The Perfomane of Politics at the Borderland of an Abosolute
In July 2007, The Miss Rockaway Armada, a floating art parade buoyed by a handmade barge, set sail down the Mississippi River. This exercise in performative sculpture is a collaboration between multiple artist collectives including the Floating Neutrinos (who assail industrialization in favor of the auratic qualities of craft), Infernal Noise Brigade (Seattle-based arbiters of aural disruption) and Visual Resistance (a coalition of graffiti artists. Miss Rockaway describes itself as made up of individuals who left small towns behind for life in the big city but, in an era in which war and consumption are linked by oil, have decided to return to the heartland, reconnect with their roots and act as a bridge between urban and small-town mentalities.
The boat, built entirely from salvaged materials, is a simple structure powered by two converted diesel engines and a salvaged alternator. In many ways, the activities that surround navigating this craft down the river combine a kind of hippie art party with a rethinking of the elements of everyday life, including sustenance (dumpster diving), fuel (biodiesel), bathing (rarely), laundry (washed in the river and dried in the fields) and the maintenance of a vessel that is barely watertight. The group docks periodically and stages performances for locals: bawdy, carnivalesque freak shows with a touch of drag.
But this project is more than just a hippie art party. It is also a nexus for many issues that surround collectivism. The multiple subtexts of this project include the legacy of the modernist avant-garde in relation to individualism, the autonomy of art and possibilities of subversion in a society in which all acts are always already defined by capitalism as a form of commodified rebellion. Miss Rockaway also addresses the relationship between urban and rural space in the discourse of contemporary radicality, the relationship between spectacle and freakery in the artist’s persona and, most importantly, the interchange that exists between gestures of politics and aesthetics, art and life. This nomadic edifice places the collective in the borderlands—in the liminal space between urban and rural, public and private—and between the spectacular and speculative fantasy of art and the normative rumblings of everyday reality. Miss Rockaway therefore provides an excellent way to think about how collectivism and radicality, when positioned in an ambiguous space, can effectively function as a political method of artmaking today.
Collectivism is historically tied to radicality. The idea of “the masses” played a major role in many new forms of social structure. Art collectives that emerged at the turn of the previous century, during the height of modern art’s idealistic movements like Futurism (linked to fascism)1 or the Russian avant-garde (linked to Communism),2 were allied with these ideologies and structured their practices accordingly. However, radical acts are no longer integrally tied to wholesale political and social upheaval as they were for the Constructivists and Suprematists in the wake of the Russian Revolution, or for groups like the Situationist International in the global upheavals of the sixties. The latter still casts a shadow of influence, especially in the way that it provided a model for art to participate directly in social upheaval, in particular during the May ’68 student uprisings in Paris. In the eighties and nineties, groups like ACT UP! and Queer Nation followed in the footsteps of the Situationists, linking art and activism on behalf of identity politics.
But while the last century gave us political movements and radical change, many eventually became corrupt or benign, making utopian intentions suspect. The Situationist International, for instance, fought the establishment as students who eventually grew up, some taking positions of political, cultural and economic power, as did the American Hippies, Yippies and the Beats. At the same time, to disregard all rebellion against the status quo as simply quaint or tainted by the machinations of power risks quiet kowtowing toward those very positions, be they tied to capitalism, heterosexist patriarchy or the law. The rebellion of Miss Rockaway, at the very least, stems from a refusal to fall into the practices of capitalist consumption, normative political discourse and the categorical relationship between art and life. This rebellion is radical if we shed from that term the need to universalize wholesale gestures.
Collectivism, as a group of people organizing around an idea, isn’t in itself radical; it is the ambition and context of the organizing principles that make it so. Miss Rockaway functions within the radical paradigm of collectivism for two reasons. First of all, it operates under a set of principles that is explicitly against the status quo of capitalist consumption in a manner that might even be called collective anarchism. Secondly, it is a collection of collectives, each with their own histories of political action. The artist Swoon, a major organizer of Miss Rockaway, is one such example, and her work demonstrates how collectivism and radicality function in an urban context—the origin of this project.
