Occupy protesters throughout the nation managed to create an informational campaign that went globally viral for months. Now, as activists scramble to build a phase two, a look at the creative legacy of Occupy 1.0 shows how Bay Area artists helped develop its artistic language.
“I think what’s different is that this Occupy movement is translatable and adaptable,” said Danielle Siembieda, an Oakland-based artist in her 30s, who manages social media for Zero1, a nonprofit exploring the intersection of technology and art. Occupy, she said, is not so much a singular protest as a template, reapplied to target cities, businesses, even cyberspace. “The artists have been able to translate back and forth between these scenarios,” Siembieda said.
There was “Occupy The Internet,” an html script that displayed a line of animated gif protesters that people could insert into their webpages to show support.
There was #OccupyTheater, a dramatization of Occupy Oakland that Siembieda worked on, in which Twitter, Facebook and blog feeds were performed in front of City Hall during the general strike on November 2.
There was a pro-Occupy “Hackathon,” organized with help from the San Francisco-based Grey Area Foundation for the Arts. “That is, in its own way, a performance,” Siembieda said. The contest encouraged developers to create apps to support Occupy Wall Street, including one allowing arrestees to quickly send custom messages to friends and lawyers.
“Artists are the ones who create change, the ones who move culture,” Siembieda said. “From creating messaging, to the Occupy the Internet presence, to performances, to physical sculptures, or paintings, everybody’s contributing in some way.”
Bay Area Occupations have been epicenters of creative output riding a wave of Internet sensationalism, from Occupy George, a project to repurpose dollars as protest flyers, to a sculpture made of reclaimed police barricades arranged like a house of cards. For many artists, their gallery was the Internet. Their work connected demonstrations in different cities and created a body of Occupy-related memes.
House of Cards
The night Oakland police forced Occupy Oakland campers from Frank Ogawa Plaza for the first time, on October 25, a crowd lingered after the General Assembly meeting. The meeting was held next to the muddy lawn that had been a bustling tent city the night before. Now police security fencing kept them outside the perimeter.
After an argument about property damage, several protesters angrily knocked down the barricade, leaving it piled in the mud and grass.
Colin Dodsworth, a 28 year-old public health employee, along with his cohort Nathan Gresham-Lancaster, looked at the heap of metal panels and had a different idea. “We made a joke about how we should make a house of cards,” he said—a comment on the precariousness of the economic system, as well as the security of the encampment, which had been wiped out.
Along with a rag-tag group of about ten volunteers, Dodsworth worked from 1:30 – 4 am turning the fencing into a three structures, each appearing to be in a different stage of falling down. One, a three-tiered pyramid of stacked triangles, stood 15 feet high. Another was built to look as if it had already collapsed; on top of the rubble was a note that read “Ready to fall?”
And while the subject matter was serious, he said, the impromptu fence sculpture was as much a prank as a work of art. “It was definitely funny,” he said.
The next morning throngs of people stopped and gawked at the strange crystalline forms that jutted out of Frank Ogawa Plaza. Angela Tsao, who passed the sculpture on her way to her job in the State Building behind Oakland City Hall, was a bit shocked. “What did it all mean?” she asked. “Were the protestors trying to start their own Burning Man in Oakland?”
Zach Seal, who works near the plaza, stopped to admire the structures while returning from a morning meeting. “It was striking to look at,” he said. “It was difficult to comprehend how it was put together and able to stand up.”
When the city moved to tear down the structures that afternoon, there was some confusion about how to deal with them. “First, the gardeners came,” Dodsworth said. They puzzled over structures for a while, he recalled, then left.
Finally, Public Works employees arrived in bright orange vests. “They just came and stood by it and stared at it for a really long time,” Dodsworth said. “Eventually they tried shaking it and it fell down”—but not before Seal managed to snap a picture. Seal posted the image to his Facebook page, then watched as the image quickly went viral.
The photo was reposted thousands of times on the web, eventually making it into newspapers, blogs, and email lists across the country. It even became the profile picture for Occupy Oakland’s official Facebook page for a few weeks, where friends of the group discussed the sculpture’s meaning in a long comment thread.
One user, Daniel Horowitz, said he saw it as “representing perhaps how precarious and beautiful democracy is, how it is built on the ruins of oppression, but if we’re not careful can be used to repress us again.”
Dodsworth, who was initially concerned that people would try to camp on top of the structures, was never able to take his own picture of them. But he did watch Seal’s photo hit meme status, and was glad to see “something visual and stimulating and creative representing the Occupy movement,” he said.
