From Guerilla Theatre
to Social Sculpture
by David Adams
During the 1960s a more politically active and
tactically focused form of public "street art" or "performance
art" emerged in the United States more or less out of old and new forms in
the art of drama and came to be called "guerrilla theater." It was a
kind of convergence of dramatic political activism and avant-garde theater in
the U.S., but some of its roots and predecessors could be traced back to
traditions of earlier artistic disruptive or even absurd "performances," such as those
presented as part of the Futurist and Dada artistic movements in the teens and
twenties of the twentieth century, the agitprop ("agitation
propaganda") theater of Russian Communism, and 1950s-60s happenings, as
well as from the related, newly emerging artistic form of "performance
art." During the later 1960s this took on a new form related to the
colorful qualities of youthful social protest and leftist revolutionary
rhetoric of the time.
Guerrilla theater apparently was begun by R.C. (Ronnie) Davis, the founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe (SFTM; still performing today) in cooperation with leftist political activists Saul Landau and Nina Serrano, who had staged annual satirical Anti-Military Balls at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1959 and 1960 before moving to San Francisco. Davis grew interested in the commedia dell-arte, the sixteenth-century popular theatrical form marked by stock characters in masks, improvisation of dialogue, and outdoor performances in the streets and marketplaces. The first "commedia" performed in the parks of San Francisco by Davis and company took place in May 1962 and soon added elements from the traveling American minstrel show. In his 1965 "manifesto" of guerrilla theater (a term coined by SFMT member and Digger Peter Berg) Davis set three objectives for such theater: to teach, to direct toward social change, and to be an example of change. The revolutionary guerrilla cadre provided a model for mobilizing a group of politicized artists to present satirical "moral plays and to confront hypocrisy in the society." A call to arms for a cultural revolt, guerrilla theater was intended by Davis to be a vanguard and catalyst for an American cultural revolution.1
A second phase began in the fall of 1966 when approximately twenty members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe broke away from Davis's company to found an anarchist social collective they called the Diggers. The Diggers worked as an ensemble but instead of performing in the parks, they took their radical, disruptive events to the streets. Their dramatic events were just one part of their larger social project to change peoples' consciousnesses and establish an example in the Haight-Ashbury district of a utopian, alternative society not based on private property that they called the Free City Network (which included free meal distribution, a free store, free newspapers, free transportation services, free housing [mostly communal crash pads,] free legal services, a free medical clinic, free concerts and entertainments, etc.).
The Digger version of guerrilla theater involved publicly staged street theater "events" intended to include spontaneous contributions by passersby or the "audience" and aimed to act out alternatives to ordinary "consensus reality." Their events featured such elements as eight-foot-high puppets, group games designed to interrupt urban life as usual, live rock 'n' roll music, and sometimes confrontations with the police. These soon became the 1967 "Summer of Love" "Be-Ins." This was in an effort to obliterate the distinctions between art and life, actors and audience. Davis, however, criticized the lack of professionalism in Digger productions.
A third, more well-known phase of guerrilla theater was illustrated by the Yippies ("Youth International Party"), who emerged formally in New York City in early 1968 (from similar earlier efforts during 1967) led by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Jim Fouratt, Paul Krassner, and others and partly inspired by the Diggers. The more militant yippie version of guerrilla theater staged absurd, disruptive events designed to obtain the maximum amount of publicity in the mass communications media for their revolutionary ideals and projects. Probably their most memorable spectacle was the throwing of dollar bills from the upper visitors' gallery into the trading pit at the New York Stock Exchange, whereupon all bidding stopped as the traders impulsively scrambled to grab up the shower of cash (thus exposing the fine line between uncontrolled greed and self-interest related to employment within finance capitalism). To guarantee reaching a larger audience, Hoffman previously had tipped off reporters at New York newspapers about their plans.
