Saturday, November 19, 2011

Spatial Intervention: Five Moments from #occupy

Some aspects of #occupy that stand out for their implications about the rough edges and overlaps in political control, spatial practice, spatial design, and spatial intervention:

1) Occupy Baltimore Mic Checks Karl Rove.
10 minutes into a speech at Johns Hopkins University on November 15th, protestors from Occupy Baltimore, who had mingled with the talk's audience, started up the People's Mic call-and-response protocol (which always begins with the phrase "Mic Check") to deliver a message: “Mic check. 'Mic check.' Karl Rove. 'Karl Rove.' Is the Architect. 'Is the Architect.'"

The use of the word 'Architect' to describe people who mastermind conspiracies and schemes of control is always fascinating. I've written in CRIT (pdf article link) and elsewhere about the need on the part of those trained in architecture and spatial disciplines to reclaim the broader use of the word, and scheme for the greater good instead of the perceived evil.

2) Occupy Wall Street Bat Signal on the Verizon Building.
In a carefully planned and timed maneuver coordinated to correspond with the march across the Brooklyn Bridge, messages from Occupy chants were projected onto the blank facade of the "Verizon Building" (375 Pearl St., so-named because of a large lighted Verizon ad) facing the bridge.

In this interview, it's noted that the messages were projected by the organizers from a private family apartment, the space was donated by the residents for the use of #occupy that evening: "opposite the Verizon building, there is a bunch of city housing. Subsidized, rent-controlled. There's a lack of services, lights are out in the hallways, the housing feels like jails, like prisons."

This description matches the Alfred E. Smith Houses, a set of cruciform, Corbusian Towers-in-the-Park built by the New York City Housing Authority during the Robert Moses era. The towers in Le Corbusier's original Radiant City plan were intended to be office buildings, not housing, but the image of hand of the architect, autocratically clearing away old for new, has become, in a thousand lectures on urbanism, synonymous with the idea of the Evil Architect, and the misguided social intentions of Modernism in general.

The text from the projection reads:

99% / MIC CHECK! / LOOK AROUND / YOU ARE A PART / OF A GLOBAL UPRISING / WE ARE A CRY / FROM THE HEART / OF THE WORLD / WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE / ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE / HAPPY BIRTHDAY / #OCCUPY MOVEMENT / OCCUPY WALL STREET / list of cities, states and countries / OCCUPY EARTH / WE ARE WINNING / IT IS THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING / DO NOT BE AFRAID / LOVE.

3) Occupy UC Davis Kettles the Police.
The beginning of the video linked above is difficult to watch, police have been tasked with removing tents from the quad at UC Davis, students occupying the tents sit down and link hands peacefully around the tents. In a sickening act of police brutality, an officer pepper sprays the entire line.

By around the 6 minute mark into the clip, the atmosphere has changed completely. The students have advanced on the police in a line, they have kettled the police, surrounding and confining them in a space defined by a ring of people. The police are in a tactical retreat, but at the last moment, the officer in charge pauses and begins shaking his canisters of pepper spray menacingly. Suddenly the chants fade from "Shame on you! Shame on you!" to another Mic Check: "We will give you 'We will give you' a moment of peace 'a moment of peace'" and finally: "You can go" is picked up in a chant: "You can go. You can go. You can go." The tension unfolds. The crowd has called something up, named it, understood its aggression as masked fear, and then banished it with unqualified impunity. The police, visibly confused at what has been done to them and how, turn and leave.

4) Occupy Fort Myers is recognized as Free Speech.
In what may, in retrospect, be understood as a landmark decision, a federal court in Florida has ruled that inhabitation can be a form of speech, and as such is protected, in certain circumstances, under the First Amendment.

4) Occupy Cal's Architecture School Launches Floating Tents.
The administration at UC Berkeley has, apparently without irony, banned camping on campus. In a symbolic circumvention of this ban, the architecture students at Berkeley have made floating tents, and floating banners to go along with them.

At least one commenter (thanks, @tweeds) has noted the intentional resonance with Archigram's Instant City project  of the 1960s. It is worth quoting in full the description of that project from Wikipedia:

Instant City is a mobile technological event that drifts into underdeveloped, drab towns via air (balloons) with provisional structures (performance spaces) in tow. The effect is a deliberate overstimulation to produce mass culture, with an embrace of advertising aesthetics. The whole endeavor is intended to eventually move on leaving behind advanced technology hook-ups.
#Occupy, with its smartphones, livestreams, projections, tents, inflatables, and pithy quotability, can be seen as a direct manifestation of the same impulse underlying the Instant City. As Chris Heathcote has noted in another context, Archigram were BASICALLY RIGHT. The link between protest, festival, media, and creative spatial practice can't be underscored enough, and the participatory structure of things like the People's Mic as practiced by #occupy is the antithesis of the image of the autocratic planner, designer, and schemer.

In 2004, an unnamed Bush administration aide, widely understood to be Karl Rove (The Architect) told a writer from the New York Times Magazine:

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Some on the Left in America have since embraced the idea that they are the "Reality Based Community" that this quote dismisses as merely following and interpreting the creative acts of cultural production in politics. They would characterize the attitude of Rove expressed here as embodying a "Faith Based Community" with no connection to facts.

The creative spatial practices of #occupy suggest a different way: that the arrogance of The Architect in presupposing that his particular acts of reality creation are the ones that others have to deal with, study, and occupy, is now recognized as a symptom of fear. Other models of spatial production, and indeed, even of reality creation - based in collaboration, smaller in scale, briefer in time, and unfolding from a ground of love, not fear - have the potential to defuse the political control over the built environment. Inhabitation is speech, and it can create new realities. The method is less faith, and more magic, and watching this method deployed, it's hard to argue against the message that another world is possible.