Question 4. As a politically engaged artist or organization, how do you and/or your practice relate to existing social movements?
CRAIG HARSHAW: With this question, I think we have to say what we mean by “social movement.” One of the things that was troubling about growing up in the United States when I did—I was born in 1965—was the absence of large-scale social movements in my formative years. That’s partially due to the non-profit industrial complex—I’ll say it one more time [LAUGHTER]—which turned these things into a career-track kind of thing. There was a neo-liberalization, so you [weren’t aware of] the kind of stuff that was happening with the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, and all the things that you saw in the 1960s with the civil rights, black power, and other power movements. But with all that said, you’re born into the space you’re in. I think Insight Arts has always tried to directly relate to social movements, often going through NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. One of the things that we’ve found is that social activist NGOs, organizing groups, and activism groups often have very little relationship to culture. They may like it, and they may especially like hip-hop to bring people in. But the idea of actually integrating it into the organization is often a very difficult thing to do. We’ve often played that role when we’ve gotten commissioned to do something and then felt, “Oh, it’s going to be too weird,” or “Are the graffiti artists going to paint in the bathroom?” It becomes this big thing. Part of engaging with that is figuring out what that break is about. The break is on both sides, both in how the artist community is so walled off and so elitist and so what art school is like, and then also in what’s going on with the professionalization [of the art field]. If you look back to the day when we had social movements, or you look at social movements like the Landless Workers’ Movement of Brazil, in many of them throughout Latin America, Argentina, and Europe, art is very, very central.
What we’ve always tried to do is have very specific campaigns we work on at Insight Arts that are throughout the organization. For example, we worked on the campaign to end the juvenile death penalty and integrated that into all of our public events, so that we’d mention it even if the event had nothing to do with the juvenile death penalty. For instance, you come to a poetry reading but you’re going to find out about [juvenile death penalty]. We’d do that with a number of kinds of things.
The final thing I’ll say, which is the answer to other questions about audience but it relates to this, too: social movements come out of the people, and they come out of the working classes, the subaltern classes, and those aren’t us for the most part, and also the intellectual classes. We might have some connections to [the first two classes] with our background. But that’s what makes it a little bit difficult, because when we don’t have the direct conduits to reach out and to figure out how it’s happening, that makes it difficult. I think you have to do a lot of analysis: analysis of who your participants are, analysis of who your audiences are, and analysis of how much you are allowing the working classes and subaltern classes to really participate in the intellectual formation of what you’re doing, because that’s where the real intellectual power is. It’s not among the people that pay and get the college degrees, etc.
DAVID ISAACSON: There are over 200 companies producing theater in Chicago, so they are definitely a social force within the city. There is a downtown theater district, heavily subsidized, composed of both large commercial and large not-for-profit theaters. But the vast majority of those 200 companies are very, very small organizations. The question that I ask myself is whether they collectively form a social movement or a political movement, and the answer, not surprisingly, is “yes” and “no.” Yes, because in many cases, these small theaters, either through the physical space they inhabit or their practices within a community, are very much part of the fabric of neighborhoods and, therefore, a decentralized force, whereas, as we all know in Chicago, under the current Daley administration things have moved towards a centralized, Loop-based, Millennium Park, 2016 Olympics, big-project scenario. The small neighborhood theaters do present a countervailing force to that. They tend to be not-for-profit and more concerned with the cultural value of the work than the commodity value. They tend to be ensemble-based, so there’s collective decision-making as a general rule. The content often tends to be very political, as opposed to the downtown larger theaters. It’s a point of pride that Chicago does political theater. Of course, it’s not across the board, but there’s a remarkable amount of work with direct political themes. Some neighborhood theaters are directly involved through education with youth in the community. All of those are things that would be thumbs up in terms of [an answer to the question] “is it a political movement?” The thumbs-down aspects would be that there’s a lot of competition among theaters for limited resources and audiences, so there’s not much cooperative or collective action among the different theater companies. There’s a reliance on corporate funding from corporations such as Phillip Morris and Boeing, and that limits the free speech of those theater companies, not many of which would participate in a benefit for Kick Boeing to the Curb or organizations like that. There’s a lack of alliances between neighborhood theaters and neighborhood organizations. There could be a lot more utilization of theater spaces by community organizations as a resource. And there’s a lack of engagement on the part of theater companies, a lack of intellectual engagement with the fact that they often are either unwitting or witting instruments of gentrification and displacement.
