An Introduction to the Art of Occupation: #OccupyArt


I told my sister I just came home from a class called Occupy Art. She told me she just came home from her Macroeconomics class.


“Where is your class?” she asked me. “Stanford,” I said.


“So it’s a real class, not some art class in a park?” she asked.


“Yeah, like Stanford students take it… for credit,” I said.


The exchange highlights our differences, but also how rarely it seems that we discuss history, and movements inside the classroom as they are lived.


To be completely honest, I missed the beginning of the occupy movement. I had just started teaching at a school in Ladakh, India when it began, and I barely had a working phone and no internet. Since returning to the United States in January, it is clear that everyone seems to be occupying something, from Wall Street to Valentine’s Day, and now even the squirrel in the advertisement on BART is saying something about ‘occupy’. Perhaps too eager to gain a better understanding of what this occupy business is all about, I am still excited just a couple hours after the first class (which feels more like a process/performance or movement) of “Occupy Art” at Stanford.


In a mash-up that can only be described as a schizoid pastiche (which I use as a compliment), the first lecture by Jeff Chang and H. Samy Alim traced the history of occupation as a term that moves (and is moving) from occupied Palestine, to progressive political consciousness. As Jeff Chang said, “The arts rely on layers of meaning… we are privileging the questions.” With a shout out to the Zapatistas who remind us that, “other worlds are possible.


The intro went from military occupations to the occupation of Alcatraz, it jumped from skateboarding to consumerism and ‘black Friday’, or as Chang put it, “the day when people lose sleep and risk their lives to buy their 4th TV.” And from there, it went to defining domination (power enforced through coercion, usually through force, violence and conflict) and hegemony (mainly in the mind) to a discussion of culture.


As H. Samy Alim said, “Cultural change, always precedes political change.” Alim went on to talk about how “hip-hop helped change the narrative… artists provide the language to express that change.” Using the example of the Arab Uprisings he uses El General as an example of someone who provided a “soundtrack to the Tunisian revolution.” The song Not Your Prisoner, by the The Arabian Knightz (Egypt) was produced five years before the Arab Spring. Acknowledging the role of social media and its ability to assist with collaborations such as #jan25, those in the class are encouraged to tweet at #occupyart.


From Tahrir, we were brought back to Wisconsin and reminded of the calls that delivered Pizza to Wisconsin protesters from all over the world. The signs united protesters and occupiers in Oakland and Cairo, but Alim reminded us of the limitations within movements (where and how does race, class and gender politics come in to play…). And now, activists in Zimbabwe face up to 10 years in prison for watching films of the Arab Spring.


From the economy, to capital to immigration, “Capital can flow freely across borders, but people can’t,” said Chang. The ban on ethnic studies in Arizona seems comical, are we really banning speeches by César Chávez ? Maybe it seems so funny, because I want to deny it so badly.


Protest posters and art from the movement, a picture of a wave, hip-hop, skateboards, immigration… in the end Chang admitted that “We might need an intellectual Ritalin.” The Introduction to the Art of Occupation ended with a quote by Angela Davis, and the last words on the screen were “The revolution starts now.” When in truth, we know it started long before today with art, and our politics are just trying to catch up.

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