Written by Hrag Vartanian
Wall Street is a bizarre place. Major investment banks, hedge funds and other members of the world’s financial elite tank the world’s economy and practically no one gets arrested. Fifty participants in a performance art project by Zefrey Throwell, Ocularpation: Wall Street, get naked and three are arrested and are awaiting court appearances. America, consider this your wake up call.
Yesterday morning at 7am, artist Zefrey Throwell assembled 50 participants who performed roles based on the occupational demographic of the Wall Street neighborhood, including secretaries, janitors and businessmen. Three of those who performed were arrested by police officers at the scene.
The performance art work came from a very personal experience for the artist whose mother lost her savings in the 2008 stock crash and had to come out of retirement to look for a job. “She was depressed and later furious that the system that had cheated her of her golden years was still intact and thriving while she had to go back to work at a job she disliked,” he says. “The project came to me as a way to illuminate one of the most mysterious streets in the world, Wall Street … ”
The work’s name, Ocularpation, is a combination of the words ocular, meaning sight and viewing, and occupation, which has the double meaning of profession and to occupy a space by force. “The word stands for an aggressive public performance of work,” the artist says.
I asked Throwell what he thought the artist’s role is in society was and he answered, “What isn’t our role?”
Artist Aram Jibilian, who performed as a museum guard (the National Museum of the American Indian is close by), guarded a manhole cover as a sculpture and told passersby that they could not take photos of the “work” and that they should limit their cell phone conversations as to not distract their fellow “museum goers.”
“I wanted to take part in [Zefrey’s performance] because it felt like it would be an appropriate way to bring to light the Wall Street structure and the collapse it caused, which was done behind hidden doors with small groups of people who were creating systems that were not transparent and almost invisible to the rest of us,” Jibilian says.
He pointed out that the fact that the group arrived bright and early gave the art work a more theatrical quality since the streets were not yet teaming with people and those who were there could stop and see what was happening.
Visual artist Jomar Statkun played a janitor for the August 1 performance. He liked the fact that the piece made people think about Wall Street as not only an abstraction but a physical place where people live and work. but the bigger message was also important.
“I thought it was a great metaphor for exposing some things on Wall Street that haven’t been exposed in the past,” Statkun said. “Even seeing what happened there today in terms of people getting arrested was interesting considering that no one has been arrested with all the economic turmoil caused by Wall Street.”
He found the reaction to the piece as interesting as the work itself. “It was varied. It’s New York, so some people act like they’ve seen it a million times, but others were standing there and taking it in, and some even said it made their morning,” he explained.
The reaction from onlookers was mixed but one street vendor, Ali Wafaa, who worked at the scene of the performance told the Daily News that ”[i]t was like out of a porn movie … I wish New York City would always be like that.”
While 50 people took part in the action, three performers were arrested including dancer Aaron Mattocks, who played a stockbroker barking orders into a cell phone. He isn’t sure why he was singled out by the police, particularly since he complied with a police officer he knows only by the name Rodriguez. The officer approached him and instructed him to put his clothes back on saying he wouldn’t be arrested.
After Mattocks got dressed, the officer proceeded to arrest him. “I told him that I don’t understand, I did exactly what you said, and he said, ‘I changed my mind,’” Mattocks says.
Mattocks, along with two other performers — performance artist Eric Clinton Anderson and nudist Christine Coleman, were taken to the 1st Precinct, where they were locked in a cell for an hour and half without their belts and shoelaces and nothing in their pockets. He says the group was treated well and eventually they were given a desk release, which means they were freed with a ticket summons and no bail.
“It’s bullshit I got arrested,” Mattocks said. “I didn’t disobey anything more than anyone else and I complied with the officer’s instructions but they obviously wanted to set an example.”
“To me, the performance was about exposure,” he said. “[C]alling attention to the microcosm mechanisms and mysteries of Wall Street. Ocularpation was about stripping off layers of assumed understandings, the false sense of security in something we now know inherently we cannot trust. It was a statement of protest, as well, for the illegal practices taking place with or without government support, that have led to a crisis point. Ironically, it was much easier to get arrested on Wall Street as a person respectfully and peaceably objecting, than for those who have been specifically proven to have violated the interests and safety of the American people.”
Throwell says yesterday’s performance was an absolute success and everything he could have hoped for. “The performers and the audience left feeling that their day had been altered slightly in the direction of the unexplained,” he says. “People were grinning for no reason. Cops were frowning for no reason. Wall Street was disrupted for a very short time. Success.”
Re-published from Hyperallergic under the Creative Commons License