Continuing our Play Pen series in which we invite our community to reflect on the role of artistic expression in times of disunity and conflict, our artistic intern shared her thoughts on the idea of protest as performance. Isabel Hellman is sophomore at Columbia University studying Human Rights with a specialization in theatre. Read her thoughts below:
Marches snaking down city blocks, standing in solidarity, or sitting in silence may not be the typical image called to mind when thinking of a theatrical event; however, protests can be a kind of performance. In any protest there are costumes, props, and a predetermined script. Most importantly, protests are acts that demand spectators.
Consider the recent Women’s Marches that took place on January 21st, in 673 different locations, in order to, “send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights” (“Mission & Vision”). At these marches, protesters were uniformly costumed in pink knit hats, yielding their props of signs and megaphones, and chanting their assigned lines. All of these actions were directed at a specific audience, the new administration and its supporters.
While these types of performances don’t have a typical plot structure, they do attempt to construct a narrative that evokes an emotional response. These narratives are often structured around the collective identity of the oppressed. As opposed to other forms of art, the main storyteller in these acts is the human body. Marcella A. Fuentes, assistant professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, states in her article “Performance, Politics, and Protest” that, “Contemporary protests rely heavily on symbolic elements and uses of the body to communicate claims across borders and languages. Anchored in the society of the spectacle, demonstrators put in practice a variety of communicative styles and mobilizing techniques that include strategic uses of non-linguistic, embodied actions as statement” (Fuentes, “Performance, Politics, and Protest”). By using live beings as the primary narrative elements, protests are able to elicit more immediate and tangible empathy.
Protests evoke components of the performance type known as “Happenings”. Happenings are deliberate, temporary events that combine a variety of performative elements in a nontraditional space that somehow utilize the viewer as a chance component. This type of performance was established in the early 20th century by the Futurists and Dadaists in an effort to restructure the definition of “art”. While happenings vary across structure and cause, their main purpose is to create a closer relationship between art and life. By bringing theatre and performative elements “to the street”, protests are fulfilling a similar goal of creating a more “living” artistic event.
Happenings have often been used as a form of protest, such as The Orange Alternative that emerged in the 1980s as a response to the Polish authoritarian regime. This group used theatrical elements and humor to undermine the government powers. One happening consisted of the group running around the street wearing “galloping inflation” t-shirts. When they were arrested by the police, they thanked them for finally ending “galloping inflation.” Rather than resisting the police force, they embraced it as part of the theatrical narrative.
With this use of performativity to aid political protests, it is important to ask how effective these methods are at achieving their intended goal. An important aspect that separates protests from traditional theater is that the desired audience is not always is in the same space as the performance, which limits modes of direct communication. While this is true, protests still create an important space for the exchange of ideas that can be equally as effective as more traditional methods of communication.
Ultimately, bringing performative elements to protests makes the vital contribution of bringing emotion into an argument. This allows individuals to connect to a message on a more visceral and human level, which should always be the goal of both art and politics.
In my own experience protesting, I felt as if I had put on a character that was outside of myself. I was no longer a powerless individual but had taken on part of a collective identity that had immense power. While the protest itself many not have created any tangible change, the fact that my body could be used as a symbol of resistance gave me the inspiration I needed to keep working.
Fuentes, Marcela A. “Performance, Politics, and Protest.” What is Performance Studies?, edited by Diana Taylor and Marcos Steuernagel, Duke University Press in collaboration with Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at New York University and HemiPress, 2015.
“Mission & Vision.” Women’s March on Washington, https://www.womensmarch.com/mission/.