Missing the Mark

by by Nathan Bergmann-Dean

Students at The New School for Social Research in New York City occupied the cafeteria of the student center in December of 2008. About a hundred occupiers from a coalition of student groups made demands that included the resignation of the President, Executive Vice President, and Treasurer, investment transparency, increased student control over campus decisions, and the opening of an autonomous student space. The occupation was the peak of a long process in which the groups had been organizing, petitioning, holding demonstrations, and building a movement towards these same goals. There was a sustained presence of supporting demonstrators outside, as well as national and international statements of solidarity. After over 30 hours of physically defending the space from security and the police, the students succeeded in pressuring the administration to yield to many of their demands.
The occupation was a crucial force towards shifting school policy, but also constituted the creation of an autonomous space in and of itself. Sometimes spontaneously and sometimes through conversations lasting until a consensus was reached, students made decisions about how to utilize the space and proceed with the occupation and negotiations. The events at the New School helped spark a series of similar actions the following year, on campuses in both New York and in California.
The Aronson Gallery in New York recently commissioned Mark Tribe, a professor in the Modern Culture and Media department at Brown, to create an installation for the “Shape of Change” exhibit, pertaining to speech and different forms of dialogue. To this end, on September 18, Tribe reserved a room in Brown’s Student Center and staged a reenactment of the 2008 New School occupation, with the help of 15 or so students. Ariel Hughes B’10 and Mark Tribe scripted the initial dialogue and the major developments of the occupation based on archival footage. The rest was intended to be improvisational theatre, lead by the participant’s role-playing of students in the original New School occupation. The entire event was captured on film by professional videographers for the exhibit, which opens October 30.

Tribe’s project was conceived as a performance, but also as a space to explore, “occupation as a political tactic and utopian strategy, the state of student activism, and the ways in which reenactment can blur the boundaries between artifice and everyday life,” as put by Tribe’s group.
If Tribe’s aim is to complicate the boundaries between art and politics, he succeeds only in depoliticizing a political act and appropriating it for his artistic purposes. Two basic layers of appropriation occur: first, the event is a staged, scripted, centrally organized, university-sanctioned reenactment of a political occupation that was in actuality autonomous, unsanctioned, and decentralized. The actual occupation was one product of students’ organizing around issues immediate to their lives, a response to a situation in which something concrete was at stake. Tribe’s reenactment capitalizes on the original occupations’ intensity while ignoring the political conditions from which it emerged.
The second level of appropriation is the video capture of the fruits of the improvisation. The potentially genuine creative and intellectual activity of the participating students is turned into an image of itself, to be presented as a token of Tribe’s art piece. Displayed in the gallery, the event becomes the stuff of spectacle—to be engaged with passively, despite the participatory nature of the reenactment itself.
According to Julian Park B’12, one of the participants of the project, both Tribe and the students quickly realized that pretending to be the New School occupiers was not working. Adrian Pio B’12, another participant, described this initial portion as feeling “disingenuous.”
After giving up on the script, the student participants themselves decided to move out of the sanctioned room Tribe had reserved for the reenactment. Followed by the cameras, they migrated to another room on the other side of the building, continuing discussions about what it meant to take space and use it as they chose. All participants interviewed agreed that the process of choosing to move and the conversations that followed were politically transformative on an individual level, and that going through this process together created a community where one hadn’t existed before. In this way, the students succeeded in creating something genuine and potentially useful, in spite of the premise of the project.

Despite some ambiguous wording on the project’s blog, this was in no way an occupation. They did not take or defend a physical space that they were not already free to use in whichever way they wished. Some participants were unsure of the consequences of moving to the other side of the building, but Park and another anonymous participant agreed that there was never any real risk of a confrontation with campus authorities.
Though Park speculated that they occupied the “artistic space” by rejecting the script and moving to a different room, Tribe still sanctioned all of those decisions. Tribe started the conversation about abandoning the script and then left to let the students decide for themselves, though the videographers continued to film. They rejected the premise of the reenactment, undoing the first layer of appropriation, but the second aspect of appropriation was still present. Had the participants chosen to remove themselves from Tribe’s project by not allowing it to be filmed, they could have fully taken the project into their own hands. However, as long as their conversations were on camera, they became part of Tribe’s artistic domain.
Student X, a participant, highlighted that it is Tribe who now controls the way the events will be presented to the public. Though he expressed his desire for the students to be involved in choosing how to use the footage, the final video piece coming out of the event remains under Tribe’s name and ultimate control. Any input that the students will have on the final presentation is a privilege granted by Tribe.

Tribe’s piece is objectionable not only because he is co-opting both sets of students’ genuine political action for an art piece under his name. It also delegitimizes and depoliticizes the tactic of occupation itself, undermining its potential to be used in an actual struggle. When occupation becomes associated with empty theatrics, it is more likely to be decontextualized when employed in political struggle. The news media frequently delegitimizes occupations and similar tactics, calling them purely dramatic and failing to report on the buildup of political tension preceding the action. As a result, the factors pushing the students to use occupation are not understood.

Any characterization of this weekend’s events as analogous to a real occupation romanticizes the tactic while ignoring its actual meaning: occupation is a site of contestation—there exists an opposing force that is directly resisted. At no time during Tribe’s “occupation” did this take place. Furthermore, there is no indication that connections were drawn with existing political organizing taking place at Brown. This is not to say that an occupation’s only relevance lies in achieving the demands of a movement. A sustained practice of taking over space builds collective power across movements. The more people take and defend space, the more power they build to shape their world.
It is a challenge to the student participants of this event to bring the insights and inspiration they generated this weekend into practice. It is here that art has the potential to become political: when it is used as a creative and liberatory tool.
Contrary to what was likely well-intentioned, Tribe’s art piece was an iteration of the very systematized alienation that occupying students intend to overturn. Occupying students forcefully claim a space to gain autonomy, to further their ability to self-organize, and to transform private space into public space. While the students participating this weekend realized the hypocrisy inherent in the piece and attempted to transform it through improvisation, creating a space for an exploration of the concept of occupation, this very transformation was again captured and depoliticized by Tribe’s cameras. In spite of the individual and collaborative creativity so fertile in the space, Tribe’s project re-appropriated the practice of occupation—that of public and self-organized resistance—into private social capital.

Nathan Bergmann-Dean ’13 pulled down the posters y’all put up outside.