Photo: Sandra Teitge
Navigating social capital in support of the occupations: some advice for institutions
by Nato Thompson
As spring turns to summer turns to fall turns to winter, the evolution of the occupations of the squares worldwide continues apace. A growing resistance to power has, once again, captured the imaginations of people worldwide. A de-centralized people's movement, its targets seem ubiquitous. As the critique of power, corruption and capitalism sinks in its teeth, many standing in the shoes of power cannot help but feel implicated. As the world continues to not only be ruled by but also work for the ruling 1%, there is a certain danger in acting in solidarity with a movement so obviously pointing out vast global corruption.
Here in the city of New York (often referred to as Gotham), the Occupy Wall Street movement has moved from a fringe gathering sponsored by AdBusters, to a social movement discussing economic inequality that is radically altering the political and social landscape. With a phrase as simple as, we are the 99%, a basic math of economic exclusion and theft now permeates every discussion. Corruption and accumulation whether through puppet governments or unfettered capitalism permeates civil society worldwide and untangling that knot has become a unifying movement.
I was asked to write about how institutions can get involved in the occupation movement and I want to preface this with some caution. As a curator for an art organization in New York City that possesses some social capital, I have had to navigate the complexities of the different social groups that have gathered into the OWS movement. Afraid of appearing to as well as actually using the movement as social capital material for Creative Time, I have basically been advising, brainstorming, and working without actually having the organization do anything. That said, the landscape of this movement is ever shifting and its appeal broadening. Being sympathetic but being paralyzed is no way to behave. One must act carefully, but act nonetheless.
In short, a conscious awareness of the problematics of social capital is a good start. Institutions have bad habits. They want to anoint leaders and facilitate the functioning of the famous. These are the tendencies that are exactly counter to the movement. Instead think horizontally and move toward a democratic process where mass encounters and discussions are possible.
Here are some thoughts about how institutions can support the movement:
- Get involved and listen.
- Understand that you might be part of the problem. Corruption is structural. If you want to make a stand, you must take risks. Think hard about how radical your institution is ready to go to move toward global social justice.
- Get to know people in the movement. In general institutions should be in touch with the concerns of everyday people. As art institutions can easily gravitate toward the concerns of the ruling class, they must situate their personal worlds in the lives of people not allowed into that system.
- It is ok for institutions to work on things and not get credit for them. Because branding is symptomatic of power in an age of cultural production, institutions must be careful to not brand any political gesture as theirs. They must facilitate space for the exchange of ideas and not turn them into branding opportunities. This is not just about ethics, this is about producing space for art.
- Use social networks to circumvent the dominance of major media and spread the word of social actions that challenge power (without branding).
- Famous people are not the only ones that can speak. Provide space for organizers and activist artists who either deliberately or not, do not participate in the spheres of contemporary art. Understand that social capital is a force that must be navigated consciously and ethically.
- Realize this is not a leaderless movement, but a movement of leaders. Do not try to take a voice of authority nor decide who the leaders are.
- The movement is de-centered and thrives on autonomous actions. Focusing on specific actions to support that are part of the larger whole might be a better way to focus energy.
- Prepare, embrace and make changes according to structural criticism. Under a condition of neoliberalism, institutions are inevitably complicit in conflicts of interest. Embrace the discussion and make a commitment toward changing this. Understand that trust takes time and many people will see institutions as guilty of serving the top 1% (in many cases, that is all they do).
- As much as all of these issues are complicated, doing nothing isn’t an option. The movement toward economic and social equality worldwide is not something to be on the sidelines about.
- Remember that equity, justice, accountability and transparency are reasonable things for people to fight for. You aren’t a radical for supporting this movement. You are, in fact, doing what is obviously right.
As a final thought, there are tangible battles being fought in space as well as in the symbolic terrain. One must battle on both fronts. In New York City, the current battle has been for a site where the occupation can continue. OWS has focused their attention on Duarte Square which is a privately owned public space owned by Trinity Church. There has been mounting pressure to allow OWS to return to this site and on December 17th OWS tried to retake it with 57 arrests. It is useful to note that Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu called upon Trinity Church to allow Occupy Wall Street to re-occupy an abandoned lot they owned. The social capital of Desmond Tutu in pushing for the movement to have a site of operation cannot be underestimated. On another front, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council is a non-profit art organization that produces art programming in the park. A group of artists and writers gathered together to put pressure on LMCC to sign on to the OWS movement to occupy the park. In both cases, the important thing was that this social capital was leveraged to support tangible goals already articulated by the movement itself. In the end, we all must take a stand.