THE CENTER FOR TACTICAL MAGIC HOSTS A BATTLE IN ATLANTA:
Freedom Fighter | Round 1: Fight for $15
Fog machines and pyro simulators illuminate two enormous raised fists that frame a projection screen. Strobes flash, trap and dubstep music fills the air, the announcer warms up the crowd, and the referee paces anxiously across the large inflatable gladiator pit. In a moment, the battle will begin. The audience waits eagerly to see which member of the public is up next, and who they will fight against. “Are you ready to rumble!?!?”
Freedom Fighter is new a project from the Center for Tactical Magic being unveiled for the first time at Flux Night 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. Equal parts performance art, mixed-media sculpture, and artistic intervention, Freedom Fighter is an interactive public project that uses an inflatable “joust” arena as a stage for actualizing social struggles through mock combat. In the premiere of this project, Round 1: Fight for $15, the attention turns toward the national and local campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and unionize underpaid workers.
In one corner, corporate fast-food mascots (performed by local actors from Dad’s Garage Theater Company) flex their muscles, taunt the crowd, and prepare to prove their dominance in the arena. In the other corner, are the challengers: eager members of the general public who have signed up for their chance to take a swing at Ronald McDonald, Colonel Sanders, Wendy, Jack-in-the-Box, Burger King, and the Taco Bell Chihuahua. On the surface, Freedom Fighter looks like activist street theater. But Aaron Gach, co-founder of the Center for Tactical Magic, peels back the layers.
Q: In the past, the Center for Tactical Magic has collaborated with numerous groups and individuals on a range of social justice topics, including the Urban Justice Center in New York, Berkeley Copwatch, the ACLU, and David Hilliard - one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party. Are you working with collaborators in Atlanta as well?
A: It’s an exciting mix of partners on this project. We’ve teamed with a local improv theater group – Dad’s Garage – who are interpreting and performing all of the mascot roles as well as the main announcer and referee. There’s also a local DJ – IFLY’s Extremely Michael – who is mixing audio samples, dubstep, and trap music to create the beats to go along with the beat downs. We’ve also reached out to Raise Up ATL – the local fast-food workers organizing campaign – to use this event to highlight their efforts and to be involved as challengers in the arena. And, of course, the project would not be possible without a huge amount of logistical support and staffing from Flux Projects.
Q: How did you come up with this project? Is this something you’ve been working on for a while or was it specifically developed for Atlanta
A: A little of both. Since it’s inception in 2000, the Center for Tactical Magic has produced socially-engaged projects that have covered a wide range of political topics, including police accountability, racial profiling, and economic disparity to name but a few. Although there was the temptation to recycle a past project and reposition it in relation to Flux Night, we also felt that there was an opportunity to address current social justice campaigns that are consistent with some of these less-celebrated aspects of Dr. King’s legacy.
When the CTM was invited to participate, the invitation was met with an equal measure of excitement and apprehension. The opportunity to design a project for Atlanta and to present it among such an extraordinary company of artists is nothing short of amazing. But the challenges are also immense: create a unique work of art to be enjoyed for a mere 5 hours by tens of thousands of people (only some of which might be sober). Add to this a layer of history and politics embedded in the location (the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr National Historic Site), as well as our own mission to create interactive projects that engage current social issues, and the task is indeed a daunting one.
Over several months, we developed numerous proposals, passed along a few of them, and after much discussion, ultimately began work developing the current project. It is a blend of performance, mixed-media sculpture, and artistic intervention. But, it is also something more than that. It is an attempt to honor the tremendous legacy of Dr. King without simply historicizing it. Too often, it seems, that the words of Dr. King are treated like a footnote in the past rather than a metric of our present, or a prologue of our future.
Q: How so?
A: While businesses across the country use “MLK Day” to promote deals on mattresses, cars, and other consumables, many schools celebrate by teaching students about Dr. King’s valiant efforts to defeat racial segregation through nonviolence. Although this is a step in the right direction, the lessons often stop there as if the problems of the 1960’s have long since been put to rest. Little attention is given to Dr. King’s nuanced articulation of the “three evils of racism, militarism, and exploitation.” Topics such as economic justice, state-sponsored violence, radical love, or his firm belief that “war is the enemy of the poor” are often left out altogether. But, for Dr. King, the problems of racial inequality, economic disparity, and global war were all deeply connected and have to be addressed as a whole if we are to establish a just society.
Q: Ok, so let’s get this right: In honor of Dr. King you’ve proposed a fight?!? People are going to be able to sign up for a chance to get into the ring with a fast-food mascot and duke it out using large foam weapons, right?
