Social Form: Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly

October 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Wall Street Occupation is as much a social form as it is a protest.  Like Egypt’s Tahrir Square, it attempts to be a society in miniature, a practical guerrilla version of a Utopian vision.  The evolving physical organization of Zuccotti Park with its public library, kitchen (three free meals a day, ranging from peanut butter to indian dal, biryani, and samosas), comfort station (a free store with warm clothing, tarps, sleeping bags, and blankets), medical tent, sacred space (a tree surrounded by altars and meditators), cigarette rolling group, silkscreen zone, sign painters, drumming circles, people’s stage (open “mic” for 5 minute performances), media center (producing a 24/7 live video stream in addition to photo documentation and movie shorts), and three information booths, is mirrored by an ever increasing number of working groups and decision-making bodies. The most striking of these is the daily (nightly) General Assembly, a structured form of direct democracy in which proposals that affect the occupation as whole are offered up for consensus.

[general assembly in Washington Square]

The General Assembly is both a dynamic working process and a kind of group performance, almost street theater.  In part, this is the effect of the human microphone, developed as a way around police restrictions on amplified sound.  Speakers shout out their words in short phrases, which are then echoed in louder shouts by everyone in hearing range making it possible for people even farther back to hear what’s going on.  In very large groups, there may be two, or even three “generations” of the people’s mic – each phrase being shouted again in progressive waves towards the back of the crowd. “We amplify each other’s voices (WE AMPLIFY EACH OTHER’S VOICES) no matter what’s said (NO MATTER WHAT’S SAID) so we can hear one another (SO WE CAN HEAR ONE ANOTHER), yelled the facilitator at a recent Assembly in Washington Square Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon. “But also, we use this human mic because the police won’t let us use any kind of instrument.”

Repeating the words of whoever’s speaking has a curious effect, sometimes thrilling, sometimes exhausting.  It keeps the speakers concise, which does something to make up for the way it also elongates the process of saying anything. The short phrases give everyone’s speech something the feeling of poetry (maybe ancient poetry – the assembly as homeric epic).  It’s stranger to watch on video than it is to enact (The New Republic called it “genuinely creepy” in a recent editorial [behind paywall]). By becoming part of the human mic, you become a real participant in the meeting, bringing the words of whoever’s speaking into your own body.

The assembly is an attempt at decision-making which is open and porous, democratic in the absolute – whoever is there becomes part of the consensus, or lack thereof.  In theory, a newcomer is as important as someone who’s been there from the beginning, so the process of the assembly is explained at every meeting. Hand signals for communication are reviewed.  A few facilitators run the meeting, focusing their attention on process and refraining from taking positions of their own.  Invariably, as the meeting goes on, their voices become strained from shouting.

How does it work? There’s a specific process, inspired by Quaker meetings, Native American councils, the May 15 movement in Spain, and radical organizing from Chiapas to Seattle, with perhaps an unacknowledged nod to Robert’s Rules of Order which govern direct democracy town meetings in parts of New England today. Proposals come to the general assembly from working groups and individuals – requests for funds, agreements on social conduct, drafts of group declarations, plans for direct action (a list of past proposals and their fate can be found here).  Each proposal goes through several steps.  First, it is briefly explained by an individual proposer (as of this date, proposals are now posted on the nycga website 24 hours before being brought to the assembly).  There is a period of time for “concerns and questions.”  People raise their hands, or step up to a facilitator, and are added to the “stack” which is a list of people who will be called on. The proposer answers both questions and concerns as best they can. After this, there are “friendly amendments” – suggestions for small modifications to improve the proposal – the proposer is free to either accept or reject these.  Finally, there’s a call for “blocks.” Blocks are serious objections on ethical or safety grounds, more like a veto than a no vote – an indication that the person blocking would walk away from the group rather than see the proposal go forward.  In between each of these steps, the facilitators generally do a “temperature check,” asking the group to signal with their hands how they’re feeling about the proposal. Motions pass, when they do, by consensus rather than voting.  90% consensus is the rule of thumb, a vigorous twinkling of upraised hands.

[general assembly in Zuccotti Park]

David Graeber, in a recent piece in the Occupied Wall Street Journal, talks about how this came about:

On August 2, at the very first meeting of what was to become Occupy Wall Street, about a dozen people sat in a circle in Bowling Green. The self-appointed “process committee” for a social movement we merely hoped would someday exist, contemplated a momentous decision. Our dream was to create a New York General Assembly: the model for democratic assemblies we hoped to see spring up across America. But how would those assemblies actually operate? The anarchists in the circle made what seemed, at the time, an insanely ambitious proposal. Why not let them operate exactly like this committee: by consensus.

