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The Fine Art of Raising a Ruckus
On the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, San Francisco Bay area activists locked themselves to barrels in front of the world headquarters of Chevron. They were there to draw attention to the link between climate change and war, and specifically to the oil law before Iraq's parliament that would give much of the profit from Iraq's natural resources to foreign corporations like Chevron.How do we know that's what they were protesting? Their giant banners read, "Chevron loves Oil Wars" and "End Chevron's Crimes from Richmond to Iraq."
Likewise, the barrels that the activists were locked down to were painted with slogans like, "Stop the Iraqi Oil Theft Law" and "Chevron = Climate Criminal."
Red-clad demonstrators held placards in the shape of oil drums, and there were 10-foot-tall puppets of the corporation's leadership.
And there was street theater: a "Tug of Oil War," a funeral for the last piece of ice on earth, and a performance by a political theater group called the Ronald Reagan Home for the Criminally Insane (www.insanereagan.com).
In short, the activists completely dominated the visual space.
The Power of Spectacle Art, music, and theater are often more effective than speeches and leaflets.
Jessica Bell, one of the organizers of the March 19, 2007, Chevron protest, says art and culture communicate in a way that is "more interactive and participatory, not just in how protesters interact with the public, but how activists interact with each other." Bringing in culture creates space for people to learn, grow, and express themselves. She adds, "Art and theater can also challenge people-activists and observers-by putting them in new situations."
Rebel Clowns Imagine being a police officer during the 2005 G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, preparing to face thousands of protesters. Now imagine being confronted by an army of clowns.
The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army was organized by UK activists and included hundreds of clowns (some veterans, some novices) from around the world. The point, according to Clown Army participant Subsubcommandante Robin Hood, is to "confront the eight most dangerous men in the world-the G8-with ridicule and disobedience; from clowning traffic to a standstill and blocking
G8 delegates on the A9 motorway to undermining police discipline by placing them on the unfamiliar terrain of laughter."
Film footage of the protests show a befuddled group of police officers who stand idly by while the clowns take over roads.
What does clowning do for the protesters? "Rebel clowns work with our bodies to peel off the activist armor and find the person who once felt so deeply," he says. That's how we "find courage to both feel and overcome the fear and despair that can make activists withdraw behind that armor."
Pushing the edge of protest means opening space for creativity, experimentation, and growth. Billionaires for Bush, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, and other activists around the country are creating new ways to challenge consumerism, war, and empire.
"Public interventions by artists catch the public off guard and disrupt business as usual," says Nicolas Lampert, an activist and radical art historian living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "These types of actions also encourage people to think and question their own daily routine and the daily routine of the city. In actions such as these," he adds, "artists present other possibilities-the possibility of reclaiming public space."
"Old power relations that have been reified and made invisible suddenly stand out in stark contrast when art is used to point them out in a novel way," says University of California at Davis political theater professor Larry Bogad.
"Just as important, a spectacular, participatory, creative protest can give participants and passersby a sense of the better world we want to see," he says, "and not just what we're against."
Author and activist Stephen Duncombe urges activists to learn the art of using public spectacles to influence public opinion and dominate culture. In his recent book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, he points to the Bush administration's May 2003 "Mission Accomplished" aircraft carrier stunt as an example of spectacle and theater.
Duncombe also cites a now-famous quote by an unnamed senior advisor to Bush (now widely believed to have been Karl Rove) who told a reporter, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create reality." Conservatives, Duncombe says, understand how important it is to create images and narratives to support their agendas, or "to manufacture consent" as Walter Lippmann argued in 1922.
Duncombe argues for the "ethical spectacle" using the same techniques as the conservatives to advance a radical or progressive agenda to "manufacture dissent." But, he argues, we must do this in a way that is not manipulative or exploitative.
"Our spectacles will be participatory: dreams the public can mold and shape themselves," he says. "They will be active: spectacles that work only if people help create them. They will be open-ended: setting stages to ask questions and leaving silences to formulate answers. And they will be transparent: dreams that one knows are dreams but which still have power to attract and inspire."
"And finally," he says, "the spectacles we create will not cover over or replace reality and truth but perform and amplify it." These criteria will allow us to meet people where they are, he says, drawing on pre-existing desires and redirecting them toward a positive, more just world.
Stephen Duncombe and all the activists who use theater and art to communicate are saying one thing: dreams and spectacles are important ways of imagining the future world we want to live in.
Jen Angel wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Jen is former editor of Clamor and a YES! contributing editor.