Giving New Life to Protests of Yore
WASHINGTON, July 26 - It's not an unfamiliar tableau these days: people gathered on a grassy expanse of the National Mall here, listening to someone deliver an impassioned antiwar speech with phrases like "aggressive, activist foreign policy," "the war we are creating," "vigorous governmental efforts to control information" and "distorted or downright dishonest documents." At some point, the crowd breaks into applause and a young woman yells out, "That's right!"
She shouts this, however, just after the speaker behind the lectern refers to men with last names like Johnson, Rusk and Bundy and to the destinies of the Vietnamese people. And at its high point, the crowd numbers only about 30 people, many of them involved in videotaping, recording and photographing the event as flags snap majestically in the wind around the Washington Monument.
In other words, if you had wandered into this spectacle on Thursday evening, you would have found yourself not exactly in the midst of an actual protest but somewhere slightly removed, in the disorienting territory where art meets political engagement.
The firebrand orator was Max Bunzel, a 23-year-old actor from New York, juggling the role between movie auditions - for a fee, although he said that the speech, originally delivered by Paul Potter, the president of Students for a Democratic Society, during the 1965 march on Washington, genuinely moved and affected him. Most of the college-age spectators gathered there in a clutch were fully aware they were witnessing art, but by the end they also seemed not to be simply playing along but to be genuinely engaged by Mr. Potter's arguments.
Mark Tribe, an artist and assistant professor of modern culture and media studies at Brown University, has organized a series of such re-enactments at sites where important speeches of the New Left originally took place, and he says his intention was precisely to create such a strange cultural and political straddle. The goal was to use the speeches not just as historical ready-mades or conceptual-art explorations of context, he said, but also maybe as a genuine form of protest, to point out with the help of art how much has changed, yet how much remains the same.
Or, in Mr. Tribe's view, has grown worse since the era when Mr. Potter urged his listeners, with characteristic 1960s deconstructionist fervor, to "name the system" that allowed the Vietnam War to happen.
"Forty years has elapsed," Mr. Tribe said, "and the system that Paul Potter talked about has gotten so much more sophisticated. The military-industrial complex or capitalism or whatever you want to call it has globalized and intensified."
The speech by Mr. Potter (who died several years ago) is the third so far in what Mr. Tribe calls the Port Huron Project, named after the New Left manifesto. The first, performed last summer in Central Park, was a re-enactment of a 1968 speech by Coretta Scott King, and the second, this month on Boston Common, was a reprise of a speech given in 1971 by the activist Howard Zinn urging widespread civil disobedience. Creative Time, the New York public-art organization, has agreed to help produce three more speeches next year.
The project fits into a growing subgenre of historical re-enactment as performance art. Among the best-known practitioners is the British artist Jeremy Deller, who won the 2004 Turner Prize. In 2001 he staged a re-creation of a seminal event in British labor history, a 1984 confrontation between the police and thousands of miners in Yorkshire, England, who were protesting layoffs. His epic re-enactment, filmed with the help of the director Mike Figgis, used vintage clothes, hundreds of extras and thousands of fake bricks (to be thrown by the pretend miners).
Mr. Tribe, by contrast, puts inexpensive ads in Backstage and other theatrical publications and hires one actor per speech, after auditioning many. "We get deluged by applicants," he said, adding with a grin, "We do callbacks." (Mr. Bunzel, the actor for the Potter speech, who was born almost a decade after the Vietnam War ended, heard about it through friends.)
Mr. Tribe found the plain pine lectern he uses for the speeches through craigslist.com. And, with the help of a handful of his students, he schleps it and some basic sound and video equipment around to the sites, using the Internet to try to draw people whom he hopes will feel the ground shifting a little beneath their feet.
"It doesn't fit neatly into any category," he said. "Is it protest? Well, no, not quite. Is it theater? Not really. What is it? Are we in the present tense? Yes, but we're hearing this speech that was given 42 years ago."
"There's a real kind of surreal quality," he said. "It flips back and forth. It's unsettling."
He said he began to think about such re-enactments when he started teaching at Brown, his alma mater, in 2005 and found that students who said they opposed the war in Iraq did little about it. "There were no protests," he said. "My students didn't even seem to want to talk about it."
His motivation for the project was also - as is the case in many artworks - partly personal, he said, a way to connect with childhood memories of his parents' political involvement. (His father is Laurence H. Tribe, the Harvard law professor and frequent champion of liberal causes.)
"I find that time really inspiring, exciting to think about," he said. "Also kind of sexy."
Sometimes the historical conjunctions at such events are more than just conceptual. As Mr. Bunzel began to speak, Paul R. Booth, the organizer of the 1965 march, joined the crowd. Mr. Booth, now assistant to the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Washington, said he remembered how the original speech, heard by 20,000 protesters, the largest American antiwar crowd up to that point, "really blew everybody's mind."
Some of the spectators in the crowd on Thursday did not describe their reactions to the re-enactment quite the same way. Russell Mann, who showed up after reading about the event in the newspaper and stood at the edge of the crowd, said he served as a mechanical engineer on an air base near Saigon in 1973 and feels the United States should never have abandoned its fight in Vietnam.
"I'm not on the side of these people," Mr. Mann said, scowling and gesturing toward Mr. Bunzel. "I just came to hear what I missed in 1965."
© The New York Times