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Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective

Art is no stranger to social justice movements. In the twentieth century alone, the US witnessed folk songs in protest of the Vietnam War, Feminist art critiquing the unequal treatment of women, and guerilla art collectives fighting for an adequate government response to the AIDS crisis. The Occupy Movement is no exception. Growing out of Occupy Chicago’s Arts & Recreation subcommittee, The Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective (OCRAC) officially launched on February 24. To learn more about their goals and origins, I spoke with Alex Billet, an avid supporter of both Occupy Chicago and OCRAC.

Zachary Johnson ZJ: First of all, how did you become involved in the Occupy Movement?

Alex Billet (AB): I’ve been a radical and a Socialist since I was about 18, 19 years old, so it’s been about ten years that I’ve been involved in various social justice movements. When it became obvious that the Occupy Movement was something much bigger than just a few people doing something symbolic near Wall street and when it started catching on city by city, it just seemed obvious [that I had to join]. This was for the first time since the beginning of this economic crisis, ordinary working people in the US starting to say, “No.”

So it made obvious sense for me to go down [to Lasalle], meet people, and see where they’re coming from. “Are you still a student? How big is your student loan debt? Are you working? How’s the crisis treating you?” I just spoke with people about how to go forward in building this movement into something that can present an alternative to crisis, austerity, war, discrimination and all the rest.

I’ve talked to a lot of people since who’ve said, “This is the first political thing I’ve ever done.” I’ve talked to a lot of people that are brand new to activism; it’s intensely exciting for the movement. When people ask how I got involved, it’s like how could I not have gone down to Lasalle and Grant Park? This is what I do. This is a big part of my identity.

ZJ: How did OCRAC grow out of the Arts and Recreation subcommittee?

AB: As a back story, in addition to being an activist, I’m also a music journalist. I’m someone who’s written for very radical publications, trying to bring together progressive politics into a critique and an outlook on music. So, when I heard there was an Arts and Recreation committee, [getting involved] seemed like a no-brainer. Some of the other folks started floating the idea of launching something broader than just a committee that’s part of Occupy Chicago. Something that’s outward, that’s broad, and that’s focused on doing on a broad scale what I try to do with my writing. Unions, the LGBT movement, the anti-racist movement in its various stripes, teachers, and the labor movement have all been given a shot in the arm by Occupy Chicago. We thought it our best task to form a collective whose explicit aim is to connect those movements with all these various, progressive, alternative-leaning artistic movements in Chicago.

An attendee at OCRAC's launch event studies photographs by Emily Day. Wicker Park, Chicago, IL. 2012. (Photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

The amazing thing has been the response so far from the artists and musicians. A lot of them are just like, “Absolutely, we’ll play a concert in memory of Troy Davis. Absolutely we’ll come down and play in front of the horse in Grant Park.” Sometimes we’re getting this just off of cold e-mails or them approaching us about it. So, I’m getting the sense that this is actually a presence that in some form has been needed here in Chicago for a long time, or at least other people have had the same idea, which to me says that we’re on the right track at this point in the game.

ZJ: At this point, what are your goals and future plans?

AB: Our launch was February 24. Our long term goal is to form a network between the social justice movement and all the different sorts of artistic scenes here in Chicago — providing a platform of unity. I think a long term benefit of being part of a network like this is all of a sudden you get to work with different activists or different artists that you might not otherwise have the chance to. Therefore, you get the potential for new projects, new ways for approaching art that come out of that. [Fostering] that is our long term goal.

At this point we want to keep going out there and connecting with as many activists and as many artists from different disciplines as possible. So in the short term, [we’re organizing different events]. March 23rd, we have this arts and culture event in memory of Troy Davis and Martina Correia that is meant to provide a cultural lighting rod for the anti-racist movement in Chicago. It will be modest of course, but our hope is that new people will come out who we haven’t run into before. I think especially with the racist murder of Trey Von Martin last month and the outrage that it has provoked- it’s one of those weird connections that history can serve you up with.

We’re hoping the weekend before May Day to do an event similar to the one we’re having on the 23rd, that uses art, music , culture, performance, and all sorts of different multimedia to commemorate International Workers Day and immigrant rights. We just last night got confirmation from Rebel Diaz who is a big presence in the underground, radical, hip hop community both here in Chicago and in the Bronx where they’re located out of.

We’ve also had someone from the Uri-Eichen gallery down in Pilsen reach out to us to do an art showing of prints, graphic design, paintings, sculpture, anything that has come from Occupy Chicago. That’s going to be on April 13th. In addition, we’re just at the beginning stages of discussing how to artistically support the teachers who might be going out on strike as early as the fall. These are the kinds of ideas that are in the short term, and we’re hoping it’s the kind of thing can continue to create those avenues of expression between artists and activities. We’re starting out pretty modest, but hopefully we can continue to sink those roots and continue growing.

ZJ: What do you think the unique role or power of the arts is in Occupy?

Cpt. Captain perform upstairs at the launch event. Wicker Park, Chicago, IL. 2012. (Photo credit: Zachary Johnson)

AB: I think there has never been a grassroots social movement without the arts. Often there is interplay between the two. It happens organically. With OCRAC we want to provide a platform through which that can happen and provide extra possibilities for it. Understand, I don’t think the arts are ever going to be a substitute for the on the ground work that has to be done in order to build a social justice movement. At the same time, they come organically out of that kind of work. When people are presented with the idea that it doesn’t have to be this way, like the Civil Rights Movement, or the Women’s Rights Movement, or the movement against the Vietnam war, then they start thinking a different way about, well, perhaps society in general, and that includes art. People’s minds start opening up and that’s how you get things like Ohio, that song by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young right after the Kent State massacre. It is how you get Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit, and almost the entire catalogue of Woody Guthrie. Artists are people operating within a political and societal reality, so that the social change way of thinking is, in some ways, again intrinsic to the history of art. Not just music, but the poetry of Audrey Lord and the Surrealist movement in France in the 20’s and 30’s. These were artistic movements that also broke aesthetic ground, the same way that a social movement is trying to make our society more inherently democratic and push at those boundaries. When those boundaries are tested, artistic boundaries can be tested too.

So, I think art in a social movement has as many roles as people give it. It’s something that I think is very much part of what makes us human. When we try to create a more humane society, a society that is more human and gives rise to more human potential, then we start to see that potential played out artistically too.

ZJ: Anything else you want to add?

AB: Personally for me, I’ve been waiting for something like this for a long time. For the past thirty years our side has been taking it on the chin. Layoffs, terrible health care, schools being shut down, and yet somehow we have billions for war and billions for bail-outs of banks. I think because of the fact that it’s been going on for so long, it has clouded our confidence in our potential to fight back. I think from here, really what we started to see with Tunisia and Egypt is maybe we can fight back and actually win. That’s one of the reasons I’ve continued to be a music journalist and someone who’s exploring this arts/activism nexus. I believe human beings have the ability to run things themselves, without the intervention of the 1%. That’s why you saw hip-hop blossom the way it did in Tunisia and Egypt. Here were young people who wanted to fight back and all of a sudden were inspired to believe they could take the reins of society.

That’s why I think repressive societies always want to keep a lid on the arts. The 1% fear truly liberated art. You can’t fight for a liberated society, unless you fight for liberated arts. They have to go hand in hand. With OCRAC, we hope to be one small part of that liberation, and that’s a big honor.

OCRAC will be holding an event in honor of International Workers’ Day on April 27. To learn more about it and OCRAC in general, visit their website here.

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