Another example from 1967 called "Black Flower Day" involved hanging a wreath of black-dyed daffodils along with a large banner reading "Breathing Is Bad for Your Health" in the lobby entrance of Consolidated Edison Electric Company. The yippies handed out similar wreaths to passersby and then fanned into the lobby a large pile of soot while dancing around throwing soot into the air. As the police arrived, they set off smoke bombs and fled the scene. Village Voice journalist Don McNeill wrote that their hope was that "a handful of soot down an executive's neck might be more effective than a pile of petitions begging for cleaner air."
These techniques received their maximum publicity in connection with the violent response of police to the Yippie "Festival of Life" at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, leading to the subsequent trial of the "Chicago Seven" well covered in the national media, and inspiring many similar guerrilla theater actions throughout the country.
A perceptive albeit rather utopian theoretical article from 1969 in the New York periodical Anarchos by Michael Lucas tried to explain the subversive tactical efforts of guerilla theater to bridge the gap between art and life within a political and even philosophical context and is worth quoting (selectively) at some length:
"As concrete activity based in the esthetic – the body, the senses, the imagination – guerrilla theatre brings into the radical critique of the society the dimension of the sensuous, and the question of everyday life . . . . This movement takes place simultaneously on two levels: on the one hand guerrilla theatre is the negation [abstraction] or mediation of "art" as a static object and ideological prop, of drama that separates itself from its social-political context. On the other hand guerrilla theatre is the critique of politics that does not extend into, does not fulfill daily life.
"Guerrilla theatre reveals the gap between the sensuous reality of everyday life and its organization and administration by political structure. . . ."
"Guerrilla theatre destroys the distinction of audience and actor and with that the consumerist (consumptive) imperative of bourgeois art and culture.
"The architectural unit of traditional theatre is an enclosed
packaged space which serves as the static receptacle for stage and audience.
Its 'enclosed' form fundamentally determines the forms of feeling and cognition
reflected and created in staged
drama. The interplay within the walls is completely through visual interaction of an immobile
chaired audience with the activity of the actors on stage. The audience is not
free to act but only to look. Its involvement with the action is
essentially passive and contemplative, never 'act-ive' or 'act-ual.' . . .
Immobilized in a passive position the audience can achieve only an abstract
point of view. . . . This radical separation of actor and audience heightens
the illusory unreal character of the action on stage. The actors only nominally
relate to the audience. . . .
"In guerrilla theatre there are no 'actors' or 'audience' in the formal sense. In the unfolding of a guerrilla skit the separation between the players and the spectators is destroyed as the spectator becomes organically part of the action.
"Similarly, guerrilla theatre has no script that pre-determines a formal beginning, middle, and end. To the extent that it is planned, . . . it is a 'script' designed to transcend itself in spontaneous action to negate its premeditation in the wake of the unplanned, 'unexpected' action that breaks the dramatic illusion and merges (and transforms) the action already taking place at the site. The stranger is confronted and suddenly enfolded in a drama that 'overtakes' the everyday activity in which he is engaged. The ritual of his daily routine, the 'spectacle' of everyday alienation is objectified and negated, made absurd, as the stranger becomes the subject and object of the drama.
"Daily life, the immediate, the organization of appearance is . . . recognized in guerrilla theatre as the seam and web of oppression, the skin of alienation without which the hierarchical appropriation of the social . . . would not be possible."
"Guerrilla theatre can be considered as a 'social technology' – as a complex of fluid, experimental and developing forms through which the concrete meaning of new social forms, of community (directly in terms of the organization and interplay of the senses) can become more fully conscious in both image and practice."
"Magic, myth and ritual re-emerge in guerrilla theatre . . . They return transfigured and within a different, more developed social context – purged of their super-corporeal and authoritarian trappings."2
The boundary between art and life did indeed become more permeable through guerrilla theater events, also in a number of often Feminist-inspired activist performance art events staged during the 1970s and later, which since have entered into the canon of contemporary art. One classic example would be the In Mourning and in Rage memorial performance staged at Los Angeles City Hall in 1977 as a protest against a series of violent rapes and murders by the "Hillside Strangler" that had been sensationally covered in the local media. The event began with a motorcade carrying fifty black-clad women to City Hall where nine of the women, shrouded in black mourning dress, stood in a line before a banner reading "In Memory of Our Sisters We Fight Back," as a tenth woman dressed in red addressed a crowd regarding the wider context of male violence against women (see photograph). This performance was planned by artists Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz.
