Art Occupies at Occupy Cal

28 Nov

The first Occupy Cal encampment at the University of California Berkeley was set up on Wednesday, November 9, 2011 on an area of grass in front of Sproul Hall, an administration building, and broken down that day in two brutal police assaults on nonviolent students, faculty, and others who linked arms to protect themselves and the camp. Many were injured by baton thrusts and blows and by being dragged and shoved to the ground. This excessive police force was captured on video, posted widely, and fiercely condemned. It prompted the strike/day of action centered at Sproul Plaza on Tuesday, November 15th. The culmination of this day of solidarity and community, which included numerous works of art placed on the Mario Savio Steps as well as seating areas with rugs, couches, and two pianos for an Open University, was an evening General Assembly attended by thousands of people who voted to reestablish the Occupy Cal camp. Then followed the 15th Annual Mario Savio Memorial event, which included a speech and spoken word performances by the Young Activist Award winners Ellen Choy (Youth for Climate Justice) and Christsna Sot and Josh Healy (Youth Speaks) and a keynote lecture given by UC Berkeley professor of public policy Robert Reich. Then, in the early morning hours of Thursday, November 17 police officers and sheriff’s deputies dispersed those in the encampment and bulldozed it. Since November 21, Sproul Plaza has become the site of Occupy Cal’s renewed Open University, with teach-ins, new artwork, and musical performances. 

By the time I arrived at Sproul Plaza on the morning of Thursday, November 17, the Occupy Cal camp was gone. Not a tent was in sight. There were only a few people about, including refugees from the camp huddled in blankets. But the plaza that morning brought quickly to mind Josh Healy’s “When Hope Comes Back (A Poem for the 99%),” spoken there two days earlier before as many as 10,000 people. Despite the camp’s absence, it seemed that hope had returned to this enduring place of conscience—this space of the Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, protests against the Vietnam War, the anti-apartheid protests of 1985, and, since 2009, protests against the privatization of this public university and attacks against diversity and the public good.

Hope had returned to Sproul that Thursday despite the police and sheriff’s deputies in riot gear who cleared the Occupy Cal tents on the Mario Savio Steps at 3:30 am that morning.

Hope had returned to Sproul that morning despite the backhoe and trucks brought in by the university administration to crush, clear away, and dump not only the tents but also the couches, chairs, benches, rugs, blackboard, bookshelf, tree-branch teepees, and art installations assembled for the November 15 strike/day of action.

Hope returned to Sproul Thursday despite the fact that the administration deemed it necessary not merely to shut down the second Occupy Cal encampment (the first broken down on November 9) but to power wash the space, as if it needed to be “sanitized” of the courageous acts and embodiments of free speech that for days had spellbound many passing through and sitting in Sproul Plaza.

Never mind that this “cleansing” action could not remove the deep moral stain, or heal the physical and psychic wounds, caused by the police violence that has been visited upon the campus community not only since November 9 of this year, when nonviolent students and faculty were beaten, but indeed, in recent memory, repeatedly since 2009.

Hope returned to Sproul that morning and thereafter in the bodies and voices of those in the Berkeley community and beyond who continue to speak out and act in opposition to the militarization of the campus in response to peaceful protest and against the destruction of public education within a wider landscape of injustice and economic disparity.

And hope returned to Sproul in the form of books. Literally, in Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2004), and in several dozen other “knowledge tents” that, rescued from the encampment library, were placed at the Mario Savio Steps.

                                                                                  

 I found the sight of these books, where tents and people had briefly rested, deeply moving. Partly it was the uncanny aptness of their substitution. Their spines peaked toward the blue sky, their covers sloped downward, and their reference to the tents destroyed by the police quite obvious. But this substitution was no mere formal pun. Books too, and their authors, we know, are vulnerable to autocratic power; censored, disappeared, burned. By the same token, books and their author’s words and presences survive, resist, and return, sometimes in secret readings and hidden possession but also in determined, public vocalization. If there were any object I would wish to serve as my replacement, it would be a book—a real book, found in a space where ideas, words, and expression matter deeply, and especially a space that has witnessed both assaults upon free speech and expression and hard-won liberation.

