Occupy as Form: Lily Alexander

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the working session “Occupy as Form” on February 10, 2012. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Lily Alexander, PhD student in History of Art and Visual Culture at UC Santa Cruz. 

After reading Christoph Spehr’s “Free Cooperation” in The Art of Free Cooperation, though initially inspired by the general political model proposed by Spehr, I then found myself wondering what might be the “art” in this, and how could I possibly relate his vision to my initial research into the work of the net.art artists.  I want to use these pages to begin to explore at least the second of these two questions.
At the end of the first section, Spehr brings up the question that is lurking behind his initial explanation of a situation of free cooperation – how might we structure a politics that are dedicated to free cooperation?  His short answer to this question resonates with my own perspective.  There can be no logical deduction to provide the perfect solution to such a problem when we are considering the transformation of countless political, economic, and social organizations with infinite variability.  Thus, we can only visualize patterns of social practice based on several basic criteria (100).  In Spher’s view, the essential task is to first winddown the instruments of domination.  For Spher, revolution and immediate change are unlikely to work, so instead we must imagine a slow, careful process in which domination is diminished each day.  In part, the problem is a Foucauldian one.  Spher suggests that the instruments of domination (or control) are so pervasive that they have become a part of our biological composition and we no longer know how to function outside of this system of domination.  In order to counter this, we must undergo “alternative socialization,” in which individuals and groups are supported in a process of relearning, out of which “unfold social capacities.” (101-102) We learn to cooperate rather than be dominated.  We learn to be free.
Eventually, we will transform every social organization.  This transformation is not based on one ideal model.  Rather, the process is an open-ended one (103).  But as I mentioned before, while there is no one model, we can imagine possible patterns that may help us to create concrete organizations of cooperation.  These patterns can evolve out of the learning experiences of past emancipatory movements (101).  Further, Spehr writes “Social experiences and abilities must be made available individually and collectively: the collective intellectual heritage and social wealth must be reappropriated from capital in acts of ‘subjective appropriation. (101)
Aside from the fact that I like Spehr’s model for change, and that I believe it may have real seeds of possibility, my original question was how this might apply to the work of the net.artists.  My thought is the following: the net.artists’ work was an artistic model, taking place across a span of several years, that provides one example of how such a system of free cooperation might work.  Although their work was artistic, formal, and social, rather than overtly political, many of the points that Spher describes in the section I have discussed above, find an echo in the overall body of work of the net.artists.  We see the creation of an alternative model of artistic production and distribution– one that is based upon various principles, such as that art and communication should be free, that art-making can be part of a collaborative process, and that both physical and internet space should be part of a commons rather than the property of individuals.
In this way, as Spher notes, historicizing and analyzing such an experiment, and therefore making it available for those who want to learn from past models of organizations striving towards systems of free cooperation, might be a valuable project. This is just my first attempt at trying to think through the relationship between the art/politics relationship between Spher’s political vision and the artistic projects of the net.artists. 

One thought on “Occupy as Form: Lily Alexander

  • Lily Alexander

    I want to apologize as the above post, though related to the subject of my blog, was submitted by mistake. The intended post was as follows:

    Free Cooperation:

    In an essay entitled “Free Cooperation,” German political theorist Christoph Spehr proposes a politics of free cooperation. In thinking through how we might structure such a politic, Spehr is clear that there can be no single, ideal model. Rather we can only visualize patterns of social practice through an analysis of the rich experiences of past emancipatory movements. Though organizations of free cooperation are not formed on a specific model, and the focus is on maintaining an open-ended process of transformation and adaptation, Spher does give certain basic criteria for such a system, including the necessity for each individual to have equal power to influence rules, to end their participation, and to give conditions for their continued involvement. The Occupy movement in many ways exemplifies the characteristics of such a loose, deliberately informal, political organization. Elements of the movement that have inspired much debate, such as the lack of hierarchical structure, or the absence of a highly specific, agreed-upon set of demands, may be considered formal strengths when understood through the principles of free cooperation. Because the Occupy movement embodies a citizen-based initiative that is both loosely formulated and self-generative, it does not adhere to the typical methodology of more traditional initiatives, with its predictable set of revendications, which in turn define, limit, and channel the potentialities of its constituents into predictable forms, such as political interest groups or unions. Unimpeded by such a narrow focus (which, in cases where a specific legislative outcome is desired for instance, is clearly an advantage), the Occupy movement, may be considered, along with other grass-root protest movements which had deep, transformative ambitions but no “agenda” that could be reduced to a narrow legislative agenda or focus (such as May 68 or the Civil Rights movement), a particularly successful application of the doctrines of free cooperation.

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