Back to the barricades

By GREG COOK  |  October 22, 2008

“I have gotten way more press for my little re-enactments than 20,000 marchers get,” Tribe acknowledges. The lesson, he thinks, is that media-savvy theatrics deployed by ’60s activists like Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies may be a key in bringing attention to causes.

At the same time, the project’s catchy time-warping, everything-old-is-new-again concept perhaps most makes it a creature of the art world, where it stands part of a trend in historical re-enactment.

In 2004, John Malpede re-enacted Robert Kennedy’s famed 1968 tour of poor Kentucky communities. Jeremy Deller’s 2001 video, The Battle of Orgreave, re-enacted a 1984 clash between police and striking British miners. In 2005, Sharon Hayes stood on New York streets holding placards from notable past protests, including “I am a man” and “Ratify the ERA now.”

All this recycling and appropriation seems a reflection of the continuing influence of post-modernism — and nostalgia. And perhaps it serves to make politics more palatable to an art world in which the subjects of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the “War on Terror” are largely absent.

Why not just address Iraq directly?

Re-enactment “operates on more levels,” Tribe says, and is more “interesting, thought-provoking, less predictable perhaps. There’s inherent complexity in compare and contrast. Maybe that’s part of what enables it to function as art rather than simply as politics.”

Ivette Luna, an organizer for racial, social and economic justice with Ocean State Action, has not seen Tribe’s work, but says, “I think it’s important for us to revisit what we have done and where we’ve been to move forward in an intellectual manner. I think we keep repeating the bad stuff. Anything we do to try to capture and continue to push our message forward is important to our work.”

reenactments get more ink than what would
be allotted for 20,000 marchers.
Forty years ago today
“One question that’s formed in my mind,” Tribe says, “since I started working on this a couple years ago, is: What would it feel like to believe that together with other like-minded peers I could really change the course of history and open up possibilities for a radically different future?

“This idea that, in words quoted by Stokely Carmichael, ‘Let another world be born.’ Could you and I and a few hundred other people get together and spawn a new world? It doesn’t seem that way. But people seemed to be able to imagine that 40 years ago.”

Forty years ago, the anti-war movement was changing the mood of the country, and with it the direction of the war, but the fighting still dragged on.

In the 1968 presidential campaign, Democrat Hubert Humphrey became the standard-bearer for the party that had escalated US involvement in the Vietnam War in the early ’60s, but was now pursuing an end to hostilities.

Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey by rallying the “silent majority” of Americans disaffected or downright offended by the civil rights and anti-war movements, and by pledging “to bring an honorable end to the war.” American troops, though, didn’t leave Vietnam until five years later, in 1973.
The length of US involvement in the Vietnam War helps undercut arguments about the effectiveness of the anti-war movement.

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