The viability of the spoken word has been reconsidered since the campaign tactics of the 2016 US presidential election have changed the nature of political speech, the platforms by which it is expressed and the means in which its content is corroborated. Leaders name call. Twitter is social communication turned rogue political. Facts and alternate facts cannot be differentiated.
Twentieth century political theorist Hannah Arendt told us in her 1958 work Human Condition that public space is defined and maintained by the speech and actions of others. But as the polarity between fact and fiction is replaced by a continuum of opinions, feelings, and reason, the way in which we engage with text, in all its forms, is evolving.
An example of this can be found in a 9 January 2017 comment that President Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway made to CNN’s Chris Cuomo that, “you [the public] always want to go by what’s come out of his [Donald Trump’s] mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.” (1) US Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in a response to President Trump’s accusations that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower in a tweet on 4 March 2017, suggested in a press conference on 6 March 2017 that Trump’s allegations aren’t necessarily literal. (2) Most notably, President Trump’s timeline of the firing of former FBI Director James Comey contradicts the story that his communications staff released to the press. (3)
The dismissal of words as the basis of politics, is frustrating if not frightening. But no matter our desire to criticize Conway, Spicer, and others for eschewing the truth of President Trump’s Twitter feed, liberal supporters and activists do much of the same thing, and it can be seen clearly in works by artists Tania Bruguera, Jenny Holzer, and Bob Slayer. All three artists use text as way to invite, though not necessarily clarify, political agendas.
In 2015 Tania Bruguera and several volunteers performed a 100-hour public reading of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt’s work, published in 1951, was a comprehensive analysis of the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany and Russia in the early 20th century. Spanning over 400 pages, Arendt’s work is academic, dense and, in many ways difficult to follow since English was not her native language. Simply put, it is not the most exciting read. Bruguera was arrested by the Cuban government after the reading, which took place in her home, was complete, but her arrest was not necessary because the performance drew large crowds. In a lecture at the University of Houston in 2016, Bruguera admitted that at many times during the performance the only attendees were the readers themselves.
In 2016 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Bob Slayer organized “IraqOut&Loud,” a public reading of the Chilcot Report. Released in July 2016, seven years after its commission, the Chilcot Report investigated the United Kingdom’s participation in the Iraq War and determined, among other things, that Tony Blair’s government had not sufficiently exhausted peace keeping diplomatic measures and that Saddam Hussein posed no urgent threat to the United Kingdom. Within a month of its publication, Slayer had procured a small venue at the Festival, a stand alone garden shed, and coordinated a reading of the entire report with no intermissions. Participants could sign up for slots, some even reading at 3 am. The format was inclusive. Five people sat in the shed, taking turns reading the text in 10-15 minute increments. Each hour the assembled group was rotated. Slayer’s performance, the reading of 12 volumes and 2.6 million words was successfully completed before the end of Festival.
Recently on show at Alden Projects in New York City was “REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE: Jenny Holzer’s Street Posters, 1977 – 1982. Choosing a selection of 100 posters from Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays” (1977 - 1982) and “Truisms,” (1977 – 1979), Alden Projects has displayed square coloured sheets of paper that have statements written by Holzer and other thinkers, expressing frustration, outrage, arrogance, prophesies, and lamentations. Originally pasted throughout Manhattan by Holzer, the exhibition asks viewers to mentally shift through what the gallery says are “manifesto-like statements.”
Text is central in all three shows and yet our understanding of the show does not depend on a reading of the text. In the case of Bruguera’s performance of Origins, we do not have to attend the performance to know that Bruguera is accusing Cuba of totalitarianism. For Slayer, the complicated militaristic, economic, and political language is, in most cases, undecipherable and yet we know in our participation that we are accusing the British government of irresponsibility. When seeing Holzer’s work, we do not, and probably won’t, read all of the posters because we know that they are protesting government, ignorance, and passivity.
Using tactics that Trump dissenters criticize, these artists have used language to engage us politically while simultaneously ignoring the detail and specificity of the associated text. While Origins is a brilliant work of political theory, it is known to contain mis-representations of Stalin’s Russia due to a lack of available information at the time of it’s writing. Chilcot Report, though damning to the UK government, has issues as well. Reporting indicated that there was significant political manoeuvring when decisions were made about which sections would be released to the public. Further, there were unanswered questions regarding the culpability of Tony Blair and the way he communicated the Iraq operation to Parliament and the public. Holzer’s exhibition surely admits that no one will take the time to read all 100 posters.
These criticisms should not, however, detract from the power of each of these artists’ texts, particularly for Slayer. Reading and listening is a form of active participation and an element of community. In “IraqOut&Loud”, I sat in a shed with strangers. As I looked around the metal building and its duct tape construction banding together microphones, video cameras and oscillating fans, I was keenly aware of the differences between myself and my fellow participants. I began thinking about why this activity was important to them. As each of us spoke, we struggled through reading esoteric words, foreign names, and military jargon. Some of us imbued the text with character, be it emotional, pensive, or sympathetic. Others read the report with an air of icy detachment, critical of its legitimacy. After our portion of the reading was over, my group gathered outside and spoke of the experience and the difficulty of performing an institutional text. It was as if reading the text, no matter is ambiguity, brought us together in a discussion that was grounded in a shared political experience even if it was just reading in a garden shed. Even though we might not have understood the political nuances of the text, we had engaged in a meaningful political experience.
In the case of both Trump supporters and his critics, it is important to understand that political speech or public texts, as Arendt points out, is the basis of our community but it must be used to encourage community building, political specificity and problem solving not diffuse discussion through generalities. That is to say, if Trump’s Twitter feed incites an inclusive debate that begins a serious discussion of legislation, the coherency of the tweet itself isn’t as important. If, however, his tweets generate empty and aggrandized pronouncements that continue to divide an already rocky public sphere, the future of public space is in danger. On the other hand and in the case of Bruguera, Slayer, and Holzer, if the reading of public texts motivates dissenters to organize, then they have served an important political purpose. However, if the works generate empty aggrandized pronouncements of frustration, disgust, and division that do not assist in the reconciliation of our public, their opportunity will be lost.
Jeanette Joy Harris is a writer and artist interested in the intersection of performance and political dialogue. She has a BA in government from Texas Woman’s University and an MscR in the history of art from the University of Edinburgh. She is a visiting scholar at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College and workshopped with the International Performance Association in Venice. Joy has lectured and presented at University of Cambridge, University of Brighton, Edinburgh College of Art, University of North Texas, and Texas Woman’s University. She has written for Texas Tribune, Glasstire, Beautiful Decay, and This is Tomorrow. Her art has been shown throughout the world including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Miami, London, and the Netherlands. www.jeanettejoyharris.me