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How Do You Illustrate Corruption? Artist Rachel Schragis Explains

(Photo: Justin Bianchi / Flickr)

Rachel Schragis is a 25-year-old New York City-based artist, educator and activist who created a flow-chart visualization of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. Since the image was posted on Facebook, comments began pouring in and the image was disseminated widely, not only among Schragis' friends, but eventually by complete strangers.

It was featured on the Al Jazeera blog and several art blogs the next day. Occupy Wall Street's Internet Working Group put it on the New York City General Assembly web site. Occupations and individuals all over the country have requested paper copies. There are now, two weeks after the image's completion, plans for four different kinds of print distribution.

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Writes Schragis:

“This image is profoundly not a solution: to either the injustices we face or my own (infinitely smaller) creative concerns. It is a statement of the problem, and its material being does not reflect the world we want: to start, it is drawn with (toxic) sharpies and distributed through the (unsustainably powered) internet. And the reality it states, let us not forget, is pretty bleak. I dream about making spaces that inspire justice – not just collections of words that show what's wrong. And isn't this really what OWS is about, at its core? Believing that if we start by stating the problems correctly, a better world than we can currently envision is possible. Demanding that we dream up that world, and build that dream. “

J.A. Myerson: This is a remarkable document you have produced. How did the idea for this come about?

Rachel Schragis: The most direct answer to that is that I read the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City and said immediately, “This is a flowchart. I should make this.” The last couple of years, I've been working to make flowchart-making into a creative craft that I have a specialty in. This came out of making sculptures in college and making flowcharts to plan them and finding the flowcharts be more successful objects, in some ways, than the sculptures that I was making.

At first, I just started making this one to figure stuff out for myself. I try to maintain that as a motivation. If there's a set of information that you need to make sense of, make a flowchart out of it. And that impulse, that it's for your own sense-making, will come through and avert possible preachyness. So, I printed out the document and started by asking, “What are the themes?” just for personal clarity about the movement, not even really thinking I was going to make something.

JAM: Have you rendered all of the text from that document here?

RS: No. The inner ring is the grievances from the declaration. As for the outer two rings and all the other little things, I came up with most of it. I literally had each one of these things on a piece of paper and was pushing them around. Then I taped them down and spent an afternoon in Zuccotti Park crowd-editing, and I brought it to the working groups that I thought were relevant. People said they liked the idea but wanted to see it drawn out, so I drew it out and brought it back. It looked a lot prettier by this point, and so folks were a lot more excited about it. I asked everyone: “What do you think is missing? What doesn't sit right with you?” And people came up to me really interested in housing, really interested in queer issues: “Where is that?” And I'd either show them or we'd come up with the words. What's so challenging about something this complicated is how not to make it look like chaos. So, I came up with this two-ring thing, there are two echelons of themes. That way all the chaos is contained in these spaces.

JAM: It recalls those Greek diagrams of the universe.

RS: People have been saying mandala a lot, and I've been like, “Yeah, it's kind of hippie, sure, sure.” People are like, “You should make it pretty colors.” I'm like, “No. Black and white. Enough of the mandala thing.” Or really, what I mean is, enough of this appropriation thing. Mandalas are gorgeous, but I don't want to make something that looks like I'm copying them, because I'm not Buddhist and I don't want to play in to a history of aesthetic co-optation. The circle is a universal form with all sorts of associations from throughout history, so it's no accident that a circle was the solution to the design problems of this project. I am humbled by the comparison to both mandalas and ancient Greek diagrams.

JAM: What have you left out?

RS: The more I spend time working on this, the more I begin to see my own biases reflected in it. Making this was a little uncomfortable, because every other document I do, I explicitly use “I” and make sure there are autobiographical statements, so that I'm not trying to speak for anyone else. But I recognized that this was a piece of propaganda, and it wasn't going to be about me and my privilege. There's a lot more detail in the ecological section, because there I know exactly why things connect, so there's naturally more text in that section.

There still should be one about the gendered nature of power. Since I've been doing a lot of work thinking about how I am a perpetrator of inequality, mostly through anti-racist work I've been doing for the last year, there's all this stuff about race, but there's nothing about gender, because I've been trying not to put energy into ways in which I am oppressed.