A graffiti artist who has received mainstream recognition, including exhibitions at Deitch Projects, P.S.1 and MoMA, Swoon’s work typically involves large, figurative woodcuts on paper pasted to the sides of city buildings. At a lecture at MoMA, Swoon described graffiti as a kind of revisionist urbanism. Through the act of marking a building with a surreptitious visual gesture she reclaims the public space of the city, which she believes has been usurped by capitalist power exercised by private interests. For her, these graffiti works are acts against the onslaught of gentrification. They open up the city to its potential as a site of expression. Though she would never put it in such ontological terms, Swoon believes that the capitalist project of private property robs individuals of their agency to exist freely in public spaces and to assert their subjectivity through expression.
There are two aspects of collectivity at play here. One is graffiti as an act of political expression by one citizen in an urban collective—acts that assert authorship and thereby subjectivity within the context of the collective. The second is the obfuscation of authorship by graffiti artists in conjunction with the communities that support them. Taking on monikers because of the illegality of their practice, they must remain anonymous. Their gestures are fugitive and necessitate networks like Visual Resistance and the Wooster Collective to help plan for, carry out and get away with each action.
Recently, a group of Situationist-inspired splashers began a campaign protesting the commercialization of graffiti art. This anonymous group asserts that artists like Swoon, with support from groups like the Wooster Collective, are turning street art into a ‘’bourgeoisie-sponsored rebellion’’ that actually paves the way for gentrification, going so far as to call such work “utterly impotent politically and fantastically lucrative for everyone involved.’’ 3 Their protest involved splashing blobs of paint to obscure graffiti that they found particularly reprehensible. In addition, they disseminated leaflets that expressed oblique protests against Swoon, Visual Resistance and the Wooster Collective for “selling out.”
Here we truly see the dialectical turns of the avant-garde in action: sixties radicalism giving way to cooperation between institutions and the avant-garde, which in turn spawns a rebellion against this new paradigm, ideologically grounded in the very philosophy that brought about the relationship in the first place. Despite what these splashers may think, there is no ahistorical avant-garde eternally at odds with the establishment. But former revolutionaries do maintain nostalgia for their rebellious past. This nostalgia, inherited by later generations like the splashers, is often misunderstood in terms of the Marxist underpinnings of the Situationist International, whose actions were planned and performed within a particular social context. Mistrust for Swoon’s complicit relationships with capitalist enterprises misconstrues a new model for social relations that allows capital and progressive politics to coexist.
A Marxist approach to avant-garde actions is problematic even by its own logic. First, the act of defacing another artist’s work negates the political goal of absolute free expression, not unlike Stalin’s purges that were rationalized as “for the good of the masses.” And, if expression about commodification and gentrification trumps freedom of expression, it makes the splashers’ own actions suspect. This group is trapped in nostalgia for a radical past and the binary models that sixties radicalism fell into, which led to the corruption of the left and makes some deeply skeptical of progressive politics, even to this day.
The point here is that there is no purity to the binary models at play. The effect of Swoon’s work is equally valid on the street and in the hallowed halls of the museum. The contexts, however, are different. As such, the work flies in the face of the object or artist’s practice as having any kind of decontextualized, autonomous meaning.4 The work is ultimately about the interplay between the artist’s action, the viewer’s response and the space in which this game plays out, and this question of context is the main argument for Miss Rockaway. It takes ideas on the road and allows autonomous objects and actions that may seem fixed in an urban context to be pulled into a new context where the assumptions of the audience are quite different. Like artwork taken from the museum into the streets, Miss Rockaway moves avant-garde practice from an urban to a rural context, acting as a kind of performative tag on the Mississippi River.
The impulse for any American to navigate the borderland between urban and small-town existence is profound in today’s political context. Rhetoric has grown to a feverish pitch, predicated on a split between left and right, indicated by “red” and “blue” states. One might be led to believe that a New Yorker and a rural American have nothing in common. Miss Rockaway questions that assertion. A stop in Muscatine, Iowa, for instance, resulted in a performance in front of 300 people involving a gargantuan flea circus (a magic machine had apparently turned the fleas into human size), flaming-bike jousting (two bikes stacked vertically and welded together) and heartbreaking ballads sung between acts. “One may wonder how these travelers can afford to spend several months floating down the river, leaving behind jobs, family and education,” the local paper mused.5 The author’s bewilderment was soon overcome by a sense of amazement, as if this traveling medicine show had somehow stepped out of the nineteenth century and onto the writer’s doorstep.
