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Performance, Politics, Art, Dialogue and Twitter

This is a short reflection on publishing the #GiveUpArt Twitter essay as part of the #SOTAflash conference, which ran alongside State of the Arts 2011. I reduced an essay (forthcoming in an Arts-Activism reader from Silent City) to forty 120-character tweets, which I scheduled at three-minute intervals between 11.30 and 1.30 on the day of the conference. My original thought was that this would be a sort of “essay as event” intervention into #SOTAflash and SOTA itself. As it happened, expanded far beyond that to become something else: thanks to the people who were taking part, something more interesting.

I had originally planned not to do anything on Twitter while the essay was being published, but I began to receive so many replies, objections, engagements and arguments – and began to see so many other interesting things to talk about in the feed – that I ended up having multiple parallel conversations about the ideas of #GiveUpArt while the essay was being tweeted. I was getting swept up in currents of conversation around the hashtag. I began to feel quite overwhelmed by the participation, and spent the full two hours frantically reading and responding to the comments.

Because so many ideas were flying around and being argued under the #SOTAflash hashtag already, my Twitter essay became a small nexus of chatter amid a much wider conversation with many other nexuses. Nexii. Nexapodes. I did dominate that feed for two hours, inevitably, but far less than I’d originally expected and worried about. It was thrilling to know that my conversations were just some among many: that the curators of #SOTAflash had created a multi-level and highly participatory site of argument alongside and around SOTA itself. The result is that several participants at SOTA quickly recognised that everything happening on the conference fringe was far more interesting and relevant than the conference itself, in form as well as in content. For my part, I couldn’t begin to understand why anyone would pay money to listen to dull, centrist speakers and have heavily-structured conversations rather than take part in a fluid, chaotic, freely-accessible multi-platform argument taking place in both cyber- and meatspace. Of course SOTA was dull: the form set it up to be so. It’s hopeless to expect anything worthwhile to come out of a conference format so out of touch with trends and currents in the way people now think and create. A hierarchical, authoritarian format will produce thought hemmed in by those structures of power: a horizontal, anarchic format will produce a wild variety of dissent and passionate, provocative thought.

As for #GiveUpArt, well,  it became much more of a performance, much more of an event, than I’d originally expected: it was a series of stimulating interactions and conversations triggered by or taking place around the brief bursts of pre-planned thought, and that’s much more interesting than just publishing an essay in short snippets. As a result, I became much more of a performer, tweeting about my own frenetic tweeting, thanking people profusely, arguing more provocatively, enjoying the lights that were shining in my direction. Twitter just is this fascinating blur of writing and performance: it is writing-as-performance, or performance-as-writing. It is a real-time experience with a short-lived archive; readers/watchers are participating not-quite-simultaneously, or even several days after each other. Twitter’s texts are technically almost permanent (and can be made more permanent), but after a week they’re even less likely to be read than books in a library’s backstock. And even though an archive does exist, it’s really no more complete and accurate than an archive of a theatre production: you can see the script, the props, the film of the performance, the programme, the audience interviews, and still not really understand the feeling of being part of the event. Twitter, like so much of the internet, is the transitory masquerading as the permanent.

After the day, I’d intended to archive everything that was tweeted under the #GiveUpArt hashtag. But I got too busy and delayed for a few days, and now, as you can see, Twitter’s search archiving is so minimal that that conversation is no longer easily organised and archivable: to do so, I’d have to trawl through the personal feeds of everyone who participated and extract the relevant tweets, no longer accurately timestamped, and reconstruct the conversation as it happened. That’s far too time-consuming! – and the results would be incomplete and unsatisfying. But as I’ve implied, I’m almost glad it’s too much effort now to archive: I don’t think there’s really any suitable means of completely recording multidirectional Twitter conversations, and I don’t think such a recording would capture any relevant essence of the event. For a reader who wasn’t part of it, it would be like trying to listen in on a crackly audio recording of a busy argument; for a reader who was part of it, it would add nothing to the memory.

On the other hand, another version of the essay is soon to be published in print format, and I’m glad of that, too. It will be another aspect of the same project, in the way 2001′s different elements reflected and expanded on each other. A print essay is only minimally an event, just as a Twitter conversation is only minimally an essay – the two share aspects of each other, but are ultimately (and politically) different. I think I’ll find the print essay less immediately fulfilling than the Twitter conversation, but I also think I’ll remember it and what results more and for longer.

