OCCUPY WALL ST.: We’re Getting On and the Zero Emission Book Project
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Lucky, prior to Waiting for Godot by the 99% Theater Company
At 11:00AM On Friday, October 14th, I sat in the back of a casting room in Manhattan, listening to actors audition for a film called Family Games, which I co-wrote, and which four days before had officially entered preproduction. Earlier that morning, Mayor Bloomberg had attempted to evict the Occupy Wall St. protesters from Liberty Square in the financial district, on the pretext that the grounds had become unsanitary. Brookfield Properties, which technically owns the plaza, planned to clear the demonstrators and their tents so the park could be “decontaminated.” Occupy Wall Street’s counter-action was simple: if Brookfield Properties was arriving at 7AM, an OWS cleaning crew would work all night to make sure there wasn’t a mark on the granite, or a shred of paper outside a trashcan; the 99%, so they hoped, wouldn’t get displaced on a technicality.
I had planned to attend the clean-up before auditions, but instead I went to a coffee shop and worked on a script re-write. I don’t think I realized how heavily my inaction was weighing on my conscience until one of the actors scheduled to read for us came in looking as if he hadn’t slept. “Sorry if I seem a little exhausted,” he said. “I was up all night sweeping Liberty Square.” I glanced down at his headshot and résumé. He’d just finished a play on Broadway.
Having, out of guilt, avoided the news all morning, I asked him if they’d staved off eviction. “We sure as hell did,” he said. “3,000 people turned up 6AM for a standoff with the city. Bloomberg couldn’t do a thing about it. We had the place sparkling by sunrise.”
At the outset, I was wary of Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement. People have never taken to the streets successfully during my lifetime. So, when I heard that they were gathering in the narrow streets of the Financial District, I felt certain, no matter how much I respected their underlying frustrations, in less than a week they would disband, that their protest would not even deserve a footnote in American political history. I was wrong. They will not be going home.
The morning after the protesters stood their ground against Bloomberg in Liberty Square, spurred by the actor who had, in effect, challenged me to participate, I took the train Downtown for the first time. Within fifteen minutes I was marching toward a Chase Bank branch by the Hudson, yelling: “All day, all week: Occupy Wall Street;” and shouting at the police, “We are the 99%, and so are you!” The protests are a circus of ideas whose strength and weakness is the diversity of its opinions. At times, accordingly, I felt a bit like an automaton, repeating phrases that had little meaning to me. But at others I literally had to hold back what Payne calls “the tears of solidarity.”
After the march on Chase, I returned to Liberty Square. I was participating, at last, but the nature of my participation remained vague. In the early stages of a movement, it’s important to simply show up and be counted. Few things are more threatening to an oppressor — if I can be so pejorative when referring to a government I helped elect — than the proletariat gathering at the gates of Versailles. But once you’ve made the announcement that you’re displeased, you must hone that displeasure into one of two weapons: a political platform or art.
1. Pozzo preparing to sit on Lucky. 2. Marching on Chase Bank
For now, the 99% movement is too nascent to field candidates; the ideology still has to coalesce. But it isn’t too early to express the excitement and chaos of the moment artistically. In fact, it’s already begun. At noon on Saturday, October 15th, in the northwest corner of Liberty Square, the 99% Theater Company staged their first production — Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I can’t imagine a better play to incept a discourse on the disillusion the protesters are feeling. These times don’t call for political passion plays. They call for surrealism. We need to exercise our minds so we don’t just end up repeating the same rote talking points.
That isn’t to say the 99%’s staging of Godot was free from literalism. For instance, when Lucky hobbled into the square with the noose around his neck, goaded by Pozzo’s whip and carrying Pozzo’s provisions, a woman at the periphery of the performance space held up a sign that read: “At least Lucky has a job!” Ma’am, Lucky is a slave. Unintentional ironies aside, though, I remain steadfast in the belief that Godot is the correct play for the 99% Theater Company. Challenging times require challenging art.
