On Tuesday night, Americans variously swooned and groaned through election night, while the artists at WhiteBox sounded a clarion call to political action by stringing together a flurry of prescient performances. The events unfolding throughout the night were chaotic, unpredictable, scattered, and ad hoc — an appropriate response to deeply unsettling times.
The performances took place amid the excruciatingly accurate, angst-laden installations that make up the group exhibition Acts of Sedition. The show is the culmination of a larger, three-part endeavor that began in 2008. The first exhibition, Sedition (2008), paralleled the general election leading to Obama’s first term, while the second show, #makeamericagreatagain (2016) focused on this year’s primaries and the emergence of Republican nominee Donald Trump. Curated by Raul Zamudio and Juan Puntes, this third iteration was a bitter, predictive pill presaging Trump’s astonishing victory. Its title, Acts of Sedition, refers to subversive acts by individuals against institutions of power.
Gallerygoers were greeted at the door by a trio of provocative artworks: a mammoth inflating and deflating plastic army tank, “Breathing Tank” by Joe Peragine, as well as Dread Scott’s banner “A Black Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday” and Kyle Goen‘s “New Flag of Iraq.”
Inside, the strongest performance was the US premiere of Albert Camus’s little-known 1936 anti-fascist play Revolt in Asturias, translated into English in a record-setting four days by Isabella Pinheiro and Robert Rochin. Presented in collaboration with the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center and the Living Theatre, the 40-minute reading offered a musing on the social and political systems that led to the uprising and suppression of coal miners in the impoverished province of Asturias, Spain, in October, 1935. Though not a great literary work by Camus, it showed his concern for acts of social justice. The reading also had morbid implications for the protest events that unfolded in real time outside the gallery walls the very next day. The spontaneous street demonstrations across the United States echoed the play’s depiction of the initial actions of the workers.
The artist JAŠA presented a performance titled “Above All We Are Not Done Screaming,” in tandem with a sculptural installation of a section of a corner of a wall, whose color has changed daily according to the mood of the artist. For this event, the wall was black and spray-painted with part of the titular slogan. It was then lifted onto the shoulders of participants who wore hoodies, the spray-painted words declaring their defiance of the live election results that showed Trump was pulling ahead.
Another performance, “Po Ro Ro Ca,” was an interdisciplinary piece in support of and in solidarity with Standing Rock Indian Reservation and the #waterislife initiative. Pasha Radetzki and Don Amit Sahu originally premiered the live sound piece, which is performed on electric guitar and small drums, at this year’s Manifesta 11 in Zurich. The pair executed a special reenactment of that performance in the gallery, and then Radetzki walked around with a red banner and cymbal, briefly placing them on select locations.
Artist Tania Bruguera, who has declared she will be running for president of Cuba when Raúl Castro steps down in 2018, contributed a video discussing her upcoming candidacy, “Otro 18.” The irony of her piece is that no one is actually allowed to run for president in Cuba.
Starting at 8pm, Martha Rosler VJ’ed the election returns for the remainder of the evening. She shared her vast knowledge of the electoral process, until the inevitable victory of the Republican candidate was announced at 1:15am and the gallery shut down its transmission.
While waiting for the end of an era, there was plenty of politically charged work to look at. Wafaa Bilal‘s “Color Correction, Make America Great Again” consists of folksy, overtly racist statuettes and antebellum signs, while Iranian artist Shahram Entekhabi‘s spare and troubling video “Spitting Blood” shows him spitting up his own blood, which comes from a self-inflicted wound.
There was whimsy in the mirrored sculpture of Trump’s pithy sobriquet, “Grab Them by the Pussy,” created by Bilal and Saks Afridi; it seemed to evoke Robert Indiana “Love” sculpture knowingly. The piece’s levity contrasted with the morbid black balloons cascading out of a utility closet in Jenyu Wang‘s “How Deep Is Your Love?” Instead of the red, white, and blue balloons traditionally released to celebrate an election victory, these black orbs foretold the traumatized feelings that large swaths of the population would be feeling by the end of the night.
Acts of Sedition, put together on the fly, captured a moment in time before it became a reality. It reflects what artists do best — because in circumstances like these, speaking up and speaking out are so vital.
Acts of Sedition continues at WhiteBox (329 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until November 19.