Innovation, surprise… when you surprise someone, you’re earning a moment because you’re opening up a space.
The surprise can open up a temporal, experiential space where anything can come in. There’s opening up a political space, opening up a physical space. Events, protest events, tend to either occupy space or open space. There are some things that do both, obviously. But there is an emphasis in activism on occupying space. “We’re taking this over and we’re going to chant our slogan, and now this space is about our slogans. And you’re not in here and we are.” And that sometimes is totally appropriate, especially if you do it a little differently, or do something surprising within that.
But opening a space is like, “Wow!” It’s not predictable. And it gets sloppy and messy and maybe that’s okay, because it’s more participatory and it’s more likely to be less predictable. So that could be the street party thing, or any event where there is a diversity of tactics.
Larry Bogad is a writer, performer, and teacher who theorizes the protest as performance and utilizes his expertise in wide-ranging activist collaborations. He is the Co-Founder of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA), and author of “Electoral Guerrilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule and Social Movements”, an international study of performance artists who run for public office as a prank. In 2011 he joined us as the Director of the Center for Artistic Activism’s West Coast branch, based out of Davis, California. Bogad works on the intersection between art and activism, and on the role of humor and imagination in organizing social movements. We interviewed him in 2008, and he shared with us his ideas about opening up space, the difference between surprise and cliché, and the importance of performing for an audience – not just yourself.
* Editors note: This interview happened before Occupy took place. Speaking to Bogad since then he describes Occupy as an event that used the tactic of occupation to open up a space.
S&S: Larry, you’ve been doing this sort of performative activism a long time, you’ve been thinking and writing about it for a long time, and you’ve been an key organizer of a number of “successful” artistic activist actions. That’s great. Congratulations. You’re awesome. But how about things that didn’t work? Were there actions, maybe early on, where you just thought,“Oh that was a mistake”?
LB: Yes, absolutely. When I was in college, a highly paid spokesperson from Union Carbide came to campus, and I did all this research about the Bhopal disaster, and I wanted to give this guy a hard time. I was upset this guy was being sent — this was the guy we were going to listen to? – so I did tons of research and learned all the stuff I didn’t know, all the details about how negligent they were. And I showed up and I put on a gas mask while he was talking and I got a friend to do the same and we sat in the front, as if his words were toxic.
And then, of course, I took off the mask, and he called on me first. He’s well-paid, he knows what he’s doing like, “okay, let me get this prankster out of the way first.” He thought I was not going to know anything. But I was able to ask him a lot of questions about these scrubber units that fall apart and all these different safety things. So, I got him to get flustered and get angry.
But, okay, and then what? You know what I mean? So the people in the audience learned a few things because of what I was doing, so what? What changed? It was just an angry, small thing that I did.
S&S: We’d all like to think that your action was an aberration , but probably 99% of creative actions are “angry, small things.” So why do we do them? Why did you act on the anger?
LB: Part of it was, “I’ve got to do something about this.” I guess that’s what it was—inchoate desire motivated by outrage. And I think that’s fine. But the next question is, “okay, so what is the best thing to possibly do?” And I never got there. I was like, “I can’t believe this guy is coming to campus and I want to embarrass this guy. I want to put this guy on the spot and I want whoever shows up to hear about this.”
And me and my activist friends did this over and over again. The leader of the Contras [the US- backed counter-revolutionary guerillas in Nicaragua] came to campus. A lot of us showed up and we were marching up and down the aisles reading the names of civilians that the Contras murdered. And people were mad at us because we were not letting him talk. And we were like, “well, he’s a mass murderer,” and there were the usual arguments back and forth. So there is this idea, “I cannot allow this to happen without disrupting it in some way. That is not acceptable.”
In other words, that falls into the “no business as usual” slogan, right? This is business as usual—you’re actually paying this guy to come and speak, and we can’t just let that happen because it’s not okay. So, we want to show that it’s not okay and we want at least a handful of people to hear why it’s not okay because people don’t know.
