities.


first attempt:  http://artbailout.org/


Transfield leaving Syndney Biennale following artist boycott,  and the unionization of Frieze Art fair in New York.

Collective Statement from G.U.L.F

Each time the Guggenheim speaks, its approach to migrant labour issues on Saadiyat Island sounds more like that of a global corporation than that of an educational or art institution. We would like to remind the Guggenheim that it’s a museum, with a mission to “explore ideas across cultures through dynamic curatorial and educational initiatives.” Museums should help the public come to a greater understanding of the global complexities we all face.

Each day the Guggenheim hides behind the excuse that “construction has not yet started on our building” is another day of evading decisions and actions which could prevent a future migrant worker’s servitude. Right now, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s infrastructure is being constructed. That infrastructure includes roads, sewage, water, electric, net pipes, etc., leading to the museum. But other components of the work are also under way. We can only assume that money has been transferred to the Guggenheim here in New York in order to hire the curators and administrators of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. We know that events off-site have already been organized. Works of art have certainly been bought, insured, and stored. Last but not least, Saadiyat Island is being sold to investors on the basis of the Guggenheim’s name, along with those of the Louvre, the British Museum and others. How can the Guggenheim claim that construction has not begun?

Even if we were to take at face value the claim that construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has not begun, we would say the following: NOW thousands of workers who will build your museum are taking on the massive debt that will take them years to repay; NOW workers are being recruited with promises that will not be fulfilled, for jobs that will pay less than they expected; NOW workers are applying for the passports that may be confiscated as soon as they land in the UAE; and, surely, NOW is the time to do something about all of this.

It is unfortunate but not surprising that the Guggenheim refuses to open its doors to a serious public dialogue about the migrant labor issues in Abu Dhabi. A museum of its stature must foster public education about the conditions under which art is viewed. The Guggenheim is stepping back from this social responsibility as it focuses on expanding into new global markets.

As for the underpaid Guggenheim guards’ wages in New York, passing off culpability to a subcontractor is no longer an acceptable practice, even in the corporate world. The Guggenheim should pay all employees at least a living wage, even if they are on a contractor’s payroll.

Sadly, the Guggenheim’s latest response confirms our expectation. It has tried to hide behind technicalities and PR spin as it waits for news cycles to die down. We know the composition of their board and it does not surprise us. A 1% Global Museum with a 1% Board that cares very little about its lowest-paid employees and the example it is setting to the world.

We will be back.

G.U.L.F.(Global Ultra Luxury Faction) 



For fourteen days I’ve been looking at shutdown headlines, and at moments I have felt quite small and powerless. But then I imagine how it feels to short-circuit the government of the most powerful, dangerous, richest country in the world. It's only about 30 of you. You're watching your enemies and allies alike squirm. They try, and fail, to patch things up, deal by deal. They act superior, "rising to the occasion" and playing calm. But you know that you've got everyone confused, scared, and no one can deny that it was you that did this – that they're dancing to your beat.

Imagine you are one of the House members causing people all over the world to quake in their boots. You don’t even have to do the negotiating - others are seeing to that. You are just literally sitting around smoking cigars and watching the action like kings, or kingpins. This makes you feel extremely powerful and the power is turning into chemical impulses to your brain, rewiring things up there. Very few people ever get a taste of a drug this potent. You are now on a higher plane. You already knew that government assistance is for the weak and lazy, you knew that your party needed a wakeup call.....but now you understand in your bones that this whole system of government itself, the checks and balances and majority rule are just about hiding from the sun.


People are afraid and you’ve won. It feels just incredible. And you're going to want more of this shit.

Pure political power is what makes the comparison between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, all these months later, especially funny. Occupy in its first stage was far from perfect – nevertheless its deeply democratic/anarchist checks and balances tethered us to core values of “stepping back” when necessary so that we could practice what we preached about sharing power widely. Especially after the open-hearted first few weeks, displays of such power surfaced, and would elicit a backlash. The power-hoarder might be challenged by a well meaning friend, or a group. Something would be written on email threads, or someone called out face-to-face in meetings. Or an imbalance might be noticed by the person themselves, and they might decide to “step back” after “stepping up”– a common principle of the movement. Imagine Senator Ted Cruz embodying “step-up-step-back!”

Comparing the Occupy Movement with the Tea Party was always deeply problematic for a whole host of reasons – starting with funder David Koch, who singed off the Tea Parties grassroots with wads of burning cash.

But the comparisons are flowing again during the shutdown. For instance, Joe Echevarria, chief executive of Deloitte: “The extreme right has 90 seats in the House...Occupy Wall Street has no seats.” Mainstream Republicans contrast themselves with the “extreme fringe” by comparing the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street. Meanwhile,Democratic Party messaging calls the Tea Party representatives “Anarchists”, obliquely playing into the fear of the OWS movement planted by the right. The few billionaires who hovered around Occupy Wall Street are probably still mad at us for resisting cooptation by the Democratic party machine. They hoped to “harness” our radical energy, so that they could claim – as do the Far-Right billionaires who immediately swallowed up the Tea Party – that their party represents a truly populist base.

The Tea Party-OWS comparison is more than misleading; in the context of the shutdown, it fogs an ominous direction in politics: the triumph of ego power. The Tea Party’s shutdown has nothing to do with principles, and certainly not to Anarchist principles of sharing power horizontally and unraveling the hidden hierarchies of privilege, race and class. Neither does it have to do with Libertarian values of maximum freedom and small government, in which people seek greater agency and self respect through de-centralization of state power. If the shutdown is based on principles, these are ones which nobody would dare say out loud: mobster, muscle-flexing codes which disregard shared values in order to instill fear. We're talking about mobsters with egos big enough to shutdown the US government for no apparent functional reason other than the gleeful accumulation of power and position.

In contrast, the taste of power – and the money that came along with it at first – presented an immediate problem for Occupy Wall Street. Some heads swelled, various individuals consolidated power, all of us had our moments of cockiness, and we worried: if this went too far, it could be antithetical to our the means and ends of our experiments with “direct democracy”. Some called our movement “leaderless”, others, “leaderful”, but it didn't take too long for People Power to condense down into less inspired form: influential contacts, important twitter accounts, the ability to turn people out for votes around particular actions in the General Assembly, etc. Soon we saw the not infrequent appearance of the wrong kind of power: the ego-based kind, likely to be at odds with the collective goals of the movement.

I know the teeniest bit about what this kind of power feels like, because of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. We tapped out our own beat, and for a moment we were the pulse, at the center of things. For a few weeks at the movement’s height it seemed that everything we said was launched out into the public realm, causing some kind of shift. We were driving news cycles with our marches and messages. It was a joyful and powerful feeling to introduce language about previously unspoken economic realities into the mainstream. So when we chanted: “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” many of us believed it. We weren't just saying things like – “Ain't no power like the Power of the People, and the Power of the People don't stop” – it was something we were living out. 

“Another World is Possible,” a much worse one too!

Two years ago, our moment in the spotlight was tinged with arrogance – or you could call it audacity. But it came from a deep conviction that even as we are subjugated by the hand of the 1%, with its vastly disproportionate amount of social/political power, it is possible to build a true democracy where all who live and work here feel empowered and where no one is marginalized or silenced. Within a corporation-dominated framework, that meant developing models for sharing power and resources from scratch....something which takes a little while. Although our movement changed the language around economic inequality, we didn't get much of a chance to grapple with real power before a coordinated nationwide crackdown forcefully pushed us off the stage.


Kritica Politycza: Art needs a bailout. Noah Fischer in conversation with Jakub Majmurek

Polish Version: http://www.krytykapolityczna.pl/artykuly/kultura/20130615/fischer-sztuka-potrzebuje-bailoutu

JM: You were one of the founders of Occupy Museums Movement, which in autumn 2011 started it’s activity by occupying flag museums of NYC – like Museum of Modern Art, or Natural History Museum. What had been happening with the movement since then? In the spring 2012 you were participating in Berlin Biennale curated by Artur Żmijewski, wasn’t you? Artur asked you to join indignados activists occupying groundfloor of Berlin’s Kunstwerke. What do you think about that experience?


The Berlin Biennale was a complex experience because it required us to be entangled in the institution – this was an experience we didn’t have in our previous actions. In 2011 we marched straight from Zuccotti Park to the front of the museums. We were occupying tchem as „outsiders”,  in solidarity with activists,  unions, artists, many groups- the energy of the park was our base.  We were not invited but asked people working in that museums up to the directors to join our assemblies, but they never came. In Berlin it was different: We were collaborating with a curator, who asked us to come and paid for our journey. It was confusing, „muddy” but I think it was a necessary step for what our group is trying to achieve, which is finding a political possibilities in a time of political impossiblities. In the Biennale we broke down the simple opposition of being outside/inside the institution.


Were you not afraid, that entering the institution can lead to a pacification of a movement? A lot of Polish art critics writing about Biennale were pointing out, that an activist were contained in the space of a Biennale, like the animals in a zoo.



I think that’s a very limited thinking. Because it implies that there’s something like a pure space outside institutions – and I don’t think that there’s anything like that. Not anymore. For example, The same financial market is present both outside and inside.  So I think we need to be flexible and also not to fetishize poltical purity but rather take an experimental approach. We can’t forget that there’s no institution, which couldn’t be hacked. In every institution we can find a possible allies for our cause because institutions are made of people with different and malleable ideas. We’re artists making politics and we can see institutional framework as a medium. With every institution, we’d like to ask the question: where’s the leverage?


Did you find a leverage during the Biennale?



I think we did. Or at least we found some interesting possibilities. One was simply using resources of the Biennale, following Artur’s idea, to use it as a hub for activist all over the world to assemble and plan in person. So we made our own network of contacts with different activists at BB7 We did plan some actions with M15 and we used Berlin as an action lab.  For example we designed an „animal” action at Deutsche Bank which is a common foe in Span and the US where it is connected to the housing crisis. The other one was that we realized that we had to „horizontalize” the institution in order to be there in the right way.  This meant focusing on the community in the KW and trying to completely share power with everyone there and see what was possible from this standpoint. Neither of these two experiments has yet been conclusive. It is still to be seen, how the network we built during Biennale, will actually work in the future. Now, I’m working on a project in Europe together with Artur Żmijewski, we’ll try to hack other institutions.


In the interview for Biennale reader you’ve said, that a lot of people involved in Occupy Museums are working in art institutions. Now, after almost two years, could you say, that the activity in the movement break, or help your careers?



I can speak about myself. It’s not clear whether it break my career or not. My concept of what a career as an artist looks like has also changed a lot. During Occupy Wall Street, I decided to leave the commercial art world which meant quitting my gallery.  I’m not connected with any institution now, I don’t make any exhibitions in New York actually. I am still working in my studio, but very quietly these days.   I am now working mainly in the self-made network we managed to assemble since autumn 2011. That network generates of course some symbolic capital- more in Europe than the US actually, because the market is more dominant in New York. But I hope that we can invest this cultural capital in the growth of a network and the mobilization of many people against economic injustices.  



Were you able to enter any institution in the US recently in the similar way, you hacked the Biennale?



Yes – there was one--Momenta Art Gallery in Brooklyn, NYC. Its a very good non-profit space which has been around a long time.  They basically invited us (Occupy Musseums)  to do whatever we want with their space. So we opened the space as a common resource for the Occupy movement, for different groups and artists. We organize different discussions there. One of them was focused on philanthropy. In the US we have a different system than in Europe, we have no art institutions supported by the government by more than 10-15%. Even the institutions that have a public mission are supported by private donations and grants, so philanthropy is the most important topic for art. Institutions and always getting more important. In the reaction to that discussion one of Momenta’s board members actually step down. Which shows how dangerous topic it is to discuss about, it shows that there is probably a lot of self-censorship going on in the arts because people are scared of their funders. 


Were you ever trying to convince American authorities to adapt a more European approach towards financing art?



No. It wouldn’t work.  We are just too far away from the reality where the government supports culture in the US, and we are still walking the wrong direction.  In the US, you can shoot down sucha n argument immediately by calling someone a “socialist”--- it’s still a big insult in the US. There is not much language for speaking about collectivity- and art. And culture is seen as the ultimate space for individuality.  So for now, we are working toward  autonomous activity of the social movements and also for small models which we can try out, not on advocating changes in the funding structure of the government. Maybe in the distant future state-supported art would be possible in the US, but not now, I think.


What else, besides Momenta, are you doing now?



We’re beginning work with a group of Native Americans. We’ll try to hack Indian Museum in NYC and Washington, D.C. It’s an extremely interesting and important topic which takes us back to the foundation of museums. In the US we have discussed the issue of slavery, but the problem of the primal genocide of Native Americans is still to be discussed. They were the very first victims of American greed, the relationships with them shaped American attitude towards the other ethnic groups, land and war.

Museums of Native Americans also point to another interesting problem. Most of the artifacts exhibited there were stolen from their rightful owners. Actually most of the greatest museums in the world possessed their treasures due to an act of theft, very often accompanied with the violence. Our common action with Native Americans is aimed at emphasizing this fact and building a foundation to completely rethink cultural institutions.


So, summing it up, after autumn 2011, did you entirely give up occupying spaces like MoMa?



We;ll, of course we might always do it again,  but we did move to the next stage which is looking more deeply into contexts, longer term collaborations, and setting up models. Every social movement has to develop, come from one stage, to another. We’re changing very rapidly. In 2011 we had  many people dedicated to constant street actions almost every day and we also had a kind of access to national and international media we don’t have today- this was a lot of power and allowed things to develop quickly.  But meaningful change is a long term project and its necessary to search for a different form of action, to focus on less spectacular projects and go deeper.


The similar thing seems to happen with OWS movement. After the protesters had been evicted from Zuccotti Park, the movement a kind of disappeared from public attention.



Well, it went underground (laughter). OWS also went de-centralized and switched to less spectacular projects. The most important of tchem currently  is Occupy Sandy, which is a direct respond to Hurricane Sandy. It tries to create a new model of mutual aid, able to address environmental disasters like that. And it is actually working very well. There’s a program addressing a problems of debt


 , called „Strike Debt” They are concerned about the large amount of personal debt Americans possess which is one reason s omany peoople lost their houses in the 2008 crisis. They are figuring out how to organize debt strikes and also clevel economic actions for people to buy off cheap debt and fogive i.  Then there are lots of Occupy environmental groups working to stop the XL pipeline from coming to New York.  There are different art groups organzing and creating actins for the media.

Although each of the Occup groups faces a steep climb to do their work, I think now is a very good time for activism because the market optimism of the growth economy seems to have stalled. Now that the economy is really in a bad shape, people can see, that we need a new model. Now we have to fight against a growing police state and the environment of fear and technological control, but people are waking up all over the world, and this is a great chance.


In 2011 you were criticizing the contemporary model of communication between the art world and general public, organized around big, rich galleries and the people who run them. What kind of model of communication between artist and it’s public you’d like to build?



We need much less hierearchy, closer communication, and more human respect. It’s necessary to find a language for culture which is less tied to money, less tied to class. Currently, art Is more and more associated to art Fairs like Art Base lor to auctions which are special markets for the ultra-rich.  Lots of money laundering goes on there, also lots of top tier social climbing--why should most people care? They don’t, or they feel left out.   Only a shared language and effectively shared institutions can make art really powerful and socially important. But there is a counterforce which is stopping this from happening.  I think that the greatest problem in the contemporary art system is speculation. Art is treated as an asset, which can be put into speculative game on the market. It works with art in the same way as it does with derivatives, or gold. And this is one piece in the puzzle of global capital. It’s a very bad situation for the social relevance of art.


What does this exactly mean for the artists?



That some of them are making other people very rich, which makes them quite financially successful. And the artists, who are not making anything for the rich people, are practically starving- or their labor is not valued. This is the first thing we should address: art shouldn’t be an unregulated speculation asset. Another  important mechanism here—especially in the US-- is pesonal debt. Many of the artists are heavily indebted. The people who collect art are kind of bailing out some of the artists from their debts but of course, only a tiny fraction.  But since most are in debt, they have no choice but to try to beomce that small fraction and that means nasty competition and de-politicization of artists. We need an alternative model to address artist’s debts, so that more artists could serve a social functions.  We need a kind of artist union- some network of leverage.  We need to rethink the art market.


But how could we build the alternative model of art circulation? How could it look like?



