It may surprise you to learn that my artistic practice is now on the curriculum of many Higher Education establishments. It surprised me, certainly.
Anyway, a nice chap called Fionn recently wrote his dissertation about me (and the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army), and received a first.
If that's not incentive enough for you to write academic papers about my work, email me your finished essay, or relevent extract thereof, and I promise to publish it below, even if it's rude.
You must include your full name, course title, institution, and essay grade.
As part of your primary research, free to email me lists of difficult questions to answer. I promise to read them all, slowly, but in most cases will not respond.
Understand this is not for lack of appreciation. It’s just that the days are short and there is so much still to do. (© Miranda July)
I will shortly add a new section to this page entitled: Questions emailed to me by students that I didn't have time, or were too difficult, to answer and, where possible, include answers.
Also Coming Soon: Liminal-norms and the "normalisation of deviance": Richard DeDomenici's Fame Asylum by Beth Hoffman, Doctoral Candidate, University of California, Berkeley. (preview)
And in the interests of full disclosure, I am slowly transcribing for upload my own 2001 dissertation Guerilla Tactics in the Concrete Jungle - Subverting the Corporate Systems that Govern our Lives.
And remember kids: Plagiarism Funds Terrorism.
Hana Tait (extract)
Beth Hoffman (preview)
Name: Fionn Gill
Course: Performance Studies
Institution: Breton Hall
Protest as Performance, Performance as Protest: a study of the intersection between political activism and performance, with particular focus on the contemporary carnivalesque.
Chapter 1. Protest as Performance
Chapter 2. Performance as Protest
Ultimately it is in the streets that power must be dissolved: for the streets is where daily life is endured, suffered and eroded, and where power is confronted and fought, must be turned into the domain where daily life is enjoyed, created and nourished.
Reclaim the Streets (Reclaim 2007)
The dissertation will be looking at the interaction between political activism and performance in contemporary society, and primarily focusing on examples that are ‘carnivalesque’. With reference to a range of theory and practice, it will be asking what different examples of carnivalesque activism are there? How have the theories of the carnivalesque and their examples changed over time; and how does theory differ between examples? What are the aims of the different examples identified and how effective are they at achieving them? What examples are most potent at affecting social change?
In answering these questions this enquiry will be tracking the development of the theories of the carnivalesque from Mikhail Bakhtin’s Carnival, to Guy Debord’s Situations and to Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone. It will observe how they have changed due to the cultural development from modernism to post-modernism. These cultural changes will be explained with reference to Debord’s theory of the Society of Spectacle and Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the post-modern society of simulacra and the hyper-real. In my discussion I will be using analysis primarily from Gavin Grindon, Baz Kershaw, Richard Schechner and David Schlossman, who are key scholars in this field.
This study is interested in how performance can aid the aims of the activist world and not how developments add to the ‘art-world’. This topic is inherently anti-institutional and is always concerned in performance that happens in the streets. This study is also specifically interested in Western theory and practice, and where possible it aims to use British examples as much has already been written about American practice. There is an extensive and important history to radical public performance but this study will not documenting this development. The contemporary carnivalesque is a derivative of the larger cultural phenomenon of counter-culture, but an analysis of this lies beyond the scope of this study. As cultural resistance is always a struggle between those who have power, or those hold ‘cultural hegemony’, and those who do not, it will also be addressing how those who have power maintain it with the use of same methods as those who resist them.
Figure 1. Schlossman’s chart: Exchange between social worlds of activism and institutional performance.
(cited in Schlossman 2002:56)
David Schlossman’s chart in Figure 1 provides a conceptual plotting of the intersection between performance and activism. The right hand side, ‘Activity Initiated by Performance World Insider’, will not be looked at in this study, but rather, the journey from ‘Demonstrations’, on the far left, to ‘Artists Activist and their work’, in the middle, will form the structure of my investigation. Chapter 1 investigates how demonstrations are inherently performative and carnivalesque, but where the participants are not necessarily aware of this. It then looks at occasions where activists are aware of these elements and it forms the basis of their demonstration. Chapter 2 looks briefly at occasions when activists use performance or theatrical conventions as their means of direct action, what might come under Schlossman’s identification of ‘Guerrilla theatre’ and ‘activist-performance troupes’. It then, more extensively, looks at occasions when artists use their art as a means of direct action; what Schlossman might identify as Artist-activists.
Chapter 1. Protest as performance
Theatre is amoral, as useful to tyrants as to those who practice guerrilla theatre.
Richard Schechner (cited in Schechner 1993:1)
Russian scholar, Mikhail Bakhtin was the first to set out the ideas of the carnivalesque, in 1940 in Rabelais and His World. He addresses carnival in relation to medieval folk culture and festival as a critique to the strict hegemony of the Soviet Union. In particular noted Bakhtin how medieval carnival:
celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth of the established order: it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions. … For a short time life came out of its usual, legalized and consecrated furrows and entered into a space of utopian freedom. The very brevity of this freedom increased its fantastical nature and utopian radicalism.
Michael Bristol notes: ‘Utopia is a critique of the official history of a society … Carnival is an old and persistent way of acting out utopia’ (Bristol in Cohen-Cruz 1998:167).
Through the collective realization of joyful desires the carnivalesque undermines the status quo; ‘challenging the hierarchies of normality in a counter-hegemonic, satirical and sartorial parody of power’ (Kershaw 1992:72-3). It is this subversion of hegemony, and enactment of utopia that is understood to provide revolutionary impetus (Grindon 2004).
When activists take direct action, such as demonstrations, they are ‘performative’, in Butler’s terms, because they are ‘actions through which people enact ideas’ (Schlossman 2002:57). Most demonstrations include performance conventions, such as signs, banners, speeches and chanting, and frequently employ theatrical conventions, such as costumes, masks, makeup and puppets (Schlossman 2002). Moreover, demonstrations as a whole constitute a ‘cultural performance’ in the terms that Fuoss sets out. They are pre-planned events presenting a program to an audience (the activists themselves, the target of the demonstration, and the passers by); they frame the space as “marked off” (a street becomes a temporary space for communication); they are “heightened occasions” employing display or spectacle; and they seek to reshape rather than merely reflect social reality (Schlossman 2002).
