“Progressive social movements do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather, the best ones do what poetry always does: transport us to another place, compel us to re-live horrors and, more importantly, enable us to imagine a new society” – Robin Kelley
I have two dialectics on my mind today—one, something of a false dialectic, to which I think I know the solution, the other which—necessarily—remains an unresolved tension. The first, false dialectic is the old, new, constantly renewed tension between the private and the public. That’s the one I think I know the solution to, or at least which I’m willing to propose a resolution to, and I’ll get to that in just a bit. The other is the tension formed between art and revolution, which continues to puzzle and propel my work, both as a poet and as an activist. The second dialectic, I’ll also suggest, is played out on the ground of the first. I’ll begin with the public/private dyad then, before turning to art and revolution.
What happens when we share public space, when we meet randomly in public? If we are lucky—if we are not too busy, too rushed, too turned in on our “own shit”—we regard each other. At some level, we “see” each other, and recognize each other—as human. Maybe “people watching” is judgmental (“just look at this guy…who’d dress like that?”). But it can also shift, unpredictably, instantly, as we loiter in some public space, into recognition of the otherness of the other, the undeniable humanness of the other outside of ourselves, the legitimacy of the other and our responsibility to the other (we exchange a smile or nod; a knowing look, having both just observed the same absurd thing; we see that we are both human, both unavoidably here, almost nakedly so, with no other excuse than having stepped into the same, shared space for a moment). We find each other in public. We realize our multiplicity in public. The eyes have it. The face. We are all in this together, to a certain, primary extent. The planet’s spinning somewhere uncertain, and here we are together. Now what?
It is clear that—as far as the state is concerned—certain activities are permissible in public space, certain others are not. Commercial activities, “public” celebrations of sporting events, civic holidays and holiday traditions—these are to varying degrees allowable. Camping overnight to be first in line for a sale: OK. Camping overnight to assert democratic and charter rights…not so much.
The problem is, in part at least, this: what we think of as “public” space is, paradoxically, entirely privatized. Our “public” spaces are owned—either by private enterprises that provide them via development agreements with the city in question, or they are “owned” by the city in question, which exerts the right to determine the terms and extent of their use. “Public” spaces have security cameras and guards who monitor and intervene. “Public” spaces typically close at certain times of the day, and categorically limit and exclude certain uses. “Public” spaces serve private, capital-accumulating interests (come enjoy the facilities before returning to work/shopping). What we are missing, now, is a truly public space, a free and not-overly-administered space, which would be a common space—one neither publically nor privately owned, but truly and to the letter belonging to the commons.
Consider this passage from Justice MacKenzie’s decision to evict Occupy Vancouver from the Vancouver Art Gallery lawn:
“The City says it would suffer irreparable harm if the injunction were not granted. Specifically, the public would suffer irreparable harm in terms of access to, and use of, public space.”
The city of Vancouver here places itself in the position of “the public” (as its “representative”), and argues that the use being made of this particular “public” space by Occupy Vancouver causes “irreparable harm” to other potential uses of the same space. First, the city is asserting it’s exclusive rights to decide what uses of “public” space are legitimate and what uses are not (thus acting as a private owner of the space), and second, the city is asserting that one use of public space is exclusive of other potential uses of such space (thereby employing a scarcity model—there’s not enough!—again, part and parcel of privatizing thought).
Without getting into a discussion about whether Occupy Vancouver was willing to “share” the VAG lawn or not (it was), the point I take from all this is that what we think we mean by “public space” (free and open to all; the opposite of private property) doesn’t actually exist in our society—because even the supposedly “public” is policed and regulated by its “owner,” a governmental body supposedly representing the “public” at large, but ultimately acting in a proprietary fashion, much as any private property owner would, or in the interests of certain private stakeholders/”investors.”
Indeed, what we often see on the VAG lawn are public/private partnerships, such as corporate sponsored events (note the “CIBC LunarFest” encamped outside the VAB in the first week of February, charging for food where Occupy Vancouver provided free food, and seemingly being allowed to use heating sources indiscriminately inside its tents, where Occupy Vancouver was removed for supposed “fire hazards”).
Common land, as a general term for land that is not conceived of as owned or even ownable (whether privately or publically), was the basis of many societies the world over for much of human existence. The commons was a space—it was most space in fact—upon which we relied to find what we needed to survive. Its “enclosure,” to take the example of English history (the despoilment of the America’s by European colonial powers is another ripe example), was part and parcel of separating the peasantry (or indigenous peoples) from their independent sustenance-based economy and making them available for wage labour, and their land available for commodity crops and the private accumulation of wealth.
To cut to the chase, the private/public dyad has already been dissolved—everything is private, and no truly public space or public sphere exists anymore; to resolve the apparent dialectic of private vs public—which is in fact to propose a new dialectical tension, a new opposition to the now universal rule of the private—we need to propose common space.
