Protests and Pauses - An Unexpected Re-routing

By Kim McLeod
PhD Candidate Theatre and Performance Studies
York University

IMG_6188Winter 1969. A group of students barricade themselves in a computer lab on the ninth floor. The raucous occupation lasts almost two weeks. September 2002. Another group of protesters. This time there are more—at least a thousand. The action starts on the street outside but eventually spills into the building atrium where yells and chants fill the cavernous space. May 2014. I stand in the same atrium. Classes have ended for the year and it is eerily quiet. A few people pass, their shoes clicking on the polished floor. I take the elevator to the ninth floor. Again, it is almost empty and starkly quiet. I peer into the small rectangular windows on the doors of classrooms and computer labs, wondering which one was taken over.

These three events—though temporally separated—all took place in the Hall Building at Concordia University, a school known for its history of protest and the political activism of its student body. The first event occurred back when the school was still known as George Williams University and a group of students took over a computer lab to protest how the administration had dealt with allegations that a professor unfairly graded West Indian students. It was eventually violently broken up by riot police in an event that led to the lab’s destruction. More recently, in 2002, students and non-students protested an on-campus speech by (then former) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After a police intervention—and some claims of violence—the speech was cancelled and the building evacuated.

The third event was my own visit to the space—not at a time of protest, but at a time of apparent calm. The visit was part of a larger devising and research trip to educate and immerse myself in Montreal’s history of protest. This research was for a performance installation developed with my colleague Helene Vosters and presented at the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics’ Encuentro, which was held at Concordia in June 2014.

IMG_6172From this research we developed a site-specific, participatory project—Re-Manifestations: Embodying Routes of Contemporary Protest—focused on a number of physical sites in Montreal. The performance score, which was available both online and onsite, invited participants to use archival images and artifacts as prompts to activate a connection between the documented event and the participant’s own social, cultural, and geopolitical location. Participants could intervene by holding a handwritten sign or using their body in the space. They were then be invited to document their intervention and upload it using a hashtag or bring it to our installation space. In the space, we posted maps, images, recordings and other archival artifacts we had come across in our research. We also invited local activists and protesters to bring their own objects to add to the collection.

This performance score aimed to create a container through which participants could add their own connection to (or disconnection from) a site. This framework was meant to follow Norman Denzin’s call for performances that “create a space for dialogue and questions, giving voice to positions previously silenced or ignored” (111). Through these public and embodied interventions, the sites would be re-manifested and given new layers that destabilized official, dominant narratives and images of protests. However, as we began working within the specific context of Montreal—which neither of us have lived in—the disconnection side of the project came into the forefront. From the moment I stood in the Hall Building, I was struck not only by the tranquility of the space, but by my own lack of connection with the building and the events that had occurred there. I felt the weight of my responsibility as an artist doing site-specific work in a place I did not call home and about often decade-old events I had little personal stake in. When working in the installation space the following month, my own lack of connection became a motivating force in my engagement with the project.

IMG_6230The installation space was in a third floor study room, away from the hustle and bustle of the major conference/festival sites. Because of this, we had few passersby and less participants than expected. Helene and I often ended up alone in our installation space with time to engage with the project directly, rather than facilitating it for others. Our reactions to this abundance of time reflected something of our approaches to life and research. Helene, a consummate crafter, approached the project in a meditative way, crocheting a long red chain out of some yarn we had been using for documentation. Helene was moved to begin this work in response to a 2.5 kilometre yarn blockade concurrently being crocheted by women from the Gitga’at Nation of British Columbia to protest the federal government’s approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline. For Helene, the chain pointed to the sites we had researched on the edges of Montreal—to the bridges and underpasses flowing into the city that have been the location of indigenous struggles. While we had them marked on a digital map accessible on our website, these sites were beyond the limits of the analogue map at the centre of the installation. This act of crafting embodied our own blind spots and omissions as we had focused on urban sites in downtown areas close to the conference.

In contrast to Helene’s still and focused intervention, I took a more frantic approach, constantly searching through online archives for new images and events to tag within the space, especially those that had few archival traces associated with them. Rebecca Schneider notes, “The past can disrupt the present…but so too can the present disrupt the past…neither are entirely ‘over’ nor discrete, but partially and porously persist” (15). Even though I was investigating events in Montreal, this process forced me to consider my relationship to activist actions in my own backyard. The examples of more boisterous actions sparked some regrets over the times I chose not to become physically engaged in acts of protest. The past and the present—along with different localities—began to co-mingle and unsettle my sense of self as an activist-artist. I began to question our privileging of particular events—choices that stemmed from what has been circulated and saved over time. Our research had inevitably focused on the loudest, brashest and most visible protests—as seen in the events at the Hall Building—often overlooking the quiet,the meditative, the personal.

This disquiet regarding my own engagements with activism and what we focus on when we talk about protest turned out to be shared. As we neared the end of the week long installation, we received an artifact from a local activist. A fellow theatre maker and scholar, this participant told us that, in the end, she could not give us the artifact she had intended to submit. Instead, she gave us a written letter—her “Archive of Guilt.” The letter traces her experience as part of the 2012 Quebec student protests, which rallied against proposed tuition increases by the provincial government. While ostensibly about her acquiring and then losing an object related to the event, the letter reflected on how this loss was wrapped up in her guilt over whether she could have engaged more directly in the cause—whether she should have “gone to more marches, more meetings, been louder or anything.” At the same time, she admits to having ambivalence towards the cause and where she stood within it, wondering whether it is possible to be a part of a cause without being fully immersed in it all the time, “because after awhile I did go back to my work,and stopped marching.”

While we had envisioned Re-Manifestations as a polyvocal project that broke down dominant or singular narratives related to sites of protest, through continued devising it evolved into a personal intervention that was perhaps less overtly radical, but still generative. Soyini D. Madison argues that radical performance “[confronts]…the ‘root’ of a problem. It is to reach for the causes of an issue and not simply respond to its symptoms. It is a showdown with limitations to embrace necessary excess and to disturb a state of affairs in pursuit of confronting those root causes” (18). Protest actions often require a great deal of adrenaline and focus on the task at hand. For us, Re-Manifestations became a pause—a performance space with time to dwell on how protest actions are framed and enacted. We ended up engaging less with “root causes” on a large, institutional scale, but instead looked to the roots of our own processes and how they reflected dominant ways of envisioning protest.

Work Cited
Denzin, Norman. Performance Ethnography. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2003. Print.

Madison, D. Soyini. Acts of Activism: Human Rights as Radical Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Schneider, Rebecca. Performing Remains. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.