Performance artist Mark Tribe breathes new life into old politics.
By Carla Blumenkranz
Published Sep 14, 2008
In the Sunday sunshine after Tropical Storm Hanna, about a hundred
peoplemost of them in their twenties, backpacked and sandaledmilled
around the northern edge of Tudor City. There was a light police
presence nearby, and as the speaker came to the lectern, the audience
stood to attention. "Only the white powers of the West will deny that
this is a racist war," the speaker declared. He wore a crisp blue
shirt and spoke firmly into the microphone, but he didn't shout.
"When the colored peoples of the world look at that war, they see
just one thing. For them, the U.S. military represents international
white supremacy." Cameras snapped. A young woman pumped her fist
quickly. "Wow," someone said.
This was probably the most controversial major political speech
delivered the week of the Republican convention. It was also 41 years
old. Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael wrote and gave the speech
in 1967, speaking to a crowd of hundreds of thousands of peace
protesters gathered outside the U.N. The man who redelivered the
speech earlier this month was a well-rehearsed actor playing
Carmichael in a performance project by the artist Mark Tribe.
Carmichael was 25 when he gave his speech, and although he was known
as a powerful orator, he still must have been nervous: The speaker
directly before him had been Martin Luther King Jr., whose shadow had
hovered over Carmichael's early career as a younger, more radical
activist. Ato Essandoh, the actor who played Carmichael, was born at
the very moment that the New Left revolution was ending. Times have
changed, and yet they haven't. Now Essandoh stood shadowed by
history, at the center of a performance project that expressed the
still overwhelming influence of the New Left.
The son of liberal legal scholar Laurence Tribe, Mark Tribe has spent
the past two summers traveling the country enacting what he calls the
Port Huron Projecthis response to current politics through the
resurrection of a radical past. Tribe has staged performances of six
speeches, borrowing from New Left heroes like Carmichael, César
Chávez, and Angela Davis. He hires two actors to deliver each speech,
and when he finishes editing the video footage, he posts it to
MySpace, YouTube, and Blip.tv.
Tribe said he looks for speeches that made connections between
national and international affairs in ways that still resonate today.
(As Carmichael put it, the draft sent young black men to kill "people
of their own kind: poor and powerless.") But he's also trying to link
the fighting words of his parents' generation with today's more
connected, less outspoken political climate. "Are there online
equivalents to bodies in the street?" Tribe asks.
This may not be an outstanding time for political protestat least in
comparison with the tenor of Carmichael's timesbut it has certainly
been a good year for political art that historicizes it. In fact,
Tribe is one of many artists (including Jeremy Deller, Omer Fast, and
Allison Smith) currently producing work that resembles reenactments.
Earlier this year, P.S. 1 presented "That Was Then … This Is Now," a
group exhibition of political art inspired by the late sixties. And
the Port Huron Project is just one part of "Democracy in America: The
National Campaign," a larger production that curator Nato Thompson
calls a "counterconvention," in a nod to both this year's campaign
season and the legendary DNC demonstrations in Chicago 40 years ago.
It is striking how deeply enthralled Tribe and the entire Creative
Time project seem to be by the New Lefta time of "almost utopian
optimism," says Tribe, "that young people acting together could form
a broad coalition that could change the world." But in a way, it
wasn't just Carmichael's rhetoric that made the recent U.N.
performance rebellious. Tribe, who founded the Web art portal
Rhizome, is a strong believer in open-source culture, the free
sharing of existing information. (In an earlier work called
Revelation 2.0, he created abstract images by reducing the CNN
Website to bands of color and photographs.)
For the Port Huron Project, Tribe didn't ask for permission to use
all the speeches, despite the possibility that an estate might object
to their use. But he's confident in his decision both legally and
morally. "Access to our shared history is crucial for the functioning
of democracy," he says. "It makes a lot of sense to me for this
project not to lock these speeches down in any proprietary way, but
instead to make them available to anyone to appropriate or show or remix."
After having sponsored five "town-hall meetings" and
protest-performance art like Tribe's across the country, "Democracy
in America" culminates next week in a seven-day exhibition at the
Park Avenue Armory. The counterconvention will include work by more
than 40 artists, an ongoing lecture series, and tables for local
activist organizations. It's one of the largest undertakings in
Creative Time's 34-year history.
One way to understand "Democracy in America" is as an enormous effort
by artists to simulate a grassroots political movement, recycling
features of twentieth-century radicalism that now, paradoxically,
seem almost familiar. the Port Huron Project, however, suggests an
act of genuinely contemporary subversion. "I am fundamentally
interested," says Tribe, "in politics that question not only the
means but the very assumptions upon which our society governs."