Sunday, October 16, 2011

About OWS Archaeology

We are a group of graduate students at Columbia University that share an interest in the archaeology of the contemporary past. This blog allows is a central point for us to exchange ideas among ourselves and with other interested people. The focus of this blog, perhaps we should call it a research project, is the current Occupy Wall Street movement. We hope to gather a group of people to study the Occupy Wall Street archaeologically and see what an archaeological approach can tell us about this movement.

Below is a preliminary mini-manifesto that we'd invite you to comment upon.


Occupy the Display Cases!

The current Occupy Wall Street movement has captured the imagination of people throughout the United States and indeed the world. And yet, this movement, this site continues to be under threat. Already the city has threatened to 'clean' the park and impose new rules that would make further protests in the current form impossible. For us, as archaeologists, this would mean that a valuable opportunity to learn about contemporary protest movement would be lost, as with the removal of the protesters every material trace would be cleaned off. Fortunately, it has not come this far yet. But we should still ask the question: what will remain of the occupation? As far as Mayor Bloomberg and Brookfield Properties are concerned: not much. The park would be scrubbed and returned to some kind of imagined Ballardian primeval state. Of course, that is impossible: scrubbing is not that easy. But still: unless we intervene now, what memories remain? Unless we intervene now, no record will be made with which to study the site. And no objects will be collected that can continue to carry the memory and the spirit of this movement. But if we intervene we can serve a triple purpose: to  memorialize, to take away some of what Mayor Bloomberg and Brookfield Properties see as 'rubbish', and to create an opportunity for us as student-archaeologists to study the methods and purposes of the archaeology of the contemporary past.

Archaeologists can be considered a very peculiar type of cleaners: archaeologists take stuff away for study and for safe-keeping. Now one may say: we are too late, the occupiers already did a great cleaning of the square last thursday in order to stave off - successfully, in the end - the city's threat. There is nothing to study or to take away anymore. But not all is lost! New deposits surely have already been made.

Too often, archaeologists are put away in the corner: you study what is past and what is dead. But yesterday is already past and dead, never to return, indeed the last second is too. We aim to redefine archaeology as a material anthropology: the study of humanity's eternal live-in partner: its objects, its surroundings and how both maintain their various relationships. If we define archaeology like this, it does not matter if we study abandoned or actively used spaces: we are interested in humans and their material surrounding. We are interested in past and in present and how they impinge on each other in every day.

We are not just cleaners. Archaeology is part of the processes of memorialization and for this reason, archaeology is an inherently political process. It has the ability to fix certain memories in the collective memory. Our aim is to collect samples of material culture from the Occupy Wall Street movement. We have two aims: to gather data archaeologically at the site(s) of Occupy Wall Street, and secondly to create a display of our data. This way, we can occupy the display cases!

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