A revolution is never purely political. Massive alterations to laws, institutions, and officials are rarely spontaneous but rather are responsive, the confirmation of a seismic shift in attitudes about the status quo. A dogma is toppled only when long-gestating changes to a society’s social and political culture ready the people to assert their power. Artists play a pivotal – and multifaceted – role in this transformation.
The Occupy movement has seen an outpouring of creative support; its earliest, perhaps, a call from the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, masters in the art of critical satire if not that of considerate organizing. Physical support followed in cities worldwide, and in affinity groups like Occupy Writers, a web database of over 3,000 sympathetic authors that includes Occupy-related pieces from well-known names like Judith Butler, Ursula Le Guin, and Lemony Snicket.
Graham Nash and David Crosby, veterans of the ’60s anti-war movement, have reprised old classics for protesters in Liberty Square, and musicians expected, unexpected, and presumed-defunct–Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, Miley Cyrus, and Third Eye Blind, for example – have penned tunes inspired by and in support of the movement. And while Third Eye Blind’s “If There Ever Was A Time” is unlikely to alter public sentiment in the way that, say, “Ohio” did after the Kent State Massacre, it nonetheless contributes to the shift that makes widespread change possible. By tagging the Occupy movement with relevant cultural markers, these figures, and their diverse works, are able to both translate and elevate revolutionary ideas. The act of creation forces society to evolve.
In making tangible and memorable the abstract ideas that undergird massive shifts in social consciousness, artists, from their unique position in society, instigate, inspire, and even immortalize the events of a revolution while in some sense remaining free of attachments. “They can serve it, be a voice of it, an impetus for it, but they must remain independent,” says Candide Jones, a member of Occupy Winston-Salem and Asst. Director of Wake Forest University Press, a major publisher of Irish poetry in North America. “Artists live on the edge at the same time as they are in the middle of everything. They are the canaries in the coal mine, the first ones to catch a whiff when things are starting to stink.”
In the years preceding the Irish Civil War, artists were the driving force, inflaming passions and, at times, leading on the battlefield “a revolver in one hand and a copy of Sophocles in the other.” Though the Easter Rising culminated with the executions of writers Padraic Pearse and Thomas MacDonough, the revolutionary Sinn Fein party it galvanized persists today.
Occupy Chicago has plans to create a habitat for resistance-minded artists here in the city. The fledgling Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective, or OCRAC, seeks to provide an independent, alternative outlet for artists frustrated or stymied by the modern culture industry, according to Alex Billet, a member of the Occupy Chicago Arts & Recreation Committee. “Culture is a right, not a privilege,” says Billet, a sentiment he says unites the Collective’s founders.
Already operating online, OCRAC formally launches February 24 at the Wicker Park Arts Center, a multi-disciplinary artist-directed community center. This spring, OCRAC is planning events that include a celebration of International Women’s Day and a remembrance of Troy Davis, executed by the state of Georgia in September.
For Billet, art and social upheaval are inexorably linked: “The anti-racist and pro-union struggles of the 1930s ushered in the songs of Woody Guthrie or the Almanac singers [and] the art of Ben Shahn,” he notes, pointing as well to the relationship between the iconic music, theater, and film of the 1960s and the black power, anti-war, and civil rights movements of the period.
Longtime activist and facilitator Mike Kalas says the convergence of art and activism is essential and natural. “The activists need more art in their lives; the artists need more activism in their lives,” he says, “A happy medium.” Kalas recently exhibited the work of inmate-artists at a conference encouraging judicial instruction on jury nullification, a scarcely known power of juries that has been used since the era of the Fugitive Slave Act to acquit defendants despite the weight of the evidence in protest of unjust laws.
Members of the Chicago jazz group The Vincent Davis Quartet likewise emphasize the importance of the mutual bonds of common struggle, and highlight boycotting certain venues as an effective way of utilizing their social capital. It is the hope of Billet that OCRAC will give Chicago’s cultural workers another tool through which to raise their voice.
Teresa Veramendi, a founding member of OCRAC and star in December’s critically well-received play, “Occupy My Heart: A Revolutionary Christmas Carol,” has high hopes for the coming months. Veramendi views the stage as a place to humanize and make tangible the struggles of the 99%. “Occupy My Heart” opened outdoors at the end of an Occupy Chicago parade, an intersection of art and protest that Veremendi plans to incorporate into another project: large-scale street theater planned for #ChicagoSpring demonstrations on April 7.
“I want to democratize the truth about what happened to us,” she remarks, referring to her planned work in which pods of actors working in the street will reconstruct individual threads of the financial crisis before joining with the audience in a massive rising. “The point of performance is this connection,” she says. “It’s the electricity in the air.”
The same could be said for revolution.
By Dan Massoglia
The Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective launches Friday, February 24 at the Wicker Park Arts Collective, 2215 W North Ave. at 7 p.m. Poets and speakers from Occupy Chicago, neighborhood occupations, and affinity groups will intersperse the schedule below:
7–7:40 The Kuhls
7:40–8:25 Theatre of the Oppressed
8:25–8:40 When Flying Feels Like Falling
8:55–9:35 Captain Captain
9:35–9:50 20% Theatre Company performance
9:50–10:35 Snake Oil Salesmen
10:45–11:15 Kris de la Rash
11:25–11:50 DJ Catnip
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