Forward to Section #2- Dissidents in Decentered States: Living Otherwise During The Time Of War.
Findings From the Antiwar Survey and Beyond.
It was from Market Street that you could most easily tell that the Shutdown was working. By the middle of the day you could stand at 8th and look East and not see any traffic for blocks. The beauty of the decentralized, disorganized attack was that you could see the results without knowing what everyone else was doing, though, on the course of our ride we ran into some huge marches a couple of times. At 4th and Howard, we almost got penned in with a group of hundreds of protesters that the police were trying to corral, but we rode down Minna Street, the alley, and got away only too regroup an hour later at UN Plaza. Another time, we were slowed by protesters facing off with a line of riot cops who were guarding the SF Shopping Mall. A girl with a bike cart ran up to us and asked if we wanted any food. She was with Food Not Bombs, who were riding around all day with carts of food, making sure protesters got to eat on the streets! This was the sign that our modest group of bikers was tied in too a larger, organized event, but we still didn’t know what it looked like.
-Scam #5, January 2005, Erick Lyle
When people consider the antiwar movement of the Vietnam War era they are summing up a fiction; all movements are fictions. The narration of history as a collection of events whose compilation adds up to a whole story, whether done by historians or in-groups, is an act of story telling. Five years into the war on Iraq and seven years into the war on terror, we were wondering what kinds of stories we might be able to tell ourselves about our current antiwar movement. So we created and disseminated, as best as we could, an antiwar survey. For the sake of pseudo-scientific precision, we limited the survey to activities in California. The surveys asked people to describe and evaluate their antiwar activities. We received responses from a mix of artists (fine, street, and otherwise) as well as activists.
In the past we’ve asked the question, “What is to be made of the proliferation of protests?” referring to the general and universal “global justice” movement. We ask this question to discover what can be learned from reading a complicated story. We tell ourselves stories for many reasons. Perhaps this is why, until now, the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest has never chosen to direct its attention in such a cohesive manner at the face of resistance to the wars that have come about through the administration’s reaction to the events of September 11th, 2001. As the war has dragged on incessantly, and the stories that fueled our dreams of Nov 30th, 1999 have receded into the echoes of another era, the realities of a social, political and cultural climate of a complete and other texture has fully emerged.
A Rock Solid Argument
It is a rock solid argument to hold that our current antiwar movement was stillborn. It is a fact that numbers of people at protest and rallies against this war hold nothing in comparison to the marches that took place on Feb 15th, 2003, a full month before the war in Iraq began. If your measure of relevancy is the number of bodies on the streets demanding another way, than you can argue that this internationally organized day represents the high water mark for both the internationally networked Global Justice and the nascent anti Iraq war movement. The numbers argue for themselves and they have not been matched since . (1) Furthering the perception that the antiwar movement is impotent, even irrelevant, are the public opinion surveys that appeared as early as August 2004 showing a mistrust in the administrations justification for the war . (2)By April of 2006 an outright majority of Americans disapproved of the way that George Bush had handled the War in Iraq . (3) And while the make up of the House of Representatives has shifted from Republican to Democrat, that a movement with such a potentially broad appeal has not coalesced together to effectively argue an end to this war, on “our” terms, through street and legislative actions, can be seen as an immense failure of our times. This despite the fact that the new technologies of our days clearly aid in the linking and coordination of broad publics. And while these times (and technologies) have generated groups such as Moveon.org, IVAW and Code Pink, these groups can be seen as yet to live up to there promises of creating a broad democratic antiwar movement.
In response to a question in our survey regarding what a group needs in order to continue to succeed carrying out their antiwar mission Janet Weil, herself a member of Code Pink, lets on to her frustration. Tasking herself with the goal of closing a Marine Recruiting station in Berkeley, Weil responded in this manner:
What is it going to take to close the recruitment station? Is it going to take a new Cindy Sheehan moment to close that particular office, to bring recruitment down to that level where the government can’t maintain the war?
Janet’s honesty is palpable. And while Cindy Sheehan is a significant antiwar figure (and Congressional candidate) it is difficult to see that “Cindy Sheehan moment”, where for several months Sheehan effectively provided a media counterpoint to Bushes pro-war spin, as nothing more than the media’s posturing (cynically Sheehan’s’ as well). This opposed to the coalescing of a broad and healthy anti-war movement, as a “popular front” which could pyramid power to achieve victories. Small victories even; like closing a sleepy storefront recruiting station in Berkeley, California.