S&S: So what you’re saying is you’re really informing people that would be misinformed. You’re announcing, “This guy is full of crap. Union Carbide is full of crap. The Contras are full of crap”? And why isn’t that effective?
LB: I think there were a couple people who got something from it because a couple people came up to me afterward, but in terms of a wider effect? Like the way it was covered in the school paper: it mentioned that we wore gas masks, but it didn’t quote any of what I had actually said. I was too easy to ignore. The visual gave a reason for the editor to include the story, but the performance wasn’t compelling enough for anyone to really grasp the concept. So, in terms of how it could have been more effective: I could have had more people involved, done something more creative, done something a little more engaging with the audience, not just me versus this guy, playing into that dynamic.
S&S: It sounds like what motivated these actions was outrage and then what guided them was the idea of disruption. Is this still at the core of your activism, or are you starting from a different place now?
LB: I think disruption has its place. To get a number of people together to disrupt an event has its own value, I suppose, but if it becomes about how disruptive you are to people who are not already on your side, then you run the risk of losing your audience. Of your audience thinking “I don’t know who this death squad leader is on the stage, but I know these people are yelling a lot and he’s being very polite, so uh, he’s the victim.” Doing actual direct action that creatively disrupts, I think it really has its place, but in order to not be “Other-ed” with a capital “O” while you’re doing this stuff, you need to do it in a way that is aware of the cultural landscape you’re
S&S: Ok, so how do you do this?
LB: You need to be aware of the dramaturgy that you’re creating. You’re creating a counter-dramaturgy to their dramaturgy and that should reach people in the way you would want to be reached. I don’t know that as activists we always do that.
What is the persona you’re taking on? Who are we engaging with? I think it’s often only about being strong, about being militant. These can be appropriate personas, totally appropriate. But then you want to put that through as art, which means it’s for someone to look at, not just for your own experience of being strong and militant.
S&S: So you are saying that activists need to understand what they do as art….
LB: And it has to be good art not bad art. This means, for me, amongst other things, making a distinction between cliché and surprise. So when I see people who say, “Let’s hang the politician in effigy,” I’m like, “great, no one has ever seen that before! It’s going to electrify the space! People are just going to stop with their jaws dropped looking at that.”
You know what I mean? Or: “Let’s burn the flag.” That’s… genius. It’s dramatic genius, you know what I mean?
S&S: [Laughing] Ok, got it, so understand you’re performing for an audience, and put yourself in their place. Like, impress me!
LB: The first time the clown army marched in 2003, John [Jordan] and I had a wonderful moment. We’re marching around and I felt very good about it. We surprised a lot of people. We got a lot of coverage to get our little sound bites out, and these went all over the world. And then he came up to me in his mischievous, Colonel Klepto character –(I’m Colonel Truth)—and he comes up to me and he says, “look, there are some people doing a die-in up there. Let’s go mess up their die-in. Let’s go tickle them! Or maybe just help them, like ‘Hi, did you fall down?’ and try to pull them up.”
I knew exactly what his impetus was. First of all, we were in prankster characters, and then it was just like, “this is bad theatre.” Look, if you’re in a place that a die-in has never happened before, and you are blocking the road with your bodies where blocking also serves a tactical purpose, maybe you could have a great die-in… as long as I don’t have to be there.
The kind of tactics I don’t like are tactics that are cliché. I just think people skip over them. They roll their eyes. It’s just like when you see bad theatre; when Hamlet comes on stage and he sighs because he’s sad and he walks slowly across the stage because he’s tormented and you’re like, “oh, I’m going to stab my own eyes out.” So if you’re doing that kind of performance, just playing on every cliché, then I just think people gloss over it.
S&S: Or stab their eyes out. It seems that the audience for a die-in nowadays is usually the activists that are doing it and the handful of activists that surround it. For everyone else its either unintelligible, just silly, or worse: boring. This might just be true of mass marches too. So what do you think works?
LB: Innovation, surprise… when you surprise someone, you’re earning a moment because you’re opening up a space.