Demonstrations, often being confined to pre-determined areas and controlled by the police, are ordered cultural performances, but for a dynamic that has the potential for inciting change they need to become disordered, so that those in power lose their control. History shows that this can happen through violence and rioting will ensue, or it can happen celebratory and carnival will ensue. Rioting loses any symbolic meaning through the contradiction of becoming the same as the object of demonstration: oppressive, violent and real. The carnivalesque, on the other hand, is able to subvert the object of protest through the use of sign; and in revolutionary circumstances the imaginary becomes real (Kershaw 1999).
In Washington in May 1970 an anti-Vietnam War demonstration became disordered. It started as a demonstration connected to the US bombing of Cambodia, an escalation of the Vietnam War, but soon turned into carnival as seas of American youth occupied the White House Lawn. According to Richard Schechner, protesters ‘smoked dope, made out, and lounged on the capital’s sumptuous lawns …; people bathed, many naked, in the Lincon Memorial Reflecting Pool’ (Schechner 1993:65). Schechner notes how the elements of carnival served a subversive purpose:
The frolic – with its characteristic whirling choreography, the dispersal of orderly ranks into many intense volatile groups, the show of private pleasures satisfied in public places – subverted and mocked the neo-Roman monuments and pretensions of imperialist Washington.
Kershaw extends Schechner’s Bakhtian analysis by pointing out the occupation’s symbolic importance:
An en masse immersion in the waters that reflect the memorial to State-protected liberty generated popular pleasure: the collective body of the populace ironically obliterating an evanescent image of the state’s false promise of peaceful freedom.
(Kershaw 1999:101 original italics)
The invasion of the White House lawn, a symbolic place of State power, forced a ‘dialectual-theatrical’ split into protagonists and antagonists, making clear the object of revolt. There was a moment of ‘high drama’ when President Nixon approached the demonstrators in an attempt to appease them but was met with shouts of ‘Trash Nixon!’ as they raised dustbin lids with his picture stuck on the inside (Schechner 1993). The metaphor, as Kershaw interprets, ‘rests on the ambiguous sign of the lids as shields and as ironic picture frames for the President’s image … Such parodic mockery is the stuff of the carnivalesque’ (Kershaw 1999:101). In attempting to talk to the demonstrators, Nixon’s ‘verbalism’ is severely overpowered by the symbolism the demonstrators employ. To regain control and order, and thus his authority, Nixon would have needed to make a bigger symbolic gesture, but failing this he was later driven out of office (Schechner 1993).
Although the occupation of the White House lawn is clearly carnivalesque, it needs a further theoretical step to complete its dramaturgy. Unlike Bakhtin’s ideas which related to medieval society, in the West, we now live in a late-capitalist mediatised society. In 1968, Guy Debord named this society the society of spectacle; a term for all relations in contemporary society that ‘privileges appearance over reality, creating a socio-economic reality whose currency depends not upon objects, but upon fetishized, marketable images’ (Schlossman 2002:48). Therefore, according to Debord, those in power maintain order symbolically through this spectacle. Kershaw explains how:
the display of power – its symbolic representation in multifarious forms of public custom, ceremony and ritual, and then their reproduction throughout the media – has become in some senses more important to the maintenance of law and order than authority’s actual powers of coercion and control.
(Kershaw 1999:92 original italics)
The occupation of the White House lawn firstly created a spectacle and secondly created a symbolic confrontation; therefore the synecdochic spectacle of this protest ‘challenges a system of authority in its own terms’ and, potentially, the disruption of the spectacle would ‘expose the systems of domination and stimulate a revolution through which popular desire for freedom would be satisfied’ (Kershaw 1999:92). Furthermore, protest in a mediatised society always assumes an audience; one whose attention is the most important to get to allow for a mass communication of counter-hegemonic ideologies.
The events are ‘played out’ and key symbols are ‘performed’ for the media (Kershaw 1999). It is this event’s reproduction through the media, with its key subversive symbols, that helped to convert dominant opinion against Nixon forcing him out office (Schechner 1993). It can be surmised, then, as Kershaw does, ‘all the polyphonous eloquence that Bakhtin claimed for classic carnival, plus original forms of theatricalised spectacle that, true to Debord’s recipes for a symbolic revolution, fashion new relationships between the imaginary and the real’ (Kershaw 1999:100), are needed for potent protest in contemporary society.
This was the basis of the ‘artistic avant-garde group cum revolutionary organisation’ (Grindon 2004:152), Situationist International. Led by Guy Debord, in the late 1960’s they developed Bakhtin’s writings on the carnivalesque into a working model for enabling socio-political change (Grindon, 2004). This brings us to a new area in the interaction of activism and performance; activity where activists are fully aware of the performative and carnivalesque elements of protest and this forms the basis of their direct action.
Reclaim the Streets (RTS) is a British direct action network that utilises the Situationists model to struggle for ‘global and local social-ecological revolution(s) to transcend hierarchical and authoritarian society (capitalism included)’ (Reclaim 2007). They create actions that centre on an ethos of reclaiming public space from cars and corporations that have ‘eroded community’. (Klein 2000) Naomi Klein explains how a RTS action, or ‘street party’, works:
Since 1995, RTS has been hijacking busy streets, major intersections and even stretches of highway for spontaneous gatherings. In an instant, a crowd of seemingly impromptu partyers transforms a traffic artery into a surrealist playpen. … [S]ome theatrical means of blocking traffic is devised … [t]hen seemingly out of nowhere comes the travelling carnival of RTSers: bikers, stilt walkers, ravers, drummers …, sandboxes, swing sets, paddling pools, couches.
For RTS the powers of carnival and spectacle are the basis of their method of protest. This is a self-conscious synechdochic carnivalesque spectacular protest, described as ‘a collective daydream’ by one organiser and a ‘large-scale coincidence’ by another (Klein 2000). The overt use of symbolic imagery; the instruments and playthings, and the forced creation of carnival and spectacle, pushes the ability of this action to subvert the urban surroundings further their unconscious use. In a sense, it is pre-meditated and organised chaos. Furthermore, Kershaw notes how ‘the unexpected and the surprising are especially potent weapons for disrupting the spectacle and challenging authority, even at the level of everyday experience’ (Kershaw 1999:98). But unlike the Washington demonstration, the RTS street parties do not seem to have the media attention that is vital for mass communication of their message; they communicate to observers in the immediate area but their audience is significantly reduced.