The small collection of surveys that follow this introductory essay can be read in a similar fashion. While the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest is a small distribution publication with a print run of a thousand copies, we have a vibrant viral presence. When we put out a call for articles, we generally get a robust number of respondents. The response to the overall issue was large and healthy- however the response to this section, one that guaranteed artists and activists publication in some manner (web or in print), was small. We recognize that the request was limited geographically, however we were a bit surprised that seven years into this war which has produced so much media, our call only netted a handful of responses (we eventually got a wider range of responses by soliciting individuals and groups).
Looking at the resistance to this war on terror, with its ever-spiraling atrocities directed abroad and here, it is difficult not to ask “What resistance? What movement?”. To differentiate our inquiry though, we ask these questions knowing that Janet’s, Cindy’s, and Code Pink’s (and everyone else’s for that matter) actions are relevant, important and productive. With that in mind, we realize that when we start from a different origin point the conclusions we draw offer a different view.
A Different View: Direct (and Indirect) Action to Stop the War
The opening quote to this essay comes from the outstanding zine Scam, put together by Erick Lyle (née Iggy Scam). The quote itself is drawn from an essay that represents his recollection of March 20th, 2003 . (4) This is the day after the war in Iraq publicly began and the day that the city of San Francisco shut down.
Direct Action to Stop the War came together with the explicit goal of making sure that business as usual did not occur in San Francisco the day after bombs began falling on Iraq. DASW was more of a structure than an organization. DASW created a framework to aid the dissemination of multiple protests rather than pyramiding of publics to achieve a specific tactical, policy, or symbolic goal. DASW was not a march, but a collection of semi-coordinated and spontaneous actions - a happening if you will. An anti-hierarchical model, DASW relied on spokes-councils and affinity groups to coordinate a collective goal, which could be worked on by many different approaches and responses. One of DASW facilitator’s, David Solnit, refers to the multiple expressions that DASW empowered as working in the “self-organizing principal”. This is a tradition that he considers well established in the Bay Area. One where individuals find a place to plug into a broad framework (stopping the war) as they see fit for themselves . (5)
Erick Lyle’s quote (and the essay which it comes from) illustrates the day and this dynamic gorgeously. A member of an affinity group (6), he details the scene of a city in full insurrection. He describes how the state, with limited resources, chose to protect particular outposts (the SF Shopping Mall, the intersection of 4th and Howard) yet left multiple sites throughout the city undefended. With this ground truth, some chose to confront power directly- others simply choose to practice elsewhere, to move on. San Francisco for the day became the site for many focused and improvisational antiwar activities; including blocking traffic and locking war profiteers doors. Additionally he mentions bicycling and providing food. These are two actions that are not specifically considered “antiwar (7)”. However in this particular context, these activities take on greater meaning and they cannot help but be read as any thing other than implicitly insurrectionary.
“This was the sign that our modest group of bikers was tied in too a larger, organized event, but we still didn’t know what it looked like.”- Lyle’s statement can be considered emblematic of this autonomous, self-driven kind of protest carried out on March 20th, 2003. This statement can also be considered metaphoric for our current state of antiwar activity. The insurrection in San Francisco lasted that one-day (8), the siege that the war has placed upon the country (and the globe), has not been lifted. Consequently these actions against the war have only continued- in a wider and far less organized fashion. They continue far beyond and with no relationship to, the metaphor of Direct Action to Stop the War.
Just as it is a fact that there have been no demonstrations larger than those on February 13th, 2003, it is also a fact that there is no antiwar political party, no voice of the antiwar movement, and no movement. If you can say that the antiwar movement of the 1960’s had de-facto leaders, or parties, or institutions to coordinated actions- it is because the restricted media of that time was so much more able to certify them (9). The New Left of the 60s was new because it was not precipitated by the traditional old lefts of the Popular Fronts and labor movements of the 1930’s. It came about largely through middle class youth who rejected status quo politics. In the 60’s the peace movements grew and percolated through the student ghettoes. In the United States, this New Left pioneered the countercultural forms that helped to foster the anti-establishment individualistic forms of dissent both Erick Lyle and this Journal is familiar with. From these and other causes (10) today we have movements, leaders, voices and millions of ways to represent this. That this multiplicity of protests represents a deproffesionalization of politics, which is now pursued by “activists” rather than “organizers” ‑ in a landscape where any media maker can technically be the tradesmen who places the type on the paper that chooses to break the Pentagon Papers (or be their own Walter Cronkite) ‑ is simply, as Brian Holmes (11) points out, an odd victory of the 1960’s with its broad quest for greater freedoms in consumer culture.
