Friday, September 19, 2008

Steve Kurtz: Tactical Art

Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble spoke at Berkeley last night, and it was a very interesting, engaging lecture titled "Art and Discipline." If you have the opportunity to see Kurtz deliver this lecture, I highly recommend doing so.

Kurtz only briefly mentioned his four year ordeal with the Department of Justice (this is also a good article about it), and only as a single exemplar of his overall thesis that the role of art is to push back against the social mechanisms of what he's termed "expression management."

Expression management is the Foucaultian "discipline" in the talk's title, and includes not only the obvious external forces such as censorship and persecution, but also the more subtle external and internal "microfascisms" of socially emergent behavior stimulated by mass inculcation of accepted "dos" and "do-nots" that leads to self-censorship and autogenous persecution.

Kurtz gives interesting examples such as a harmless performance art prank designed to attract the local constabulary: a grown man playing with Hot Wheels and Green Army Men and listening to a boom box with relevant sounds. Doing this in any tourist or commercial district never failed to attract the Police within five minutes, but at Daytona Beach led to outrage amongst citizens that the Police were planning to arrest the guy that CAE had to terminate the performance before someone assaulted an officer.

To me, that was the most successful instance of that series of performances in that it caused average people to realize, without any propaganda or guidance from the CAE performer (who remained silent), that the power of the Police to arrest someone for being inoffensive (but abnormal) is both absurd and dangerous. It was heartening that the polity responded to the persecution of someone on the grounds of harmless "weirdness" with outrage rather than approval.

He went on to describe the results of some of CAE's more deliberately provocative projects, including inadvertently causing Halifax Police to believe it was under terrorist attack by placing digital readouts on the ferries which apologized for the raw sewage in the harbor as part of the Halifax Begs Your Pardon project.

The most interesting example he gave, however, was the response of the city of Leipzig to the Marching Plague performance. Kurtz uses this experience as an example of both autogenous persecution and the possibility of a different social response to threat than the one prevalent in the U.S.

In staging this mock bioweapon release in front of the U.S. Embassy, what Kurtz found was that his own internal microfascisms were causing him to attempt to derail his own project by listing things he was sure they wouldn't be allowed to do: march and then assemble in front of the embassy, then use a city tower to release the smoke with the (harmless) biological sample in it, and then bring skin samples from the participants to a lab for testing.

What he found instead was that the Leipzigers, despite Germany's decades longer ordeal with terrorism (from not just Islamists, but also neo-Nazis and Communists), were quite willing to support the project. When the sponsoring Leipzig arts institution asked, the city gave them use of the tower, and permission to march to and in-front of the embassy, with no fuss. The biological laboratory in the city was equally obliging.

Certainly nobody sane would say Europe is some kind of utopia, but the interesting thing is that the Leipzig response to these "threats" is more sensible than even Kurtz' own internalized initial responses. By being rational and using sensible metrics for threat assessment, the Leipzigers correctly judged that this was a free-speech performance, not a security threat, and responded accordingly. The Leipzigers figured out what Kurtz pointed out to the audience: terrorism is real, but statistically uncommon. Most people, even the socially provocative ones, are not terrorists.

Here in the U.S., we rely on security theater, and over-response, such as erroneously clamping-down on photography. I myself have been literally run out of town in Rodeo, CA, with a Police cruiser less than 5 feet from my bumper, for taking photos of the local refinery. Yet, construction permit filing requirements mean that blueprints of the facility, much more useful to an actual terrorist, are likely publicly available (though perhaps not fully up-to-date).

These responses aren't just ineffective, they are very dangerous to core freedoms such as those of expression, inquiry, association, and privacy. Kurtz' work asks people to consider this, and to do what little they can do at an individual level to find a way to preserve freedom in the face of expression management both internal and external.