SONJA MOORE: As educators and artists, the social movements that guide our [Kuumba Lynx] practice can be divided in a few different categories. Some may seem more obvious, such as the gentrification of housing issues and the disruption of communities and families that has been going on in Chicago for quite some time; the youth really need to find a way to vocalize how they feel about that. [Another category is] education, but education in the sense that the youth, from what they’re telling us and the stories that they’re presenting through their art, is that it’s not so much the school itself—granted, the condition of a lot of our school buildings and structures is bad—but that they’re more concerned with the pedagogical approaches that the teachers are taking within the classroom, as well as the material that they’re being presented. The youth that we’re working with in our own classrooms, in these workshops, and as drop-in artists and apprentice artists, want to find ways to have us reeducate the teachers so that they’re teaching what they, the students, want to know and what they need to know, if they can’t rewrite the curriculum themselves. They’re also very concerned with this issue of youth criminalization, the fact that you cannot have four teenagers standing on a corner and the police drive by and that instantly constitutes a gang. Yes, maybe they all shouldn’t be wearing white tee-shirts and blue jeans, however, it’s their choice to do that; if they all want to look alike, that’s their option, that’s another issue altogether.
There’s this movement—I don’t know if it’s necessarily officially recognized as a movement— but I believe it’s going on, not just on the South Side and not just with Kuumba Lynx as an arts organization, but throughout Chicago and New York and California, to validate youth voices and to bring youth voices to the forefront. It’s happening in a number of different, exciting ways, whether it’s through video projects, through organizations like Street Level Youth Media, or through the Teen Poetry Slam.
In our practice, first we try to recognize their issues; we don’t sugarcoat anything. When kids come in we say, “Hey, we’re all from different communities. Let’s first say that this is a safe space, it’s a neutral space. We’re not here to put each other down, but we’re here to learn from one another.” Then we move from that point to how can we now educate each other? What can you tell us about what’s going on in Englewood? What can you tell us about what’s going on in Pilsen? As an educator myself, I use those voices and those circle-ups—we do a lot of circle-up: pushing the desks and the tables back, and just have conversations or the kids do art, or we just talk about art. We help them to place their movements in historical contexts and help them to see the connections [by saying], “Yes, you’re telling us a lot about what’s going on in Pilsen. How does that connect to the movement of the Zapatistas? How is that similar to what’s been going on in the African-American community? What are the similarities? Let’s stop looking at these differences.” It’s really kind of made us, as the adults, step back and change what we’re doing as teachers and as artists. I’ve been lucky to be in a school, the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School of Chicago, where our directors have given me the venue to do this within the humanities department that I chair, to really push my teachers to go to that limit, to keep pushing the envelope, pushing the envelope, pushing the envelope. We were really excited recently when our students had their first social justice forum where they presented their feelings about these issues. We had ninth graders take up three classrooms with gentrification panels, CHA representatives and developers, and those kinds of things, but in creative ways. So those are the ways that the youth have informed our practice.
JENNIFER KARMIN: We [Anti Gravity Suprise] started thinking about the resources available to us: the city as a resource, Chicago history as a resource, and our other art activist practitioners as resources. And we started to think about this idea of Chicago in a new spirit of cooperation where sharing found resources, sharing spaces, and information seem important as far as existing social movements. We feel like our work is a direct response to a state of what we call the semi-conscious passivity that is happening. We feel like we are directly saying “think or die” at this point, as far as a sense of survival. Some specific strategies as far as ways to engage with existing social movements and hopefully create new ones: for every project we do, we create a fill-in-the-blank item that allows people to state their positions and bring them into the world. An example would be the postcards for our current project Tell Us What You Think. We’ve done fill in the blank campaign buttons. Instead of “Hello, my name is,” we’ve done, “Hello, my job is,” nametags, so people can talk about identity connected to their jobs and connected to themselves. We do not put up what are called “shows,” but instead call them “community events” and we invite local organizations to present information. There are information tables. And we’re also always asking for guest speakers and having group discussions. We feel like this is direct engagement as far as what’s happening in the city.
