'Occupy Bay Area' at YBCA Explores the Visual Culture of Resistance

One year ago today, an Adbusters.org blog post authored by Bay Area based editor Micah White suggested, "Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On Sept. 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street." This sparked a global phenomenon of demonstrations against wealth disparity, with like-minded Occupy encampments proliferating in cities worldwide. Beyond the establishment of functional camps -- complete with free kitchens, medical centers and lending libraries -- these demonstrations relied heavily on the skills of artists to get the message out. Occupy Bay Area at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts considers the role of art in the Occupy encampments in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco. Prints, photographs and videos are presented alongside artifacts from historically significant protests to consider the recent uprisings within the larger context of the Bay Area's long tradition of protest and resistance.

The exhibition centers on a selection of ephemera from local encampments as historically significant visual culture. A selection of fifty posters produced by local artists, a series of news media photographs taken by independent photographers, and a number of videos shot on-site are included in the exhibition. Interspersed with these items from the Bay Area Occupy encampments is documentation from other protests that engaged encampments as operational frameworks, including materials from the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley (1964), the five-month long student-led strike at San Francisco State (1968), the Native American Alcatraz Occupation (1969), and the decade long ARC/AIDS Vigil at United Nations Plaza (1985-1995).

Artwork by Megan Wilson; courtesy of the artist and YBCA .

"My contention," explained curator Betti-Sue Hertz, "is that while Occupy starts in New York and it goes to many, many cities not only here but in Europe and in other places as well, that it resonates in the Bay Area in a particular way because of the deep history of protest here. Our experience of this affects the way that we experience it and how it plays out. One of the reasons that we have such a strong showing of political posters is because of a strong legacy of this kind of activity for us to work from. If you look at the Emory Douglas posters from the Black Panthers and put Favianna Rodriguez's posters next to these, you can see that she has been looking at them too. And it's not only the political posters, but also the psychedelic posters that have influenced the artists. You see some of these influences in this show." Hertz cites early conversations with Yerba Buena colleague Amanda Verwey, an alternative comics artist with ties to the East Bay Occupy community, as instrumental in the development of the exhibition. "We were really interested in the aspects of visual culture in the Occupy movement across different kinds of producers -- whether it was a graphic artist or a photographer -- and then looking at historic work in the same light."

Artwork by Kota Ezawa; courtesy of the artist and YBCA.

Adjunct curator Julio César Morales organized a selection of work by "aligned artists," or rather Bay Area artists whose work demonstrates an alliance with the core values of the Occupy movement. Selections include a series of prints by Kota Ezawa depicting protestors and Sergio de la Torre’s quasi-documentary work about Chinese immigrants in Tijuana living in abandoned public housing (presciently titled Occupied! long before the movement began).


Artwork by Eric Drooker;courtesy of the artist and YBCA.

Given the inherent institutional critique embedded in the Occupy movement, there are perhaps intrinsic contradictions with bringing the ephemera inside an institution funded by the government and wealthy private donors. But dismissing the exhibition on this basis would be to lose sight of the dialog instigated by the movement. The posters, photographs and video produced alongside the Occupy movement have become documents of radical dissent. Beyond their original function, they offer an archive of our milieu, from the significant impact of social media to the broad politics of the financial crisis.

"These posters have a role when they are on site in the plaza or in the encampment, but when the encampment is over and things shift, what role can they continue to play?," asked Hertz. "The museum or the gallery setting is a very neutral space, relatively speaking, for presenting these materials in a very different context. By taking them out of their original site and placing them in another context, we can start to see their value in a number of different ways. People who never went [to the encampments] and never saw them, can see them here and have a different experience of them and see the power of not only the work, but the messages too. There is still a lot of work to be done and we can continue that work through this conversation."

Occupy Bay Area is on view through October 14, 2012 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. For more information, visit ybca.org.

View This Week in Northern California video about the exhibition: