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Mark Tribe, Port Huron Project: Angela Davis 1969/2008 Photo by Rick Bronson

Past Is (Was) Prologue in Dystopia Files

“Interactions between police and protestors” starting at the World Trade Organization meetings in 1999 is how artist Mark Tribe described his videos titled Dystopia Files, on mic. (Podcast archive here.)

Tribe personally shot some of what came to compose the Dystopia Files archive at the Battle in Seattle protests (World Trade organization, 1999). He observed to me during our interview the ways that the Battle changed how protest was policed.

In 2003, the “Miami model  arose to describe the Miami authorities’ desire not to be surprised by protesters at a subsequent trade talks protest held in that city. The Miami model launched a category of weaponry called “less than lethal weapons.”  These included paintball canisters filled with tear gas, and eventually, LRADs and long-range acoustic devices like sound cannons.

The  Miami model legally employed pre-emptive arrests, which became a tactic widely used and copied by police during the Occupy movement to remove protesters from streets that were, actually, geographically far from scenes of protest action, and specifically (as concerned Occupy) from Zanotti Park in Manhattan.

Mark Tribe artist and political actor came to observe that protest is performative. From 2006-09 he reprised public performances of historic/herstoric civil rights speeches by activists Stokely Carmichael (1967), Cesar Chavez (1971), Angela Davis (1969), Coretta Scott King (1968), Paul Potter (1965), and Howard Zinn (1971). All had represented New Left movements in the Vietnam War era.  The Port Huron Project was recorded between 2006 and 2009. Each speech took place at the site of the original event, and was delivered by an actor or performance artist to an audience of invited guests and passers-by.

As Brazilian theorists like Paulo Freire and theatre director Augusto Boal with Theatre of the Oppressed. had understood, performative actions  ― touching on formalisms of art even as they transected social change    do not have to take place on a theater stage.

Boal in 2005 described what happened in 1960s Brazil. Members of the public spontaneously took on performative roles in street drama. “The actor became the spectator of the spectator who had become an actor, so the fiction and reality were overlapping, no?,” he told Juan Gonzales on Democracy Now in 2005.

With the recent confluence of reprehensible events ricocheting from the killings of civilians by police to killings of police by civilians, comes a new widespread recognition of what power has been imparted by the small screen of smartphone cameras. For individuals, that small screen is an agent metaphorically as potent as new weaponry that is also changing the dialogue about lines between policing and warfare.

Writer Mary Curtis has decried the “compartmentalization of mourning.”

It is rare that there has felt so open an opportunity to discuss what role exactly the arts might contribute to discourse about images and politics in a time so fractured and fear-mongering as now. Video, to crib from Julia Scher speaking at the Tate Media in Transition conference, has addicted Americans to relentless and abject “appearances in screens.”

Tribe’s work remains highly relevant now because he was and gave rise to the term, a new media artist. Tribe who also founded the open-source arts website, Rhizome, observed about 20 minutes into our conversation,  “New media is a strange term, isn’t it.”  

Today to call something “new media” seems almost quaint. Yet the requirement to begin to parse new appearances on the surface of screens, is urgent. I can remember encountering the 2016 murder of Philando Castile in Minneapolis not long after revisiting this conversation with Mark Tribe.

In the aftermath of the murder of Philando Castile in Minneapolis, Diamond Reynolds told the BBC:  “I never thought things that I saw happen on TV were going to happen in my life.”

“We  [Philando Castile and she] were planning marriage. We were going to get a dog. We were going to have kids. We were going to move. I was going to get a better job. We were going to get up and get over, you know, the slums. Now I don’t know how I’m going to do those things without him.”

One of my friends with whom I was visiting at the time, had said, “All this police stuff.  Now, it’s become a body of work.”

The ethics are far from being sorted out.  It may be your screen but it’s our society, and the “it” of media appearances―chirrup you have a text, brring an appointment― is oddly and eternally disembodied, until what is being shown is a body or bodies in the process of being rendered lifeless. 

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