‘Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition’ reviewed by Marc James Léger

Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition

Verso, London and New York, 2016. 296pp., £16.99 / $26.95 hb
ISBN 9781784781880

Reviewed by Marc James Léger

About the reviewer

Marc James Léger is the author of Don’t Network: The Avant Garde after Networks (Minor …


Yates McKee’s excellent new book, Strike Art, is dedicated to art that is embedded in direct action and social movement activism before, during and after Occupy Wall Street (simply referred to as Occupy). It is a book that from the start, asks: “what is the relation of art to the practice of radical politics today?” In his famous 1936 essay on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Walter Benjamin concluded that the task of engaged artists was not to aestheticize politics, as Leni Riefenstahl had been doing for the Nazi regime, but to politicize aesthetics, let’s say, in the manner of the Dada artist John Heartfield. Closer to us today, Slavoj Žižek has suggested that it might be time to turn around Benjamin’s longstanding injunction and reverse it. Strike Art would seem to tilt in this direction, lending the tools of aesthetics to that of movements for political change. Žižek is mentioned in the book in particular with regard to the speech he gave at Occupy Wall Street, where he warned the young protesters to not fall in love with themselves and with the spectacle of the encampment, that the hard work of real social change comes the day after the moment of carnivalesque upheaval (115). McKee’s book, you could say, dwells on this Žižek meme. In Lacanian terms, Strike Art understands that Occupy is not a unified, coherent movement, but it also understands that the “situational apperception” that conditions its “ideal ego” is that of an unacceptable neoliberal end of ideology.

Like the group Strike Debt (Debt), Strike Art uses a Derridean deconstructive register to place the word Art under erasure. This refers to the strike as a tactic of worker revolt as well as its uses by other kinds of action such as the student strike, the art strike and the climate strike. It also at the same time alludes obliquely to Marxist dialectics when McKee suggests that the groups that have emerged in the context of Occupy are “engaged in a simultaneous negation and affirmation of art itself” (5-6). McKee refers to this as a renewal of the ambition of the avant-garde to sublate art into life, or in terms that are more specific to him, as the “dynamic articulation” of art and direct action (187). While such an assertion might elsewhere lead to an extensive philosophical and theoretical expose, McKee’s book is short on art theory and long on examples of art activism, which he narrates in his introduction and four chapters as someone who has been directly involved in and is passionate about the movements for social change that are discussed.

Because he is both committed to what he recounts but also nuanced in his criticisms, McKee’s book is one of the most coherent presentations of the new kinds of activist art that we have seen emerge since the development of social media and by and large after the emergence of the alterglobalization Left in the late 1990s. McKee, however, would seem to think that Occupy has a special status in this regard and refers to it as an “event,” citing in this instance the work of Alain Badiou. Although Badiou welcomes such movements as Occupy, he is also critical of the horizontalist massism that is presupposed by much anarchist political theory and writing on multitudes. The ideas of communist thinkers like Badiou and Žižek are therefore referenced as touchstones of contemporary political theory rather than examined in detail. This is McKee’s modus operandi, however; although he identifies his writing and activism with the “New Anarchism,” he does not delve much further in this regard into anarchist political theory.

On the level of art theory, McKee makes only a few modest claims. He is not concerned to determine the aesthetic criteria of art made in the context of social movements, as might for example someone like Claire Bishop. By the same token, he is not trying to invent a new category of aesthetic practice, as with for instance Nicolas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics” or Grant Kester’s “dialogical aesthetics.” McKee is clear that many different strategies and tactics could come in handy in the process of “creative direct action” (3). A stronger claim is that the imaginaries of social movements like Occupy take us beyond contemporary art and beyond the control of art institutions like museums and academies (8). Autonomous movements and activist groups do not entirely dispense with art and its institutions, however, but “leverage” these according to the needs of the moment. For McKee, art has lost the superstructural autonomy ascribed to it by thinkers like Theodor Adorno and is now thoroughly embedded in capitalist exchange relations. This concession to biopower, which one finds in the immanentism of autonomist thinkers like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, is what according to McKee defines the vanguardism of Occupy as “creative direct action” (16). The sublation of art therefore implies that Occupy has superseded the parameters of social practice art and socially engaged art, which he identifies with the moment when participants at the 2011 Creative Time Summit decided to leave the conference and join the people agitating in Zuccotti Park. This moment, he says, “represents the end of socially engaged art” and its dissolution into “an expanded field of ‘social engagement’” (81) that repurposes art as a form of “collective creativity” (156).

