Make It Stop
This piece grew out of a desire and an obstinacy, a desire to write about a collective project I’ve been part of and an obstinate refusal to speak as or for that collective. I wanted to look at shifting grounds for artists’ public interventions in the city of Chicago and to address the ethics or responsibilities of “political art” even as I acknowledge that these terms are widely viewed as incompatible. In the summer of 2007, Feel Tank Chicago (1) sponsored a wildly overambitious project called “Pathogeographies” at Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was a gallery exhibition and a series of events, performances, discussions, and interventions. in which we tried to “take” but also “make” the emotional temperature of the body politic. The gallery space provided a certain kind of platform (sometimes exciting, sometimes disappointing). Many of the projects shared an ambition to remake what’s shared in public space by intervening in it. (2) But what happens – what feelings, what politics – when what’s shared in public space intervenes in them?
I’ll start with the event I participated in most directly. Pathogeographies took place in the fifth year of Feel Tank’s collective practice, and so we planned it to overlap with our Fifth Annual International Parade of the Politically Depressed. The First and Second happened on May Day 2003 and May Day 2004 (we were too depressed to do the Third and Fourth). For the fifth parade, we made a change: we did it on the Fourth of July. The parade was an apathetic yet somehow joyous march through the city, with participants carrying ambiguously unhappy banners and signs (the old standby, “Depressed? It Might Be Political”; variations like “Exhausted? It Might be Politics”; and the simple “I feel lost”). We engaged in a great deal of spontaneous moaning.
Along the way we got honks from cabs, waves from a few passersby, a lot of irritation and a lot of blank stares. During previous parades, most people who saw us had no expectation from the day; those who did expected something leftist; lots of people seemed to understand; in the midst of all that, blank stares weren’t what stood out. This time, I didn’t think anything of the stares until a friend mentioned how disappointed she was that people didn’t seem to get it.
I’ve felt this desire, my friend’s desire to make contact, the hope that people will feel the shock of recognition, mobilize their depression, let their bad feelings be heard. But this time I didn’t share the disappointment. I felt elation within the group, and I felt almost comforted by the blank stares. I felt like we had gotten to a more basic ground of (mis)communication where we conveyed affect and not meaning, where it was okay to produce incomprehension. Not because we want to produce an abstruse piece of performance art that requires inside knowledge to understand it; not even, necessarily, because we want to win people over with our message. It was just an enormous relief to a) do something together, b) in public, c) in a way that didn’t respond to the expectations people already had for what could go on in the streets of the city on Independence Day. For some of the starers, it probably went no further; they filed the parade away under “crazy people.” If the best we could expect was that for some of them it shook loose some little piece of their thinking, then that was OK with me.
But this is to acknowledge that our ambitions are reduced. To me, at that moment, it was not as important to communicate meaning as to communicate the bewilderment of its absence. In 1968, when the cops rioted in the streets of Chicago, East Coast and West Coast artists saw what happened on TV – and, filled with emotion, they decided that a boycott of the city would have an impact. Can you imagine the same thing today? Were they optimistic or just naïve? More importantly, just one year before, in August 1967, African-American painters on Chicago’s South Side had painted the Wall of Respect, a manifestation of Black Pride, representing heroic black faces in outdoor urban visual culture that they were otherwise entirely absent – not even cigarette billboards in those days reflected images of black consumers back to the community. Representation itself didn’t just represent; it did something.
The boycott, the wall – even Yippie tactics – these forms of engagement were ways that artists could intervene (sometimes to their own surprise) in the political world. And in the discourse of the late 60s, they were talked about, by artists and critics, as a matter of feeling. This wassomething that contrasted with the abstract values still prevalent in the art world, yet wasn’t quite ideology either. Robert Motherwell made this explicit when he participated in the “Richard J. Daley” protest show (the Feigen Gallery’s response to the mayor’s tactics in the fall of 1968). His work was absolutely without political content, he said, but taking part in the show represented the “politics of feeling, not the politics of ideology." (3) This language of feeling cut across modes from the most abstract Abstract Expressionists, to the representational muralists, to styles of psychotherapy. The artists who engaged in these different interventions had faith in feeling, its potential to make contact in its passion, to really change something – whether that came through art or its refusal.
