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Strategies of Successful Contemporary Protest Art
The following is a transcript of a hypothetical television program presented by Jeremy Paxman with six guest speakers. They discuss strategies of successful contemporary protest art.
Jeremy Paxman: Good Evening and welcome to Newsnight’s April Review. My guest speakers on the panel tonight are:
Jessica Palmer, art critic and tutor at the Slade:
Christopher Anderson, anti-capitalist activist and campaigner with Globalise Resistance:
Graham Bates, professional cynic and journalist:
Ursula Maurittonni, bank assistant and a relatively new fan of contemporary art.
I’d like to approach this evening's discussion by comparing four case studies chosen by the panel. Its important to recognise that these are all examples of protest art made in the last 5 years. Lets start with:
Santiago Sierra “The Displacement of a Cacerolada” 2002
In March 2002 following the collapse of the peso, which sent Argentina into economic crisis The Argentinean government resorted to desperate measures to try and stabilise the economy. They decided to freeze citizens’ bank accounts to curb spending. The banks in Buenos Aires were boarded up with corrugated iron to stop people withdrawing their money.
Sierra recorded the sounds of people protesting in the streets, in a traditional protest called ‘Cacerolada’. This mostly consists of people banging pots and pans, and repeating chants. They also banged pots and pans against the corrugated iron. He made 7000 copies of the CD and posted them to different art galleries around the world; to London, Frankfurt, New York, Vienna and Geneva.
"To participate in the project," said the CD sleeve (in both Spanish and English), "put your speakers in your window, turn your stereo up to full blast and play the whole CD at the following local times: London 4pm, Frankfurt Geneva and Vienna 5pm, New York 11 am. At that time, the CD was also broadcast on local radio in central London by Resonance FM."
CD cover from “Displacement of a Cacerolada” www.felixtrust.com November 2005
Let’s listen to an excerpt from the CD at http://www.felixtrust.com/sierra2.htm November 2005
The sound made by pots and pans being banged against corrugated iron is very loud. The repetition of individual thuds forms a rhythmical beat. Not everybody has the same rhythmical ability, or choose to bang elaborate rhythms. Some pots solidly thud the base, some thud more complicated rhythms on top and some are completely out of time.
I quote the guardian web site at http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,809796,00.html
“A worker at the South London Gallery said: "We did this, and the sound of all these pans was blaring out across the Peckham Road, but nobody complained. The sounds of Buenos Aires demonstrating against global capitalist policies didn't seem to upset anyone."”
If there is nothing to look at, why did the art galleries participate in the project?
Sierra is an internationally eminent artist. Playing the CD enables the galleries to be a part of a big event, like other perhaps more prestigious galleries. It’s almost like a branding strategy that Sierra has adopted in the mass production of the CD. It was explained to all of the galleries that the CD had been sent to 7000 galleries across the world. Perhaps this gave the galleries more incentive to participate, in the same way that it is nice to watch an international blockbuster film, or wear the same brand of shoes as millions of other people all over the world.
Yes... It relates a lot to branding in my mind as well. There is definitely something to be said for tapping into a communal psyche. Owning the same products as superstars, colleagues or friends makes people feel more connected to certain aspects of the world.
As the CD was given to 7000 different art galleries there was the possibility of 7000 groups of people listening to the CD at the same time.
Listening to the CD is an opportunity for the audience to contemplate the situation of the protest and to contemplate their personal reaction to hearing the protest, which took place six months previously that year. How apathetic would ‘one’ have felt, on hearing the passionate outrage of people in another country?
"I think boredom is very close to anger." Santiago explains. "But part of what I am doing is to deprive people of spectacle. There are enough of those in the world and they are just a distraction. Frustration, boredom and anger are much more interesting reactions to produce."
Sierra http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,809796,00.html November 2005
The case study that I would like to present is:
Gianni Motti and Christoph Buchel “Guantanamo Initiative” 2005
I’ll read an extract from the explanation given by the artists.
“In response to the illegality of the U.S Government’s lease on the land at Guantanamo Bay, currently used as a U.S Naval base and penal colony, Christoph Buchel and Gianni Motti collaborate with La Biennale di Venezia to officially request a new lease from the Cuban government on said land. Further, the Guantanamo Initiative seeks to transform this contentious land from a military base into a cultural base.”
“In addition to displaying treaties and documents that expose the illegitimacy of the U.S. lease contract imposed on Cuba in 1903, the exhibition at the Arsenale presents 47 annual rent checks issued by the United States to the Cuban Government since 1959 – all of which the Republic of Cuba has refused to cash. The exhibition of uncashed U.S. treasury checks exists in anticipation of a museum that the Cuban Government plans to build for these cheques when the land at Guantanamo Bay is finally restored to Cuba.”
Buchel and Motti July 2005
“Guantanamo Initiative” at Maccarone www.artnet.com January 2006
Yes. In a sense, everybody who interacts/participates in the piece is a different kind of audience. The spectators at the Biennale and at the previous shows in Paris and Miami are not the only people involved.
So it’s not just about the gallery visitors then?
No. Everyone involved has a different role to play. There is the U.S. Government, who is receiving lobbying / pressure to end the lease. There are the members of the Cuban Government and Cuban society, who are receiving international media attention….. Then there are the members of the Venice Biennale who participated in the project. Motti and Buchel’s awareness of the impact that the art world can have has made this very effective.
“The United States is currently using Guantanamo Bay as an internment and detention center for “unlawful enemy combatants”. The naval Base has already been used for the custody of political detainees and refugees. This contradicts the original lease, which provided for the establishment of “coaling or naval stations only and for no other purpose.”
