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Is Occupy Art?


The common ground shared by OUBEY and Carl Scarse has no bearing on whether the Occupy movement is art or not. It’s much more to do with the openness of art, its relationship to society and understanding art as a process. Another part of the common ground is Joseph Beuys – even though Scarse is more interested in Beuys’ idea of “Everyone is an artist” while OUBEY was more concerned with his entire oeuvre and the instinctive confidence with which he selected the materials for his art objects.

I assume Carl, you’d argue #occupy is art. Why?

CARL SCRASE: To be honest, I’m not sure if ‘argue’ is the correct verb. I may ‘propose’, ‘put forward’ or ‘ponder whether’. But no, no, I would not fervently argue such potentially slippery logic.

If I were to be pressured into giving an answer – which I suppose I am by virtue of being interviewed – I would offer the following.

I would suggest that in attempting to link ‘occupy’ and ‘art’ one could begin with a paper written in 2008 by Malcolm Miles, entitled Society As a Work of Art and then go on to watch the You Tube clip of him giving a lecture on the same theme. Malcolm gives a fantastic overview of the writing of Herbert Marcuse, talks about Joseph Beuys and touches on the topics of utopia, revolution, the history of occupations and how they all relate to art. This is a really interesting and informative summation of the historical underpinnings of ‘art’ and revolutionary social movements.

In the question and answer session at the end of the lecture Malcolm talks about Joseph Beuys’ claim that “Everyone is an artist”. To paraphrase Malcolm’s take on this famous phrase: Joseph Beuys means by this that everyone has a creative imagination and can envisage new social as well as artistic forms. The definition of art dissolves here into free living.

Joseph Beuys called himself a ‘social sculpture’, expanding and adding to the ambitions of the artist. This following quote from Beuys sums up his stance, and I believe is very interesting when linking ‘art’ + ‘occupy’. His words seem very prescient now, considering they were spoken in 1987, some 25 years ago: “In the future all truly political intentions will have to be artistic ones. ... they will have to stem from human creativity and individual liberty. ... this cultural sector ... would be a free press, free TV, and so on ... free from all state intervention. I am trying to develop a revolutionary model that formulates the basic democratic order in accordance with the people’s wishes ... that changes the basic democratic order and then restructures the economic sector in a way that will serve the people’s needs and not the needs of a minority that wants to make its profits. That is the connection, and this I define as Art.”

That’s a really interesting take on #occupy and art. But I was wondering what your direct experience has been? And is “everyone really an artist”, or does that only work in theoretical tropes of the imagination or in the safety of the gallery setting?

CARL SCRASE: Beuys has been a huge influence on me. In late 2010 I augmented the title of my profession from ‘artist’ to ‘social engineer’ – paying homage to Beuys but also attempting to stake out my own ground. The reason I chose ‘engineer’ over ‘sculpture’ is because I proposed that the Internet has exponentially amplified the scope and rate of effect that a small bunch of cultural change makers could make. In 2010 the Internet felt like the medium that the WE creatives had been waiting for – the alchemic missing element that enabled transmission of the transformational potential of ‘participatory creation’.

As I was playing out in my last we_magazine interview, I spent most of 2011 developing lots of WE-powered artworks. I won’t again dive into what I have done in the past; have a look at the WE_Australia publication if you’re curious. But suffice to say, I was attempting to create an artwork that would harness this new power of the Internet. An artwork that would spread around the world encouraging people to turn off their TVs and participate. An artwork that would enhance social cohesion. An artwork that would make people wake up to the insane corporate capitalist nightmare WE inhabit. I was hoping to develop the ultimate WE artwork – my magnum opus. I have often called this artwork the ‘Empathy Virus’.

Then on 14th of October 2011, just after the we_australia magazine interview, I watched the amazing Consensus YouTube video that was released by Occupy Wall St, and realized that something curious had occurred – it appeared as though someone had opened Pandora’s box and released hope – and she was spreading quickly – Beuys’ dream seemed to be becoming real. All I needed to do at this stage was to participate. And participate I did. The co-creation of an ever expanding WE kicked into gear with me a dedicated “key player” of Occupy Melbourne.

I might add here that I did not label myself a “key player”. It was a title forced upon me by the corporate media in collaboration with our Lord Mayor Robert Doyle. In a disparaging article targeted at me entitled “Occupy Melbourne protestor Carl Scrase takes the cash” a poorly formulated and incredibly dangerous logic was laid out that reasons that artists funded by the State can’t question the State.

