For a month now New York’s Zuccotti Park has been a digitally radiating lamentation of capitalism’s cruelest traits. The Great Recession, the park’s inhabitants say, made it impossible to mask hypercompetitive, socially atomizing forces inherent in the status quo. It’s an odd scene set against the forbidding façade of World Trade Center One, rising comically out of proportion to every unfortunate park, street or building near its base. Somewhere down there the general assemblies of Zuccotti Park scramble for alternatives to the system of irrational speculation that, incidentally, spawned WTC One. What would that system look like? The major critique of Occupy Wall Street is that they haven’t uniformly articulated such a system yet. But their spontaneous reinvention of Zuccotti Park offers glimpses of alternative urban design in real time. It brings to life the art world’s increasingly popular genre of social experimentation. As I’ve written about before, the temporary Guggenheim Lab used vacant space to invite civic input on urban design alongside a stream of expert informers. Creative Time’s “Living as Form” in the Lower East Side’s historic Essex Street Market did much the same thing, but from a consciously radical perspective in tune with the emergent zeitgeist. The exhibit, which closed Sunday, was a study of how to foster substantive social interaction. “Living as Form” subverted through design what it implied is the unfairness inherent in modern capitalism. Installations re-imagined public spaces as sites of civic interaction rather than individualized consumption. Bangkok-based artist Surasi Kusolwong’s popular centerpiece “Golden Ghost (The Future Belongs To)” piled multi-colored thread waste high enough for visitors and their children to dive in. Kusolwong used industrial waste materials of the kind discarded in the global economy’s ever-intensifying rush to move goods from production to consumption. By doing so he transfigured textile plants’ industrial byproducts into something broadly usable and participatory. This was a use of materials designed, in the words of Creative Time, to value social interaction over market exchange.
Bodies burrow themselves in thread waste while playing with strings in Surasi Kusolwong’s “Golden Ghost (The Future Belongs To).” Photo: Joshua K. Leon
Video displays offered windows on underreported social movements that creatively manipulate public spaces toward socially progressive ends. One display highlighted the successful decade-long “park fiction” movement in Munich. There, residents picnicked on a commercially zoned property as if the valuable riverfront land had been designated a public park. Other film loops proffered experimentations in bartering over monetary exchange, communitarian living over landlord-tenant relationships, cooperatives rather than top-down business models. Daily talks, community gatherings and walking tours broadly lamented the status quo, promoting new forms of collective urbanism. Today’s Zuccotti Park fits nicely alongside Creative Time’s explorations of the radical albeit increasingly mainstream theme of “right to the city.” The park’s functionality emerged on the fly out of desperation. Yet it coalesced into an alternative model of public space in its own right. The park’s inhabitants can sustainably do what they want to do despite minimal resources or top-down planning, not to mention persistent antagonism from the city. These functions include daily event scheduling not wholly different from that of “Living as Form.” Lectures and group exchanges on the theme of economic injustice occur there daily. More pressingly its functions include sustaining a precarious revolving community of perhaps 250 sleepover residents with few publicly provided services. Volunteers dispense provisions from medical treatment, to sanitation, to kitchens, to a library in designated places across the park. A micro-economy fosters services though trading skills. This system of quasi-bartering gives form to what many there see as a post-financial society. There is also a peculiar technological sparseness in the way information travels throughout the site. The park’s internal lines of communication pay homage to human-centered forms of exchange. Speakers speak without megaphones while crowds amplify their words by chanting them in unison. Its lounging spaces, meeting areas, music and dancing aspire to convey a democratic egalitarianism devoid of technological superficialities, enriched by social diversity. This is a visual culture that portrays itself as humanistic rather than electronic, where information travels via acoustics rather than amplifiers. On the other hand there is an essential social media component echoing globally. Laptops, cameras, and broadcasting equipment are virtually everywhere. Each random lens hanging in air begs the question of how many people may be watching in a given moment and from what time-zones. Zuccotti Park exists predominately in digital space, the focal point of a seemingly endless global feed. It is a nascent attempt at alternative modes of living, ceaselessly evolving and subject to anyone’s interpretation.
Joshua K. Leon is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College. He has also taught at Villanova, Temple and Drexel Universities. He covered the 2010 Shanghai World Expo for "Next American City" magazine and "Foreign Policy In Focus." He is a frequent contributor to "Foreign Policy In Focus" and was author of the "World Watch" column for "Next American City" from 2008-2011. His articles have also recently appeared or are forthcoming in "The China Beat," "Cities," "Cambridge Review of International Affairs" and "Z-Magazine." A doctorate in Political Science, he writes on development, poverty, global health, and urbanization. He lives in New York City.