3.6 / Aliens vs. Venetians

Holding Up the Sign

By Christina Linden December 7, 2011
Anna Halprin, Blank Placard Dance, San Francisco, 1967. Photo: Lawrence Halprin.
Anna Halprin, Blank Placard Dance, San Francisco, 1967. Photo: Lawrence Halprin.

Sometime near the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I received an email from an old friend in New York about a post a friend of his had made on Facebook. The post gave a link to two of the interviews I had conducted a couple of years back for Martha Wilson’s Art Spaces Archives Project, as a part of a series of interviews with the three founding members of the Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG), an offshoot of the Art Workers’ Coalition. Poppy Johnson, Jon Hendricks, and Jean Toche each took time to reminisce with me about a period, at the very end of the 1960s and in the first years of the ’70s, when putting one’s body out on the line in performative actions—both in public space and in museums—felt vital as a means of raising awareness about the injustices they wanted to fight in the world. They had specific demands for each action. The group is best known, for instance, for the action Blood Bath, which they carried out on November 18, 1969, in conjunction with “a call for the immediate resignation of all the Rockefellers from the board of trustees of the Museum of Modern Art.”1 The call was made in protest of the family’s commercial interests in the production of napalm and also more generally in chemical and biological warfare research and manufacture. GAAG demanded that the museum stop operating on “dirty money.” They walked into the lobby of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and threw handfuls of leaflets stating their complaints and demands into the air. They then proceeded to wrestle and rip at each other’s clothes until the bags of animal blood they had concealed underneath burst and they were left drenched in a messy puddle on the floor of the atrium.

The email from my friend just said, “so relevant right now!” and I had to look back at my own interview to remember exactly what he meant. I conducted two interviews with Jon Hendricks. At the start of the second, which was being formally recorded for AS-AP, I asked him about an idea at the core of the first interview that had haunted me during the yearlong interval in between:

You were talking, when you were describing the way you came up with…the name for the group, Guerrilla Art Action Group, about the importance to you of the idea of art action being a form of direct action. And we talked…about [a] tension between the real and the staged. You mentioned specifically a conversation you had with Ralph Ortiz about his idea about the potential for a kind of cathartic theater, and how you felt it was really something different than that.

It was clear that Hendricks wanted to make a distinction from theater meant just to shock—in the vein of the Viennese Actionists—that came without attachment to a specific manifesto. He reiterated that he believed activist artists needed a manifesto, or multiple manifestos as best suited the actions at hand, in order to be sure of not “losing track of things.” But he also spoke about the impact that his proximity to the radical political theater at the Judson Memorial Church, where he was working as a curator in the gallery to fulfill his service as conscientious objector, had on his ability to see the possibility of the staged: “Maybe at certain times in history, a theater action…can affect people. Maybe some kinds of make believe can have an extraordinary effect on people’s minds.”

Ultimately, we can consider GAAG’s actions both as make-believe and as real, as representation of protest and also as protest itself. On both registers it is relevant to reconsider them as emblematic of an intersection between art and activism at a time, like the moment we find ourselves occupying in recent months, when people “are allowed to think about alternatives.”2 We might also look at other works that take on the form of demonstration.

Anna Halprin’s roughly contemporaneous Blank Placard Dance, performed by the San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop in 1970, seems at first to void this form of its content. In a piece conceived of as choreographic score, each of the dancers walked a requisite ten feet apart from the next so that the performance would not meet the city’s formal criteria for a demonstration. They wore white shirts and carried blank white signs. While various sources explain the action as “symbolizing their right to perform anywhere in the city,” or as a “commentary on the Vietnam War and its accompanying climate of protest,” Halprin relates in a recently published interview that the event was conceived of as a way to elicit audience participation.3,4 “People would say, ‘Well, what are you protesting?’ because it was blank. And we would say, ‘What would you like to protest?’5 Not just Halprin’s own statement but also the multiple various attributed causes speak to the power of the blank slate as a surface for projection. The piece is effective as a means of encouraging an audience that becomes participants to consider the form taken by dissent and their potential role in this form.

