By now, the word “occupy” has become almost surreal. Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Oakland. Occupy your mind. Occupy your life. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the “occupy” movement having such staying power. But in part, its widespread attraction may hinge on that critical verb. Occupy.
It means to fill space, but it also means to take possession of (occupying an empty house) — or to employ the body or mind. A job is known as an “occupation.” Our thoughts are occupied by whatever is most critical to us at the moment. Occupy covers where we stand, what holds our attention, what we do for a living. At a crisis point, where so many people are grasping for something to occupy a void where their houses or jobs used to be, it’s a powerful word.
As I’ve watched images of people gathering in public spaces lately, I’ve been thinking about how the word “occupy” functions in my own life. I have a particular view of public spaces, thanks to one aspect of my career “occupation,” which is: street performer (also known as “busker”). Armed with hula hoops, juggling balls and jokes, I regularly stop pedestrians in their tracks and deliver a message: Where you were just going isn’t as important as stopping to enjoy your life. To laugh. To have fun.
Busking is a real job. But it’s also a real art form — an incredibly interactive art form. It has to be. The sidewalk, square or lawn is literally the stage. There is no curtain or implied “fourth wall,” the way there is in formal stage performance. There is nothing indicating a separation between crowd and performer. Passersby often end up in the show. Before and after performances, conversations happen between artists and pedestrians — all “occupants” of the same public space — whose lives never would have crossed, if not for busking.
Like Occupy Wall Street, buskers face restrictions on the what/when/where of their occupation. On any given performance day, I might be standing outside, expressing myself, while simultaneously being asked to leave. I’ve been moved, sometimes multiple times in under an hour. I’ve been shut down. Permits, rules and appropriate times of day govern this occupation — even when it is literally my right to stand where I’m standing and express myself.
This fall, The Busking Project and Flowtoys launched a contest, asking spinners and jugglers to address the question: “How can playing with toys in public make the world more beautiful?” Thinking about how Occupy protest have drawn more attention to public spaces, I’d say the answer to that question is that street performances draw people together, around expression and shared experience. A sidewalk-level performances causes folks to stop. To laugh. To interact.
In a culture that’s often full of stress and isolation, levity and connection are beautiful.
Like protesters, buskers are also out there “occupying” the sidewalks, despite occasionally being forced to shut down (even when it is literally our right to be where we are standing). We practice an art form dedicated to forging and facilitating human connections. It might seem simple or frivolous to think that hula hooping in public — and hula hooping with the public — adds anything to the world. But how else would my life ever cross with those people I meet outside? How else would we stop to share space? And how better to feel more like a community (and less like strangers with potential conflicts) then to interact with each other? Especially when we come together in the spirit of play.
Occupy Wall Street has been criticized for not simmering its movement down into a single talking point. As a fellow “occupier” of public spaces, I’d say that demand for focus from outside the movement misses the point of what’s happening inside the movement. The point is that people who didn’t otherwise know each other, who never would have otherwise met, came together in public space and talked at all. About anything. About everything. That never happens in our everyday lives. And maybe the only way we can move forward as a healthy society is to listen, collectively, to what we each individually need. Maybe something as simple as standing in a park and communicating with each other — is incredibly profound.
This is the video I made, on the Busking Project/Flowtoys question of how playing with toys on the street can add to the loveliness of life. It’s my individual form of expression, involving a pink wig and a stack of hula hoops. But it’s part of a universal right to express ourselves in public spaces — and to form spontaneous pockets of community along the way. Which is a beautiful thing. Judging by recent events, it just might change the world.
Click here to visit the Busking Project’s site and view the other videos, addressing the same question.