This past December, just as retailers were making their holiday markdowns and non-profits issuing their year-end appeals, the Storefront for Art and Architecture was opening its last exhibition of 2011. Spurred by Occupy Wall Street, Strategies for Public Occupation featured “projects and strategies that offer a new, creative and productive way of spatial occupation for public demonstrations and actions in cities throughout the world.” In parallel Storefront hosted a week of workshops, performances and lectures in which artists and architects presented their own interpretations of the Occupy movement. Strategies for Public Occupation was, in short, intended to be a summation of interventionist practices and a wide-ranging discussion about the relationships among citizens, cultural producers and public space.
Unfortunately, Storefront got the title wrong.
By choosing strategies rather than tactics, Storefront — a New York City arts and architecture group that put down its own tactical roots in a SoHo storefront more than two decades ago — unwittingly used language more aligned with powerful pace-setters and institutional decision-makers than with a scrappy downtown gallery. Strategy, as understood from centuries of military engagement and martial history, refers to operations at the large geopolitical scale and over the long term; in contrast, tactics are the short-term, on-the-ground actions that serve the overall strategy. Everyday language conspires to conflate the two, but the distinction is meaningful.
In The Practice of Everyday Life, philosopher Michel de Certeau amplifies the differences between the terms. Strategies are the purview of the dominant and powerful, while tactics are the tools of “the weak” — the means by which individuals operate within and against a dominant organization, no matter whether “a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution.” Or, as de Certeau writes,
[A tactic] takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse. 1
So, when Storefront sent out its Call for Ideas for Strategies for Occupation on October 7, 2011, only weeks after a small group of activists first pitched their tents in Zuccotti Park, I couldn’t help but pay attention to the language.
Early last year, when I wrote the first installment of The Interventionist’s Toolkit, I deliberately overloaded the subtitle with terms associated with what seemed to me an important emerging trend: Provisional, Opportunistic, Ubiquitous, and Odd Tactics in Guerilla and DIY Practice and Urbanism. Since then, some new phrases have cropped up to further complicate matters: my recent favorites are acupunctural urbanism and embedded urbanism. 2 (The latter comes from architect John Southern, whose Parkman Triangle is a mini-park located in a former left-turn lane created as a result of negotiations with the city of Los Angeles and the grass-roots activism of Silver Lake neighbors.) Another term for community-based or participatory work, used by John Peterson of Public Architecture, is “live projects,” which emphasizes the organic nature of the process.
But many activist designers have embraced “tactical urbanism” as the go-to descriptor (see the recently published and downloadable guidebook Tactical Urbanism 2: Short-Term Action, Long-Term Change). Certainly de Certeau situates interventionist projects in the sphere of the tactical. His argument reinforces the fact that these projects are oppositional to the conventional operations — or strategies — of urban planners. Flexible and small scale, often temporary and with limited budgets, tactical projects take advantage of “chance offerings” — public spaces, empty lots, municipal loopholes. They deploy the fleetness and mobility described in The Practice of Everyday Life.
The projects in the Storefront exhibition were in fact more tactical than strategic. 1-2-3 Occupy, for instance, a project by Greta Hansen, Kyung-Jae Kim, Adam Koogler and Andy Rauchut (all members of the OWS Architecture Working Group) proposes three small prototypical structures: an insulated pallet that supports tents in winter, a collapsible bubble-wrap shelter for quick evacuation, and an agitprop inflatable shade structure for OWS protest and general assembly. Like the pamphlets produced for the Arab Spring (see The Interventionist’s Toolkit: Posters, Pamphlets, and Guides), these pieces are carefully documented in a how-to manual for wider DIY adoption. Another project, the Occupation Station, by A. Conglomerate, a practice founded by Mitch McEwen, is an easy-to-assemble shelter made from a pallet, zip ties and translucent tarps. The arched shelter serves multiple purposes, and it can be aggregated to form a larger structure; and like the 1-2-3 Occupy structures, it is intended to serve the day-to-day basics of activist encampment. 3
Strategies for Occupation featured two workshops that built upon the social networks and collaborative efforts that characterize and connect the tactical urbanist movement. One focused on #whOWNSpace: Observe, Diagram, Intervene, a multi-participant mapping and education project. As organizer Quilian Riano explained, the group critically studies New York City’s privately owned public spaces, or POPS, of which Zuccotti Park is now the most famous; the project makes use of a Twitter hashtag to encourage online and offline engagement. The other workshop, “How to occupy a home in America,” organized by Mitch McEwen, focused on the collective, step-by-step production of a how-to manual. The downloadable instruction booklet, detailing rights and tactics, is available on the Storefront website.