Since its inception in 1995 the popularity of RTS has rapidly grown, in the UK and internationally, and in 1998 the first ‘Global Street Party’ was held comprising of street parties in 24 countries. Like Debord’s Situations, RTS see their actions as revolutionary. They surmise that they will grow in number, frequency and occurrence until it ‘grows roots … la fete permanente’ (Jordan in Klein 2000:319). As yet no global or local ‘social-ecological revolution(s)’ have occurred. Schechner notes how the Washington demonstration of May 1970 is a rare example of a carnivalesque demonstration having a significant effect; Nixon was forced out of office but no revolution occurred, counter-culture did not become dominant culture, the carnival was temporary. This is the main criticism scholars share in this topic: Schechner concludes quite clearly that ‘the difference between temporary and permanent change distinguishes carnival from revolution’ (Schechner 1993:83) and Kershaw notes that ‘the anti-hegemonic upending of norms acts as a safety valve for the ultimately regulated relief of oppositional pressure’ (Kershaw 1992:73).
Moreover, both Schechner and Kershaw point out that this ‘safety-valve’ conversely strengthens the prevailing order for ‘at the end of the carnivalesque day the revellers return to a living whose rules are set by dominant ideologies, with energies dissipated and their sense of the liberality of the regime re-animated’ (Kershaw 1992: 73), and Grindon goes as far as to say that the ‘revellers’ are thus, in this sense, ‘complicit with that which they superficially oppose’ (Grindon 2004). Schechner explains that the State employs the notion of a carnivalesque ‘safety valve’ to maintain power; by introducing carnivals, festivals, parades and other events into the social calendar. Official entertainment, or official culture, provides ‘scripted fun’ where street displays are ‘orderly, arranged in longitudinal rectangles moving in one directions, and proceeding from a known beginning to a known end in time as well as space’ (Schechner 1993:82). This form of controlled carnivalesque allows for a ‘release of pressure’ without it becoming out of control. It strengthens hegemony through the symbolical representation of an ordered society (Schechner 1993).
One only has to think of the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg, which David Welch describes as ‘carefully staged theatrical pieces … [of] grandiose beauty’ (Welch in Cohen-Cruz 1998:117), to find evidence of this. Hitler’s ‘mass demonstrations’ used the same method of symbolism for effective protest as outlined by Debord. Images were of Nazi symbols, uniforms and flags; and the participants marched in ‘rigidly straight columns’; then it was relayed to the rest of the country via the television (Cohen-Cruz 1998). Welch argues that ‘the nature of the Nazi’s message was such that concrete demonstrations of physical strength gave a visible reinforcement to the spiritual message the propaganda was trying to instil’ (Welch in Cohen-Cruz 1998:118).
Gobbels’s, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, believed that mass demonstrations enforced a need for belonging. This directly reflects Stamm’s argument in favour of carnivalesque protest for resisting powers: ‘carnival … [functions] in continuously restoring the sense of vital collectivity which is more than simply symbolically opposed to class hierarchy, political manipulation, sexual repression, dogmatism and paranoia’ (Stamm in Kershaw 1999:73).
There are however counter arguments to found to the prevailing ‘safety valve’ argument. The Dutch group Provos, contemporaries of the Situationists, assert in their manifesto ‘the power of increasingly bold carnivalesque ruptures of hegemony to provoke authority to shed its veil of tolerance and reveal its serious, violent and intolerant nature, in turn provoking revolution against it’ (Grindon 2004:152). It was this process that initiated the creation of RTS. The 1994 Criminal Justice Bill made race culture illegal and ‘gave police far reaching powers to seize sound equipment and deal harshly with ravers in any public confrontations’ (Klein 2000:132). The club scene then forged new alliances with more ‘politisized subcultures’ and RTS was developed (Klein 2000; Grindon 2004).
This also provides support for Stallybrass and White’s argument that the ‘sharpened political antagonism’ of the carnivalesque can act as a catalyst for other similar events (Kershaw 1992). Kershaw, for instance, links the uprisings in Paris in May 1968 to the uprisings in Grosvenor Square, London two months earlier (Kershaw 1999). Therefore, the efficacy of carnivalesque protest should be looked at in its larger context rather than a single event. Kershaw criticizes Schechner in this respect; for his ‘structuralist’ analysis of protest downplays the ideological and historical contexts (Kershaw 1999). The Washington carnival was only effective as part of the larger anti-war movement and one RTS street party in its larger movement. Adding to this, the larger context of the counter-culture movement applies to both examples, which supports the Situationists view of revolution arising from the everyday living Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, rather than a one off event (Bakhtin ;Grindon 2004)
Though the obvious downfall with carnivalesque protest, as Grindon states, is that ‘without popular support, unlicensed carnivals are not revolutions so much as provocation to outrage the official order, and which the mass of people value’ (Grindon 2004:152). Until a time of majority support contemporary carnivalesque demonstrations will continue to be temporary manifestations of a counter-cultural utopian ideology – ‘a dream of a particular world that is different to this. People aren’t particularly sure how they’re going to get there but they want to express their unhappiness with the current way of life’ (Cohen-Cruz 1998:167).
There are also arguments against the use of spectacle. MacAloon criticizes the use of spectacle to fight spectacle: ‘How does one cure the disease with another dose of the disease?’ (MacAloon in Sclossman 2002:49). Furthermore, if fighting the State, or corporations, with symbolic spectacle the unfortunate fact is they have more resources and so will always be able to make a bigger spectacle than a counter-cultural uprising. The most tragic example of this was the ‘democracy movement’ centred in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square from April to June 1989, where the State ended the two month long carnivalesque uprising with violent marshal law. This took the protest from the symbolic to the very real (Schechner 2003).
Chapter 2. Performance as protest.
