On Saturday a group of artists and activists staged a protest at the Armory Show art fair, performing music, poetry, a dramatic reading of Eric Garner’s last words, and staging a die-in.
The members of Artists for Justice NYC (AJNYC) began their performance by chanting the last words Garner reportedly spoke before he was choked to death by an NYPD officer last year, “I can’t breathe,” before one performer, Christian Felix, shouted other words uttered by Garner shortly before he died. As the performance unfolded crowds gathered, security guards scrambled, and one confused EMS officer turned up concerned that a fair-goer was having difficulty breathing. Meanwhile, AJNYC member M.J. Williams played decoy.
“I had the role of impersonating someone from a gallery and convincing security that this was a sanctioned performance, and it seems to have worked for about seven minutes or so,” Williams told Hyperallergic. “There was a piece by Hank Willis Thomas nearby that is called ‘Takedown,’ and I’m somewhat familiar with that artist’s work and felt that the performance protest was thematically at least tied into some of the issues that that artist deals with, so that it could potentially be considered part of what was supposed to be going on in that particular space. That was certainly my line to security.”
As video documentation shows, after Felix’s dramatic performance of Garner’s final words and the collective die-in, Shyvonne Sanganoo performed most of a song before security guards became more forceful, lifting and pushing performers. As Shamirrah Hardin, the director and coordinator of the performance protest and similar ones staged at Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Station, performed a spoken word poem, AJNYC members began filing out, fists raised, while fair-goers clapped in support, stared in disbelief, went about their business, or shot photos and videos. Though the entire performance unfolded over the course of 10 minutes, its documentation on social media and elsewhere ensured that its impact reached well beyond Pier 94.
“One of our members, Alex Seel, is an excellent photographer and videographer so we try to make sure he can come out with us for our actions to capture everything,” Patrick Waldo, a member of AJNYC, told Hyperallergic. “The minute we started chanting ‘I Can’t Breathe’ the phones started coming out, so we knew there would be some pictures floating around Twitter and Instagram, but we wanted Alex to help us tell a more complete story.”
Unlike the group’s previous performances in more public venues, Saturday’s action was intended to raise issues like racism and police brutality that are often glossed over or simply ignored by the art market.
“It’s to reach audiences that might be aware of the struggles and concerns and the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement but generally are not exposed to police brutality themselves and may not have exposure to protests and marches either,” Williams said. “We talk a lot about bringing the message to various audiences, whether they be in the communities themselves, going to the Bronx, going to the outskirts of Brooklyn, to Staten Island, as well as to places like Rockefeller Center, Grand Central, to different areas where we think the message needs to be heard as well.”
The attention afforded by major art fairs seems to be increasingly appealing to activists trying to raise awareness of social justice issues. Last December protesters took to the streets of Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach to protest police brutality while thousands of art market migrants were in town.