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Occupy Canada: where are the artists?

THE SUCCESS OF THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT in the US is derived from the reclamation of public space, and the occupation of mental space through the production of cultural and political ephemera including political posters, videos, projections, memes, apps and publications. Political movements need all the elements of good theatre in order to grow and draw public support. They need heroes and drama, symbolism and foreshadowing, humour and tragedy. Artists, musicians and designers can provide movements with the figurative and symbolic tools they need to voice their concerns in the public sphere. In France in 1968, for example, students occupied France's most prestigious art school and set up an ad hoc poster factory. Their posters expressed the frustration of alienated youth and the commoditization of art and knowledge in capitalist society. This optic element of protest is crucial as it creates modes of collective identification, but it has notably been lacking in the Canadian Occupy movement. Why has the Occupy movement in Canada failed to attract significant artistic support and produced few cultural artifacts? With polls showing a majority of Canadians supportive of Occupy, why have Canadian artists been so reluctant to engage? Artists in the US quickly formed Occupy Musicians, Occupy Writers, Occupy Filmmakers and Occupy Comics in an effort to connect creative workers with grassroots occupiers. Aside from a flash appearance by Gordon Lightfoot at Occupy Toronto, celebrity sightings have been rare in Canada. Meanwhile superstar philosophers and musicians have--for better or worse--flocked to Occupy Wall Street. This is not to suggest that Canadian artists are apolitical, but rather that the community suffers from a paradoxical lack of engagement with progressive political movements. There seems to be hesitancy on the part of established artists and literati to go beyond supporting causes Like famine relief. As government art budgets shrink and art school students find themselves pulling lattes years after graduating, there is an urgent need for artists to confront the realities of creating art in an age of inequality and austerity. As Occupy evolves, it needs to find a niche for Canadian artists just as artists need to support this movement with their talent and creativity.

Posters, for example, can play a powerful role in unifying political demands and constructing the messages of a movement. They call for visual strategies and ways of thinking that promote modes of social and political identification. Some of the most successful political posters have had the simplest messages: Work for All; Hope; Si, se Puede; Power to the People; Never Work. New technologies have made the production and sharing of design work far easier than before. In the days after Occupy Wall Street sprung up, groups of designers and programmers gathered in New York, San Francisco and Washington DC to brainstorm various platforms to help the Occupy movement. Occupy Design emerged as a grassroots project to connect designers with demonstrators. The project's goal is "to create freely available visual tools around a common graphic language to unite the 99 percent." Programmers have been working on a decentralized decision making platform called Occupy Votes that could ease the consensus-making process in large general assemblies--a significant challenge for most Occupy encampments. Other programmers collaborated on an "I'm Getting Arrested" app to help those rounded up during evictions and raids. One of the most inspiring examples of cross collaboration between writers, designers and artists is the Occupied Wall Street journal, one of the many unofficial newspapers of Occupy Wall Street. What all these experiments point to is the incredible pool of untapped talent that movements so rarely take advantage of. With millions of young people out of work and looking for a way to put their skills to use, the potential for burgeoning movements to draw on the talents of those with suitable rage and creative skills presents limitless opportunities. Crowd sourcing and online fundraising tools hold great promise in giving back to artists and creative types who contribute to the movement. The materials produced by artists in support of the Occupy movement have been crucial in publicizing the movement, but more importantly in giving it a relative coherence and framework despite its Lack of concise political demands. Visually, political movements need to occupy a libidinal economy, a space of desires that is largely occupied by advertising and consumer-generated identities. It comes as no surprise that protestors have drawn on popular culture and media that commonly build these collective economies of desire. The famous Guy Fawkes mask, for example, comes from the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta. Many of the Occupy posters, from the striding women of "Occupy the Streets" to the zombie imagery of "Eat the Rich Before They Eat You," share the aesthetics of popular comic books, films and TV shows. The incredibly successful internet meme that grew out of the UC Davis occupation (a portly cop casually pepper-spraying classical paintings and pop culture icons) is but one example of this potent collision of new media and history.


In past years Harper and the Conservatives have threatened artists' Livelihoods with multi-million-dollar funding cuts. These moves were countered by massive mobilizations of artists and musicians across Canada, but what has changed for artists since then? It remains difficult to secure grant funding and even more difficult to produce art as a full-time job. Artists and designers have suffered greatly due to the concentration of wealth and they stand to lose past gains in the coming age of austerity. As Occupy evolves, it will be crucial for artists to voice their own concerns within the movement and to assist it in building a visual and figurative framework to articulate visions of a better world
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Title Annotation:All That's Left; Occupy movement
Author:Webb, Chris
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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