This is not a protest. Repeat. This is not a protest. This is some kind of artistic expression. Over.
A call that went out on Metro Toronto police radios on May 16, 1998, the date of the first global street party (cited in Klein 2000:311)
Activists have become aware of the power of the carnivalesque and spectacle as a means of protest, which derived a new form of self-consciously performative demonstration. This chapter focuses briefly on activists who use institutional performance traditions as protest with reference to Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA), and then, more extensively on artists who use their practice as protest, with reference to the work of Richard Dedomenici.
CIRCA have combined Bakhtin’s carnivalesque with the theatrical tradition of clowning to create a new form of creative non-violent direct action. They aim ‘to make clowning dangerous again, to bring it back to the street, restore its disobedience and give it back the social function it once had: its ability to disrupt, critique and heal society’ (Rebel 2007). In full clown garb, they have stormed the Leeds army recruitment office with ‘serious’ requests in signing up. They were declined and the office turned into a chaotic playpen; and in turn caused it to close for the remainder of the day. They have been a common sight at national demonstrations in the last couple of years, often seen trying to help the police ‘keep control’ (Lab of ii 2005; Klapto 2006). It can be seen how the clown complements the carnivalesque and thus enhancing the subversive ability of their action. They reference Bakhtin in their manifesto, commenting how carnival and clown suspend and mock everyday law and order, and laughter and confusion are tools used to make the serious faces of authority look ridiculous; disrupting their spectacle (Klapto 2006).
With such localised action it is difficult to imagine that they are able to ‘clog the systems of power’ as they claim (Klapto 2006), but a new set of intensions beyond revolution is revealed from a brief look at their actions: there is a degree of personal transcendence that is important for the activists’ own struggle against dominant culture; a personal expressive outlet. It also overcomes traditional activism’s problem of being tiresome, and a new, fun and creative approach is potentially inspiring for others to participate (Orenstein 2002).
Richard Dedomenici is a politically engaged conceptual artist. His mission statement reads:
Richard Dedomenici is a one-man subversive think-tank primarily dedicated to the development and implementation of innovative strategies designed to undermine accepted belief systems and topple existing power structures.
By approaching the limits of conventionally acceptable behaviour, Richard Dedomenici's poetic acts of low-grade civil disobedience forcibly ask pertinent questions of society, while his subtle anarcho-surrealist interventions create the kind of uncertainty that leads to possibility.
Dedomenici’s work takes many different forms; from public acts of creative intervention and culture jamming , to books and websites. Figure 2 expresses Dedomenici’s work in a blur between activism and art, resembling Schlossman’s chart of activism and institutional performance. He adds the third dimension of comedy, believing: ‘in our cynical world, humour is a far better way to break through barriers than hard-nosed political rhetoric’ (Dedomenici 2005b:6). The use of comedy in Dedomenici’s work, as in CIRCA and Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, is a subversive way of satirising his subject matter. He explains that themes intrinsic to his work are ‘reverse-psychological “Pro-capitalism” and performance designed to foster the spirit of internationalism.’ (Dedomenici, R. 2005a:31).
Figure 2. Dedomenici’s Venn diagram to express how his work straddles different practices and evades precise definition. He does not place himself in a specific part of the diagram but leaves that for the reader to decide (Taken from Dedomenici 2005b:7).
In Dedomenici’s Sexed-up: A Study Into the Potential Threat Posed By Weapons of Mass Destruction Lying Dormant In Our Midst, he uses the form of an illustrated lecture to explain how a cannon at the Edinburgh Castle could be utilised by Al-Qaeda to attack the Holyrood Parliament. Similarly, how terrorists could turn a gun turret on HMS Belfast towards his mother’s house in Watford and blow it up. These warnings turned into a press release entitled ‘Artist to point guns of HMS Belfast at his mum’s house in Watford’. The performance that set to attempt this failed. These aspects were then documented in his book and website (Dedomenici 2005a). Dedomenici’s mixture of ‘low-grade civil disobedience’ and ‘anarcho-surrealist intervention’ in this project are clearly in the realm of the carvivalesque; amounting to an act of subversion as Mark Brown observes:
By suggesting that even the obsolete weapons of the tourist industry might come in handy for terrorists, he cleverly subverts the fears of evil-doers getting their hands on US or UK weapons of mass destruction. The result is a wonderfully absurd satire of David Blunkett’s contribution to the much-validated “war on terror”.
The intersection of art and activism in Dedomenici’s work creates a conflict of interests between them. Dedomenici’s work is institutionalized; he holds exhibitions, performs in cultural centres and documents his work for arts organizations. Yet in the activist world there exists such a thing as ‘anti-artists’ who believe ‘the cultural industry is just another aspect of capitalism and, as such, must be destroyed’ (Lebel in Cohen-Cruz 1998:180). Crimp and Rolsten would argue that like ‘the fate of most critical art practices’, any radicalism in Dedomenici’s work is co-opted and neutralized by the institutions (Felshin 1995).
In Dedomenici’s support, Nina Felshin would argue that such is the variety of his forms he is able to accommodate institutional demands whilst having other work that remains ‘radical’. Keeping one foot in the art world, Felshin notes, ‘is sometimes regarded by activist artists as a means of keeping the other foot more firmly planted in the world of political activism’ (Felshin, N. 1995:21). Dedomenici overtly claims ‘I am radicalizing the institutions, rather than them institutionalizing me’ (Dedomenici 2007b). Furthermore, his institutional work is generally a documentation of his radical public interventions; if his work wasn’t documented then less people would be affected by it, reducing his audience.
In a further conflict, Dedomenici sells mass producible products and uses a logo to market himself. This contradicts his activist interests for he is embracing the capitalist culture of commodity that he looks to critique; and in the long run, is conversely supporting the ‘belief systems’ and ‘power structures’ he claims to be dismantling. Art critics have connected Dedomenici’s work with the Situationists but their theories emphasize a ‘self-valorization’; an abandonment of engagement with capital, where resisting work is part of the cultural resistance (Grindon 2004), and, similarly, the conceptual art movement emerged out of the rejection of art-product (Osborne 2002). Although the products he sells, clearly inspired by the culture jammers, are of a satirical nature, political Top Trumps for instance, Carrie McLaren would argue ‘what comes out is no real alternative to culture of consumption, just a different brand’ (McLaren in Klein 2000:295). With these contradictions identified, any notion of counter hegemonic ideology in Dedomenici’s work is nullified for it conversely supports dominant ideologies and culture.