Sharon Hayes’ ongoing series In the Near Future (2005–) reconsiders public speech and proclamation with the use of specific pronouncements. By appropriating historical protest slogans and reproducing their display in contexts divorced from those that originally informed their readings, Hayes addresses the legibility as well as the platform of demonstration. As Julia Bryan-Wilson aptly points out, “A white, somewhat androgynous woman holding a sign that proclaims, ‘I AM A MAN,’ in 2005 would seem more likely to refer to transgender activism than to the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike.”6 Hayes’ work is an important reminder, then, of the need to remember that Halprin’s work and GAAG’s belong to the original context of a late ’60s protest culture. Re-performances of the work—for instance the presentation of Blank Placard Dance organized in 2007 by the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest and Southern Exposure— raise questions about how the changed temporal context affects the way a piece is read a few years before Occupy reintroduced the likelihood of dissent as a ubiquitous atmosphere to our public spaces, and how it might read today, a few months after that rupture. Artist Kelly Mark staged a project very similar to Halprin’s in 2003 at the Power Plant for Contemporary Art in Toronto that included not just blank picket signs but also blank flyers distributed to onlookers. Slogans included “Hell No ... We Don't Know.” This has a cynical tone that Halprin’s piece didn’t carry in 1970 and that would likely not float in today’s charged atmosphere either.

Twice Jacob Dahlgren has staged Demonstration: once in Stockholm, Sweden, in December of 2007, and again at the Headlands Center for the Arts on June 14, 2009. The piece takes a more colorful approach to the question of protest’s representation. The first Demonstration took place in concurrence with a large Moderna Museet exhibition of abstract painting by Swedish mid-century utopian idealist Olle Baertling. The images on the signs at both occasions of Demonstration, painted by Dahlgren, were reproductions of original works by Baertling. The event in Stockholm drew about 150 demonstrators, required official permits and police escorts, and involved blocking automobile and pedestrian traffic in busy parts of the city.7 At the Headlands, participants carried the signs on a hike; abstraction marched through landscape, and there were practically no onlookers to mention. Was this a demonstration of abstractions, a demonstration for abstraction, an abstraction of a demonstration, or an abstraction of demonstrations? Dahlgren’s signs are not blank, and they don’t relocate historical forms of protest either. Demonstration has as much to do with the social relationships defined by the form of protest as with the formalism of modernist abstraction. This gesture was more legible in Stockholm where the public is more likely to be familiar with Baertling’s work, but it could be understood as informing the piece in either context. Where we’ve come to expect words rather than images on placards, Demonstration could also be said to function in a way that encourages a reexamination of the way we express dissent.

Anna Halprin, Blank Placard Dance, San Francisco, 1967. Photo: Lawrence Halprin.

If we tend in the United States to understand abstraction in painting primarily in terms of Greenberg-ian modernism, then we are likely to think of it in terms of the progress he espoused in relationship to medium-specificity. It bears reminding that the abstract can be as idealistic as the relational. The utopian dimension of prewar European abstraction and its tie to mysticism, spirituality, and metaphysics remained central to Swedish-born Baertling’s artistic ambitions even after he traveled to New York and began interacting with the American Post-Painterly Abstractionists.8 In the case of Dahlgren’s recasting of Baertling’s abstraction as signs to be used in a protest without manifesto, there is a flatness that brings attention not at all to its autonomy but rather certainly to its support, in this case the literal support of the participants that bear the weight of holding the signs aloft and carrying them forward through the city or the landscape.

The Occupy movement itself also functions as a surface for both projection and for reconsideration of support—not because it is blank or abstract, exactly, but because it has insisted on retaining a complexity that theoretically allows for the inclusion of anyone wishing to express any dissent. The strongest content that comes through as a result of this complexity ultimately has to be about the right to express dissent in public space and to place one’s body on the line in public view as a means of catching attention and raising awareness of injustice and inequity. The oft-repeated risk is that this complexity renders the possibility for logistical change brought about by the movement blank or abstracts the specific demands and complaints of the 99%. There is no denying the affective power of the movement though, and the link between this power and its inclusive, complex, and horizontal organization. The sign could read just about anything, and the sign might also just be left completely open to interpretation; we are living through cathartic theater and also we are living through a moment of real change, but in any case this is a new landscape.

Notes

  1. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Papers [AAA: 2196;260]. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
  2. Slavoj Žižek, at Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park, October 10, 2011. http://occupywallst.org. Accessed October 10, 2011, quoted in Elyse Mallouk’s AP 3.4 article “Aesthetic Events in Occupation.”
  3. Libby Worth, Helen Poynor, Anna Halprin, (London; New York: Routledge, 2004), 22.
  4. Sally Banes, Reinventing dance in the 1960s, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 36.
  5. David W. Bernstein, John Rockwell, Johannes Goebel, The San Francisco Tape Music Center. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 237.
  6. Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Julia Bryan-Wilson on Sharon Hayes,” Artforum Vol. 44, Issue 9, May 2006, 278.
  7. As described in email correspondence from Jacob Dahlgren to Christina Linden, August 1, 2009.
  8. See, for example, Ronald Jones, "Olle Bærtling, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden," frieze, Issue 112, January–February 2008. http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/olle_baertling/ last accessed December 4, 2011.

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