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February 13, 2012

Five Acts at Marginal Utility

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Kira Grennan

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FIVE ACTS: CHRONICLES OF DISSENT, at Marginal Utility through March 18, brings together five artists who work with the subject of contemporary political protest, investigating how different marginalized voices of opposition speak and are being heard.
Some of the pieces in the exhibition–those by Sharon Hayes and Mark Tribe–restage historical episodes, revealing new meanings for a contemporary audience.  Tribe’s Port Huron project reenacts protest speeches from the 1960s and 70s, critically examining the change in public response to markedly similar political situations.  Hayes’ piece, “I March In The Parade of Liberty But As Long As I Love You I’m Not Free,” records the artist giving a public speech to an anonymous lover in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, drawing from early gay Liberation parade slogans, among other sources.  Her work interrogates the relationship between public and private speech, exposing the emotional underpinning of collective political action.
Other pieces in the show–those by Yael Bartana, Andrea Bowers, and Naeem Mohaiemen–document specific recent events or issues, providing a platform for discussion and exposure in the space of the gallery.  Bartana’s “Wild Seeds” shows a game staged by the artist in a stunning mountainous landscape in the West Bank, where a group of teenagers, bodies entangled, simulates an actual confrontation between Jewish settlers and the Israeli army.  The voices and movements of the teens teeter between playfulness and aggression, and the viewer is lodged in an intentionally uncomfortable state of ambiguity.  In Andrea Bowers’ “Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Training—Tree Sitting Forest Defense,” the artist is trained to sit for a prolonged period of time in the branches of an enormous tree as an act of nonviolent protest. This piece, with its do-it-yourself position, bridges theory and practice, urging visitors to follow up words and ideas with concrete action. Finally, Naeem Mohaiemen’s pairing of photographs and text, “Live True or Die Trying,” records the narrative of two rallies in Dhaka, Bangladesh on the same day—one organized by young Islamists and the other by a group of university Leftists, while his video Nayak (lost hero of history) pieces together a protest from mobile phone clips.  The artist’s construction of these narratives conveys his own responses and biases, betraying the uneven, personal nature of documentary.
Plurality of medium is a crucial part of the exhibition; text pieces stand alongside videos, spoken words, and still images.  This rich variety, native to the practices of the five artists in the show, mirrors the diverse means protesters have found to articulate their concerns in the current global economic and political climate.   Several of the artists live and work in multiple cities, a fact that indicates the complex collective voice the exhibition presents. In her statement, curator Yaelle Amir describes the way oppositional movements vary according to each particular language, tactics, location, and movement size.  The exhibition feels in some ways like a cross-section of the specific energy and texture of these different oppositional voices, allowing visitors to enter the verb ‘to protest.’  Looking at the pieces, we become conscious not only of the issues around which the protesters converge but also of the wide range of options available to make our voices heard.
Personally, I found the exhibition to be an invocation to pay attention to and engage with these different options, first within the space of the gallery, and then continuing on into my everyday life.  The pieces in FIVE ACTS: CHRONICLES OF DISSENT speak clearly about the potential energy of art as activism, taking the position that the two are never really separable.  Every expression, just as much as it is personally motivated and felt, is immediately engaged and implicated in a larger, political conversation.
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