One thing I will record now is part a conversation which took place in a chat window while all the tweeting was going on. Its subjects are parallel to those of #GiveUpArt, just as it took place in parallel to the event, but I thought some readers might find it interesting. I’m the first speaker; the second is a Marxist anthropologist friend of mine, a comrade of protests, meetings, arguments and 12-hour tabletop RPG sessions.

12:42
It’s a bit intense
Trying to engage everyone who replies; difficult to keep up!

12:43
It got away from you. How exciting!
Creating through dialogue is quite exciting.

12:46
I fucken love it

12:46
This is why I’ve been watching your work with such interest. I knew you were thinking about such things when I was there, and I was just beginning to think about them.

12:50
The more I work with dialogue, the more I become convinced its a vital creative frontier.

12:50
Well working with it makes you realise how much all art (ignoring your essay, or at least its rhetoric) is dialogic, and merely conceals its origins.
Some of the comments around this are relevant:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sei-eEjy4g
People accusing her of “ripping off” the Clash, vs a dialogic understanding of hip-hop.

13:01
Oh yeh, MIA loves pressing those buttons :-D

13:01
Well it’s the essence of hip-hop. There was an amazing paper at this autonomist conference I attended about how hip-hop is an act of creation in the commons.

13:02
And those are the roots of all poetry
Baba Brinkman’s thesis is that hip-hop is a return to the roots of folk poetry and performance

13:02
Well Negri would argue that all productivity is immediately production in common, and it takes juridical private property to convince us otherwise.

13:02
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBX_eKDABx0

http://www.babasword.com/writing/poetry/rhymerenaissance.pdf

13:03
Essay as event… Wonderful.
“Work can be liberated because it is essentially the one human mode of existence which is simultaneously collective, rational and interdependent. It generates solidarity. Capitalism and socialism have only succeeded in subjugating work to a social mechanism which is logocentric or paranoid, authoritarian and potentially destructive.” Negri and Guattari

13:08
Ooh nice

13:14
Damnit, I’m signing up for twitter.

13:17
Oh no!
You’ve buckled
It happens to us all eventually
Do you mind if I publish the bits of this conversation about #GiveUpArt in a reflections blog tomorrow?

13:19
Of course not.
Fuck ownership.
I’m pleased my work’s of some use.

An Open Letter to the Harry Potter Alliance, asking why they aren’t blowing things up

The Harry Potter Alliance is a US-based charity and campaigning group which takes inspiration from JK Rowling’s books: “Harry and his friends start a student activist group called Dumbledore’s Army when the adults and politicians of their world fail to address the concerns of the day.” When I fund out about them, something bothered me about their mission — and it wasn’t that it seemed a bit cheesy, and it wasn’t anti-pop snobbery. It was that they took inspiration from a guerilla fighting force (albeit a fictional one) that takes violent direct action, and yet HPA’s tactics are the usual liberal rote of petitions, letters, votes and charity. So I wrote them a letter about it.

Dear Harry Potter Alliance,

Well done! You’re doing tremendously well in the Chase Community Giving Challenge, and I think you deserve to be congratulated for the way you’ve used your increased profile to continue to bring awareness to some very important causes. While it’d be easy to be cynical about your mission – and I admit when I first heard of HPA I did smirk a bit! – I think it’s genuinely wonderful that you’re harnessing the power of popular culture and a dedicated fandom to do something important in the world.

But I do want to talk to you about something, which is the way you’re undertaking your mission of creating a real world Dumbledore’s Army. I think you’re right that there’s a useful analogy – that the adults (politicians, parents, journalists, teachers . . . ) of Harry’s world ignore the severity of the crisis they’re facing, just as those running our world are keeping us on a track toward global disaster. But here’s the key thing: Harry and friends don’t raise funds, donate books and videos, sign petitions and register voters. They don’t even hold peaceful protests, act as human shields, create non-violent human blockades. They don’t even stop at theft and property damage in the name of their cause. In fact, what they do is train a guerilla fighting force that can engage in an aggressive covert war. So why don’t you?

