Protest criminalised at the "pepper spray" university

An open letter to Yolo County.

Sometime in July, in a court in Yolo County, California, eleven students and one professor at the University of California Davis will stand trial, accused of the “willful” and “malicious” act of protesting peacefully in front of a bank branch situated on their University campus.

There has been in recent months a great deal of online coverage of the brutality of public order policing at Davis. The treatment of the Davis Dozen, however, promises more longstanding injury. If found guilty, each faces charges of up to eleven years in prison and $1 million in fines.

The immediate history of the case stretches back to autumn 2008, when state budget cuts trickled down to the partly state-funded University of California. The administration of that University responded by announcing that tuition fees would be increased by 32%, prompting several months of vocal student protests and campus occupations, violently suppressed by the state authorities.

As the collapse of the US banking sector caused the State of California to withdraw its funding for its public Universities, those same Universities turned to the banking sector for financial support. On 3 November 2009, just two weeks before riot police would end a student occupation at UC Berkeley by firing rubber bullets and tear gas at the students and faculty gathered outside, the University of California Davis announced on its website a new deal with US Bank, the high street banking division of U.S Bancor, the fifth largest commercial bank in the United States.

According to the terms of that deal, US Bank would provide UC Davis with a campus branch and a variable revenue stream, to be determined by the University's success in urging its own students to sign up for US Bank accounts. In return UC Davis would print US Bank logos on all student ID cards, which from 2010 would be convertible into ATM cards attached to US Bank accounts. Just at the moment when, on the campus of UC Berkeley, riot police were beating up and shooting students who protested against austerity, fee increases, and their handmaiden, debt, the management of UC Davis was selling the debt of its own students to U.S. Bancor, the corporate beneficiary of “austerity.”

The poet and critic Joshua Clover, who has written extensively on those police actions, is among the twelve who sat down in front of the Davis branch of US Bank in protest, and who now faces the prospect of sitting in a cell in the Monroe County Detention Center until 2024, has argued that “the rise in tuition and indebtedness simply is the militarization of campus”. These processes, Clover says, “are one and the same”. The claim concerning police violence will not seem exaggerated to anyone who has watched the videos on You Tube of the police action at Davis.

The sit-down protests outside the UC Davis Branch of US Bank, in which the “UC Davis Dozen” were only a few of many participants, were not only peaceful; they were, in effect, the active demilitarization of campus. Their point was to make explicit the connection between corporate banking, state austerity and an increasingly militaristic police presence in universities.

US Bank closed its branch in the UC Davis Memorial Union Building in March. The sit-down protests were a success. That such effective protest cannot be tolerated is evident from the response of the University administration and the Yolo County District Attorney. The charges against the Davis Dozen have a notable history of service: “Obstructing movement in a public place” was an indictment invented to criminalise homelessness in Alabama. The Davis Dozen are to learn – on behalf of everyone affected by austerity – that protest against the conditions which lead to homelessness is criminalised by the same legislation that makes homelessness illegal. For the bankers, millionaire University administrators and state functionaries for whom “revenue” is to be maximised no matter what the cost to the people they serve, this paradox is no paradox at all.

We are grateful to the Davis Dozen for the example of principled and eloquent bravery in response to intolerable extensions of police and corporate power at a time when the poorest are being deterred from university study by the prospect of unmanageable debt. We, internationally located artists, critics, and writers, ask that the Davis Dozen be acquitted of these extraordinarily severe and ignoble charges, to which they have courageously pleaded “not guilty”.

Signed:

Dr. David Nowell-Smith, Université Paris VII - Denis Diderot, Prof. Robert Hampson, Royal Holloway, Dr. Daniele Pantano, Edge Hill University, Olivier Brossard, Maître de conférences, littérature américaine, Université Paris Est-Marne la Vallée, David Gorin Jean-Jacques Pouce, Fellow, Internationales Kolleg Morphomata, Genese, Dynamik, Medialität kultureller Figurationen, Daisy Fried Abigail Lang, Maître de conférences (Associate Professor), Université Paris-Diderot, Paris, Michelle Levy Schulz Dominique Pasqualini, Directeur de l'école EMA Fructidor (School of media and fine arts, Director), Chalon-sur-Saône, Sean Bonney, Marianne Morris, poet, UC Falmouth, Keston Sutherland, Reader in English, University of Sussex, Orlando Reade, University of Cambridge Binh Nguyen, San Diego, CA, Janet Holmes, Boise State University B, arry Schwabsky, art critic, The Nation, Robert Kiely, Birkbeck College Kent Johnson John Wilkinson, poet, Professor of Practice in the Arts, University of Chicago Alvin D. Greenberg, Boise State University Dr. Alberto Toscano, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths Stacy Blint, Disappearing Books Katy Balma, Fulbright Fellow and Teaching Assistant, University of Connecticut Wendy Battin, poet and essayist David Lau, Lana Turner Magazine Nick-e Melville, poet and lecturer at Motherwell College, Scotland Peter Phillpott, Great Works, modernpoetry.org.uk Patrick Pritchett, Lecturer, History and Literature, Harvard University Robert Archembeau, Professor of English, Lake Forest College (Illinois) Rob Holloway, Joseph Kaplan, Dr. Jeffrey Pethybridge, Susquehanna University Dr. Don Stinson, Northern Oklahoma College George Cunningham, Hansa Arts Joseph Walton Hugh McDonnell, University of Amsterdam Megan Kaminski, Creative Writing Lecturer, University of Kansas Jose A. Alcantara K.E Allen, Lecturer in English, Comprehensive Studies Program, University of Michigan Allan Peterson, Gulf Breeze, FL Siobain Walker Dr. Nina Power, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Roehampton Francesca Lisette Caitlin Doherty, University of Cambridge Frances Richard, Barnard College Ryan Dobran, University of Cambridge Dr. Cathy Wagner, Miami University, OH John Bloomberg-Rissman, University of California, Riverside Carla Harryman, Associate Professor of Literature, Eastern Michigan University Robert Ellen Joel Duncan, University of Notre Dame Jared Schickling, Adjunct Professor, Humanities Division, Niagara Count Community College Dr. Ian Patterson, Fellow, Tutor, Director of Studies in English,  Queens' College, University of Cambridge Dr. Lisa Samuels, Associate Professor, University of Auckland, New Zealand Ian Heames, University od Cambridge Prof. Alex Davis, University College Cork John Temple Jonathan B. Highfield Dr. Jennifer Cooke, Lecturer in English, Loughborough University Dr. Zoe Skoulding, Bangor University Kashka Georgeson David Grundy, University of Cambridge Luke McMullan Josh Robison, University of Cambridge Josh Stanley, Phd Student, Yale University Luke Roberts, Phd candidate, University of Cambridge Gareth Durasow.
 

People protest after the pepper spray incident at UC Davis. Photograph: Getty Images
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.