But the real issues at work here transcend the nomenclature of a particular exhibition. Storefront’s misnomer exhibition can be understood as part of the larger, ongoing tendency of arts organizations to attempt to align themselves with key socio-political trends; in this sense Strategies for Occupation is itself a strategic move to sponsor discourse around the defining topic of the day. And it echoes and parallels similar exhibitions, events and festivals that happened in New York City during the past year. The New Museum’s Festival of Ideas for the New City, the BMW Guggenheim Lab, and Creative Time’s Living as Form all build upon the cultural capital generated by independent practitioners, urban thinkers and community-based organizations, with the goal of fostering discussion about the city and/or alternative practice.
Storefront’s “Call for Ideas” makes this clear. “Gathering expertise from the various acts of civil occupation throughout the world during the last months,” it reads, “we ask architects, artists and citizens at large to offer their ideas for enabling acts of communication and action between the civil society and the structures of economic and political power.” But it’s worth asking: does that “gathering” of expertise, of citizen voices, seem likely to coalesce into a collective “mic check”— or does it run the risk of transferring the cumulative power of individualized action to a more structured, more dominant organization? Might it function, albeit unintentionally, to co-opt the work of the “weak” into the cultural cachet of the “strong”?
The well-meaning and well-funded Festival of Ideas for the New City, for instance, sponsored last May by the New Museum, was billed as collaborative initiative; it brought together dozens of downtown NYC organizations, including non-profits, community groups, arts institutions, local galleries, artists and architects. As the organization put it: “The Festival will harness the power of the creative community to imagine the future city and explore the ideas destined to shape it.” Founded in 1977, the New Museum declares itself the city’s “first and only contemporary art museum,” and its success has been based on adventurous programming — the curators’ ability to identify artists like Jeff Koons and Keith Haring when these future stars were only just emerging. The museum has been equally adventurous in its real estate choices. It moved into its first building, on Broadway between Prince and Houston Streets, in the heart of SoHo, in 1983, when that district was still a happening art scene. In 2005, with SoHo upscaled into a mecca for posh stores and luxury condos, the New Museum broke ground on a new building on the still edgy Bowery — the first art museum constructed from the ground up south of 14th street.
But the museum’s very presence, in its striking SANAA-designed building, has been helping to gentrify the once shabby skid row, and so it’s not surprising that reactions to the Festival of Ideas for the New City have been mixed. To some observers, the event was a celebration of the energy of downtown and the museum’s place within it. For others, the institution’s attempt to reframe itself as an active participant in urban discourse, while admirable, seemed to be based largely upon the agile, low-budget and tactical groundwork of the diverse groups who participated in the festival, which included a conference and an “innovative, minimal-waste outdoor StreetFest.” In a blog post for Open City: Blogging Urban Change (an interdisciplinary project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and focused on New York’s Chinese districts), Jerome Chou, director of programs for the Design Trust for Public Space, relayed some of the commentary he’d heard in the neighborhood: “In the weeks leading up to the festival, I’d heard local community groups saying that the New Museum was trying to make up in one weekend for years of minimal outreach.” The street-fair atmosphere surrounding the museum during the five-day festival only heightened this sense of “catching up,” as dozens and dozens of participants, from ad-hoc artist groups (Elastic City, Art in Odd Places, and Safari 7) to community non-profits and housing activists (Lower East Side / Chinatown Bicycling Coalition and Housing Is A Human Right) to local food purveyors (Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, People’s Pops, and the Red Hook Lobster Pound) set themselves up in stalls along the sidewalk.
