Panel members focus on the role of art in protests

Students gathered in Breed Hall of Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall for the panel discussion last week. (credit: Nicole Ifill/Photo Staff) Students gathered in Breed Hall of Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall for the panel discussion last week. (credit: Nicole Ifill/Photo Staff)

The varied roles of performance as a part of protest, as a means of communication, and as a form of collective democracy were the focus of “Power, Protest, Performance: A Panel Discussion,” held last Wednesday.

Organized by Paul Eiss, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Arts in Society (CAS), the panel was made up of three experts on tactical performance: Larry Bogad, distinguished lecturer in performance and politics at the University of California; Richard Maddox, professor of anthropology and history at Carnegie Mellon; and Wendy Arons, associate professor of drama at Carnegie Mellon.

The main speaker, Larry Bogad, highlighted the importance of “performative disruption” with examples from his experiences working with guerrilla theater groups including the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA) and the Yes Men.

These groups attempt to “get a dialogue going where we can explore not just what we are saying, but how we say it,” Bogad said. One such example was the creation of the Oil Enforcement Agency — an agency devoted to ending what George W. Bush, in his 2006 State of the Union address, called “America’s addiction to oil.”
“There was a great space between [Bush’s] rhetoric and reality. This space becomes a place for performers to dance,” Bogad said.

The agency was deployed during the 2006 Los Angeles Auto Show, where the it tied crime scene tape around large vehicles, claiming that they were protecting the public from oil addiction. CIRCA, another of Bogad’s creations, is described on the website as “approximate and ambivalent ... the place in-between order and chaos.”
CIRCA is known for showing up to protests and marches, interrupting rising tensions with spectacle.

“The most intense moments of conflict can be defused by providing protest in a different form,” Eiss said. “You must be the absurd change you wish to see,” Bogad said.

Following Bogad were Wendy Arons and Richard Maddox, who both explored broader concepts pertaining to the G20 Summit. Arons’ discussion, entitled “Why Am I Wearing this Polar Bear Mask?” discussed the history of dramatic masking in relation to Section 601.19, a highly debated motion prohibiting the use of “masks, hoods, or other identity-concealing devices” during protests. Arons surmised that perhaps the law was asking the wrong question.

“We should not ask, why do individuals wear masks, but what happens when they do so,” said Arons. The effect of the mask is universal — it licenses uncommon and often unruly behavior.

“If we deny the power of the mask to move the wearer, we forget the joy of metamorphosis and change,” said Aron.
Maddox’s piece was entitled “Domestication, Disorder, and the Pittsburgh G20.” The G20 is a spectacle of legitimation for world leaders. Their main political agenda is to show the world that the right people are in charge and making correct decisions,” said Maddox.

The choice to hold the G20 in Pittsburgh has brought this spectacle to the university’s backyard. This choice has had dramatic effects on the city.

“The messes of the past and present are to be swept under the rug.... There’s a tremendous sense of popular resentment; it isn’t our city or our people being represented,” said Maddox.

While “Power, Protest, Performance” focused heavily on the concept of performance, the questions raised by the panel reached past the form of protest and outside of the realm of the arts.

“The panel was really positive and gave a lot of interesting facts pertaining to protests and protesters,” said Marielle Saums, a first-year art student.

The idea of involvement was also crucial, whether it takes the form of voting, protesting, or performance. “We hope people walk away thinking not just about performance or about the G20, but asking ‘Do we have a collective role in democracy?’ ” said Eiss.