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The poignance of protest at Marginal Utility


No surprise that the show “Five Acts: Chronicles of Dissent” is mostly an audio/video show. With their roots in radio, tv and film, documentary-type media like audio and video (and photography and first person accounts, too) are the best way to chronicle humans acting out their anger and defiance on issues that concern them.

Naeem Mohaiemen Live True Life or Die Trying, 2009
photographs with paired text (21 pairs)

The PEI-supported exhibit at Marginal Utility, curated by Yael Amir, features five artists whose works either document or re-enact moments of dissent or political engagement. The nicely-installed show has some high points — with the most interesting being works with some emotional presence like Sharon Hayes’ audio work which conflates lost love with dashed political expectations and Naeem Mohaiemen‘s photo and text wall, “Live True Life or Die Trying” in which the artist describes his feelings about the political strife in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and his sadness at the impotence of a University student protest in light of a forceful protest (the same day) led by Islamic groups.

Mark Tribe: Projection Let Another World Be Born: Stokely Carmichael, 1967/2008
5 min HD video based on an 18 minute speech

Mark Tribe‘s “Port Huron Project” re-enactments of seminal speeches of political activism from the Vietnam War era (speeches by Stokley Carmichael, Angela Davis Cesar Chavez and others) call into question the timeliness and timelessness of activist speech. Are all speeches of dissent the same speech? Seeing the reenactments, staged with actors or performance artists giving the speeches and with a staged contemporary audience of seemingly disinterested and uninvolved people is enough to make you question how fleeting the impact of even heated rhetoric.

Sharon Hayes I March in the Parade of Liberty But As Long As I Love You I’m Not Free, 2007/8
Audio installation; spray paint on paper, 20×24″



Sharon Hayes’ “I March in the Parade of History,” an audio piece with a spray painted word poster component, humbly nestles into a little corner where you have to cozy up to the speaker to hear the words–it’s worth it. Listen to the words at her website …it’s a monolog of love, heartbreak and protest that she spoke live on the street corners of Manhattan — with the aid of a bullhorn.  The artist’s quavering voice weaves together seamlessly the tale of lost lost love and unaccomplished political mission.  It’s a poignant and potent message making the political personal, which it always is.

Andrea Bowers Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Training-Tree Sitting Forest Defense, 2009
Single channel video with color
and sound, apple tv and platform produced and directed by Andrea Bowers. 33.50 min.

Less poignant is Andrea Bowers‘ tree-sitting video from 2009, which shows the artist learning how to safely sit in a tree for a prolonged period of time. The video is installed near the gallery ceiling on a wood pallet with words on the bottom that say “SHUT DOWN TAR SANDS” (whatever that slogan means, it’s surely words of protest).  Perhaps the pallet is the one Bowers sat on when she was tree sitting in 2011 when she was arrested along with other activists who were protesting the destruction of a grove of oak trees.


Yael Bartana‘s two-channel video projection “Wild Seed” shows a group of young Israelis play a Twister-like limb-entanglement game on a mountaintop in Israel. The kids struggle happily, gleefully to extract themselves from the fleshy knot. The filmmaker’s utopian allegory for the messy entanglement of Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories is undercut by the mountaintop loveliness and the innocence of the young people, both of which are impossibly lovely stand-ins for the sometimes deadly truth of the occupied territories.

This is a show that can make you sad.  It’s not that the idea of protest movements is sad, but the thought that the battle is an uphill fight, noble perhaps, but not particularly winnable.

More from the Vox building coming up…