We live in the information age, which makes it very easy for things, images and things to circulate- at least as information. And its easy for people to connect together in horizontal networks. This is potentially threatening to the hierarchical functioning of institutions. I believe we actually can build an alternative model which adds a lot of transparency which is missing now.  Unfortunately all these tools aren’t good or  neutral, they can easily be used also for opposite goals: For more inequality, greater concentration of power, information and other resources in the hands of the few and for converting everything into statistics which can easily be manipulated.  This is happening now in the arts where some projects are trying to convert the whole Art World into a rating system for the market. But we can do a lot with networking tools and we must try. for example I witnessed a success of  an action of Strike Debt, where people used the internet to bail out  medical debts of other people.  The key is to encourage collectivity- that our fate is bound up together instead of everyone being in economic competition.  I’m now working on a model which connects art circulation to personal debt so that selling art only goes to pay off debts. I’d like to see if the artist and public would be willing to share in their struggle with debt so that spending money on art becomes a way to suport culture from the roots rather than making the wealthiest wealthier.  Maybe if people have access to more information and a good network and exchange system, they will prefer such a market and maybe it can act as a creative impulse for the artists.


Where is Occupy Now? for ArtFCity



Where is Occupy Now?

June 1, 2013.  Answer:Turkey.

Gliding down Broadway last Saturday, the blazing-red Mark di Suvero sculpture known to arts professionals as “Joie de Vivre” and to Occupy Wall Street as “the Weird Red Thing” comes into view. The scene is familiar. Facing west, I see white-shirt cops on Broadway and Liberty and the Imperial Walker-esque NYPD surveillance tower perched in the lower right corner of the park. More friendly, are the falafel and juice stands lined up on the left.  The 33,000 square feet of public/private space formerly known as Zuccotti Park pulses with energy: men and women waving red flags; shouting in unison and singing spirited songs in Turkish.

It is day one of #OccupyGeziParkNYC, an American offshoot of the Turkish #OccupyGeziPark, that began as peaceful sit-in demonstration against a shopping mall slated to replace Istanbul’s last major public square. The protest quickly morphed into a Tahrir-like movement to oust Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Tens of thousands of protesters in Taksim Square were tear gassed, arrested in the hundreds, some beaten and killed by the police.  Within hours, a solidarity group called #OccupyGeziParkNYC had begun to organize a response. There were even those from the OWS movement who flew to the action, like Justin Wedes, a member of the communication working  group in Zuccotti. “The revolution has just begun”, he tweets, the first of a day, in seemingly hundreds he sends out. (He also files regular posts atAnimal NY).

This converged last minute with a planned OWS re-occupation or “homecoming” action for June 1 which I was attending. Since the eviction of Liberty Square on November 15th 2011, big days of action such as May 1st (M1) or the September 17th anniversary (S17– we activists convert important dates into codes to make them sound ominous) partially fell into the shadow of the original Occupy season. Each big march provided proof that the movement is still here but dwindling.  You’d see many familiar faces from the glory days of the park, but a reunion just does not equate to a movement that can take on Capitalism. Especially a slightly dysfunctional reunion. Occupy was slowly fragmenting into groups (though impressive ones);  big moments where Occupiers came together were becoming  less and less convincing.

June 1st, Liberty Square. Image courtesy of Noah Fischer.

Saturday felt different though, and it looked different, too.  I saw very few familiar faces in the park, now filled with Turkish protesters. “It’s exciting” Occupier Marisa Holmes told me, speaking of the new upbeat energy in Liberty Park. This energy flows in from elsewhere causing creative hybridized memes to pop up like wildflowers. OWS posters from 2011 have been re-tooled for Turkey, yellow “Occu-tape” is wrapped around trees to highlight the eradication of green space in Istanbul,  those famous ragged cardboard signs are scrawled in Turkish. Someone bangs a pot with a spoon in the protest style of the Quebec student movement or “Casseroles.” Others hold signs that say “Turkish Spring,” harkening back to Egypt and Tunisia.  It’s as if all the movement memes from the last couple years have ended up in a common whirlpool.

June 1st, Liberty Square. Image courtesy of Noah Fischer.

By noon, the park was so packed that all I could see of the movement were those squeezed up against me. I made my way through the dense crowd to catch a better view from Zuccotti’s northern wall (hallowed site of the speakers’ area in the very first OWS general assemblies). There I met a Turkish woman in her fifties, Lutfiye Karakus, a nurse from Staten Island, who has been in the US for twenty-one years.  She’s part of the 99%, having lost her home to foreclosure, and watched the American Dream slip away. She made it out to Liberty Park once in 2011 to join the protest.

This time, she tells me tales of Turkish corruption where the 1% straddle the financial and political lines, similar to the impetus for Occupy Wall Street. Luftiye was enraged at the Turkish media blackout, including even CNN Turkey, during the protests and police violence. “The police sprayed tear gas in people’s eyes and blinded them,” she told me.

The focus on Turkey– with red crescent flags, pictures of Turkey’s modern state founder Ataturk, and chants of “Turkiye! Turkiye! Turkiye!”– may seem strangely nationalistic for an Occupy movement. But Occupy doesn’t espouse a singular political view. The activist and anthropologist David Graeber reported from among the different political players in the planning stages before September 17th; not only Anarchists, but members of the Democratic Party and quite a few Ron Paul followers. (One of the “bottomliners” of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City was a big fan of Ayn Rand). And then once the movement went viral, hundreds of cities interpreted Occupy differently, from Oakland’s militant style to El Paso’s protests against the government.

After we parted ways, I began to wonder why Lutfiye and her Turkish community decided to use Occupy to raise their voices. A few years ago, she had participated in a large Turkish protest outside the United Nations. Why head down to Lower Manhattan this time? “Because they’re not appealing to the UN” Occupier Marisa Holmes told me. She believes the slowness of a bureaucracy is unappealing to many, particularly now that there’s a little Occupy-inspired Anarchism in the air. Appealing to fellow citizens directly may be more effective than the state, and Occupy is building a platform for it.

June 1st, Liberty Square. Image courtesy of Noah Fischer.

That’s exactly why it’s exciting. For one, the “Occupy” meme itself can be interchanged with other locations and causes like Legos (Occupy Gezi Park, Occupy the SEC, Occupy Museums, etc).

Second, it offers tools for communication, whether through social media mutual aid efforts or offline “social software”: the hand signs, and the people’s mic, which allow large groups of people to project their voices without speakers or microphones.

Third, Occupy serves up a toolbox of direct action tactics: the long-term holding of space (Tahrir Square, Liberty Park, and Frank H. Ogawa Plaza) shorter-term occupations (a 2011 sleep-in at Lincoln Center, a 2012 occupation at the Berlin Biennale, and last month’s occupation of the Ludwig Museum in Hungary) and spectacular actions (just today, Occupy Gezi crowdfunded a full-page ad in the New York Times).

Finally, Occupy offers a form of horizontal organizing which discourages the centralization of leadership. These tactics have diverse roots, from the Zapatista Movement of the 1990’s to Spanish Anarchists. But this time, an unprecedented ability to socially network makes it possible for these tactics to flow in bursts of energy across the globe, and also to rapidly morph and develop in a co-authored but connected way: kind of like the Internet.

Circulation is happening offline as well, as occupiers travel the globe to exchange movement experiences and tactics. Hundreds of occupiers, for example, attended The World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunis as part of a group called Global Square. Their attendance, fellow occupier Marisa Holmes told me at Zucotti, took the form of an occupation. “They didn’t know how to relate to us.” she said, explaining this was in part due to a generational clash and in part due to an entrenched vertical leadership. Still, group met every day, and over all, Marisa concluded that “It was really great for us.”

I got that sense from other occupiers as well, but it’s important to remember that these movements have a darker side as well. Damage to the body can easily occur during protests, as police violence is common. Activists can lose jobs or damage professional reputations by standing up for strong political positions. The time and risk required in the heat of a movement can destroy relationships; a member of Occupy Museums went through a divorce, partly due to her strong commitment to the movement in 2011. Activists have power struggles with other activists, and most of all, exhaustion. Most of us have gone through some form of movement trauma.

June 1st, Liberty Square. Image courtesy of Noah Fischer.

At this point, Occupy Wall Street increasingly operates within totally separate networks.  When the Turkish community began to thin out that evening, the tribe reconvened in little clusters to discuss re-occupation. I heard many woeful tales about power struggles, people’s Occu-nemeses, their banishment from groups, or just sense of burnout. Although there was a 6 PM assembly to discuss re-occupation organized by a group called Occupy Town Square, it became clear that any sort of large consensus wasn’t going to happen.

June 1st, Liberty Square. Image courtesy of Noah Fischer.

These may sound like big problems, but they don’t define the movement.  It just means that the movement is moving along in stages. To name just a few of the many efforts in the last 9 months, Occupy Sandy has figured out a new model to provide direct relief to those affected by global warming-fueled catastrophes. Strikedebt has come up with ingenious new economic proposals such as the Rolling Jubillee, a crowdsourced fund to buy up personal debt, and it’s produced a manual for debt resistance. Occupy the Pipeline is putting up a spirited fight against fracking. The group I’m in, Occupy Museums, is launching Debt Fair: an experimental art fair spread  throughout the streets of New York City that invites collectors buy art in exchange for artists’ debt.

These projects flow naturally from a view of the world you acquire by fatefully stepping into the public squares.  But they take a tremendous amount of energy. As we enter the long-haul, this practice can seem like a heavy burden to bear.

Yet on June 1st, I remembered something that is actually totally obvious: Occupy is no one’s burden. It’s an uncontrollable open source project where all responsibility is shared, and in that way, I see Occupy as an alternative model for culture. For a generation, the private sector has been encroaching on the public, reenforcing the mentality that we must achieve individual goals at all cost to shared resources. As depicted in mainstream entertainment and news organizations, we are people who distrust strangers and associate the public realm with poverty.  Occupying a park challenges these assumptions through practice. Serving food in a park, chanting, or organizing actions with people you just met points toward a culture based on shared, rather than private, space.  There’s a sublime feeling of connection with fellow protesters anywhere in the world.

June 1st, Liberty Square. Image courtesy of Noah Fischer.

From its inception, it was a perfect storm of talent, wisdom from past movements, catalyzed by economic and political shocks. It’s always had a random quality: the name and initial call itself was coined by a Canadian magazine, Adbusters, who didn’t even show up to their own party!  I have learned to suspend disbelief as the protest unfolded differently than any script I could imagine.

Yet another chapter is unfolding as thousands of Turkish protesters fill Liberty Park on June 1. This time however, the novelty has worn off, and Occupy is looking like a permanent part of our post-crash reality: a direct democratic forum for citizens to highlight and link political situations globally. And, as I stood there looking at a poster of Ataturk printed out on foamcore and decorated with yellow Occu-tape, I had another thought: Occupy just may be ahead of the curve.

June 1st, Liberty Square. Image courtesy of Noah Fischer.

"Lotus Petals" for the Brooklyn Rail

This came just came out in February issue of Brooklyn Rail, guest edited by Martha Schwendener. 


"We’ll witness the colors of a beautiful new art bloom soon after we revolutionize the markets. Art schools, artists, galleries, fairs, collectors, auctions, museums, and the corporate media have lined up to manufacture a compelling narrative about value, circulating the same artists worldwide as currency and multiplying their value via speculation. This same assembly line also chains most artists into debt and freezes or hides away much creative practice. But we are already seeing experiments, hacks, and technologies that point to what lies beyond. I imagine the blooming of the art market into numerous small-scale systems (lotus petals), each proposing heterogeneous models to value and exchange and understand art. Together, these will bring creative practice into contact with many lives and unleash optimism and power into the world.


Digging out of the financial debt-hole many artists find themselves in today will be a first order of business. I imagine experimental economies where art objects trade as a “bailout currency” against shares of student debt. This will collectivize remaining debt loads (admitting we’re all in this together) and convert economic and social negativity into a catalyst for good feeling and flow. Artists will be challenged to scramble the 1 percent aesthetics and prices coded into their work; to open up their craft and their politics; to be humbler and more generous. Other models will remove the links between art and money altogether, developing barter and skill trading, and nourishing an open source conceptual art market that injects playful inquiry and transgression directly into popular culture.  We will see a widespread hacking movement to hunt down loopholes and blind spots in the corporate (art and non-art) market and insert beautiful modules that promote equality. Additional economies will connect people into energized social nodes that experiment in public space, taking on the behemoth of corporate advertising to re-fashion the skin of cities and streets among which we live our lives, with non-messages much more interesting and unexpected than “buy me.” We’ll see open source projects with multiple authors, spinning off a web of outcomes temporarily capable of operating across the globe on the scale of the U.S. military or energy multinationals, leaving definitions of art far behind in favor of whatever is necessary to enact needed creative work and play.

The potential energy is here. As we continue to break through fear and cease praying to the market’s invisible hand and use our own to begin these experiments, the lotus will bloom."


Dear Jerusalem

Dear Jerusalem,


I returned to you this past June to participate in an artistic excursion through the Judean Hills titled Going Up Jerusalem. Invited out of the blue, I joined a group of artists and philosophers on a five day hike from the progressive communal settlement of Neve Shalom, through the dusty Judean Hills, and on to Jerusalem.  The project was highly produced and well-funded, and structured to incorporate our various practices (from cooking to poetry and performance) into the days and nights of walking and camping. Organizing artist, Jerusalem-based Guy Briller had posed the question- what does it mean to retrace the ancient pilgrimage to Jerusalem today? The spirit of inquiry, even confusion pervaded the five days; we discovered a backwards question mark. 

For me, the journey was completely permeated with politics and activism, perhaps too much so. I considered it a pilgrimage, but one is search of an activist community and holy creative tactics within a landscape of near ethical impossibility. But holiness is inescapable in the Holy Land and it managed to pervade the trip from the beginning (I saw three miracles with my own eyes on the journey). The email invitation, all expenses included, from Guy Briller and his collaborator Gilad Riech was exactly the unexpected gift-investment upon which spiritual excursions should depend. Going Up Jerusalem also claimed auspicious timing, arriving during the first quiet spell after nearly a year of my involvement in Occupy Wall Street;  I accepted. Yet as I have tried to write a reflection of the trip, a surprising amount of emotion clouds the lens. As an art project and as an attempt at activism it seemed to toy with false hopes and proved ill-equipped to engage structural contradictions both in Israel/Palestinian politics and within the social dimension of the project itself.  Yet, there is a soulful richness which has stayed with me, something reccuringly open about Briller’s approach, making me wonder whether perhaps the nutrients take time to release. Going Up Jerusalem was a challenging experience, and ultimately, I’m pointed back to the baggage which I brought with me. Like many progressives (Jewish or not) who engage with Israel, I tugged a righteousness along with me which fell to pieces amid my own complicity and the complexity of the place.  Since then, I’ve thought about the problematics of entering a space as activist without acknowledging one’s perspective and stake in it, and so have endeavored to write a very personal contextual account of the journey. What drove me to break the boycott in the first place? What did I learn about practice on the line between cultural production and politics?  How much of this was specific to Israel, and what has culture and art-practice has to do with the activist energy now pulsating through the globe?

The speed at which news headlines and Tweets flash by, catalyzing reaction after reaction among media consumers, pundits, and activists sometimes misses the fact that politics is rooted in history- every act that seems to occur in the present arises out of a long chain of what the Buddhists call “twisted karma.” Parallel to this, my experience in Going Up Jerusalem contained traces of emotion from my first journey: a journey of conditioning and ideological challenge. I was 22 years old and made my way (via a chain of the cheapest hostels) earnestly toward you, Jerusalem, to square with my Jewish identity. My father being a Jew, my mother not (though I converted as a teen)meant that  I saw myself as half-Jewish. Though I was sucked into the special Zionist experience that is reserved for young American Jews, I went bumping up against the sides of this well-oiled machine. I tried; sticking embarrassingly earnest notes into the cracks of your Wailing Wall, cajoling God for my full seat among the Chosen. I jealously admired the brashness and strength of my uniform wearing Sabra counterparts. I briefly studied at a Yeshiva designed to ensnare the potential Baal Teshuva (Jews who returns back to Orthodox religion).  There, rabbis explained to me the precise operation required for full Tribal entry: namely, blinders to everything except for immersion in the Talmud’s 613 commandments. The payoff: an instant Jewish family and a little piece of land in the West Bank waiting with my name on it. I was shown videos detailing the nastiness of Arabs who fought to steal Holy Land from it’s natural inhabitants: Ashkenazic Jews. Luckily, as I see it now, something else in me naturally resisted.  As a recently graduated art student, I ultimately (and painfully) felt that the straight and narrow path of orthodoxy was a giant obstacle to creative freedom, and I fled the Yeshiva.  Finally I  considered joining the IDF, but when the time came to show up at the mental sanity exam they required as a first step, I balked, paranoid that I would have failed it, sensing that I likely fell just short of sanity, which was made worse by the schizophrenic pressure to choose between the logic of Zionist sanity or my own.  I moved back to the US, still inspired by Israel, but feeling a little rejected by it. When the invite came from Going Up Jerusalem, I think that deep down I had been waiting for exactly this kind of open-minded invitation back to the Holy Land.