Today our culture is clearly not what it was in the 1930’s, 1960’s, or 1990’s. But this certainly does not mean that the antiwar activities folks are performing today are irrelevant, we just manifest power in different ways.
Different Manifestations of Power
We are rarely, if ever, as fortunate as Erick Lyle to have the chance and see these antiwar efforts working simultaneously in all of their variety, with each other, at one time, in one place. While Seattle, 1999 is seen as a coming out moment for this strategy of qua anarchistic multitudes, these practices are now fairly rooted within our cultures. Like an artists’ practice, today it is seen as legitimate to work as an individual or a small collective, within a real or frequently improvisatory network to attempt social change- by any means necessary.
Here we can think of the blogger as activist, the organics food consumer as activist, the interventionist artist as activist, the DIY artist as activist, the member of an anarchist marching band as activist. All of these roles symbolize a position counter to the status quo. All of them imply a continued labor in difference to the state. However, none of these roles necessarily require an activist to relate to traditional notions of political party, political platforms, or legislative action. These acts of self-organizing, playing out these personally-assigned roles, can operate to subvert more hierarchical and representative forums of social change, such as electoral politics. These roles, though potentially collective, are highly subjective in nature. They represent the will of the “personal is political” and proliferate with the relative ease of imagining a job and then putting a shoulders to an ephemeral collective wheel.
And this brings us back to our survey:
If we view insurrectionary San Francisco as both a convenient metaphor and as a casting off point for dissidents living in open and active resistance to war, we can see the emergence of a broad antiwar culture. Here the artists and activists are pioneers developing the visible oppositional outposts for this stateless culture (both individually responsive to their own discursive forms). If we see the set of antiwar exhibitions, actions, tactics, installations, poster projects, campaigns, memorials that follow not just as singular attempts to stop the war, but rather as experiments in providing an outlet for forms of labor in exception to the status quo, than the use of these activities expand greatly beyond how we commonly perceive them.
In his discussion of LA VS WAR (where a large graphic manifesto was wheat pasted across the breadth of LA) John Carr’s states:
The more kind of audacious we get and the bigger we push the message the more we see that we have so much more support for that message than we ever imagined. And there’s really no need for anyone doing antiwar stuff to feel like they are alone or in obscurity at all because there’s such a massive level of support. (12)
Carr comments that his three-day event may have been speaking to the converted, but that is beside the point. Carr suggests that LA VS WAR was in a sense nothing but a party for those who see themselves as antiwar- because people need to feel good and know that they are not alone.
With this in mind, we can look at the broad and diverse campaign that Code Pink is engaged with in shutting down the Berkeley Marine Recruiting Station. Rather than seeing it just as unsuccessful to date, here the Pinkers are successfully creating 7 days a week of activities. Activities that literally spill out onto the street to reconstruct the sidewalk, and roadway, as a pro-woman, antiwar public space. A space that is used for, yoga, conversations and art shows. Where media and advertising largely advance the agenda of the military by presenting the armed forces as a win-win situation, Code Pink’s counter-recruitment counseling serves as a mediating point, between realities - both for potential recruits, and for those surviving the trauma of armed conflict.
With this in mind we see the Center for Tactical Magic not as performance artists. We see CTM as they wish to be ‑ pioneers of counterinsurgent tactics for a loving army of freaks. They are doing tactical R&D for us.
With this in mind we see Ehren Tool not as just an artist, but as a healer bridging the gap through gift giving. Connecting two factions of the military; one that feels betrayed by the other. Also he can be considered simply as a countercultural potter.
With this in mind, Hillary Mushkin is a reporter/artist investigating the boundaries of the dissident nation, venturing to ask where and how people really stand with war.
In this light, Eric Estenzo’s path as an artist performs a decolonization of his own psyche. His explorations are trained on the military mindset that brought him (and many others) into the armed forces to begin with.
With this in mind Ashley Hunt and the collective of artists who produced “9 Scripts from a Nation at War” are linguistic advocates performing criticism of the antiwar culture that the war on terror has created.
All of the artists and activists in the survey provide a glimpse into the lives of the refusniks continuing to function in spite of a seemingly inhospitable environment. As we mentioned at the beginning of this essay, these surveys were hard to come by. We felt that there wasn’t a large pool excited to share their antiwar work. And as there are few victories in creating spaces outside this war, in general this stuff goes largely unrewarded.
