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The Power of Performance: Art as Political Activism

News & Features | October 22, 2012

On a very warm day in September 2011, I found myself, along with several other members of the Tufts’ Amnesty International chapter, fully attired in black, lying on the gravel outside of Tisch Library. Students walked by, perplexity etched across their faces. This was the intent. We wanted their attention. The droplets of sweat accumulating on our overheated bodies were worth the discomfort, because people were asking questions—they were curious.

We were protesting what we believed to be an unjust death sentencing. Despite a lack of evidence and the recanting of several testimonies, Troy Davis received the death penalty in the state of Georgia. This sentence angered numerous politicians, celebrities, and human rights groups. Amnesty International selected Davis as one of their priority cases. Nevertheless, his sentence was carried out. As a result, on the day of his execution, I chose to lie in a public place as an act of mourning. Numerous people who walked by asked what we were doing and when we explained, some signed a petition for Reggie Clemons, another man sentenced to a seemingly undeserved death.

This demonstration is an example of the crossover between art and activism. Performance art is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in both the formal art world and the world in which we live. Rather than being confined by words, political art often transcends the barrier of language. The interchangeability of protests and performance art has increased the popularity of political art. This particularly pertains to Tufts—due to its emphasis on internationalism—for political art provides a means to address areas of concern on a somewhat global scale.

The most popular form of political art, protest art, refers to works created by artists to comment on a particular social issue. Protest art is exemplified through works created by street artists, such as the well-known Banksy, as well as through performances organized by international human rights organizations and NGOs (non-governmental organizations). This type of activism allows for the public to engage in contributing to change through non-traditional means and for artists to reach a potentially wider demographic. This has resulted in a recent growth of protest art. As Banksy said, “There’s nothing more dangerous than someone who wants to make the world a better place.”
Performance art can be traced back to the pre-Renaissance era. It was a natural progression from theatre, allowing artists the freedom to remove their art from the confinements of a canvas. Yves Klein’s post WWII work is seen as the precursor of performance art. By using the human body in his pieces to mock the pretentiousness of other artists, the French artist inadvertently pioneered a new form of art. Yoko Ono and Serbian artist Marina Abramovic further popularized performance art in the contemporary art world.

In the late 60s, Yoko Ono used her body to create conceptual, controversial works of art. From Cut—where she asked audience members to cut away her clothes until she was nude—to a book of instructions titled Grapefruit, Ono found provocative ways to engage the viewer. Over the years, she’s used the attention from her art to highlight her interest in peace and human rights. While Ono employs her art as a form of political activism, Abramovic explores the dynamic between the performer and the audience, and art as a tool of feminist discourse. In 2010, Abramovic held the largest performance art retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art’s history. The growing interest in performance art can be seen as a direct result of the public’s desire for political discourse.

More recently, the idea of art as a means of protest has expanded much further than solely in the art world. Performance art is increasingly employed within areas of conflict. For example, following the Arab Spring, the sales of Middle Eastern art has risen in the past five years by 500% according to the international auction house Christie’s. The past five years of the Dubai Art Fair illustrate the rise in popularity of women’s art. And countries with conservative regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, have seen the number of female artists surpass that of male. Women there, who otherwise face oppression in what they wear or say, have found freedom in their ability to express themselves through the arts.

In 2011, Time Magazine named “The Protestor” as their Person of the Year. From the women and men protesting in the Middle East to the occupiers in the United States, Time recognized the integral role the protesters had in reshaping our modern world. The Middle Eastern revolutions reportedly began in Tunisia with an act by a 26-year-old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi. Infuriated by the government’s continued cruelty towards him, Bouazizi stood in front of a capital building and lit himself on fire. According to his mother, her son did this for his dignity. Lighting himself on fire was arguably a form of performance. The visibility of Bouazizi’s actions ignited large-scale protests unparalleled by anything in recent Middle East history.