The sense of good-natured generosity exchanged between the locals and Miss Rockaway is not politically motivated in a specific sense beyond the practices of sustainable living. There is no preaching about global warming or the war on terror. But the possibility of exchange does potentially alter the xenophobic, fragmentary and polarized nature of contemporary political discourse. Miss Rockaway does not depict the horrors of war, capitalist greed or environmental disaster. They do not use art in a mimetic way—to mirror the world as it is.
Swoon (installation view Swoon, Deitch Projects), 2005
Courtesy the artist and Deitch Projects, New York
So what is the political nature of this work? Miss Rockaway uses the imaginative possibilities of artmaking itself—and the power of collective practice—to propose alternative models of living. In this sense, the collective’s work relates more to the ill-fated experiment of the Russian avant-garde. The boats of the armada actually resemble Vladimir Tatlin’s famous Monument for the Third International, replacing the seriousness of revolution with campy ebullience. They do this through spectacle, but the freak show quality of their performances poses additional questions. How is difference signified through performance, both the voyage and impromptu street theater? How do performers avoid objectifying themselves as the other? If the differences between city and country—left and right—are reified, then the possibility for a real relationship or change seems minimal. The answer lies in the complex ways that freak shows not only perform but also construct identity.
Swoon with The Miss Rockaway Armada, Untitled, 2007
Photo copyright Tod Seelie
So what does a freak show do? It reveals and sublimates abject qualities of performer and audience. When Miss Rockaway comes to town, it announces its arrival as other. The group’s members paint themselves and carry banners. They dress in drag, wear funny costumes; they play drums, ukuleles, washboards and trombones—make a general ruckus—and this parade culminates in a performance. The audience participates in the fantasy through identification and transference. What precisely is the fantasy? It is the participatory experience of otherness by the status quo.
The idea that our behavior or our identity can shift is a frightening idea to many. But performance and the use of fantasy help us accept the possibility that our sense of self is mutable. Identity is not fixed—it is performed.6 As a result, the self evolves through a repetition of roles in the everyday. So the stage is not necessarily a formal theatrical space where fantasy and the real are separated; stage and fantasy are present in every action of our daily lives. Formal performance, like freak or drag shows, only reflects the performativity we already engage in.
The carnival, like the freak show, is an event that exists only in—and through—this relationship. Historically, the carnival challenged God, legal authority and social mores by exploring taboos, such as sexuality and death.7 Such abject behavior would be frightening if it weren’t so seductive. Because it is so radically outside normative structures of signification, it opens up a new space where new identities can be formed. One local paper in Keokuk, Iowa, described a performance that included “a young lady playing an accordion while keeping a flaming hula hoop in motion.” 8 The idea of playing with fire allows fantasy to mediate our fears, but these are primal fears that cross the boundaries of assumed difference between freakish punks and down-home folk of the heartland.
The deconstruction of the freak show doesn’t begin and end when Miss Rockaway performs for an audience. Rather, they perform and repeat identities that value environmentalism, sustainable living practices and new structures of family and community. Most importantly, the action being performed at events like the one in Muscatine is not entertainment as spectacle, passively consumed by the audience; it is a relationship constructed between two very different communities.9 The members of Miss Rockaway are both urban and rural, performer and audience, merging the seemingly separate realms of art and life.
Radicality has been defined in negative terms for too long. True radicality must always offer an alternative. This was the problem with the antiglobalization movement, specifically the “Battle for Seattle” in 1999: anti WTO activists followed an old model of protest. It was unclear how unions, anarchists and environmentalists could come together, and unfortunately, spectacle was all that remained. How does Miss Rockaway stand apart? It shifts the nature of political art away from war and toward diplomacy. One common argument regarding the war in Iraq is whether it needs to be resolved militarily or politically. Politics here is meant as statecraft, but the same question can be posed to domestic ideological arguments.