Storefront for Art and Architecture was one of the more than 100 participants in the festival: its involvement took the form of lectures and presentations inside the Spacebuster, a mobile van/inflatable space created by the Berlin-based architecture practice Raumlabor. But the group that seemed to attract the most attention was Nuit Blanche New York, with its Flash:Light installation — a global collection of images from diverse artists projected onto the stacked-box facade of the museum. The result was a fantastical dematerializing of the aluminum-mesh skin, with light and color transforming the edifice and the street into an impromptu public theater. Although Nuit Blanche New York may beg to differ, the undeniable success of the light show seemed to function largely to underscore the New Museum’s strategic effort to remake the Bowery in its own image. This was in contrast to Nuit Blanche’s first New York City event, just a year before; the comparatively ad hoc Bring to Light, held on a chilly night in Greenpoint, brought together artists who created light-based performance projections around a few blocks of industrial warehouses. Bring to Light illuminated — literally — the creative culture of that corner of Brooklyn and the potential for urban transformation.
With Nuit Blanche New York thus absorbed — even if temporarily — into the rebranding of the newly festive Lower East Side, it’s instructive to look back at an earlier era and another light projection. I’m thinking of the November 1984 projection by artist Krzysztof Wodiczko of Ronald Reagan’s hand — fitted out with French cuffs — onto the elevation of the AT&T Long Lines Building in Lower Manhattan a few days before the election that made Reagan a two-term president. This past November Wodiczko’s act of spectacle and protest would serve as a precedent for Occupy Wall Street’s “Bat Signal.” Created by Mark Read, with artists Max Nova and JR Skola, this projection corresponded with the November 17th (#N17) day of action to mark the two-month anniversary of the encampment in Zuccotti Park. That night the facade of the Verizon Building — also in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the AT+T Long Lines Building — was lit up with protest slogans like: 99%, MIC CHECK!, and LOOK AROUND YOU ARE A PART OF A GLOBAL UPRISING. 4
The projections on the brutally blank façade would attain a kind of epic status in the ongoing OWS timeline, and they would be widely reported in the mainstream press; yet what is critical to emphasize here is that this spatial intervention retained its tactical agency. In an interview with the website Boing Boing, Read was asked how he had accessed the building across the street from Verizon, where he staged the projections; his answer underscored not only the need for flexibility and mobility but also his focus on social justice. “Opposite the Verizon building,” Read said, “there is a bunch of city housing. Subsidized, rent-controlled. There’s a lack of services, lights are out in the hallways, the housing feels like jails, like prisons. I walked around, and put up signs in there offering money to rent out an apartment for a few hours. I didn’t say much more.”
Wodiczko’s own remarks, in an interview for the 2004 book The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life, stress the need for artworks to reflect this kind of social justice in order to amplify the voices of citizens. “I try to contribute to the process of transformation of the invisible and unheard city residents (the participants) and of the deaf ear of those who are visible and heard (the public) into antagonistic public discourse of ‘fearless’ speaking and listening,” he said. “An articulation of city silences and transmission of the regained inhabitant voices — a newly developed ‘response-ability,’ practiced with a sense of responsibility is, in my opinion, an intervention.” 5
Another project that offers a lesson in the operational contrast between strategy and tactics is the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a programming and think-tank initiative launched late last summer, prior to any OWS encampments. This project is directly, overtly strategic. And not simply because of the high-value sponsorship: the Lab is a small, high-tech structure intended to be deployed with quasi-militaristic precision to various global sites over a period of four years; it’s conceived explicitly as a top-down catalyst for discussion. Like the Festival for Ideas, the Lab collects, under its elegant framework, grassroots participation and intellectual capital in the form of web initiatives, social media campaigns and cultural programming.
Designed by the Tokyo-based architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow, the 5,000-square-foot structure landed last August in a park on the corner of the Bowery and Houston Street — a decidedly “downtown” site, and certainly beyond the usual range of the Guggenheim’s more traditional uptown crowd. The theatrical space, made from carbon fiber (presumably to lighten the weight for shipping) and wired to the hilt with lighting and video screens, is set up to encourage debate and discourse, and during the nearly 12 weeks it spent in New York City, it handled the rousing intensity academics, artists, architects, designers, scientists and economists — nearly every day brought a different panel discussion, film screening, or lecture. With “comfort” as the central theme, the Lab’s public programming ranged from lectures by prestigious academics such as sociologist Saskia Sassen and evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson to presentations that appealed to broader audiences. This category included short films by Charlie Ahearn (the director behind the hip-hop/graffiti classic, Wild Style) and the game Urbanology, created by Local Projects and ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles), which asks participants to make quick decisions and see how they impact city health, transportation, sustainability, etc. No matter how interactive, though, the Lab (and perhaps the name underscores this point) seems driven more by abstract questions about cities as systems and infrastructure than by the goals of promoting specific change on the ground in NYC, or its next venue, Mumbai. (A planned stop in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin was cancelled due to local opposition from groups who saw the lab as further evidence of ongoing gentrification.) Certainly during its tenure on Houston Street, the Lab served more as a field research station than as a catalyst.
