Monday, May 07, 2012

Our Occupations (after the Occupations): with Kathy Westwater

Something I am wondering about kind of broadly is how your practices might have changed since the beginning of the occupations, if we can mark this beginning in the fall of 2011 (the occupations obviously having their immediate precedent in the Middle East and Europe).

Do you think it may be possible to speak to this a bit? […] Succinctly, in a paragraph or two? Maybe it has had no perceivable effect, which is fine of course, and in which case you might talk about why it is important to maintain what you are doing parallel to (or beyond?) current social movements and political events.

Manhattan skyline behind PARK performers on North Mound at Fresh Kills (credit Marina Zamalin)

By Choreographer Kathy Westwater

When Occupy Wall Street began last year I was deeply entrenched in a creative residency on Staten Island at the Fresh Kills landfill, site and subject of PARK—an interdisciplinary performance project with collaborators Jennifer Scappettone and Seung Jae Lee—as it undergoes a 30-year transformation into a park.

Work on PARK began in 2008 during a residency in California around the time that the first tent cities started cropping up in municipal parks there, and my research immediately began to encompass non-recreational residential behavior in parks. 

I was in fact deeply obsessed with the collapsing economy, having spent 2010 doing extensive research to understand the derivatives market, including how we managed collectively to have not known about something so massively detrimental to us all. That research got channeled into the performance/lecture “Deriva-trivia”.

Door to The Vault, 14 Wall Street (credit Kathy Westwater)

Throughout my time working at Fresh Kills in fall 2011, Wall Street felt very present, like a part of or extension of the landfill. The financialization of the processes of making and doing that feed our global culture of consuming and enable the materialization of monuments to waste, Fresh Kills being the archetype, link the two sites, as well as the fact that one can see downtown Manhattan from Fresh Kills. Unsurprisingly yet still worth noting, one cannot see Fresh Kills from Wall Street.

Work on PARK since April 1 this year has occurred while in residence in a former vault in the basement of 14 Wall Street, a building right across the street from the New York Stock Exchange and around the corner from Zuccotti Park. This former vault has been “occupied” by artists for about five years via the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Swing Space Residency Program.

The Vault, as it’s been dubbed, is essentially two floors of office space that you access through a set of massive steel doors. I imagine what used to inhabit this space was mostly a whole lot of paper that held a whole lot of value and that now doesn’t hold value as efficiently as electronic ones and zeros, hence the handing over of this seemingly valuable, yet apparently not, real estate to artists.

Dance Studio in The Vault (credit Kathy Westwater)

Last week as I finished a rehearsal at 14 Wall Street, the artists coming in after me said that demonstrators were being lead away in handcuffs outside. When I got to the street I turned east in the direction of the audible sounds of protest nearby. A few doors down, on the steps of Federal Hall, there were protestors holding signs, drumming, and addressing one another and people assembling. There were so many barricades and police it was not possible to engage with the protesters. I could barely see them. But what I could see of them and of the agents of the state looked highly performative.

That the police used Department of Sanitation trucks to cordon off the street, didn’t escape my attention, nor that Federal Hall is overseen by the National Park Service.

Protestors and Police in front of Federal Hall, Wall Street (credit Kathy Westwater)

Two days later I received a letter from Lower Manhattan Cultural Council saying that the landlord of 14 Wall Street was withdrawing LMCC’s access to 14 Wall Street and that all the artists who were working in the Vault would have to vacate, cutting short a six-month residency by five months.

While I don’t want to say here that the termination of artists’ access to the Vault had directly to do with the protest activity, I will say that throughout the making of PARK I have experienced a perceptual and temporal integration among the phenomena of bankers causing financial meltdowns, economists ineffectually anticipating economic disaster, homeless living in parks, protestors occupying public spaces, police attempting to contain protestors, unaccountable politicians, artists working in underutilized and marginal spaces, and parks being built on former landfill sites.
NYC Department of Sanitation truck blockading street at protest site on Wall Street (credit Kathy Westwater)

To view previous contributions to this survey click here