Over the course of twelve years of activism, I’ve come to realize that whoever is running this system is obsessed with winning the conceptual war—much more so, in fact, than with actual economic viability. Given the choice between an option that makes capitalism seem like the only possible system and an option that actually makes capitalism a more viable long-term system, they always choose the former.
Oddly enough, I first picked up on this in an activist context. It was 2002, and we went to the IMF meetings [in Washington]. And we were scared, because it was right after 9/11. Sure enough, they overwhelmed us with police and endless security. Considering our numbers, it was shocking that they would devote all of these resources to containing us. And we all went home feeling pretty depressed. It was only later that I learned how profoundly we’d disrupted things. The IMF actually held some of their meetings via teleconference because of the security risk we ostensibly posed. All the parties were canceled. Basically, the police shut down the meetings for us. I realized that the fact that three hundred anarchists go home depressed seems much more important to them than whether the IMF meetings actually happened. That was a revelation. As the whole thing falls apart in front of us, the one battle they’ve won is over the imagination.
I started thinking of all the conversations about the art world I’ve had in the process of Occupy Wall Street, which was surprising to me because I don’t know that much about the art world. I thought, Who are the people who really led me to the events of August? I was based in England the year before, and the group I was involved with was Arts Against Cuts. And the person I worked with most closely was Sophie Carapetian, a sculptor. Then when I got here to New York, the person who brought me to 16 Beaver Street, where I found out about the Occupy Wall Street planning, was another artist, Colleen Asper. And there I met the artist Georgia Sagri, with whom I was intensely involved within the formation of the General Assembly. And then the first person I got involved, who ended up playing a critical role, was Marisa Holmes, who used to be a performance artist and is now a filmmaker. What do all these people have in common? They’re all young women artists, every one of them.
And almost all of them had experienced exactly that tension between individual authorship and participation in larger activist projects. Another artist I know, for example, made a sculpture of a giant carrot used during a protest at Millbank; I think it was actually thrown through the window of Tory headquarters and set on fire. She feels it was her best work, but her collective, which is mostly women, insisted on collective authorship, and she feels unable to attach her name to the work. And it just brings home the tension a lot of women artists, in particular, feel, that they’re much more likely to be involved in these collective projects. On the one hand, such collectives aim to transcend egoism, but to what degree are they just reproducing the same structural suppression women artists regularly experience, because here too a woman is not allowed to claim authorship of her best work?
How do you resolve the dilemma? Yes, it is the collective that makes you an individual, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t become an individual. It’s a really interesting question. But I thought I would throw it out there because I don’t know the answer either.
[Both of these passages are from an Artforum conversation between Michelle Kuo and David Graeber. The rest of the interview can be found here.]