Sixteen years later Lacy initiated a larger work concerning aging in the expansive "Crystal Court" of a downtown office building in Minneapolis, called The Crystal Quilt. Performed by over 400 women on Mother's Day, May 10, 1987, this work featured numerous groups of four black-costumed women seated at square tables covered in black. As they turned back the black cloths, red and yellow cloths were revealed that together formed the pattern of an enormous "quilt." Accompanied by an audiotape of local nature sounds and women's conversations, they silently enacted a choreographed pattern of hand motions that made the quilt come alive with ever-shifting patterns. The soundtrack ended with a local octogenarian woman's proclamation, "I'm not aging, I'm ripening."3
During the 1970s and 1980s Joseph Beuys several times turned his artistic "actions" (performance art) into political events in the spirit of the contemporary guerrilla theater but within his larger theoretical context of "social sculpture." For example, Beuys led several early environmental protest actions and projects (including a boxing match with a critic that Beuys won on points!), beginning with two events of 1971: Overcome Party Dictatorship Now (also known as Save the Woods), a protest of a proposed deforestation that involved the participants sweeping the forest floor and painting white crosses and rings on all trees slated to be felled (see photograph). Bog Action of that year was a solo performance appreciating wetlands along the Zuider Zee threatened by a land reclamation draining project. Many other events and public interventions were created by Beuys to remind people that politics affects all areas of life and to re-awaken enthusiasm for direct democracy in public life. These "actions" could equally well take on the dogmatism of established political parties, of communism, or that of the Church. In 1972 he led the Good Friday Peace Celebration event in front of the cathedral in Mönchengladbach. After reading statements from historical figures (including Rudolf Steiner) revealing different expressions of the threefold ideals of freedom, equality, and fraternity, a series of actions challenged the Church's passive manipulation of the concept of "peace" in the interests of the status quo using an effigy of Jesus, the cathedral door (EXIT), and the ground around it. Two months later Beuys and two students swept up the Karl-Marx-Platz in East Berlin with bright red brooms as the May Day march went past, to express sweeping up the past to make a new start at cultural revolution, collecting the rubbish in "Direct Democracy" bags printed with diagrams of the principles of the threefold social organism.4 On June 9, 1982, Beuys performed Blood Action in front of the Turkish Embassy near Bonn to protest torture in Turkey.
The potential of the "guerrilla theater/activist performance art" strategy as a way to disrupt and expose not only illusions of political reality but peoples' materialistic worldviews or limited ideas of reality ("the skin of alienation") was suggested in one of his other public actions, which was performed in two versions with pianist Henning Christiansen, one titled Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony, performed ten times August 26-30, 1970, at Edinburgh College of Art; and the other titled Celtic + ~~~ in Basel, April 6, 1971 (see photographs; Beuys also considered titling the latter event "Aquarius").5 I will describe briefly the Basel action (with a few suggestions for interpretation in parentheses), which took place in the roughly bricked city civil defense shelter. Two initial signs were drawn on a slate tablet: the first an outlines numeral one crossed by a diagonal line (indicating the crossing point of conscious ego awareness) and the second "Sybilla 1/2/3" (indicating both the Sybilline powers of prediction and the threefold human soul). Serious and concentrated, Beuys began by washing the feet of seven of the more than five hundred assembled spectators from a tub of water with two black flashlights attached (an old Christian image indicating Steiner's "fundamental social law" of serving/working for others). As Christiansen began playing the piano, Beuys, lying and crawling on the floor, used his curved-end "Eurasian staff" to lift up in three stages (of development) a blackboard with a symbolic chalk drawing on it, making a different drawing for each stage and pushing the blackboard forward in between each stage with his Eurasian Staff (each drawing perhaps related to the historical – and future – development of the Celtic Folk Spirit, who became the spirit of esoteric Christianity according to Steiner: e.g., including various images of a larynx/windpipe and different polar forms representing the articulation of speech sounds, up to the "flaming speech" of future human evolution; Beuys used seven stages in Edinburgh). Walking to a grand piano, Beuys sat on the floor and meditated. Suddenly a series of three films began, showing previous Beuys actions: Eurasianstaff, Vacuum <–> Mass, and Trans-Siberian Railway while Henning played the piano (a piece titled, I think, "fluxorum organum"; these filmed actions all seem to be concerned with the theme of undergoing a journey or transformation, achieved by a union of opposites).