If we apply the Situationist theory that a counter-spectacle is needed to subvert the spectacle of power, then Dedomenici is unable to achieve this as, firstly, his ‘subtle low-grade interventions’ are not spectacular and, secondly, his work embraces the mediatised image that is spectacle’s object of resistance. Similarly, Bakhtin’s notion of revolution through a collective realization of desire is impossible in Dedomenici’s ‘solo acts of civil disobedience’, for they cannot constitute carnival. Brookchin would accuse Dedomenici of ‘lifestyle anarchism’ and criticize his interventions being ‘individualist to the extent of complicity with the relations it superficially opposes’ (Grindon 2004:157).
Situationist theory and conceptual art theory are therefore inappropriate for an analysis of Dedomenici’s work. Debord’s society of spectacle has since been updated by Jean Baudrillard, who has taken it a few theoretical steps further to formulate his notion of the post-modern society of the simulacra and the hyper real. Kershaw notes:
From a starting point sympathetic to situationism, Baudrillard … extended its premises through a logic in which the spectacle of simulation became the only reality. … [He] argues that the ‘precession of simulacra’ in the capitalist overproduction of commodities and images finally entirely banishes the real by representing nothing other than their own, simulated reality.
In Baudrillard’s simulated society the recuperation of the true or real by the disruption of spectacle becomes meaningless, for the sign has become disconnected with what it signifies and language from its object (Kershaw 1992). Sexed up…is presented with a variety of signs, such as the lecture format, video footage and the press release. With their over-use and ridiculous application Dedomenici makes it clear that these signs have become detached from their meaning; he both manifests the warnings of terrorism and confounds them. This then undermines the government’s signifying system for ‘manufacturing consent’ for the war; part of which is achieved through what Diana Taylor calls ‘performative language’ (Taylor 2003).
Felshin explains that mimicking commercial forms of media firstly guarantees a broad, multifaceted audience, and then by subverting the expectation with irony, humour or understatement the artist encourages ‘participation through interpretation’ (Felshin 1995:16); a method Hal Foster has termed Subversive Signs. For Foster, Dedomenici ‘becomes a manipulator of signs more than a producer of art objects, and the viewer an active reader of messages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular’ (Hal in Osborne 2002). Therefore his products, use of a logo and even institutionalization, are both target and weapon, a method Dedomenici calls ‘reverse-psychological “Pro-capitalism”’ (Dedomenici, R. 2005a:31). Culture jammer, Saul Alinsky uses the phrase ‘political jujitsu’ to describe the use of a corporations own method of communication with a message at odds to the intended; ‘We use the momentum of the enemy’ (Alinsky in Klien 2000:281). It is for these reasons that Dedomenici openly declares: ‘There’s a danger that by turning himself in to pure product he [Dedomenici] will dissolve the traditional ambitions and tensions of the avant-garde, but that’s a risk he’s willing to take’ (Dedomenici, R. 2005b:6); ‘“Be a cog in the system and a spanner in the works"’ (Dedomenici 2007b)
The array of contradictions in Dedomenici’s work is thus actually a method of unveiling the truth; like a modern-day jester, as CIRCA’s Klapto explains : ‘Since the beginning of time tricksters (the mythological origin of all clowns) have embraced life’s contradictions, creating coherence through confusion – add disorder to the world in order to expose its lies and speak the truth’ (Klapto 2006), and as Kershaw notes: ‘In the increasingly post-modern dimension the ironic verbal aphorism, the parodic visual image and the paradoxical ‘message’ are crucial weapons’ (Kershaw 1999:106). With Dedomenici’s use of, the relatively new development, of the internet as a means of communication, his reachable ‘audience’ is significantly increased: ‘my Google rating …has sky-rocketed to over 10,000’ (Dedomenici 2007a).
By referring to Dedomenici as a modern-day jester then, even if he is ‘exposing the truth’ it is implying his comic ‘pranks’ are not to be taken seriously. It is hard to argue against this point except in Cable Tie, which takes a more serious approach and applies Baudrillard’s notion of the hyper-real to full effect. Cable Tie was ‘Dedomenici's solo attempt to navigate Chicago with a plastic bag on his head and his hands tethered behind his back with a nylon cable tie - the US military’s brutally efficient method of choice for detaining illegal combatants’ (Dedomenici 2006). The real and imaginary are deliberately confused, and the manipulation of signs here create a new meaning that is shocking rather that satirical. The fact Dedomenici ‘hoods’ himself for real turns the streets of Chicago into a metaphor; it becomes an extension of the war in Iraq (Grindon 2004; Kershaw 1999). Kershaw gives an in-depth analysis to a similar protest in 1970, connected to the Vietnam War, which seems pertinently related to Cable Tie:
We can characterize this as an imaginative hyper-realism that in a globalizing gesture challenges the spectator with both the immediacy and distance of the war, carrying an excessive intensity that makes the action paradoxical. This dramaturgy aims to make sense by bypassing the rational, subverting the logic of critical containment, in order to provoke an unexpected response. Significantly it is not recommending an action: it is giving opportunity for revulsion/fascination. ... But by confounding the real and the imaginary so thoroughly it leaves the nature of any subsequent action open to the spectator. … It is a post-modern protest.
One wonders if Dedomenici’s indirect interventions are carnivalesque and if they even constitute direct action. Hakim Bey is a postmodern anarchist theorist who supports Baudrillard’s findings and believes we live in a ‘post-spectacular society of simulation’ (Grindon 2004). Continuing the line of development from Bakhtin to the Situationists he has formed a new model for carnivalesque direct action he calls Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ). Bey explains a TAZ is:
like an uprising which does not engage directly with the state, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it … They are spaces that temporarily step outside of capital and are characterized by a carnivalesque inversion of cultural values and a blurring of the boundaries between life and art.
(Bey in Grindon 2004).
