“You could go down to any commercial gallery and see political art. It has political content, it has a critique, opposition, maybe a submerged expression that was not readily validated by dominant culture. But activism is…is just different. I feel like there’s a real difference between making cultural projects that are intended to augment, heighten, intensify kind of a larger activist struggle.”
Dara Greenwald is a conceptual artist, curator and author. She is a founding member of the Pink Bloque and her last major project was Spectres of Liberty: Ghost of Liberty Street Church, a “public memory, site-specific art project” created in collaboration with Olivia Robinson and Josh MacPhee. She died, too young, in 2012.
She was interviewed at Eyebeam on August 13, 2008.
Steve & Steve: So, the first thing we always ask people is for them to tell us a story about their most successful or effective project they ’ve done in the recent past and describe it.
Dara Greenwald: Well, in the recent past the most successful art project we did was, we created an inflatable ghost church – a church that once existed as a black church in New York that was the home of an internationally well-known abolitionist speaker named Henry Allen Garnett. And we just did that in May. Why it was successful to me A) it worked B) no one got killed no, nobody’s gonna get killed. It’s just that we made this huge inflatable church and then people went inside it. It stayed inflated it didn’t collapse, so…there’s structural success in that what you make actually functions as you intend it to.
S & S: Yeah no one dying is always a good marker of success. But why else do you think it worked?
DG: A lot of people came. And just in a town. I mean, there’s very different measures of success. The site can determine different things that are successful. Like in New York, if we had done a project then that success would have been, “Oh, did the NY Times write about it?” or something like that – I don’t know. But in Troy, it’s more of, “Did anyone come?” I mean anyone. I mean, you’ve been there.
S & S: Yes, we have. It’s impressive to have people show up.
DG: Several hundred people came. And another thing that we felt was successful, that was totally DIY – we self-funded it – we asked for people to donate when they came, just if they wanted to. And we basically made back our cost just in donations because people felt so strongly about it. So I felt that it was way more successful than if some granting body had seen a proposal and said, “Oh, this looks good.” You know? These elites of the field decide whether or not it’s a valid thing to fund, and it was the users – the participants in it – that decided that it was worthwhile – even though it was a free event – that it was worth them chipping in because they felt like it was powerful to them.
S & S: What does that signify? That sort of idea of self-funding as opposed to writing a grant or getting money from someplace else?
DG: It’s just that there seems to be a difference to me between – basically, most people who decide granting are in an elite position by the time they get to be the deciders. And that, those – those taste-makers or the users in Troy, New York – the participants or, audience of a project – who are maybe not as art-career, art-savvy, or even politically savvy, or activist or whatever – not that this was an activist project, it wasn’t. It was just a political history project.
S&S: Why do you think the people in Troy did donate money? What did it mean to you?
DG: I guess I feel like it’s feedback, you know? It’s an abstract feedback loop. I mean, I don’t’ think there was any sign – well maybe there was – there was just a little donation box, you know? There wasn’t a hard sell or things that said “Please donate.” It wasn’t a hard sell at all. It was just a feedback, that the audience who contributed thought, “Wow! I feel inspired by this, and I want to participate.” I felt like, the money piece, was a participation, even though it was a very abstract participation and one could argue that everyone is participating in capitalism ‘cause they just, feel so strongly about participating in it. So I mean, it gets really muddy. But for something that’s scrappy, DIY, in a parking lot, and that all these people from very different backgrounds and ages – and mainly, the biggest audience was this church. What that church then became wasn’t another church that’s currently functioning, and a lot of people from that church came and were just really interested in it. So, and that’s not my normal audience. You know? My usual audience is not elderly church-goers.
S & S: True! So then, what would you say is your usual audience?
DG: Well, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I mean, I participate in this art world thing and we are each other’s audience on a lot of levels. And then if it’s in the street, it’s a random audience. I do not for profit art worlds and then the kind of DIY world. So I have a foot in both of those.
