Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Occupy as Form: Scott Tsuchitani

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the working session "Occupy as Form" on February 10, 2012. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Scott Tsuchitani, artist and co-lecturer in "Socially Engaged Art and the Future of the Public University" at UC Berkeley.

Keyword: Radical

The word "radical" has more or less become a pejorative in the mainstream, narrowly associated with (senseless?) acts of violence, and consistently applied in this way to marginalize actions, actors, and ideas which would otherwise call into question structures of dominance. It's become so deeply ingrained that one wonders if truly radical thought itself isn't on the verge of becoming unthinkable, even among cultural workers.

In the same way that Occupy continues to be subject to relentless criticism from pundits on both left and right over its refusal to articulate reformist demands, it’s been my experience that socially engaged artists are too often expected to raise only those questions for which we can provide answers, and are similarly encouraged, if not coerced, to reject institutional critique in favor of institutional collaboration [1].

It’s as if the complicity of neoliberal culture has penetrated so deeply into the collective psyche that the only acceptable demands — from artists or activists — are those limited to a paradigm of liberal reformist pragmatism.

And yet isn’t that exactly what made Occupy Wall Street so refreshingly appealing from the very beginning: the unbounded radicality of vision, imagination, and tactics; the beauty in its articulation of the idea that the system itself is fundamentally broken and needs to be fixed?

It’s true that community non-profits and labor unions have their place in the Occupy movement, but as I witnessed at an action council meeting over the weekend, it is not without considerable tension with those who actually lived in the encampments and repeatedly put their bodies on the line for something greater than can be imagined within the system as it exists today.

As we gather to consider giving conceptual or even aesthetic form to what began as a radical movement, it’s important not to lose sight of what truly radical art can do.  As Daniel J. Martinez once put it, “The goal is to sustain a rigorous process of asking difficult questions.  Not in order to find answers but to have questions about questions that produce confusion as a precondition to radical thought.” [2]


  1. Your post on the marginalizing uses of the word "radical" remind me also of the marginalizing uses of other words such as "anarchist" and "freak." For example, this photo, while likely strategic, troubles me.


  2. Scott,
    I love that you are taking this on: Keyword: Radical. This especially I found resonant:
    "It’s as if the complicity of neoliberal culture has penetrated so deeply into the collective psyche that the only acceptable demands — from artists or activists — are those limited to a paradigm of liberal reformist pragmatism."
    Our immersion in the neoliberal and capitalist culture makes it hard for us to imagine that there can be another ground to stand on. I find the sphere of much art practice to be tediously tied to narrow and often seemingly purposeful irrelevance and non-consequentiality, as if this very non-functionality within the external world privileges the activity or work. Well, of course, it does privilege it in a bourgeois context, as if anything functional is seen as vulgar. Perhaps if we act "as if" art had a function, as in acting "as if" we had a right to take an action without requesting permission of the state, we might be able to create art that works in a radical mode.

  3. Note:
    From Shane Boyle's reflection:
    In his recent book, Direct Action: An Ethnography, anthropologist David Graeber writes:

    “[I]n its essence direct action is the insistence, when faced with structures of unjust authority, on acting as if one is already free. One does not solicit the state. One does not even necessarily make a grand gesture of defiance. Insofar as one is capable, one proceeds as if the state does not exist.”