It was, in the least, a wild gamble, because as far as any of us knew, no one had ever managed to pull off something like this before. Consensus process had been successfully used in spokes-councils  —  groups of activists organized into separate affinity groups, each represented by a single “spoke” — but never in mass assemblies like the one anticipated in New York City. Even the General Assemblies in Greece and Spain had not attempted it. But consensus was the approach that most accorded with our principles. So we took the leap.

You can read the minutes of most general assemblies online.  Some go easily, others struggle.  This one, on October 21, is particularly interesting because it involves both a community emergency (a giant mound of wet laundry from recent rains that no one really wants to deal with, but must be dealt with), and a contentious decision (whether to modify the general assembly structure by adding a spokes-council where working groups could meet to deal with financial and logistical concerns).  Another, on October 20 involves a request from the park’s drummers for $8000 which was rejected (tabled) by the assembly after a heated debate.

[evening assembly at Zuccotti Park]

Six weeks into the occupation, the Structure working group (structure as in social form not tents) has succeeded in passing its proposal for  the “spokes-council,” which will move much of the allocating of funds, as well as logistical coordination, to members of chartered working groups. Debate has been contentious with serious blocks raised and many revisions to the plan.  It’s genuinely hard to say whether this will remove what makes the General Assembly feel so remarkable now – the fact that anyone present can participate in making even the most important decisions for the occupation.

New York General Assembly website.

Nathan Schneider describes the General Assembly in Harper’s

A practical guide to the group dynamics of assemblies.

Action: Unguarded Money

October 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

In 1956 Miklós Erdély placed open suitcases, primed with 100-florint notes, in the streets of Budapest to collect money for the widows and orphans of the Hungarian revolution.

“On 23 October 1956, spontaneous student protests in Budapest erupted into a general uprising against the Hungarian Communist government and the Soviet Army troops stationed in the country. In late October or early November, at one of the meetings that took place at his home, Miklós Erdély presented to friends and artists the idea of placing boxes for collecting money for the victims of the revolution – boxes that nobody would guard – in six locations around Budapest. The chose a work group, set up the boxes, and, on posters marking the collection points, wrote: “The purity of our revolution makes it possible for us to collect money in this way for the families of our fallen martyrs. The Writers Union of Hungary.” Using a car that belonged to the Writers Union, Erdély drove from box to box and tried to persuade the members of the revolutionary militia who were standing next to the boxes to leave: he told them that the time had come when there was no longer any need to guard money. It was not until 1965, when Erdély learned about “happenings” and the Fluxus movement, that he designated this action as an art event and gave it the title Unguarded Money.”  Božidar Zrinski (from the catalog of the 29th Ljubljana Biennial)

[ image source ]

See also a longer account in Colin Vernall’s essay “Money No Object: Revolution and Reevaluation in the Economics of Place and the Place of Economics in Art” [PDF]

Vernall goes on to describe a second money action of Erdély’s, Selling Money in the Street:

“Though definitely taking his cue from the earlier work in Budapest in order to highlight the strangeness of this value system, Erdély adopts a more ironic approach to this action than he did in Unguarded Money:

“It consisted of – since by then I had some money – selling money on the street at a price somewhat under its nominal value. Opening a boutique, and offering the 100-franc note for 98.50 – at a slight discount.”

Again, the work takes the form of an action. Erdély is recorded referring to it as such: ‘I started to organize an action. Using the experience gained in that ’56 thing’. However, when he applies for a boutique site on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, Erdély is surprised that the authorities are wholly opposed to the project on the grounds that it is ‘tantamount to devaluing their money’. Although little is known about precisely how this work finally came to fruition, the reaction to the piece was generally mixed. The idea of tampering with the value attributed to money, as demonstrated by the difficulty involved in securing premises, seemed to hit a nerve. Erdély was surprised to hear that a Swedish artist later attempted a similar piece, selling the Swedish krona for less than its nominal value. He registered less surprise, though, at the response of the Swedish authorities in imposing a jail sentence (source: Miklós Peternák, 1991. “Conversation with Miklós Erdély,” Spring 1983. Argus 2(5). 76-77).”

