Radical Action Art

Art might have been dead for some time. It was killed by Jackson Pollock, for instance, who was bolstered with the help of the shadow government in the United States (spelt C.I.A.). His images were used to promote an image of the U.S. as a place of rough edges that would presumably be a reflection of the freedom to be found in the West – a conscious juxtaposition to the Soviet threat to empire. So for a time America became the place for blue jeans, bubble gum, discordant music, and abstract expressionism. It was an easy move to be made, an erasure of the socially conscious art currents of the time. “What unrest? We have jazz.” It was in this environment that the Situationist International could call the beats the “right wing of the youth revolt.”

The elements of this youth revolt that made it into dominant histories were disparate, to put it simply: bohemian tenements churned out a few generations of artists who reflected the American way. With coffee sitting in their guts, the new American art produced what was little more than glorified navel-gazing. These constructed images of revolt were impressed on the minds of generation after generation and simplified until any real political content they might have contained was trivialized if not altogether lost. Art rebellion took little more than an expensive drug habit and some paint.

Open an art magazine today and what you will find are a bunch of pretty pictures, that much is true. But for what? None of it actually brings anything new to the table. Trends in the art world reflect esoteric traditions (be it abstract expressionism, or pop surrealism, or so-called degenerate art, etc.) strung together by the happy art students of yesteryear. Beneath the trade magazines is another oil-saturated beach… Beyond the niche magazine rack, though, is a world of artists who are now actively resisting the depoliticization of art practice. This wave of political artists knew that everything else seemed old and tired because it was, that one was only a part of one’s time with an awareness of the networks of power that shape our daily lives.

“Contemporary art is, first of all, an art activism for us, and not the piles of the art-rubbish kept in the galleries,” says Natalia Sokol, member of the actionist art collective Voina. Formed in Russia in 2005, Voina started by planning and executing anonymous street actions that would lay the foundation for the group and its more public incarnation. Voina, meaning “War,” developed a means of guerrilla street theatre that might find its origins just as much in the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers as Antonin Artaud.

By 2008, Voina was executing actions that they themselves began to publicize online through video documentation. Their actions conisted of social antagonism on a grand-scale – from a 60 meter phallus that overshadowed the Russian police headquarters to an orgy in a Moscow museum (during elections, nonetheless), Voina in a sense broke the mold for anarchist action. In the production of a short film, they gave themselves the excuse to overturn police cruisers: in the end passing the ball to whomever is willing.

Voina is a reflection of a new Russia that has now been dealing with capitalism and its supportive bureacrats for sometime. Dominant media narratives present the Russian context as anachronistic, with Voina’s attacks being seen as a natural product of a backwards society. The question as to how the situation might be similar in the U.S. is altogether avoided. For many, the sort of antagonism found in the movements of Voina would be out of the question in a more developed democracy, or ignored as they often are. But it is clear that the failures of democracy-in-the-name-of-capitalism are making themselves more and more apparent across the world. “Nowadays, when even hope for democracy in Russia is ruined,” says Voina conspirator, Alex Plutser-Sarno, “painting flowers and pussy cats or making any other ‘pure’ art, lacking a socio-political content, is to support the right-wing authorities.” Plutser-Sarno prefers a skull-and-crossbones.

It is true that the present generation’s art has been energized with radical social and spatial ideas. Art, however, has always been influenced by the “political.” In the West, we might think of classic examples such as David’s Death of Marat (a leader in the French Revolution), Picasso’s Guernica, or Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster. It’s not by the accidental hazards of information distribution that more marginalized art from the undercurrents of culture and the “undeveloped” world have not been more widely circulated. As Judith Butler once unfortunately said at a bourgeosie art happening in SF in the Spring of 2011: (QUOTE)

Here are some examples of politicized art from the fringes: Maria “Marusya” Nikiforova’s paintings and sculptures created in an interim time between fighting as an anarchist revolutionary in pre-Soviet Russia, Theatre of the Oppressed workshops in Latin America, posters made by the Association of Artists for Freedom of Expression (1st Palestinian Intifada), anti-apartheid prints from the Screen Training Project in Joahnnesburg, the San Francisco Digger’s free/widely attended concerts, and woodcuts depicting the Gwangju uprising against the brutal South Korean military in 1980.

