Students Learn the Place for Performance in Protest

Larry Bogad wants his work to spark conversations. Bogad relishes the moment following a performance when people ask: “How did you get away with that?” This question can provide an unexpected entry for more serious conversations about social justice issues.

Bogad once gave away “glacier pops,” made ostensibly from melting polar ice caps, to promote awareness about climate change. He’s also passed out fictional versions of The New York Times tweaking the Grey Lady’s tagline to “All the news we hope to print” and including hopeful stories about the future.

“Protest is an art form, and cliché is the bane of any art form. That is why we have to try to be surprising and playful,” explained Bogad, associate professor in Theatre & Dance.

Bogad’s transgressive yet playful public performances are designed to provoke discussions about social issues. To do this, Bogad engages in what he calls “tactical performance.” Tactical performance brings a new energy to protest that can be as simple as a new chant or as complex as a choreographed flash mob.   These methods help to reach new audiences, while also entertaining and revitalizing those involved in a social movement. In short, tactical performance can be a key strategy to fight the burnout so common to grassroots social movements.

Bogad plans to teach this message in a class on Tactical Performance this spring quarter. The class teaches students the traditions of this genre, from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” to the sit-ins of the civil rights movement. Students learn how to reapproriate symbols ironically to send out a playful, unexpected message with social relevance. Alternatively, students also learn how to conduct serious performances as exemplified by the 1,000 Coffins performance. Regardless of the mood of the performance, Bogad teaches students how social movements can emulate the proactive approach and non-violence of the civil rights.

At their best, such actions create a safe space for protest through spectacle. Bogad is quick to point out that tactical performance is but one element of grassroots social movements.  Crucial to these forms of satirical critique are collaborations with other artists, performers, and social activists. Some of Bogad’s fellow conspirators include Billionaires for Bush, Andrew Boyd, the Yes Men, the Pocha Nostra, and the Center for Tactical Magic.

Bogad says tactical performance can help protesters “earn a moment” to make a point and mobilize around an issue. This “moment” causes people to pause and pay attention, even if only for an instant. Such moments “create a moment of synaptic disruption” that result in “playful surprise.” When done in a public space, tactical performances move people out of their regulated patterns of movement and make public space a site for engagement.

One way to create a moment is through the production of an “irresistible image.” The “irresistible image” is so compelling, that even one’s ideological opponents reproduce it. “Such an image makes something we haven’t seen before and cannot ignore,” Bogad explains.

Such an image emerged from the antics of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, of which Bogad is co-founder. The clown army marched in Edinburgh in 2005 after learning marching from the Veterans for Peace and clowning from clown schools. Rather than simply moving down the streets in typical protest fashion, the clown army marched in formation then disassembled into buffoonery and madness as they protested for social justice and peace. When faced with riot police, they continued clowning and produced numerous irresistible images of armor-clad cops alongside face-painted clowns. As Bogad put it, “there’s a higher political price to be paid for clubbing a clown.”

Another of Bogad’s most recent satiric pieces is Dunkin’ Island. This imaginary island suggests an absurd solution to questions about how to punish Wall Street executives most responsible for the recent economic crisis. Rather than face fines or prison time, these millionaire tycoons would be banished to the fictional Dunkin’ Island, located just off Battery Park in New York City. As the name of the island suggests, this island would effectively dunk any island inhabitants when a soft projectile hit the bulls-eye positioned atop the land mass. Shots at the bulls-eye would be free for all who visited the roof of the Museum of the American Indian. As part of Greg Sholette’s Fifteen Islands for Robert Moses, a model of Dunkin’ Island will be inserted into the Panorama of the City of New York, originally built for the 1964 World’s Fair.

Bogad sees theatrics as a helpful tool to work against censorship, oppression, privatization, and the limitations of “free speech.” His upcoming book, Tactical Performance: On the Theory and Practice of Serious Play, analyzes and critiques the use of guerilla theater for human and civil rights and for social justice, labor and environmental campaigns. As the title suggests, what appears to be mere play or silliness actually relies upon a deep understanding of culture and communicates a serious message to the unexpected audience.

As part of the final project for Bogad’s class, students will be working to earn their “moment” with audiences around campus—so keep  your eyes open for unexpected surprises as the quarter progresses.