Source: Colin Vernall, “Money No Object,” eSharp Journal #11, Spring 2008

Library Action: Occupy Wall Street

September 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

The Occupy Wall Street library

Liberty Park/Zuccotti Park, September 27, 2011 – 10th day of the occupation

Occupy Wall Street

Updates: Twitter #occupywallst

Book Action: Ben Kinmont’s Prospectus

September 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

If you’re in New York, don’t miss Ben Kinmont’s retrospective at NYU’s Fales Library (on the 3rd floor of the Bobst Library at 70 Washington Square South).  You’ll need an appointment, but once you’re there you’ll be able to handle, open, and photocopy his archives and take away free reprints of several of his projects.

If you can’t make it to the show, you can buy a copy of the beautiful and underpriced letterpress book from Kunstverein (scroll down for hard to find purchase link)

Action: Inaction Painting

September 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jonathan VanDyke has written an interesting essay on his experience spending 40 hours staring at a Jackson Pollock painting (for an earlier account of his piece “The Long Glance” see “Action: Watching the Watcher“).

He says: “On June 3rd I turned my gaze away from Jackson Pollock’s 1952 painting Convergence after staring at it for forty hours. To enact The Long Glance, as I had titled my performance, I stood silently in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, eight hours a day for five days. I wanted to approach the painting in peak condition, and trained to stand at length with just incremental movement. By acting as a fixed counterpoint to an “action” painting, I intended, through my immobile body, to reorient the museum’s abstract expressionist galleries.

As manifestations of movement, Pollock’s drip paintings point back to the figure of Pollock; as our eyes follow a line, we are recreating the gesture of his body. When a line reaches the canvas’s edge, in the mind’s eye we carry it onward. The drip paintings activate the relationship between the eye and the body, while referring us to the space beyond the frame. Yet there’s something of a ruse in this: the painting was made with the canvas on the floor, Pollock circling it on all sides. Now it hangs on a wall with a proper top and bottom, despite its lack of an orientation in a true pictorial sense. Standing and looking at a Pollock drip painting, we can feel ourselves disoriented: what was once on the ground is now on the wall in front of us.

Turning towards something, we acknowledge its presence, while we simultaneously turn away from something else. When a work of art calls our attention, it guides our gaze. As we bend our necks to see the painted ceiling of a cathedral, we are meant to realize a celestial space. We are beckoned upwards, and thereby directed away from the ground, which is the space of all things “earthly”: copulation, excrement, and, at last, the corpse. By making his drip paintings on the ground, working with and not against gravity, Pollock returns our attention to the plane of the recumbent body.

[read the rest here]

VanDyke’s remarks on action and inaction reminded me of Alan Kaprow’s claim that his happenings and performances were an extension of Pollock’s idea of action paintings.

From Alan Kaprow, The Legacy of Jackson Pollock (1958)

“Pollock’s choice of enormous canvases served many purposes, chief of which for our discussion is that his mural-scale paintings ceased to become paintings and became environments. Before a painting, our size as spectators, in relation to the size of the picture, profoundly influences how much we are willing to give up consciousness of our temporal existence while experiencing it. Pollock’s choice of great sizes resulted in our being confronted, assaulted, sucked in. Yet we must not confuse the effect of these with that of the hundreds of large paintings done in the Renaissance, which glorified an idealized everyday world familiar to the observer, often continuing the actual room into the painting by means of trompe l’oeil. Pollock offers us no such familiarity, and our everyday world of convention and habit is replaced by one created by the artist. Reversing the above procedure, the painting is continued out into the room. And this leads me to my final point: Space. The space of these creations is not clearly palpable as such. We can become entangled in the web to some extent and by moving in and out of the skein of lines and splashings can experience a kind of spatial extension. But even so, this space is an allusion far more vague than even the few inches of space-reading a Cubist work affords. It may be that our need to identify with the process, the making of the whole affair, prevents a concentration on the specifics of before and behind so important in a more traditional art. But what I believe is clearly discernible is that the entire painting comes out at us (we are participants rather than observers), right into the room. It is possible to see in this connection how Pollock is the terminal result of a gradual trend that moved from the deep space of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the building out from the canvas of the Cubist collages. In the present case, the “picture” has moved so far out that the canvas is no longer a reference point. Hence, although up on the wall, these marks surround us as they did the painter at work, so strict is the correspondence achieved between his impulse and the resultant art.

