Post Injunctive Experiments at the Vancouver Art Gallery

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November 2011

Holding Space

Well folks, in case you were worried…don’t be… Occupy Vancouver remains

and the People’s Lovely Library breathes.

It’s smaller, you won’t find the grand selection we had before, but it serves!

I often ponder on what it means to hold space. Holding space is a significant part of what ‘occupy’ is for me. When I write of ‘holding space’ I mean many things. I mean physical space, conceptual space, emotional space, imaginative space. A nice thing about space, is that it needs to be filled. When we hold space we create a vacuum, not for ourselves but for others to fill – with their ideas, their bodies, their inspiration and their impetus to life. As occupiers we hold space for deep social transformation.

Holding space is not necessarily easy, and the more transformative the space the harder it is to hold. The vacuum is larger – as is the disturbance that occurs when it is filled. Institutions of power resist transformation. As we hold space these institutions (which consist - ultimately - of ourselves and our relations to one another) react and reveal the nature of their power to us.

For well over a month we held space at the Vancouver Art Gallery. We held the space despite a multitude of pressures. We learned about law, politics, mass media, internal conflict, the courts and a whole lot more. We pushed the bounds of institutional power, and institutional power pushed back. In the end, with a court ordered injunction and police action imminent, we vacated the space and the bulk of our community dispersed.

Despite this for the last couple of weeks some of us have continued to hold space at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I return regularly to hold space in my own ways – and I keep trying to stay longer and come back more; to keep pushing the bounds of the possible. I hold space for others and they hold space for me. The more we do it together, the harder it is to leave and the more I want to hold.

Since our eviction we librarians have returned to the Art Gallery daily with a cart full of books, to hold space – to be there – in support of the community we have built since the middle of October. Here I return in defiance of those who would attempt to destroy the bonds we have built – in defiance of those who want us dispersed into the carefully mediated relations of the past.

On Tuesday I was expecting to hand over the library cart to Matthew, a fellow librarian who had agreed to take care of the books that day. When i arrived around half past noon, several city workers and police were standing around. It was clear they were there to enforce the court injunction and remove people and possessions from the common grounds. In the end they arrested Matt the Hat and confiscated some personal possessions.

It has been difficult to express my anger and sadness at the events of that day. Resolve seems the only response. A resolve to keep going; to keep holding space, to come back again and again and again, until - somehow - the injustice is finally revealed.

By holding space our eyes may be opened. By showing up at the sites of injustice and challenging the bounds of our own comfort and compliance we begin to understand what injustice and power are and how they work. That became clear to me on Tuesday. Looking back it should have been clear earlier.

When we originally packed up our encampment to comply with the court injunction – our community abandoned space without really appreciating what had been achieved. Had we seen it - I'm not convinced we would have left so willingly. Many of us were blind to the community we had built. We did not see how leaving would disrupt the fabric of our relations and we missed an opportunity to explore our convictions.

I don’t doubt the reasoning behind our move - a sincere effort towards community preservation - but we missed a learning opportunity to confront the psychological, economic, political and state forces that keep us in check. These are the very forces that shape the necessity for this movement we call ‘occupy’.

But we should heed that in the long run, if anything is to be achieved, we will have to hold space in the face of these forces over and over again. In the end abandonment of these kinds of spaces is not a route that will get us anywhere.

On Tuesday – I vacated space again – but I vacated knowing I would be back. I had the portable library – I knew if asked to leave I could and would return. To date this strategy has worked and I have learned about pushing boundaries – about staying, about fighting creatively, about false fears, about the power of collective and creative resistance and about the small act and how it can grow.

Despite these successes my anger grows – because my understanding of injustice grows as well. I see more and more how our institutions work to undermine us.

I felt ashamed when I moved belongings from the top of the Art Gallery stairs to ensure the police and city workers wouldn't take them. I felt the shame of caring more about possessions than about the very people I was with at the time – those who had no homes that night and thus had much bigger things to worry about than I.

The eviction meant they had no place to go. The city didn’t care and others did not offer help either. Here we were, people who have come to know and care about each other – in person – not in theory – and still some of us had no place to go. What does this say? Can we claim solidarity if we do not meaningfully hold space together – in ways that make real differences in each others lives?

Neither I nor my fellow ‘occupiers’, nor the larger society of which I am part can really claim to 'care' unless we act. It is also not simply enough to provide occasional shelter, food, warmth, dry clothes. We need the stability that comes from mutually nurturing interdependent relation - real community. I cannot claim solidarity if I leave.

When we submit to the will of those who would disperse us, then we become isolated again. We are more vulnerable, and the gains of our connections are diminished. . In dispersing us, the institutions of power disengage us from our common responsibility of developing the relations needed to make real, meaningful, differences in each others lives. If we do not find solutions we will continue to be compartmentalized and see people as other– those who are different – who are strange – who have little money – who are foreign – those we can only see in terms of mediated mental concepts and not actual relations.

The win of the last few weeks is we did get to know each other. We did hold space for one another and thus had to work together, to listen to one another and adjust. We gave in to new understandings and ways of experiencing.

Over the last several days the police and the city workers have stepped up their presence at the Art Gallery. They have arrested more people and they have removed personal possessions several times. They have expanded the fencing so people can no longer take shelter from the rain, or sit on any, but the bottom few rows of the Gallery’s front steps. Presumably they think if they keep doing this we will disappear...

They could be right - but - we are adapting. Each time they come we learn. So far we continue to hold space for each other and that is something to be immensely proud of. So long as we keep working - building connections and relationships with one another - we can grow. We are learning how to occupy, we are learning how to challenge power and we are learning how to be human once again.

For all who we encounter, let us hold space. Let us stay out of harm's way while remaining in place.