With their visually and symbolically charged forms and arrangement, these “knowledge tents” sheltered words of history, non-violence, justice, inner cultivation, reconciliation, wonder, and transformation—the values shared, I believe, by the overwhelming majority of protesters who have filled Sproul Plaza in recent weeks and those who have resided in the Occupy Cal encampment. Entirely out of proportion to their relative smallness, literal silence, and metaphorical weightlessness, therefore, the book tents took over this space and made the air at Sproul vibrate loudly with the unassailable power of imagination in the expression of dissent. This, it seemed to me, is the work that art does in times such as these.

Art has taken hold of Sproul Plaza in many ways over the past several weeks as an insistently creative response to wounding violence, loss of trust, and fear. Its installation began spectacularly on November 15, when painting, photomontage, sculpture, and other artworks produced by the Occupy Cal art committee and others were joined by spoken word, music, and dance. Together, they enlivened Sproul as a multi-sensory space of free speech and assembly. The plaza has never looked better, some commented, while others suggested that it should always be this way.

          

Art has occupied—and still occupies—Sproul so convincingly because it seizes attention immediately, fostering encounters with the startling yet contained shape and text or equally the elliptical and unfinished object. It is not always literal to the protest speech or slogan; it may exploit the poetic, the pun, and the non sequitur. It therefore draws the eye away from the oppressively institutional correctness of the architecture of Sproul Hall and the plaza’s unyielding paving stones and concrete. It introduces branches, flowers, and earth that live in ways that the pollarded Plane Trees and contained grass of official campus landscape cannot.

The art in Sproul has been conspicuous and compelling because it invites one to enter, bend down, touch, recall, wonder, even laugh—in unexpected ways. It brings the sounds of wind chimes, single voices, a choir, drums, guitars, and ragtag pianos.

It builds upon existing symbolic spaces and monuments: a shrine embracing the plaque commemorating the Mario Savio Steps (1996), for instance, and Scott O’Keefe’s collaboratively built and rebuilt mandala adorning Mark Brest van Kampen’s Column of Earth and Air (Free Speech Monument) (1991). The artists know this space, its history, and make its history anew.

    

The very frailness of the temporary art placed, marked, and offered in Sproul over the past few weeks—vulnerable to the wind and the crowds that pass through and fill the space—conveys an urgency that defies the obdurateness of official power and the obstinate inhumanity of administration responses to nonviolent protest.

The art that occupies Sproul is about the commons of imagination and of responsibility for each other on the campus—and our larger commons that reaches far beyond the university. Before you know it, you’re part of it, part of art making a new space for face-to-face participation—real people, real objects, real conversations and discoveries, which then flow into social media in all its forms. And it is as beautiful as it is subversive. Symbolically, materially, and in its regeneration and transformation, the art made and remade in Sproul by students and others is many steps ahead of the administration and police. The tent, we all know now, cannot so easily be prohibited and removed, either by force or the repression of speech and meaning. It shape-shifts and each time grows more inclusive and powerful.

  

As I return each day to Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, and try but fail to comprehend the pepper-spray torture of students at UC Davis, I see tents and non-tents return as well. Book tents, wall-less tents. Structures of poles and banners that look tent-like, draw police scrutiny, and morph quickly into forms that defy policy enforcement. Actual tents that ride fully set up upon raised hands, and tents filled with helium balloons that float above the plaza, tethered to the Mario Savio Steps with thin but resilient cord. Each day, on our own and together, we create metaphorical tents that shelter the intellectual, technological, spiritual, artistic, and personal and common worlds and futures that are the soul of Our University.

With these various tents and non-tents, some in forms and materials yet to be imagined, it seems quite possible that hope will remain in Sproul Plaza.

[Gregory P.A. Levine is Associate Professor in the Department of the History of Art, UC Berkeley, an appointed member of the Berkeley Faculty Association and a member of the independent faculty organization SAVE.]

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