Revolt! The Performative Aesthetics of Protest
By: Kathleen Ritter
Switch, The Power Plant, Toronto, spring 2009

They say revolutions turn out badly. But they’re constantly confusing two different things, they way revolutions turn out historically and people’s revolutionary becoming.[i]

Walking by the windows of the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver this winter, passersby were hailed by a line of banners with bold, punchy slogans. The banners called out what could be named the feminist maxims of the day: ‘Keep the IS in FEMINISM’, ‘I know my Kant inside and out’, ‘Women! We are not historical documents!’ and ‘Pheminism is Phat’. [ii] Smart, witty and serious, these lines were attached to no specific demonstration, but nonetheless spoke out with a sense of urgency.

The impetus for new feminist slogans came in response to two notable events in the city: the presence of the exhibition ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ at the Vancouver Art Gallery and an anecdote related in a keynote talk by the American artist and feminist Mary Kelly. Kelly described the uncanny sensation of seeing a sign for a recent anti-war protest that read: ‘Stop the war, have sex’, a mistranslated, estranged cousin of the 1968 mantra ‘Make love, not war’. What, she asked, resonates after the immediate political moment has subsided, and what is passed to the following generation?[iii]

Taking up this point of inquiry, the Contemporary Art Gallery asked artists and writers to create a new round of slogans to recapture what was perceived to be a lost political urgency from the 1960s and 1970s, inflecting Feminism back into a contemporary conversation.[iv] The resulting maxims, such as artist Martha Wilson’s ‘Pheminism is Phat’, assumed the imperatives of the slogan form, but transformed them into ones that were decidedly ironic, implicated and contradictory.

Like the ubiquitous pennants outside car lots that mark no particular celebratory event, the material forms of protest—slogans, placards, demonstrations, etc—have become floating signifiers, often disconnected from their corresponding events. This divide between dissent and its representation is perhaps indicative of a larger skepticism about the effectiveness of such activities from the outset. Writing in the wake of the events of 1968, French cultural historian Michel de Certeau asks, “if one does not expect a revolution to transform the laws of history, how is it possible to foil here and now the social hierarchization which organizes scientific work on popular cultures and repeats itself in that work?”[v] De Certeau’s question remains as current today as it was immediately following 1968, considering that the ability of public demonstration to effect political or social change in contemporary society remains questionable.[vi]

Forty years later, the historical and psychological legacy of the events of 1968 haunts the field of contemporary cultural production persistently, with references to it turning up continually in present day art, writing, conferences, exhibitions, and other forums. In the popular imagination, the events of 1968, a moment of global political unrest and revolt, represent a kind of exuberant idealism, a desire for change, and a belief in the possibility of freedom through political action. Why then, in the same moment when the effectiveness of revolution as a political act is most dubious, do we see the rise of its representation in the field of culture?

In a series of interviews published under the title Revolt, She Said, the Bulgarian-born, French philosopher Julia Kristeva draws out a number of distinctions between the terms ‘revolution’ and ‘revolt’. Kristeva notes that the legacy of the events of May 1968 rests not in the success or failure of the revolution, rather May 1968 represents the fundamental freedom to revolt,[vii] that is, it represents a freedom to call everything into question. This contestation is separate from the act of political revolution. As Kristeva states:

Today the word ‘revolt’ has become assimilated to Revolution, to political action. The events of the Twentieth Century, however, have shown us that political ‘revolts’—Revolutions—ultimately betray revolt, especially in the psychic sense of the term. Why? Because revolt—psychic revolt, analytic revolt, artistic revolt—refers to a state of permanent questioning, of transformation, change, an endless probing of appearances.[viii]

Thus Kristeva elaborates not the political, but the psychological impact of May 1968: the effect of the revolt within the private sphere, the liberation of social behaviour, of sexuality, and the impact in particular on women’s experience. Moreover, she identifies revolt with the sense of constant questioning; a questioning that characterizes both psychic life and art.[ix]

Where Kristeva makes the link between revolution and art, one can also see an impulse to enact revolutionary activities in the work of artists who borrow the visual and material signifiers of protest such as signs and posters, reenactments and restagings. It is not the actual effect of these signs on public life that resonates after the fact, but the form itself that leaves a perceptual imprint. If a defining trait of art is a lack of utility, then it is no surprise that artists are looking to the protest—as a form, a representation, an aesthetic—to appropriate for their own purposes.