However, there is a category of antiwar work, one not represent by participants in this survey that this Journal has represented in other places (both in this and previous issues). These are the projects that are not specifically antiwar in focus, but through their context can be read as implicitly antiwar. Some contributions to the "I Love to We” section13 can be read in this, and other, light.
Non Antagonistic Forms and Broader Resistances
How can we not see Fritz Haeg’s wide spectrum of projects, which coalesce group activity to counter alienation and powerlessness, as gaining in meaning and value because the Bush administration relies on the maintenance of these dark forces ? (14) How can we not read Amy Franceschini’s Victory Garden’s as a manifestation of the antiwar dissident impulse? In this experiment of bioregionalism, Franceschini is specifically trying to make real a post oil- food economy . (15) How can we see the greater project of LA’s Bicycle Kitchen as something other than a similar response to this war for oil? Getting Angelino’s to ditch their polluting and gas guzzling cars to jump on a bike. . (16) These projects and many, many, many, more are reconsidering, frequently in a non-oppositional manner, the infrastructures that enable the war in Iraq. And the thing about the Victory Garden and the Bike Kitchen’s covert antiwar activities is that, while they may have been generated in the dissident sphere, there reception has been immense. Both projects have found themselves working with city governments to carry out their, now public, missions.
(Collaboration as opposed to opposition is a topic that should be vigorously debated, by anyone considering undertaking such a practice. It should be remembered that ones position in this spectrum need not be fixed. And this issue will only become more critical as the opportunities for collaboration between “social practitioners”, artists and alternative technologists, and hierarchical institutions expand in the coming years - which assuredly they will.)
While the Bush administration has been busy pursuing a war, the antiwar movements dissidents have been pursuing a whole other agenda (one that takes in everything from global warming to fair trade). Just as George Bush refuses to allow a public mourning for the war dead, and Arlington West provides that service, so to have individuals, collectives, regional bodies and consumers come to address the other elements of our national policy our elected national leadership has been unwilling to address.
I began this essay by saying that the texture of our culture has radically changed since the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest first emerged. And this is what I mean: Ideas and values that were once marginal are now a part of the discourse. This is true in art: art inspired by the Situationists, social art, interventionist art, activist art, spatial practices, the whole DIY aesthetic now all have a firm place in the academy. This is true in the wider culture; organics, alternative energy, alternative housing, “alternative lifestyles”, over consumption, over development, environmental catastrophe, all are in the marketplace. Free trade, the WTO, the World Banks’ lending policies, food justice issues, are all debated openly and seriously on the national levels (with varying degrees of sincerity) (17). All of this was simply not true at the onset of the Bush regime in 2001, the year that the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest began. These agenda’s have all been advanced primarily by a collection of “disorganized and decentered” attacks.
In a sense a marginal journal of aesthetics and protest is irrelevant in the face of a whole town that declares Dick Cheney a war criminal, a confederation of towns which declare they must look to bioregional foods as a practical means for economic and environmental survival, and an entire state that declares that it must commit itself to renewable energies. The intensely textured landscape that is emerging can be downright confusing to get a handle on. Understanding how marginal voices of protest operate within these large and sympathetic landscapes is difficult. Again unlike Erick Lyle, for us it rarely adds up.
It is worth imagining how, through the powerful act of spurring on implicitly antiwar relationships to solve problems, these practices circumvent the act of public dissent. (18) Self-organized projects actualize an alternative and develop “countercultural” currents. These currents with their masses of self- affirming activities can slip around the friction that is generated by a confrontation with power. These acts of subversion, with an emphasis on cooperation and regionalism, work towards developing spaces that prefigure peaceful societies. The flip side of course is how this lack of confrontation with power can lead to nontransparent and uncritical movements.
It isn’t the goal of this survey, nor of this introductory essay, to declare, “yes, we are winning”. The case that we aren’t is clearly much stronger. However we would like to say that we need to take a second and third and fourth look at the experiments being conducted by practitioners in this dissident sphere. We do this to understand their actions and to understand what exactly they hope to accomplish. We need to see what they are learning from their exile, not keep a score of what’s been won. Judging by there own idioms, it’s too hard to see everything at once.
A whole other essay would critique the trade-offs that have been negotiated from this move to non-hierarchical, decentered, disorganized movements and I look forward to reading that essay. However, to say that we have nothing to learn from the surveys’ contributors ‘cause people are still dying is not enough. To state that we do not have power is not enough. These practices are working on their own dissident decentered terms, and we need to see them as such.
EDITORS NOTE: The author would like to acknowledge Ryan Griffis and Daniel Tucker whose thoughts contributed to the evolution of this article.