S & S: You said early it’s not an activist project, it’s a political history project. What’s the difference there? What does that mean to you?
DG: I think that a lot of artists make political art, but it’s not activist. It’s objects that maybe express a feeling of opposition or express – I mean activism to me is more based on not my one personal expression isolated from either organizing with other people or based on having some kind of demand or a larger critique than just doing a project. A one off art project is generally not activist to me. Yeah, I mean, activists art, I don’t know, we’ve talked about this before, argued about it.
S & S: Sounds like this came out of that very conversation.
DG: To me political art is – you could go down to any commercial gallery and see political art. It has political content, it has a critique, opposition, maybe a submerged expression that was not readily validated by dominant culture. But activism is…is just different. I feel like there’s a real difference between making cultural projects that are intended to augment, heighten, intensify kind of a larger activist struggle. Maybe it’s in the streets, maybe it’s not, but it’s part of something. It’s just not activism we wanted to talk about abolitionism in Troy. We were not trying to work with the public housing that’s being destroyed at the same time. We were just focused on revealing a marginal history.
S&S: So, if I am understanding, your church project was not activist art because it was more focusing on revealing a marginal history than it was also campaigning for the destruction of public housing?
DG: Yea. For example, I mean this is totally not the way I would probably do it, but one could think about if there was a whole bunch of Trojans trying to do this, and we were gonna take down the Uncle Sam monument and put up the Henry Garnett Monument and then get the city to recognize it and then keep it there. That would actually be more transformative, you know, more transformative of the entire landscape.
S & S: I think that’s a pretty profound shift. It sounds like what you’re saying is, one of them is political, but if you wanna be activist you really gotta change the material. You use the word “landscape.” That’s really interesting.
DG: That’s what these projects are. They’re situated special practices of the landscape, so…they are ephemeral. There’s an argument with people who do these kind of counter-monuments. Would the world want there just to be lots of counter-monuments? Would that represent democracy more? Or would the landscape just be full of a million monuments to everyone’s thing?
S & S: Well, what do you think?
DG: I think it’s a good question, right? Do we want to replace Uncle Sam with Henry Allen Garnett? I mean, I want to, but then that’s still one narrative. That’s still one male narrative, actually. I mean, it’s also of course, what landscape are you in? In Troy it’s a very conservative place. But, I really think that a lot of people mistake political art for activism, personally. It’s like, “OK. So you express yourself. So you don’t like the president.” It’s just not, “OK, good. I’m glad you need to express yourself.” That’s good. But it’s just not –
S & S: So then what is a project you are working on now that might be more in line with activist art?
DG: It looked like seven to twelve women in pink outfits doing choreographed dance to popular music, and then with a banner and handing out flyers about a political issue. Generally in non permissioned spaces like The Taste of Chicago, which is a Fourth of July south street seaport scene. And, then sometimes in the context of larger demonstrations.
S & S: And what was the idea behind this fucking crazy idea?
DG: The idea behind it was inspired behind a social movement that had emerged, which is a counter-globalization movement – and seeing from the internet these kind of tactics used in Europe: having large pink blocks, and blue blocks, and white blocks – and this was at the Prague IMF protest – just this spectacle from above that the media could picture. Just these seas of color coming together. In Chicago, you know, it was also contextual. It was very specific to Chicago, which is where it was. The protest culture was just not – it was just very, kind of, not innovative, I guess. It kind of repeated the repertoires of contention that had been used for many, many generations.
S & S: What would an example of one of those be?
