HOUSTON — Before the music began and even before they finished installing all the artwork, the 2017 Day for Night festival kicked off with its first-ever Friday Summit, inviting several high-profile speakers to talk about the intersections of technology, art, politics, and activism. Curated by the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Art’s Karen Farber and introduced and moderated by Hyperallergic’s own editor-in-chief, Hrag Vartanian, the summit featured talks by Laurie Anderson, UCLA’s Lauren McCarthy, Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova, and Chelsea Manning, with special spoken-word performances by Saul Williams peppered throughout. The event was livestreamed on Pitchfork Radio.
Anderson kicked off the talks, telling the long and convoluted story of a project that kept being rejected. She wanted to make a monumental artwork from the prisoner’s likeness, but no prison would let her even broach the plan with any of its inmates. Finally, she found Mohammed el Gharani. One of the youngest prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, el Gharani was released in 2009, after having spent seven years at the detention center. He became the central figure is Anderson’s “HABEAS CORPUS” at Park Avenue Armory in 2015, his image projected the size of the seated Lincoln inside the Lincoln Memorial. Live-streamed from his home in Chad, el Gharani could see people visiting the Armory as they waved hello to him, danced around, and even mouthed “I’m sorry.”
Political prisoners were a particularly potent topic for the afternoon, which is entirely unsurprising, considering the inclusion of Manning and Tolokonnikova. After Manning’s presentation of her #WeGotThis Twitter campaign, encouraging everyone to join together to fight back against the police/prison state, she and Tolokonnikova engaged in a fascinating conversation, starting out with the similarity of their situations in prison. “Empires have the same methods,” said Manning. “Prison society transcends culture and time.” (They said they both read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who himself had spent 11 years in the gulag and in exile for criticizing Stalin after WWII.) “In prison, every minute lasts forever,” said Tolokonnikova, adding that every judge, prosecutor, and cop should go to prison for two months as part of their training. “I don’t think we can reform prisons,” Manning added, imploring us to imagine a world without them.
Tolokonnikova’s presentation centered on the “power of accidents.” She recounted the accidental infamy of Pussy Riot — a fake band with a fake backstory that was really just trying to promote punk feminism in Russia by imitating Riot grrrl. She touched on the second accident, that of the rise of Vladimir Putin, before launching into comparisons between the Russian leader and Trump. “They don’t need voters or citizens,” she said. “They need cheerleaders.” She pointed to a total lack of coherent beliefs in both leaders (“[They thought] anyone who believes [in anything] can be bribed or intimidated.”), and their obsession with capitalist individualism, winners and losers, eat or be eaten. “Human dignity is not profitable,” she concluded. Tolokonnikova ended with the importance of building alternative institutions, citing two of her own endeavors, Zona Prava, which combats prison abuse, and alternative media company MediaZona.
While McCarthy’s talk was the only one that didn’t focus on political prisoners, she presented a fascinating overview of several of her projects, each offering a unique way of bringing the culture and language of the internet into the real world. In one, she replaced Alexa as a human virtual assistant. In another, she served as a real-life “follower,” literally trailing a person throughout the day (upon their request, of course). In a third, a mash-up of OkCupid and Amazon Mechanical Turk, McCarthy went on dates and had people she hired on Amazon watch the interaction online and tell her how to react in real time.
Throughout the afternoon, Williams’ poems encouraged us to “hack into” everything from “dietary sustenance” to “capitalism, the relation of free labor and slavery,” and asked all the big “what if?” questions — political, social, and psychological.
The summit concluded with a group forum, moderated by Vartanian, who read questions previously submitted online and lead the discussion. Manning and Tolokonnikova stressed the importance of thinking less about yourself and more about people who are more vulnerable than you are, and particularly supporting prisoners. “Find a prisoner and write to them!” Manning encouraged the audience. Williams answered a question about finding joy in art and politics with, “I think of dancing,” and Manning noted that she likes finding small joys in unexpected places. Even while in prison, she would find joy in catching a glimpse of the changing seasons through the razor wire or dancing to a tune she found on the radio. “Political work is joyful,” Tolokonnikova added.
Together with finding joy, the overarching themes of the importance of community support and finding hope pervaded the whole summit. “Everyone has hope. You just need to find it,” Manning said. (And, although no one pointed it out, Tolokonnikova’s first name, Nadezhda, literally means “hope” in Russian.) As for ways of fighting back, Williams had the best answer. “The fight we’re fighting didn’t begin in our lifetime. There are genealogies of resistance,” Williams explained. “Educate yourself,” he continued. “Read everything about a topic, and find out what’s said about that topic, even outside of this country.” The summit proved to be more than just a collection of talks; it was a call to action.
The Day For Night Friday Summit took place December 15 at the former Barbara Jordan Post Office (701 Franklin Street) in Houston, Texas.
Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses and accommodations in Houston were partly subsidized by Day for Night.