There are notable examples of artists taking up the form of the protest in their work as, de Certeau suggests, a foil: Mary Kelly’s recent restagings of past demonstrations, Hadley+Maxwell’s series of student protest cum pop song posters, Sharon Hayes’ ongoing performance of historically-misplaced protest placards, and Althea Thauberger’s event that briefly claimed a street in a disputed neighbourhood.

Mary Kelly’s astute observation that the current generation has a particular fascination with the events around 1968 is the basis of her recent work. Flashing Nipple Remix (2005), for example, is based on a snapshot from Kelly’s own archive marking an event in her participation in the Women’s Liberation movement in London in the early 1970s. Three black-and-white backlit photographic transparencies show five women restaging a demonstration against the Miss World contest in 1971 outside London’s Royal Albert Hall at night. Lights were attached over their clothing to their breasts and crotches, mimicking the events inside the hall. The lights were set in motion by shaking their bodies with increasing vigor. The photographs registered the tracing effects of the moving light to such an extent that, in the final image, the light eventually obscures their bodies, erasing them from the image. The photographs stand as documentation of the restaging of the event.

As a companion piece, Kelly staged an intervention on the eve of Documenta 12 in a darkened Bergpark in Kassel. Kelly amassed one hundred young women and outfitted them in black clothing with the same strategically-placed lights. As ambient lights in the park were turned out, the flashing mass of women wound their way over the hillside, moved head-on towards the audience in an unbroken line, then formed choreographed patterns before disappearing into the crowd.[x] Unannounced, unscripted, and entirely temporal, the intervention captured the spirit of the original event, not as an artifact, but as a moment the audience experienced alongside the performers.

Flashing Nipple Remix was part of a larger installation, Love Songs (2005–7), shown in its entirety at Documenta 12, which included Sisterhood is POW, Multi-Story House and WLM Remix. In all works Kelly used light as a medium to render the psychological effects of the interaction between generations.

Kelly’s interest in  restaging events from the past, in collaboration with a younger generation of women, stems from the observation that those who were born around 1968 have “a peculiar fascination with its significance,” which Kelly describes, “not as nostalgia, but as a form of intuitive knowledge forged from the words, gestures or silences of familial interaction and decoded as parental desire.”[x] This, Kelly calls, the ‘political primal scene’: the idea that our identity is shaped by the imagined failures and aspirations of our parents. For Kelly’s generation, this would be World War II, whereas for the subsequent generation, it would be the events of 1968, and the perceived failure of the parents to enact the revolution, that creates a sense of lack. “The questions of origins, of where we come from, includes not only the family saga, but the grand narrative of social change, and for both, the answer revolves around something missing—a lack in the past that makes a claim on the present and the future.”[xii]

Kelly’s interest in the political events of the late 1960s and early 1970s is far from a nostalgic return or a lamentation on the failure of the past to effectively transform the present, but captures what Kristeva identifies as revolt—the imperative to continually call things into question.

This return to a ‘political primal scene’ is echoed in a poster project by the Berlin-based, Canadian artists, Hadley+Maxwell. Titled Silly Love Songs (2004), the series reprises the lyrics from Paul McCartney’s overly saccharine 1976 pop hit by the same name, arguably the Wings’ worst creation. Each poster illustrates a mawkish line from the song, yet by contrast the accompanying images are transplanted from the posters produced by the group Atelier Populaire during the student demonstrations in Paris in May 1968. Thus, the line ‘I love you’ is coupled with the image of a head, entirely bandaged and pinned over the mouth, rendering the figure speechless, while the image of a fist punching through a wall is paired with the line ‘would have had enough’, and the line ‘’cause here I go again’ captions the image of two figures on either side of a stretcher, carrying a third, lifeless body between them. The incongruity between image and text here is more disconcerting than the straightforward juxtaposition of forms implies, it fundamentally undermines the signifying potential of both. 1968—a year when everything happened, and 1976—a year when nothing much happened. McCartney’s vapid lyrics take on a sinister tone, while Atelier Populaire’s posters imagery becomes a caricature of its original intention.[xiii]

