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[This is the text of a talk I delivered for the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne, on the subject of cities, protest and the occupy movement.]

Occupy
1. Take control of (a place, especially a country) by military conquest or settlement.
To enter and stay in (a building) without authority and often forcibly, especially as a form of protest.

In the souvenir photograph
You stand in the middle of a street of three quarter scale plasterboard skyscrapers
Cracks spider across the painted windows
And gas-controlled fires blaze from the skeletons of cars
There is smoke
And the glow of sirens

From the photograph you can see that the camera has been positioned low and at an angle
To mimic the look of a shot taken quickly on a mobile phone

You are in the centre of the picture surrounded by a number of other visitors
You are all in flip flops
t-shirts
and sunglasses
Cameras are hung around your necks
In the distance a line of riot officers
are walking towards you
banging their shields
You can’t see their faces
fireworks fizz behind them
You are all smiling
You are chanting
Whose streets
Our streets
Whose streets
You strike poses
Arms out like wings
head raised
mouth open
Someone holds a sugar glass beer bottle flung way back over one shoulder
like the beginning of a tennis serve
Someone has taken their t-shirt off and tied it over their nose and mouth
You are all laughing

The riot officers are coming closer
This is the part just before the part where you get arrested
You could have kept running
Tried to lose them on a neighbouring street
But you had advanced booked tickets to a matinee of Les Miserables
And that was way on the other side of the park
It really was the best day ever

Only a few weeks after the photograph was taken
the attraction was shut down
A few tourists
Maybe a little the better or worse for alcohol
and pumped up by the carefully mixed soundtrack
of alarms and shouts and explosions
broke free of the attraction’s scaled down streets
and started to smash windows and set fire
to fast foods restaurants and gift shops
in nearby areas of the resort
The tourists were quickly apprehended
and dealt with severely
But after an internal inquiry
It was decided that it was probably safer to shut down the attraction altogether

Occupy
2. To fill or take up (a space

or time)

The second photograph is a photograph of a city
and though I don’t have time to describe to you
the exact details of what the photograph contains
I’m sure you can imagine
There are probably skyscrapers
and many-floored apartment blocks
rising like waves out of a sea of smaller buildings
There might be parks and train stations
city squares, football fields, theatres, libraries,
old warehouses occupied by artists and people
who like to think of themselves as artists
churches with spires
a town hall with pillars
Starbucks
A bank
several banks
traffic lights
satellite dishes
concrete
steel
glass

This is not an image of the city that we have taken
This is an image of the city that we are being sold

An image that conforms to old ideas of what makes a city
ideas like property
and ownership
and power
And consequently It is an image that assumes a certain way of fighting
A certain form of resistance

None of the spaces in this photograph are really public any more
If they ever were
These spaces are purchased and commodified
They are privatised
Policed by CCTV cameras and people in uniforms or lanyards
It is a panopticonic theme park city
made of buildings and the space between buildings

In truth
The only real public space left in the city is the one space
you definitely can’t see in this photograph
And that is the space it occupies in time

Occupy
3. To fill or preoccupy (the mind)

You turn both the photographs over
and on the back of them
you start to write
and what you write
is this

We have become very good
at thinking of art
as something that occupies time as well
or maybe rather than
space

And thanks to the likes of
John Cage
Robert Morris
and many others
We have developed a vocabulary
To think and talk
about how art occupies time
And how else it might occupy time
How it might occupy us

Can we now do the same for protest?

Can we find a new way of thinking and speaking about resistance?
A way of thinking that is not constrained by space.
That is not limited to squares and libraries and theatres.
To acts of physical occupation.
Can we instead imagine what a kind of protest that might occupy time rather than space?
A vocabulary of everyday resistance.
and habitual practices.
Acts of defiance that embed themselves in the rituals and routines of day to day life.
An occupation of our quotidian occupations.

I want to believe in a new kind of protest that exists in the only spaces that are still authentically free.
A new kind of protest for a city that is not made of streets and buildings
But made up of all the things that we might be doing at any given moment.
This is what I want to believe in.

And after you’ve written this
You fold up the photograph
And conceal it like a magician’s playing card
in the palm of your hand
ready to be slipped ever so delicately
into the bag
or the pocket
of the person sitting next to you.

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2 Comments

  1. I would say that the idea of protest as temporal predates the idea of protest as spatial at least in anarchist theory. Think of the ontology behind Kropotkin’s famous lines: “Struggle! To struggle is to live, and the fiercer the struggle the intenser the life.” (http://libcom.org/library/anarchist-morality-ix-peter-kropotkin). The same ontology and dialectic is encapsulated in Vaneigem’s title “The Revolution of Everyday Life” (http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/pub_contents/5), which if you haven’t read already I reckon you’ll love.

    There are many analogous contrasts we can draw: spatial protest is temporary, goal-oriented, separated from life; temporal protest is continuous, processual, lived. With more time and patience, I’d posit that the spatial protest is a construct of the modern liberal state, something that’s only possible when a political discourse of “protest rights” has been established. That is, once an idea of a particular kind of protest has been accepted by the establishment, it is of necessity bounded and limited — it is a special, designated activity separated from the rest of life. Struggle is compartmentalised, and in many cases because a specialised activity of particular skilled actors (cf. Give Up Activism: http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no9/activism.htm) (also cf. the concept of “artist”). In former times, when all protest takes place outside of the rules of the state, become a protestor necessarily encompasses all of life — by beginning to protest, you are in such societies already outside of the state, a literal outlaw.

    This whole discourse of protest as a continuous, lived, necessary struggle (as opposed to a separate contingent moment) is something that’s in continual discussion and revision in contemporary radical theory, and imbues writing from the populist (e.g. CrimethInc) to the academic (e.g. Graeber). I’d say that what you’re suggesting moving on from or expanding on is a temporary diversion rather than a long-term historical trend.

    • Hey Harry,

      Hugely interesting, as always. I have nowhere near the brilliantly broad frame of reference that you have for these things. I suppose what I was hoping to articulate (within the context of a festival of art, which is what Next Wave is) was a way in which I thought the practices and vocabularies of contemporary performance practice might meaningfully contribute to the development of our prevalent modes of resistance. I suppose prevalent is the important word in that sentence. Unlike yourself my proximity to resistance paradigms is probably quite superficial (though I hope engaged) and as a consequence I am responding to those things that, for want of a better justification, ‘make the news’, i.e. occupy, UK Uncut, the student protests etc. I’m attempting to articulate a discomfort with some rhetorical tropes that I think I see pervading all of those popular (and widely acknowledged) movements. As such it’s great to have someone as yourself to tie my vague longings back to a history of popular resistance that it is almost certainly in agreement with.

      Hope the show is going well at Oval House – sorry I can’t be there.

      Andy


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