It turned out that despite my perception of a conservative fanatic Israeli culture, I had in fact experienced a uniquely liberal period in recent times.   That Summer, the relative stability was shattered: the bloody second Intafada commenced, the following year, 9-11 shocked the US, causing a mass importation of Israeli security culture (and a trillion dollar security technology market).  Abu Ghraib bound our countries together under a single smelly hood of ethical judgement, a spiritual rock bottom in the history of the US.  Meanwhile, a giant concrete and steel wall, a bohemith of racism, hard-headedness, and stupidity in our own times, slowly rose in the Holy Land. I too had hit a wall by that point as far as my politics. I was no longer able to engage in the sort of ethical justification that many progressive American Jews attempt regarding Israel. Concerning my own country, I was slowly maturing into an activist. Parallel to this political development, I received my MFA in art, and became a professional artist in New York City.   

Throughout the 2000’s, the world of visual art in New York as a whole notably did not step up to address the fact of ongoing war, post 9-11 surveillance, growing burdens of debt and inequality. In fact, mainstream art and culture mostly veered in the exact opposite direction, constantly honoring and reflecting the glow of extreme wealth. As art fairs exploded in number, art aesthetics mutated in the 2000’s. My life was influenced by this market-driven trend; I graduated from Columbia with MFA in 2004 into a rising market, exhibiting ant-war work that wouldn’t sell,


blaming myself for market failure, and then experiencing a shrinking of opportunities in the 2008 crash which wiped out the emergence of many emerging artists. This finally led me to where I currently am: art practices that were off the mainstream radar and freed me up to experiment more whole-heartedly with politics; this is the artist that Guy and Gilad invited to the journey.

My work with the Occupy Wall Street movement is what I think got their attention. When thousands of activists showed up near Wall Street on September 17th in response to Adbuster’s call to camp indefinitely, I was there,  all warmed up by a summer spent autonomously performing on Wall Street, donning giant coin masks and throwing hundreds of dollars of US coins on the ground in collaboration with the Aaron Burr Society (summerofchange.net).  Although I’d followed Tahrir Square and the occupation of squares in Spain, I went home on that first day mis-understanding it as a rally rather than a new culture of resistance tactics in the US. Central to this new approach was a constant suspension of disbelief: an expansion of time away from the one-day rallies and into the realm of anything-can-happen. From this new position, a cause and effect cycle began, alternatively sparked by police violence, media coverage, and a constant stream of ever-more diverse protest actions that quickly grew to an historical scale.        

Artists seemed to be at the core of the Occupy Movement but art practice itself was deeply within question. From it’s initial spark by Adbuster’s magazine which occupies a place in the art and activist worlds, to the early formation of an Arts and Culture Working Group near the core of the New York General Assembly


to the fact that many activists in other working groups like Direct Action or Food or Facilitation were artists who were just doing something more direct, a creative identity permeated the moment and pulled many artists from their studios and onto the streets. There were signs to make, chants to create, puppets to play and rallies to join. It was even tempting for some to conceptualize the social space of Liberty Park within the recent trend of participatory art practice.

Inside the early Occupy Wall Street movement our target was the corporate rather than the public sphere, and the basic rule at first was to avoid collaboration with any organization funded by corporate money (except for the news media) which effectively ruled out pretty much any collaboration with NYC institutions. In this vein, I wrote a manifesto called Occupy Museums!


Accusing museums, which are 85% privately funded in New York, of selling out to the highest bidder. We marched from the park to the pavement outside of MoMA and staged an open assembly naming grievances against the museum. Around this time, Dana Yahalomi leader of a well-known Israeli social-practice art group called Public movement came briefly into the picture. While in New York for a residency and show at the New Museum, Dana proposed that OWS assemble at Union Square as an offshoot of her project, which researched protest crowds in public space. Occupiers decided to comply when she promised that this was completely separate from New Museum funding but I felt that there was little to gain by the growing movement, and much to coopt by Public Movement and the New Museum, OWS cultural capital being at its height.  At the event, the curators of the New Museum stood in the assembly, documenting the action, and the assembly itself felt anemic and art-worldy: a strange performance of politics by both cultural capitalists and some members of an actually-engaged movement.  I read a statement using the “people’s mic”


calling out corrupt practices of board member influence at the New Museum, a tactic of public truth-telling designed to challenge easy cooption of the event by the New Musuem. It was an uncomfortable meeting between art and politics, and a moment of extending the recent history of participatory art, which blurs the line between art and other social practices, into a growing movement.

I was less concerned about Going Up Jerusalem co-opting a political movement, how to work in Israel at all was the issue I grappled with. We would be providing a cultural service to a nation which is under boycott by artists who did not want to celebrate of support an apartheid state in any way.


I find this to be a compelling argument, much the same way that boycotts of South Africa in the 1980’s seemed just.  However, I tend toward engagement rather than refusal.  In fact, the reasons for political concern about participation in Going Up Jerusalem were perhaps so pronounced; torture, and disenfranchisement of Palestinian peoples so blatant that I became compelled to see what kind of culture (a culture that I also love) could exist in this painful walled-off stasis. The harsh critique of Israel in nearly every progressive circle internationally meant that going was obviously not the politically correct thing to do, there was no fine line to walk; Israel was basically just an ethical wasteland to most.  But what would be possible in this wasteland, could some of the tactics learned in lower Manhattan bare fruit in the Levant? To reject the opportunity to work in Israel/Palestine would be to automatically take a higher ground which I had not earned. From Occupy Wall Street I had learned to step into the unknown, trust instincts, and suspend disbelief.  But in retrospect I took with me a little too much of the brash OWS style naivete. This caused me to level an unexamined political critique more loudly than some of the other foreigners such as Dutch artists Bik van der Pol. I was tin-eared to the quieter strategies that a mostly progressive community of Israeli artists had adapted.

One of these artists, and the man behind the journey is Guy Briller.  It’s hard to describe Guy’s approach, but everything about his “way” seemed to be a survival strategy for living and working in a country that had turned fearful, paranoid, and overwhelmingly warlike. Guy was impossible to pin down, his verbal style is populated with questions and open sentences, always pointing to the distance where nothing is definite.  He did not strike me as the overly-strategized entities that many professional artists personify; players of Duchampian social chess. Guy struck me as possibly a real utopian, and he has a resume to prove it. He had dropped out and lived with his big family (wife and four kids) in an environmental commune in Northern Israel for years, then sold his house to buy an old camper retrofitted as an art lab and engaged in activist art and joined the tent protest movement in Israel. At the end of the trip, the group had come upon a little outdoor installation in a park left years before by Briller who had camped out in an off-the-radar gardening project for weeks. For Going Up Jerusalem, Guy and his accomplice Gilad Reich had assembled an uncommon group of people that included a Palestinian DJ, a food guru, an architect, an actor who walked with a donkey, a famous travel writer, a well known Dutch artist couple, poets, activists, and a brilliant cross dressing journalist for a five day hike through the hills, and  I came to feel that assembling a utopian art-tribe to form the kernel of a new utopian culture in the new era of global uprisings for justice, might be Guy’s ultimate intention.  

Walking through the Judean hills together, there were moments that felt distinctly biblical. It appeared that the landscape we weaved through had changed little since the days of Kind David, and the flowing white kafiyahs we were given to wear (printed with a strangely militaristic Going Up logo) created a convincingly old-testament panorama.  However, this image shifted if you looked at it carefully. we learned from our guide, a knowledgeable young park ranger who lives in a kibbutz near Jerusalem, that all the pine trees populating the landscape were imported from Eastern Europe by 20th century Zionists and planted as a land-claiming tactic, to block out the local shepherds from grazing their animals on traditional lands. Every biblical-seeming detail of the trip was undercut in some way: when we arrived on a mountaintop, a performance artist directed the sacrifice of Isaac substituting Abu-Sabr (“father of patience”) the white donkey, for Abraham while a woman donned multi-colored body paint climbed a tree to portray the angel of the Lord. Yet despite all this post-modern skepticism, three miracles managed to occur on the journey. After walking, we would arrive in camp and make a fire at night. On one of the last nights I was standing near the fire in deep conversation with travel writer Yossi Ghinsberg. The smoke blew in our direction, causing us to move. Each time we would move, the smoke would follow us, and we thusly circumambulated the fire seven time.  This was the first miracle on a strange trip of miracles and unanswerable questions in heady times.

The mass protest movement in Israel which proceeded Occupy Wall Street by a season, the tent movement, bumped up against the utopian space of our journey at one point, causing great elation and strain within our group. A year after the huge protests against economic injustice in Tel Aviv where millions marched on the street, the crowds flaired back up all of a sudden, the leader Daphne Leaf was arrested and beaten, the video of this went viral and it sparked a mass rally the next day. We heard the news from our quiet camp in the hills, and some of us immediately bolted for Tel Aviv.  As a kind of OWS representative, I felt the need to go along, and was perhaps expected to do so, and we packed into two cars (not big enough for the whole group to join, which ended up being a real sore point) and spent the evening running in free crowds around the city, shutting down streets stranding cars and busses amid the throng, banging on bank windows. Late than night, we shut down the biggest freeway in Israel by simply walking onto it en masse.  We danced up the freeway, singing: this was the journey’s second miracle.

  It was a little strange to engage in this OWS predecessor movement, parallel in many ways yet existing within a land with a dividing wall between a people with many rights and opportunities and another people with very few. The concrete wall seemed like an inescapable wound even if those on the Israeli side were experiencing inequality on a huge scale themselves.  Talking to organizers, it seemed that a very careful messaging strategy was in place. Any mention of Palestine and a wider Israeli public would reject the tent movement.

The tent movement was the most obvious thread of connection between the invited participants so it was strange that upon return to the camp, it became clear that many people in the group were upset by this break-away to protest in Tel Aviv.  The reactive will to join the revolutionary crowds was somehow at odds with what we were really doing Going Up to Jerusalem.  I think that this disconnect concerned the dimensions of time and scale. Movement-time can be a high-energy blitz of information, reaction, and emotion.  Being part of a huge crowd can give you extra energy you didn’t know you had. Organizing  a movement you hook into the strategic game of reaction, counter-reaction which is often quite in line with the ADHD mode of social media. Flowing with these changes and responding in real-time is a great strength of the recent movements.  But our automatic response to join the tent movement in the streets seemed to push aside a different kind of time- that of reflection, social care, and quiet community building. The time to walk slowly through the hills rather than run through the streets. I got caught because when we received the news about the protest I was actually facilitating the assembly, OWS style, and all of a sudden I chose to get up and leave in the middle of my role; an obvious disrespect to the process. This tense moment was caught on livestream, which was streaming the entire trip.

Jerusalem Season of Culture funded and produced this project (Itay Mautner served as Artistic Director) and much of the tension in Going Up that I experienced, depended on the word “culture.”  Like a reality TV show that positions a group of strangers on an island, the participants had to navigate conflicts within our approaches and quickly set up a workable culture together seemed like the goal. Most of the participants were Israeli, but Guy and Gilad had designed a demanding structure of daily walking, presenting, and assembling that broke through comfort zones and the nightly assembly was the most raw part of this experiment.  In the course of the trip, I was asked to facilitate the assembly because of my experience with Occupy, and when I tried to impose canned OWS culture on the group with all the accompanying hand gestures and horizontal philosophy, I was met with great resistance. Although people were good sports about it at first, wiggling their fingers for consensus, Israeli culture parted ways with Occupy on a few points. Even Israeli activists seemed to prefer strong leadership, a fact reflected in the prominence of a single guru-like leader of the tent movement, Daphne Leaf. During my temporary and rather  unskillful stint as facilitator of the assembly, I was challenged for leadership by a number of Jewish males, reminding me that the country was run by a politically competitive model of called the Knesset.  However, while Israelis have the international reputation as often arrogant, competitive, and crude, I came to understand that my Holy Land collaborators operated with a kind of sensitivity I was unused to in New York. The way that little collaborations sprouted here and there on the journey and participants such as Rafram Chaddad offered performance and culinary delights reminded me that among the Jewish part of the country Israel/Palesine related to itself like a big family, and a sense of acceptance and care for one another, ran under the surface. This was most easily felt in informal conversations and at night when nearly everyone seemed to break out a musical instrument at one point or another, creating a musical Hebrew campfire. It was also felt by the acceptance and respect for a settler, Porat Salomon, with divergent politics, into the group. I also kept thinking about how most of the Israelis had either gone through the military experience, or, as I later found out, the culturally shameful process of military prison or somehow ducking service.

I found that Going Up did have one clear structural flaw, which was especially strange in light of its relationship to activism, and that was its double class system. There were two groups who went up to Jerusalem in parallel: one was us invited pilgrims, the other was a large hired support structure team consisting of logistics specialists, cooks, camp equipment organizers, a documentation team, a man who towed a large bathroom and shower unit. This organization was so highly detailed, and well run, that I attributed it’s efficiency to the fact that nearly everyone had served in the military.  Each day we arrived at a new location with a camp waiting for us, the meals prepared by a woman and her daughters were consistently delicious and healthy. An area with mattresses and a sun shade was always laid out for our assembly. This put us invited cultural pilgrims in a forced position of constant leisure, and leveled a certain pressure on us to fill time with deep musings and cohering as a group or perform for the omnipresent cameras. But grounded necessity was lacking from our role. When we invited the staff to the assemblies, they were often too busy, having important work to complete… for our sake. If we had spend half the day cooking together and setting up the camp without distinctions between the two class-groups, the experience would have likely gelled around these mundane yet essential activities, making us feel less artificially framed as “culture-makers.”

Movement politics within cultural environments seems to be a recent trend in the arts.  On the same trip away from the US, I had participated in the Berlin Biennale, a radical attempt by curators to bridge politics with culture. Activists from the Occupy and M15 movements all over the globe had been invited to “occupy” the KW building. This at first proved disastrous as Berlin-based activists created within the institution an Occupy-style camp with all the expected protest slogans and aesthetics. Viewers viewed the activists themselves, repositioned as zoo animals, engaged in meetings in the center of the space. When I arrived with Occupy Museums from New York (11 of us came) halfway through, we felt that the movement was actually being occupied by the institution, rendering politics absurd and we began working to change that. 

But paradoxically, it was much rougher going in the center (Mitte) of Berlin than way out in the Judean Hills.  The rougher experience of sleeping on the museum floor and cooking in a makeshift kitchen with dumpstered food created a measure of solidarity among some of us, heightening the energy.  And finally we were able to challenge the curators Joanna Warsa and Artur Zmijewsjki who struck a Kurtz-like figure in complete (and incommunicative) control of the aestheticized and anthropologized frame in which we found ourselves.  We demanded that they step back from their role; it wasn’t appropriate to curate a movement.


  They accepted, and thus ensued a chaotic horizontalization of the Biennial where the assembly would run the whole Biennale space and community


which though not exactly successful was in the end a heady, high energy and a growing experience for all involved (though I think a confusing one for the audience and critics who had no way of knowing what was going on since little of it was outwardly visible).  The horizontal process at the Berlin Biennale did lead to an increase in the wages of the museum guards who had joined our assembly, and left some of us with the feeling that a cultural development had occurred and that we were able to empower ourselves.  We found no such opportunity for empowerment (and catharsis) on the way to Jerusalem.

Yet there was a particular and definite trajectory to Going Up Jerusalem.  We were walking toward the Hold Land- the miles of dirt roads being the most rewarding part of the journey, also the part that made us work, and where we talked the most comfortably, and felt the most authentic. As we finally neared Jerusalem, the group process of the assemblies had broken down, and tension seemed to rise. Near the city limit.  We had a combative discussion under an olive tree about how to enter the city as a group, whether we were in fact a group at all. What were we entering anyway, what had Israel become? I provocatively wondered out loud whether it was necessary to preserve the Jewish anyway. The heaviness of the idea of Jerusalem was punishing us, Abu Sabr, the white donkey that the actor Lavi Zytner had brought along refused to walk ahead, assembly leaders were locked in a power struggle, and the group was clearly not cohering. Because of this, it seemed, we had somehow failed in our task.   

