MANIFEST! Choreographing Social Movements in the Americas

Organization: Hemispheric Institute Encuentro
Project:

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by cheyanne turions

Whether you experienced the 2012 Quebec student strikes as a protester or an observer, as a sympathizer or incredulous bystander, the demonstrations continue to resonate throughout Montréal.[1] Red felt squares still adorn the backpacks and lapels of some activists, and police presence regularly outweighs citizens who gather in public places to voice dissent. These cultural tensions were the background against which the biennale event Encuentro was staged, an itinerant conference and performance festival concerned with the intersections of art and politics. Hosted by Concordia University in Montréal, this was the first time the event had been staged in Canada and it represented a confluence of recent history with academic theorizing.

In addition to a week of lectures, working groups, teach-ins, performances, discussions, urban interventions, and workshops staged exclusively for registered participants, there were also theatre performances, film screenings, and exhibitions mounted as public programming.[2] At Concordia’s Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, an exhibition took the name of the 9th iteration of the conference: Manifest! Choreographing Social Movements in the Americas. Unfolding across three distinct installations, the exhibition responded to the questions which grounded the 2014 edition of Enceuntro: “How are performances mobilized and syncretized in civic, community, and cultural contexts to create manifold forms of political expression? How do public, theatrical events produce ‘evidence’ that manifests ideas otherwise invisible, hidden, or unspeakable? What new manifestations, manifestos, festivals, and manifs emerge via our changing visions of political spaces, intellectual arenas, and the everyday street?”[3]

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Photo Credit: Zapantera Negra (2012-2014), Emory Douglas, Mia Eve Rollow, and Saul Kak, installation view.

Zapantera Negra—a presentation of the Zapatista/Black Panther project by Emory Douglas, Mia Eve Rollow, and Saul Kak—is the result of a series of meetings between Emory, the former Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party, and Indigenous activists from Chiapas, Mexico. Staged between 2012-2014, these meetings between Emory, and Zapatista  painters and embroidery collectives resulted in a slew of textile and visual works that are housed within a large canvas tent within the gallery. The Zapatista’s signature red star and the Black Panther’s prowling emblem sit boldly above the tent’s opening, their imagery juxtaposed rather than amalgamated. Inside—the floor covered in pine needles—the two histories entwine. In Emory’s signature style, one poster depicts a figure holding a large gun; remade as a painting on canvas, the gun is replaced by a stock of corn. The pulse of revolution emanated from the array of visual materials and it was clear that social change requires some sort of representation around which action can coalesce. As much as the Black Panthers or Zapatistas have affected the tone and content of political discourse in North America, they could not have done so without these aestheticized tools. When the materials of art are utilized to imagine other worlds, these visions take a hold as possible realities.

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Photo credit: Manifestroom (2014), Zavé Martohardjono and Lilian Mengesha, installation view.

In Manifestroom by Zavé Martohardjono and Lilian Mengesha a panoply of these visions are articulated as calls to action, as incendiary screeds meant to incite enlightened forms of collectivity. Within makeshift huts constructed of long sheets of fabric, iconic manifestos were gathered in piles: from Zoe Leonard’s 1992 articulation of the kind of radical president she wants, to Julian Assange’s 2010 Wikileaks manifesto, to Rebecca Morris’s 2011 Manifesto for Abstractionists and friends of the non-objective, and Idle No More’s 2012 statement of beliefs. In the centre of the room, typewriters fueled with scrolls of brown paper were available for visitors to craft their own proclamations about what kind of world they want, and to give it shape through language. The variety of futures imagined, despite their sometimes concurrent expression, often had very little to say to one another. This fact was made clear when perusing the visions of possible futures that spilled out of the typewriters. My visit to the gallery, on the last day of the exhibition, coincided with an activation of these visions: the collection was read aloud in its entirety, by the artists and others who had gathered to bear witness. The possibilities for persuasion and discourse were ripe, if only as the need to address what role these radical texts play in actual revolution.

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Photo credit: The Library of Performing Rights (2014), Lois Weaver in collaboration with the Live Art Development Agency, installation view.

The third project, The Library of Performing Rights, was created by Lois Weaver in collaboration with the Live Art Development Agency and presented in Montréal with the collaboration of Jo Palmer, designer, and Joanna Donehower, dramaturge. Unlike the other installations, The Library of Performing Rights ceded aestheticization for utility: it was a messy place to get work done, first and foremost. Having come from Europe to North America, this collection of documents is meant to be mined and expanded upon, drawing linkages between performance and human rights. All types of ephemera had been produced for the library, first elsewhere and now in Montréal, including tablecloth graffiti and handmade posters, collecting traces of the city as it simultaneously provided an archive of human rights activism from abroad. The library also facilitated a busy schedule of discursive events. While I was there, it hosted a conversation about disability rights in the form of a Long Table conversation, a format that Weaver has developed where the intimate conversations of dinner parties are staged as public debate. Subject to a set of rules that outline the frame of participation,[4] the conversation was as much an opportunity to process the proceedings of the conference as it was a chance to share stories about the (in)accessibility of Montréal. From these specific examples, strategies for more adequately addressing accessibility were pondered, ranging from concerns about increasing accessibility without acting as colonizers, to using asset mapping as a way to understand what kind of partnerships need to be sought in the lead up to major events such as Encuentro.

Collectively, these different projects propose that social change unfolds at four scales: at the level of the individual, who identifies with a particular social movement, which is made more robust through its engagement with other social movements, in order to shape the society within which all these other players are formed, housed, and rebel. Against the conceit of activation where galleries offer resource centres that sit empty, Manifest! seemed to get something right: people actually wanted to be a part of these projects. A wealth of ephemera contributed to the Manifestroom and The Library of Performing Rights was testament to this, as were the many bodies in the space for the discussions and performances.[5] A collaborator of Douglas’s on the Zapantera Negra project, the artist Rigo 23, said of the struggle for civil rights, that “this is about globalization in the people’s sense of the word...humanity can be globalized—solidarity and making ties between two peoples’ struggles in spite of language and political barriers. That is our globalization.”[6] A recent history of protest in Montréal connects to anti-neoliberal demonstrations across the globe, and through Encuentro, one type of interconnection is fostered (academic, performative). Although this conference and exhibition demonstrate the resonance of these movements from across the Americas, it is unclear what will remain as the heritage of Manifest! for the people on the streets of Montréal. What shape shall globalization take there, given local and global activist histories, given a plurality of ideals, given what we can learn from each other near and far?

 

Featured image: Manifestroom (2014), Zavé Martohardjono and Lilian Mengesha, installation detail.

 

[1] I speak from personal experience, which is Montreal specific, though I imagine that the student strike continues to resonate throughout the province.

[2] The vast majority of events were open only to delegates and registration to the conference was not cheap. Most advertising I encountered was through academic channels. For an event concerned with social movements, this occlusion of the public (either poor or not in the know) is unfortunate.

[3] “MANIFEST! Choreographing Social Movements in the Americas,” Hemispheric Institute, accessed 13 July 2015, http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/enc14/enc14.

[4] “The Long Table Etiquette Guide,” published by Andy Horwitz, Sribd., accessed 14 July 2014, http://www.scribd.com/doc/213668630/The-Long-Table-Etiquette-Guide.

[5] The Zapentera Negra project was not activated in the same way. According to the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery website, the only event attached to this project was an off-site lecture. Given a history of radical black activism in 1960s Montréal, and at Concordia specifically (then Sir George Williams University), it seems a missed opportunity to not activate the Zapentera Negra project within the inheritance of the parallel political actions of the city. David Austin’s Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Sexuality in Sixties Montreal (2013) is a fantastic chronicle of these events.

[6] “Black Panthers and Zapatistas color in the lines that divide them,” Zoë Clara Dutka, El Tecolote, accessed 14 July 2014, http://eltecolote.org/content/black-panthers-and-zapatistas-color-in-lines-that-divide-them/2013/03/01/.

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