Just as the African National Conference’s contribution and leadership for the anti-apartheid movement is often over-commemorated at the expense of less-celebrated leaders and parts of the movement (SUCH AS), so has American “Progressive Art” taken center stage to fringe art movements such as squatter punk art.

Some radical art is in plain sight and simply needs the right contextual history to understand it: have you ever gazed closely at the murals in the SOMA Rincon annex post office in San Francisco? The artist, a Frenchman named Anton Refregier, was forced to censor his own work when officials had a look at his paintings of union victories and the enslavement of Native Americans by Spanish missionaries. This 1948 work remains a blatantly anti-colonial and anti-capitalist bit of propaganda, though it resides over the gateway to another mural inside the Rincon building. The Rincon building’s newer mural (created in the 1980’s) references Refregier’s style through the trappings of neo-art deco revival. However, the content all but laughs at Refregiers’s message and triumphs the censoship that clipped its wings. The 1980’s mural is mostly about shiny technocratic futures where everyone will pertly go about processing data on computers, smelting more steel for high-risers, and developing new drugs in the pharmaceutical industry.

We can therefore dismiss the idea that art has not been “radical” or “politicized” until now. That’s certainly how it feels most of the time, and that’s what a contemporary art current called ‘Experimental Geography” has attempted to address. The “experimental” part of that moniker refers to a fluid, non-dual definition of art. Art should be about expoding boundaries, not creating new constrictions. The “geography” part is about the spatial, social, and political awareness that artists re-adopted, revived, and hoisted up on their shoulders as part of the important tools of activist/ artist work. What did Natalia Sokol means when she said “Contemporary art is, first of all, an art activism for us” ? If neoliberalism is based upon a culture of conquest, plunder, cartesian measurement, categorization (often racialized), and mapping, then the art of resistance must understand the spatial aspect of our society and world, as well. Geography, in the cotemporary sense, is not about knowing about the capitals of all the countries of the world. Instead, it draws from two major philisophical wells: Marxism and the production of space. Geographers are influenced by Marx by his idea of production. Just as commodities are made, so are ideas and cultural artefacts, albeit in different ways. Thus, one of the most important questions that contemporary experimental geography asks
is not “Is this art?” but “How was this art produced and how will it in turn produce new socio-political realities?” The logic is, then, that if a work of art is produced through the vain attempts of rich art students to gain sexual partners, and it comments little if at all on any political or social struggle, that it is not worth much at all as a piece of art.

Instead of telling the reader what experimental geogrpahy is, one beautiful example called the “Transborder Tool” can help show the point of this new wave of art action. The “Transborder Tool” was created by a collective with ties to the University of California, San Diego. The B.A.N.G lab created a simple geographic information systems software-supported platform for cheap cell phones. The result? A cheap, easy, mobile way to access information about where to find water, food, and shelter used by undocumented immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. Included with the tool was poetry recited by members of B.A.N.G. The author of the poems said of her work “(The poetry) acts as one of the Transborder Immigrant Tool’s internal compasses, clarifying the ways and means by which I and my collaborators approach this project as ethically inflected, as transcending the local of (bi-)national politics, of borders and their policing.” The collective who created the tool thus made powerful statements against nationalism, national borders, and the destruction of human life and hindrance of free movement that go along with such products of modern nation-states. The”experimental” part was plain: a détourn of two technological emblems of power: Geographical Information Systems Science (GIS) and cell phone technology, turned on their heads. The experiment had mixed results: some lauded it as an important reappropriation of technology. Glenn Beck wept piteously on FOX about the terrorist-intellectuals who “believe in overthrowing the government of the United States of America.”

Contemporary geographers and contemporary experimental geographers are influenced by Marx, but they are equally inspired by a man called Le Febvre. Le Febvre believed that the new spatial code, rather than texts, maps, and graphics, would be action. A spatial code of action would mean that ideas about space (borders, militarized zones, plazas, shopping malls, billboards, foreclosed homes owned by banks…) are now most effectively communicated through action as opposed to symbolic language. Artists have followed suit, whether that means to organize flash-mob style street theater or to communicate a call to radical organizing through symbolically communicated art. A poster can still incite a riot, even though it is representational.