It came down to this: We could not agree, and the last day of the journey Guy Briller proposed in the assembly that each would decide their own final destination for themselves or in small groups. Ideas were solicited and I added one: to end it at the Apartheid Wall. Other proposals were a guided tour through the old city led by the impressively knowledgeable journalist Yuval Ben Ami who was courageously dressed in exquisite drag. The travel writer, tent enthusiast and spiritual adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg offered to led another small group to eat the best humus stand in all of the Holy Land.

Our small “Wall” group packed into a car headed east toward the Wall at Abu Dis. We were a diverse crew: Etai Darway, an African-Israeli DJ who grew up as part of the Hebrew Isrealite community in Damona, Israel, a back-to-the-Holy Land movement started by African Americans in the 1970’s who, it appeared from his explanation and pictures, live a life of unique aesthetics and soul music that is completely disconnected to the rest of Israeli culture. Etai lives in Tel Aviv had never actually seen the wall. Also, among us was the photographer Yuval Yairi, the poet and musician Avner Amit with whom I had written a collaborative poem addressed to the Wall, and finally an settler named Porat Salomon, a soft spoken artist and father who espoused a politics that was critical of the wall, but for the opposite reason than I am: so that Jews could come to control all of the Holy Land, devoid of territorial lines.

When we pulled up to the imposing concrete 30 foot high wall that cuts off a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, we proceeded with a series of spontaneous rituals.  Avner stood up on an electrical box and read his collective poem to the wall while we blew smoke and fanned the concrete. Then Porat wanted to be hoisted high up to write something (Abu Dis is covered in graffiti slogans), and he stood on our shoulders scribbling a biblical quote in Hebrew whose meaning I forget. Ettai drew a doorway and key with a black marker, a reference to Alice and Wonderland and a double escape from the situation (the doorway and the fantasy) which accurately addresses a political situation that requires at least two levels of escape. Israel: a Holy Land where the Holiest site is a Wailing Wall, which is now cut in two by an Apartheid wall, it’s a poetic conundrum. But at least we had made it to the Wall itself, ending our journey at a site of trauma, addressing the un-addressable, touched the concrete, blowing smoke at the thing that blocked even our mental ability to imagine a space for justice. Among the graffiti, we found a small graffiti written by Guy a year before, another key into the karma of the project.  

                  Back in Berlin, I had found a key to unlock at least one actual doorway through the wall.  It was literally key; a giant welded steel key-sculpture which had been plucked from the archway over Ayda Camp (meaning “key”) near Bethlehem, and brought across checkpoints and water to the courtyard of the KW building in Berlin in an expensive gesture by Warsza and Zmijewski. In Berlin, I met a member of the Palestinian youth Parliament, Habshie, involved in the Key of Return project, who invited me to his home in Ayda camp. When Going Up ended, I took a bus to Ayda camp where he showed me around. I met a man who seemed to be a local leader of the Fatah movement who gave me a satellite map of Israel detailing the exact territory captured by the wall. We drove around Bethlehem together, looking at one site where the IDF was in the process of building the wall in a convoluted shape around the house of a single Palestinian family whose house stood on a cliff outside the Wall. The cement would block off his beautiful view of a valley, a settlement in the distance, and distant groves of olive trees, which had been farmed by the displaced people in Ayda camp for generations and were now off-limits. It was obvious that the wall would become his prison, and this man would eventually leave.

                  “The military builds a meandering concrete wall around a single house in a beautiful landscape” sounds like one of the theorums proposed by Allan Kaprow in the 1960’s that proves reality is more far-out than art can ever be.  The surreal air of political unreality in the Holy Land was a crippling challenge to my identity as an artist activist, it left me deeply confused, and respectful of local artists whether Israeli or Palestinian, who can find effective strategies. Briller’s project seemed to meet this reality on the surreal plane, it seemed to be a container for group potential, but while I came to do something, nothing would be achieved except walking together through dusty hills, arguing, and getting to know one another (a few of the Israelis have come through New York as new friends since).  But during the experience, the it was a journey of not-knowing. Bik van der Pol responded near the end with a single image that had the whole group assembling into the shape of a backwards question-mark and was completely appropriate.

I was in Ayda camp in Palestine, and would leave the next day.  Riding the bus back to Jerusalem, I realized quite a bit later that my wallet was missing. These words rung in my head- “I left my wallet on the Palestinian bus.” Which seemed like another way of saying that I would never see my wallet or identity and credit cards in it again, maybe I would not be able to get on my plane to the US, perhaps I ought to contact the Homeland Security Department immediately. It was the last bus of the night from Bethlehem, and I walked around near Damascus Gate in a daze.  Finally another bus pulled up.  I attempted to communicate with the Palestinian driver who seemed like a nice fellow, smoking and wanting to help, but he only spoke Hebrew and Arabic. I called up Noam Kuzar, the producer of Going Up Jerusalem who is a logistics genius.  He and the driver spoke in Hebrew.  Soon I was in the bus driver’s small sedan, driving near the Wall at Abu Dis into East Jerusalem to the house of the other bus driver who handed me my wallet: the third miracle.


All the money was still in it, thank you.




Noah Fischer




Rhetoric Machine exhibited in 2006 at the Oliver Kamm Gallery


(this action immediately became a direct action group of which I am a member).



the amplification tactic where the crowd repeats a speaker’s words line by line since powered amplification was not permitted at Liberty Park.


Random Randal: Globalization and the Spirit of Collaboration

published in SalonIndus

The fact that I’m sitting in my apartment in New York City scribbling for an art publication out of New Delhi is just another bit of proof that the world is getting smaller.  Social circles are connecting, Globalization is happening in the arts and across nearly every discipline. As markets merge, we’re starting to see global scale problems: massive multi-nation financial collapse sparked by the Global boom of credit-based value.   And this pales in comparison to the meltdown of the planet’s climate.  I don’t want to impose US-style Armageddon thinking here, it’s true that my nation loves to consume disaster movies, but years into a historical economic crisis and weeks after Hurricane Sandy submerged the New York subway system for the first time, a distressed global future seems to have arrived.  This present-future necessarily becomes the backdrop for culture making, because art, though consciously historical, is always of its time.  I believe that artistic practice is sometimes finely calibrated and sometimes rather randomly, well suited to respond to change.  As an artist, it’s my job to explore these potentialities, pushing art toward greater relevance. How are the meaning, value, and authorship of art changing in the information age? Which art practices and historical models best respond to the unstably shifting world picture?


Random Randal was created in 2010 at the invitation of Anil Dayanand, professor at the RLV College of Art in Tripunithra, Kerala. With Anil’s invitation came a mission to connect my artistic practice into collaboration with a wide range of artists I had never met before.  The community at RLV College proved adept at cohering into a body that collectively designed and carried out a project of high complexity. Random Randal responded to a growing global need for sharing and trans-national community.


Ironically, I played the role of Neoliberal culture-colonizer when I was first introduced to the Indian art world in 2006. Fresh from my MFA degree at Columbia University, I was hired by a blue chip gallery in New York to make recommendations about which hot contemporary Indian artist they might include in their “stable” (group of gallery artists).  The sad fact is that I knew absolutely nothing about Indian art, had never travelled to India, didn’t even know many India Americans…nothing.  A prominent curator who also knew nothing about India had recommended me as a favor and this landed me the job. Airfare wasn’t part of the contract so I became an Internet traveller to the Subcontinent, feverishly googling “India” and “contemporary art” and occasionally picking up the phone and calling curators or critics or artists whose name would come up in searches. I accessed lists of artists included in Biennials or represented by German or Australian or US galleries, or selling at auction.  The finer grain, local networks of artists were invisible to me. More alarmingly, I had no real sense of the context or history of Indian art. I was operating at a speed that precluded an understanding of what I was looking at, hungering for highly visual images and easiest-to-digest concepts. In the end, the superficiality of this cultural foray was quite depressing: art converted to information more for the love of profit than culture. But through this research I met Anil Dayanand online, who at that time was writing for Matters of Art, an online publication out of New Delhi.


I made my first trip to India in 2009. This was after a rollercoaster ride when the market energy was buzzing in New York and I was exhibiting internationally. Then in 2008, the market fell off a cliff in the US. I had a solo show up at the time, collectors were walking around in shock and nothing sold. My gallery brought me to the 2008 art fair in Miami, and it felt discordant to attend luxury pool parties at a time when many Middle Class people were losing life savings. That was time for a change and I bought a ticket to India, a journey in which I would nearly circle the country. I stopped to visit some of the people I had met virtually.


The next year, I decided to return, this time to create art. I had been in a correspondence with Anil about a possible collaboration and the timing worked out just right: he was able to invite me as a participant in the “Trans-Trends Festival” hosted by the RLV college of art.  The festival had been conceived by the students and professors at RLV and given the theme of  “inter-visuality,” which was a passport to cross-pollination of traditional media and where new media such as video and online work took prominent place.  Anil and curator Bipin Balechandran had designed the festival for a constituency of art students from all over India for a program of critiques, studio visits, music and dance performances, parties, meals, and lecture-presentations by visiting luminaries such as Shivaji Pannikar and Gulam Muhammed Sheik. My presence in the festival was a bit of a wild card, but my previous work certainly fit well into the theme of inter-visuality.  


I knew that I wanted to work primarily with human energy as a medium. At the time, I was interested in a kinetic experience that drew social and physical bodies together into a functional “human machine.” This concept developed from a previous body of mechanized installations, some quite complex such as Pop Ark (2008) employing lights/motors/soundtracks and running mechanically on their own. Parallel to this, I was also involved in experimental theater in Europe, which got me addicted me to the cathartic power of the “live moment.”  My first human machine was called Electrical Forest: made in Troy which was an assembly line in which hundreds of volunteer “workers” mass-produced artistic leaves in timed work-shifts.  We ended up with a huge production of leaves printed on film but the surprising by-product was a great amount of uplifting energy and a creative spirit of adult play.


Random Randal began with a cup of tea in a roadside tea shack near RLV College, followed by a meeting with Anil and Bipin and others in a small faculty room. I presented my skeleton of an idea about the human machine and it began to develop collectively in the room. Anil noted that languages from all over India were present for the conference and that this could be a resource and a theme.  Create some kind of language machine. How would this language be organized? “It has to be Random” said Bipin. At the time I was interested in the lantern as a symbol for truth, and sculpturally the light-emitting form was perfect for the “inter-visuality” theme. So the project would be called Random Randal (Randal means “lantern” in Malayalam). There would be two stages: the carving of language stamps to create a “random text library” and secondly, the fabrication of giant bamboo lanterns with thatched coconut roofs, like little traditional huts.  The lanterns would join with the text library in a hybrid festival/assembly-line, a big multi-media performance that resembled a 1960’s era art “happening,” and became a central moment in the whole festival. Finally, the completed and illuminated lanterns would be hung in the RLV main space, and wired for an electric light show. It was an ambitious project.


RLV is architecturally and pedagogically divided up into two halves: one side for contemporary visual arts, the other for more traditional Carnatic music and dance. These disciplines stayed separate as a rule. But as Random Randal gained steam in the already heightened context of the TransTrends festival, the lines began to blur, challenging the ingrained separation of disciplines. Musicians offered to drum at the center of the lantern-making festival and music became the motor that powered and modulated the event. Next, daring groups including students and instructors of traditional Carnatic dance volunteered to pitch in, choreographing movements in relation to the lantern-production. Their graceful fluidity through the space, dressed in matching orange and white, unlocked a physical capacity of all the participants, and the whole assembly line became a giant dance. Within the space of the performance itself, a “random” potential took shape and spontaneous things began to happen.  Anil Dayanand appeared, dressed in clean white and led by a pack of bell-ringing students. He offered himself up to be stamped on his chest, head, and back by the random language assembly-line.  As the performance went on, his skin and clothes blackened with a scrambled archive of words from multiple regions in India. Anil made an autonomous performance, which drew on and added to the collective energy of Random Randal.


The institutions that uphold Visual Art have long repeated the myth of the solitary artist.  From Fra Angelico’s monastic cell in early Renaissance Florence to Jackson Pollack’s barn (and in movies such as Basquiat and Dhobi Ghat) the genius-artist struggles alone until the great discovery arrives.  Certainly there is some truth to this myth; many artists do enjoy the interiority of creative space, and the mental quasi spiritual “zone” that becomes available after hours of focus.  But the myth of working alone can also be isolating and sets the conditions for art to act as a prison, shutting ring artists off from the outside world.  And behind this myth of the triumphant individual sits an economic model as well. This was reflected in my online research into the Indian art world in 2006, which furnished me with a short-list of art-stars: Subbed Gupta, Bharti Ker and the like, totally ignoring most of the people who collectively create the thing we call “culture” through learning, teaching, sharing, supporting, and collaborative work.  Art stars can be wonderful artists, but economically, they are name brands that can be placed on a particular aesthetic, which can then circulate the globe at enormous profits.


Random Randal worked by a different logic. I arrived on the scene via a “random” friendship with Anil, unmediated by the chain of approval from gallery, museum, or other art institution that creates cultural capital and often prompts international invitations. Likewise, the participating students were ambitious: some very interested in entering the market, but they were above all eager to learn and the theme of the festival was boundary- blurring, which set the groundwork for spirited collaboration. Random Randal was collectively developed from the start, with Anil and Bipin and also with the input of the students involved and this collectivity moved it away from my authorship and toward a cultural experience that was widely shared and could be modulated into smaller autonomous projects like Anil’s performance. As the lanterns took shaped within an energetic process over the week, it came apparent that the art objects (lanterns) rather than commodities were mediating objects for connection, and information/experience sharing.  Their illumination stood for the temporary brightness of making new friends and sharing a heightened experience. The American artist Laurie Anderson speaks about art as an instrument for special sensorial experience: the transformation-possibility in seeing rather than a museum-quality object is her goal.  I would agree with her, but add the goal of social connection.


In the few years after Random Randal, though I have not travelled back to India, I have stayed in touch many of the student participants through Facebook.  Updates of designer Bibil Kumar, painters Sudipta Das and Eldho George and many others pop up on my wall, we chat and share work or random thoughts. This relatively new culture of algorithmic networking creates one big jumbled conversation of random thoughts, news headlines, ideas, and kinetic streams of more information that we are coming to accept as our culture. Perhaps this points to a future where culture is better understood as a collective project than it is today, and perhaps tools and models that acknowledge and support a broader cultural ecology are on their way. Random Randal was like an physical embodiment of an random online world: we danced, sweat, shared, and created together with our hands, challenging conventions as traditional music merged with an assembly line. The text library representing numerous Indian languages, numerous voices, was filtered into a dance.  It was a project about communication and sharing which included but surpassed words. Art is an ancient practice and a human necessity. Within it, there is much promise for a globalized future where “global” means merging differences, taking chances and supporting the roots of culture.


Response to the 7th Berlin Biennale



A few weeks ago, I thought that the 7th Berlin Biennale had constructed a kind of tomb where movements would come to die. Arriving in early June, we encountered exactly a human zoo, a position from which activated activism felt impossible. It seemed that an anemic representation of the movement was being exhibited and consumed by an audience; rather than occupying, we were being occupied by the institution.  Also, the “global” activist community appeared surprisingly nationalistic and was blocking itself in various ways which Carolina details, leading to a culture of degeneration. For example, I witnessed an “activist” call the police on someone else to settle a dispute, which created a pleasing spectacle for the art audience. So my initial experience when we arrived was very close to Carolina’s picture and I was angry with the curators and wondered if anything helpful for the movements could come from the 7th Berlin Biennale. I even wondered how much damage the 7th Berlin Biennale would do to the movements.

However, after a two-week experience in Berlin, I have two questions to offer to her assessment. The first: is the goal of growing a healthy square on the model of Puerta del Sol or Liberty Park an appropriate measure for the 7th Berlin Biennale? Certainly a museum exhibition with “star” curators and with time limits is a strange place to set up an inclusive public square. And one that is funded by the German government is an even stranger place to invite members of 15M protesting austerity!  Also, at least in New York, the #square stage of the movement passed months ago, partially because the logic of squares created problems in themselves and we are busy trying to understand how the post-square stage can work. So here, perhaps we could have started, not finished, from the conclusion that a “free square” wouldn’t be likely. This would lead to the question concerning the other strategies we can follow with the resources available here. It turned out that we found many tactics and some of them started with leaving behind the pure square model in search of hybrids.

