What Is To Be Done?* Conversations, Commerce, and Collaborations

At Occupy Wall Street. Photo by Tricia Van Eck.

Canceled: Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, presented at The Smart Museum of Art in Chicago in 2000, was a metaphorical representation of It’s Me, a 1998 Chinese experimental art exhibition that was canceled by the Chinese government the day before its opening, not just because of its contents but also for fear of the public gathering and seeing it together. With hundreds of protesters being arrested across the US, it is important to ask, what is the danger in peacefully assembling and associating? Could it be that it leads to conversations, debate, and dialogue?

Following up on my last blog, where I asked the question “what is to be done?,” I now look to curator Naomi Beckwith’s Art 21 Blog post Lily Ledbetter*Art, and the ability of the 3R’s of the green revolution– reduce, reuse, and recycle–to affect change. To these I add the 3C’s–conversation, commerce, and collaboration.


While Chicago’s Experimental Station on the South side and Mess Hall on the North side for years have fostered communal space encouraging conversation and critical thinking, increasingly more artists, galleries, and institutions are initiating conversations. Artist Jason Lazarus’s recent exhibition The Search invited a cross section of strangers to engage in an hour-long conversation within a ziggurat that they ascended and descended together. From Green Drinks to the upcoming Motiroti pot-luck by Columbia College Chicago, to reading groups organized by Alderman Exhibitions or Brian Holmes’s Slow-Motion Action/Research Collective at Mess Hall–which helps explain and analyze the current economic and political situation–artists are gathering together.

Jason Lazarus. "The Search," 2011. Courtesy the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery.

For me, the opportunity for public discussion within the public realm and open to all is one of the unique opportunities created by Occupy Wall Street. All types of people are engaging in debates touching on topics ranging from questioning short sales, to founding a third political party in the US, to asking if given the opportunity would the 99% become the 1%? Amidst this is the People’s Library–donated books for people to become educated on a number of issues–as well as a Food Station, a Media Station, a First Aid Station, a PR Station, a Silk Screening Station, and an Empathy Station. When I asked a woman named Susan who was working at the Empathy booth how she defined empathy, she said empathy starts with sharing a common ground–which reminds me of my favorite poster: 99% + 1% = 100%. If we are all in this together, what should we do together?

The People's Library at Occupy Wall Street. Photo by Tricia Van Eck.

At Occupy Wall Street. Photo by Tricia Van Eck.


For the exhibition Massive Change: The Future of Global Design, Bruce Mau asked the question, “What is the largest group of people in uniform?” Most people might think it is the Chinese army or the US army, but it is actually Walmart workers. The exhibition emphasized the power of the people and the power of the purse. If everyone would “occupy your wallet everywhere,” and before each dollar was about to be spent ask: “Does the person creating this transaction or event or object and its materials, production process, and life cycle reflect my values? If I buy this, who will get paid and who won’t? Will it help me and the world or harm us both down the road?,” in other words if billions of people asked before buying, it would result in a massive change far beyond Wall Street.

Empathy booth at Occupy Wall Street.

These questions are perfect for Tino Sehgal’s This Is Exchange, first seen at the Venice Biennale and recently presented in Shanghai at three different museums, along with This Is New. Sehgal’s pieces encourage the viewer to shift from being a docile visitor to an active art consumer. For This Is Exchange, the visitor is offered a return of half-off the admission price if she is willing to discuss her opinion of the market economy. Presented in China, this work, along with This Is New– where the ticket booth employees speak a news headline to the visitor upon paying for admission–may seem to have political overtones specifically for China, however as Sehgal mentioned in a discussion of the show, “What I’m challenging is the economic basis of taking the exchange of material production as the end, and the subsequent values/worldview and social phenomena.”  In a May 2005 Artforum interview Sehgal stated: “the question is rather how to use the market to circulate a different, more sustainable, and more interesting kind of product.”


One of the most interesting collaborations in Chicago involving the market, sustainability, and urban planning is Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects and Rebuild Foundation. With support from artists, architects, local materials companies, the community, sponsors, and the City of Chicago, Gates leads a team of creative collaborators—artists, designers, filmmakers, architects and community members—in an attempt to achieve a complete life cycle of materials while rebuilding a community. Gathered from abandoned buildings that Gates is resurrecting, these materials are either repurposed for the building or for material for his artwork, which, when sold, sustains the activities of reconstruction or the myriad of collaborative activities housed in the buildings themselves.

While Francis Alys’s When Faith Moves Mountains (Cuando la fe mueve montañas), April 11, 2002, Lima, Peru, did not change the market structure or rebuild the social fabric of Peru, it presented a poetic, collaborative effort that the artist describes as “at once futile and heroic, absurd and urgent.” A group of 500 volunteers moving as a single unit with their shovels succeeded in moving the Ventanilla sand dune almost 4 inches from its original location. About this, Francis Alys wrote in ArtForum’s Summer 2002 issue: “As Medina (the curator) said while we were in Lima, ‘Faith is a means by which one resigns oneself to the present in order to invest in the abstract promise of the future.’ It doesn’t matter how far it moved, and in truth only an infinitesimal displacement occurred–but it would have taken the wind years to move an equivalent amount of sand. So it’s a tiny miracle.”



*The phrase “what is to be done” comes from Lenin’s 1901 text; chto delat.org is also the name of group of contemporary Russian artists, critics, and philosophers who aim to merge political theory, art, and activism.