Rachel Schragis, Artist and Activist, Part III

by Avram Finkelstein

February 2012

In the third and final part of our interview with Rachel Schragis, she discusses Occupy Museums, the connection between education and activism and her attempts to occupy her own practice. Audio + transcript below.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Artwrit: Can you tell me a little bit about Occupy Museums project?
Rachel Schragis: Occupy Museums is a great site.

It’s kind of amazing!
Right now the really big… Did you hear about this action at Lincoln Center?

No… Orient us, and then tell me about that.
So Occupy Museums is… It’s kind of not PC to name anything the brainchild of a particular person, but Occupy Museums was admittedly the vision of an artist named Noah Fischer, who’s a sculptor. He said we should use the direct protest model to confront arts institutions for their practices that are part of the 1% problem, using the Occupy Wall St. apparatus. He is on a… His Working Group… My language is not what I want it to be right now. The Working Group, in which Noah is a really respected member—that’s what’s true—do an action every week.

I’ve noticed they’re very, very active.
Sometimes they’re pretty small, because it’s one a week and I can never figure out when they are until they day of, and I’m like, “Oh shoot, I have plans tonight! The action’s tonight!” I’ve only been to one of their meetings and I get their emails. Often, there’s someone else coming in, saying, “I have this idea for an action.” There’s one member whose first name is Ben—I don’t know his last name—who is involved in opera, so there have been a couple that are opera-related actions. This one came together in a very quick way, that was actually pretty huge last week, and it was the closing performance of Satyagraha. The word means “nonviolent resistance,” essentially. And it’s a beautiful production at Lincoln Center. And so they wanted to call irony to the fact, or call attention to the irony of Satyagraha in the theater, but violent arrests for “satyagraha” in the streets.

Right, very great.
It’s very great. And it’s really deep, it being in Lincoln Center, because Lincoln Center is this Robert Moses project of urban renewal by plowing down seventeen blocks of tenement housing in the ’60s. I grew up across the street from Lincoln Center so this felt really moving to me because I grew up in a high-rise that was built as part of the success of this urban renewal project. An affluent family like mine would move to New York City and enjoy the arts institutions in Lincoln Center, which I did my whole life. I went to the Big Apple Circus and to The Nutcracker and I went to the free performances in the summer. So, personally, I felt like this action was really deeply loaded because it’s in my backyard. It’s literally built on injustice: plowing down housing for poor people of color and building art institutions that are expensive to get into, to celebrate nonviolent protest. But it really became huge because Philip Glass came to speak at it.

Oh! I didn’t know that.
So the police got hold of what was going on, and they put up barricades so that the protesters couldn’t actually get into Lincoln Center, and they were out front. People were taking off their shoes and standing at the barricade to speak. The barricades were up so that the people could safely get out of the theater. But then when the people got out of the theater, they were really sympathetic to what was going on and there was a circling around the barricade, with the protesters who weren’t in the theater on one side and the audience on the other side, Philip Glass and a couple of other speakers in the middle. Laurie Anderson spoke, too. And people kept breaking down the barricades, trying to make it one circle and the police would put them back up, and they’d break them down again. And so it was a gigantic, huge group of people, and they had a General Assembly where people do call and response statements, and it got a bunch of media attention. The goal of the Occupy Museums model is to make these events that are meaningful to whoever’s protesting, meaningful to whoever’s coming out of the museum or the opera, and then so pointed at what’s going on in the artistic event that whatever media exists for that event can’t not talk about Occupy Wall St. They did a protest calling attention to labor practices at Sotheby’s, at a major auction. So then when there was a covering of the auction in The New York Times, they had to make a statement.

I think you’re one of the rare types of people who are able to navigate all of these various compartmentalized identities and see them all as political, but that’s not true for everyone.
Well, I have a very privileged education that allows me to do that, a combination. I see the history of my education as directly what’s led me to this moment, that I’ve been educated through really fine, conventional institutions: private prep school in New York City, liberal arts college, and—more of my own decision—experimental institutions, free schooling institutions. I used to work as an experimental educator doing agency education in a mixed age way, working on farms, working on intentional communities, building this bridge between this set of really rigorous language I’ve been given because of where I was born in the world and the ideals that I feel like the world needs. So I joke to myself all the time, and I say, “This movement that I’m in right now is the moment I’ve been training for my whole life, but gosh, if it happened five years from now, I would be so much better prepared!” I feel like I’m at the top edge of my ability every day.

You’re fairly well prepared, though.
Yeah! I use language from every book I ever had, every self-study I’ve done, I’m constantly synthesizing into this moment. But I’m in a very… When you say, “You’re one of the rare people who can,” it’s because I’m one of the rare people who has been given access to it.

I think what I’m trying to say is less about access and “can” and more about…  Artists frequently tend to consider their art to be consciousness-raising, whereas you’re fully integrated so that your art is consciousness-raising,  but everything about you is consciousness-raising and you’re seeing this as a consciousness-raising project and your poster is a consciousness-raising project, not a work of art. And that’s a big difference, that’s what I’m referring to.
This is an idea that comes directly from an idea that comes out of free schooling theory, which is that what education is… Education is the act of taking agency. This is the skill we need, is how to figure out what you want to do and how to do it. You can’t teach anyone that, if you don’t have it yourself. You can only bring other people places that you’ve brought yourself. And so, as an artist, all I can do is bring my viewer places that I have gone. This is language that I use for myself to counteract the guilt of feeling like being an artist is an introspective, self-serving career. To say, “Where do I feel like I need to go as a person to be a better citizen?” And that is the same thing as where I want to bring people with me. And how do I forge a creative career and a creative practice, a studio practice, that really directly allows me to become who I feel like I should be. The phrase that I use for it now is “Occupy Your Practice.” But I look back the last couple of years of my life and the last couple of years have been about occupying my practice, and making some real choices, some of which felt like sacrifices, like I’m not going to try to make installation art, which is where I feel like my love is. And I’m not going to see that as a sacrifice, I’m going to try to not see that as a sacrifice.

You’re activating social spaces, so what could be more direct?
Right, but I like to play with objects. [laughs] I don’t do that very much right now, but I say, “Someday you’ll be old and you’ll make your masterpiece.” Right now, I make posters, but there’s plenty of time.