The second question: Is it possible to pronounce an experiment a failure halfway through? This question touches on the “space of possibility,” which I think is kind of the bread and butter of the movements--another world is possible! (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary). In my experience with Occupy Wall Street, you’ve got to trust the moment, even when it twists and turns out of control. Sometimes, for example, the moments when police exerted the most force - like that day of 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge - the dispiriting situation quickly flipped around into a win for the movement. I feel like our involvement in this global movement, which is responding to 30 + years of Neo-Liberalism, is like scratching around for hidden pathways, secret allies, magic tactics within an extensive fortress-city. So maybe looking for new spheres in which to act, using new tactics, without giving up, keeping the space of possibility open despite all logic, despite absurdity, is a strong position to take. 

So what did we do with the situation? After the initial shock of finding ourselves in a human zoo, I/we began to respond. What was first needed was to address the power hierarchy of the zoo and flip the situation so that we could regain our dignity. An international group of activists attempted this through a series of semiotic guerrilla actions (naming the curators publicly for example) and holding meetings which culminated in a proposal (which was accepted) for the former curators and director to step back. Our logic: to invite and exhibit the movements was not a bad thing in itself, but only a first step, and one that would naturally lead to degeneration if it stopped there. It was necessary for the institution to “go farther into the concept,” pushing the 7th Berlin Biennale structurally in a horizontal direction to make their invisible frame visible and put it under question. To accomplish this, we were leveraged by the strength of our group, by the public “failure” of the Biennial thus far (leading perhaps to desperation and willingness), and by allies in the press. The proposal was consensed upon in a simple version by the Biennale staff, and an experiment about the limits of activism in relation to institutions was initiated.

As we walked into the muddy waters of open meetings and the realization that in the short time we had, we could probably accomplish very little concrete changes within the institution (some of us wanted to support the guards in raising their 6.5 euros/hour salary for example), we did notice (not only occupiers but guards and staff too) that we got a lot of our dignity back. Things began to move. New allies emerged from all sides and we began to work together in groups that broke the boundaries of “occupiers” and “institution.” The former curators who at first seemed like our zookeepers became kind of collaborators, maybe even activists. Interesting collaborations were proposed and attempted. Could we use the 7th Berlin Biennale institutional name to pull off even stronger actions, hacking the ambiguity and class-relation of culture in service to the movement? We also used tools from the #square such as general assemblies, working groups, and our consensus process, but this move toward horizontality was not a “pure square model” but hybrid territory.  We are conscious that as we play out this experiment we are also developing tactics that can be shared for future hybrids that transgress many lines. A “continuity working group” is busy planning such future hybrids.

So far, I would not call the experience in Berlin a success. I don’t think there is such a thing in this movement. Part of what we are doing is moving beyond a striving for success in the way we previously defined it (mostly through acquisition of money or status). But neither can I say that it was a failure. We entered a space of tension and possibility, created a kind of interesting mess and many people are now busy developing this mess collectively. It is possible that this is simultaneously a process of cooption of our movement and also the discovery of secret passageways in the fortress. Let the global movement be everywhere, attempt everything. We’ll see what happens next.


Frieze: An Occupied Biennial




For the 7th Berlin Biennale Forget Fear, co-curators Artur Zmijewski and Joanna Warsza invited members from Occupy Movements around the world to take over the ground floor of the Kunst-Werke. How are the members fairing? Berlin-based critic Raimar Stange sat down to talk to Noah Fischer, an artist-activist based in New York. In addition to occupying Forget Fear, Fischer will be participating in this fall’s Steirischer Herbst festival in Austria.


Raimar Stange: Why is it interesting for the Occupy Movement to work in the context of the Berlin Biennale?


Noah Fischer: First of all, I’d just like to make it clear that these answers are my own opinions as an Occupy Museums member – I am not a spokesperson for the entire group.


The Occupy Movement is not fixed but rather constantly transforming and looking for new physical and intellectual spaces in which to spread our message. We actually develop the message and our new culture as we go. In the beginning, it was important to come together in city squares – in public space – and to develop a movement together ‘from the ground up’ which was autonomous from institutions.


In this way, we met each other somewhat outside of the persuasive framework of Neo-Liberalism and inside a space full of possibility. Then the initial public squares became less helpful – even corrupted – and eventually we lost them by force or through a withering away. But we also matured and refined the Occupy message about economic inequality in many new directions, for example in arts and culture with Occupy Museums and other groups.


People in these various groups began to experiment with a variety of tactics: new direct-action strategies and games in the streets, legal challenges to US laws or even engagement with media and institutions where allies had come forward. So the process has been open source and simultaneous: the Occupy Movement cannot afford to limit itself to a concept of political purity with absolute non-engagement. That’s what I mean when I say we’re part of a de-centered movement – a movement taking on a new post-1960’s model.


Personally, I feel that there is really no possibility to stand outside the economic disparity that we protest because this disparity is deeply structural. So, it makes sense to engage with institutions and go beyond ‘us and them‘, to experiment and to find solutions or steps forward here and there.


Last fall, at the height of Occupy Wall Street, Joanna Warsza came to New York and experienced the Movement just as it was forming into strong new groups. She saw some Occupy Museums actions in New York and asked me – without mentioning the Biennale – what would happen if an institution was willing to work together on our terms? I said that it would be a walk through the mud because obviously there are conflicts of interest in the form of power and financial hierarchies in all or most cultural institutions.


Yet I think there are two points that convinced the movement to work with the Berlin Biennale – after many meetings and discussions. Firstly, this cooperation represented a real sharing or offering of resources. The Biennale flew ten of our members from New York and had invited activists from movements all over the world as well. On a basic level, this exhibition was a chance to organize on a global level face to face – and that is what indeed happened.


Secondly, we knew that in some ways the Biennale represented an ideal art institution – at least from the American perspective. In the USA, the largest museums get about 15% of their funding from the government while the rest is corporate or comes from the super rich 1%. The private markets completely dominate our culture in the USA. Part of what we are fighting for is for art to be valued as part of the commons, as part of the shared treasures which support and are supported by society.


The Berlin Biennale is almost completely funded by the government, and we wanted to interact with this model, learn about it and see what was possible. It turned out to be very complicated politically, artistically, socially. I am now full of questions and also hope. We made new friends from international movements and helped to conduct an experiment with culture and politics that may lead to more good questions and to more action. We’ll see what happens next.


What do you see as the main difference between an activist and an artist?


Right now I am not interested in these definitions and actually don’t accept them. They must open up and change to be useful in the world we are in and we are heading towards. To what extent are these fields or identities defined by the Neo-Liberal system itself?


I used to call myself an artist – in the context of getting an MFA, working in academia, showing at galleries, art fairs, feeling part of art history. Then I entered into a people’s movement where the word ‘artist’ meant very little because creativity was everywhere, shared and initiated by many. We weren’t interested in the trappings of the market or in marketing our creativity, but rather in opening up the space for more creative action.


The same goes for activists. Of course, there is a particular specialized activist language and résumé. But in the movement context, I realized that everyone has a voice and can act autonomously and together, wandering in the direction of justice.



Photograph: Raimar Stange

What I am interested in now is the spark needed for action. When does a person who is deeply conditioned to produce and to consume make the move to go his or her own way? Or to join others in protest or in creating a new experimental culture? This illusive spark helped ignite Occupy, 15M and also movements in Cairo, Libya, Syria. Sometimes, people do reach a moment where long-held fears can dissolve, and I think this is also a creative state.


I don’t want to say that wisdom and experience should be ignored or that people who call themselves artists or activists should be shunned: not at all. The movement needs tools and strategies – people share them from their past efforts. These are the riches of the movement. But definitions need to be questioned – maybe we can even let them go in order to move on.


In the information age, we have a class of people who are specialists and ‘experts’ in politics, activism, art, economics, sports and many other fields. They comment and also reinforce a mental status quo regarding culture and political correctness. I’m interested in a naïve position that is more immediate but also highly autonomous and experimental – whereby I am able to act and to play in the world.


What was your best moment during the Berlin Biennale?


It has been a pleasure to be here with many special moments. Some were ‘high’ while others were quite low: down in the mud negotiating a way forward in communication and making mundane decisions together. These were also best moments for me.


Our action at the Pergamon Museum altar was also important. It was not an Occupy Museums action but rather planned by an international group, which included people from Spain, Poland, Russia, Poland and the USA who had met in Berlin. The action was responding to colonialism which is still a backdrop for cultural symbols internationally.


First, we created a fake university to gain free access to the museum for a large group. I played the professor for a class on the ancient roots of horizontalism. Once inside, we gathered on the alter and conducted a performance which included a song in ancient Greek sung by Joulia Strauss and played with a lyre accompaniment. We shouted statements, chanted and even burnt sage.


We were thrown out of the museum, but we went out chanting with our dignity intact. The police tried to detain us, but they had no grounds to do so as we were operating in collaboration with culture. We used the altar to send out messages and essentially to bless the movement. Our values of horizontalism and equality come in part from ancient Greece.


When you plan a creative direct action that is also a public disruption, you tend to get close to the people you’re working with. You find solidarity and trust. So the occupation of the Pergamon altar was also a node of unity between the international movement community – a node that was formalized and ceremonialized.


There was also a muddy process moment I’d like to mention: the ‘info-Com’ group at the Biennale. After the co-curators and the Biennale community agreed with our proposal to push the institution forward in a horizontal direction, we started some working groups, which consisted of movement members and staff from the Kunst-Werke, who were willing to try out the experiment – although it often means more work for them.


Although we are still conducting meetings to begin our cooperation, we are breaking down some barriers between the professional, the institutional, the activist and the movement. Our meetings have been respectful and quite functional. We’ve written a joint press release and started a newsletter which better represents the whole community in the Kunst-Werke space.


Our goal is to merge the whole media platform with the movement and institution including the website of the Biennale. There are of course moments of conflict in these meetings. But for me they prove that we can really work together and also that we care about the same things even though we might normally work on different sides of walls. For me, joining up and sharing is the whole point.


Un-Friezing Art for the 1%

Last weekend, the luxury contemporary art fair called “Frieze” arrived on Randall’s Island in New York via London. Frieze is a highly exclusive affair where a selected group of international taste-making galleries sell their wares to the wealthiest people in the world, many of whom were intimately connected to the credit crisis and are now busy shopping for art objects, private jets, and fourth or fifth houses as people in their respective countries suffer foreclosures, unemployment and austerity measures.

Calling our action “Un-Frieze Culture,” Occupy Museums staged an action outside the fair to call out economic injustice and search for alternatives--a new path where contemporary culture can be in greater harmony with values of justice and universal respect. Born in the heady days of October 2011, when Zuccotti Park was filled round the clock with highly energized people of all persuasions, Occupy Museums stated that art and culture - like political representation or rights - should be horizontal, open to all. And we embarked on a series of actions to point out how art is currently hoarded and co-opted by the richest few at the expense of the many.

Even before our first action at the Museum of Modern Art in the fall, Occupy Museums was controversial. People instantly “got” the logic of Occupy Wall Street, but museums were seen differently. Museums are well-loved; people associate the paintings on their walls with creativity, beauty, history and truth. So, critics screamed, why do you protest museums? Do you hate art? Many assumed that only the bitter and jealous, those angry at beauty itself, could occupy such a thing as a museum. But the truth is (and I can only speak for myself), I love art so much I cannot bear to see it turned into just another derivative or "tangible asset." Yes, some members of Occupy Museums were fueled by anger at the conflict of interest we saw between MoMA and Sotheby's Auction House, a "partnership" that is cornering the cultural world and speculating at astronomical profits for the wealthiest few. We had also grown weary experiencing the cutthroat competition for few positions of art-stardom rather than collaborating and putting art to use for meaningful social change. But in the end, this was about connecting the times with culture, giving art its respect and making it relevant to everyone.

Occupy Museums noted that in this current age of unprecedented wealth inequality, museums have essentially been functioning as tax shelters and investment houses for the wealthiest--and that art itself has undergone a transformation from cultural tool to financial asset. As Occupy Museums staged action after action at various New York City museums starting in October, the critique caught on; people began to see that art and culture have been taken away from the 99%.

And that we can take it back.

On October 20, a small group of protesters took the subway uptown, marched across the Upper East Side to the Museum of Modern Art, and stood in front of the monumental museum entrance forming a General Assembly circle on the sidewalk. After a “call to action” was read in unison, facilitators opened the assembly and people spoke about why they had come. Voices and stories began to emerge. Unpaid interns at non-profits called an end to widespread labor abuse in the art world. Museum guards spoke of their experiences being treated as second-class citizens during elite donor parties. Union members called for fair contracts and artists presented a future in which their practice and passion promoted creativity over capital. News media picked up on the protests. The directors of MoMA came out to talk with us and ask what our demands were. The reply: "We’ll be back next week.”

In the months since, Occupy Museums has staged action after action at the Museum of Modern Art, Sotheby’s Auction House, Lincoln Center, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American Finance and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The events ranged in size from a few protesters to hundreds. Occupy Museums asked the Museum of American Finance to accept artifacts built by and for members of the 99% facing foreclosure in Harlem. (After a letter-writing correspondence with the CEO of the museum, they accepted the artifact.) We protested Sotheby’s greedy choice to lockout its art handlers, the Teamsters Local 814.

Perhaps most noticeably, just after OWS was evicted from Zuccotti Park in mid-November, the Lincoln Center showed an opera by Philip Glass called “Satyagraha” (truth force), inspired by such protest-luminaries as Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The fact that Lincoln Center is funded by billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had just violently and unlawfully evicted a non-violent protest, did not go missed by the public. Occupy Museums worked with Glass and other Occupy groups to stage a huge General Assembly on Lincoln Center’s steps (the private plaza is off-limits for exercising First Amendment rights of assembly). When Philip Glass himself joined the crowd and read a poem on the Human Mic, the entire opera audience joined the protesters for a mass assembly on human rights and economic justice.

Over the winter, as Occupy matured and drew indoors from the weather, the Occupy Museums group also changed and grew. A major question kept coming up: what kind of alternatives could occupiers offer in exchange for the current capitalist system we were criticizing. In response, Occupy Museums designed an action called “Free Art for Fair Exchange” at the Armory Show, a large and prestigious art fair in New York. Standing outside the fair, we exchanged our art and ideas for non-monetary items and invited others to do the same. Arts lovers exchanged conversations and objects with each other, or made drawings to trade on the spot. Although Occupy Museums did not claim to present a rent-paying alternative to the current market, the action gave participants a taste of non-financial values of exchange and the thrill of horizontal, respectful interactions--greatly in contrast to the frozen luxury showroom atmosphere inside the fair. The call to Free Art for Fair Exchange was the beginning of an experimental stage of searching for alternatives, learning to think differently, and being open to collaboration and dialogue with anyone.

The dialogue at the Frieze was more difficult. We prepared another Free Art for Fair Exchange action to open a space for discussion with fair-goers about the nature of speculation and art. But Frieze had rented an island in the middle of New York City, then rented a large buffer zone around the fair and declared it "temporary private space" patrolled by the NYPD. Occupy Museums was kept far away from the fair, in a corner of a parking lot; there, we created a "freedom cage" that VIP cars sped past, windows rolled up, on their way back to Manhattan. Sharp class divisions in culture hurt everyone in the end. Dialogue is needed and we are not giving up.

Members of Occupy Museums know, as members of the greater Occupy movement know, we're a long ways from here to a new system; right now, we're finding more questions than answers. Yet along this path, Occupy Museums, like the movement as a whole, has already discovered something special: a new vitality and solidarity that comes from employing creativity for common cause. This alone is transformative, and gives us both hope and joy.

Please check out www.occupymuseums.org for more information.


Occupying Tension- for Inquiring Mind


The night that we were evicted from Liberty Park, I spent the early hours of the morning struggling in the streets of Lower Manhattan with a few hundred disoriented & angry people. Hundred of cops in riot gear were chopping up the street into mazes of steel barricades.  They were forcefully deploying researched & effective crowd control strategy; we tried to unify our scraggly numbers and rally, but our endeavor proved to be futile and disheartening and it became gradually clear that the police had the upper hand.  We were losing: the tension in our bodies gradually easing into defeat toward the early hours of the morning. Among my company that night was a man patiently trying to unify the hot-headed crowds. He had been a student protester in Tiananmen Square. He said to me, “movements do not attract activists, they create them.” So all that night, even though we seemed to be losing, we were in fact learning. Our bodies were in position to feel the sensations of freedom and obstacle in the streets-rare and profound sensations. We were in the midst of grasping a new way together, and that’s why this is the beginning of my story, not the end.


