On November 15th MASS MoCA and the Williams College American Studies Program hosted a public conversation about Occupy Wall Street – preceded by a walk-through of The Workers, an exhibition which proposes the kind of solidarity that the Occupy movement also seems to be working toward. Â The event was informative and inspiring but hopefully just the beginning of the conversation.
100 people came to the event. It was a diverse group, including Williams College faculty and students, North Adams residents, the founder of Occupy Northern Berkshires, a representative of the April 4th coalition (a group of labor advocates, unemployed workers, Â and concerned citizens formed in the wake of the protests in Wisconsin), as well as neighbors from Williamstown, Adams, and even Bennington.
Many generations and views were represented with a wide range of comments and concerns that mirrored the diversity of the Occupiers’ messages. Â The protesters’ intended lack of hierarchy and leadership — as well as their resistance to clear and simple demands — Â were both questioned and defended. Â For some present, the Occupiers are aptly articulating the complete failure of the overall system, against which small reforms do not seem adequate. Â Many want no less than revolution.
In The Workers exhibition, the artist collaborative Camel draw attention to this generalized dissatisfaction, incorporating what they find to be a particularly eloquent message from one of the OWS protest signs into their changing installation. Â Spelled out in coffee cups embedded in a chain link fence (and abbreviated like a text message) is the frustrated sentiment ‘SHT’S F’ED UP & BULLSHT.’
Like Camel’s work, which makes connections â€“ and points to disparities — between the current generation’s concerns and the activist culture of the â€˜60s and â€˜70s (as manifested in a 10-week strike that resulted in higher wages and better workersâ€™ rights at North Adams’ Sprague Electric Company – where the museum is now located), many of the participants in the conversation at MASS MoCA referenced their own experiences in the fights for civil rights as well as gay rights and women’s rights. Â It was agreed that new technology and social networking have changed the workings of activism today and have served the Occupy movement well. Â One seasoned activist remarked how encouraging it was to see so many people discussing both shared and differing views so calmly, with so much respect – a model that seems to characterize the OWS movement as well.
A number of the students brought up the contradictions they felt — struggling to stay competitive in a precarious labor market, and at the same time, trying to find the time to change the world and work towards a better system. Â A group of high school students from Buxton School joined the discussion, and one young student in particular articulated very well the difficulty of protesting a system that we are all a part of. Â She was asking a sincere question (instead of proposing the seeming impossibility of it): Â How does one address his or her complicity as a consumer, for example? What can we do on a daily level to resist? Â Several people mentioned that living in the Berkshires allows us to buy locally – a small but important step toward disentangling ourselves from corporate capitalism.
A retired political science professor visiting from out of town offered what she thinks is the key to change: campaign finance reform. Â She noted that the corporations and banks are eating the political system and that the only way to restore power to the people is to enact legislation that will make sure that money does not equal votes.
The issue of race was an important one in the evening’s discussion. A number of African-American students and local residents expressed their conflicted feelings about OWS and its mostly white middle-class base. They pointed out that the structural inequities that the occupiers are feeling now have characterized the position of people of color for a long time – with little outrage or action from the rest of us. Â Again, I think of the articulate student from Buxton and her important question: how do we position ourselves outside of a system that we have been part of for such a long time?
I’m leaving so much out, but these discussions no doubt continue…
This Saturday, MASS MoCA is presenting another event in conjunction with The Workers exhibition that intersects with the Occupy movement and its concerns. Â At 8:00 p.m. in Club B10 artist Stephanie Rothenberg will present her mixed reality talk show, “Best Practices in â€˜Banana Timeâ€™.” Â Rothenberg explores the alternate on-line economy, specifically that of the virtual environment Second Life, where, for many, the divisions between work and play have dissolved. Â In front of both a live and virtual audience, Rothenberg — as her virtual doppelganger Dr. Rodenberger — interviews 4 Second Life participants about their work. Â Her virtual guests will include a painter, a wedding planner, a horse-breeder, and a protester from Occupy Second Life. Â Â Â Following the performance, Williams College Professor Jason Adams – who teaches a course on digital public theory as well as â€˜Marx Beyond Marxismâ€™ — will conduct a Q&A with the artist.Â Â Â Adams recently wrote an interesting article about Occupy Wall Street and the importance of time (as opposed to space) to the movementâ€™s success. You can find it here.
Hope to see you Saturday.