Resistance to normative models can include the acceptance of the spectacle to allow for its deconstruction. Otherwise, we are caught in the cycles of normative action and avant-garde reaction. Models for political discourse in this country are based on war or sports. One is either with us or against us, using the universalizing discourse of good and evil. The only way out of this trap is to remove ourselves from entrenched positions. Miss Rockaway takes an alternative approach, reaching out to communities different than its own, inviting the people it encounters along the way to visit. The newspaper in Keokuk also related one man’s experience of taking a ride on the armada with his grandchildren. “They’re very enjoyable kids, very intelligent and all very friendly. It was very enjoyable. The ride took three to four hours. They offered us drinks and they fixed supper—spaghetti, broccoli and peanut butter fluff. It was a decent meal.” This simple action allows for a move out of entrenchment.
The idea of serving meals as art practice gained attention through art-world darling Rirkrit Tiravanija, famous for serving noodles in a Chelsea gallery as the sole content of his show and leaving the detritus of this “happening” for the remainder of the exhibition. For his defenders, these kinds of events shift the focus from the private space into the social realm where meaning is collectively shared.10 Nicolas Bourriaud has used Tiravanija’s work as the paradigm for “relational aesthetics,” which he describes as artworks that set up human relations. This is the logical extension of Duchamp’s “art coefficient” in which the viewer completes the artwork begun by the artist. But it also engages and revises the strategies of Marxists like Theodor Adorno and Guy Debord by creating postautonomous strategies of artmaking.
Actions like these, however, preach to the converted, creating an experience that is predicated on—and in resistance to—the frame of the gallery’s “white cube.” The “radicality” of such actions seems avant-garde simply because it goes against the norm of art galleries trafficking in commodified objects. Actions like these open up the way we think about artmaking and they hold political potential, but only under the assumption that the art world is the whole world. The shift from private to public goes only partway with gallery-sponsored social events. It doesn’t pose fundamental options for political change through actual praxis.11
The Miss Rockaway Armada is postautonomous, harnessing relational practice that uses spectacle. But it is not concerned with ideological purities, and as a result, it explodes the false dichotomies that are often at their core. Miss Rockaway’s audience, as opposed to Tiravanija’s, is a man and his grandchildren from Iowa who ate not only on a constructed stage but also inside the private space where people actually live their everyday lives. The most radical action performed by this group is that they float freely between fantasy and the real—toward what Slavoj Zizek would call the “imaginary real.” They take up the spirit of Huckleberry Finn on the most famous of all raft voyages, shrugging off “civilized” life and confronting, in the process, a more complex political reality than even they could have imagined.
1. Mark Antliff, “Fascism, Modernism, and Modernity.” The Art Bulletin (March, 2002).
2. Victor Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
3. Colin Moynihan, “As Street Art Goes Commercial, a Resistance Raises a Real Stink,” New York Times (June 28, 2007).
4. Theodor Adorno has argued that art needs to remain autonomous from the capitalist trappings of the culture industry. In this sense, Swoon’s graffiti would have to maintain the purity of its original urban context, which was intended to be in resistance to the culture industry. Guy Debord, the primary theorist of the Situationist International, believed that the culture industry thrived on spectacle—empty and meaningless entertainment to keep the masses at bay. Both Adorno and Debord longed for artwork that resisted the evils of capitalism by virtue of its autonomy from its grasp. The splashers assume that the museum is part of the culture industry and thus drains all meaning from art like Swoon’s through its spectacle. But Swoon and The Miss Rockaway Armada believe that the spectacle can be harnessed, deconstructed even, at the service of new social structures that are postautonomous and what Nicolas Bourriaud calls relational aesthetics. In this sense, meaning is not lost when the context of art is changed. Art merely adapts to new contexts and expands the possibilities of its meaning.
5. Megan Spees, “Troubadours strap together crafty cruise,” The Hawkeye (July 26, 2007).
6. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1989). There have been many misunderstandings of this theory focusing on drag as the ultimate example where gender identity functions. But the real idea behind performativity is that identity is mutable, drawn from a long line of Hegelian thinking in which the self is constructed through a relationship with the other.
7. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).
8. Cindy Iutzi, “Miss Rockaway Armada cruises into Keokuk,” The Daily Gate (August 2, 2007).
9. Jose Esteban Munoz has described this process as disidentification, which explodes the binary of normative and anti-normative behavior, in Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
10. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (London and New York: Continuum, 2004).
11. Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004).