As the world was still pondering a decade’s passage since 9/11 and our own region was assessing the damage from Irene, a small army of protesters descended on a small pocket-park in lower Manhattan. The Zuccotti Park-based Occupy Wall Street seemed to emerge out of nowhere on September 17, 2011. At first it seemed a completely underground phenomenon, whispered about in underground circles, with a growing litany of folks wondering why it wasn’t picking up more publicity, the way the Tea Party movement had the previous year.
By October, however, Occupy was everywhere, with new groups up and running not only around the US but around the world. In November, I visited what had become a sea of pup tents and tarps with my six-year-old, who loved the drumming and felt safe enough to run rampant down its narrow alleys. But by the 17th of that month, everything was packed up and gone, albeit through force. Over the past winter similar efforts elsewhere were also disbanded, even here in the Hudson Valley: in Albany and, more recently, in New Paltz.
Now, it turns out, a new phase of Occupy seems about to blossom, just in time for the grand push toward the November elections. And at its vanguard is an artistic event kicking off this Saturday in Catskill as part of that town’s innovative “Masters on Main Street” economic-development-via-the-arts project.
Titled “Wall Street to Main Street” (WS2MS), with a subtitle of “Bringing the Message Home”, the idea behind the influx of commissioned new art from Occupy activists and local artists is designed to link Occupy Wall Street and the world via the idea of the small-town Main Streets that everyone was talking about as our economy started to tank. Specifically, Catskill will serve as a prototype for artist-activated economic development via the same principles used in the Masters on Main program: by drawing a crowd of art-lovers (and -buyers) to a town, inspiring some to purchase buildings and invest in marginalized communities’ revival.
For WS2MS, as the new Occupy project is colloquially known, vacant storefronts along Catskill’s Main Street will come alive with more than 50 visual arts and design exhibits, performances, workshops and panel discussions, from a March 17 daylong series of opening events and parties through May 31. Put together over a four-month period as a collaborative presentation working with individual artists, curators and organizers from Occupy with Art, an affinity group of the Occupy Wall Street Arts and Culture Working Group, Wall Street to Main Street has billed itself as “a platform for creative expression and dialogue focusing attention on a struggling community through a ten-week festival of experiences designed to engage, educate and inspire.”
“The Arts and Culture Committee of Occupy Wall Street believes that art is not a luxury item. It is a commonwealth that belongs not just to the one percent, but to all of us,” reads the Occupy organizers’ statement that initiated a call for entries around the globe earlier this year. “Art-making is not privileged to so-called talent or relegated to extracurricular activity; it is a universal language that is essential to human growth, learning, happiness and sustainability. The occupation itself is art, birthed from a set of values and principles that activate creative, independent and critical thought. Together, we aim to inspire and empower the 99 percent, expose specific economic injustices and envision the alternative future we are building.”
Among highlights coming together for the three-month exhibition, as of presstime, were a show of prints and documentary works by leading contemporary artists at BRIK Gallery, curated by new Catskill resident Geno Rodriguez, founder and director of New York City’s influential Alternative Museum of the 1980s and 1990s; an exhibit of proposed sustainable structures from the Buckminster Fuller Institute; an Occupy Books salon and reading room; a Time’s Up Energy Bike, direct from Zuccotti Park; Mark Read’s projections (remember that 99 percent Bat-Signal thing splashed against the Verizon Building last fall?) and even an augmented reality app for smartphones and tablets that will enable audiences to view an opening-day guided tour of Main Street, developed by Mark Skwarek and his students from New York University.
There will be symposia, film screenings, concerts, workshops, classes, therapy sessions and plenty of discussion on a continuous basis through the WS2MS closing at the end of May. There is even a temporary museum being called the People’s Collection set up for late-arriving art, artifacts, objets d’art and commentary, to launch in April, plus more happenings spinning off all of the energy on an almost-daily basis.
Will there be a sea of pup tents? Who knows? Everyone from Occupy realizes that this is one of a number of activities planned for the coming months to reignite and strengthen what started six months ago and make for lasting changes. Catskill itself, from its Main Street merchants to its Village Board and Arts Council, has been more than accommodating in its efforts to provide a welcome mat to the movement.
Opening-day exhibits take place this Saturday, March 17 from 2 to 5 p.m., with a party at BRIK Gallery, located at 473 Main Street, from 5 to 8 p.m. For more information on Occupy with Art and Arts and Culture, visit http://artsandculture.nycga.net, www.occupywithart.com, http://occupymuseums.org and http://artsandlabor.org. For more on the Masters on Main Street program, and full Wall Street to Main Street information, call (845) 943-3400 or check out www.greenearts.org. See you at the barricades!