Coinciding closely with the autumn and the miraculous changing of leaves, Occupy Wall Street began in New York on September 17th.  but was really sparked by the human bodies filling public spaces in Tahrir and Spain and Israel months before. The political backdrop to this movement stretches farther back- to the expanding banking sector in the 1970’s which widened the gap between the wealthiest and the middle class, and becoming more pronounced as manufacturing jobs followed cheap labor abroad, corporations were deregulated, and a dehumanizing Neoliberalism took hold. American middle class life was becoming precarious after decades of stability. But an even more ominous shadow loomed over the political process.  With the increasing influence of big money in politics, people no longer empowered democratically- a deep cynicism reigned. People felt trapped and angry:  Something was going wrong in America.


But the Occupy Wall Street Movement stretches back even further-  all the way to the rotten core: the land-grab and slaughter of the Native Americans and the economic boom of  African slave labor.  These wounds from the past, still present today, form the spiritual core of the protest.  They mark a contradiction from the start between America’s soaring rhetoric and cynical practice-both embodied in our economy. This was brought to an intolerably absurd level in recent years with the increase in foreign wars against brown people, and the slipping back into poverty of America’s lower middle class and poor; Latinos and African Americans, as the wealthiest few prosper beyond belief. For me, 2008 was the year that I totally bought out of America; I thew the money back and woke up. That was the year the so-called economic crisis hit. Spectacular corruption on Wall Street was reported that year on the news- everything was known; everything all out in the open to read and see on TV, but nothing changed.  This made me incredibly angry; it was a big problem, simmering beneath everything else.  Around the same time, I began to sit again.  Buddhism teaches that if you experience a problem in your world, study your own mind. In April 2011, I wrote an essay for Zen Monster called “Preparing for An American Revolution” comparing the rising up in Tahrir Square, Cairo, with a Zen Buddhist sesshin. In both cases, people “grooved in together” and focused on the physical as opposed to virtual experience. This somehow led to the unknown, to change. 


This essay became my manifesto, and I realized that I needed to embody this change myself. I shifted my art practice to literally yelling rhyming oratory in the streets, at bankers and tourists, right on Wall Street, while throwing hundreds of dollars of coins on the ground. “Me and my collaborator called this the Summer of Change: a series of numismatic rituals.” By the end of the Summer, the Occupy Wall Street protests had started, and I was right in the center of it.


What was I in the center of exactly? Something new, for sure. Hundreds of people had come together in public in Zucotti Park.  But they were not really protesting, or at least, this was no ordinary protest.  Rather, we were living change in our bodies. We were living out our connection to each other- mending the tender fabric of a society all but lost in the decades of emphasis on private space and money markets.  We were embracing the gift of public space and our public selves- finding our power as citizens in a shared world, and this felt joyful and free. It was anger that had awoken many of us. But in the park, love reigned. It was wonderful!


There was elation, but also, or course, plenty of work to get done.  Inside the park, non-capitalist time and space prevailed- lost souls were meeting like crazy, creative plans hatches and music ringing out.  One block away everything was exactly the same as it ever was-clearly we were at square one. And we knew that to get this work done, we had to push ourselves to learn, rapidly- we had to transform. We also knew that this learning resided in our bodies-we had to act.  Every day, all day, we marched and shouted and organized, ate free food, argued, and struggled with the police. Our practice was to constantly connect and act. In this way we constantly accessed otherwise rare situations where social power- that very same nasty ancient twisted karma of slavery and oppression- rose to the surface, to be seen and felt in the body. To enter these tense situations  was to creep to the edge of our comfort zones, identities, power, self.  These tense situations are the true gift of the movement: the master classes where we transform into activists. The occupation of Wall Street has offered to the recent history of protest the wisdom of staying with this space of tension until boundaries become more visible and we begin to understand them and ourselves within them, and the world itself unfolds and changes and we change with it.  I have found creativity and promise and freedom in this tension, in the space of protest. Instead of “protest,” we really ought to say, “people acting freedom.” 


Yet, it is undeniable that in our world, we are divided up into roles.  In fact, we act out a practically scripted social narrative and “protest” is like grand opera. The NYPD play the role of uncritical strongmen protectors of the status quo, standing densely in their dark uniforms, guns, stern expressions, menacing riot gear, rolling up with trucks full of steel barricades.  I know that these men and women are just the same as me, they are lovely, intelligent, exquisite buddhas yet as the tension builds, they become monuments to un-freedom, presenting a dualism between violence and order, following commands that result in heads bashed against the pavement, arms tied tight, non-violent people put in little cells with a steel trap door slammed behind them.  Meanwhile, when I gather together with others en masse, hold up signs, chanting and marching, we transform into “protesters” our every action taking on political significance and to some: menace, even threats of social chaos. Passers-by on the street play a kind of audience, or critics, or Greek chorus- they have lots of power over the experience, but it’s inert. The stage is set, and the curtains drawn. When the protest begins, time and space contract and expand dramatically as these forces dance together- bodies in tension. It has been helpful for me to hold my role as protester in one hand, and lack of acceptance of any role or division in the other.  This way I could be free of anger- focusing my body’s vital energy toward being present. Finding freedom here, learning to harness this liveliness, and letting it lead the way is the essence of protest.  Following this tension where it wants to go magically stimulates change inside and outside.


Early on in the protest, I switched sides as an experiment. As an Occupy Wall Street group marched from Liberty Park to the Wall Street Stock Exchange (a daily ritual in the first few weeks) I waited with a small group at the Exchange, dressed in a business suit.  When the protests arrived we heckled them as we imagined a group of young & entitled Wall Street investment bankers might (and sometimes do). I yelled “Get a Job!” loudly in the protesters faces, the tension rose, emotions flared. After a while, one of the drummers turned around at me and shouted “I am a veteran of Iraq, I have PTSD and can’t get a job, fuck you!” He hit me, hard, with his drumming baton, which I was not expecting.  The sting on my arm told me that years of suffering, of anger and hurt and aloneness were at play here.  Yes, this was theater, but it was also very real- as real as violence is, as our emotions and bodies are. Later that day I found the Marine, and we hugged it out and both apologized and we hug each time we see each other.  


As Occupy Wall Street gathered steam week to week, we formed a working culture and began to find our natural roles within the movement.  I was interested in the moments of high tension experienced during “direct actions.” I helped to organize an action group called Occupy Museums focused on bringing consciousness about economic justice to cultural institutions; to the very fabric of our beliefs, beauty, likes and dislikes- but through action. We initiated a series of protest experiments that took place mostly on the street in front of museums, which are mostly in the wealthy parts of New York, which is highly protected by the cops.  


First, we occupied The Museum of Modern Art.  We would stage a general assembly on the sidewalk in front of MoMA, empowering everyone present to loudly call out the ways that MoMA disempowers artists and benefits the wealthiest.  The NYPD was waiting for us on 53rd street with barricades and orders to step into a police pen off to the side and protest in this confined space.  Tension prevailed: here was our choice between (their idea of) order and very-real violence. We decided to focus on the communication itself- politely refusing to negotiate with the chief unless he used the “people’s-mic”  (an Occupy Wall Street “social software” where everyone repeats each word of the speaker thus naturally amplifying sound and unifying the group). In this way, we brought the “demand” of one person to the resonance of many voices together, which is deeply based on consensus.  Needless to say, we did not end up protesting in the pen that day.  The use of the people’s mic successfully flipped the fear of violence (“I will be arrested, I will be beaten”)  into a common sharing of our voices, resonating together powerfully, giving us courage.  


But a few weeks later, Liberty Park had been evicted and the movement was preparing for a march that would show our continued power the next day.  For this reason, the police force was much larger and very tense and once again waiting for us with their pen. This time, there would be no negotiation. We stepped into the cage, yelling, chanting, waving signs.  The tension mounted as our outrage filled the enclosed space, while the police strictly controlled the streets around us, ushering away passers-by who approached us in solidarity.  The NYPD created a buffer zone around the magnetic human force of our voices and bodies.  Spatial isolation is a primary tactic of the NYPD and it has two effects.  First, it dispirits the isolated protesters, making it hard to share the human energy, which is at the core of protest.  Secondly, it tends to trap and upset those who hold anger, who often then lash out and get arrested, and thus it weeds out the crowd.  Within this tension, I found energy welling up within, but let it happen, trying to watch it and be ok with it- energy and not anger. I began to “mic check” the group, yelling about the obvious right to be on the street- calling out the absurdity of the situation.  Then my body started to move, to stride out from behind the barricades to the sidewalk and into the no-go zone defined by the standing line of cops- the space of tension.  But there was space, air here! I began to widen my movements-almost a dance- and open up my language to universal and positive words: “I am free- I know I can be on this sidewalk, I know that I can walk on the street on New York City!” Pointing to the policeman- “you are free!” “We all are free, let’s march on this sidewalk, we can be here!” Somehow, all of a sudden, we could be here! A surprise reversal of plot! So we marched out from behind the barricades onto the vast sidewalk, our spirits rising- space expanding.  


Lincoln Center plaza is a vast open space in New York where protest is forbidden. We decided to point out the contradiction of the Lincoln Center showing Philip Glass’s opera, ‘Satyagraha’ which speaks about the life of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King- all non-violent protesters who have inspired Occupy Wall Street. Lincoln Center is supported by David H Koch and Bloomber LP, who just 2 weeks earlier has evicted Liberty Park, crushing freedom of speech as well as blocking out the press- something that ought to raise a red flag in any free society. As the action started near the end of the opera, hundreds of protesters were assembled on the steps of Lincoln Center, blocked off from the whole plaza by police barricades and heavy NYPD presence.  This clearly delineated the private and public space, which on a normal day would be indistinguishable. A few that dared to cross the line were arrested, provoking our shouting and booing “shame, shame, shame.” We took off our shoes- a Gandhian symbol of dignity, and stood barefoot on the cold pavement conducting our assembly. As the opera ended and the wealthy audience finally exited into the plaza, they came upon this strikingly theatrical scene- real life protest at the foot of the grand steps! Some protesters were chanting 1% and 99% slogans which probably contributed to an emotional separation between these two parallel crowds.  But mostly, The NYPD buffer and sight of barricades paralyzed the opera audience- making them hesitant to flow toward us, even as we called out for them in unison.


Then all of a sudden Philip Glass popped up in the Occupy Wall Street crowd- he had come from his opera to read a statement on the people’s mic. We sat down so that people could see him, lights from a video camera illuminating his face. He called out the last lines of the opera, a passage from the Bhagavad Gita which were the last lines of Satyagraha:


Mic check!

When Rightenousness Withers Away

And Evil Rules the Land

We come into being

Age after age

And take visible shape

And move

A man among men

For the protection of good

Thrusting Back Evil

And setting Virtue

On her Seat Again.


Chanting along with Glass, absorbed in the rhythms of hundreds of voices, I melted into the crowd, delighting in this ancient, hopeful text delivered in strong cadence by the composer whose music had been the soundtrack to my childhood. When I looked up, the opera audience had joined us.  The tense buffer zone was gone. We were now one big crowd- the 100%- with NYPD barricades cutting right through the middle, but no longer a big deal at all- no longer real- absorbed into our big warm body.  Until late into the night we held our general assembly, giving voice to our protest on both sides of the barricades.  The police stood off to the side- the tension gone now. Space had flowed into one, protesters had become people again, and the police could then be people too.


The first day of the occupation in Liberty Park on September 17, I went home thinking that the scraggly core protesters would be gone the next day- booted out by the NYPD.  But miraculously, this did not happen, and from that moment on, I learned to suspend disbelief- not to kill things in my mind.  I learned that we were no longer political-informational consumers- commenting and debating what we read in the papers.  This time, we were acting in public and that meant that anything could happen. I learned to trust my body, which was subtly responding to a desire for freedom and connection, rather than reacting on this or that thought or outcome. When we lost the park, this was only a stage in an unfolding movement- a few weeks later, we were all standing euphorically on the steps of Lincoln Plaza, 100% human, pointing with our hearts toward each other, and finding each other in this way.


-Noah Fischer


Mental City Sutra

Mental City Sutra

Note: this was written as a chant for the opening of the exhibition Silence and Noise at the Brooklyn Zen Center. 

Mental City Sutra

New York City, Two thousand Twelve// numerous are the noises impacting our ears// yet when deeply waking to moments of silence// we feel that quiet was always around// Thus we exist between silence and noise// Great rivers of cars, streets beyond streets// restaurants and schools containing myriad thoughts and honking horns// patterns and echoes and sound wave vibrations// caressing our ears, jolt us awake// inside and out, beyond the fuzz of constant white noise// we have therefore decided to jump in the river to honk with the horns to ring with the bell to sing with the air.

O cacophonous afternoon// Buses above and trains underground// under water, under buildings and bridges// under arguments and soft soothing sounds// Ending and beginning of life, hospital hallways// how can silence be found so close to ten million minds// countless thoughts, numberless activities producing// rhythm and texture, trembling the air// Twenty Four hours, awake and asleep// birds behind house, shifting of sheets and clattering of fork against plate// High above ground, away from the street, whistling wind// cuts across edges of buildings, smack up against// billboards and planes, screens are abuzz// The wind moves on.  Walking down streets, two people were discussing// how one of them had dated a man who insisted in splitting the bill at a restaurant// loud laughing, and airplane and song fly through the air.

Thus we proclaim the clatter and chatter// unique sound of rain, the summary hum, of all city sounds// punctuated with honks, pervaded by thinking, washed by the wind// encouraged by silence, inspired by rain.


New Occupy Museums Manifesto


Note: this text was written by consensus by the Occupy Museums group, and represents an update of the original manifesto of October 20th, 2011.


On September 17th, 2011, we occupied Wall Street because the wealthiest 1% who control banks and big corporations broke trust with the American people. Motivated by a quest for power they robbed the national treasury, bought off our democracy, and made a mockery of the justice system. They left us little choice but to step out in the streets, find each other, and begin imaging and building a new system.


We saw a direct connection between the corruption of high finance and the corruption of “high culture.” For example, MoMA shares board members with Sotheby’s auction house, where the value of art is synonymous with speculation. Sotheby’s auction house is now locking out unionized art handlers, refusing to pay them health care during a year of record profits. As art workers, we stand in solidarity with this struggle. Our labor will be truly valued only when we kick the addiction to obscene wealth that characterizes the American and international art world today.


So we began to occupy museums in New York City. We danced and chanted at their doors, and held open assemblies on museum steps to free up a space of dialogue and fearlessness for the 99%. More and more people joined us. Museums must be held accountable to the public. They help create our historical narratives and common symbols. They wield enormous power within our culture and over the entire art market. We occupy museums because museums have failed us. Like our government, which no longer represents the people, museums have sold out to the highest bidder.


This struggle will not be easy. We are beginning to unmask a cultural system of inequality and exploitation

which has ancient roots. But we will not wait for future generations to take up this struggle. We are working together

to replace the exchange of capital with a creative exchange for and by the 99 %. As we seek horizontal spaces for dialogue and collaboration, we begin to fill the hollowness of the capitalist art market with the warmth of meaning and the conviction that art is a necessity, not a luxury.


Letter from New York to Amsterdam

Letter from New York:


It’s possible that you guys first discovered capitalism in a golden tulip, but we Americans really developed it. Our industries invented products that everyone didn’t know they needed; a booming consumer culture built into Europe’s foundations after the war. But this still wasn’t enough. Our bankers began making money from money itself: packaging debt and betting against these deals. And when this wasn’t enough, we destroyed ancient civilizations through war, just to rebuild them into shopping malls for huge profits: still not enough.  So finally, our wealthiest elites began to actually eat the American public. In the US we are experiencing a viral attack on everything that should be commonly owned, or not owned at all: our security, care in old age, education, natural resources, democratic government, our very culture.  As we lose these things, our society is becoming un-glued, we are turning against each other like wolves. Unfortunately, we have exported this virus back to you, where it first originated. Here in New York, my Dutch friends, we may be living in your future. I’m writing to tell you that things have gotten really ugly on this side of the Atlantic, and we need your help before its too late. 