Thus, in Bey’s terms Dedomenici does constitute both carnivalesque and direct action.
Dedomenici notes 48 hours after Cable Tie the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal broke worldwide and that two weeks later hooding in Iraq was outlawed. For Dedomenici this supported the idea of the ‘shamanistic properties of performance art’ (Dedomenici in Lab of ii 2005). Whilst this is quite a vague statement, Schlossman’s notion of ‘symbolic interaction’ gives a more substantial explanation for what Dedomenici might be implying. Formulated from postmodern critical theory and symbolic interactionist sociology, his theory is less interested in the ‘cause-and-effect’ efficacy debate and focuses upon exchange amongst people in different but overlapping segments of society. He explains ‘we should not look at the impact of a play has on an audience, for instance, but at the impact it has on their total experience of the socio-political world; giving a piece in the jigsaw puzzle that individuals link with other experiences as part of an ongoing engagement of political issues’ (Schlossman 2004:12).This also furthers support for the efficacy of Dedomenici’s entire oeuvre because, in their various forms, all his works constitute an addition to social activities and thus are able to affect cultural hegemony. Furthermore, this argument would include CIRCA and the practices identified in chapter 1. Schlossman explains how:
art, including performance, cannot be separated from the rest of society because art constitutes a strand in the web of objects, actions and ideas that make up a society’s culture, and a tug on any strand affects all the others. In this view, artistic practice, including performance, can be deployed, intentionally or unconsciously, to reinforce or resist the social order.
CIRCA and Dedomenici are part of a larger group called The Lab of Insurrectory Imagination (Lab of ii) whose ideas reflect Bey’s: ‘a network of socially engaged artists and activists whose work falls in between resistance and creativity, culture and politics, art and life.’ Culture Jammer, Mark Hosler comments that the fringe has always been ‘absorbed’ by capitalism and that ‘what is getting absorbed now is the idea that there’s no opposition left, that any resistance is futile’ (Hosler in Klein 2000:298-9). It is understandable, then, that Lab of ii believe creating ‘hope despite capitalism’ (Lab of ii 2005).
This returns us to a notion raised at the beginning of this chapter, for this is clearly an ethos of transcendence. CIRCA, Dedomenici, the Lab of ii and contemporary creative activists are increasingly interested in an act of personal and/or collective transcendence and do not consider themselves as revolutionary. This is especially true with the emergence of the post-modern, which Foster relates to the emergence of late consumer capitalism. Ideologies in this type of society are de-centred and pluralistic, making it impossible to have a united ideological resistance, or be totally oppositional to capitalist culture (Kershaw 1992). Dedomenici comments: ‘Baudrillard once said that the only way to abstain from capitalist culture is to commit suicide. And he's dead now (Dedomenici 2007b)
Non-Violent Direct Action is a performance where the poetic and pragmatic join hands.
John Jordan (Jorden in Kershaw 1999:123)
In this study it has been shown how the carnivalesque has been developed in a contemporary society. It has acquired elements from other theories as Western culture has moved from modernism to post-modernism. Bakhtin wrote his ideas on carnivalesque applied to 1950’s Soviet Union; a time of modernity. Therefore to be applied to late-capitalist Western democracies they needed to be updated with Debord’s Society of Spectacle. This notion was implemented in 1968 to form Situationism, but since then cultural changes identified by Baudrillard put Debord’s carnival out of date. Creative activism entered into the realm of the manipulated sign and the hyper-real, and Bey introduced a new notion of carnival that took into account Baudrillard’s judgments, to form Temporary Autonomous Zone.
The move from modernism to post-modernism is reflected by a shift in the dominant ideology of activists from modernist Marxism to post-modernist Anarchism, and thus their intensions have changed from revolution, to less clear multi-faceted intentions. This is also reflected in the shift in the object of resistance; from a clear enemy, the state, to an ambiguous enemy, capitalism.
In the progression of this study from chapter 1 to chapter 2 it has travelled a journey from left to middle of Schlossman’s graph (Figure 1). This journey is a cumulative progression of consciousness; from the extreme of an unconscious use of performance as activism, to the other extreme of activism by artists where their art is the action. In the same progression, the examples looked at have cumulatively increased in their degree of ‘performativity’. Therefore, as well as an awareness of cultural changes, the carnivalesque adopted different degrees of performativity and levels of self-consciousness in creating new dramaturgies.
The efficacy of individual practices has been assessed alongside their individual dramaturgies in the main body of this work, but can an assessment be made on the differences in efficacy between them; and on the genre as a whole? Firstly, to compare them is irrelevant because they are heterogeneous. Secondly, to give an over-riding assessment would suggest a meta-perspective which is irrelevant in a pluralistic post-modern society. I agree with The Yes Men, peers of Dedomenici, who insist that comparing practices is pointless and argue that all the forms of creative protest and traditional protest complement each other; it is their combined front that is needed for change to happen (FAQ 2005).
However, I concur with Schlossman’s proposition of culture as a symbolic interaction between social worlds and that a slight change in one social world can have affect on cultural hegemony. This is because it deals the notion of culture, which naturally absorbs the specifics of the problems identified above.
Though the problems of a meta-perspective have been noted, following my investigation, it can be said that in the carnivalesque practices identified, the closer they are to the middle of Schlossman’s chart; the more they consciously utilise their inherent performativity; the more they are aware of the cultural times; the more the boundaries between performance and activism blur, then the more potential it has at affecting hegemony. Maybe this is what Abbie Hoffman meant by her call for ‘total life actors’. Kershaw gives an invaluable explanation of the importance of the use of maximum performativity in activism:
wide spread changes in the processes of the social … are producing what I call the performative society.... In such societies performance has gained a new kind of potency because multi-party democracy weaves ideological conflict visibly into the very fabric of society. It follows that, especially in highly mediatised societies, the performative becomes a major element in the continuous negotiation of power and authority; … Hence, late-capitalist multi-party democracies produce societies in which the performance pervades cultural; it becomes the sine qua non of human exchange in virtually all spheres of the social.
