Rachel Schragis, Artist and Activist, Part I

by Avram Finkelstein, December 2011.

Thursday, December 5, 2011. 9am. Part I of our conversation with Rachel Schragis, in which she discusses her work with Occupy Wall St., the developments of her practice leading up to her activism and the struggles of negotiating an artistic career with wider political concerns. Audio + transcript below.

Artwrit: I’m talking today with artist and activist Rachel Schragis, who is a member of the Arts and Culture Working Group of the New York City General Assembly of Occupy Wall St. Rachel created a poster version of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City that’s attracted a lot of attention. Within days it was all over the Internet, and it was on the Al-Jazeera blog, right? So why don’t we start there? Do you want to tell me a little bit about that?
Rachel Schragis: About what happened? The story I end up telling all the time is, “How did you come to make this?” Before Occupy Wall St. hit, I had made a very conscious internal decision a couple of years earlier to develop flow-chart-making as a creative practice that I was doing, which came out of being a sculptor trying to make work about my complicity in ecological problems for the most part, and being really frustrated that the content wasn’t coming through in an explicit enough way for my taste. And so I started making flow-charts about what I wanted to do in sculptures and realized that the flow-charts were functioning better as pedagogical art objects. People wanted the text, people were reading the text.

And so I said, “How do I make this little draft I’m doing of the sculpture into the art object?,” which required experimenting with a whole new set of skills, basically as an illustrator and a graphic designer. And also, “How do I really make the content of them work? How do I understand what it means to make my maps?” And so for a while I just really trained myself to do this, and one thing that I did was I would find lists or indexes of books that I thought were really interesting and try to map them out to draw out the themes, just so I could be good at turning lists into maps. So when I read the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City… Very early in the movement, I went to a General Assembly in the first week because my friends told me it was interesting, and went back online to check out what on earth that was, and saw the declaration of the movement. I immediately said, “This is a flow-chart. This is probably the hardest one I’ve ever made, but I should try just for my own personal edification, if nothing else. Just to understand what this movement is, because I’m confused personally.”

And so I started drawing out themes from this list of grievances on the declaration. It’s a long list of “these are the problems with the world.” And very quickly I hit, “This isn’t just about me.” All the flow-charts I had made to that point were really about self-implication as a way to undermine preachiness. To say, if I make reference to my own opinion about the material, and my own life experience, and my own struggles with the material, and I make fun of myself, then people will be able to swallow these big dogmatic ideas about the world, in this visual form. But I realized, I can’t talk about myself on this; this is a piece of propaganda I’m trying to make. But if it’s not going to speak for just me, I need to work with other people on it. And so I went to the Arts and Culture Working Group, I emailed, and said, “There’s an Arts and Culture Group? Well, when do you meet?”

Yeah, they have a thing for proposals. Did you just send in a proposal?
It was before. The structures are building themselves rapidly. It was before that existed. I just posted the proposal on the listserv. Someone wrote back to me within an hour, a man named Johnny Sagan who I’m still working with, and said, “That sounds really interesting. Come to a meeting.” And so I came to a meeting with the idea, and they said, “That sounds really great, but you’ve got to do it. Show us a draft and we’ll tell you what’s wrong.” And at the time, I was like, “I can’t make a draft of the themes of the declaration, come on!”

That’s a lot of responsibility, right?
Right! And I felt like, “Who am I to do that? I’m just one person.” But I realized, if I believe this should exist, I should…

Why not?
…go ahead and start.

Let me interrupt you here. So, when you’re talking about flow-charts, it sounds like you’re saying that you feel like text is maybe more potent than images? In terms of your practice, is that how you got to flow-charts as the actual object?
That’s where I am now. A couple of months ago I would pretty much talk about this with resignation as a phase. I’m a really dogmatic person, I want stuff stated, and I really believe in language, I believe in the power of language. And even though I’m a visually oriented person, I struggle with images, with the ability of them to communicate something that’s sufficiently clear, and black-and-white, and “this is how you should feel about it.” And so I feel like I landed on flow-charts as what felt like a last resort, of “I just really want people to be with me, get what I have to say.”

It seemed clear.
Right. I would say, “I’m doing all this text work right now, because I don’t feel like I have any other option, and maybe someday I’ll get to go back to objects.” And I still kind of feel that way. Maybe I’ll get to make space that embodies my ideas; it’s really what I want to do.