The seriousness with which the original posters were made as a political action rather than an aesthetic one are underlined in Atelier Populaire’s manifesto, which described the posters as “weapons in the service of the struggle”[xiv] and inseparable from it. Hadley+Maxwell work against the group’s idealistic directives, which explicitly state that, “to use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect.”[xv] To assume that the aesthetic resonance of such posters would in fact impair rather than render an effect seems dated now when we consider that the event and its representation are far more entwined than separate. Indeed, as Kelly would suggest, those images and slogans that were emblazoned on the buildings of Paris left a trace in the archive of the unconscious that reappears in the present as the lost object.

In a similar investigation into the afterimage of acts of protest, the work of the American artist Sharon Hayes examines the intersection of politics, history, speech and desire. Hayes’ ongoing project In the Near Future stages a number of anachronistic and/or speculative actions that take up the particular form of the street demonstration and capture the aesthetic resonance of political protest. Begun over nine days in November 2005, Hayes stood in the streets of New York City in different locations each day for an hour, with handmade placards brandishing varied slogans. While the majority of the slogans were drawn from historical demonstrations in America, such as ‘Ratify the ERA Now’ or ‘Who approved the Vietnam War’, others, such as ‘Nothing will be as before’ and ‘Actions speak louder than words’, were more oblique. Presented at The Power Plant as an installation on several slide projectors, a now outdated technology, the grainy images appeared as if they were from a different time and read for a moment as authentically dated. Standing as if unfazed by her surroundings, Hayes presents not an image of an act of dissent, but rather alludes to the form itself, and the performative nature of public action.

“I’ve started to think of myself almost as a placeholder,” Hayes says of In the Near Future. “I’m holding the place of a kind of address that had meaning and resonance and impact at a certain moment in time. And I’m thinking about the possibility that that resonance and impact could be present at a future time.”[xvi] Despite the fact that the statements are misplaced in time, they still oddly resonate in a contemporary moment.

The historical counterpart for Hayes’ performances of public protest would be Daniel Buren’s actions of the late 1960s and early 1970s where he staged a number of indirect actions that used the form of the placard, but robbed it of text. In particular, Buren’s street action by men carrying sandwich boards of equal white and coloured stripes in the streets of Paris on April 27, 1968, an action accompanied by striped billboards in over 200 locations throughout Paris, was a timely precursor to the subsequent events.[xvii] By way of contrast, his signs were the very opposite of those found in the streets of Paris a month later, his actions alluding to the aesthetics of the form itself.

In contrast to Buren, whose actions worked against the overproduction of polemical text in the public sphere, Hayes’ performances forty years later speak to the very lack of efficacy of explicit public displays of protest and dissent.

Vancouver-based artist Althea Thauberger’s site-specific event, Carrall Street(2008), took up the form of the event itself as a protest. The 200 block of Carrall Street, where the event took place, is one of the oldest streets in Vancouver. It sits on the cusp of extreme gentrification and equally extreme decay, flanked by the tourist strip of Historic Gastown on one side and the impoverished Downtown Eastside on the other. Thauberger worked in collaboration with members of various communities from the neighbourhood over a year, leaving much of the content, acting, and the performance in their hands. On her part, she started with a seemingly simple, formal gesture: lighting the street as if for a film shoot, essentially transforming it into a set.

With actors and audiences members indistinguishable, people conducted surveys, made small talk, handed out business cards, begged for change, danced in the streets, and called out from windows. While the majority of the event had no central focus—audience, actors, and passersby alike were implicated in the decentralized choreography of seemingly random acts—there was one moment that polarized the performance. A young man stepped up onto a milk crate and delivered an historical political speech based on the transcripts from the free speech riots that took place on that exact location in 1908 and 1912. While it became obvious that the content of this act of project was historically misplaced and had little direct relationship to current issues, the form of the protest and the performance enacted a resistance that continued to resonate.

This constellation of performances, some staged, others real, went on until late that evening when the lights were shut off and the street returned to its usual sequence of events that were, in many ways, not dissimilar to what just passed, tapping into an important aspect of the experience of the street; an inherent performativity.

