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 posting is by ARC Director, Shannon Jackson.
1) A bringing or coming together;
2) A gathering of persons for the purposes of deliberation and decision;
3) A work of art consisting of miscellaneous objects fastened together;
4) A group of artifacts found at the same archaeological site;
5) In literature, a text built primarily from existing texts in order to solve a writing or communication problem in a new context
5) In schools, a general gathering of staff and pupils.
The General Assembly is a signature form of the Occupy Movement, both for how it recalls earlier conceptions of collective, consensus-based deliberation and for how it devised expressive innovations—such as the human microphone. Notions of assembly and assemblage have specific aesthetic histories as well. Dubuffet used the term to expand the practice of collage into the three-dimensional; others emphasize the terms’ kinship with practices of pastiche or appropriation, each of which sees a different kind of political edge or political evacuation in the assembly of the miscellaneous. (Indeed, the fact that some see coherence in places where others see miscellany is itself provocatively political.) Meanwhile, a variety of Happenings-based artists joined the word Assemblage (along with Event) to a wider (anti-)aesthetic vocabulary that sought to blur the boundaries of Art and Life, extending the time-space parameters of the former and, reciprocally, bringing a formal consciousness to the organization of the latter. Meanwhile, the language of assembly is urgent in Occupy because of its attachment to the protections of the First Amendment. My amateur reading of cases surrounding this “right to assemble” suggest that they reframe and are being reframed by Occupy’s social and aesthetic forms. Let me offer a brief list of some dimensions that might be a jumping off point for further reflection: 1) Madison’s original draft apparently disentangled the more individuated “freedom of speech” from the more collectively-oriented freedom to assemble, and the fact that the former now so often subsumes the latter means that the specificity and significance of this collective practice gets lost. 2) As 18th and 19th century traditions of “festive politics” became subject to restrictions that—channeling Aristotle—increasingly controlled the “time, space, and manner” of the assembly, the expressive and deliberative range of expression is restricted as well. Time, space, and manner are not understood to have content--or at least not protected content. 3) The right of assembly was also articulated as a “right to petition” in the same breath, a link that perhaps places pressure on the assembly to produce a coherent list of demands. 4) The right of assembly exists in a thorny relationship to the ambiguous right of association, creating different vocabularies for distinguishing different types of protection. Assembly is provisional and temporary; association is of long duration. Whereas assembly is de facto understood as “expressive,” association can apparently be expressive or non-expressive. Protections around association often hinge, not only on the expressive/non-expressive continuum but also on assessments of the intimate or non-intimate nature of the gathering. 5) In past notorious cases of the abuse of the right of assembly—such as in cases where African-American churches were raided because they were perceived to incite insurrection “under pretense of feasting”—legal theorists argue that such abuse, not only restricted “freedom of expression” in the narrow sense, but risked eradicating “a whole way of life.”