The poster really drew me in. I’m kind of obsessed with text as a visual. And I was walking by Printed Matter and the poster was in the window and I kind of hunted you down. The poster really sort of read like an obsessive-compulsive… There’s a lot of outsider material that has that look, or Jonathan Borofsky. And to me, it seemed really compelling as a visual thing, not just from a content perspective.

But you must be having a different experience. One of the things I wanted to talk about is the tension between you as an artist and you in this moment, which is undoubtedly the defining political moment of this generation. So you sort of have a foot in both camps and I think there’s something very interesting about how artists and creative people and activists navigate their own personhood at moments of tremendous political importance.
It doesn’t feel even that way right now. It’s obviously really uncomfortable that… or, not obviously. When this took off and started getting a lot of attention, as it continues to get more and more, and at this point I’ve just braced myself for a new echelon of attention once the posters come next week, basically. There’s a mass edition coming out.

Oh, cool!
At first I felt very uncomfortable, because it’s so good for my career. I would not be talking to you if I had not been making this thing.

Right, it’s true.
And at first that felt at ends with being a good activist in the movement. But, it’s exactly this image that very quickly embroiled me in the movement. I’m not sure it would have taken over my life if I hadn’t made a thing that allowed me immediately to know how I wanted to navigate the system, know what I had to offer and be seen as a peer with other people who are deeply invested and have a lot to offer. It’s a real privilege to be seen that way in the movement, because everyone should be seen that way in the movement, but sometimes it’s hard to be able to name exactly what an individual has to offer. Now I unfold it and it’s clear: This is what I have to bring with me. Other things, too, but it has some stature. But I’ve come to feel like it’s beautiful that what’s good for me as a person and what’s good for the movement are not opposites.

And at this point it doesn’t even feel like the tension between me as an artist and the movement… I’m an artist in the movement. I’m doing this for the movement. I would not be doing this interview if I didn’t on some level feel like it was good for the movement. And that allows me to feel okay taking up space. I’m going to talk about what’s important to me because I’m really every day wrestling with that tension of being an individual in the movement, which is the tension all of us in the movement are feeling.

Yeah, I think that this is an art world question that’s come up many times over generations, but where art fits into the larger conversations.
Yeah… [laughs] I don’t have an answer.

I know you don’t, but I know that you’re very thoughtful which is why I wanted to speak to you about it. I feel like art in the public sphere is a very different thing from art within a gallery context. But some of the research I’ve done around the Arts and Culture Working Group, and some of the conversations that we had, sort of indicated that some of those historical questions like the Art Workers’ Coalition, some of the things that have come up surrounding who makes the work, who owns the work, if there’s money to be made from the work what that means, the co-optation that happens within an art context, these are all realities. And the same way that you can’t exist in late-stage American capitalism without participating in it, that’s true for an artist as well.
Yeah. I was thinking as you were saying that the opposite, which is these things are true in art because they’re true in the world. And something that I talk about in Arts and Culture Working Group meetings and in meetings with individuals that I’m working with is: We cannot at any moment talk about the problems of the Arts and Culture Working Group as a thing separate from the problems of the movement. Co-optation is an issue in the world, the role of the individual is an issue in the world, the role of the economy is an issue in the world. We need to see what we’re struggling with in the creative realm of the movement… But the whole movement is a creative entity! Who am I even to say that? But, we need to see our moments of struggle in the particulars of the movement as examples of the struggles of the world, so we can name what’s going on particularly and then use that as teaching moment in any outreach around the thing.

The example that happened this week that I’m really excited about is we were asked… There’s an issue of the Arts and Culture Working Group needing space to make things, which is the same issue as the movement needing space, obviously. And we were offered for, like, three months, to use the office space of the Hyperallergic blog that’s based in Williamsburg, to make art. Not for people to live, for art-making purposes and meetings. And there was some talk about how do we do that. “What project do we, the Arts and Culture Working Group, do?” I was approached to turn this mapping project that I’m doing right now into a collective effort at this “residency,” they were calling it—three months in this space residency. First I felt like, I can’t be the name of the residency, because I’m a white girl from an educated, affluent background. I’m not the artist in need here. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought the idea of a residency is within a construct of the art world that the movement is critiquing: This individual and what they have to offer society is special and gets the resources. But, the fact that people need resources to do creative work, it is true! Everyone needs that! So instead, what we’re working on is, I think it’s going to be called the Occupation Residency, which is any working group, any affinity group, any individual who is either working on a creative project or feels like what they can do for the movement is start a creative project, is welcome to come and do that in this space, sponsored by Arts and Culture for the next three months, because we have this space.