In our first blog posts, we were asked to respond to the question “Can art be subversive? Can it have real political impact?”
For me, the answer was always yes. But reading Yates McKee’s “Occupy and the End of Socially Engaged Art,” John Berger’s “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations,” and watching the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry helped me visualize the pathways from art to activism.
Demonstrations express political ambitions before the political means necessary to realise them have been created. Demonstrations predict the realisation of their own ambitions and thus may contribute to that realisation, but they cannot themselves achieve them.
John Berger describes mass demonstrations as a kind of rehearsal for revolution. They are a space where people temporarily embody potential moments of change, but they are not in themselves moments of change. Demonstrations, Berger argues, cannot in themselves create change because the structures of power they oppose have no conscience, and as such are not swayed. Demonstrations are helpful for participants to realize their roles in society – their position as target, the absence of those not there, the potential power of defining their own place in society.
The question which revolutionaries must decide in any given historical situation is whether or not further symbolic rehearsals are necessary. The next stage is training in tactics and strategy for the performance itself.
When I first read the introduction to Tactical Performance I was surprised when Bogad described the importance of theatrical positioning in the lunch counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement. It had not occurred to me to think of how the visual representation of the action was as important as the action itself in opening minds and enacting change. The sit ins were conducted using art principles – the protestors sitting and calm, the white racists standing above them. These images crystallized the violence and the inequality prevalent in the South. For these actions to have the most impact, they needed to be an enactment of art.
Art is the generative space where activist actions first take shape. As Yates McKee describes in “Occupy and the End of Socially Engaged Art,” Camp Campaign pre-envisioned the Occupy Wall Street movement. And OWS’ foundational moments are rooted in art and artist actions:
Aside from its sheer interest as an historical anecdote, the story of the founding assembly is of special importance in bringing forth the artistic resonances of Occupy. Not only was it launched from a para-artistic space (16 Beaver) and held at an aesthetically charged site (Charging Bull, reframed by the Adbusters poster), but it was inaugurated with a call from an artist (Sagri) to desert the representational space of the stage, with its spatial hierarchy of speaker and audience, its dependence on official state permission, and its recycling of ideological incantations from left organizations that seemed incommensurate with the depth of the crisis and the opportunity it presented. Like the camp itself that would be set up in the following month, the founding assembly might be understood as a kind of embodied collage, transposing an alien political form into both the ossified landscape of the New York Left and the symbolic heart of global capital itself.
I love the term embodied collage, and think it is important for considering the importance of both art and collectivity in activism.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s work is a kind of embodied collage that makes visible the hidden bodies of earthquake victims and factory workers. And in tweeting about his assault by a police officer that left him needing brain surgery, he makes a virtual collage of his body and his life.
We begin with art, then move to action.