BRETT BLOOM: I travel extensively for the various ways in which I work for Temporary Services, for other collaborations as a writer, and as an activist. I’ve actually moved away from [Chicago] twice, and it keeps pulling me back. Those moves have made me realize just how strong this culture that all those sitting in the room here today represent is. It’s really strong, and it’s stronger than any other place I’ve been in all my travels. There’s so much here; it’s so deep, it’s really powerful. Listing the number of influences and the number of important social and cultural and political experiences I’ve had in the city, I can’t keep them all in my head. Some of them have been named here, but I could add about 15 to 20 more to that list and it still wouldn’t be sufficient. There’s a really rich, deep culture of this . . . whatever you call it, politically engaged, socially engaged, new genre public, experimental art; it has so many names because we’re all participating in multiple iterations of it. It’s funny, Chicago doesn’t really brag about itself like other places do, like New York or Los Angeles, in a way that it makes it visible outside of this place. We’re working so hard within the city, but I don’t hear people saying, “Oh, yeah, Chicago’s just an amazing place.” So I feel like I often have to be a cheerleader and say “yay.” I give people lists and lists of things, all the amazing stuff that’s happening in the city, because there really is so much. You go to other cities, larger cities, and you just don’t find the same amount of creativity.
So in a way, there is this kind of movement, although it’s not an amalgamated movement, by any means; it’s across cultures, it’s across the whole territory of the city. AREA Chicago has been sussing this out through multiple issues. A lot of people have been working on this in different ways. I think there’s a long way to go with the things that could be developed, for instance, independent theater within the city. Like with our practice, we’re forced into all kinds of competition: competition for jobs, competition for the nearly nonexistent funding that dwindles every year on the national level. And it’s hard to even talk about funding on the local or state level because we know there are cuts every year. I feel already in and of itself that this community of people that would show up to a conversation like this is already a really strong force. Not to mention all the million and one things we all do outside of being able to come and talk about what we’re doing here today.
One thing specifically that a couple of us in the group [Temporary Services] are trying to develop with several people, including Daniel Tucker, Dan Wang, and Amy Partridge, is this thing we’re calling the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor, which we’re just having a lot of conversations about at the moment. We’re discussing questions like “how do you share resources, how do you get beyond this competition, how do you make things visible to themselves that aren’t normally visible to one another, how do you put food activism in relationship to critical art practices in relationship to radical ecology and experimental urban planning?” Ultimately, how do you put these things in proximity to each other, not necessarily to collaborate, but to make them resonate? The thing we’re talking about within this Midwest Radical Culture Corridor is to activate all these things in relationship to each other and really celebrate what’s here.
SALOME CHASNOFF: Because we [Beyondmedia Education] collaborate with other groups, very often our practice is supporting our partners’ issues. That could mean we are providing materials, events, venues for the girls’ movement, the disability activism movement, queer youth organizing, and on and on. We’re very involved in the media justice or media democracy movement as well. Our process has always been informed by a vision of social justice and collaborative process, which informs not only the politics but also the aesthetics of the work we create. And obviously, the economy informs that as well. But it’s primarily our sense of media justice. We’re always working to understand how the voice of communication could be represented as shared, which is in fact how narrative agency in reality is shared. We don’t have our own isolated, individual thoughts and ideas and brainstorms; they’re always part of a much larger process of mind sharing and feeling sharing and life sharing. That said, a recent string of events has gotten us into this national media justice movement. We got involved in this struggle with WTTW [Channel 11, one of the three PBS member stations in Chicago] because of their refusal to air one of our documentaries because they felt the subject was inappropriate. That got us involved with other media organizations locally, and we started organizing meetings and setting up a listserv. There have been a series of moves by corporate media happening here in Chicago that have led to independent and community voices being shut out. It’s caused us to get involved in more national movements, and we’re trying to develop a local or a collective voice that could represent Chicago on a national stage. And I think we’ll just move on from there.
