A few years ago, Joe Therrien, a graduate of the NYC Teaching Fellows program, was working as a full-time drama teacher at a public elementary school in New York City. Frustrated by huge class sizes, sparse resources and a disorganized bureaucracy, he set off to the University of Connecticut to get an MFA in his passion—puppetry. Three years and $35,000 in student loans later, he emerged with degree in hand, and because puppeteers aren’t exactly in high demand, he went looking for work at his old school. The intervening years had been brutal to the city’s school budgets—down about 14 percent on average since 2007. A virtual hiring freeze has been in place since 2009 in most subject areas, arts included, and spending on art supplies in elementary schools crashed by 73 percent between 2006 and 2009. So even though Joe’s old principal was excited to have him back, she just couldn’t afford to hire a new full-time teacher. Instead, he’s working at his old school as a full-time “substitute”; he writes his own curriculum, holds regular classes and does everything a normal teacher does. “But sub pay is about 50 percent of a full-time salaried position,” he says, “so I’m working for half as much as I did four years ago, before grad school, and I don’t have health insurance…. It’s the best-paying job I could find.”
Sometime during the second week of the Occupation, Joe took that leap. Within his first hour at Liberty Park, he was “totally won over by the Occupation’s spirit of cooperation and selflessness.” He has been going back just about every day since. It took him a few days to find the Arts and Culture working group, which has its roots in the first planning meetings and has already produced a museum’s worth of posters (from the crudely handmade to slicker culture-jamming twists on corporate designs), poetry readings, performance-art happenings, political yoga classes and Situationist spectacles like the one in which an artist dressed in a suit and noose tie rolled up to the New York Stock Exchange in a giant clear plastic bubble to mock the speculative economy’s inevitable pop.
Alexandre Carvalho, a Brazilian doctor who worked in Rio’s favelas and was one of the original organizers of Arts and Culture, explains that the group’s praxis revolves around two principles. “First—autonomy, horizontalism and collectivism. We’re nonhierarchical, self-regulating, self-deliberating and self-organizing. Everyone is creating their own stuff, but we’re connected to a larger hub through the Arts and Culture group.” The second principle is something Alexandre calls “virgeo,” a mashup of “virtual” and “geographical.” “We try to have both an on-the-ground conversation and an online conversation so that people all over the world can send their ideas and respond to our work.” The same concepts apply, more or less, to the other culture working groups at OWS—from Media (which shoots video for OWS’s livestream, documents direct actions and produces educational videos) to the Library (which has received more than 3,500 books, all logged in an online card catalog, from the nearly complete works of Noam Chomsky to Creative Cash: How to Sell Your Crafts, Needlework, Designs and Know-How).
Liberty Park is culture-rich, but not in that way. Its denizens include Katie Davison, a 31-year-old filmmaker who used to direct fashion commercials until her family became “collateral damage in the financial crisis”: her father, once an executive at GMAC, died in a car crash the same day he was fired from a subsequent job. At some point, Katie vowed to stop doing commercial work and started a documentary on inequality and the collapse of the American dream. Her friends said she was crazy, and sometimes she felt that way too until she followed a hunch and got on a plane from Los Angeles to New York on September 16, one day before the Occupation began. She’s been shooting video for the Media group ever since, although like many early Occupiers, she soon faced a dilemma: funds depleted, should she take a paying gig or keep working for the Occupation? She chose both. “I don’t understand how I’m going to balance the revolution and editing this vampire movie,” she laments.
For Katie, who comes from an anti-capitalist background, the appeal of OWS is “beyond political”: it is “spiritual and philosophical.” Her day-to-day work life is defined by the principles of horizontalism, autonomy and collectivism. Like a lot of Occupiers, Katie says that the point of working without hierarchies is to “show through direct action that something else is possible…. This empowers people who have no power in the real world, but in this world they do, and this changes human potential and the human value system.” Katie admits that at times “working with people in an all-inclusive manner has been very difficult.” She’s used to hierarchical structures on production sets (“I’m the director—and I direct”). In the beginning, the Media working group was mobbed with volunteers who said they could shoot; but when the videos came in, it became clear that folks were coming from different skill levels. “How do you create something where people don’t feel bad about the things they are making?” she asks.
Dear Puppet Guy,
You are an idiot. Your friend,
– Fake Herzog
P.S. The Puppet Man paragraph is getting quoted all over the internet right now, but I included vampire girl as well just because she is also just a perfect example of the youth of America being completely brainwashed by liberal nonsense that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry (e.g. “oh no, some people are better at certain tasks than other people — what should we do about this state of affairs — the world is unjust!)
P.P.S. Gotta love the reporter from The Nation who uses the word praxis unironically in a sentence. I believe The Weekly Standard would fine their writers two weeks pay if they turned in copy with that word, plus they would have to memorize the first three chapters of Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and recite them to Kristol while he gets a massage from his Asian manservant.