Trevor Paglen coined the term “experimental geography,” although he does not have a monopoly on the practice of such a discipline. Paglen was a graduate student in the Geography department at UC Berkeley, where he was also active in the art department. Today, he helps run a blog called “Art Threat.: Not only does Art Threat document hundreds if not thousands of works of political art, but they report on radical news and they participate in protest actions: on January 18th of this year their website went dark for 24 hours to speak out against the Stop Online Piracy Act that would shut down any website displaying or linking to copyright content. One of Paglen’s books, “I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me,” is a catalog of patches worn by military personnel. The insignia denote secret “black” covert operations. His curation of these patches is certainly a work of art, but how the patches were compiled, and what kind of reaction they in turn elicit from people is of the patches in the book is called “Project Zipper.” A smiley face wearing sunglasses and a zipped smile reads “we make threats not promises.” The patch represents a secret project by the 413th Flight Test Squadron. Said one disillusioned and alienated member of the “black world” when he saw Paglen’s patches, “I’ve seen that sort of thing a lot. Those are gang colors.” The actions that Paglen’s art calls us to do is obviously to oppose the power that is derived by the United States’ government through military secrecy.

Recently in Oakland there has been many examples of radical art or experimental geography providing spatial tactics of resistance. As this issue of Slingshot whet to print, Occupy Oakland was creating large puppets to use for the Occupy Wall Street protest on January 20th. Chalk art in Oscar Grant Plaza depics a pointilllism of Guy Fawkes and colorful announcements about Fuck The Police marches. During a general assembly last fall, someone silk screened “Hella Occupy Oakland” posters depicting the city. We can look at such as poster and under stand that the call to occupy and the depiction of city buildings invite us to enter into more public spaces or foreclosed homes and claim the geographies of life, action, and resistance that have been stolen from us.

the instinct for power in the Occupy movement

The Occupy protestors have no instinct for power. The police and their respective politicians, with the historical advantage, are well aware of this lack on the part of the Occupiers. And the aspiring police and politicians of the Occupy movement manage the revolt while others sit idly by and convince themselves otherwise. We worry about maintaining wholesome images for media representations that are instrumental to the ruling class. In altering or masking oneself for the most “on point” production, many are seemingly leaving their goals behind. All this is under the guise of pragmatism, when these practical protestors cannot even keep up with the last media fabrication.

The “practical” protestor responds to an allegation by confirming fallacious terms with their own actions. They then think of how a given issue, one that the police and their bureaucrats care about in such a noble manner, can be addressed. The lives of those in power are made a little easier as their work is completed by protestors they previously thought were so unreasonable. This is perhaps the most easily read occurrence of the self-defeating, self-management of which Occupiers across the nation are guilty.

That the self-policing Occupiers perpetually “need” to be engaged by conscious anarchists shows how short-sighted they really are. For the former, the spectacular marches are satisfying enough, as other elements are held back by the rat-wheel of teach-ins and skill-shares. The practical protestors are unwilling to think in terms of power because they truly have no desire for radical change, let alone a revolution. With mixed success, the Occupy protests have limited themselves to self-contained dead-end issues (“we should be able to do this or that or else we will fight for that allowance”). Boredom is counter-revolutionary, yet its ubiquity has only led to a new set of slightly ameliorating hobbies for many. The Occupy protests at least signify a social shift that was much needed, though – people are finally utilizing the public space that was slowly stolen over time. Will Occupy’s grandest achievement vaguely be the reintegration of the public square into our lives?

George Lakoff linguist and political theorist was one of the more exciting developments for the soft left in the U.S. because he was able to think in terms of power. Lakoff explained that political discourse for the right was very strategic – words used consciously reflected mental frameworks that played into voters’ psychology. He was looking to elevate the position of Democracts in terms of representation. Truthfulness is not necessarily held in high regard, with a focus placed on positioning in relation to the most powerful frames. “Do not use their language.” Lakoff writes, “Their language picks out a frame–and it won’t be the frame you want.” Lakoff’s writings, although superficially irrelevant to those who reject electoral politics, illustrate how strategically authorities are thinking in terms of representation. There are some very common frames used in relation to the Occupy protests which include terms like “outside agitators,” “professional anarchists,” “violent protestors,” “health and safety issues,” and one can imagine more being fabricated and employed in the future. How do we escape these frames? We must think in our own terms.

