November 17, 2011

A Thought On The Aesthetics Of OWS!

At first, one of the things I found least appealing about OWS! was the new convention for signage, torn pieces of cardboard box inscribed in magic marker or sharpie. By early October, as the encampment took root and drew more and more folks, some moving in, others coming when they could, these signs were everywhere.


Literally. People would hold theirs up in front of them to try and get conversations started about the contents, or just to put their views before the world. The section of Zucotti Park bordering on Broadway had dozens neatly laid out on the sidewalk where passersby could read them. Further back, they were haphazardly displayed or piled up where those who might show up without sleeping gear, like me, could pick up some for some insulation against the night cold of the pavement.

The content varied wildly. Some were politically acute, some so na├»ve they made you wince, some intensely personal, some cosmic, some incoherent, some longwinded, some funny, some sharp. My favorites were funny and sharp, like “I won’t believe that corporations are people until the State of Texas executes one.”


In a movement chock full of creative people, in an era of inexpensive printers and color transfers, I thought they looked pretty shabby, and a little studied, like ateen who spends hours making sure the rips in her jeans are just right--or the gel in his hair makes it look just the right kind of mussed up.

Obviously this was a conscious aesthetic choice. Though I’ve never heard that it was debated at an early General Assembly, there has been an obvious consensus that cardboard and marker serve as a signifier of authenticity. And that aesthetic does reflect the strengths of our movement, grassroots, diverse, and above all open.


I’ve changed. I am now genuinely fond of them. There are, of course, all styles of signs at Occupy Wall Street, but marker on cardboard remains iconic. Partly I’m sure, it's that familiarity has bred fondness, but also, as the movement has swelled, I’ve recognized two additional strengths this approach brings with it.

First, it has been an easy entry for newbies to the DIY ethic of OWS! This is very important in a movement whose central tactic, physically occupying space in public, 24/7, tends willy-nilly to divide people into two camps, the serious occupiers and everybody else. Like the 99% vs. 1% framing, it can bridge that divide, help folks think "we" instead of "I support them." Anyone coming to the encampment can pick up a hunk of cardboard, and write something on it and carry it with them (or could before Bloomberg’s assault). Presto, You’re part of Occupy Wall Street. And kids love doing it.

Second, it vaccinates the movement against cooptation or bogarting by forces not at the center of it. How many demonstrations have you been at where preprinted signs with a boring slogan are pushed on everyone by a union or a group like MoveOn.org or perhaps something with a name like the Proletarian League for the Reconstitution of the Fourth International (Bolshevik Faction) and people took the damn things? If anybody tried something that blatant now, it would be painfully obvious to everyone how bogus it was.


That’s why, on Tuesday morning, approaching a rallying point for forces just dispersed from the park hours before, I was distressed to see looming a cluster of very tall bright yellow signs. “Aw, shit,” I thought, “who the hell got those printed?” Getting closer, I was relieved to find that they were homemade, the slogans on them stenciled in black. And I was even more impressed to see that they were not on poles, but longer than I had thought. And they were pretty solidly constructed and appeared to be carried by handles fastened to the back.

And thinking about the need to defend against or blunt the kind of baton attacks the po-po have launched against Occupy! encampments in recent weeks, I decided I could adjust to this new school of poster art pretty damn quick if it catches on.

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