To passersby, it is a jumble of tents and blue tarps, the iconic symbol of the displaced, the temporary, the makeshift. Set against the orderly but dull architectural backdrop of McPherson Square, the Occupy D.C. encampment is a low-slung and seemingly haphazard arrangement. But it has made this sleepy public space, used mainly by office workers and a few residents of nearby luxury condominiums, one of the busiest public squares in Washington. To use the argot of urbanism, the protesters who installed themselves at McPherson Square on Oct. 1 (and another group that has occupied Freedom Plaza a few blocks away) have done what so many planners, designers and architects strive for but fail to achieve: They have “activated” the urban core.
Whether the Occupy movement, which has taken over parks in cities across the country, fizzles or grows, whether it has resonance and can translate its message into concrete change, are political questions. But looked at solely as an aesthetic and cultural phenomenon, it has deep roots in ideas with established pedigrees in the world of art and architecture. Its anti-consumerist ethos, its impatience with the media and its love of theatrical intervention in city life make it a direct heir of the Situationists, a radical European avant-garde collective begun in the late 1950s with ideas that remain influential today.
The Occupy D.C. movement is transforming McPherson Square into an urban hub.
Explore Occupy D.C. up close
It might also be considered a living exercise in do-it-yourself (or DIY) urbanism, a trendy movement that strives to engage ordinary people in a hands-on approach to shaping and claiming public space.
And it seems a perfect fit with an exhibition, “The Interventionists,” which opened at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004. The show surveyed artists and activist groups that sought to “disrupt daily life” in creative ways, challenging the control and design of urban space. It included guerrilla groups such as the Biotic Baking Brigade — famous for throwing a pie at Bill Gates — which “believes that under neoliberalism, we can all throw a pie in the face of economic fascism,” and the video work of artist Alex Villar, who films people occupying urban space in odd and unconventional ways.
An eye for symbolism
Although Occupy D.C. eschews formal leadership and has been criticized for its amorphous organization and goals, it has proved remarkably adept at symbolism, especially urban symbolism. Charlie Hailey, author of the 2009 survey “Camps: A Guide to 21st Century Space,” an extensive taxonomy and analysis of temporary forms of urbanism, sees parallels between the Occupy movement and the tradition of long-standing protest camps in Europe, especially Britain, where a pacifist group created the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which stood outside an air base for 19 years until it disbanded in 2000. He’s struck by McPherson Square’s significance as a protest site.
“It is about legibility,” he says of the site’s proximity to the White House and the lobbyist corridor of K Street NW. “The adjacency is really striking.”