I do, however, like the use of the word “player” to describe what I – along with all the other equally hard working Occupiers – were doing. So I have continued to use it.

I won’t delve too far into the drama that was, is, and continues to be, Occupy Melbourne. But to give a quick overview: the downsides involve lots of police, the full sting of the corporate media, lots of injured citizens and the realization that we don’t actually have the right to protest in Australia. Yet the positives far outweigh the negatives – friends, collaborators, skills and a pathway leading forward where there wasn’t one before. A clearing up ahead that leads to a better future is emerging.

I emerged after three hectic, amazing months inside Occupy Melbourne. A forced sojourn on the other side of this big country for a pre-organized three month art residency has allowed me to objectively step back, move past the trauma, and respond evenly to what has happened.

I would support the concept that everyone that was and is involved in Occupy Melbourne, especially in the first six days before the state oppression kicked in, are artists, artists beyond whatever the current institution claims to be ‘art’. We were using direct democracy to implement a new social form in the heart of the old. Direct democracy was our medium, method and message.

But isn’t it problematic to consider everyone an artist?

CARL SCRASE: The residency I mentioned earlier was at SymbioticA, an “artistic laboratory dedicated to the research, learning, critique and hands-on engagement with the life sciences” based within the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia. Which is basically code for ‘artists getting to play with scientists’. It’s a pretty amazing place – and I can think of no better place to ponder the big questions that Occupy has stirred up in my head.

One of the privileges afforded to me as a resident within a top university is access to some great minds. I spoke to Professor Alan Harvey today – I think his research on the neurological basis for music may shed some serious light on this sensitive question. He argues that music may have major “evolutionary importance” for us Homo sapiens, especially in relation to “social cooperation”. He says “the emergence of our own species released a torrent of creativity that is still gathering speed”.

I believe art has allowed us to go beyond the biological imperatives of ‘survival of the fittest’. It is now ‘survival of most connected’, ‘survival of the most cohesive’, ‘survival of the most empathic’ ... WE have one planet, for almost 8 billion people ... the rules of survival have changed. Alan seems to be putting forward a new theory of evolution – a theory that claims that art started us down this path of being social creatures. That art made us capable of acting beyond the imperatives of just propagating our genes to the next generation. Interesting stuff – Beuys would love it.

Science might soon suggest that art is inherently connected to being human – that is big news, and I think it should seriously make us reconsider some of our social structures.

One example of arts power that springs to mind is the tribal tradition of the sing-sing in Papua New Guinea. This distinctive tradition brings together many tribes to participate and share culture, dance and music – it’s a great example of how ‘art’ can overcome competition.

As my mentor Donald Brook says: “The primary use of the word ‘art’ is to collect together cases of memetic innovation, as contrasted with cases in which familiar memes are deliberately deployed.”

I love the almost onomatopoeic nature of the term ‘memetic innovation’ – it sounds like the zap of two neurons connecting, jumping the gaps between them in what seems like a magical and unpredictable act.

I think of art as that ‘zap’ that elucidates a connection not yet made or rather the fostering of an environment where that ‘zap’ may be more likely to occur. Just like the sing-sing or the town hall process of direct democracy that Joseph Beuys was championing.

Are you suggesting that “connectedness” takes on a new meaning for artists? If so, – in which ways?

CARL SCRASE: Communication, cooperation, co-creation, cosmos, connectedness ... what I have been trying to say through my answers is that it is not a “new meaning” – it is the ‘only meaning’ for artists – ‘artists’ being everyone that is actively part of imaging and creating society.

I might jump off the deep end here. Get a bit matrix. These times call for loose minds that are willing to ‘zap’ beyond the status quo.

God is a complex eternal user-generated system. This is my new catchphrase. The key word in this sentence being ‘eternal’ – because that means that it is constantly creative and has no boundaries.

Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Beuys ... I reckon these guys were aware that they were artists – they tried to tell and empower others so they could also become artists. Again I underscore that ‘artists’ are anyone that is actively part of imagining and creating society.
But the concept of eternity is really hard to communicate with words – language is a very inaccurate art, full of analogies that can be misinterpreted. As most people will probably find when reading this interview!