What we have, then, is art that tends to lose itself out of bounds, tends to fill our world with itself, art that in meaning, looks, impulse seems to break fairly sharply with the traditions of painters back to at least the Greeks. Pollock’s near destruction of this tradition may well be a return to the point where art was more actively involved in ritual, magic, and life than we have known it in our recent past. If so, it is an exceedingly important step and in its superior way offers a solution to the complaints of those who would have us put a bit of life into art. But what do we do now?

There are two alternatives. One is to continue in this vein. Probably many good “near-paintings” can be done varying this esthetic of Pollock’s without departing from it or going further. The other is to give up the making of paintings entirely—I mean the single flat rectangle or oval as we know it. It has been seen how Pollock came pretty close to doing so himself. In the process he came upon some newer values that are exceedingly difficult to discuss yet bear upon our present alternative. To say that he discovered things like marks, gestures, paint, colors, hardness, softness, flowing, stopping, space, the world, life, death, might sound naive. Every artist worth his salt has “discovered” these things. But Pollock’s discovery seems to have a peculiarly fascinating simplicity and directness about it. He was, for me, amazingly childlike, capable of becoming involved in the stuff of his art as a group of concrete facts seen for the first time. There is, as I said earlier, a certain blindness, a mute belief in everything he does, even up to the end. I urge that this not be seen as a simple issue. Few individuals can be lucky enough to possess the intensity of the this kind of knowing, and I hope that in the near future a careful study of this (perhaps) Zen quality of Pollock’s personality will be undertaken. At any rate, for now we may consider that, except for rare instances, Western art tends to need many more indirections in achieving itself, placing more or less equal emphasis upon “things” and the relations between them. The crudeness of Jackson Pollock is not, therefore, uncouth; it is manifestly frank and uncultivated, unsullied by training, trade secrets, finesse—a directness that the European artists he liked hoped for and partially succeeded in but that he never had to strive after because he had it by nature. This by itself would be enough to teach us something.

It does. Pollock, as I see him, left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of Forty-second Street. Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will those bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard-f happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies; seen in store windows and on the streets; and sensed in dreams and horrible accidents. An odor of crushed strawberries, a letter from a friend, or a billboard selling Drano; three taps on the front door, a scratch, a sigh, or a voice lecturing endlessly, a blinding staccato flash, a bowler hat—all will become materials of this new concrete art.

Young artists of today need no longer say, “I am a painter” or “a poet” or “a dancer.” They are simply “artists.” All of life will be open to them. They will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness. They will not try to make them extraordinary but will only state their real meaning. But out of nothing they will devise the extraordinary and then maybe nothingness as well. People will be horrified, critics will be confused or amused, but these, I am certain, will be the alchemies of the 1960s.”

(The full text can be found in Alan Kaprow’s wonderful, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993. An online version can be found on the Belgium is Happening site.)

Action: Unseen Performance

June 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Georgia Wall’s Unseen Performance 6-13-11

I saw this invitation on Rhizome:


I perform for you & you provide an account of what you saw.
1. Before the event:  Together we (you & I) choose a date/time and public location where the event will take place.
2. The event: I perform on the given street at the given time.
3. After the event: You then provide an account of what occurred during the event.

If you are interested in participating or have any questions please email

: : : : : : : : : :

When I wrote to her, she asked me to go to a small park at the intersection of Rivington and Attorney on the Lower East Side at 4pm and take a seat in one of three benches facing the street.

June 13, 3:55 PM.

Sunny afternoon, shady park.  The benches are crowded. I find a seat next to a well dressed, white-haired man. I glance at him, but he doesn’t make eye contact. A few kids, neighbors talking and hanging out. One guy is kidding another about how many brothers and sisters he has: “your father, he was a bull!.” One punches the other on the arm. Breezy in the shade, fat maple leaves hanging down. Half the voices in Spanish, half in English. The  park is a fenced strip concrete and paving stones, but plentifully supplied with trees and pigeons.  A group of teenagers talk and sway. A cart with striped umbrellas, red and yellow, blue and white, is selling ices across the street. There’s a pawnbroker, “buy, pawn, sell” and “LOANS” in big letters on the awning, framed by fistfuls of dollars. An ice cream truck pulls up in front of the park.

4:01 PM.

Kids chasing pigeons. The old man next to me gets up to leave.  A small asian boy buys a huge soft ice cream covered with jimmies.  Will I see the event when it happens? Will I know it? A hipster couple walks past with an economy candy bag.  A lone boy dribbles behind me on the empty basketball courts. A mom tries to pick up a flock of white paper napkins that have blown across the park – her hair is bleached to a caramel  color; she’s wearing a flag T-shirt. She leaves with her kids, a reluctant toddler squirming in his stroller, a pair of 6 year olds with black pigtails and bright red and pink shirts.