From New York to Oakland, perhaps the most ambitious Occupation target has been the U.S. dollar bill. Occupy George is an open source project that illustrates data about the distribution of wealth with clean, easy to understand infographics that can be stamped or printed onto money. The bills are then recirculated.
“[We’re] using the dollars as a flier for the movement,” said Occupy George co-founder Andy Dao, 32. Dao and his partner, Ivan Cash, 25, both work in advertising.
The images use red ink, painstakingly measured to fit design elements of the bill, such as the circular crests on the back. Red line shading and solid color elements on the face of the bill illustrate data showing income disparity in the United States. The top margin contains a legend – “Share of income growth in America,” or “Average worker pay versus average CEO pay.”
Their project is the result of many nights spent vetting their statistics and adjusting design elements a millimeter at a time to bring them into perfect alignment with the graphics on the dollar. “Andy’s girlfriend started cooking dinner for three,” Cash said.
After creating their designs, the duo made eight trips to Occupy gatherings in Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley to stamp peoples’ money at booths. They also designed a website in order to distribute open source templates of their designs, so anyone can occupy their own money at home. “There’s no amount of money we could ever have printed on that would have reached the amount of people that the website itself has,” Dao said.
“We’ve received emails from people all around the U.S., that have been either receiving one or printing them themselves,” Cash added.
Cash and Dao declined to estimate how much occupied money they’ve been responsible for. While they have carefully adjusted their design to avoid marking serial numbers or otherwise breaking any laws they know of regarding the alteration of currency, they’re still cautious about attracting attention from the Federal Reserve.
But they say the project has drawn them into discussion—in person and by email—with economic protesters throughout the Bay Area and around the globe. Though they both say that Occupy groups differ on what hope to accomplish, they said that the groups have more in common than not. “I feel like, at Cal they’re sort of protesting tuition hikes and if you go to Oakland you hear a lot of things about jobs,” Cash said.
The ability of Occupy to adapt to location is what Dao thinks has caused the phenomenon to stick. “To me, this is the first social movement that has real traction and inclusiveness,” he said. “Any sort of artist or musician or a writer, however you feel you fit, people are contributing in their own way.”
Occupy . . .
While art and creative design about Occupy can quickly go viral, one man is taking the opposite approach—using the immense online social network surrounding Occupy to aggregate photographs for his art gallery.
Curtis Jermany wanted to show the variety of perspectives within and about Occupy. The 43-year-old photographer, who co-owns GZ Soulye Studios, a West Oakland gallery and showroom, with his fiancé Jowhari Trahan, had the idea for an open-call photo exhibit to examine the widespread trend of dissent through the eyes of protesters and bystanders.
The show, called Occupy…, opened November 19, but Jermany will continue to accept submissions until the show closes in mid-December. “Hopefully by the end the wall is plastered full,” he said.
Jermany fishes for content from Facebook, Craigslist and by word of mouth, and has no idea what kind of images to expect. So far, he has mounted about 20 pieces from as far away as Los Angeles.
The submissions all come from Occupy participants, many of them amateur or budding photographers. “One woman had only been studying photography for about a year,” Jermany said.
Some of the images evoke common experiences from protests across the country last month—a man holding a rubber bullet in front of the bruise where it hit him, for instance. Others are artistic portraits of life in Occupy encampments—a man sitting shirtless next to an altar, cradling a guitar in his lap, the word “change” tattooed in scrawling letters on his forearm.
Jermany invited amateurs to submit so the show would “have the viewpoint of the everyday person,” he said. “People who are really in the mix of it.”
Curating a gallery show about current political news is not altogether new territory for Jermany. Last year, he showed a collection of his own photographs, called Point Counterpoint, in response to riots related to the shooting of Oscar Grant. The show featured diptychs, or paired images, of protests against police conduct alongside rallies in support of the shooter, former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle.
“I don’t say that I’m liberal, I don’t say that I’m conservative,” Jermany said. “I’m not necessarily backing anything. I just want to hear what people’s ideas are.”
Though Occupy Oakland was ejected from Frank Ogawa Plaza last month, Jermany said during a recent interview that he’s not concerned about the Occupy… photo project becoming obsolete. “Something’s going to pop back up,” he said.
Occupy… is open Saturdays from noon – 5pm and Sundays from 2 – 5 pm. The closing reception on December 17 will include live music and a Q&A discussion with photographers who are able to attend. GZ Soulye Studios is located at 2615 Magnolia Street in West Oakland.
You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here.