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Occupy Art Basel Remains Elusive, But One Occupation Shoots Up In Miami Beach

Olga Koumoundouros Transformer Miami Beach

First Posted: 12/02/11 01:28 PM ET Updated: 12/02/11 03:43 PM ET

MIAMI -- All through the week there were whispers and rumors of Occupy Art Basel, an action that would throw enough fear into the hearts of the one percent to make them drop their complimentary Moët. Perhaps this decadent week of dealing would give the art world elite its last moments of happiness before the swarming Occupy mobs moved in.

Not so much -- at least, not by Friday morning. Despite a Tumblr, a Facebook page and a scattering of tweets, there were no reports of Occupy Art Basel. But there was an occupation of sorts: Max Rameau, a founder of Take Back the Land Miami, returned to town to put up a shanty on the beach as part of a public art project called "Transformer: Display of Community Information And Activation."

"I don't think that art is inherently the same thing as the banking industry," said Rameau. But "one of the things about Miami Beach is that this is where the epicenter of the moneyed art culture is."

The makeshift home on the beach couldn't stand in any sharper contrast to the rest of the "moneyed art culture" on display this week. Made out of wood and cardboard, it's a near-identical throwback to Take Back the Land Miami's Umoja Village, a homeless encampment Rameau and other activists helped build in 2006. Umoja burned to the ground on April 26, 2007, as city leaders looked for a way to evict its inhabitants.

Umoja Village inspired headlines throughout the country and highlighted the foreclosure crisis before it exploded nationally, and its memory is still strong enough locally that several members of Occupy Miami dropped by to say hello on Thursday.

Also scattered throughout "Transformer" -- which will be up through Sunday on a fan of sand just east of Collins Park -- are posters, photos and proclamations from the other Miami across Biscayne Bay: immigrants, workers, gay youths and more.

"We're not revolutionaries," said Olga Koumoundouros, who created a mini-village of activist kiosks near the shanty with fellow artist Andrea Bowers. "But we're trying to bring the revolutionaries in."

On Thursday night, Rameau surveyed the scene with a look of satisfaction on his face. He has returned to town from Washington, D.C., where he's trying to nationalize his confrontational housing rights tactics -- squatting, eviction defenses and other home "liberations."

Much like the various Occupy movements, Rameau was never afraid of breaking a few laws in the pursuit of what he saw as justice, and he said he's very much in sympathy with Occupy Wall Street. He was also happy to relate that when a couple of those moneyed elites dropped by the hand-built shack, expecting something a bit more collectible, "you could see the upward edges of their smiles turn straight down. It was actually very funny."

Whether his shanty on the beach was "Occupy Art Basel," however, was a question he greeted with a laugh. "That's what everybody's been asking," he said. "That's not what it is."

Instead, said a woman who goes by Poncho, another organizer who was involved in Umoja Village, "it's just an exhibition."

But it was an exhibition she hoped could lead to concrete action, noting that she and other organizers have been chatting with the homeless people living on the beach just feet away from their shanty. "A couple of them said they want to build their own," Poncho said.

And, while "Transformer" is actually sponsored in part by Art Basel Miami Beach, that doesn't mean its organizers have given up on making a splash with their shanty. Giving it a look on Thursday, Rameau noted that it was a mighty fine building to just tear down once the exhibition was over on Sunday.

Could it be kept in place, or moved somewhere else to actually serve as housing in the political style of Umoja Village? "We're toying around with ideas," Rameau said.

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