Rachel Schragis, Artist and Activist, Part II

by Avram Finkelstein, December 2011

In Part II, Rachel Schragis examines the ramifications of class vis-à-vis art and the conflicts that arise when one offers an individual perspective to serve the group. Audio + transcript below.

Artwrit: I think that something that I’ve discovered in researching and speaking to you, and doing some thinking about it, is that one thing that is very different about this current moment and the work that you’re involved with, is that rather than it being academic- or art-world-specific it actually is a re-envisioning of all the questions of access and class that art is a metaphor for if you are a political person who happens to make art, as opposed to an artist who gets politicized. I sort of feel like in terms of Occuprint, that the art making is almost secondary to the process and the movement-building and the access questions. Would you say that that’s true?
Rachel Schragis: 
I would say that the creative processes and the production of objects are tools we have in the world and one manifestation that that’s taken is what we call quote-unquote “art.” [laughs] And I struggle a lot with the label of artist, but the movement has allowed me to take it on more comfortably, because there’s a flexibility around the word “art” in society. It can mean something that we don’t think of as totally pragmatic. It embodies the need for human expression, that we don’t really think of even in design, and certainly not in propaganda or other manifestations of objects that are useful in the world. And so let’s use the benefits of the word, the energy around the word, to the advantage of the movement to help build the world we want, which is a world in which art is embedded in a lot of things, you know?

Yeah, I’m totally with you on that. There are also all these social constructions aside from the commodity aspect of it: Who owns it, who gets to see it, how well-educated do you have to be to understand it, how much leisure time do you have to have in order to go to a museum or pursue these questions?
You can’t hear me nodding, but I’m nodding a lot.

There’s a lot of nodding going on, just for the purposes of the transcript.
I’m keeping myself from doing the Occupy Wall St. finger-wiggle, but I do it all the time.

Do it, and I’ll try to acknowledge it. [both laugh] That’s a reference to the hand signals that are a part of the way the communications are structured in the meetings of Occupy Wall St. But all that said about the economic structures built around art, there are also these cultural structures that are also deeply institutionalized and also class-based and about control that have to do with what art is supposed to be and what artists are allowed to say, and it rarely falls on the side of the political. So there’s another set of tensions that’s about how as an artist do you address things that are didactic?
That set of tensions of how art as a community breaks down by class essentially is really real in the movement too. Who comes into the movement and says, “I belong in Arts and Culture and I want to take up space in Arts and Culture”? It’s people like me. [laughs]

I wanted to ask you about that. Sorry to interrupt you. But in an earlier conversation you said Arts and Culture is the largest working group.
It’s one of the largest, it’s not the largest.

So I wondered what your thoughts were about that as well.
It is a constant tension in the movement, or in Arts and Culture particularly, because it’s one of the largest but it is—you know, there’s enough statistics around it, but—probably one of the whitest and one of the most affluent groups of people. And some people within it who are comfortable using a pretty specific set of art dialogue and then take up space with that kind of dialogue in the movement are alienating to people who are relating to Arts and Culture on another level, outside of that hierarchical set of language. So for us to even claim that we are the home of the idea of culture in the movement is a really antagonistic thing, and so how do we break that down? Like everything in the movement, I feel really optimistic right now that it’s an opportunity to do education for the people who are speaking in that way, or for us as an artist community to name the problem within the movement because it’s the same problem within society. I was starting to really stress out about this, like, “Oh my gosh. How do I get anti-racist training, how do I get anti-oppression training into this working group? This needs to happen.” And then I was at another meeting, at the movement-building meeting. pitching another project of mine and someone came by and said, “We’re here to do collective consciousness building at your meeting.” And I was like, “Who are you?” “Oh, we’re the Trainings Working Group. We’re here to do collective consciousness raising trainings in all the other working groups when we feel it’s necessary.” I was like, “The movement’s magic!”

