On a poster board leaning against a tent pole, magazine cut-outs loom large, vying for space with fangs made of a clipped up credit card and a martini glass with an ice cube labeled “propaganda.” The work is titled “Bush’s Brain.” Even as a legal battle with City Hall threatens the future of Occupy New Haven, a group of artistically-minded protesters are working to protect and further expand the creative culture they have developed at the camp. Art installations, poetry and creative writing collaborations are the three main forms of creative work that have come out of Occupy New Haven since October, three organizers at the camp said.
New Haven resident Matthew Osbourne, who has been at the camp since Oct. 15, said he believes the art coming out of Occupy New Haven facilitates the unraveling of the current global economic system as much as the protesters themselves do.
“I think we need to bring to the public consciousness that culture is being produced [at Occupy New Haven],” said Martina Crouch ’14, who joined the movement last fall. “We’re developing an Occupy culture out of the culture we already have.”
On March 14, federal judge Janet Hall granted the protest a two-week reprieve from city’s attempt to evict it from The Green, allowing members to remain encamped until at least March 28, when they will have a full hearing before U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz.
This extension gives the growing art scene on the Green a few more days before it faces another challenge to its existence. Osbourne said he has created two art installations at the camp, one of which is built on and around the tent he originally set up in October, which is now the only Occupy New Haven tent not to have been relocated from its initial spot on the Upper Green. The tent is partly spray-painted a striking orange color and serves as a surface for Osbourne and other Occupiers to write messages about issues that concern them.
“[The installations comprise] an un-juried show that’s trying to be flexible and floating,” he said. “I also want to invite unknown artists to bring stuff and add to it, and known artists to contribute if they want to, but to do it discreetly.”
Crouch, an art major, said that Osbourne’s work represents a style that could be perceived as street art, due to its being a product not of academic artists but of creative citizens. Part of this informality, she added, derives from his “creative re-interpretation” of found materials.
Osbourne said that he has been working on art with political messages for years, with his interest in the medium growing as he became frustrated with politics following the presidential election of 2000.
“I just went insane [back then], and now I try to exorcize the demons and get other people to help me with it by adding to my pieces,” Osbourne said, pointing out artifacts he has incorporated, such as a torn Dalí print from his apartment, a McDonald’s playing card from the Bicentennial and a Disney “Finding Nemo” toy in a marmalade jar.
“I’m not an apolitical ape,” Osbourne said.
Political motives drive a great deal of the work that is being produced, Crouch said. She added that she thinks the production of art on-site will help draw people into the camp to have conversations with the protesters about their mission. The original vision of the camp, after all, was to share thoughts with one another about pressing political issues, Crouch said.
Osbourne said he sees art a means for Occupiers to convey their complaints with a “broken system.” To add to that, he added, he has transported over 300 lbs of artwork from his nearby condominium to the Green. These works are housed in the two tents Osbourne is maintaining as installations.
Another part of artistically deconstructing and discussing Occupy’s message occurs in regular weekly meetings called “think tanks,” Crouch said.
“At the think tanks, people bring their creative stuff, say, a poem, and discuss it,” said Crouch, who writes poetry herself. “Most Occupy camps across the country set up these think tanks, which are all part of [protesters] informing each other.”
Crouch said that she has been inspired by the Occupy movement to get involved in long-form writing, not only to inform her fellow Occupiers, but also to spread and defend the message by publishing her thoughts on her Facebook profile.
“A significant amount of people have ‘liked’ [my posts], so I know I have readers,” she said.
Crouch added that she plans to publish journal entries detailing her time with Occupy in a newly revived student publication called Year @ Yale, which will annually print journal entries written by students over the course of the year.
Crouch said that she was particularly driven to write after signs were stolen from the camp in early February, allegedly by members of the Yale Political Union’s Tory Party.
“I was surprised at the lack of a response,” she said. “I thought people would respond in anger, but no one did, [which] might be because some people agreed but also because some people are afraid of saying something and being negatively associated with Occupy.”
Crouch said that she believes the creative power of Occupy lies in its members’ ability to take raw information and convert it into something more powerful.
Occupy New Haven made one such powerful statement last Wednesday, she said, with its Big Top circus performance held on the day the police were allegedly scheduled to pull down the Occupy camp.
Ben Weidner, a New Haven resident who moved into the settlement over two weeks ago, said the Big Top concept originated when the Occupiers placed a large tarp over some of the smaller tents on the Green and an unknown protester spray-painted ‘Big Top’ on it.
“Once the media started asking us questions about it on Monday and Tuesday, I started saying we would put on a circus to make a mockery of the system,” Weidner said.
Crouch said that the idea of a circus-cum-confrontation inspired Occupiers to engage in creative forms of resistance, such as erecting upside down American flags to signal distress and donning “outlandish” uniform-like costumes with heavy combat boots. The protesters, she added, intended to turn any police involvement into a “joke” by performing in outfits playing on police uniforms.
As not many police officers actually arrived at the Green on the date of the planned eviction, the Big Top event became more of a metaphor, Weidner said.
“The system had plans, but they just didn’t work out. We put a lot of thought into ours,” he said.
Crouch said that she and Osbourne are now trying to put together a new installation piece for the site that will engage passersby by inviting them to express some of their own frustration for a small fee.
“We’re envisioning at least 50 broken television sets, on which we’ll paste the images of anchors, media outlets, whatever,” Crouch said.
New Haven residents will be able to smash the images of these “very trusted, very big, kind of skewed” institutions, she said. Occupy New Haven is trying to bring together a large quantity of old television sets, Crouch added, by asking around neighborhoods and using GiftFlow, an online project set up by Hans Schoenburg ’10.
Speaking of his personal future plans, Osbourne said that he hopes to make his found object installation work more immediately comprehensible.
“Some people didn’t get it when it was just a mess, so I’m trying to refine it,” he said. “[It’s] been called ‘too much information’ and worse.”
Crouch said that while some art work produced at Occupy New Haven may feature strong language and harsh commentary, such characteristics are part of their identity.
“It’s meant to be forceful [because] the reality of the problem is not genteel,” she added.
Occupy New Haven is reportedly the last Occupy protest still encamped in New England.