S&S: I like the idea that we “earn” someone’s attention. What do you mean by “opening up a space”?
LB: The surprise can open up a temporal, experiential space where anything can come in. There’s opening up a political space, opening up a physical space. Events, protest events, tend to either occupy space or open space. There are some things that do both, obviously. But there is an emphasis in activism on occupying space. “We’re taking this over and we’re going to chant our slogan, and now this space is about our slogans. And you’re not in here and we are.” And that sometimes is totally appropriate, especially if you do it a little differently, or do something surprising within that.
But opening a space is like, “Wow!” It’s not predictable. And it gets sloppy and messy and maybe that’s okay, because it’s more participatory and it’s more likely to be less predictable. So that could be the
street party thing, or any event where there is a diversity of tactics.
S&S: Why is it important to open up the space, though?
LB: Um, well it gets a little abstract for me, but I have this idea of something called the “hegemonologue,” and it’s this idea that there is this hegemonic monologue of the dominant ideology. So, it’s a one-way monologue and this is what it is and this is how it is, and this consumes a lot of ideas. An example would be the dominant idea that in public space you need to work or consume or go home. Or, Starbucks is the place you can hang out and be sensitive and read your book or something. Part of the hegemonologue is the inevitability of corporate globalization. It’s not just happening, it is inevitable that it happens, it’s already happened, give up.
Even just opening up spaces that perform, that demonstrate different ways of being, is potentially powerful – especially if they look like fun. I think that has its own value, as it opens up spaces that have been – monologically – closed down. But this idea of opening up space is also really useful if you then attach it to a campaign, like to save the environment, or to have a living wage for example. It can be used to say to an audience, “Look, this is what the world might be like if we were able to get there.”
S&S: I see, showing the audience the world that could be.
We’ve noticed with your work you open a space, but also open up participation in these spaces. Kind of the opposite of those big marches where you have one role – to be another body, to parade around a set route and listen to leaders tell us what we already know.
LB: Right. Some political groups, the sectarian ones, are not interested in passing around the mic in their occupying space kind of events. You know, they want to tell you what to think. I understand that, but I don’t think it’s effective.
People can contribute more in an open space – people are more likely to feed it and they will feel comfortable creating their own ideas. Having events that open space up, you start to get creative ideas from people who are like, “I was actually listened to today. That doesn’t happen at work. Maybe it doesn’t even happen at home. But I went to this bizarre, radical event of this crazy movement that I am now connected to, and I had some great conversations, had some good drinks, and actually got to talk and be listened to, or make some art” or something like that. I think this is great. The word empowering is a painful cliché, and it just popped into my head anyway, so I had to confess that.
S&S: So is it up to us artistic activists to open space and bring on the revolution?
LB: Well, I look at the cultural side of the movement as just one wing of the movement, honestly. You know, you have combined operations, in military terms. You can have air power and land power and sea power.
S&S: And what are we—air power, land power, or sea power?
LB: I think we are “the frog men”…
S&S: Yes, I would say Navy Seal.
LB: Definitely Navy.
S&S: As the Village People taught us, the Navy is definitely the most deviant of the services.
LB: A movement without a cultural aspect is not going to do so well, but the movement can’t only be cultural workers. That’s not enough. Abbie Hoffman, right? Some people really appreciated the zaps and the incredible imagery he helped create with the Yippies and the actions they did, but other activists resented him as a showboat. But then he went underground, and there he took on the kind of work of a community organizer: he was door-knocking for the anti-nuclear movement, doing all the unromantic stuff. And I think that’s a lesson for us – that we have to be able to do all of it.
S&S: You only have so much energy and so much time. Why do you choose the cultural side? Why not knock on doors, or get people to sign a petition, or issue a report?
LB: The honest answer: I like doing this. I both think it’s important and, for me, I honestly think it’s more what I have to offer in terms of a skill set. In other words, I’m not prescribing it for others, but that’s the reason I focus on it. You know, I’m not a good statistician.