(Kershaw 1999:13 original italics)
The carnivalesque is essentially a form of human behaviour; it therefore can be accompanied with different forms and degrees of performance to give a piece of direct action a more anarchic and celebratory edge. Carnival, like performance, is timeless and it will continue to change in its application to activism. In the changes I have identified its essential properties remain; it will always critique the status quo and it will always produce a moment of Utopia – whether that moment forms a revolution, or is a temporary act of transcendence, or pulls at one of the strings of society, is up to the user.
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Brown, M. (2004) ‘Sexed-up – The Arches’, Glasgow: Herald Review.
Cohen-Cruz, J. (1998) Radical Street Performance: An International Anthology.
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(2005b) Richard Dedomenici is Still an Artist. Manchester: Cornerhouse
(2006) Cable Tie. Available from the World Wide Web:
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(2007) Snood of Thorns. [On line] Message to Fionn Gill, 11.04.2007.
Accessed. 11.04.2007. Personal communication.
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http://www.theyesmen.org/faq/ [Accessed 5 January 2007]
Felshin, N. (1995) But is it Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism. Washington: Bay Press.
Grindon, G. (2004) ‘Carnival against Capital’, Anarchist Studies 12, 2. pgs 147-161.
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Intervention. London: Routledge.
(1999) The Radical in Performance: Between Brecht and Baudrillard.
Klein, N. (2000) No Logo. London: Flamingo.
Klepto, K. (2006) Make war with love: The Clandistine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army,
Available from the World Wide Web:
http://www.clownarmy.org/about/writings [Accessed 27 November 2006]
Lab of ii. (2005) [video recording] 13 experiments in hope: the lab of
insurrectionary imagination. S.I
Orenstein, C. (2001) ‘Agitational Performance, Now and Then’, Theater 31.3
Osborne, P. (2002) Conceptual Art. London: Phaidon Press.
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Schechner, R. (1993) The Future of Ritual. London: Routledge.
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Social Worlds. New York & London: Routledge.
Name: Hana Tait
Course: Theatre Stage One
Institution: Dartington College Of Arts
Grade: First (78/100)
Historical Events and Land (extract)
Another project based on a land partition was Richard Dedomenici’s 1999 performance intervention ‘Break-In’. In this piece, the then Fine Art student attempted to break into Cardiff prison, scrambling up the huge razor wire topped outer wall, in the middle of the day, on a busy road. Though Dedomenici was not using any form of climbing equipment, meaning that ascent of the sheer concrete wall was nigh on impossible, it is clear from the video footage taken, that the event caused a fair amount of public interest. Talking about his own work he has said that he is “dedicated to the development and implementation of subversive strategies to undermine accepted belief systems and topple existing power structures.” (Promotional material, versionfest.com, 2004). In ‘Break-In’, the general public of Cardiff provide an unwitting audience to Dedomenici’s acute political manoeuvre. As a free man, why should he be partitioned off and geographically inhibited? And why should one man have the right to condemn another into a contained institution? The fact that this action ended with his arrest for ‘aggravated trespass’ only made the situation more potent. Dedomenici himself is frequently reluctant to analyze the potential interpretations of his work, or the ‘meaning’ he wishes to convey, instead using juvenile humour as a frame to present himself, so whilst he simply described this feat as a reaction to “modern life driving me up the wall” (Dedomenici, 2006, performance transcript), he will no doubt be aware of the associations such an image conjures for the viewer.
Dedomenici examines our relationship with the unquestioned barriers of authority, what happens when we step outside the comfort zones afforded to us as ‘free westerners’. In his work the performance is as much about the ‘happening’, the shift in perception that occurs when we observe the forbidden, as it is about the act taking place.
Richard Comments: In Hana's feedback her tutor said she was very unfair to suggest that my humour was juvenile, and that she should apologise to me. Her lack of apology so far, in my opinion, shows both excellent judgement and strength of character.
Name: Beth Hoffman
Course: Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies
Institution: University of California, Berkeley
Liminal-norms and the "normalisation of deviance": Richard DeDomenici's Fame Asylum (preview)
I argue that Fame Asylum is an example of live art that productively exposes the sidelined anxieties and normative effects that liminal spaces can bring about, rather than one that unequivocally affirms the cultural efficacy of liminality highlighted by Heathfield and Quick.
Name: Eva Daníèková
Course: BA Performing Arts
Institution: London Metropolitan University
Word Count: 1500
The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination: A Critical Evaluation of the work of Richard Dedomenici
In this assignment I will examine and critically evaluate the work of the artist Richard Dedomenici, associated with the network of culturally and politically involved artists, the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination or the ‘lab of ii’. I will briefly introduce the lab of ii and their artistic and activist aims and then I will concentrate on the work of Richard Dedomenici. I will consider two of his short works, Unattended Baggage and Pedestrian Congestion Charging and I will then move onto his performances of The Big Flyposter Draw and Cable Tie. For the purpose of this assignment, I will not take into consideration his other work. I will analyse Dedomenici’s work with reference to alternative forms of performance and discuss how his work challenges the audiences as well as the established social and political order.
Lab of ii was established in 2004 as a network of ‘socially engaged artists and activists whose work falls between resistance and creativity, culture and politics, art and life.’ (www.labofii.net). This network is formed by artists worldwide, such as Yomango in Spain or Argentina, or the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army in the UK. Richard Dedomenici’s philosophy parallels that of the Lab of ii. He is interested in ‘development and implementation of innovative strategies designed to undermine accepted belief systems and topple existing power structures.’ (www.dedomenici.co.uk). Being the ‘one-man subversive think-tank’, Dedomenici often works alone, involving or provoking his audience, usually on the street or in smaller theatres and on the fringe.
To contextualise Dedomenici’s work, I must start with the history of performance art, its emergence in the second half of 20th century, its political affiliation and the road to respect as an art discipline. The horrors of two World Wars not only changed the world we live in but also affected the world of art. Political activism turned performance art can be seen in Italian and Russian Futurism before the First World War but, as Goldberg (1988:11) asserts, the early Futurist performance was more propaganda than actual production. Post World War 2 in the UK, political theatre was largely influenced by Brecht and took a form of Agit-Prop. Joan Littlewood was perhaps the most visible figure of the political street performance at that time. Cohen-Cruz (1998:5) includes Agit-Prop as one of the categories of street performance that attempts to mobilise people. With the Vietnam War and serious breaches of human rights elsewhere in the world (Prague Spring), came radicalisation in the arts as well as signs of disillusion with the established order. The search for the truth that marked the modernist movement shifted with the post-modern rejection of absolute truth. Performance art became more extreme, often using the artist’s body as canvas. Dedomenici emerged after 9/11 when most artists in the Western world remain openly political, anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist.