In recent discussions among artist-activists there has been a lot of anxiety over things like “effectiveness.” How can impact be defined in aesthetic and political realms? One way might be to think through the emotional dimension of both these realms. How can a project get "under the skin" of a viewer/receiver? What do we ask of our “audiences”? When might the micro, one-on-one scale be more important or interesting than the macro or mass scale? With Pathogeographies, we attempted something that was new for us as a collective, though familiar to some of us in our other professional lives -- using a gallery to house and circulate work and as a home base for projects happening out in the world. The venue allowed us to push certain ideas forward more vigorously, in a more concentrated way, and allowed for new things to happen. It also produced some obstacles, anxieties, and dead ends, not to mention exhaustion. Working within art institutions – and I don’t mean just the gallery but all the professional apparatus involved – brought unexpected constraints for art understood as political: how to handle artists’ expectations about exhibiting as professional development, hurt feelings because we tried to do too much with too little (money, time, energy), the desire for national and international connections but the inevitable dependence on local social networks, the tricky question of how to help plan site-specific political performances by artists who were not on-site (4).
During Pathogeographies, the Institute for Infinitely Small Things placed “Unmarked Packages” in locations in Chicago to elicit conversations about security and insecurity. They wondered how people feel about programs like “See Something, Say Something,” where, on public transportation, we’re interpellated into an ever-vigilant citizenry, asked to feel and act a certain way about a kind of warfare (terrorism) that is itself about feelings. The Institute’s question was: does this make us feel secure, or do such programs make us feel anxious, without providing any real protection? Do they cause people to trust their neighbors or fear them – to fear authority or trust it? Institute members chose places marked by heightened “security,” but left the definition of “security” quite open. They wanted to make a scene but not to create a provocation, so they installed large quantities of unmarked packages piled up on a big tarp as large, temporary public sculpture. They stood nearby in white lab coats to elicit conversation. The conversations changed by neighborhood. People downtown wanted to talk, had a lot to say. In Woodlawn, an economically precarious, largely black neighborhood on the south side, people understood the point, but weren’t that interested: security means something different there. Near the University of Chicago a passerby remarked, “Some kinda art project.” In Little Village, a Latino neighborhood, the white-lab-coated, official-looking Institute members themselves became “security” in the view of onlookers too nervous to stop and talk.
In the gallery, the project changed, and the group invited visitors to take a single unmarked package, or create a single unattended bag, and explore their own feelings about what it might mean to take it out and situate it someplace in the world outside. When I thought about taking an unattended package outside and putting it in the landscape, something stopped me. What stopped me wasn’t the worry that I’d cause someone anxiety (though it could have been); it was the worry of what might happen to me if security saw me do it. In the fun-house mirror of Bush’s America, smaller things have led to detention. I probably had nothing to worry about. But what emotional commands and forms of authority and intimidation have I internalized?
Andi Sutton’s Crosspollennation was an uneasy meeting with Chicago’s urban fabric (comprising even uneasier meetings with a series of Chicago residents). Building on walks taken through different neighborhoods in Boston, she walked with two heavy suitcases filled with dirt and squash seeds through the south side of Chicago, through a series of different ethnic enclaves and depressed in-between zones. The plan was to create an exchange: people who offered to help her carry the cases would receive a squash seed in a small pot. The suitcases were unbearably heavy; she had to stop over and over again; she created a spectacle of her need for assistance. But few people stopped to help, and those who did were driving. Finally a black cop in a white working class neighborhood told her not to venture further into the neighboring black community, instead to get on the train and get herself out of there. She agreed to this, following a rule she’d made for herself to accept any offer of help.
The project was initially a way of “conducting social research,” as she explained it later, but the research, it turned out, was actually internal, the work was in the conversations that came out of it, the thinking she was forced to do as a result. At the Experimental Station, an independent cultural space in Chicago, Andi described her work to a group, and the conversation wound up as a heated discussion, a vigorous critique of her practice. The expectations she had for exchange on a personal level looked like a serious misreading of local conditions. The social and racial alienation, the poverty, the sheer need in some of those places was too great: as a white woman she was spectacle, a possibly dangerous spectacle, and although a few drivers stopped, on the street only the lost, crazy, or desperate--or the cops--would talk to her. The gift of a squash seed seemed obscenely ineffectual for people who had no place to plant it. The seriality of walks, and of the call and response of needs unmet, provided a structure that enabled her internal research but made painfully apparent her not belonging. And yet, the resulting conversation was one that needed to happen in Chicago, that doesn’t happen enough here. To me, the walk was also about pain and difficulty, self-harm, even, the desire to make oneself hurt as a way to mimic and identify with the more systemic pain of others. The suitcases were really heavy. What does it take to prompt a stranger to stop the artist from hurting, or risking, herself?