DAN S. WANG: For this question, I’m interpreting social movements as political movements or political action. The first thing I would say is that for me, it’s an intimate relationship and a permanent one. But it exists in a perpetual state of discomfort, which I think can be very productive. The best example from the last few years for me has been lending the knowledge and skills that I’ve gotten through my art training and from my art practice to this neighborhood anti-war group called the Hyde Park Committee Against War and Racism. Amy Partridge and Rebecca Zorach were also very involved during the end of 2002 through the year 2003, from the lead-up to the first year of the Iraq War. It was during a time when there were probably eight, ten, twelve, I don’t know how many, small, neighborhood anti-war organizations very active all over the city, and this was one of them. In that group, those of us with more of an art background or some training or experience with issues of not just art but representations in general—we took the responsibility for managing and producing the representations for the group. Why was that important? Because as people who think a lot about representations, we understand that that’s how the movement advertises itself. That’s how the movement sees itself and understands itself. So there needs to be some thought and a deliberate process applied to the production of those representations. You could say that’s an example of a transversal practice, where you’re doing something based on the specific skills and the situation at hand, and whatever is the outcome can be seen or described or perceived as either art or political action. In so doing, in moving in that way, you widen that band, that zone of overlap, where the one becomes the other. And that’s very central to my own practice.
MARY PATTEN: The social movement that I would like to reference is the war on terrorism—a slightly unorthodox application of the term [LAUGHTER])—but not all social movements are necessarily progressive. In November of 2001, I initiated a project with other artists, educators, and organizers in Chicago to create a space against the prevailing tide, which was that you could not speak, you could not resist, you couldn’t have a dissenting voice at all. This was when White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned Americans, “You have to watch what you say.” The name of this multidisciplinary effort, Project Enduring Look, (1926 N. Halsted, the Roger Brown House, 2002) was a riff on the Pentagon’s name for their mop-up operation in Afghanistan. We were trying to give a different twist to the sense of Enduring Look, by saying, “Let’s stop, let’s slow down, let’s really pay attention to the language and the feelings that are being summoned at this moment of crisis; let’s take back the terms of how we understand and make our political culture.” I used the resources of the Art Institute, which at that time had the 1926 Exhibition Studies space for experimental curatorial projects, and co-opted my curatorial practice class to make it happen. At the “anti-opening” in early February of 2002, silent projections in the gallery windows depicted scenes of broken buildings and ruined spaces. The gallery was closed while people gathered to talk and drink coffee in parked cars outside. The cars had been painted with keywords like “choices,” “labor,” “food,” “guilt,” etc. Project Enduring Look also included a version of ASK ME!, organized by Laurie Jo Reynolds and Scott MacFarland; “Communi-K,” a youth art-interchange organized by Michael and Sam Piazza; as well as performance lectures, spoken word events, video screenings, games, and ephemera by Michael Piazza, Therese Quinn, Sheelah Murthy, Video Machete, Emily Forman, Anuj Vaidya , Claire Pentecost, Sedika Mojadidi, Anti-gravity Surprise, Post-Impressionists for Peace, and many others. This was a crazily ambitious project, where we had two months to organize a plethora of non-stop events and performances that unfolded in an intense three-and-a-half weeks.
Soon after, I developed a class called “Terrorism: A Media History.” I don’t consider teaching to be a substitute for political activism, but I do think the classroom is a space to create a critical social and political culture. One of the first things we do in the class is to excavate the visual and linguistic rhetoric of “terrorism,” while resisting a final definition of what terrorism is. The goal is to open up discussion and get to the point where, to paraphrase Edward Said, we can see that it’s perhaps unhelpful to even use this term at all, that we should be discussing and debating the uses of political violence by multiple actors—including states—instead.
The most recent project in this vein is in response to an initiative by Andrej Holm and other anti-gentrification activists and researchers in Berlin who have been targeted by Germany’s anti-terrorism laws. With their supporters, they have created the Coalition for the Immediate End to the 129a Proceedings. One of their projects is a contest asking writers, activists, artists, and concerned people in Germany and internationally to answer the question “What is terrorism?” I created a power point take-home quiz, which you’re all welcome to check out online at einstellung.so36.net and einstellung.so36.net/en/was-ist-terror/917.