Motti and Buchel July 2005
By making the proposal for the change of land use very publicly, the artists put the government in the public spotlight. I’m sure this is not appreciated very much by the U.S.
And it’s nice that the Initiative is using the Venice Biennale as a means to educate people. It is quite astounding to think of the harsh injustice of the reality of what is happening in Cuba. It’s as if the artists are saying “Never mind looking at inconsequential artwork, look at what is happening in the real world! This is far more important for us to think about.”
“Land Mark” Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla 2003
Landmark: Footprint. 2001-2002 Allora & Calzadilla. Digital photograph in colour. Documentation of performance. Series of 12 pieces: 50.8 x 61 cm each. galeria.universia.pr
The artwork consists of a collection of photographs that document a participatory performance event on the island of Vieques in March 2003. The artists worked in collaboration with local residents and protestors of the island to create the project. Protestors were campaigning to end the U.S Military occupation of the island. The U.S bought the land from the Puerto Rican government in the 1940s and had been using the island to test bombs and other weaponry.
So who are the different audiences?
“This work had various moments of reception. Our public audience, we thought, would be the military, or perhaps even the people who are protesting. But there are also those who see our photographs, which don’t function merely as representations of the action.”
Hans-Ulrich Obrist, March 2005
So let’s talk about the US Military.
The military would see the foot prints on the beach as a physical contest to the ownership of the space. If entering the beach is classed as civil disobedience, leaving a mark behind which actually causes no long term damage or pollution is a cunning act of defiance.
As the trespassing was executed as a work of art, the military would have been made aware of the possibility of the international art world watching.
The Protestors must have seen the project in a very different way.
Yes. It can be said that the artwork has much to offer the protestors. Making their own footprints was a peaceful intellectual form of expression. The performance offers the protestors something far more noble than the traditional forms of retaliation to counteract the intimidating military occupation. Although the project involves breaking the law, it isn’t violent or aggressive.
“Each person’s body weight created a unique image in the sand as they walked or ran;… The different physical positions of the footsteps also represent ideological positions: one person’s message says this should be a nature reserve; someone else wants to build a gigantic mall.”
Hans-Ulrich Obrist March 2005
So it also gave the protestors the opportunity to consider their own intentions.
For many uncreative people, like myself (!) considering that a footprint could represent their ideology is quite a novel idea.
It must have been quite empowering as well, to have known that their actions were being broadcast in the international art world.
The people who come across the photographs all across the world are another kind of audience, aren’t they?
Yes. The photographs are interesting compositions in themselves. They are not purely documentation of the performance, but act as an artistic expression of the event. Most images are close up views of the footprints in the sand, whereby you can see the detail of the imprints from the soles of the shoes.
Perhaps they also question our concept of beauty. Imprints left after the defiant action of activists against an illegal authority seems really beautiful to me, but I know that they wouldn’t seem as beautiful if I didn’t understand the reason for their creation.
Yes there is a problem with the photographs. It is possible that the sign can become detached from the signified when the image made is aesthetically pleasing. I mean that the image can be used in another context and the political connotations can be lost. I recommend reading “Myths Today” by Roland Barthes to anyone who is interested.
You should be pleased to hear that on May 1st 2003 the military presence ended on the island and the bombing stopped. We cannot tell whether or not this was a direct result of the performance, there was a massive campaign as well. Isn’t it fantastic?
Images taken from http://www.shunpiking.com/nhfw/fyi-vieques.html
Do the artists think the work is successful?
“To some extent there is success in the activity…. In dematerialising the island to the extent that the military are no longer bombing that area and the munitions areas have been certified empty, but there is still so many serious problems and the legacy that it left behind in terms of waste and other contamination, health problems for example.”
Jennifer Allora, Interview www.thersa.org./arts/acrobat November 2005
One of my favourite anti-consumerist art works of the last decade – and one of only a few made in the UK - is the piece entitled
“Break Down” Michael Landy
“Break Down”, our last case-study, consists of a two week performance in which Landy systematically classified all of his personal possessions and then destroyed them with a team of workers. Information about the possessions was entered onto a database; then the objects were labelled and bagged before being destroyed.
The piece isn’t criticising capitalism exactly, but more centred around issues of consumerism and waste.
“People will read it like that (an attack on consumerism), and – well- it is an attack. But it’s an inverted attack because it’s an assault on me. It’s trying to ask: what is it that makes consumerism the strongest ideology of our time?”
Why is he being so coy?
I don’t know. Perhaps it prevents him being fobbed off as a loony-bin hippy. He is still a part of a consumerist society. He can’t be called a hypocrite when he buys loads of new stuff.
So there is more to protest art than making banners for demonstrations.
With the coming of new artistic movements the modernist tradition of artist acting as an autonomous individual has been called into question and superseded. There is plenty of room for artistic protest, be it in the gallery, in the street or on the beach.
If we had more time I’d like to discuss “The Society of the Spectacle” by Guy Debord; aspects of our neo-liberalist capitalist society and how the art world fits in. I’d also like us to discuss the writing of Judith Butler, and the theory of Performativity. It would also be good to quickly talk about feminism, the Guerilla Girls and Banksy but unfortunately we are running out of time.
Back to our original topic of conversation – Success. Success it seems, is a relative entity. Success depends entirely on the context in which the work is placed and on the aims of the artists.
If I may, I’d like to finish the debate with a quote from Susan Sontag:
"Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. People don't become inured to what they are shown—if that's the right way to describe what happens—because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feelings." Sontag, 2003
Jessica Palmer, Christopher Anderson, Ursula Maurittonni, Ms. Guerrilla Girl and Grayham Battes thank you for joining us tonight; and to everybody watching thank you and good night.
nb This is an abridged version of the original essay which will be archived soon