Activism and performance art go hand in hand, especially during times of political unrest. This is as true today as it was during 2008-2012, when former Chicagoan Nicole Garneau led a series of monthly participatory events entitled UPRISING. These actions spanned eight U.S. and five international locations that included Berkeley, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Denmark and Russia. More than half of the 60 UPRISING performances took place in Chicago. Indeed, Garneau has said that "Chicago taught me everything I know about being an activist."
Themes of prior UPRISING events included "Liberate Our Sexual Encounters," "Revolutionize Gender," "Recall Moments When You Believed the World Might Actually Change for the Better" "Share Queer History in Queer Spaces" and "Serve Hot Tea to Cold Strangers." These events often included opportunities to question assumptions, story-tell, sing, create art, interact with strangers, and participate in semi-guided activities. Such activities could include tending the graves of feminist revolutionaries, or commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Some UPRISING performances were integrated into larger political and cultural events, such as the Chicago Dyke March and Occupy Chicago.
A newly released bookPerforming Revolutionary: Art, Action, Activismcommemorates the overall spirit of these years, as well as chronicling each event in the series, which Garneau personally led, wearing her signature all white outfit. Interspersed throughout the book are photos and recollections from participants, which are highly useful in considering how these events had an impact on their participants.
Windy City Times: What helped shape your activism?
Nicole Garneau: I spent the first half of the '90s studying theater and Russian as an undergrad at UIC [the University of Illinois at Chicago], and then living in Russia to work in the Theater of Moscow South-West. When I moved back to Chicago in 1995, I embarked on a process of shedding the identity of "actress" and exploring all the other ways to be an artist: performer, writer, director, and maker of images and installations. While I was still in college at UIC, I attended a performance event organized by and benefitting the Women's Action Coalition, called "WAC A Go-Go," and was blown away. Upon my return from Moscow, I made a beeline for a WAC meeting. I was a feminist activist, and I also wanted to meet hot political women and make out with them. That mission was accomplished. The wildly creative, feminist direct action of WAC was hugely influential for me.
Simultaneously, I began working with Insight Arts, a community of artist peers and youth who were writing, performing, and offering workshops that supported the mission of increasing access to cultural work that supports social justice and human rights. Insight Arts helped me understand that cultural workers are important to revolution, and that I could contribute to social justice through art and culture.
WCT: Your work is described as a series of "participatory exercises," or "public demonstrations," which explore the potential for more loving, "just and engaged" ways of being in the world. Why is this necessary?
NG: In launching the five-year UPRISING performance project, I was making a commitment to my community to work diligently on world-envisioning and world-building. UPRISINGs were experiments in practicing the skills we need in order to achieve a global culture of justice and compassion. By choosing to make the performances free, public, participatory, and interactive, I was drawing on a long lineage of activist art practices.
WCT: Given our increasingly alienated world, which seems so dominated by online activity, how do we continue to ensure connectivity between people?
NG: Many people blame the internet and social media for social alienation but I think that is a process that has been underway for more than 100 years. Extreme capitalism and militarism feed on social alienation. In my experience, the technologies of connectivity are and have always been extremely simple: gatherings around food, collective work projects, dance parties, book groups, time spent in nature just to name a few. I am interested in performances that incorporate participation as a template for people to engage more actively and humanely in society. I want to join together with people to imagine the world in which we want to live and then enact that in our bodies.
WCT: How does your own identity influence your activism?
NG: I identify as a queer woman and I am most excited by the revolutionary activism of queer, trans, and non-binary people and organizations, often in opposition to conservative homonormativity. Rather than incorporating queer themes into UPRISING, I created public demonstrations of revolutionary practices within explicitly queer spaces and with queer people, operating from the assumption that radical queer, trans, & non binary people are already on the vanguard of creating the world in which I want to live. UPRISINGs encourage everyone, regardless of how they identify, to celebrate the work of queer/trans revolutionaries and liberate ourselves, and our relationships, after their examples.
WCT: How do you hope the book honors UPRISING and how do you imagine readers "using" your book in these times, and in the future?
NG: We honor our own work and the work of others by paying careful attention to it and learning from it. Performing Revolutionary feels like an extended thank-you letter to all of the UPRISING participants, volunteer performers, donors, documenters, and strangers we encountered on the way. My collaborator and editor Anne Cushwa helped me understand that artists writing about their own work provide invaluable resources for education, criticism, and general study. This kind of writing is especially rare in book form, and little of what is available is written by female-identified people or about the work of women.
Performing Revolutionary would be a particularly helpful text in situations where folks are studying performance, art, and political movements because this book is a concrete and "real-world" example of the kind of artwork that is often only discussed in theoretical terms. I hope it is also useful to activists and organizers who are looking for alternatives to protest-based demonstrations.
WCT: Any plans to restart UPRISING?
NG: I am so excited to re-engage the live UPRISING performances after taking five years off from creating them while I made a book. I am so grateful to have had the experience of making those 60 public demonstrations of revolutionary practices, because I feel ready and more motivated than ever to collaborate with the activists and world-changers of today. It's time to dust off our white clothes, warm up our singing voices, and join the people who are already in the streets!
The book launch for Performing Revolutionary will be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., on Tuesday April 3, 6-8 p.m. Other upcoming events include a presentation on "Gender and Sexual Liberation as Revolutionary Practices" at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., on Friday, April 6, at 6:30 p.m., and an author talk at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St., on Friday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m.
Rachel Pepper is a writer and therapist based in the Bay Area. She can be reached directly at Rachel-Pepper.com .