ELVIA RODRIGUEZ OCHOA: Part of what we’ve [Polvo] been about is breaking these stereotypes. Growing up in a working-class family, [if you say] that you want to do art you’re always told, “Well, that’s for people with money and it’s not for broke kids who are trying to learn English,” even though we had multiple types of intelligences that we were using at the same time. I’m also going to throw in some of our patented Polvo response attitude of “It’s flowing like water, young grasshopper” [LAUGHTER]. We’ve never seen ourselves outside of these traditions: with Jesus [Macarena-Avila, another member of Polvo], his family in Texas were very involved in the Chicano movement, and by the time he got here for college, even by the end of high school, he already had that consciousness. With Miguel [Cortez, of Polvo] and I, we grew up for the most part in the city of Chicago, because we came here when we were very young. We were able to witness things like the election of Harold Washington and the responses and all of the ugliness from different communities to the basic idea of this black man running for mayor. Especially since I lived in Marquette Park at the time. It was a very strong awakening for me to think, “Why are my neighbors freaking out that this guy is running for office? Yet if I go down the way to visit my cousins in Little Village, everybody over there is really excited and all abuzz.”
Then when Rudy Lozano was assassinated in his own home, [I saw] how that completely froze that section of the community, where the response was, “Oh, we better be careful with what we do.” I don’t know how much we’ve actually recovered from that assassination when we have something like HDO [Hispanic Democratic Organization of Chicago] that’s come up and basically become Daley’s lap dog. It’s taken us all these years to recover from that and even to have young Rudy come out and say, “My dad didn’t die so that we can be just kiss asses.” We’ve got to be out here and do more.
But I’m also seeing the effects, the two-sided coin of white flight and gentrification, and how people aren’t really talking about how those two things have worked together to make the kind of place that we have now. If people had stopped and stepped back, we would have mixed income housing; if people didn’t just jump out and say, “Oh, no, this isn’t for me. I can’t deal with this brown person living next to me.” So a lot of the work that we’ve done has been about organizing across race and culture and class lines to break down those stereotypes. A number of the people that have come through our space represent that: people like the Garifunas, who are Afro-indigenous Latinos from Honduras coming by and presenting what their struggle is, people like Tracy Rose coming and talking about South Africa, Michael Capapas coming and telling us about what it means for him to be a Filipino growing up in Australia. We look at these different international struggles and say, “Hey, wait a second. We’ve got a whole lot in common and so let’s dialogue about this.” Let’s reach out and give it a broader perspective so that you’re feeling like you’re getting your ass kicked.
In Pilsen and the city of Chicago you derive hope knowing that there’s other people doing similar work. I have a lot of hope in Pilsen and Little Village because, as contentious as everything is in Pilsen, that’s where some of this stuff is going to pop up and become this thing that we never expected. So I have a lot of hope in the work that we’re doing there. We’re purposely choosing to stay within Pilsen and Little Village, to say artists of color can stay within their communities and be proactive and positive and not give up.
TRAVIS: There are no black queers on the South Side of Chicago [LAUGHTER]. And I am vice president and treasurer of the American Veterans for Equal Rights, queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender organization, veterans, and all. And I am a veteran [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE].
AQUIL CHARLTON: One way that I tend to recognize social movements is by the organic nature of the groundswell that it creates, and how quickly and creatively the cops bust it up [LAUGHTER], and how uncomfortable it makes institutions. So when I go into rooms and I’m told by a lot of older people that either, “You’re so young to be doing this,” or “You’re so articulate,” besides wanting to throw forks at them I feel like one of the strongest and most present social movements that I personally connect with and sometimes gives me hope is the youth leadership social movement. It seems that we’re living in a time of an absence of strong social movements, or at least the aggressively strong social movements that I think my parents experienced; it’s very different. Maybe capitalism is a social movement, too, and it’s really strong. So maybe that’s it. But besides that, I think that the youth leadership social movement is one of the strongest.
I’ve noticed how uncomfortable it can make people in a room—institutionalized adults, for lack of a better term—when you say, “Why aren’t students at this table when we’re talking about school reform?” Then when you bring students to the table they slow down and say, “Can you reiterate that?” You have to be inclusive of this young person next to me who is just as important though they’re doodling on a piece of paper because they don’t get what you [institutionalized adults] are saying. How we’re connected as an organization [The Crib Collective] and how I try to stay connected as an artist is by maintaining and trying to strengthen that pipeline between leadership as we know it and young people, because I feel like that’s the work that my parents in all of their activism were really trying to do. They constantly told me, “Eventually we’ll try to figure other stuff out, because you have to eat and we have to take care of you; we’ll have to get jobs probably.” And that’s what they did. On some level they had a sense, some sort of foreshadowing, of the fact that a lot of folks will get bought out and end up complacent. They said, “We really made you read Frantz Fanon as punishment because we wanted you to become an activist” [LAUGHTER]. I think that our role is to try to nurture this pipeline that helps show young people some clear steps, the lessons that we learned, and that we’re learning as we’re trying to do this. [Our role then] is pushing our peers out of the way and saying, “Let’s make some room so that we can all make sure that there’s a constant regeneration of this work that we’re putting in now.”