If I had my way, an artistic bloc would form in solidarity with the 99% Movement, similar to the rise of the Surrealists in Spain in 1927. As Fascism loomed in that country, Dalí, Buñuel, Garcia Lorca and the rest of the Generation of ’27 became the visual and verbal articulators of Iberia’s developing general political — and cognitive — dissonance. We, too, need a passionate, challenging aesthetic to shape, add nuance, and even challenge our march toward progress.
1. Occupying Times Square, October 15, 2011. 2. Nervous police and 15,000 protesters in Times Square
The first gesture I’d like to make in that direction is to offer my novel, We’re Getting On, as one of many starting points for the discussion of this political alienation we’re shaking off (you can download a copy and support Occupy Wall St. by clicking here), and I’d like to offer the blog at weregettingon.com as a discussion forum for art’s role in the revolution.
“For a long time,” declares the narrator of We’re Getting On, “I’ve wanted to retire to the country. The city — its lights, its ineluctable machines — has exhausted me physically and morally…I want refuge from everything I’ve ever learned or done or been reliant upon. One cannot prevent advancements; one may only remove himself from the parade.”
Last year, when Flatmancrooked released We’re Getting On, I spent a lot of time discussing, in articles, interviews, and at readings, the latent environmental and technological themes in the book. On the surface, the narrative concerns five people retreating extremely from society, reënacting human devolution, from consumerism back to pre-scavenging. And because I was riding a bicycle from Los Angeles to Seattle (as part of the Zero Emission Book Tour) to promote the first edition (whose cover grew into a birch tree if planted) it made sense to talk about the book’s carbon footprint. But I rarely, if ever, discussed the book’s political footprint. And that’s because I didn’t understand what impression it would make.
The new edition of We’re Getting On, with a block-print cover by Marisa Reisel
In the opening chapters of We’re Getting On, though, some very provocative ideas get brandished. The characters, who will soon maroon themselves in the Nevada desert to carry out their anti-evolutionary experiment, are obsessed with the dictatorships of the Middle East (after Osama Bin Laden is killed, they gather at a bar to watch old DVDs of Saddam Hussein’s trial). And mind you, the book was published nine months before the Arab Spring.
In some respect, We’re Getting On was groping through an ideological haze until the Tunisians rose up this March, and before the Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square. Now that protesters are occupying American cities — New York’s Liberty Square, Boston’s Dewey Square, Sacramento’s Cesar Chavez Park — the political undercurrent running beneath the novel is finally surfacing. This comes as a shocking surprise to me. To unwittingly foreshadow a revolution is thrilling — and disconcerting. The very meaning of my own text, for me, has shifted. The city’s “ineluctable machines,” which last year were just iPhones and Honda hybrids, this year are also political and financial institutions. When my narrator says, “We’ve survived amongst them long enough,” I used to think he meant we’ve gotten addicted to technology. Now he seems to mean we’ve grown reliant on a fatally flawed government.
The value of the political premonitions in We’re Getting On are up for debate. The novel is not, by any means, a didactic fiction. Like any work of (attempted) art, it doesn’t point to easy solutions: The tyrant at the center of the narrative uses tyranny to combat tyranny. But I think it might open up some unexpected territory for discussion. As Occupy Wall St. and its sister movements gain traction, we need challenging, open source art to help us contextualize our political ambitions, and the revolution needs financial support. That’s why Monster Meanman Books is releasing a “donate-what-you-think-it’s-worth” ebook. You can download the ebook for free, but you also have the option to give when you download. 50% of those proceeds go to NYCGA, the not-for-profit that’s collecting funds for Occupy Wall St., so they can provide basic supplies — food, blankets, jackets, tents — to the new tenants of Liberty Square.
— James Kaelan is the author of the novel We’re Getting On, which he toured, by bicycle up the west coast of the US last summer as part of the Zero Emission Book Project. Family Games, the first feature film that he co-wrote, is in production now in New York. If things go according to plan, that picture will turn back mumblecore from the gates of Stalingrad like a hearty Russian winter.