Then Beuys used a round tin platter and a ladder to collect translucent gelatin that had been previously stuck on the walls in particles (uniting what is scattered). Beuys stood in the center of the civil defense room holding the filled platter high over his head and spilled the entire contents over himself. Then he took the blackboard with a "Grail drawing" on it (showing three symbols in a boat-like crescent: an ancient Tau sign, a modern intellectual right angle, and another less clear sign perhaps indicating a union of polarities), held it over his head and voiced stag cries into a microphone (the antlered stag as a symbol for both the Celts and Beuys of "spiritual powers and insight," "the soul power," and bringing "the warm positive element of life.").6 Finally, he stood straddling the blackboard drawing on the floor while holding behind him a spearlike rod in his right hand and did not move for half an hour (like a protector knight of the grail, also playing the role of sender/receiver through the tip of the spear). At the end he went to the tub of water, buckled both flashlights to his upper thighs (also lighting the back of his bent knees, apparently an alchemical symbol, Basel being the home of Paracelsus), filled a watering can, and climbed into the tub. There Christiansen poured the water over him as if in a baptism (or perhaps a sign of achieving a mature future "Waterman"/Aquarian state). The wavy lines in the title relate to the sign for the Age of Aquarius, the "Waterman," as well as to a Celtic serpent symbol indicating transformation – but here showing three "waves" in a row rather than two above each other.
Beuys's unusual social change strategies were based on art, as he said, "art in the sense of the sole, revolutionary force capable of transforming the earth, humanity, the social order, etc."7 He elaborated further in writing: "Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.
"This most modern art discipline – Social Sculpture/Social Architecture – will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor or architect of the social organism. . . . Only a conception of art revolutionized to this degree can turn it into a politically productive force, coursing through every person and shaping history."8
But Beuys did not mean the typical elite, commodified modern art of galleries and museums. To be effective in changing society, the working of art had to be expanded into society itself, into the creativity of every human being in every field of activity: "Art is, then, a genuinely human medium for revolutionary change in the sense of completing the transformation from a sick world to a healthy one. . . .it is logical that at a certain point we also abandon the physical edifice which represents, so to speak, the 'modern' and turn instead to the spot where men at their place of work and in their homes represent the basis of this expanded concept of art. This means that every man is an artist or must be considered as such since man's creativity is the real capital of a society."9 "We see that the totalization of art is now no longer related to the activities of artists and specialists in their insulated, isolated field of so-called cultural freedom."10 For Beuys, a public "Action" was nothing more (or less) than "a sculpture dissected out into its essential elements"11 – and therefore one can appreciate and comprehend the "sculptural" elements of these actions even if one has not witnessed them.
At another time he expanded further on his conception of social sculpture, referring also to Steiner's conception of a future "social art": "The work of art is the greatest riddle of all, but Man is the solution. Here is the threshold which I want to call the end of modernity, the end of all traditions. Together we will develop the social concept of art as a new-born child of the old disciplines. . . . Social art, social sculpture, which sets itself the task of apprehending more than just physical material. We also need the spiritual soil of social art, where every single person experiences and recognizes himself as a creative, world-determining being."12 In this sense Beuys's public actions were intended to galvanize more people into acting on their own potential free creativity, their ability to unite percept and concept in new discoveries of reality.