The point is that a “commons” is a space a population uses for satisfying its social needs; it is a space of collective independence; no one owns it, but ideally, all have use of it. It is in fact constituted by those users and uses—a constituent space. The Occupy Movement has essentially been asserting a right to a new kind of commons—a political commons upon which all are invited to enter into the on-going democratic process of governing ourselves.
The question of art and revolution has hovered around Occupy Vancouver, perhaps to an extent not seen in other urban occupations, in part simply because this occupation was on the lawn of its city’s art gallery, and because this city’s space most clearly identified with political demonstration is, in fact, an art gallery lawn (rather than, say, a central square in front of a government building or an urban park deep in a city’s financial district). The idea was in fact proposed, several times, by several different individuals, to declare the occupation a “site-specific” or “performance” work, or an “installation.” Essentially, this would have been done to “get the city off the occupation’s back,” rather than to say anything specific about art or revolution or the relationship between art and revolution.
But it does raise some interesting questions: why is it permissible to place art works in “public” spaces, but not protest camps? Is art really that, safe? That connected to the state’s sense of its self-valorization as “cultural patron”? Considering what I’ve said already about public space being simply a variant of private space, the answer to the latter question has to be “yes”—art is allowed in public because the state or other private/public partnerships see it as an attractive ornament to its unremittingly commercial surface.
Lunacharsky once wrote that “If revolution can give art its soul, then art can give revolution its mouthpiece.” But the two remain largely uncomfortable bedfellows. To re-brand the Occupation of the VAG lawn an “aesthetic” project would court Benjamin’s famous dictum: “All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.”
Following Gerald Raunig (in his book, Art and Revolution—Semiotexte 2007), I would eschew “models of totally diffusing and confusing art and revolution,” reading them instead as “neighboring zones” “in which transitions, overlaps and concatenations of art and revolution become possible for a limited time, but without synthesis and identification.” There is no tidy way to reconcile or unite art and revolution, the VAG and Occupy Vancouver: they necessarily remain “neighboring zones.” But such “neighboring” is of interest because it is an active space, a dynamic borderland, a relationality through which energies pass back and forth, a space in which tensions remain productive, and thus in which change occurs.
The events at Occupy Vancouver had the VAG’s neo-classical façade, and the large banner for the “Shore, Forest and Beyond” show as their constant backdrop. Maybe a few activists wandered inside. Certainly patrons of the gallery wandered past the occupation, wondering what it was all about as they walked on into the VAG.
When it comes to their publicness—their being in supposedly public space—an interesting thing about both art and revolution is revealed in their neighborliness. With art, its content begins to matter more when it is encountered in public, while with activism, its form matters more than its content. Consider Kota Ezawa’s “hand vote” (now installed in the VAG’s “Offsite” space at the Shangri La Hotel) in this regard.
As a more or less representational work, we are immediately drawn to the content of the image—its representation of a group of people with their hands raised, in the act of voting. Are they a group of political representatives? It’s possible—but there’s a feeling more of the classroom here, or the town hall. It could even be a Parent’s Advisory Committee—we don’t know. What we do come away with is a sense of the moment of democratic action—the crucial moment when, as participants and constituents, we see each other’s hands and understand each other’s positions. The show of hands in a public space is the oldest and most direct form of democracy—the self-management of the commons—how do we organize what we share, so we can go on sharing it? It’s worth noting that the use of hand signals has been one of the distinctive aspects of the Occupy movement—especially the consensus-expressing “sparkle fingers.” (There are countless photographs of occupiers with their hands in their air.) At this moment in time, hands publically raised in the process of direct democratic decision making has new, more revolutionary meaning. It’s an icon of this historical moment.
Here’s my point: the form of the hand vote, and its connection to direct democratic process—especially in re-occupied “public” space—is suddenly a revolutionary form. As a representation in Kota’s image, it is a revolutionary content. But the “overlap” and “concatenation” between the “neighboring zones” of art and revolution here (and form and content, for that matter) reveals the really interesting complexity in this image: it is representational (safe; recognizable as art; allowable in public) of the non-representational, directly democratic moment (unsafe; not art, but protest; not allowed in privately controlled “public” space).
This tension—unresolvable—between representation in art and representation in politics—lies at the heart of the art and revolution matrix, and is only really revealed by the two poles being able to “neighbor” each other in “public,” as they do here in Kota’s “hand vote.” At the same time, it reveals the very problem of the privacy of the public. Indeed, VAG’s “offsite” space is, much like Occupy Wall Street’s now famous Liberty Square (Zuccotti Park), a very private public space—a portion of private space provided for “public use” as part of the package “sold” to the city by the developers of the Shanrgi La complex. All we can do in such complicated spaces is, show our hands—and our faces—and work towards a new consensus on the re-occupied commons.