Protest as performance, inspiring or indulgent?


Extracts from Richard Paton, activist
Presented at a Show & Tell Salon on Activism
Posted as part of the Network of Coney Magazine 01

Is protest self-absorbed, or can it be really good?

Read on for Richard’s thoughts, and post your own in the comments.

Here we have a quote from columnist Caitlin Moran. She said, “The Protester, I find to be a beautiful thing. An objection made flesh, a whole body made over to do one thing: voice disapproval, simply by standing somewhere.”

In 1996, there was the biggest, most audacious street party organised by Reclaim the Streets in the UK. This was on a road, I think it might since have been redesignated, it was called the M41, but it was actually a very short stretch of motorway in West London. We took over about 5 or 10,000 people who took over the whole motorway. I was involved. We used big metal tripods, we blocked the slip road onto the motorway. This cleared the traffic.

These were big, massive pantomime dames, which moved through the party. There were sound systems, streamers and banners on a nice sunny day, took over the whole road, cleared it of traffic and made a big communal celebration, a carnival.

The pantomime dames had a ladder going up to a platform in the middle where the performer stood, “wearing” big hoops covered in skirt material around them. But here is the twist, because actually what happened, was that they hired a pneumatic drill. So somebody’s under the skirts of one of these dames drilling up the road. So they took out these bits of tarmac, in order to plant a tree. A symbolic gesture.

But here’s a 2001 Guardian article by Charlotte Raven. She writes:
“I’ve never been one for street parties as a form of political protest. They’re too much fun for the participants, who approach the day with the misconceived notion that they are its primary focus.”

Previously, she writes:

“The frustrated performance artists who latched on to political protests for their own egotistical ends were rightly consigned to the margins. Jugglers and fire-eaters knew their place… The unicycle brigade are now in charge of everything – from thinking up funny ha-ha acronyms for their activist cells, to mobilising fellow protesters to star in street theatre events.
‘It’s the ordinary people – those whose contempt for the system is neither a source of creative inspiration nor an excuse for wearing silly outfits – who are now on the periphery.”

Now, I actually took the trouble to write to the author at the time, upbraiding her for her uncomprehending views. Now I think she had a point…

Here’s a quote from Walter Benjamin – the German-Jewish aesthetic theorist – in 1929:

“Poetic politics? We have tried that beverage. Anything, rather than that!”

I like the jadedness of the quote. That is, these concerns have been around for a while – the coupling of art and activism, just as have people getting bored of it.

And we come to CIRCA, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army – speaking of “funny ha-ha acronyms”. Now some of these were involved with the Reclaim the Streets when they founded this, and they really got going at around 2005 at the G8 Summit in Scotland.

So when I first lay eyes on the Clowns, they were all doing their thing in sync and they were doing it on the Meadows in Edinburgh, which is quite a big park. It was not exactly a protest situation, but it certainly was a conflict situation. They were marching through the park, I thought it was kind of cool actually. They were all doing it in unison. The next time I saw them was on the front line, where there’s kind of a bit of a battle, with police trying to keep people off the road, other people trying to get on the road. They were there, with feather dusters, prancing about! Then I was really just filled with ambivalence, I was like, “Whose benefit are you doing that for?”. It’s all a bit weird.

I read something about the Tahrir protest in Cairo, which was that they’ve got this nexus of the people who are protesting are predominantly young, many of whom are university educated, and they don’t really have a social base. They can’t call on the support and involvement of most of the people in the industrial regions in the Nile delta, for example. Whereas the Muslim Brotherhood can, because they’re involved on a day to day basis fulfilling social needs. They’re involved in the lives of those who don’t have much money, who are a large part of Egypt. And in the case of those in Tahrir, they don’t have that sort of social involvement at all. They’re all kind of Twitter literate, people who are good at the internet, and relatively young, but they’re not most Egyptians. And for us I think, we’ve got the same issue.

So the question is: is a lot of what we’re doing basically cultural activity, which is pretending to be political activity? Is the cultural side of activism oversubscribed? Yes, it’s definitely oversubscribed! Likewise the intellectual side.

This is a quote from Thomas Frank, a political analyst, prompted by Occupy Wall Street.

“What kind of movement might actually succeed? A movement whose core values arise not from the need for protesters to find their own voice but rather from the everyday lives of working people.”

And then, the final nail in the coffin, he says,

“And it should absolutely not be called into existence out of a desire to re-enact an activist’s fantasy about Paris ‘68.”

Well – everyone, especially involved in Reclaim the Streets were keen on the mythology of 1968.

So is protest self-absorbed, or can it be really good? The thing is, this post-war tradition of protest – youth-dominated, nonclass aligned – is by and large an expressive activity. And if that need for self-expression finds a tactic to harness itself to – and preferably works with some base of people beyond the protest mileu – it can be fantastic.

I mean the road protest I showed you was brilliant. Yeah, you can read the symbolism in the protesters’ actions, but also tactically they were doing something very practical at the same time – and supporting a whole community being displaced. But without that practical focus, there’s a risk these movements become too excited by themselves, and solipsistic.

2 Responses to “Protest as performance, inspiring or indulgent?”

  1. Coney

    Pasted from old blog. Comment by Simon Cook, 20/12/13 at 08.54

    Thought-provoking and well written piece. Three immediate response:

    (1) Protest seems to be performance, by definition. That is what makes it a protest rather than a revolution. I might have misunderstood the point, but I do not see how the M41 street party was different from the clowns, apart from the fact that the symbolism was better orchestrated. (What exactly were RTS doing on the M41 that was ‘very practical’?)

    (2) Following on from that, it seems worth pointing out that your (very real) quandary goes back to Lenin as well as Benjamin. There always was a gap between the desired mass movement – the Russian revolution as spontaneous uprising of the proletariat – portrayed in Battleship Potemkin, and the Bolshevik understanding that revolutionary activity was a professional affair carried out by a handful of activists. Behind the avante-garde of Paris 1968 was the van-guard of Petrograd 1917.

    These two points lead me to wonder whether the question you ask: ‘can protest ever be good?’ remains nebulous when asked in a vacuum. Surely the value of protest can only be established relative to a stated aim. The real problem these days, or so it seems to me, is that the aims are too vague and diffuse. Without a plan, then protest must be self-absorbed.


    • Coney

      Response from Rich, pasted from old blog. 12/5/14 at 12.14


      regarding your first point. When I said at the end that those protesters were doing something practical, I was in fact referring back to a part of my talk, about the M11 protest in 1994 – squatting the condemned houses and occupying contruction sites to resist the road then being built. Unfortunately that initial part didn’t get transcribed here, so your confusion is understandable!

      I agree with your other points, though social separateness of an activist milieu from the broader public is, strictly speaking, distinct from self-indulgent “cultural” preoccupation, though of course the latter can flow from the former. For all they might not have been organically connected to the Russian proleteriat, as I understand it the Bolsheviks were quite practical, focused on strategy and indeed snotty about art etc.


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