Still, to draw too much distinction between the tactical and the strategic, between the protestor or the producer and the larger umbrella cultural organizations of the city, is to overlook some of the productive and unexpected outcomes that arose from these intersections. In late September, not long before the BMW Guggenheim Lab decamped for its next deployment, Creative Time presented Living as Form, an exhibition at the Historic Essex Street Market, a disused building a few blocks from the site where an earlier tactical intervention, the Real Estate Show, had opened in 1980. 6 The new show featured over 100 projects that occupy the intersection between art, activism and community engagement, a conceptual space that curator Nato Thompson describes as “socially engaged art.”
For Thompson, the exhibition was a chance to explore definitions of art practice and to address the tensions that arise when cultural arbiters and neighborhood constituencies collide. Interviewed by Barbara Pollack on artnet.com, he said:
I am trying to think through a much broader audience, asking questions like, “How do we think through this mass complexity in an age where culture is an economy?” Advertising is a kind of lifestyle, and things are never what they seem any more. Things that may pretend to be socially good are, in fact, just social-climbing career machines. And everyone is convinced that most people are that way, so there is massive skepticism and cynicism and disillusionment — and for political art, that’s a huge problem.
When applied to cultural organizations, Thompson’s opposition — social do-gooder versus social climber —becomes a critique of the strategic co-option of tactical practice. Aware of this trap, the Living as Form organizers asked the architecture collective Common Room to create an environment within the 15,000-square-foot Essex Street Market that would not only absorb the visual impact of 100 socially engaged projects but also frame performance and event areas. Common Room is made up of architects Lars Fischer, Todd Rouhe and Maria Ibañez, and graphic designer Geoff Han, and their practice routinely engages projects, such as the Public School (for Architecture), that use architecture (both built and conceptual) as a spur to broader discussion and activity. In the spirit of DIY construction, Common Room used cheap, off-the-shelf materials: concrete blocks, plywood sheets, plank lumber and modular shelving. To define a “street” in the middle of the marketplace, the architects created a series of low concrete-block walls: some curved into circular seating areas intended for discussions, some jogged to form alcoves dedicated to artist projects; other areas were left unprogrammed — according to the architects, these were designed to “require a negotiation of space.” The industrial shelving units around the perimeter of the market space were each assigned to a project group, in this way becoming zones of open-source curation, with “content to be adjusted by curators, artists and visitors.”
Central to the exhibition design is MARKET, a project by the Chicago, Copenhagen and Philadelphia-based artist collective and publishing group Temporary Services, founded by Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin and Marc Fischer to probe the intersection of art, labor and economics. For Living as Form, the group installed a ring of brightly colored vendor booths — think lemonade stands— in the middle of Essex Street Market and then asked various organizations and individuals to become vendors; the diverse participants included ABC NO RIO, Hester Street Collaborative, Alphabet City Acupuncture, Save The Essex Street Market and Street Vendor Project. The selection process emphasized “commitment to the Lower East Side,” and Temporary Services laid out the following criteria:
Focus is on organizations that do not have a public office or cannot afford rental property, individuals and collectives that operate outside of typical Capitalist economies, local businesses with limited audiences, garden associations, personal museums, local experts and groups that have documented the cultures of the neighborhood, seasonal vendors and single-person enterprises, and others who add to the eclectic energy of the area.
We might say that both Common Room’s Living as Form layout and Temporary Services’ MARKET use strategic infrastructure to foster tactical action. And while emphasizing distinctions between the two kinds and scales of operation can shed light on how dominant cultural structures work to align themselves with grassroots efforts — and in this way benefit from and/or co-opt the sweat equity of activist artists and architects and designers — it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the relationship will be antagonistic. As the network of Occupy movements (currently in hibernation) emerge with the spring thaw, and as arts organizations program their summer festivals, there’s always the potential for cites and their institutions to powerfully and honestly support interventionist and social practices without subsuming their impact.