The real world equivalent of this would be direct action. Direct action is when we stop asking people to change the world, and undertake it to change it ourselves. It encompasses everything from strikes and sabotage, which seek to cause economic damage as a tool of persuasion; to workplace occupations and thefts, which seek to take control of the means of production and consumption for those exploited by them; to tree-sits and assassinations, which seek to actively prevent destruction and oppression. (You’ll note I’ve used a range of possible actions of different levels of severity and violence; I don’t necessarily approve of them all, but I don’t necessarily disapprove, either. More on this in a bit.) Basically, direct action is everything which isn’t electoral politics, diplomacy and charity, but which seeks to create change.

Direct action is often classed as either violent or non-violent, with property damage occupying a middle ground. Non-violent direct action is what was advocated by Martin Luther King; Rosa Parks’s bus-sit is a good example of a peaceful direct action. Mohandas Gandhi is one of the foremost philosophers of peaceful action (not just protest, but action): Satyagraha is the name of the body of theory and practise he helped develop. To keep examples from struggles against racial oppression, John Brown and Nelson Mandela, for example, waged violent direct actions in their struggles.

Can you imagine what would have happened if the civil rights struggle in America had been waged only by letter-writing and fund-raising? You might think that violence is counter-productive, but surely not the whole non-violent civil resistance revolt which led to the independence of India? And is violence always counter-productive? Would you have opposed the American Civil War, or the Spanish Civil War, or the Second World War? So if states can wage justified violence on each other, and if Harry Potter is justified in fighting organisations and individuals, why aren’t we, autonomous citizens and groups? I don’t mention HP in the same breath as real world wars with any sense of frivolity; I genuinely think it’s amazing that you’ve taken inspiration from a work of fiction to do good in the world. But I want you to follow through on that inspiration: what is it about Harry’s fictional world that makes it so different from our world that you don’t think his tactics are justified in your causes?

Maybe you’ll argue that you want to bring as many people on board as possible, that you want to harness that power of mass culture, that you’re frightened that this kind of militancy, even a non-violent militancy, might alienate people. I have two responses: the first is, did Harry Potter seek to gain a majority of public support, or did he seek to fight his war with a small core of loyal followers? I know HP is a work of fiction, but it’s worth considering why you accept vanguard tactics in fiction and not in reality. And the second point is: maybe a popular movement like yours is exactly what’s needed to really encourage people to engage in mass direct action. Imagine what would happen if Harry Potter fans across the world started occupying threatened forests, barricading corporate headquarters, assassinating murderous politicians! (Again, I don’t see all these actions as equal, or as equally valid, but I do raise them for discussion.)

Maybe you’ll argue that Harry Potter faced a different sort of problem, a different scale of problem. Well, I have some sympathy here. With issues of violence and non-violence, I agree with author Derrick Jensen, who in his inspiring and frightening book Endgame argues that we have to see these decisions as contingent, relative to a situation. He refuses to utterly proscribe violence, or to say it’s always justified (or useful), but he does suggest that we should consider it as a potentially justified tactic. (Remember: why should states wage wars, but not individuals?) And violence aside, non-violent direct action also has to be seen as contingent on circumstances: Gandhi was part of a culture in which he was able to organise mass armies of non-violent resisters, and maybe you aren’t.

But. What scale of a problem are we facing? We live in a world of ever-increasing inequality, in which 1% of the people own 40% of the wealth, the bottom half of the population only have 1% of the wealth, and half of humanity lives on less than £2.50 a day. In which runaway climate change threatens the planet, with the world’s scientists concluding with an extraordinary degree of consensus, that temperatures and sea levels are rising in a way that will cause death and destruction for millions of humans and other species. In which, as you well know, genocide is still rampant. In which millions upon millions of hectares of forest are destroyed every year, and in which we as a species have caused one of the largest mass extinctions in the planet’s history. Need I go on?

I think the question should instead become: how bad do things have to get before you reach the conclusion that we must fight back? I think the question should instead become whether or not we’re being disgustingly irresponsible by salving our consciences with petitions and protests, instead of taking arms together. I think the question should instead be: those in power have already declared war on the world and its people, so why aren’t we, the other side, fighting back?