If these disparate events can be grouped together by any commonalities, then it can be said that the work of Kelly, Hadley+Maxwell, Hayes and Thauberger, reveals an interest, not necessarily in the content of the protest, but in the revolutionary potential of the form itself. The curiously anachronistic character of these projects likewise demonstrates an interest in the restaging of certain events as performative markers of the past reappearing in the present. In particular, the representation of protest as an aesthetic mode of resistance is consistent with Kelly’s idea of artistic practice, as not an end, but as an encounter with the question.[xviii] Here, artmaking is characterized by a mode of inquiry, not unlike the state of permanent questioning in Kristeva’s distinction between the terms ‘revolt’ and ‘revolution’. Kristeva states:

In light of the betrayal of revolt in Revolution, I wanted to rehabilitate the microscopic sense of the word, its etymological and literary sense in which the root ‘vel’ means unveiling, returning, discovering, starting over. This is the permanent questioning that characterizes psychic life and, at least in the best of cases, art.[xix]

Following this logic, perhaps every year since 1968 is a year in which the ‘revolution’ fails to happen, but ‘revolt’ is still necessary. Kristeva directly ties the questioning indicative of revolt to art, confirming the political and theoretical imperative of art to challenge what has come before. If art itself is a mode of resistance, characterized by a constant questioning, then it has more in common with revolt than serving merely as its representative.

Kathleen Ritter is an artist and writer based in Vancouver. She is currently Assistant Curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

[i] Gilles Deleuze. Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin, Columbia University Press, New York, 1990, p.171.

[ii] ‘Keep the IS in FEMINISM’ (Jeanne Randolph), ‘I know my Kant inside and out’ (Hadley+Maxwell), ‘Women! We are not historical documents!’ (Kate Davis) and ‘Pheminism is Phat’ (Martha Wilson). Part of the project ‘Keep the IS in FEMINISM: New Feminist Slogans’ with Kate Davis, Dave Dyment, Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, Hadley+Maxwell, FASTWÜRMS, Randy Lee Cutler, Kelly Mark, Micah Lexier, Myfanwy MacLeod, Isabelle Pauwels, Kristina Lee Podesva, Jeanne Randolph, Kathleen Ritter, Martha Wilson and Elizabeth Zvonar. Curated by Jenifer Papararo for the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, from 21 November 2008–18 January 2009.

[iii] Mary Kelly, ‘On Fidelity—Art, Politics, Passion and Event,’ artist talk as part of the Distinguished Visiting Artist Program, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 6 October 2008.

[iv] Jenifer Papararo, email correspondence with the author, 6 October 2008.

[v] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1, trans. Steven Rendall, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1984, p.25.

[vi] Consider the failure of massive worldwide demonstrations in 2003, some of the largest public demonstrations in history, to prevent the US-led war in Iraq. According to the French academic Dominique Reynié, 36 million people across the globe took part in almost 3,000 protests against the Iraq war between 3 January and 12 April 2003.

[vii] Julia Kristeva, Revolt, She Said, trans. Brian O’Keeffe, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, Semiotexte, Los Angeles, 2002, p.12.

[viii] Ibid., p.120.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] See event description at documenta12.de/index.php?id=1024&L=1.

[xi] Kelly, ‘On Fidelity.’

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] On another level, the sincerity with which Hadley+Maxwell juxtapose pop lyrics about love with revolutionary posters indicates a more serious inquiry; a desire to revert both forms to another function. Their posters reveal an attempt to (un)represent love, to insert a radical question of love into the political, or to suggest a love that is at the root of revolt. The artists ask, “Can we return the loving to revolt? Or the revolting to love?” Hadley+Maxwell, email correspondence with the artists, 27 April 2009.

[xiv] Statement by Atelier Populaire, Paris, 1968.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Morgan Falconer, ‘Sharon Hayes: The Placeholder for Love and Politics,’ db-artmag 51, October 2008, deutsche-bank-kunst.com/dbartmag/en/51.

[xvii] See reference to Buren’s Proposition Didactique (1968) in Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1973, p.45.

[xviii] Kelly, ‘On Fidelity.’

[xix] Kristeva, Revolt, She Said, p.120.