DEBORAH STRATMAN: What follows is lifted from an answer I previously gave to filmmaker and writer Mike Hoolboom in response to a question he had about a video I made in 2003, called Energy Country. I think it addresses your own question pretty well, so I hope you’ll excuse me cribbing it here . . .
M. Hoolboom: Don’t the rhetorics of this work ensure that it will find a home on the avant-safe circuit, far from the religious right, and so help preserve another comforting split between “us,” the good people who require energy to deliver our good messages, and “them,” the ones busy waging war and pumping oil?
This is a hard video for me to write about because I’ve always felt a little embarrassed by its didacticism and its easy targets. “Preaching,” be it to the choir or otherwise, is something I generally recoil from. I guess the simplest way to qualify its existence is that it served as a release valve for the exasperation I was feeling at our state of national affairs. I made it extremely quickly, a reactionary response to a reactionary situation. My lurching for tractable targets is exactly what the men are doing at the end of the film: burning the flag. Or what the cop (you only hear his voice) is doing when he stops me because I have a camera on a bridge: profiling me as a terrorist. I think the video fails in that this is not evident, but I did want to include and implicate myself in this tendency towards angry dumbness. After all, it’s my car that’s being pumped with gas. And the buzz of those electric trees sounds an awful lot like the buzz of my editing drive.
I think the best thing that came out of this piece was the work I just finished which is about the culture of elevated threat, and just what exactly it is that the word FREEDOM represents to people. I broadened the field of Americans I spoke and listened to. Whether this will ultimately free the film from being stuck in the “avant-safe” circuit seems doubtful. Because I have no interest in making a conventional documentary, and my aesthetic bag of tricks remains more or less the same as its been for the last twenty years. Which means that the venues available to me will inevitably be art houses and festivals and alternative euro channels and experimental film classrooms. But, and this is very important, I think when I show the film to the people actually in it: machine gun owners, Federal Border agents, retirees in their fully loaded RVs, high school football fans . . . these people will all say, “Yeah, that’s what freedom means to me.” So while I personally might be suspect of how much we have lost or surrendered in the name of “freedom,” I hope that opinion will lurk more patiently in the background.
In terms of what experimental film can achieve in a political world, there’s a passage I really love from Alain Badiou’s essay “What is a Poem?” “Dianoia* is the thought that traverses, the thought that links and deduces. The poem itself is affirmation and delectation—it does not traverse, it dwells on the threshold. The poem is not a rule-bound crossing, but rather an offering, a lawless proposition. [ . . . ] Philosophy cannot begin, and cannot seize the Real of politics, unless it substitutes the authority of the matheme for that of the poem.” Or as Charles Bowden puts it, “What is explained can be denied, but what is felt cannot be forgotten.”
Ultimately, my frustration with the monologue inherent to the cinematic contract resulted in pursuing other kinds of artmaking alongside my filmmaking. Film demands a mute viewer; someone signing on to leave her own temporal space in order to enter mine. I both love and struggle with the totalitarianism behind this fact. So my non-film work tends to be encountered by accident, requiring participation or collaboration to be activated, approaching something closer to a dialogue. It is publicly-situated work that doesn’t rely on the expectation of the sublime, as one would have upon entering a museum, or a movie theater. The nature of the encounter is more democratic. I’m not sure that film viewing can ever be political in the same way.
*discursive thought, or argument and reason as opposed to intuition
BRAD THOMSON: With my work, I have been inspired and influenced by a number of social movements, and as a result, I have tried to allow my work to support the efforts of these communities. Specifically, I have felt connected to and inspired by the anti-war veteran community and the genderqueer performance community. As a performer, I’ve worked with Iraq Veterans Against the War, both on stage and in the street. I’ve used street theater tactics as part of their Operation First Casualty and have helped organize benefits within the theater scene.