In recent years a few anthroposophical artists in the U.S. have begin to explore and consider the potentials of public social sculpture actions, both for political and for cultural-spiritual purposes.13 In addition to Rosemary McMullen's description of "Action Orange" and the Social Sculpture USA group in the accompanying article, the following is a personal example of another modest "social sculpture" political action. On February 3, 1991, in connection with the "Great Basin Green Alliance" (a predecessor of the Green Party), we designed a protest action against the U.S. war involving Kuwait and Iraq. It was called a "Funeral March for Peace in the Middle East," but could just as well have been titled "Action Black." It consisted of approximately fifty persons wearing black armbands or other black clothing, holding black flags, bearing a mock black coffin, and beating on black metal barrels labeled "Oil" along with signs reading "No Blood for Oil" (see photograph). The event began at Our Mother of Sorrows Cemetery on the north edge of Reno, Nevada, and marched in a line into downtown Reno, where a rally with speeches and music was held. A theme of one of the speeches was how the high-tech war that was killing thousands of innocent persons in Iraq and Kuwait was the path of the (first) Bush Administration from life to the cemetery (death), whereas our march, following the path of peace, led away from the cemetery to the realm of life. Some years later this "action" was repeated in a somewhat different form in downtown Sacramento, California, at the outbreak of the more recent invasion of Iraq., leading to a rally on the steps of the State Capitol Building.
Will experimentation with such performance-art activist and protest events continue to develop in the wake of a questioning of the existing forms of anthroposophical artistic work (and pressing needs for both social change and change of consciousness) or will such events remain isolated instances? Time will tell.
1 Much more on the history of guerrilla theater, R.C. Davis, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and the Diggers can be found in Michael William Doyle, "Staging the Revolution: Guerrilla Theater as a Countercultural Practice, 1965-1968" from the San Francisco Digger Archives: diggers.org/guerrilla_theater.htm. (First published in Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and '70s [New York: Routledge, 2002]), from which I have freely drawn.) See also Jan Cohen-Cruz, ed., Radical Street Performance (New York: Routledge, 1998); Henry Lesnick, ed., Guerrilla Street Theater (New York: Bard/Avon, 1973; and John Weisman, Guerrilla Theater: Scenarios for Revolution (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1973).
2 Michael Lucas, "Guerrilla Theatre, the Esthetic, and Technology," Anarchos 3 (Spring 1969): 23-25, 27-28.
3 For further descriptions and illustrations of both of these performance art pieces, see Norma Broude and Mary D. Gerrard, eds., The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), pp. 149-150, 235-239.
4 See Caroline Tisdale, Joseph Beuys (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979), pp. 269-274.
5 Accounts and beginning interpretations of these actions may be found in Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz Karin Thomas, Joseph Beuys: Life and Works, trans. Patricia Lech (New York: Barron's, 1979), pp. 213-220; Heiner Stachelhaus, Joseph Beuys, trans. David Britt (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991), pp. 143-145; Tisdale, Joseph Beuys, pp. 204-205; and Uwe M. Schneede, Joseph Beuys: Die Aktionen (Ostfildern-Ruit bei Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1993), pp. 266-299.
6 For more on the relationships of Beuys's art to animals, see my article "Joseph Beuys: Pioneer of a Radical Ecology," Art Journal 51, 2 (Summer 1992): 26-34.
7 Joseph Beuys in Carin Kuoni, comp., Energy Plan for the Western Man: Joseph Beuys in America (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990), p. 99.
8 Joseph Beuys, "I Am Searching for Field Character" in Tisdale, Joseph Beuys, p. 268.
9 Cuoni, comp., Energy Plan for the Western Man, p. 99; 1982 public dialogue in Bonn.
10 Ibid., p. 84.
11 Ibid., pp. 142-143.
12 Joseph Beuys "Talking about One's Own Country: Germany" in In Memoriam Joseph Beuys (Bonn: Inter Nationes, 1986), p. 38.
13 One could also cite the appearance of Shelly Sack's Exchange Values and the events of "Origin Future" at the Goetheanum last summer.