Just imagine if Harry had attempted to stop Lord Voldemort by gathering petition signatures and delivering them to the Ministry of Magic! – instead, he saw the urgency of the situation and took matters directly into his own hands; he recognised that adults weren’t doing enough or accepting the severity of the crisis, and so took direct action to solve the crisis himself.

I don’t mean to attack you. I do admire you. And I hope you don’t mind that I’ve posted this publicly. I’m writing not to poke fun at you or to condemn you, but to try and understand why committed moral individuals don’t see the scale of the problem and the necessary solutions. And I include myself in that, because I believe myself that I do far too many protests and petitions are far too few strikes, sabotages and occupations. I’d very much like it if you found the time to reply and helped us to reach an understanding together.

Yours in struggle,

Harry Giles

Israel/Palestine: What do we do now?

(Words of explanation: in April, I directed an interactive theatre project about the Middle East conflict which toured the UK; I’ve also been a Palestinian solidarity activist for the past couple years, although that theatre project spoke/questioned from a more neutral, explorative position.)

Directing Israel/Palestine gave me a deeper insight into the Middle East conflict than I’d had in years of working as an activist: I began to be able to grasp the conflicting narratives and gain an understanding of why things are as they are; it even helped me think more and better about how I and we (my social group? my actors? my country? my society?) could positively act. That’s also what I hoped our audiences gained: if nothing else, then a better understanding, and a more focussed attention on the issue — a willingness to understand, a desire to be involved.

But one of the anxieties of live performance is that it’s quite difficult to keep track of what happens to your audiences afterwards. Immediately following the show they can let you know how moved they are, how much they want to engage better with issues — but what about days after? Weeks after? Months after? I was thinking this a lot as yesterday’s terrible news unfolded; these were my first reactions:

@HarryGiles:

Whenever Israel/Palestine news breaks, I look at my theatre project and think: what did we achieve? Do our audiences now pay more attention?

Of the 200 people who came along, are they really now more empowered to engage with events? Do they care more? Do they ask more questions?

And what about me?… faced with the appalling news of the #FreedomFlotilla attack, do I react differently? Can/will I do more than tweet?

A good friend of mine replied “the ramifications of discussion are not a precise science. It is not a chess game, it is a gesture of hope.” That’s encouraging and partly true, but a part of me still wants to know whether or not my work as an artist-activist is effective, offers practical results.

On another level, I started thinking about the new perspective on the conflict the project had enabled me to have. More than anything else, I now see the war as a war of competing narratives: so much of the work we did involved discovering why people thought as they thought and delivering their own versions of events. We’re dealing here with sides who have competing historical understandings, competing visions for the future, and for every new series of events there is a new narrative division. As news breaks, every news source suffers (often justly) accusations of bias from both sides — every word is loaded with meaning, every reader extra-sensitive. It’s never clearer that there is no such thing as an objective fact. Understanding what happened becomes difficult, and so everyone resorts to their knee-jerk reactions, siding with one narrative or another — because it becomes more or less impossible to do anything else. Here’s what I wrote about these thoughts:

Hashtag lines drawn: #terroristflotilla vs #freedomflotilla . Twitter’s cardinal virtue/vice: brevity makes ideological division so clear.

That Israeli/Palestinian narratives r mutually incompatible & antipathy utterly entrenched never clearer than in responses 2 Gaza flotilla

Follow the war/crisis on Twitter and understand that it is overarchingly a battle for historical narrative.

Territory, faith, revenge, fear, security, cultural imperialism/defence: yes, all of these. But the ends and means are narrative and history

And, of course, historical narrative is here, as ever, delivered through the barrel of a gun.

See, I do take a side, but I take it now with rather more understanding of what the other side is experiencing. When I read a site like Mere Rhetoric, which spins every news item on Israel/Palestine firmly and vitriolically in one direction, I no longer react with disgust and anger — instead, I appreciate the insight into the other side’s mind.

And yet, I do take a side, I can’t maintain neutrality out of the theatre space, and so what am I supposed to do with this knowledge? Ineffectually plead for an end to mutual antipathy and a beginning for understanding? I mean, this isn’t just an argument, these are two narratives fighting for their very existence — for life. Do I want to see the triumph of one? The resolution of both? I don’t really know. I understand more now, but I’m more lost.

I’d greatly appreciate the thoughts of anyone who came to the show.

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