Politics by Other Means

by Christina Ulke in conversation with Mark Tribe about his Port Huron Project


The Port Huron Project is a series of reenactments of protest speeches from the 1960s and 70s. It is named after the Port Huron Statement, a visionary manifesto drafted by Tom Hayden for a meeting of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Port Huron, Michigan, in 1962. Each reenactment in the project is staged at the site of the original speech and is delivered by an actor to an audience comprising both invited guests and passers-by. The events have been documented using both old and new media and presented at various venues as well as distributed online www.porthuronproject.net and on DVD as open-source media (see the first part of the project "Until the Last Guns are Silent")

The first event in the series, Port Huron Project 1: Until the Last Gun Is Silent, is based on a speech given by Coretta Scott King at a peace march in New York City’s Central Park in 1968; the reenactment took place there on Saturday, 16 September 2006. Five additional events are planned for 2007 and 2008.

Christina Ulke: What motivated you to reenact protest speeches from the New Left era?

Mark Tribe: I came up with the idea as a response to the relative lack of political activity at Brown University, where I teach. As it happens, I went to college at Brown, and when I arrived there as a freshman in 1985, students had set up a shanty town in the center of campus to protest the university’s investments in South Africa. Twenty years later, and three years into a bloody and misguided war, the campus is quiet. No protests, no flyers. And my students never mention the war unless I bring it up. It’s not that they are in favor of the war. On the contrary, when asked, they all say they oppose it. But they don’t think they can do anything to stop the war. Many of them were active in the 2004 election, and were deeply disillusioned by the outcome. Others are just too busy with their own lives to give it much thought. I wanted to do something to help them (and me, for that matter) connect with the sense of possibility that characterized the New Left movements of the 60s and 70s.

CU: I hear you. During my time at UCSD as adjunct faculty I always wondered about student life on a corporate campus. Most hang-out spaces on campus were commercial.

Corporations donated computers and software and thus codetermined the curriculum of the new-media program I was teaching at. Many of my students lived off campus and spent little time on campus. It seemed to me that the university-industrial complex had a de-politicizing effect on the student body.

Until recently, I wasn’t aware of the rebirth of the SDS in 2006.  With the new SDS, there has been an impressive amount of direct action activism against the war in Iraq on campuses all over the US.  I had an interesting conversation with Josh Kahn Russell of the new SDS* after a panel discussion we organized at SOEX in San Francisco where he discussed some of SDS’s movement-building strategies. He shared with me his belief that SDS’s recent formation occurred because of, not in spite of, the increasing corporatization of universities nation-wide. Mario Savio spelled it out in the 60’s:

"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"

Another interesting point Josh made during the panel discussion was that, after the defeat of the radical movements of the 60s and 70s, many activists of that generation were traumatized. Many of their political and social structures that could have passed their knowledge didn’t survive; SDS is but one example. This could be one reason why, until recently, some US campuses were quiet. You mention the anti-apartheid activism that took place at Brown University in the mid-eighties. Do you see similarities in student movements today that bring students to activism?

MT: Yes and No. There are a lot of similarities between the 1980s and this decade. Then, as now, we had a hawkish conservative president. Then, as now, we experienced an economic boom that benefited the wealthiest while leaving the poor behind. Then, as now, we had a volunteer military composed largely of disenfranchised kids. I see two key differences: one generational, and the other more broadly historical.

I was born in 1966 and have vague memories of my parents taking me to demonstrations in Washington, D.C., when I was a boy. So my fascination with the Freedom Riders, SDS, and the Weather Underground goes beyond politics—the New Left is part of my personal history. When I went to summer camp, each counselor gave his group of kids a name—there were the Wolverines, the Hyenas, the Cougars. We had this hippie counselor named Tom who called us the Weathermen. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it was cool. When I was a student in the 1980s, my peers and I saw the student activists of the 60s as counter-cultural heroes. They were younger than our parents, who may have been liberal but were a little too old to really participate in the movement. My students are interested in the New Left, but for them it’s ancient history. From their perspective, Angela Davis must seem almost as remote as Emma Goldman. So I think student activism looked more attractive to us than it does to students today.

The second difference, in my opinion, has to do with the simple if disappointing fact that, in the twenty years since I was in college, student activism has done little to change the course of history. A partial list of disillusioning failures might include the first Gulf War, genocide in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the U.S. presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, and now the so-called War on Terror. We believed we could have an impact. Indeed, it seems that the divestments that took place in the 1980s may have helped bring an end to apartheid in South Africa. But students today seem to believe, and not without good reason, that resistance is futile. Another significant historical difference that I think may well be a factor has to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the global triumph of American-style consumer capitalism and media culture. Although Soviet communism did not represent an attractive alternative, it did enable us to imagine the possibility of a radically different way of doing things. Today it is much harder to “think outside the box,” to borrow a phrase from business-speak.

*A network of student groups that emerged in 2006 and now has 266 chapters.

CU: How have your students responded to the project?

MT: Very enthusiastically. They seemed genuinely excited about the chance to get involved in a project that mixes art and protest. So far, about a dozen students have worked with me on the project. Many of them have read the Port Huron Statement. It’s interesting to note, however, that none of the students who have worked with me to date have been involved in the new SDS. I think the project may appeal to them in part because it doesn’t have instrumental aims—it’s not, directly at least, about swinging the vote or bringing the troops home, but about creating an experience, however brief, of the unstable nature of history, reminding us that, as entrenched as the status quo may seem, history bears witness to the fact that the future is full of possibility.

CU: You document these events extensively and distribute them widely. Why put so much emphasis on mediation?

MT: The process of documenting the events infects the events themselves. The cameras are very present; they intrude into the event in a way that emphasizes the mediation that is already taking place in the very act of reenactment. They draw attention to the fact that the reenactment is itself a spectacle, and perhaps also that it is based on a representation, a recording of a previous event. My intention for the documentation is less to bear witness to the reenactment than to produce a secondary experience at another level of estrangement, one that is even more mediated than the first.

CU: It is interesting to me how the reenactments become temporal monuments that are, in a way, “broken”: they are remnants of a 1960s and 70s Civil Rights culture that is no longer in place. Coretta Scott King’s speech is full of agency—she invites her audience to march to Washington—but in the reenactment, which is staged at the site of the original speech, there is no march to go to. I wonder if it is in this lack of agency that they are most effective, painfully reminding the viewer of the gap between the historical moment you are invoking and our current situation and reality.

MT: Perhaps. Staging the events in the same places, the same public spaces, as the original protests is essential to producing an experience of historical juxtaposition, a kind of simultaneous duality in which our awareness flips back and forth. Standing with a crowd in a public park, listening to an actor deliver a speech that was given right there, thirty or forty years earlier, is pretty weird, and that’s what I’m after. I want to make the contemporary reality of the site feel strange in a way that opens it up to the political.

Walter Benjamin wrote that in the age of mechanical reproduction, art ceases to be based on ritual and begins to be based on another practice—politics. Benjamin was right, I think, but art rarely has a direct impact in the realm of politics. It doesn’t get presidents impeached or raise the minimum wage. It would be a mistake to conclude that art is politics. Art is not politics; it is politics by other means.