“I’ll get your email, I’ll bring you to Arts and Culture, we need you badly.” And they’re like, “We’re busy; everybody needs us badly.” There’s a lot of well intentioned but pretty new to justice-based thinking people in the movement, especially the people I resonate with in their experience, because like mine, they’re people who come into the world with a certain kind of privilege and need to have that checked continually, and need to learn how to do their own privilege checking a lot. And that hasn’t… It’s a real issue in the movement. “We are the 99%” kind of blankets over the class within the 99% in a huge, gigantic, gigantic way. [laughs]

Yeah, big time.
It’s very easy. We had a set of rhetoric in America before Occupy Wall St. hit about the needs of the working class and the middle class. And middle class people were getting squeezed. And this is something I was thinking a lot about at that time: How do we create solidarity, not around that, but around poor people in this country? It’s the growing class. How do we create outrage around the people who are really in the most need, who are getting the hardest hit by this crap going on? Because it’s dangerous to just talk about the working class, because you’re still really leaving out…

Yeah, well, the way it’s set up, where they count on us, staying separate and being vulcanized.  That is what class is about.
We have this moment, people are resonating with this rhetoric, the 99%. How do we use it as a teaching moment? I was talking just last night with someone else from Arts and Culture, saying a lot of what’s going on in the movement right now is protest with more specific points that are being hosted by one group or another in the movement, because there are so many offshoots. And then people come and rally around them. My friend was telling me about an experience he had last week, hosted by Occupy the Bronx, supporting a community garden that has now been bulldozed. It was slated to be bulldozed, but, “Let’s bring people from Occupy Wall St. in to support this protest to show our outrage.” So the protest was way bigger than it would have been four months ago. And my friend, who’s a white guy who lives in Brooklyn, was carrying a puppet at the march that he built. So it’s an access point to build a solidarity around the city. What we were talking about is that if him or I had showed up at this protest four months ago, it would have been like, “Who the hell are you?” and it would have felt a little uncomfortable because the idea of solidarity without antagonism is difficult. You have figure out how to do it. But it’s this moment where there’s language that allows us all to really trust that we’re there with a common enemy. And it’s going to need to continue to go deeper and it’s going to get harder as we tease out the tensions that do exist in the bottom 99%.

There’s definitely a zeitgeist, this it the moment, so access is actually conceivable right now, and there’s a lot of communication that’s conceivable as well, that maybe wasn’t like a month ago.
It was not imaginable to me a couple months ago.

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about… Again as an activist and an artist if you can keep one foot in each for the purposes…
They’re the same thing. [both laugh]

They are the same thing. You’re encountering two different things. One is you’re in a very collaborative political environment but you’re not necessarily in a collaborative art environment. As in, you’re not really working collectively art making; you’re working on a project and you’re collaborating with almost everyone in Occupy Wall St. but not necessarily with the people in Arts and Culture. Is that correct?
Yeah, that’s what I have been naming for folks in Arts and Culture right now. My project is… It’s really about, I think, the role of the individual, of individual vision, in the world we want. Someone asked me, “What if you made a mapping of what the movement is?” And I said, “That’s really an obnoxiously ambitious project for any individual to say they’re taking on.” But I do immediately have a vision of what that’s going to look like, so I’m going to house that vision and consider myself a container for people’s critique of that vision and work with people and build a coalition around me. But it’s not the Arts and Culture working group taking this on, because there’s tension between collective action and individual vision, but it is me housing this vision, tweaking it, listening to people, having other people who have become very invested in the project and then bringing it to Arts and Culture to build consensus around it, to do a temperature check around it where we say, “Do people feel good about this?” And me being really ready to listen and saying, “If people don’t feel good, I’m not going to continue,” but not saying, “The movement collectively needs to draw every line together,” because otherwise nothing is going to happen.

So your feeling about collectivity in terms of art making… You seemed to have a very defined sense of it. You feel comfortable as a sole inventor, so long as you’re collaborating politically?
Well, the movement has espoused a bunch of principles that I think it’s useful just to make a direct line from what I’m doing to a principle whenever I can. So one is agency. Individuals deserve agency in society: If I have a vision, I’m going to do it. Another is autonomy: I’m going to act in this way that in my gut feels like what I think is good for the movement and me to be working on, because it’s extremely challenging and interesting for me to be a housing of all this information about what the movement is. Everyone is doing that process. And to use the apparatus of Occupy Wall St. the same way I would use the apparatus of society, as a tool to make sure that the world feels good about what I’m doing, to check in with. And that that is not a separate thing from being in the movement. Doing that internal work, doing work independently, is part of the movement because we’re a movement that’s about individual agency and autonomy.