Unlike some of the avant-gardes of the past, Occupy’s critique of capitalism is not articulated as an attack on bourgeois ideology. Rather, the operative term here is the commons, which acts as an ontological placeholder for the shift away from both social democratic Keynesianism, unionism and welfare state reform, and from the representational politics and state control of communist parties. McKee is therefore keenly aware of the contradictions of Occupy. While the concept of the 99% cannot incarnate the universality of identities, its noncompliance with neoliberalism allows for “cross-sectorial alliances” (149). However, affinity among different groups does not necessarily solve the problem of collective precarity. McKee mentions in this regard a question posed by Gerald Raunig, who wonders what it means to strike when the idea of the working day has been relegated to the Fordist past (156). The current struggle of French workers against the proposed labour law, which would cut down on overtime wages and extend the working day to ten hours, is perhaps only a partial answer to this enigma. Another contradiction that McKee rightly acknowledges, this time in relation to Sandy Relief, is the fact that such new autonomous biopolitical infrastructures are attempting to fill the void created by a negligent state (203). Such emergency relief groups are poorly compensated and in some cases may have less expertise than public infrastructures that have already proven to be effective. Assuming that the neoliberalization of everything continues as planned, we could imagine the eventual need for Occupy Mail, Occupy Firefighters, Hospital Relief, Police Relief and so on.

McKee is really at his best when he describes the many facets of Occupy and its proliferation of experiments in self-organization, from assemblies to slogans, embodied technologies and popular kitchens, practices of commoning knowledge and resources that lead to new subjective and affective assemblages against the undemocratic forms of state and capitalist control. He is cognizant of radical precedents to Occupy and dedicates many pages to political groups such as the Situationists, Black Mask, the Motherfuckers, the Diggers, the Black Panthers, Art Workers’ Coalition, Reclaim the Streets and Direct Action Network, but also to the “social aesthetics” of people like Krzysztof Wodiczko, Allan Sekula and Martha Rosler, and “art” groups like ACT UP, REPOhistory, Critical Art Ensemble, Temporary Services, Yes Men, 16 Beaver, W.A.G.E., MTL and Not An Alternative. When he comes to the subject of Occupy Wall Street he does not spend much time describing the occupation itself but focuses on the “aesthetico-political antinomies” (93) that would come to structure Occupy, from its “psychogeographical dramaturgy” to the site-specific aspects of the encampment, its “formal” properties, its new performative signals, as well as its new lexicon of class warfare of the 99% (94). The result is the construction of a “biopolitical assemblage” that involves “embodied assembly” and “technical mediation” (102). These forms had a durable structure and after the eviction would move to other sites of struggle and what Stephen Duncombe refers to as “ethical spectacles” (132). Among those described in the book is the conjunction of Duarte Square, Occupy Faith, and Occupy Arts, as well as Occupy Museums, Occupy Homes, Arts and Labor, May Day, Strike Debt, Rolling Jubilee and Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.).  

The book concludes by proposing a critique of Occupy as put forward by what Marxists would have at one time identified as problems of uneven development, described by McKee as the “universal culpability” of the life and death issues surrounding global warming and struggles by racially marginal communities against systemic state and police violence. In both cases, whether we are talking about the “survivalist communization” of groups like the Common Ground Collective, Hands Up Don’t Shoot, Black Lives Matter and Direct Action Front for Palestine, or the “eco-socialist planning” of groups like Survivor Village, Climate Action Camps, Liberate Tate, Art Not Oil, 350.org and Flood Wall Street, such “ecologies of Occupy” (201) represent the proliferation of biopolitical infrastructures that are concerned with social reproduction. “Strike art” is therefore, according to McKee, art that is embedded in the “living fabric of collective political struggle” (238) and as such challenges the complacency of the contemporary art system. This “post-Occupy condition,” he argues, upends existing institutions. While such efforts may not be successful in terms of revolutionary goals (238), McKee says, they could be scaled up to build collective power, and, one might assume, lead to a fabled communist or commonist transition.

When that day comes, weather permitting, people will be relatively free from alienated labour and will be able to determine for themselves, as well as with and for others, what forms of art they wish to pursue. In his concluding note, to come back to Žižek, McKee refers to this collective liberation of art as not an ideal image of harmonious identity but as an activity that never comes to an end. Lacan referred to this as the “infinite quadrature of the ego’s verifications.” A further enigma, about not “falling in love” with ourselves, has to do with the difference that Žižek and Badiou have noted between the genuine event of falling in love and marriages that are arranged by networking sites. Badiou refers to love as the immanence of a construction that is without the romantic illusion of unity and that is simultaneously a struggle against separation. Love therefore has something to tell us about the new relations that are being forged in today’s radical art and politics. On the other hand, Badiou argues that there is no politics of love since politics is concerned with enemies. In love, he says, there are no enemies. Too bad then for the 1%. But then Marx also teaches that the contradictions of capital cannot merely be ascribed to the greed of the wealthy.

17 April 2016

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