Occupy Wall Street's "Creative Coordinator" on Using Art to Spread the Protest's Spirit
A line of horse police waited ominously in Wall Street on Saturday night, as the simmering Occupy Wall Street protests in nearby Zuccotti Park spilled over into a new locale — the old JPMorgan building, located on the corner just opposite the New York Stock Exchange itself. The occasion was "No Comment," a sprawling grassroots art show featuring art created by protesters or inspired by the encampment, hosted by the non-profit art organization Loft in the Red Zone.
The festive air inside the actual space made the looming NYPD presence outside seem all the more incongruous. A scrappy cardboard sign put up over the entrance pronounced, "Please Leave Ur Ego @ the Door." Works exhibited in the vast space ranged from black-and-white photos of rallies to graffiti- and stencil-based work to Pop-Art-inspired anti-capitalist paintings to various forms of projection and installation. There was even a wall of the handmade cardboard signs that form a backdrop to much activity at the Occupy Wall Street encampment, proudly displayed salon-style: "We're Not Leaving," "The Sun Is Always Rising Somewhere In The Sky," "I Never Met a Person Named INC," etc.
In one corner, a team was busy at work making silk-screened T-shirts. Occasionally, random acts of performance art would break out: a costumed couple crouched on the floor performing a ritual with a typewriter and a sign that read "Fuck Semiotics," a young man fed dollar bills to a fire, a young woman knelt to play a blistering Star-Spangled Banner on the electric guitar. When Justin Wedes from the Occupy Wall Street media team took a moment to thank the crowd, his words were taken up by the audience in the signature "human mic" manner that has become familiar to visitors to Zuccotti Park, in which onlookers echo a speaker's words to broadcast it out to those who might not be able to hear.
Most impressive of all was that the whole teeming spectacle came together in less than a week — a tribute to the magnetic power that the protests have come to exert in New York City. During the evening, ARTINFO spoke to Daniele Kohn, Occupy Wall Street's creative coordinator for "No Comment," to get background on how the event came together and what it meant. For Kohn, as it turned out, the event was also a family affair — her mother, Penny Carlson, had contributed a work of textile art for the show. (To see images of works from "No Comment," click on the slide show at the left.)
You're the creative coordinator for Occupy Wall Street. What does that mean?
It's a made-up title. But what it means is that Loft In the Red Zone invited Occupy Wall Street to come do this collaboration — on Monday basically. I was the person from Occupy Wall Street who got put on the project to do a lot of the coordinating, to put out the call for art and build our Web site, and to be the point person to make sure the show happened.
What is Loft in the Red Zone?
Loft in the Red Zone is a non-profit that began as a 9/11 tribute show for the tenth anniversary — that was in this space before we were. They're run by Marika [Maiorova] — she's the creative director of the organization. Loft in the Red Zone thought it would be interesting to see where we are 10 years later, for the Lower Manhattan neighborhood, to see where things stood.
But as for this show, it's a mixture of work. There is still some 9/11-themed art here, but most of this work has all basically came together since Monday?
Yes. This show was entirely compiled since Monday. Some of the pieces are older, and deal with the issues of the protest — general frustration, political or social or economic issues. But we only really started the show on Monday, and here we are today.
So it was a collaboration. Loft in the Red Zone basically offered to open this space to folks from the protest?
It is entirely a collaboration. We worked on behalf of Occupy Wall Street all the way through the project.
Is the art here from people at the encampment, or is it from supporters, or from other types of folks, or is it a mix?
It's a mix. We wanted it to be a mix as a matter of fact. We wanted to bring on some higher profile gallery artists who sympathize with the movement. We have an Egyptian-American artist here who feels like he is having his "Second Spring." His name is Basem Hassan. He's been building work since the Arab Spring, and he feels like that spirit is continued here.
Some of the work is from the protesters. We put out an open call, making sure the protesters knew about it, making sure artists who weren't there but who were sympathetic knew about it. We've really tried to have a whole range of work in the space. I feel that it is really important to keep with the spirit of the other 99 percent — of being open and equal.
So what was the process of actually putting the show together?
We put an open call on the Web site and tried to advertise it as widely as possible among the arts community and the Occupy Wall Street community — there's a fair amount of overlap in there. We got so many submissions...
As it was, just to keep up with the email was difficult. We tried to take one piece from everybody who was interested. We have a wall of protest signs. We have a wall of sketchbook pages, and poetry, and drawings. There were a lot of people who weren't formal artists who just scribble while they are at the protest, writing down their ideas. We wanted to create a space for less realized art as well.
So you tried to be inclusive.
The only pieces we turned down were pieces that we thought weren't relevant for our focus in the show.
A lot of the art is for sale?
I don't know what percentage, but a fair amount of the art is for sale, yes. Proceeds are going to three different places, and the artists can decide which of the three they want it to go to. A portion is going to Occupy Wall Street. A portion is going to Loft in the Red Zone, as a thank-you for the expenses they have incurred in helping us put up the show. Then the last place, which Occupy Wall Street decided on communally, was the Feel Good Foundation, which is a neighborhood-based foundation that supports people who are having long-term issues, illness, respiratory, emotional, due to the effects of 9/11. We wanted to give back to the community.
I was reading through the comments on the Web site, and I saw that there was some criticism that it was inappropriate to have a show that was commercial because of the nature of the protests. What do you think about that?
I don't think that this is commercial, to be perfectly honest. Work is donated, proceeds are supporting Occupy Wall Street and our partners and the neighborhood. I don't see it as a commercial show. I see it as an opportunity to shift the conversation into another medium. There are things you can say in visual art, in performance, in projection that it is a lot harder to say on the street. It is harder to get an audience. It's a way to bring in other voices, and another audience that maybe isn't comfortable going to a protest but is comfortable walking around a calmer space and learning about what Occupy Wall Street is all about through a visual and creative experience.
What happens to the work when this is over?
Tomorrow, we plan to take some of the larger art pieces, the graffiti works that were made specifically for the show —
They are done directly on the wall?
It's on paper, up there [points]. All that is less than 48 hours old. We wanted to spray on the walls, but we were concerned with ambient air quality issues because there's no ventilation. So we gave the artists big pieces of paper and invited them to come spray and share their point of view. So the big green walls will be taken down and paraded through the street as kind of an outdoor public art exhibition/protest march.
What's your background? How did you get involved with the protest?
My background professionally is in arts administration. I'm finishing up a Masters at Columbia, and I have a consulting company that works with small, primarily art-based nonprofits, helping them get the logistical and business side together. I'm an artist and a contemporary dancer myself.
As far as getting involved with Occupy Wall Street, I followed the revolutions in the Middle East. My sister was supposed to go to Tunisia right before the revolution broke, so I was following that on Twitter and in the news before it hit the American media — like crazy, because we were concerned about her safety. And I got really excited. Every morning I would get really excited to get up and read what was happening.
Then I started to feel the same way about the Occupy Wall Street protests, and I thought to myself, it's in my back yard, I should be there. I came by and it felt a little amorphous and I felt a little lost. But then I read the Declaration of the Occupation online. I saw that there were clear policy initiatives that had been brought together and I understood what it was, and I felt like it was something I could really support.
To see footage of the "No Comment" art show, click on the video below: