June 19, 2007 · 4 Comments
Post by Emily Regier
First, it was my roommate’s ironing board, which buckled under the strain of the vigorous pressing I exacted upon my first-day-of-work-suit. Next, one of my underwires mysteriously loosed itself in our washer, arresting the machine at mid-cycle for days. And then there was the curiously shaped behemoth of a sculpture I collided with in our living room, which, as it turns out, was welded by her mother… As I troll Craigslist for a new place to live, I’m thinking the sculpture was the breaking point, so to speak.
Of course, beyond the sculpture et al, an array of lifestyle discrepancies contributed to our split. But still, I couldn’t help but think of us and that sculpture as I sat in the crowded back room of the Temple Gallery’s “Manybody” exhibit, listening to Erik Reuland and Josh MacPhee present on their latest book, Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority. This is because Reuland and MacPhee espoused such a remarkably different experience of the interface of art and shared living, referring to communities of activists around the world who have come together to create radical, interventionist artwork aimed at transforming daily life and creating a more just society. Discussing a rich sampling of the bold, life-changing art covered in their book, they laid out examples from an Indonesian printmaking collective who caught and released a whole city’s supply of matchbooks, emblazoning them with anti-globalization messages, to the performance art of an army of Danish Santa Clauses who swarmed the department stores in downtown Copenhagen at Christmastime, handing out wares right off the shelves as if they were free gifts.
Other art activist teams the authors featured, such as the group who rolled a gigantic ball of trash down the prime real estate of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, were more directly concerned with rupturing popular consciousness and subverting societal expectations than overturning economic systems. In this vein, radical filmmaker Dara Greenwald screened a set of her short films after the book presentation. Probably most of the audience will remember her hilarious Pornomentary of Uncle Sam, which culminates in a priceless parody of the confluence of patriotism and patriarchy in American culture: Two women, who both dress as and fantasize about Uncle Sam, fellate each others’ Uncle Sam candlestick phalluses before igniting them. However, while this image has certainly stuck in my mind, it is a scene from one of Greenwald’s drier pieces that has sustained my attention.
The film is a sympathetic documentary on the autonomous compounds of squatters who occupy Barcelona’s abandoned buildings, and the scene is an infamous squatting stronghold in the heart of the tourist district, proudly displaying a banner imploring “WHY CALL IT TOURIST SEASON IF WE CANT SHOOT THEM?” Beyond the fact that this message disparages the tourists who support Barcelona’s plethora of cultural attractions, many of which cultural critics such as Greenwald, not to mention the Barcelona natives who painted this sign, doubtlessly value, I was miffed by the valorization of this message as radical, interventionist art. Thinking about the “Manybody” exhibit after the show, I began to formulate my qualms with Reuland and MacPhee’s “radical, interventionist” art in general, although I’m not all too convinced that much of the genre is either of those. While full of shock value, it seems a little too caught up in itself to make a significant difference in our shared daily existence.
Content related complaints aside, “WHY CALL IT TOURIST SEASON IF WE CANT SHOOT THEM?” may sound somewhat “radical,” but it is probably about as “interventionist” as the “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL” Project, a massive assemblage of these words along the side of the road at 2nd and Spring Garden, which the “Manybody” exhibit is billing as a groundbreaking interventionist installation. But just as being confronted with this message on a bad hair day on the way home from the doctor’s office, where it has been confirmed you’ve gained 12 pounds, is not likely to make your typical Philadelphian feel beautiful, the squatters’ anti-tourist message likely stands out to Barcelona’s ever-growing tourist population as little more than a curiosity.
And speaking of large-scale curiosities, and interventionist art, if I might use the term in this way, I finally got my roommate’s sculpture fixed – to make a long story short, transporting a jagged and imposing steel fixture across town without a car is not easy. At any rate, I suppose no one will be too shocked to hear that as far as our shared living arrangement is concerned, it didn’t make much difference.
–Emily Regier is an editor living in Philadelphia.