DG: Just, chants, and, placards, and marching. What people see when the see this is: “Oh, there’s some protestors. That’s what protesters look like. Either I’m interested because I’m already interested in protests or – it’s just a signifying practice that I know what it means, so I don’t need to even find out what it is about.” You know? We kind of thought, “Oh there was a pink thing, and that was cool.” And then it was all women. It came together because some of us knew each other through Riotgirl and punk stuff and the other group of us knew each other through organizing Ladyfest. And so it was coming from those – that was the initial group, was people from those specific groupings. And we just thought, “Well, what languages do people understand? What signifying practices are more…are people more susceptible to engaging with?” We were like, “Pop culture!” We had all these lines – oh we know that more Americans can recognize J-Lo in a line-up than Dick Cheney – so this recognition of that and, so that’s when we started doing this Pop – this pop culture thing. I mean a lot of people were said, “Oh, you’re like radical cheerleaders.” And we said, “No! We’re really trying to use a different language.” Because Radical Cheerleaders often were using Punk aesthetics.
S & S: Like wearing Carhartt!
DG: Carhartt! I mean it was different. It was fun and everything, but it was also, thrifty. Every group’s different. Some of them wore more produced looking cloths.
S & S: So describe what you guys wore.
DG: Well, we wore a lot. We said we were a multi-issue, multi-outfit troupe, but it just changed a lot. I mean, we had matching shirts that were hand printed – at a certain point we did end up making matching skirts and selling them. Yeah, basically we wore American Apparel. I mean, the thing was they sold, they would sell – if you said you were an artist they sold it to you wholesale. So we got all this wholesale pink stuff or we dyed it.
S & S: So you would go out in the street and what would you do?
DG: We would have a sound system and we had these choreographed dances, and they were Britney Spears’ choreographer. We bought the tapes, instructional videos.
S & S: Really?
DG: Yeah. That’s how we got our dances. So Darren Hanson – he taught Justin Timberlake. We would do these dances that were, were coordinated – and you can see if you watch the video on our site, it’s the first one, we’re totally not together, but towards the end it’s seems like “Oh, these people are coordinated!” And you can just see the evolution of the dance.
S & S: And what was the advantage of being coordinated?
DG: I don’t know. I mean our idea was to create a spectacle that would engage people visually. They would come over, and then we’d say, “Hey, have you heard about the Patriot Act?” You know? That’s the idea.
S & S: You’re talking about now as if maybe it didn’t work…?
DG: Well, it worked to cause a spectacle. But we could argue for a long time about whether if people’s consciousness change, and I don’t know. It’s one flyer. I would be hard pressed to make a claim like that.
S & S: I mean, was it effective at least to getting out flyers?
DG: Oh yeah. We got out flyers. We would say that too. We would talk it about it, “You know, when someone’s trying to shove a flyer in your face.” And you’re saying, “Get away from it! We don’t want a flyer!” But with us, we’re dancing. People are thinking, “We want your flyer.” The desire was created for we want the flyer.
S & S: You sound maybe a little disenchanted with what the flyer would do beyond that.
DG: No, I mean – I don’t know. I’m just not one of those people who think, “We totally changed the world!” That’s not how I am.
S & S: Why not? I mean, some people would say, “We got rid of 300 flyers today, and, you know, I put on my Carrhart and I only got rid of 40.” So that’s the gauge…
DG: In terms of success we would set reasonable goals because people would often say to us, “Are you really changing anything?” and “How do you know you’re successful?” Well we know we’ve met our goals. And in terms of challenging we also weren’t saying – even in our language we were syaing, “We aren’t taking down the white supremacists, capitalists, patriarchy.” We said, “We are challenging it in some way that’s very abstract.”
S & S: What were some goals you set for yourself?
DG: Well some of our goals were that we communicated well with each other, that everyone was taken care of. Internal culture stuff, affective labor. That we didn’t get arrested – we weren’t interested in getting arrested. Our goal would be that we would do that dance – do the dance a certain number of times and get rid of our flyers. I really don’t’ remember right now.
S & S: So, why did you all chose the goals that you did?