People have been asking, “What do you think of the Declaration? What's wrong with it?” But my job in the movement is not to write the Declaration. I'm going to illustrate it as best I can.

JAM: So, mainly you appear in this piece through the issues that you've focused most on?

RS: It's also important to consider what the story is leading up to this, what allowed me to be a person who made it. I'm a freelancer, I work four afternoons a week at a job just to make enough, knowing that other things will come into my life to make some money, and that's a financial risk I can take because I know that if I don't have enough money, I can rely on my parents. Straight up. The whole thing is built on privilege. Which is not to say that I believe I shouldn't do it – I try to think about my privilege as a thing to be reckoned with and used towards positive ends. but it speaks to inequity.

I went to a private college prep school and a small liberal arts college. These are the institutions we hold up as ideals in America, and they are problematic ideals because they are fundamentally grounded in hierarchy: they are expensive and selective. I was also raised in a house with a ton of supplies, went to arts summer camps and Saturday design classes. The skills I use to make the work I do are as grounded in those experiences as where I went to school. But even more importantly, I did this out of choice. I had the mobility to pick what I wanted to know and the resources to follow it. My parents and teachers trusted me when I said I needed to know how to draw or build stuff. So, this is basically a shout-out to the critical role of education in the world we want: education that is rigorous and includes lots of arts, but more importantly education that teaches agency by encouraging young people to make their own choices from a young age and provides real support for their choices.

JAM: Tell me about the intersection of having a career as an artist and also making art that benefits a movement that you care about.

RS: That is the question. It's not going to be solved. A friend asked me last night, “So, Rachel, if we were living in a capitalist society, and you were trying to make it as an artist, would this thing that is happening to you be called 'really good for your career?'” And I said, “If that were true, that would be exactly what's happening. But, what's happening is that we're working for positive social change and revolution in a lateral way. And so, that's not what it's called.”

But really, they're both happening at the same time. It makes me think about a lot of the non-co-optation stuff that's been going on around MoveOn and other groups. How do we undermine the system of institutions we don't like but also use the power that exists and ask people to give whatever they have? Early on, Arts and Culture was talking about people making posters and donating 10 percent to the movement and whether that was okay. On the one hand, that's great, and anybody should be donating anything. And yes, creative expression should always come out of things like Occupy – and yes, artists making money off things they believe in. On the other hand, people start feeling a little weird about people using this for personal gain. It's a balancing act for me and for all for all of us making art in the movement.

JAM: What is the goal with this piece, specifically?

RS: I'm an educator first and an artist second. My whole life, I've dreamed of being an educator. So, I think of the things I make as teaching objects. You can point at them and have a conversation, and they can spur conversations that wouldn't happen otherwise. The image itself says some pretty radical stuff that's not yet getting said too often, things that I want everyone to be thinking about and debating. Occupy Wall Street is an interesting news story, regardless of what you think of the politics, and the art angle of my project makes the story even more neutral. And this is why I really think that the flowchart belongs in mainstream media. Getting those words out in the world and then getting people to read them is the goal.

JAM: This piece is at once the whole picture – every concern there is – and an illustration of a single document that came out of a single working group in a single moment.

RS: Initially, my thought was, “People really aren't writing about that document.” People say, “What's this movement about?” Well, a document was written in the first week on what the movement is about. It's not comprehensive, by its own admission, but it lays out a whole lot. People should read it. I think a lot of people in the movement haven't read all of it. The only reason I spent a lot of time with it is because I was working on this project.

The phrase, “All of our grievances are connected” was my initial response to that document, and that's the statement I want people to get out of my work. This phrase can, in some small way, counteract the constant accusation that we're just about everything. Yes, we are about everything. Occupy is attracting different people because all of their disparate concerns are addressed there. That's not because we're not coherent; it's because everything is connected.

JAM: I gather this piece has been well received.

RS: Surprisingly so. I think we underestimate people's willingness to read a lot – so long as it looks interesting. This is a lot of text, and I always expect people to be like, “I don't have time for that,” but nine times out of ten, people are like, “Ooh, I've got to spend some time with that,” and I don't think they're lying most of the time. I think the takeaway is that at least nine out of ten people want to make sense of the full complication of the world. We just have to help each other swallow it.

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