Kurt Andersen on the Year of 'The Protester'

Blog: 12.14.11

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 - 01:43 PM

New Yorkers reacting to protests in Egypt New Yorkers reacting to protests in Egypt (Stephen Reader/WNYC)

This morning, TIME announced 2011's Person of the Year: The Protester. Studio 360's own Kurt Andersen wrote the cover story, and was sworn to secrecy so we were just as surprised as everyone else. But in retrospect, we probably could have seen it coming. We’ve been covering the art and culture of global protest all year long [see below], from Egypt to Russia to the Occupy Movement in our own backyard.

In his article, Kurt traces the evolution of the protester — a figure who in the last 20 years was “mostly confined to pop-culture fantasy”:

"Fight the Power" was a song on a platinum-selling album, Rage Against the Machine was a platinum-selling band, and the beloved brave rebels fighting the all-encompassing global oppressors were just a bunch of characters in The Matrix.

But starting with Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire a year ago, the protester has again become “a maker of history." No matter on which continents’ streets they gathered the protesters have much in common. "They are disproportionately young, middle class and educated,” Kurt writes, and while technology played a huge role so did spontaneous protest art.

Belarus Free Theatre
At Studio 360, the year of the protester began with Kurt's interview of Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of the Belarus Free Theater. Belarusians have been resisting the country's totalitarian regime since the break up of the Soviet Union. In January, Kaliada was arrested at a protest.  She was threatened and detained by the KGB before fleeing to the United States with her company to perform in New York. Kaliada spoke about being an artist in Belarus. “When we stay inside [the country,]” she said, “It’s just like four walls around you. You just feel squeezed all the time."
Egypt: Poetry at the Revolution
In February, Kurt interviewed Egyptian poet Tamim al-Barghouti, who wrote a poem, roughly translated as “Oh Egypt, It’s Close," in the middle of the uprising in Cairo. Protesters installed two giant video screens (bed sheets, really) in Tahrir Square to broadcast Barghouti reading the poem live on Al-Jazeera every two hours.

Libya's Soundtrack to the Revolution
In July as the Arab Spring spread to Libya, Kurt spoke to the poet Khaled Mattawa about his country’s soundtrack to the revolution. Mattawa said that American-style hip-hop (with Arabic lyrics) was an especially effective mode of protest: “It was a way to tune out, to almost drown out any noise coming from the regime, to have a forum for expressing anger.”

Street Art Storms Russia
In September Kurt talked to Newsweek’s Moscow correspondent Anna Nemtsova about a group of underground street artists who were stirring up opposition to Russia's current regime. One group painted a 210-foot phallus on a drawbridge facing the Federal Security Bureau, the former KGB, while others mocked Vladimir Putin in illegal billboards. "They declared a war," Nemtsova told Kurt, “to state corruption, injustice, and the political regime."


Private Space Gone Public at Wall Street
Finally, in October the protests came home, just blocks from our studio at WNYC. Kurt visited Zuccotti Park with New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman to discuss how protesters at Occupy Wall Street had created a new kind of urban space. The park was an anonymous plaza that workers raced through to get to the buildings surrounding it, Kimmelman told Kurt, but now it had changed for the better. "It really works when it's occupied, when you really get a lot of people in it," Kimmelman said. "The people make the place, as always."



VIDEO: Kurt Andersen on Why TIME chose "The Protester"


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Comments [1]

Shea Hansen from Minneapolis, MN

Kurt Anderson made two interesting commentaries lately: 1) The last 20 years has seen no significant evolution in public art; and
2) The recent importance of the protestor. Is there not a relationship between these? Culture is a reflection of the communal mind. The leap to Romanticism in Europe came from enlightenment's liberation of the common man. Similarly, the cultural changes of the 1960's and 70's came from the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam movements which challenged a society which kept the body girdled and stayed and our music boxed. ose advances met with vehement backlash in the 80's which led to our current cultural war impasse. The lack of cultural growth derives from a concomitant political impasse we see in the current dysfunctionality of congress. Contrary to public opinion, I do not see such bickering as childish, but rather as reflection of our nation's attempt to work out the great inherent conflect between capitalism and democracy which has been present since our nation's birth. The question being contested is vital to our notions of fairness and justice and how we want to live our lives and conduct our civic business. We shouldn't trivialize our need to resolve basic opposing notions of who we are as a people, notions which contain contradictory basic values. To call this bickering stupid can be equated to dismissing the dispute between the King of England and the American Revolutionaries or the disagreement between the North and the South in the Civil War, or the pro and anti suffrage factions. This is not just bickering. There is a right and a wrong here that is crucial to our evolution as human beings. We are at an artistic impasse because we are at a social, political and economic impasse. I see the rise of protests in the last few years as a response to rising social pressure to move us off this impasse. As our archaic systems deteriorate bringing horrendous human suffering both in the U.S. and worldwide, popular demands rise for the old systems to step aside and allow the popular will to express itself. In the U.S., we see this in the Occupy Movement which struggles to free our society from an imbalance of influence by the rich. The flood of money into politics, most of it from large corporations, is corrupting and strangling our democracy which has been put up for sale to the highest contributor. But outcomes are uncertain. Powerful and well organized forces oppose change. My point here is to make a connection between the cultural impasse we now experience and the impasse in the socio-economic-political war going on in the larger society. Until we find a way past this impasse so that our collective mind is allowed to grow, we will not see dramatic evolution in our public art. It's impasse over the last 20 years is only a reflection of the larger impasse in our political, economic and social life and the struggle to resolve the conflicts inherent in it.

Dec. 23 2011 12:15 PM

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