Suddenly I notice a young woman walking up Attorney street straight towards me, carrying a blue plastic pail in her right hand. There’s nothing odd about her, except that she’s walking slowly, deliberately, but that’s enough to tell me this is what I’m here for.  She’s wearing a short-sleeved black dress, almost a shift, that drops loosely to her ankles. It hangs like linen. Flat black shoes.

She turns to her left at the street corner, then turns again so her back is towards me and stands facing the blue wall of the building across from where I sit.  A little girl tries to talk to her, smiles looking into her face, but I can’t see any gesture of reply. The woman with the pail takes a few slow steps forward to the wall, stands still, head a little bowed to the left.  A bystander with a styrofoam coffee cup in one hand smiles and watches her, tries to ask her something, but again, it seems, receives silence, and moves on down the street.

She is still standing, facing the wall. Then she reaches her left hand across the front of her body and tilts the pail to pour out a thin stream of water against the place where the blue wall meets the sidewalk.  Then she stops, and stands again, arms at her sides, one holding the bucket.  This repeats in a slow rhythm: a little water is poured, a few minutes of standing, more water, more stillness.  The song of the ice cream truck goes on. The wind lifts her hair from time to time. No one watches her except me, just a few glances from people walking by.  She shifts the bucket from her right to her left hand, pours again. It looks heavy by now – she bends the arm holding the water. The wind blows against her dress. Now a turned head, then another, but no one stops.  She stands with both arms down, patient.

A guy in a white apron walks through the park, “Seedless grapes a dahllah! Seedless grapes a dahllah!”  No one buys any. She pours out a little more water. Stands again. Her stillness, the street’s movement. Two girls in maroon school uniforms pause and point but only for a second, barely slowing. This time when she pours the bucket goes horizontal, and the water streams out a little longer. Emptying.  She turns and walks away down Rivington, going slowly, bucket swinging a a little.  The last I see of her is the dark top of her head through past some parked cars.

4:16 PM.

I walk a couple of blocks to the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, where I’ve sent to give my account.  The curator greets me on the steps, under extensive scaffolding, leads me up what feel like big elementary school stairs to a small bathroom on the 4th floor. The light’s good in there, she says, and you’ll have some privacy.  She turns a video camera on, and leaves me to tell my story. I’ve been asked to say anything I want, but not to use the words “performance” or “performer,” instead I’ve been offered “event” and “she.”  The curator tells me the videos will be part of a show, which I hadn’t known, opening at a gallery in the building next week.

Catch it if you can:  “Performing Coordinates” June 22-July 6, 2011. Abrazo Interno Gallery, Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street, NY

More on Wall’s Unseen Performances.

Text Action: A Text that Destroys Itself

June 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

A collaboration between Dr. Howard Britton, Daniel Jackson and Simon Morris.

A Text That Destroys Itself in the Process of its Own Meaning

“Beginning with two separate texts on the work of Gustav Metzger, one black on white, one red on white, the authors Dr. Howard Britton and Simon Morris will take it in turns to read aloud pages from their work. Using Extraction, a computer programme created by the artist Daniel Jackson, words will be randomly removed, one by one, from each author’s text. 2 versions of Extraction will be running simultaneously. One will present the words from Britton’s text, ‘Gustav Metzger: a manifesto for destruction: between two deaths’, black on red. The other will present the words from Morris’s text, ‘Beyond Representation’, red on black. These will be projected onto the wall behind Britton and Morris, side by side like facing pages of a book. In the manner of a dada poetry recital, as one author reads from their text, the other author will simultaneously read aloud the words that have been randomly removed from the other text by the Extraction programme. Like a virus, or process of contagion, the aural presentation of words from one text will increasingly cover over the aural presentation of words from the other text, until meaning is completely destroyed/disappears. Extraction will aim to remove all the words in the performers text in the same time that it will take the performers to read their texts. Extraction presents the text, without the structure of their original meaning, and imposes its own order on the authors words. As the writer William S. Burroughs said: “Language is a virus from outer space.”

This action took place at the Gustav Metzger congress at the Atlantis Gallery, Brick Lane, London on 15th March 2003 press release can be read online, courtesy of Daniel Jackson

Read the full texts here.

Thank you Lana Turner Journal.

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