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Occupied Art: Can it Reignite the Revolution?
"With a few months of reflection behind us, the real Occupy victory was ideological rather than political"

Credit: Greg Wong

St. James Park is yurt-free and the grass is regenerating before our eyes, but when we hear the words “occupy” and “99,” we’re immediately back inside the general assemblies and tent libraries that held the world’s attention for a few months last fall. Except for a few bitter-enders, it’s generally agreed that Occupy Toronto is over, the result of both municipal action and apprehension before the coming winter (little did they know that it would be more of a whimper). And the global movement is, unsurprisingly, suffering from a lack of funds.

With a few months of reflection behind us, the real Occupy victory was ideological rather than political. They made noise, which made neighbours and politicians angry, which made the headlines, which now reside in our collective consciousness. Filmmakers, visual artists, musicians, and actors alike are creating work inspired by the Occupy movement, to pick up where the protestors left off — to take their message and (hopefully) fan their flames into a full-on blaze.

One such work was presented last week as part of the annual Paprika Festival, featuring emerging artists 21 and under. Playwright Rosamund Small integrated herself within the Occupy Toronto camp, video camera in hand, and her verbatim piece Performing Occupy is peppered with snapshots of general meetings, one-on-one interviews, and random observances from occupied territory. Cast members like R.H. Thompson, Susan Coyle, Andrew Kushnir, and Haley McGee took part in humorously democratic discussions: waves of spirit fingers, a choral chant of “Everybody Yurts,” and angry, loony, peaceful, rational, joyful opinions. Performing Occupy was a fascinating portrayal of some quintessential Occupy characters that, if we didn’t know better, would seem grossly exaggerated. 

Despite that, it didn’t exactly command audience members to head straight from the theatre to the nearest park. But that’s not what Small ever intended, as she explained in a panel discussion called “Art for Change” that preceded the reading of her play.

“I’m not really a political person,” she said quietly, adding that the prospect of writing a play was a helpful guise for exploring the movement without directly participating in it. “I didn’t know what it was, and that was a huge problem for me.”

Credit: Greg Wong

Performing Occupy‘s subject matter is inherently political, but she wasn’t necessarily making a definitive statement with her script. That wasn’t her approach. But some of her panel-mates, like director Ruth Madoc-Jones, actor/writer/producer Antonio Cayonne, and Trinity-Spadina councillor Adam Vaughan (a former actor and cartoonist) are much more explicit about their political stance and its relationship with the arts.

“The link between arts and politics doesn’t have to be ideological, but it does have to exist…Art without politics, politics without art, it doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Vaughan, noting that every revolution contains a strong poetic voice, from protest songs of the 1960s to Chile’s Pablo Neruda. Speaking of a revolution closer to home, the deputations against Rob Ford’s proposed funding cuts involved a sense of performance. Artists have long helped a movement find its voice or anthem, or merely exposed an issue or alternative perspective to a larger audience in a way that a soundbite or news article can’t.

“Approach it like a piece of art, keep the art front and centre,” said Madoc-Jones, who has a career full of politically-driven work and is currently developing a play about Toronto’s taxi industry. “If you’ve tapped into a truth, it will speak. And it will hopefully challenge the paradigm around which it’s wrapped.”

But the audience laughed, winced, and groaned when Madoc-Jones inevitably mentioned the “neo-conservative vibe” arising in Toronto’s theatre industry, beginning from right-wing influencers like Sun Media and a conservative government’s backlash against the SummerWorks Festival, but spreading more recently to the theatre companies themselves. Indeed, the panel took place inside the Tarragon Theatre, whose artistic director Richard Rose is professionally estranged from former playwright-in-residence Michael Healey after Rose’s refusal to program his play featuring a potentially libelous portrayal of Stephen Harper. The play will now get a reading at Theatre Passe-Muraille this month, but the hanging air of caution that the Proud controversy has brought upon the community is still thick.

That said, no matter the climate, artists will never not make political work. Most of them are smart, engaged, vocal, eloquent, and maybe even well-suited for office if they were more bureaucratically minded. In fact, more often than not, they’re the ones participating in movements like Occupy Toronto. Art can be an incredibly effective platform upon which to call for change, as the unprecedented success of Mike Daisey’s The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs recently demonstrated. There was a clear result that he desired. Daisey wanted Apple to stop supporting unethical working conditions in China, and they did. But without one, political art risks receiving the same criticism as the Occupy Movement itself–for making a lot of noise, and then fizzling out.


Carly Maga is an arts writer in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter at @RadioMaga

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