The emphasis on the body as canvas in recent art history is also apparent in Dedomenici’s work. He uses his body to provoke, protest and subvert popular beliefs. Warr (2000:11) asserts that the shift in the perception of the body addresses issues of risk, fear, death, danger and sexuality at the times when the body has been most threatened by these things. In the performance of Unattended Baggage in 2005, Dedomenici places himself inside the suitcase in Helsinki railway station. He is thus attending the baggage, only from the inside. Performing this in the height of increased security measures and the terrorist attack hysteria requires the artist to take the risk. Kershaw (1992:1) confirms that when performers aim to be politically efficacious the outcome can be, literally, arresting. In another performance of Cable Tie, Richard attempts to walk through the city of Chicago with a plastic bag on his head and his hands tied behind his back with a nylon tie. When stopped by the police, he claims that he is doing this not as a stunt but as a piece of performance for the arts festival. In fact, he is challenging the US military technique of detaining Iraqi detainees. Thus his own body becomes a political statement and the effect of a white male walking through the American city is immense as I will discuss further in connection with street performance audiences.
All of Dedomenici’s performances considered in this assignment take place in the public, therefore eliminating the pre-rehearsed performance in the safety of the enclosed space and theatrical frame. However, all of Dedomenici’s places of performance are carefully selected, possibly to achieve the biggest possible effect. He places the ‘unattended bag’ in front of the train station where the security and surveillance is no doubt high. He walks through Chicago in protest of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. He targets the public in places where his performance will have the biggest impact. Cohen-Cruz ((1998:2) suggests that the audience on the street is different as the performance is entirely public and free of charge. Cohen-Cruz also asserts that the temporal context of the performance responds directly to events as they occur (ibid). Dedomenici himself says that ‘art is at its most powerful when witnessed by non-art audiences’ (The Power of Art), i.e. the public on the street. The public response varies from positive when people engage in the artistic project to negative or even abusive as we can see in Pedestrian Congestion Charging or Cable Tie. In either case, Dedomenici always creates a reaction in the public. Richard contributes the fact that hooding detainees was prohibited as a means of punishing detainees shortly after his Chicago performance to the shamanistic properties of performance art. The fact is that the news of his walk through the streets of Chicago has spread quickly in the town and across the borders.
In The Big Flyposter Draw Dedomenici defaced the illegal posters and got the passers-by involved in writing this statement over the illegal posters: ‘Defacing something that’s illegally stuck to a wall is not against the law.’ Here he took a stab at major music corporations, often advertising on illegal poster sites. The public interest he caused did not go unnoticed by the police who could not arrest Richard as he was perfectly within the law. In his own statement, this performance was to ‘promote new legal pastime for the whole community which will both unleash the creative potential of the population and discourage illegal flyposting of major corporations.’ He acknowledges the risk he has to undertake within his artistic practice. Cohen-Cruz (1998:3) suggests that the radical performers are often brave to the point of arrogance and who impose their shows on people who have not chosen to be spectators. Dedomenici thus not only provokes the ingrained power structures but he provokes the audience to action. Cohen-Cruz (1998:5) would categorise Dedomenici’s work as that of a ‘witness’; publicly illuminating a social act that one does not know how to change but must acknowledge. Dedomenici not only witnesses himself but makes the public his fellow culprits in the fight against the establishment.
Performance art and radical street art offers an alternative to the pre-rehearsed, pre-organised mainstream theatre. Dedomenici works in both the streets and inside the theatres. He often calls his theatre performance a ‘lecture’ and he shows the footage of his outside performance to the audience. He combines art with activism in an obvious manner. Walking through the streets of Chicago with a plastic bag on his head, he sees the city through the condensation and claims to have a sense of tranquillity. His inner experience is thus possibly as important as the response he creates with his performance. For Richard, like for many other performance artists, the process of the performance is more important than its outcome. It is his visibility and the reaction that he provokes with his art that count. Dedomenici’s performance could be considered alternative, as it destabilises the ingrained notions of what theatre and performance should be and it shakes the perception that the system we live in is flawless. Challenging of these notions is the central motive of the post-modern performance art. Kershaw (1999:7-13) suggests that these performative societies are found particularly where democracy and capitalism meet and, according to the post-modern view, even the claim that democracy might be the best political system, can seem dangerously totalitarian.
Goldberg (1988:210) suggests that performance can be anything at all but for the artist, working without rules and guidelines is a means to break through the limits imposed on art activity. Richard Dedomenici, in his unconventional and provocative way, bypasses these limitations, even if it means taking the risk. His unorthodox street performance creates a considerable response in the unsuspecting audience, exposed to his artistic vision of the world. Thanks to the widespread media, Richard’s work reaches even bigger audiences. Richard takes his responsibility as a witness to an injustice seriously and takes action through his art, often using his own body as a means of expression. The power of his art lies in the location of his performance, in the public sphere where it has the most impact, as well as in his subversive, unconventional behaviour that challenges the acceptable norms.
Cohen-Cruz, Jan, Radical Street Performance, London: Routledge, 1998
Dedomenici, Richard, Power of Art: Part Three, video material, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X09bCRDmFPg
Goldberg, RoseLee, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, London: Thames and Hudson, 1988
Kershaw, Baz, The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention, London: Routledge, 1992
Kershaw, Baz, The Radical in Performance: Between Brecht and Baudrillard, London: Routledge, 1999
Richard Dedomenici, www.dedomenici.co.uk, accessed 12.11.2007
The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, 13 Experiments in Hope, DVD, 2005
The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, www.labofii.net, accessed 12.11.2007
Warr, Tracey, The Artist’s Body, Phaidon, 2000