Despite a perception by New Yorkers that we are at the center of the cultural universe, times have been tough for artists here. The glamorous art markets have not saved us, in fact they have enslaved us by our desires, making us so “hungry” that we’re willing to bite each others faces off for opportunities to enter this market which in reality only has a few winners and lots of losers. We had forgotten that as culture workers, we have a constant responsibility to stay vigilant against those who want to position us as jesters in their royal courts.  We had fallen asleep.  We dreamt that “political art” meant an expression of our favorite politics for a stage, or on a canvas, to be bought and sold and speculated on by the winners of capitalism. Waking up, we realize that there is no such genre as political art. In our times, only the economic structures around our lives are political. By letting the commonwealth of our culture morph into a big pyramid shaped market, by participating in this market, we were actually supporting a nasty political position while we slept.

On September 17th, we finally woke up, came together, and opened up a space for protest and dialog in Zucotti Park.  At Occupy Wall Street, we shared democratic tools developed in Egypt, Spain, Greece, and Brazil that would aid in this new culture. Our aim was to re-discover a culture of the commons and it caught on all over the place. Now we are involved in a global movement.

As it turned out, many of us occupiers are also artists. And now we have expanded the zone of protest into the cultural realm. We have begun occupying museums because economic injustice is as pronounced in the culture sphere as it is in the housing market. Museums claim to serve the public. They contain the symbols and narratives and treasures that we are all taught to believe in.  But they have been co-opted by the 1% who sit on their boards influencing our culture on one hand while also sitting on the auction house boards and speculating for personal gain on the other.  In this way, all the power in the arts is concentrated at the top amid corruption and “insider trading” and this disempowers most artists. So we wrote manifestos and held general assemblies at the gate of the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center. These have been effective. We aim to re-direct art away from the luxury markets and toward the common struggle and vision of the 99%.

I hear troubling rumors across the Atlantic. There are accusations in Holland that artists are sucking up public wealth like subsidized babies.  This kind of rhetoric is a red flag for US artists. We know that in reality the wealthiest receive structural corporate welfare and keep their expanding riches offshore and immune from politics. To deflect criticism, they make artists into punching bags, that’s what happened years ago in our “culture wars” of the early 1990’s.  I fear that the artists of Europe—especially our friends the Dutch, who have so long enjoyed support from the state that we New Yorkers could only dream of, will lose their autonomy from these hungry markets. The virus that wants to eat break the bonds that holds our society together is now infecting you. If you lose this battle, it will be a major setback for all of us.

But this nightmare need not become our reality. Let’s wake up and fight together!

Let’s not separate our art from this struggle, but use our creativity in the service of it. 


Occupy Museums Manifesto (OWS)


Speaking out in front of the Cannons

The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%. No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite. For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or art. We recognize that art is for everyone, across all classes and cultures and communities. We believe that the Occupy Wall Street Movement will awaken a consciousness that art can bring people together rather than divide them apart as the art world does in our current time… 

Let’s be clear. Recently, we have witnessed the absolute equation of art with capital. The members of museum boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt. Shows mounted by museums are meant to inflate these markets. They are playing with the fire of the art historical cannon while seeing only dancing dollar signs. The wide acceptance of cultural authority of leading museums have made these beloved institutions into corrupt ratings agencies or investment banking houses- stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals. 

For the last few decades, voices of dissent have been silenced by a fearful survivalist atmosphere and the hush hush of BIG money. To really critique institutions, to raise one’s voice about the disgusting excessive parties and spectacularly out of touch auctions of the art world while the rest of the country suffers and tightens its belt was widely considered to be bitter, angry, uncool. Such a critic was a sore loser. 

It is time to end that silence not in bitterness, but in strength and love! Because the occupation has already begun and the creativity and power of the people has awoken! The Occupywallstreet Movement will bring forth an era of new art, true experimentation outside the narrow parameters set by the market. Museums, open your mind and your heart! Art is for everyone! The people are at your door!


This was the text actually read at the first action:

Occupy Museums!     Day  1: October 20, 2011

We gather here at the foot of the temple of the cultural elite.

We see that the art establishment, with the museum as its pinnacle, resembles a pyramid scheme just like banks of Wall Street itself, where wealth and power flow up to the 1% We see that the wealthiest one hundredth of one percent claim ownership of culture through their control of these temples.

For too long we have been SUBMERGED under insane hierarchies, insane student debt, and corrupt financial dealings of the art world.

We, the artists of the 99% have EMERGED!

Not as pawns in your fraudulent art market where the royalty of Wall Street rule.  And launder their stolen loot!

But rather with our own voices, and power."

Our love for art and for people and respect for ourselves requires that we, the artists of the 99%, can no longer allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite.

We read from “From Maintenance Manifesto- by Mierle Laderman Ukeles 1969J

A.The Death Instinct and the Life Instinct:

The Death Instinct: separation; individuality; Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path to death. do your own thing; dynamic change. The Life Instinct: unification; the eternal return; the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species; survival systems and operations; equilibrium.

It’s time for an art of the Living, the Equal and the Free – We are ready to leave behind the Death Cult of Capital!


We recognize that art is for everyone, across all classes and cultures and communities.  We believe that the Occupy Wall Street Movement will awaken an art sprit and practice not confined by the narrow parameters set by the market but much more vibrant and powerful.

It will awaken consciousness that art can bring people together –all 100% rather than divide them apart as we see in the art world of today… 

Recently, we have witnessed the absolute equation of art with capital.  We see this in the decadence of the auction market and extreme conspicuous consumption of the galleries and art fairs. While so many people in so many nations slip into poverty. Museums are the both the ratings agencies and the temples at the top of this art market. The members of museum boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt.  Shows mounted by museums are meant to inflate these markets.  The wide acceptance of cultural authority of leading museums have made these beloved institutions into corrupt ratings agencies or investment banking houses- stamping their authority and approval, triple A ratings, on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals. This is bad for the 9

We are also concerned about a culture of Co-optation.  The 1% has learned to purchase and co-opt critique rather than listen and learn from the voice of the people. Museums, you are not invited to co-opt this movement.  Rather, think deeply about where your money comes from, and why the people are at your door.

This is From the Arts and Culture statement of non co-optation-in progressJ


After years of witnessing our most precious symbols and self-created culture appropriated by the corporate elite for profit, we are no longer willing to stand by and witness the destruction of things and ideas that create genuine meaning and value in our lives. 


We close with by citing the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City:

As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors.

We, the artists and art lovers of the 99% will no longer be silent about corruption.


It is time to end that silence not in bitterness, but in strength and love! Because the occupation has begun and the creativity and power of the people have awoken! The Occupywallstreet Movement will bring forth an era of new art, true experimentation outside the narrow parameters set by the market.  Museums, open your mind and your heart and Listen! Art is for everyone! The people are at your door!




Trauma, the Subway, and the Voice (for M/E/A/N/I/N/G)


My friend, the artist Lucas Carlson, taught me how to use my voice.  He was brave. He fought with real demons and took his own life in 2007. Those were dark times.

We were all traumatized and competitive and silent in the early 2000’s when I attended Columbia for an MFA. We paid for access. The holy of holies of Chelsea was revealed to us as a magic pyramid that governed the art world which was to be our hunting ground. We were taught that the real game, the real art, was money and celebrity. Free-thinking was frowned upon as earnest or naïve.  We would use our intelligence strategically, to compete against each other and make it to the top.  A few students became millionaires or jet setters soon after leaving school. Most did not but thought they might soon. We weren’t very nice to each other and didn’t challenge the obviously fucked up system. Instead, we honored it.  The stakes were just too high.

As Kafka has shown, power is architectonic, but the walls are usually invisible. I have always seen these walls. Lucas taught me how to break through them by speaking out loud spells. One day on the 1 train heading downtown, he spoke out, like those crazy homeless people or the kids selling candy for their basketball teams. This is shocking, repugnant, possibly breaking ancient New York class regulations, but Lucas did it.  Annoyed by a subway ad, he ranted about the public education system to all who would listen. This started an underground conversation - an immediate unfreezing of the world, a herbal antidote to the poison of Late Capitalism and 9-11. We were free. I learned from Lucas that  honesty and bravery are an artist’s occupation.

I wish that Lucas was here to be part of the Occupation of Wall Street- he would have loved it as I love it.  Because from the first time that Lucas showed me how to perform the wall-breaking speak out, I’ve had this seed in the back of mind and its been growing.  That’s how I arrived at Wall Street before the occupation. Three years after Obama’s government had continued every war and defended every banker The Aaron Burr Society and I initiated the “Summer of Change” on Wall Street. (www.summerofchang.net)  On June 21st 2011 we began offering $700 in US coins in a series of public numismatic rituals.  We showered coins and rhetoric upon the very stones of Wall Street across from the Stock Exchange- donning god-like coin masks. Tourists, workers, homeless people and children, picked up the coins, never investment bankers. But the bankers and traders did stand in the back and listen as we loudly and publically railed in presidential tones against the surreal economic crimes of our times. When the revolution really happened- a few days before the equinox, our voices were warmed up, we were ready!

The first day of Occupywallstreet, I was there in my coin-mask, shouting fragments of FDR rhetoric at the lone Russian TV station who showed up to cover the protests.

The next week, with the movement in full swing, the park fully occupied and more people coming all the time, it was time to begin occupying the subways. This meant talking out in car after car full of silent strangers. And they began talking to each other, as Lucas had managed in the dark days of 2007.  As I write this, many people are occupying subways from the outer corners of the megatrolpolis to the cores of Times Square and Union Square. We are spreading the message to wake up, speak out, and come together all over New York City, which has the same wealth disparity as Honduras.

This week we are going to occupy museums.  We will read out statements written by consensus to the effect that we can see through the shabby pyramid schemes of the MoMA and the Guggenheim and of course the Frick- that ongoing PR campaign for the “Worst CEO in American Hoistory.” Museum board members inflate the value of their collections through the same kind of shady deals that Wall Street traders are known for.  Their sense of ownership of the art historical cannon is an affront to art iself – we know it’s all about money now, nothing about art.  We’ll stand in front of so-called houses of high culture and recount how hundreds of thousands of artists have been silenced by a system of economic injustice for way too long- just as the American public has been silenced and trauma caused by the big banks.  We artists are finally learning to use our voice, and when I say artists I mean everybody. 


Summer of Change Manifesto

It’s the Summer of 2011, three or four years into the Global Recession which, we read, has bankrupted countries and communities, banishing millions into unemployment, homelessness, and destitution. Closing stores and dampening the usual optimism of the American middle class, this economic infirmity has sparked a hideous political rash; pogroms against immigrants, a ground war against unions, a witchhunt for teachers. It’s led to divorce, ill health, violence, depression, and all the other kinds of suffering that go along with poverty and financial anxiety.

Yet in 2011, nothing has changed on Wall Street, a site that we can only label as unregulated financial powerzone where the crisis was sparked through clever manipulation of debt packaging and acute distain for fairness and social equality. After the earthshattering crisis blew up, driving many families from their homes, a huge government bank bailout rescued not only the banks but also the astronomical salaries of bankers, while not a single financial criminal was brought to justice. Instead, bonuses are on the rise, and countless new bubbles are forming like children at play with soapy water on a hot & windy day. We find this picture both totally absurd and yet somehow to be expected, and it points to a duality if not a multiplicity of how money itself operates. It has become clear that in a world where currency is ever more central as private markets monopolize commons and state resources, the money on Wall Street is not the same as the cash that we hold in our hands or even what’s in our bank accounts. Wall street money is special; it is magic. Like Faust’s banknotes, it multiplies on its own regardless of its actual value. It acts differently toward different sorts of people: for some who flip it, the coin always lands heads up, for others its tails every time. For billions across the globe it’s the golden pathway to poverty, wage slavery and homelessness while for a select few it’s like a stateless stealth bomber: fast, practically all-knowing, lethal, and apparently untraceable.

Whatever that stuff is that we blanket over with the noun “money” it is definitely not one, but many “monies” each of a different species; of complex taxonomy. One may conclude that to parse these species out from one another like a patient biologist could prove to be a great waste of time and effort-requiring one to drop everything in order to immerse oneself in the study of econometrics, obscure algorythms, secret handshakes, and far reaching political intrigue of the Kafkaseque private market which, few would argue against this, largely controls the speed at which the planet rotates. Undertaking this life-long study, attaining a poetics of intricate conspiracy as the poet Peter Dale Scott of the artist Mark Lombardi did, might be the best that one could do-although that of course means definite madness and death. More likely, one would fall under seduction of the market, mimicking traders of The Street until becoming a trader oneself, or at least dressing like one and hanging around wall street, bringing them coffee and cigars like William Burrough’s famed Bradley the Buyer; a law enforcement worker who turned into addict himself , and finally an actual alien. In other words, the current state of ‘monies’, being a fascinating conglomeration of human ingenuity and libidinous desire resulting in a mathematically Byzantine hall of mirrors which itself was probably designed to keep financial elites in power, and which, upon peering into it, leaves one only to state that nothing is known except two things: one: the outcome of trading these monies back and forth results in extremes of wealth and poverty, and two: that the monies are far removed from anything that anyone who has not as they say “drunk the cool-aid” would term real value. In fact, what we have here is a case of “money for money sake” also knows as puregreed.

The Numismatic Device May be Kryptonite

Our answer to this conceptual parallax is to look back to the films created under the reign of Ronald Reagan, in other words to study the creation myths themselves, and here we discover a film called “Conan the Destroyer” where our muscled adventurer, whose subsequent career we can’t help but follow, finds himself trapped in a hall of mirrors. Actually, he’s not alone but instead confined with a scary darkskinned superstrong monster. Conan soon realizes that he cannot defeat the monster within the disjointed visual planes of this fragmented panopticon; he must first face the plane of vision itself; the true threat. He then smashes the mirror to regain his power and wins the fight- just as we must to smash through the complexity of Wall Street’s “voodoo economics” with a simple device called a coin. Numismatics, we believe, will have the same sort of effect that kryptonite has on Superman and garlic had on Dracula, a substance whose mere presence was too much for the powerful one to bare. In our case, the site and sound of “real” metal money: classic cash whose presence is certainly akin to an alien virus in the Bloombergian digital empire, will doubtlessly grind the great Capitalist machine to a halt. We are almost sure of this.

At least those age-old discs struck with the text and symbols of National unity and authority, I speak of coins, just might act as keys to reason & light, in the third or fourth year of the Dire Global Recession, an economic state not felt in or around the stones of Wall Street. Wall Street whose famous invisible wall, like the Great Wall of China, is practically impregnable to marauding bands of honesty, justice, and compassion. Following this hunch, we will celebrate the canon of American numismatics with the $ummer of Change: a series of actions that bestow honor upon each denomination from that symbol of American Empire: the dollar (silver & paper) down through the lowly penny; a vestigial coin that seems to exist just to remind us of the absurdity of using fiat currency in the first place (and dragging tall president Lincoln and the whole Civil War Era down to associations with poverty and failure in the process).

We Give the Gifts of Change

As it is customary on special occasions such as college commencements and the laying of cornerstones to give gifts such as honorary degrees to persons of prestige, we shall give $100 of each denominations (the quarter, dime, nickel and so on) away to those class of bankers of Wall street who, in a society where “he who has the gold makes the rules,’ and ‘money talks while others walk’ chatter ancient dictations as Rome burns. These citizens are of high regard and worthy of prizes and honors; honors which we as artists who are not opposed to pomp are more than willing to bestow in public, and with some thought to aesthetic and entertainment and not getting arrested in the process because our guess is that it really does suck to be in jail, and imagining it smells like urine and is hard to sleep there.

Not being independently wealthy artist-citizens and therefore lacking the private means to distribute these numismatic bailouts directly from our bank accounts to the hands of the esteemed banking community seems like little or no problem in this age of the electronic network- an age where creative and enriching experiences such as the one we propose are often financially enabled through democratic peer-to peer fundraising which, while not flowing right across boundaries of race and class, do seem to follow the entreprenrially idealistic ambitions of the intelligentsia like water down dry canyons soon after a rain in the dryer portions of the US.

Tapping the internet’s rich quartzite vein alluded to above- resources, it must be noted which seem to have largely installed the sitting president in his oval office easy-chair and are therefore nothing to scoff at, we will raise electronic funds to convert into metallic cash coins, which we will ceremonially present to fleets of bankers on Wall Street along with carefully curated Greece-inspired programs designed to apply pomp and circumstance and poetry to the occasion. As we state in our grassroots plea for donations: “Every Penny that you give will go directly to Wall Street Bankers,” it being understood of course that aside from the pounds of pennies you give, many different classes of money are bundled together with the donated US currency such as: general good will, karma, cultural power points, the currency of experimentation, political wampum, and the like. These monies will flow to tourists, artists, workers, Government Surveillance Specialists, ghostly spirits of Indians and Fisherman who populate lower Manhattan and others in the greater New York community and abroad who find us on Facebook.