Performing within the genderqueer perfomance scene as a hetero male has broadened and challenged my understanding of gender and sexual identity. I have tried to embrace these tendencies within the community and connected them to a radical anti-authoritarian politic that has led to some really interesting pieces that I feel have been beneficial to myself, along with audience members from a diverse background.
COYA PAZ: As an individual theater artist, all of my work is motivated by my desire to create performance that speaks to (and about) the world we live in. I’ve never been interested in the notion of “art for art’s sake” – I don’t even know what that means! I believe in the power of performance to speak to human experience – and all human experience is shaped by social forces. And so, I also believe in the potential of performance to make complex social dynamics visible, to help de-naturalize things we take for granted. At the same time, I get very frustrated with “political performance” that feels one-sided or didactic, particularly in ways that are not pleasurable for the audience. The key, for me, is to create performance that is entertaining, resonant, and which provokes the audience to think about things in new ways.
So, for example, a few years ago I co-created a drag king version of a show my lawyer won’t allow me to mention, especially not anywhere that might come up in a casual Google search. But I think you’ll know which one it is when I say it was a musical that usually features ballet dancing gangs and a lot of fake Puerto-Rican accents. Our production was an attempt to recreate the movie version of the musical on stage, in hopes of accomplishing two things. First, we wanted to pay tribute to the film as a queer movie. WSS (shhhh . . . ) has long been beloved by gay spectators, and for good reason! Ballet dancing gangs! The song about feeling pretty, witty, and gay! Handsome boys wrestling with each other. There’s lots to love. But the movie is also incredibly racist, with deeply troubling depictions of Puerto-Rican characters. So our challenge was to to create a performance that could be both celebratory and critical, one which would forever transform the meaning of the film for spectators. We wanted to maintain the pleasure of the film for spectators but also make its racist structures absolutely recognizable, even to spectators unused to acknowledging racism in popular culture. And the key was to draw an audience, something we would not have been able to do if people had perceived the show as somehow wanted to “ruin” the play. We would have just been preaching to the converted, and keeping away the very people we wanted to reach.
What does this have to do with social movements? Not much in a strictly activist sense of creating direct change. But all the same, I think performance can do a lot to reach out to diverse audiences, creating a space for shared enjoyment and community dialogue. And surely, that’s got to be the starting point of any solid movement?
THEASTER GATES: For a long time, I was not sure if my practice was one that engaged others politically and therefore did not connect what I do to any other movements outside of the sphere of the art world that focuses on production. In fact, I celebrated how clearly “productive” I was. What become more evident over time was that people were not just interested in the objects that I made; they were interested in the rationale, motivation, outcomes of my creative activities. They wanted to ask me questions about my practice that were no longer just about process, but implication. More and more, I wanted to treat the implications of my work as the more important part, and this is the beginning of what led to a more conscious practice. This background is really important to me, because the existing social movements were not on my radar. But by virtue of shared activities, I would often get invited to the table with people whose practices were much more intentional in the political engagement. An example is that when I began convening dinners, the goal was spectacular, not political. I was asking questions about pageantry, and ended up in conversations about dinner and democracy, race implications of restaurant culture, who builds restaurants in what neighborhoods, where does that food come from. As I begin to ask more questions that were still simply related to my art practice, I found that there were professionals, activists, lobbyists, and other artists who were quite resolute about these topics. Political friendship begin to happen as a result of shared creative-political aesthetics. Though I came through the back door, so to speak, I find that my practice helps to engage and qualify the rhetoric and that I often borrow language from the creative literati that helps me talk about what I do.
AMANDA GUTIERREZ: I work as a media mentor in a non-profit organization. My experience with my students feeds my work, generating questions about cultural differences and class struggles. For me, teaching is an alternative that can create a space of reflection, but it isn’t the panacea for achieving radical social change. Meanwhile, in the last year I have tried to separate my work from the idea that it needs to be a tool for political or activist movements related to immigration and gentrification. I tried to make work that functioned more instrumentally before, but the potential and critical range is limited. I found that when the work tries to speak in favor of, or for, a certain “community,” cause, or “problem,” it has to be “objective” with a particular ideology working as an instrument. Now I have to leave aside my own opinions and perspectives more, and shape the speech of others, which constrains the use of my own speech as an instrument. The worst scenario is that it can easily turn into propaganda, or an aestheticized response to a more complex problematic. I believe that subjectivity can allow for critical responses, without trying to form an immediate, practical response to the issue.