DG: Yeah, we thought“OK. We’re gonna do this – no one’s gonna get hurt.” You know? On the record-wise, I don’t know – it was a big group. Someone else might not remember it exactly the same way. Because I’m having a hard time remembering it myself. But I do remember saying, “what’s the goal? We should really set goals.” And actually I know we did that because we would do these activist workshops for other activist, including culture inter-activism. And we would say, you know, “number one, what’s your goal? Who are your allies? And what’s your tactic?” And the goals might be that you want to make people aware that the Patriot Act exists. So you made, whatever, 300 people aware that it exists. Not that you’ve gotten them to sign on to demolish it, but they were simpler goals, I guess. Consciousness raising basically.
S & S: This other question goes off that. Is consciousness raising enough? I feel like every time you say it, you back away from it.
DG: I just think there’s more – I think it’s just way more complex than that. Because we have our consciousness raised about a lot of things and it’ hasn’t changed the world. And, it has also, but…in terms of this system we’re currently living under there there is room for consciousness. Will that transform social relations? It’s hard – I don’t know. I don’t think so.
S & S: Is that a difference between political art and activist art? Where political art is more geared toward activist raising and activist art is affecting change in some concrete way?
DG: I don’t know. I think it’s context. Political art is meant to come from an artist. Just happens to have political context when it goes into a gallery. And so there’s a thing about context, I do think that it’s more – activists who do more illegal art. You know? It just is because you’re actually challenging some form of control. Even if it’s just an individual gesture and not part of an organized thing. It’s more resistant – I don’t know actually if it’s activist, but it is more resistant to try to push the control of the controlled society. So, doing what’s permitted in the gallery that has some politics – I mean, I do that all the time. I think that we do not have a good political education in this country. We have an absence of it actually. That political art is a release valve that allows for the system and status quo to maintain itself. The maintenance of the status quo is allowed through these, kind of, oppositional resistance forms of acceptance.
S & S: Another thing which you talked about with the paint block was that“It’s really about changing the culture of the left.”
S & S: Do you think you were successful in that? And how do you even think about success?
DG: Yeah. I mean that was apart of the goal to make the Left look different. We used to say, “Give it a radical – an extreme makeover. We’re giving the left an extreme makeover.” Whatever. Were trying to use this pop culture stuff. I think that we changed the culture of it within Chicago at that time, at that moment in history. Definitely. So we kinda pulled in people from these different worlds who I’d never seen at protests prior. And there was just more people who I hadn’t seen before coming, because of our cache. Then we had some open meetings and, I mean, a lot of people came. I’d never met them before they joined the pink block, or seen them even. It wasn’t just a really small scene. There was different groups. But I think another piece we were trying to change was that, there was a certain kind of masculinization of the street protest – and even coming out of Seattle – this kind of what does it mean to be a “street fighter?” It means that, you know, “What does a street fighter look like? Can they wear a skirt?” There were definitely people in the Pink Block that said, “I really hate going to activist things because I like to wear new clothes, and make-up, and high heels, and I just feel as if I’m looked down on when I walk into that room. And I want to participate in street protests as much as the next person, but I also don’t want to have to feel uncomfortable.”
S & S: I used to wear suits to protests. Really.
DG: Yeah . So, we were a feminist dance troupe. We were trying to transform and make a space for different gender expression. Girlieness being OK to be included in it, as a street fighter or whatever…street dancer. I think that that did open a space for more people to participate – more women, young women – to participate who didn’t feel identified with the cultural aspects of certain Left things.
S & S: With the Pink Block it seemed like you were trying to use these mainstream sorts of languages. Is one of the goals then to make protest mainstream?
DG: No. I mean, the goal, I guess, would be to stop the war, right? I’m not sure this was the way to do it-
S & S: Then why the hell are you doing it?
DG: Because what else should I be doing?
S & S: Yeah, that’s the question.
DG: Well, do you have an idea?
S & S: Well, no!
DG: To be honest, the reason I pick art is because, of all the ways in which I can live in the world – in the current reality – it offers the most freedom. And that’s why.