We Pre-Emptively Answer our Critics:

One final note to those who might wonder whether standing across from the Stock Exchange giving out pennies, nickels and dimes is strangely inverse to the unprecedented thousands of New York’s homeless constantly asking for you to spare a dime on the subway and whether it might be disrespectful of them, given the fact that we have places to sleep (although we rent and do not own our homes but maybe that’s a good thing) and their poor fortune and heartbreaking plight being in this generation understood as a social given that many thousands will end up sleeping on the streets and there’s nothing to be done about it really, that’s how the world is, and most likely they did something really sinful or really stupid to be sleeping there, like the sin of criminal acts of all classes, the sin of laziness, the sin of gluttony: love of the drink, crack cocaine, etc, or worst of all- the sin of despair which brings us all down, we’ve got to keep exporting happy endings to keep this thing working, etc. To these would-be critics who see that we who are educated and lucky in our own way and may be acting offensively even chauvinistically, playing reverse panhandlers when immigrants fresh off the boat are getting up early and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps so that they may support whole continents , we say this: don’t forget those panhandlers of old, the ‘49ers who marched West in search of that shining metal- the bright & dense bulk of which is stored many stories under Wall Street in the impregnable vaults of the New York Fed. Those panhandlers who came from regions as remote as Siberia, Australia, China and New Jersey left home with nothing but an forlorn stovetop pan and a few coins but filled up to the brim with hope that one day the future would be brighter, not only for themselves and their families but for society at large. Remember how messed up things were in the 1840’s: crime was rampant, money was mostly counterfeit, across the south, black people were enslaved. These panhandlers, we believe, knew that one hope remained alive for a more just society where men would no longer wear chains, and that this hope lay buried in the rivers and quartzite veins of the Sierra foothills. Suffice to say that like so many mosquitoes descending on a lone cow in the pasture, or maybe more like a crack addict on a suicidal rampage, the veins were tapped, the land was stripped, the natives were killed, industry was doubled and tripled, Lincoln was elected, the slaves we freed and they put him on the penny: a numismatic monument to America which we believe is ours to keep for only a little while and is the rightful property of the Bankers of Wall Street, and we plan to return it.

Who We Are:

We are a joint venture of two New York based citizen-artists: the Aaron Burr Society, founded by Jim Costanzo, and Noah Fischer& Co. As chance would have it (though one person’s chance is another’s karma) this joint venture initially formed in 2008: the year of change, when then-candidate Barak Obama inspired legions of volunteers to canvas for change; a concept which seemed vanguard at the time. Fischer and Costanzo thus drove to Milford, PA: a perfectly divided American small town where they stood on the street corner yelling and waving signs at strangers. On this occasion, Fischer was given an uncle Sam outfit which he was not allowed to keep. History rolled on, Obama was elected under economic crisis conditions and proceeded to pick distinguished men to put the economy back on track; men who had first-hand knowledge of the dirty affairs of Wall Street, largely having caused them in the first place. The years passed; 2008, 2009, then 2010 and finally 2011, and from economic stagnation sprang the aforementioned joint venture: a business whose sole mission is to trade on the absurdity of Market Finance: both ceremonial and playful.

Zen & the Art of American Revolution

I smelled manifesto when Brian Unger asked me to write “some kind of aesthetic-philosophical commentary on Zen art in America” for this issue of Zen Monster.  It is a daunting subject, but I had actually been waiting for someone to request this. We go on distracted in our lives jumping from thing to thing, and in my case, being a polyglot NYC artist, it’s a constant barrage of people, news, politics, deadlines, concepts, people & more people.  I feel lucky to live for creative ideas yet am often feel scattered; there are richly descriptive details all around, but I’ve frequently lost the plot. Here was a chance to put the pieces back together and find out where they might lead- like an archeologist assembling shards of an ancient map. And Zen, Art, and America are three of major pieces of my life.
I grew up in the Tassajara & Green Gulch monasteries; a world of shave- headed characters moving about within uniquely temperate landscapes, letting us kids grab handfuls of organic dried fruit from the kitchen walk-in fridge whenever we wanted.  Besides grabbing dried fruit, my hands were always drawing (no tracing!) and gradually I became aware that the term “artist” was used to describe what I loved to do. Then, as I got older, as I experienced Ronald Reagan’s cold war (youthful contemplation of annihilation by a flash of light), the first Persian Gulf war (narrated by KPFA radio in Berkeley), the farce of the 2000 election, and so on, and I gradually came to live in a place called America.
Among People of our nation, humanness and wisdom are not yet widespread, and people are warped besides. Even if they are given straightforward truth the elixir would probably turn to poison.
Dogen Zenji (1200-1253)
I love America and  I’ve got to admit it’s been pretty damn good to me (Zen monasteries, little league baseball, California sunsets, Prospect Park) but there’s been a nagging problem in my life: America smells bad to me.  The new car smell, the air freshener, even the occasional incense may attempt to mask it, but my nose picks up the stink of blood & fear. We hear that the country was built upon a foundation of mass slaughter and a booming slavery economy involving millions of human beings but this barely makes us pause from our ceaseless activity.  How could it? One can’t change the whole world and certainly not events that have already passed, one must be realistic and go on with life and so on. But I have always been sensitive to the present-day legacy of America’s sad past.  The odor nags at me and occasionally it stops me in my tracks.
When I was a teenager and did landscaping jobs in the summers, my vision of the Bay area rapidly changed.  Working alongside a crew of Latinos, I noticed the underclass of nearly invisible Mexicans and Central Americans who do all the manual labor in the Bay Area. The mind is amazing: It was as if this transplanted population appeared to my eyes all of a sudden in white pickup trucks with rakes and shovels and pickaxes in the truck-beds-or standing in working lines on the street.  I then noticed that San Francisco, that shining & foggy city that everyone loves, was clearly and precisely divided along class and race lines. The Bay Area was supposed to be idyllic and progressive, but to me something didn’t smell right, and it made me feel disconnected.
Today, I find these legacies alive and well in my new home: New York, and it’s famous “art-world.”  Art is a calling (I hesitate to say profession) that has no inherent boundaries or hierarchies-I believe this. Creativity opens you up. Yet within the so-called “professional art world” I keep running into walls constructed in the open space. From what I can ascertain, they are medieval attempts by those that got it to keep out those that don’t: real simple stuff.  Is this just the order of things naturally? I don’t think so.  I believe it’s all related to a mortal fear of failure (which I’ve identified in myself) but which is also quite clearly the organizing principle of the galleries, museums, and mental space of so many artists in New York. It’s my opinion that this is actually a temporary state; a weather pattern which is compelling and complete in the way that when you’re in a fog you’re completely in it- but then gradually- or rather quickly-you’re not.
And what a shame about this fear fog, because there could be a vibrant and deep collective practice & flowing conversation using all the visual and conceptual tools at hand. These days rapidly evolving technology could completely revolutionize vision and the senses in the way pioneered by Laurie Anderson. She believes that art will evolve to become a playfully vast space; a pure sense research where we can discover and rediscover the joy of feeling; a few hundred years in the future we won’t need art objects. But in the same recent lecture, Anderson mentioned that invisible dollar signs float above the heads of today’s culture crowd and I agree.  America culture on a big scale devolves into a vapid luxury market, a feeding frenzy obsessed with self-promotion. And it’s addictive.
To evoke Allen Ginsberg, I’ve seen the best minds of my generation… sucked into this BS, including my own.  I believe my experiences in the art world of New York are simply a microcosm of what has become a pretty nasty corporate American culture; a foul-smelling hungry offspring of the Indian murders and slavery mentioned earlier. And it’s long been for export so that when I say America- I mean everyplace. This is why America smells putrid, and that’s my rant. What am I going to do?
America is not a young land. She is very old. Before the white man,
before the Indian, the evil was there, waiting. 
           William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
So that’s the bad news.  The good news is that creativity, wisdom and connection remain within reach. A few years ago, I discovered that I needed to sit, (like many people who grew up inside of a religion, I wasn’t too interested in Zen for many years), and found the Brooklyn Zen Center a few blocks away. In my first sesshin [retreat] there, about twenty people sat together in a small brownstone apartment and I was struck with an art-idea.  First, I should say something quickly about the kind of art I’m involved in.  I build motorized light and sound environments- certainly a low tech way to create spectacle in today’s virtual world, but the point is to jar the mind into really experiencing the machine itself which is so much the backdrop of our experience. We walk the triumphant march called progress in their honor, but machines stink like the shit of ancient dinosaurs and worse- they create and wage lopsided wars, they are the best and worse thing about us, and I’ve been magnetically drawn to them in my artwork.  Anyway, back to the sesshin.  After days of silently grooving-in with fellow sitters for zazen [meditation] tea, meals, and soji [temple cleaning] I realized that we had become basically a human machine. When the sesshin ended with a ceremony, I saw that this was particularly true: everyone in the room whether ringing bells, offering incense, chanting or bowing, became part of a larger structure- a collective body performing in the space. I could describe the ceremony as mechanical and precise, which it more or less was- but the feeling of connection in the room was quite the opposite.  It was light and free and full of wonderful sensual experience- a living work of art.  I wondered whether one might make sesshin-art.
You were born, and so you’re free, so happy birthday.
Laurie Anderson
My attempt aimed at the feeling of being in synch.  “Electrical Forest” was a human-powered assembly line that produced leaves. I made it with the help of hundreds of volunteers up in the Rust Belt city of Troy, New York. It required a work shift of twelve people to sync up in a giddy rhythm; a zone where everyone depended equally and totally on the other to keep playing. And it took on a life of its own. Over time I realized that the assembly line was like a musical instrument, and that each shift of volunteers played it with their own pitch and melody. Memories, graceful imperfections and humor added soul and texture to the tune.
At first I didn’t see the political implications of the work but that has changed.
No one is free until everyone is free.
I made Electrical Forest in 2009 and now it’s 2011, and since then that American smell has taken on an intriguing complex aroma. There are notes of a horrible stench of fear that seems totally out of control.  Teaching in an art school now, I sense that students are preparing for a dog-eat-dog world; quite a different vibe than what I felt only 15 years ago when I was in their place.  They sense that the middle class is disappearing in America- they’d better “make it” into the security bubble or else they’re totally fucked. 
On the other hand, I smell hints of an incense of surprisingly sweet fragrance.  I think it wafted over from the Middle East- ironically the dreadful realm of terrorists in the American mind for many years.  Now a true popular revolution unfolds there: a massive human project to throw off the imposed culture of fear.  And however it turns out, remember that Egyptians did it: they stepped outside of themselves and found each other. Egyptians marched into Tahrir Square as one body, embracing a powerful collective spirit that relates in some ways back to that first sesshin I sat in Brooklyn.  Just as in Brooklyn, the Egyptians practiced soji, meticulously sweeping the square; removing trash; taking care of the space. Volunteers emerged to cook for the protesters. And like sesshin, the protesters had to stay still for a long time to get their work done, and they did by synching up together.
We Americans have a lot of work to do in order to make it to our own Tahrir Square.  I’m about to risk sounding clunky & hardheaded, but my friends already know that I am so, and I want to say the following: I truly believe that justice is a total farce in this country when not a single banker went to jail for the biggest planned robbery in history while jails are clogged with minorities for petty crimes and police set-ups. I believe that the money that you hold in your hand is stolen from the labor of the poorest.
And finally, I believe that democracy may be a thing of the past- elections don’t matter when people’s minds are polluted with garbage.  American’s collective grey matter (my Facebook-addicted cortexes especially) has exploded into a whole galaxy of slow-release marketing concept, celebrity, political ideology & pleasure/anxiety rollercoaster rides- there’s little real-estate left for thought, practically none for intuition. And all this stuff is self-perpetuating & viral which means that bigger problems lie ahead. Our reality is a highly branded, face-lifted terrible smelling delusion coving up a terribly sad world that we must change.  It is not okay to create an ever more fearful world for future generations. To bring down this fear, we’ll have to start working in earnest to change our minds & find more tools to cut through fear so we can inhabit our whole minds, & bodies, & world. Nothing is more important.
Art and Zen are two types of research into the mind’s conditioning.  For millennia, paint, ink and stone objects have revolutionized vision: color and space.  Paintings mocked the aura of powerful personages, film punched holes in movement, time, and national narratives. Revolutionaries found their big voice in the theater, poets used words to fragment and demystify political rhetoric.
Today, when every human quality is commoditized into a potential market, when money and power flow in only one direction -- up, when nearly all space is subject to privatization, including social space, we have got to find the free, open,  and public space inside of the mind and out.  We have got to come together be powerful.
Americans, Wake up!
American Zen Practitioners, practice kinhin in the streets!
American Artists, paint on endless Freeways and skyscrapers!
Stand Bravely in the Square!
You are Not Alone!

The Crowds

I went to all of the large anti-war protests in New York City between 2002 and 2004 and always brought a camera. But it never worked. The pictures produced by my father’s black Ricoh were neither fuzzy nor pointing in the wrong direction – yet, even worse, they were not even photographs. Later I realized that my snapshots had been nullified by powerful forces emanating from the center of the crowd. So I put down my camera and set out to take a photograph of the crowd.

There is some confusion as to who invented photography, but it is a fact that the Frenchman Nicephore Niepce fixed the first photograph in 1827. It was printed by way of a dead-end process: exposure of Bitumen Judea, an asphalt compound dating back to the time of the Egyptians. This was after a maddening decade spent watching images fade or blacken when they reached the light. These were ghosts, not photos. Bitumen Judea and then silver salts and iodine and mercury vapors began to chemically fix images for posterity, but this was only the fetishization of industry: lenses guiding trained hands which produce a different type of photograph are much older than the 19th century. Go see Vermeer’s View of Delft (in The Hague, Netherlands) and you will know that you’re looking at a photograph. Photography is an ancient and cultish way of seeing.

Crowds are a way of being. Crowds are a unique social space where the self dissolves into the many. The common fear of crowds is understandable because crowds have lynched, burned, turned, trampled without reason.

Elias Canetti wrote that crowds make up a large organism that has bodily urges like an immense appetite for watching things burn. But when I think of crowds, I try to transcend the fear and remember the joy and the human power of the many. These crowds in New York City in 2002-2005 were something else too. They were giant human photographs.

When we went out on the streets to protest the war in Iraq, we were flattening ourselves out into an image – each one of us a single pixel. This image was complete, hot, potent, challenging all other images (in the papers, television, internet) for the title of document-of-what-really-is-going-on. The NYPD made it clear that they considered this giant photograph dangerous. They were trying to mess up the image. A baroque system of metal barriers created a maze miles wide that funneled millions of potential crowd-pixels into separate sections. In this way, the NYPD cranked the resolution of the image way down with big holes everywhere in the photograph and in fact there was only one complete view of the enormous dispersed crowd and this was from high in the sky. Sure enough, NYPD helicopters hovered overhead, no doubt snapping high resolution photographs while any other photo was impossible.

It was August 2004 and the protest against the Republican Convention was coming up. I was soon going to fly off to the Netherlands for a year to study painted panoramas (a nineteenth century virtual reality machine which first made Daguerre famous). It was at that August protest that I had finally perceived the facts described above, and understood the worthlessness of my snapshots. So I shot seven rolls haphazardly in less than an hour and took the film with me to the Netherlands. Why not?

I spent a year staring at those pictures, getting to know intimately every face in the crowd. Meanwhile, history moved on. Bush was re-elected, then grew unpopular, and the war in Iraq raged on, and for a few weeks people only thought of the lost crowds in the tsunami in Southeast Asia. But from my desk in the Netherlands, this is how I finally set out to take a photograph: I laid acetate over the snapshots and traced them with black ink or colored gels, using a tiny brush. In this way I fixed all of the little light-shapes­making-up-faces into the folds of my brain, and the photograph began to take on a sublimely subjective dimension. Little painting resulted and there are in fact usable black and white negatives and color positives. In my dark room, I used ancient processes of candlelight exposure to create the ghostly photographs on silver gelatin paper. The colored gel paintings exist as little slides, ready to be scrutinized, projected, magnified in search of the truth about what happened in the streets of New York in August of 2004.

-Noah Fischer