I wonder if the concept of eternity actually can’t be explained or taught. It can only be experienced through the act of creation, through participation in the ‘eternal user-generated system’ we call society.

The problem as I see it is this – somewhere along the line someone always seems to anthropomorphize eternity and then, all of a sudden, a religion is born ... usually with some sort of dogmatic rule book. A rule book that forcibly takes creativity out of the hands of everyone and places it into the mythical hands of some dude sitting in the cloud and his hierarchy of worldly rule enforcers.

I think the Internet, or as I like to call it the ‘Macroscope’, is humanities’ best artwork yet, a beautiful partner for the microscope. These two instruments used in tandem will allow us to map the whole and prove that ‘WE are part of a complex eternal user-generated system’, that ‘WE are all artists’ and that ‘WE are all creating this together’.

I have never labeled myself an atheist, but I do hope art and science will come together and dispel these false figurations of a monotheistic, anthropomorphist, all-powerful creator. And in turn redistribute the power of creativity to all.

I like this idea of the Internet being humanities’ best artwork and a beautiful partner for the microscope. I would call this the balance between the ME and the WE. DO you sometimes struggle between this ME and the WE?

CARL SCRASE: WE and ME live in a world where science has consistently told us that “there are no immutable truths” – a world where paradox is always just a fresh perspective away. The beauty of knowingly living within a paradoxical world is that all dogma is nullified – everything is united under its paradoxical nature – which is incredibly freeing and powerful knowledge to have. Life becomes more playful and generative – more holistic in its ever expanding field of creativity. I believe paradox and eternity are closely related. Although I definitely can’t articulate that link just yet.

To those who would disagree with my grey area thinking, I would say this – there is no doubt that both left and right exist, as does love and hate, hot/cold, big/small, up/down, war/peace, art/science, fiction/reality, self/community, ME/WE, etc. For me an understanding of dichotomies does not need to totally falsify them, as I have been guilty of suggesting in the past, maybe just disarm them – make them workable.

The ability to acknowledge perspectives other than the one you are currently seeing is a big part of participatory democracy and art.

You have been touching on the relationship of art and science. How might this relate to Occupy?

CARL SCRASE: There is an artwork of Joseph Beuys called Rose for Direct Democracy. This work is a great example of how Beuys was trying to harmonize the forces of nature and civilization, man and technology, and art and life.

I have just made my own tribute to this work. Follow this link if you want to have a look. ( The password is ‘empathy’.

There are layers of impact at play when art and science dance. WE are like a couple of long-lost lovers touching at the hips staring into each other’s eyes – magic is about to happen. Science with its Microscope and Art with its Macroscope.

I was reading the Harvard Business Review this morning and stumbled across a very interesting development coming out of the MIT Media lab. Sociometric badges – “a wearable electronic device capable of automatically measuring the amount of face-to-face interaction, conversational time, physical proximity to other people, and physical activity levels using social signals derived from vocal features, body motion, and relative location.” This really is the coming together of art and science under the advancements of technology. This is why I call myself a ‘social engineer’ ... we are entering into a brave new world.

You have also announced that you are going to run for Mayor of Melbourne later this year? Are you nuts? How do you find the time?

CARL SCRASE: I ask myself – What would Beuys do? I think he would throw his hat in the ring and try and become Mayor.

I don’t have the same respect for politics as I do for science – that much is probably obvious by now. I think the disrespect stems from the fact that I can see it has stolen some moves from the artist’s repertoire and is misusing them for short sighted self-gain – fiction, drama, image ... I intend to expose these moves for what they are.

This may seem antithetical to my campaign to become Mayor of Melbourne later this year. But I think there is currently not enough science in politics. As I mentioned earlier, I think the Macroscope has emerged and now we will be able to develop the science of society. Maybe the alchemical dance that art and science are now performing will show up politics and its current bed buddy ‘corporate capitalist greed’.

Maybe Occupy is art and science ... working together to create a cohesive WE? May be that is just what Occupy should be? Hmmm – back to the drawing board, into the lab and onward to the town hall.

Interview by Ulrike Reinhard

Carl Scrase was born in 1983 in Melbourne, Australia. He is currently still there.
He does a lot of things; most of them are based around the intersections between concepts such as empathy, parallel thinking, collaboration, perspective, systemic change, creativity and reality.

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