I think Andi would acknowledge that as performed in Chicago the piece was not successful, even if it generated new knowledge for her – and perhaps some new awareness for the Chicagoans about the conversations not being carried on, or not carried to their fullest, amongst themselves. For me it reframes the idea of interventionist art: what if we thought of “interventionist” art not as art that intervenes but as art that causes other people to intervene? To try to make the artist(s) stop? Or to face what it means not to? I think of a ranting drunk woman I saw on the El train a while back who forced the doors and hurtled herself out onto the platform while the train was still moving. She wasn’t badly hurt. But I didn’t know she wouldn’t be, and maybe I could have stopped her, and I didn’t intervene. She’d been ranting about white people, and I was the only white person in that car.
Each day for five days in the first week of July, 2007, members of BLW – Rozalinda Borcila, Sarah Lewison, and Julie Wyman – met in Millennium Park in downtown Chicago to conduct research on the park, public access and public ownership, enjoyment, policing, corporations, the future, and the military industrial complex. Millennium Park is a showcase of contemporary public art as dazzling spectacle; it’s also, as BLW points out, a showcase of corporate naming rights, such that it is constituted out of spaces like the Exelon Pavilions, the Boeing Galleries, Chase Promenade, the BP Bridge, and AT&T Plaza. It displays high-tech corporate power in much the same way that one of its installations, Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” otherwise known as The Bean, mirrors the high-rises that surround it.
In one part of their work in the park, BLW conducted pedagogical sessions asking questions of the park itself. They set up a big flip pad with key words and concepts, making a classroom of the space, and one member presented material while the other group members listened and participated. In this way, they attracted a few onlookers and questioners. The group discussed a survey map of Chicago from July 2, 1836, chartering the space on which Millennium Park now sits as “Public Ground. A common, to remain forever open, clear and free of any building or obstruction whatever.” BLW asked: are the Exelon Pavilions, the Boeing Galleries, Chase Promenade, the BP Bridge, and AT&T Plaza “obstructions”?
Members of the group found themselves confused and upset about their own experience of the park–enticed by its pleasures but frustrated with its occlusion of issues about land use, corporate power, and relentless policing. The park appropriates autonomy. In its through-the-looking-glass aspect it opens up a space for leisure and relaxation—for strange things (even performance art) to be acceptable, under the auspices of corporate capital. There, critique feels petty. Alternative views are reduced to a minimum: behaving in unusual ways before the Bean, questioning corporate greed, group members found themselves surreally echoed by members of a youth Bible group.
On the first day, BLW discussed a series of questions on the idea of the “Millennium” as a turning point (the question of apocalypse, Y2K, collapse, fear and uncertainty about the future, revolution, crisis and opportunity). A man approached the group to express his concern for their well-being. If they were feeling bad, he said, if they were having a hard time having fun, what they needed to do was shake it out. He proceeded to lead them in a collective shake, repeating his mantra: “shake it out.” He was feeling some discomfort at their discomfort. “It’s not complicated,” he said. Not having fun was an obstruction, in a place for no obstructions. No complications.It required him to intervene.
On the fourth of July, the International Parade of the Politically Depressed ended in Millennium Park, at the Bean. I don’t dislike the Bean. It’s like a glossy, mobile, corporate Wall of Respect; we could see ourselves represented in its reflections too. We continued our wordless moaning until a cop told us to move away so others could enjoy the Bean. The first amendment, maybe, doesn’t cover moaners who want to get in the way of corporate heterotopia. Inarticulate moaning that incites intervention. We moved away, and the moaning continued, with words this time: “Only the happy people can look at the Bean.”
Rebecca Zorach teaches and writes about art history, theory, and politics. She has worked with the Hyde Park Committee Against War and Racism, Feel Tank Chicago, and AREA Chicago and is currently working with students on an exhibition, "Looks Like Freedom," on art and politics around 1968.