Occupy possibilities – reflections on OCCUPY, art and activism (ENGLISH)


To some political activists the ideological incoherence and lack of a concrete agenda of the occupy Wall Street movement was a bothersome and at times seen as a weakness.  To others the action, devoid of traditional organizing and rallying calls was dismissed as harmless street theatre[1].

I want to propose another possibility. In looking at OWS as an act of culture jamming, of activist art, which carried in it a certain amount of ambiguity, OWS functioned in the tradition of a many good works of art, allowing for multiple possible perceptions. In so doing OWS remained interesting and engaging to peoples minds, causing it to occupy the minds and media of America and the world. By virtue of its apparent lack of a clear demand OWS succeed to fundamentally change the national debate.

where to go - hand made sign posted on street lamp in kassel germany. photo by ian pollock
hand made sign posted anonymously on street lamp in kassel germany.
photo by ian pollock

The ambiguity of the OWS action, the refusal to answer the question: ”what is our one simple demand”, the absence of a leader in favor of a polylouge and a plurality of opinion on the part of the participants and the observers, allowed for many voices to be heard.  At times these voices even seemed to contradict each other. While some demanded a complete change of the economic system and spoke of an end to capitalism, others advocated for political and financial reform.


Occupy Wall Street began on 17 September 2011 in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City’s Wall Street financial district. Like a meme, Occupy quickly spread across the U.S. and the globe. Camps organized ad hoc in major cities of 82 countries, according to some accounts.

It was not until some time after that, that people in the camps began to organize and hold meetings, where many of the now-familiar demands were finally articulated. Unlike political movements, OWS remained essentially leaderless. Voices eventually emerged to communicate with the public; yet, even as slogans such as “We are the 99%.” grew into popularity, plurality and differences of opinion remained a hallmark of the occupations. Some voices were decidedly anti-capitalist and re-iterated leftist politics of prior movements while others demanded greater oversight over the existing capitalist system.

OWS is culture jamming. The term “culture jamming” is attributed to the band Negativeland, who in 1984 coined the term based on the idea of radio jamming (in which public frequencies are pirated and either subverted for independent communication or simply to disrupt the official discourse).

Culture jamming practiced as an art strategy exposes questionable political assumptions behind commercial culture, by sending out false or confusing signals in the form of false advertisements, press releases or by altering consumer products.

While the term is negativeland’s, culture jamming as strategy of cultural resistance dates back farther and can be seen in the in the photomontages of John Heartfield, projects such as the films and posters of the Situationist International, the alterations of street advertisements by the billboard liberation front, the altered dolls of Barbie liberation front and identity corrections of the Yes Men.

Culture jamming even has its own magazine the Canadian magazine Adbusters, regularly features campaigns to subvert popular consumer culture and is attributed with creating the seed of the idea of what was to become Occupy Wall Street.  Adbusters is partially rooted in the First Things First Manifesto, which rallies graphic designers by concluding that “Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual language and resource of design.”

On 13 July 2011, it was Adbusters, the Canadian magazine that sent the following excerpt to their email list:  “On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices. Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum – that “Mubarak must go” – over and over again until they won. Following this model, what is our equally uncomplicated demand?”

Occupy’s success can be seen in part as ingenious branding and marketing. It was one word… a call to action… a mobilizing verb… a rally call… describing the action to be taken… describing the phenomenon that was being witnessed. Occupy Wall Street, can also be understood as a massive collaboration in culture jamming. A spectacle so disruptive that the word “occupy” became one of the most used words in the world in 2011/2012.

The brain is the way humans make sense of the world.  It is a filter, which looks at the things in world and removes the essential qualities of things in the world and searches for the essential and constant values of that thing.  Our knowledge of the world must therefore take into account not only the facts we observe, but also the way in which the brain processes these facts.

Occupy Wall Street was clearly visible, beamed around the world, to large to ignore.  Minds confronted by this observation begin to process.  There is the countable, the appearance, the tangible.  Everything added up, this was indeed an occupation by a large group of people.  Even the name of the action told us so.  Even the reason why it was happening was more of less clear – the economy was in bad shape and something, anything had to be done.

But what was the demand of this occupation, no one seemed to know, or more exactly everyone seemed to know something else.  Even the media, charged with bringing the world closer and helping us understand it was puzzled by this phenomenon. Worse yet as time went on the ambiguity did not subside. It is in this tension between the clearly visible and the undefinable that created the unique media event called OWS. It was the absence of labels, of known ideologies, the refusal or the deference/differance of an easy designation that forced the conversations to continue.

At times we may think of mass media, newspaper, television, radio as a kind of extension of our senses.  We trust that they will capture that which is important for us and help us understand.  As the media struggled to articulate what OWS was about, it became increasingly apparent that there was no singular answer.

