August 2003
volume 1, issue 2



The deferred temporality and deranged argumentation we encounter in Boom! frustrates not only the hypothetical subject of neoliberalism, but also the identificatory plenitude expected by certain modes of left politics, such as those we have just mentioned. The latter stress "direct action" as the central values protest art should visually illustrate and literally enact. But this emphasis on the "now" of the demonstration risks overshadowing the possibility that artistic techniques might be capable of articulating analyses, demands, and positions that go beyond the reductive moral dramaturgy of demonized executives pitted against populist, life-affirming revelers. This is the proposition ventured by Thorne and Ressler, although the artists by no means claim for Boom! the status of a superior or exemplary "solution."

In fact, on the several occasions that the artists have directly coordinated with activists to have Boom! used in protests, the results have been less than successful, at least according to conventional criteria: in one case, upon receiving them, members of a labor union were so unimpressed by the banner's deferral of legibility and lack of iconographic figuration that they declined to bring them into the street at all. In another case, protest organizers did facilitate the distribution of three banners, but expressed bewildered skepticism as to their 'point' and ultimately neglected to keep track of them or to maintain them for reuse.

What do these (admittedly unscientific) anecdotes suggest about the status of Boom! as a committed, productivist intervention? From one perspective, they confirm the entrenchedness of certain norms regarding "good" and "bad" protest art and the aesthetic conservatism of groups cautious not to distract from the specificity and urgency of their demands. And after all, who are independent conceptual artists such as Thorne and Ressler to challenge such strategic conservatism? Would it not be more "effective" for artists to put themselves directly at the service of the "community" in
question, providing the technical skills necessary for the latter to make itself present in "positive, clear, inspiring images," as Solnit would have it? Wouldn't anything other amount to mere indulgence, directing attention away from the task at hand?

While intuitive, such questions risk neutralizing the radicality of the horizons opened by the recent mobilizations, whose "task" remains an open and contested question. While emerging out of decades of organizing around specific issues (agricultural policy, labor rights, debt relief, environmental justice) the novelty of recent mobilizations has been their politicization of the organizing principles and institutions of the global economic system as a whole. Boom! takes this novelty as its starting point, proposing the following question: how might the agitational culture of protests articulate a critique of an abstract, self-globalizing ideological premise (the inevitable, non-political, universally benevolent character of the "self-regulating market") and the locally salient material effects this premise assists in reproducing (systemic impoverishment, insecurity, criminalization) that would render more politically complex the moral outrage expressed by a slogan such as "people before profit!" or the self-congratulatory incantation "this is what democracy looks like!"? Furthermore, what might such a complexity entail for the "other world" (or "worlds" as the Zapatistas might have it) whose possibility is so enthusiastically announced? In pondering these questions, we should not evade the fact that Boom! was not generally well-received by protest-activists, and that simply charging the latter with aesthetic conservatism would be an inadequate response.

Boom! is clearly intended as a Brechtian interruption of the normal "plot" of protest-art, creating a situation that "is not brought home to the spectator but distanced from him." Yet Thorne and Ressler do not pursue this as an end in of itself, an obscurantist gesture that could only be the symptom of nihilism, sadism, or elitism. Their productivist desire to 'intervene actively' is sincere, if critical. As an experimental aesthetico-political undertaking that aspires to use-value in the project of a democratic globalization, Boom! may evolve in response to the needs and desires of others within the movement, which is not to say that it will be dictated by them or content to serve as their self-satisfying mirror-image.


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