TOUFIC EL RASSI: Well the anti-war movement is the one I most relate to and I try to create work that is relevant to that movement and the struggle to stop US intervention. I focus on the Middle East, but the struggle against war and occupation is not a problem only for the Middle East. The US was (and is) responsible for some of Latin America’s worst regimes, Pinochet for example, and let’s not forget about Africa and Asia. So I see the anti-imperialist struggle in the US as a key moral issue for Americans who would like to see justice and peace in the world. I am a comic book artist, not an activist or a politician. My work is the only way I can contribute to this struggle, and I think that people in the individual capacities can and should fight to prevent this government from either invading other countries or meddling in their affairs.
At the same time, I see a need for more activism to happen, but as an artist it is difficult for me to understand what my role would be. In the past I have contributed art to organizations and publications that share my views, and I will continue doing that but I think that the relationship between art and activism has always been somewhat of a dilemma for me.
MARK MESSING: The ad-hoc organizations I was involved in that came to life during the crisis of the last seven years inspired offspring in the form of self-sustaining organizations. Some of the members of the instant anti-war theater formed the band Mucca Pazza. We perform around the country at night clubs, festivals, and community functions. But in becoming more formal, we lost some flexibility. We have bylaws and processes to adhere to. Internally, we are progressive: self-governing and egalitarian, but we are not as quick to act and we are now a cultural institution rather than a partisan agitator. And there is a cycle. We see a fringe growing around our institution, tiny as it is. We are using our lessons in adhocracy to inform the design of our structure to encourage it’s own fringe activity.
We are a commercial company and pay taxes. To us, this means that we can share our resources with any cause – cultural or partisan, without fear of funding cuts or audits that would result in the loss of tax exempt status, resulting in fatal tax debts (the 501c’s were threatened with this in ‘06). We organize benefits for local non-profits and set up events where artists and community groups can learn about each other. But . . . We are asking the question: “How can a corporation evolve beyond the sponsor model?” Donating money is the least a company can do for the community it exists in. Obviously, that does not make it a member of the community. So how can we become integrated in our community in a way to earn the title of good neighbor and good citizen?
We are starting first by learning to identify our community geographically as well as by our specialized interests. The benefits we play include local organizations: Coop Image, Young Chicago Authors, and West Town Bikes (so far), and the Latino Union and C.H.I.R.P are planned. Secondly, we are allowing our neighbors’ interests to transform our interests. We have already led teacher’s workshops for music teachers of Chicago Public Schools (through CAPE). From working with teachers, we are being influenced musically and socially by our local CPS community. The next phase of building common interests will be workshops for students and the creation of community bands. We have an open rehearsal for musicians on the 2nd Tuesday of the month. Eventually, we expect to see a mutual benefit for our company and our neighbors. And we suspect that key to this is blurring the lines between non-profit, commercial corporations, and ad-hoc volunteerism.
What social movement does this relate to? We can’t help but be influenced by the critique of the colonizers and the colonized as articulated by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And reflecting on the creation of a commercial entity, we have to admit some influence by the micro-credit phenomena and the lure of financial independence through building and cautiously using our own capital.
ED AND RACHAEL MARSZEWSKI: One of our projects, Lumpen magazine, has been a widely distributed media outlet for various “social movement” ideas, politics, theories, and praxis for over seventeen years. However, the magazine is intentionally designed and produced to reach an audience beyond the choir of those who self-identify with the term and concept of being a member of a “Social Movement.” We try hard not to be a boring theoretical supplier of information and try to merge the “social” with “movement.” Sometimes we are successful. Sometimes we are not.
In general, we aim to activate what we feel are natural Humanist tendencies in our audiences, through introducing ideas, individuals, groups, concepts, theories, actions, and projects that tend to have a more radical critique of society. In general, we are an amplifier of ideas and promote one main agenda: If we can do this, then so should you.