The artwork expands beyond expressions of personal freedom to include acts of social critique and solidarity. Japan is an example of how performance artists mobilize in times of crisis. Following the natural disaster in Japan on March 11, 2011, numerous Japanese used art to demonstrate their support for those affected by the tsunami and earthquake. An exhibit displaying photographs taken by the victims was shown in the Tokyo art studio 3331. Another artist group, Chim Pom, volunteered in Fukushima at the nuclear plants and photographed the destruction. The six-person political art group then collected frames from the rubble to exhibit the images.

Chim Pom used the natural disaster for inspiration for multiple other works. In an interview about their work, the group leader, Ryuto Ushiro, explained how the group conceptualized art following the natural disaster: “The reality was overwhelming, but I couldn’t accept that art was powerless.” The group filmed a performance in which they spray-painted the Japanese flag to resemble the nuclear radiation symbol and hung it at the site. Through art, Chim Pom has been able to raise both national and international attention. Their performance pieces challenge the way that the historically docile Japanese have responded to government treatments of the nuclear plants and the consequent damage.

Performance art exists to provide a more accessible and visible means of communication. Students in Boston, as part of the city’s college culture, are very visible and can be particularly effective at garnering attention. Two students who have used this to their advantage are Bradley Tsalyuk and Ryan Hawk, both fourth-year performance art students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Hawk’s large body of work ranges from the artist standing nude for ten hours while holding a block of ice, to popping a blue balloon filled with glitter. He uses creative pieces to evoke both philosophical and pragmatic questions.

When asked what the role of performance art is as a form of advocacy and awareness, Hawk posited, “The argument can be made that all performance art is political because its materialization is by a utility of the body.” Tsalyuk noted that while it is similar to other art forms in that it highlights political issues, performance art can also “incorporate a multitude of materials, including space, time, and the body, expanding beyond 2D and 3D.” As a result, the work transforms into a direct form of contact, allowing the viewer to interact with and intervene in the work.

When asked about the correlation between performance art and the act of protesting, both student artists see an inherent connection between the two. For Hawk, “a political element is atomic to performance art and this is because it is confrontational.” In other words, the two acts are both reflections of one another. Framing the protesting with the mask of art provides the artist—particularly in an oppressed nation—the freedom to express him or herself. Art as a political tool is important to consider in a world that is constantly shifting the way in which media is conveyed and news is digested.

Performance artists emphasize the importance of the viewer. Marilyn Arsem, a teacher at the Museum School, highlights the audience as a participant in her art. She designs a role for viewers “so that their experience is both visceral and intellectual.” The communal engagement contributes to a direct learning environment. Sharon Hayes, a popular performance artist, turned to performance as protest, as opposed to other methods, because of the catharsis it creates. The art mimics a protest, but allows expression in a relatively safe manner. Performance art, Hayes argues in her artist statement, is “a way to work through the demands of the present political moment.”

Individual artists are not alone in their promotion of political art. Amnesty International, for instance, is one of thousands of groups that encourages its members to use performance art to raise awareness. Another group, One Million Bones, is a social arts practice that employs performances to raise awareness and educate its participants on genocides worldwide. One of its main projects asks the public to create artificial bones and place them in a planned public area. In addition to publicizing the atrocities associated with genocide, the organization donates money to groups working to ameliorate the quality of life in the Democratic Republic of Congo. One Million Bones will be coming to Tufts on November 3 to collaborate with students to build a temporary display of bones outside of Sophia Gordon Hall.

The number of projects and organizations like this one is growing, thus confirming the limitless potential for performance art. While it is arguably foolish to think that a cliché slogan such as “Make Art, Not War” can apply to real life, political art is continuing to command its place in the international sphere. People are finding a forum to express their frustrations and anger. According to the graffiti activist Banksy, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” In many ways he is right. The world would be a terribly boring place if no one challenged authority and citizens always did what they were told. Perhaps making art is not so foolish after all.