Marcus Civin REPORT
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INCIDENT No. 95: Marcus Civin,

Report by Craig J. Peariso


The late-sixties radical tricksters who called themselves the Yippies – the first group I know of to “threaten” the levitation of a building – hold a special place in the hearts of those interested in progressive grassroots activism. I’ve written and lectured on them in a number of venues (admittedly mostly academic) and I’m often asked whether I think another group like them will emerge in the near future. Will anyone have their chutzpah, their willingness to blend absurdity and boisterousness, their talent for attracting media attention and irritating those in power? It’s funny, really. I’ve spoken on the Black Panthers on a number of occasions, to similar audiences, and no one ever asks if I think we’ll see an organization take up their legacy.[1] Race is obviously one consideration when making sense of these queries and/or their lack. The average American is undoubtedly more comfortable with the thought of white tricksters than that of black men and women confronting the police with guns. But what we miss when focusing on the Yippies rather than the Panthers is the fact that both of their chosen modes of resistance unfolded as images, public relations campaigns designed more to rile the viewing public than to achieve a “win,” whatever that might have meant, in the immediate confrontation.

Perhaps this, just as much as the specter of racial violence, is just what we’re hoping to avoid, as lumping the two groups together engenders its own discomfort. It’s one thing to talk about the Yippies as media manipulators and hope that we’ll see someone take up that baton in the near future, but the Panthers, particularly when one focuses on their later work with things like the Breakfast for Children program, seem far more serious. Placing them alongside the Yippies to talk about the theatricality of “direct action” often elicits a predictable response: “You’re trivializing what these men and women did, stripping their actions and words of any real significance.” To talk about the Panthers, one of the more recognizable organizations in recent grassroots activism, as a kind of play-acting, seems, to many, to eliminate any possibility of acknowledging the political import of the group’s actions.

I can imagine hearing something similar after a performance that enacts the “people’s microphone” in an art gallery. It’s a response that is easy enough to understand. Art and politics, after all, appear instinctively opposed. Anyone who has ever been to an art gallery can tell you that those spaces – sterile, white, filled with expensive objects and the patrons who can afford them (or whose work serves those who can afford them) – feel like the antithesis of active political intervention. That feeling isn’t accidental. The world of “serious” art has existed as a realm purportedly unsullied by the demands and exigencies of contemporary politics since the nineteenth century. Certainly, there have been any number of modern and contemporary artists whose work has displayed a profound political commitment, but there is also an undeniable compromise that they make when choosing to work as artists. Indeed, it is precisely that compromise that has enabled them to speak so openly, so unflinchingly, about sensitive political topics. For this reason, the otherwise lazy riposte, “…but if they were really serious about ______, why did they spend their time painting, etc.?” offers a grain of truth and an ideological mystification at the same time.

Making art seems like the “easy way out” only insofar as we fail to recognize the profound difficulty of “really doing something.” The historical/political bind I’m talking about may indeed be the burden of everyone choosing to work in the arts, but the choice between activism and art is hardly as simple as one might initially assume. To me, that difficulty is exactly what Marcus Civin’s work appears to be getting at. And what makes this particular intervention worthwhile is that, rather than attempting to tell us once more that art can in fact be political, his various calls and responses, transformed from megaphone shouts to emphatically doubled lines of text, draw our attention to the ways in which grassroots activism itself has, and does, function/ed as an aesthetic practice. These short statements, some as absurd as the Yippies’, others as pointed as the pronouncements of Occupy, remind us of the verbal and visual rhetoric of activism – from the outrageous to the seemingly purely utilitarian. Joining the absurd and the practical, calls to levitate buildings and the people’s microphone, reminds us that, no matter how “serious” or “authentic” an action might seem, it still obeys a discernible formal logic. Rather than lamenting the indirect approach of artistic politics, this work appears to ask us to reflect on whether the language of “direct action” even makes sense.

Likewise, the Yippies, for me, aren’t simply the group we should look to as we long for an activism that seems fun. They were fun, of course; that was one of their goals. After all, people were, and are, far more likely to get involved in something if it didn’t/doesn’t appear to be drudgery. (There are some, to be sure, who have been and will be inspired by plodding marches and stock chants, but I suspect their numbers are relatively few.) Yet, beyond the practical considerations of movement building – in which, as any experienced activist will attest, the fun must always be balanced with nuts-and-bolts questions of organization, etc. – lie the thornier questions the Yippies, the Panthers, and others like them raised about the forms of politics and their historical constraints. What does it look like to “really do something”? Why does it look that way? What does it mean when we talk about “action” in this age of mass, electronic media? Can we really separate activism from the production of images, politics from aesthetics? Obviously we do, and without hesitation. But this is precisely what calls to levitate buildings, however absurd they may appear, prompt us to consider.


[1] Of course, an organization calling itself the New Black Panther Party came into being in 1989, but the extent to which it took up the BPP’s legacy is debatable.