LAWRENCE, Kansas — Mounting an exhibition anywhere in the neighborhood of occupation aesthetics can be precarious nowadays, for people are increasingly fed up with the same reiterations of ideological conceptualism and the ultra-politically correct, derivative works that skim the surface of real world problems precipitated by global capitalism, government incompetence, dictatorship and injustice.
But Beijing-based artist Chen Shaoxiong had a rather pragmatic impetus for reconsidering — through art — global phenomena from the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street to democratic elections that have sprung up in remote Chinese villages. Acutely attuned to happenings in the socio-political spheres since he began making art in the 1980s in Guangzhou, Chen observes that the geopolitical where and what always figure more prominently than how social activism can be effectively practiced. Chen maintains that “in our universities we have never established a discipline for technical approaches to protests and demonstrations,” both important aspects of a modern citizen’s political life.
Hence for his recent three-week residency at the University of Kansas’s Spencer Museum, titled Prepared: Strategies for Activists, Chen attempted to take matters into his own hands in what he envisions to be a wholesome dose of social-activism prophylaxis. Contending that “demonstrations and mass gathering … have been practiced in every conceivable manner, and have proven to be an effective aspect of the political language of democracy,” the artist believes that “people should be vaccinated with this mentality.”
In developing the project with the artist since late 2011, the museum’s curator of global contemporary art, Kris Ercums, also hopes to “dissect the anatomy of a protest,” thereby facilitating a better understanding of the “basic structures of social movements as contemporary phenomena” in the opportune setting of a university campus.
It’s an interactive project from the get-go. Events that Chen has planned include a fence box facing the museum, weekly workshops led by researchers and activists, open-air public speaking, dinner conversations and ongoing interviews with KU students from diverse cultural and ideological backgrounds that have cultivated diverging attitudes and experiences of social activism.
The local community in Lawrence, the small town where the university is situated, quickly jumped on board. Chen’s original banner on the fence box featuring a Guy Debord quote became enthusiastically overwritten with new slogans and eventually overlaid with new banners and objects. Insights were shared; ideas spread.
A short documentary edited from interview footage (where interviewees are credited with their nationality) was screened as part of the final exhibition, which opened on April 11. Answers to a succinct questionnaire of four questions offer telling insights into the perceived function and effectiveness of protest in different societies. (The questions: 1. Have you ever experienced/partook in a protest? 2. What do you know about protesting? 3. Have you any knowledge of the history of protesting? 4. Imagine getting involved.)
In addition, artworks made by Chen and other participants were juxtaposed with pieces culled from the museum’s collection, an impressive lineup including the Guerrilla Girls. Archival materials were supplemented with fresh specimens from such recent movements as OWS, among them a toilet lid sprayed with Bank of America’s logo. Collectively these revolutionary memorabilia, though plucked out of their original context, provide a new one for rethinking the latest global movements. It also reassures, as one of the interviewee put it: “so that we don’t feel isolated in our dissent.”
The exhibition is richly informative, whimsical and thought provoking without any of the contrived scruffiness or coming across as feeling fashionable. Practical information also abounds: a poster Chen designed for the project provides a visual checklist for those planning to go into the streets. Juxtaposed with a similar poster illustrating standard police-force equipment, it acknowledges that, even as social media and new technologies continue to transform the ways people protest, incidents from the 1970 Kent State shootings to the recent pepper-spray cop incident at UC Davis serve as poignant reminders that the human body is uniquely powerful yet extremely vulnerable in the act of struggle.
After Kansas, Chen plans to realize his “protester’s training camp” to more locales, including his censorship-tight home country, where contemplating demonstration through art and research as a form of “vaccination” can be particularly meaningful.
Prepared: Strategies for Activists is on view at the Spencer Museum of Art (1301 Mississippi Street, Lawrence, Kansas) through July 22.