Recently in Oakland, when an internal report reflected the statistic that crime had diminished by 19%, Oakland Police Chief Jordan wrote an email to Mayor Quan’s office. In the letter, Jordan noted the strategic inopportunity of such a statistic: “Not sure how you want to share this good news… It may be counter to our statement that the Occupy movement is negatively impacting crime in Oakland.” Suddenly, past instances of stories, fed to the media by police, show themselves for the tools that they are in the hands of the state. The predictable and fallacious façade of superior moral judgment of Jean Quan and the OPD beautifully unravels before our eyes.

Lakoff believes that the act of revealing facts is not enough to change anyone’s mind. The line goes that if the left could only learn to stop using the language of the right, then conservative power would lose the reinforcement it gets from being bashed by liberals (by using the former’s terms). However, engaging in this sort of rhetoric war limited to party politics is a failed endeavor from the beginning. We can in part understand how this back and forth is limited by examining the shift in world power to hegemony.

Under hegemony, power is internalized by all who exist within such a network of power. This concept was first developed by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to describe a spectrum of power relations – involving both the creation and preservation of asymmetrical interdepencies. Through these dynamics of power, “[d]ominant ideological streams must be… reproduced in the activities of our most basic social units,” writes Cultural Studies theorist James Lull. Counter-cultural resistance is often absorbed and recycled into a reinforcement of such a power. The 1960s counter-cultural movement, for example, was quickly subsumed under a mountain of profitable psychedelic commodities and their respective lifestylisms – more of the same old shit covered in patchouli scented shampoo and Jim Morrison posters. Yet this is an unstable relationship – one that can at once “be actively won and secured [or] lost” (to quote some second-hand Stuart Hall, via James Lull; emphasis added). “Hegemony fails,” Lull writes, “when dominant ideology is weaker than social resistance.”

It does not take too far of a leap to imagine how Occupy protestors are complicit in reinforcing delicate balances of power. Some individuals at protests believe it is their mission to discipline others: with their tactics assuming the form of threats, physical violence, rhetoric, modeling of moral behavior (ex. scrubbing off graffiti), or snitching to the police. Regardless of the work that has been done, an acknowledgement of a diversity of tactics and solidarity among occupiers has yet to be completely fostered.

We live in a world in which the public often takes the news of blatant corruption with a wry smile and a weary shake of the head. OPD’s email conspiring with Mayor Quan – which should be considered not as an exception but the status quo – will probably scandalize the public for a moment, but it will not necessarily alter the trajectory of the Occupy movements (just as the globally prevailing orders of capitalism and imperialism did not come to a grinding halt due to thousands of Wikileaks).

The need for strategy in terms of media representations might doubly apply for activities in the streets. Actions speak louder than words. Police think in simple terms. If they are outnumbered and overpowered, they will back off. Yet the police will take any power granted to them – no matter the numbers at a demonstration. If the police can get away with giving out citations for irrelevant “offenses,” then they will if it proves fruitful (getting people to be dissuaded from protesting, for instance). A street protest establishes its own stage and boundaries that make up a territory. Police will do what they can to subvert and reorient these boundaries. What if we made it our goal to reappropriate such a tactic? We could ask ourselves how to best subvert the territory of the police. Here is where spontaneity and creativity both prove useful.

A powerful exercise would be to pay attention to the movements of both the protestors and the police. What short-term goals could we set for this action? What gets people arrested? What gets police to go away? How do we increase our autonomy, if only temporarily? A similar set of questions might apply for our interactions with the media. What terms are best suited for our current purposes? How is the media not important in relation to our actions? Can we counter anti-Occupy media fabrications with some of our own? All of these thought experiments will prove
useful in developing a positive resistance.

The instinct for collective empowerment must be cultivated. Problems faced can be positive if we are able to learn from them. This requires an active acknowledgement of as much of the picture as we possibly can be aware of. We cannot reduce ourselves to tiny windows for action and thought. The Occupy protests should incorporate a wide sampling of human experience in order to strengthen its own position. The tactics will develop only if we are willing to think critically about context and possibility. Let us not limit ourselves, but find new pathways that have yet to be discovered.