Perhaps we can see the correlation of a media which reduces an event to a single stream of information, a radio show, a newspaper article and broadcasts it to many people and political movements of old who have a unified voice which speaks on behalf of the masses.  Fast forward to 2012, and we see that a new media has emerged – ustream, twitter, facebook – the age of many to many communication.  A new media which represents many voices for a movement which has many demands. Occupy Wall Street was a many to many event, leaderless, unified not by a cause but an opposition to a condition.

Perhaps we can also see the correlation of OWS and a work of art, which refuses to yield to a singular interpretation and instead embracing ambiguity and plurality of meaning.  Occupy Wall Street was a work of art, completed by the participant and the observer.  Leaving room for each person to find their own meaning in the action.  Allowing individual ideas and personal meaning to emerge from the action, rather then having a fixed idea be the cause of the action.


Ambiguity is sometimes described as a lack of certainty or a state of having limited knowledge, an impossibility to describe an existing state, or a future outcome, or the possibility of more than one outcome.

The brain is the way humans make sense of the world.  It is a filter, which looks at the things in world and removes the essential qualities of things in the world and searches for the essential and constant values of that thing.  Our knowledge of the world must therefore take into account not only the facts we observe, but also the way in which the brain processes these facts.

In the article “The neurology of ambiguity” [2]Semir Zeki speaks about ambiguity in art.  Rather, than uncertainty of a meaning, ambiguity is the rapid succession of certainties “on the conscious stage – the certainty of many, equally plausible interpretations, each one of which is sovereign when it occupies the conscious stage”

He continues that since “ each interpretation … is as valid as the other interpretations, and there is no correct interpretation. Ambiguity therefore is the obverse of constancy. “

This constant flow between more than one of many equal possibilities Zeki argues, is the hallmark of great works of art and his neurological research might suggest that part of this lies in the kind of activity the brain undergoes when viewing.

In another study[3] by Martina Jakesch and Helmut Leder ambiguity mapped against interestingness created an inverted U-shaped function, which the authors correlated to Berlyne’s arousal theory.

By refusing to answer the question:” what is our one single demand?” OWS created a search for an answer not just in the minds of the participants, but more importantly in the minds of the observers as well.  This continuing search for an answer allowed OWS to stay in the conversation and ultimately resulted in many political platforms to develop.  Most notably the conversations around greater regulation of banks, conversations around capital gains tax rates and the so-called 99%.  Unlike the encampments around the world, conversation about class and wealth, unthinkable in the United States of 2010, are now part of the national debate and will play a major role in the elections of 2012.

Looking at the lack of ideological clarity and identification of the occupy movement and the unanswered question what is our one single demand might allow us then to speculate why Occupy Wall Street was able to capture the imaginations of so many people and the media.

It may also explain why the two strategies, being physically removed from the visual environment or official sanction by the documenta art bienale or civic bodies – succeeded in dissipating the interest and activity.  By resolving the ambiguity of “what is occupy?” into a movement of opposition and a protest, the popular curiosity of OWS faded and so has the media coverage of the movement.

Perhaps the question of “what is our one single demand” must now be rephrased to read “what is our next one great action?” or “where to go from here?”

[1] May 3, 2012 Deciphering the Occupy Wall Street Movement By Robert Weissberg

[2] “The neurology of ambiguity” Consciousness and Cognition 13 (2004) 173–196  Semir Zeki

[3]  “Finding meaning in art: Preferred levels of ambiguity in art appreciation” Experimental Psychology (2009 November); 62(11): 2105–2112.  Martina Jakesch and Helmut Leder

Occupy possibilities – reflections on OCCUPY, art and activism (GERMAN)


Einige politische Aktivisten haben ideologische Inkoheränz und Fehlen eines konkreten Programms bei der Occupy Wall Street Bewegung als irritierend oder gar als Schwäche empfunden. Andere sahen in der Aktion, die ohne bekannte Organisationsform und ohne die gewohnten Aufrufe zur Mo- bilisierung entstand, nur harmloses Straßentheater.1

where to go - hand made sign posted on street lamp in kassel germany. photo by ian pollock
hand made sign posted anonymously on street lamp in kassel germany.
photo by ian pollock

In diesem Artikel möchte ich eine andere Sicht der Dinge vorstellen. Wenn man die Occupy Bewegung als culture jamming, als Aktionskunst begreift, die sich einer eindeutigen Interpretation entzieht, dann stand die Occupy Bewegung in der Tradition vieler guter Kunstwerke und ermöglichte ganz unterschiedliche Sichtweisen. So blieb die Occupy Bewegung interessant und Denkprozesse aus. Sie war in den Diskussionen und Medien in Amerika und der Welt präsent. Gerade weil die Occupy Bewegung anscheinend keine klaren Forderungen hatte, veränderte sie die nationale Debatte tiefgreifend. Continue reading