A: It’s violent only in the most simplistic terms. Yes, it involves aggressive physical contact between participants, but ultimately it is symbolic violence ritually performed to represent the actual violence of economic exploitation. I would say it’s less violent than a high school football game and slightly more violent than arm wrestling. I use this example to give us some context – games, play, contests. Without context, a conversation about “violence” is puerile and flattens the term to a point where things like war and horror movies are treated with a false equivalence. So while this project likens the struggle for a livable wage to gladiatorial combat, it does not actively advocate for workers to take up spatulas and attack their corporate overlords.
Q: Still, doesn’t this seem at odds with Martin Luther King, Jr’s message of nonviolence?
A: Dr. King spoke and wrote specifically, and at great length, about “militant nonviolent direct action.” He was absolutely adamant that nonviolent direct action should not be regarded as mere passivity. In his own words, he spoke about nonviolence as a “just weapon” wielded against oppression in a manner that balanced both realism and idealism. Dr. King’s vision of nonviolence was not one devoid of power, confrontation, or tension. Quite the opposite. Unfortunately, over the years his tactical articulations of “militant nonviolence” have often been reduced - some would say white-washed - to a flaccid concept of non-confrontation.
Q: Well, in that case, maybe he would disapprove of this project for not going far enough. Maybe it’s too symbolic and not direct enough?
A: Ha! Yes, perhaps. But, there’s a great quote from Dr. King regarding the necessity for “creative protest”: “If we are to implement the American dream, we must continue to engage in creative protest in order to break down all of those barriers that make it impossible for the dream to be realized.” I think this idea of “creative protest” is often lost on activists today when they simply resort to the standard protest tropes without any real strategic vision. A march should play a powerful role within an activist campaign rather than just be a default outlet for collective angst. Our hope with this project is not just to symbolically perform the very real struggles between the working class and large corporations. The live event will certainly do that. But beyond the event, we hope that the documentation, the imagery, social media, etc., can also tell that story in a way that can gather even greater support and recognition for the campaign.
Q: In what way?
A: The imagery associated with labor struggles is almost always the same: a group of people with picket signs. While this may be empowering for the workers, it has limited reach to grab broad support, sympathy, or engagement. Just for fun, go do a Google image search for “Fight for $15”. Then, do a Google image search for “Labor Strikes 1920s.” The imagery is eerily similar in both good ways and bad. Continuity throughout the history of labor struggles is important to recognize, and I don’t mean to belittle that, or suggest that strikes are ineffective. However, traditional protest tactics can be used in combination with new, creative forms of protest to reach larger audiences and build momentum for a cause.
Q: While people may not be drawn in by a photo of angry fast food workers in front of McDonald’s, they might gravitate toward a shot of Ronald getting knocked off his pedestal - literally?
A: Or Ronald kicking someone’s ass. In terms of popular imagery, it’s kind of a win-win. If a challenger from the public audience defeats Ronald - or any of the other corporate mascots – the narrative effect is that of David defeating Goliath. On the other hand, if the challenger gets beat down, then the imagery reflects the current socio-economic reality. By the end of the night, not only will we have engaged the live audience, but hopefully there will be a proliferation of images to push the campaign just a little further in the right direction.
Q: The question, “Is it art or activism?” is a tired old cliché at this moment in contemporary art – of course, it is shades of both. But, how do you see this project in relation to other artworks?
A: This project is certainly in conversation with the narrative strategies of political artists from the past, going back as far as Francisco Goya, or Diego Rivera. Although it is performative, we are essentially trying to paint a dramatic picture that illustrates the challenges of our times in an engaging way. But, we are also riffing on pop culture – the spectacle of American Gladiators mashed together with corporate PR approaches – to create an aesthetic context for understanding the struggle for a living wage. Audience participation then expands the context to include a relational component that is more than simply illustrative. Challengers will have their own personal experience with the work, but onlookers will also take on a participatory role that is both subjective and collective. This idea is perhaps better expressed by the thinker R.G. Collingwood who wrote an essay in 1938 called “Art as Magic.” In it, he stated: “A magical art is an art which is representative and therefore evocative of emotion, and evokes of set purpose some emotions rather than others in order to discharge them into the affairs of practical life. Such an art may be good or bad when judged by aesthetic standards, but that kind of goodness or badness has little, if any, connection with its efficacy in its own proper work.”
Q: Ahhh, so this is where the “magic” comes in?
A: Yes, in part. We are likening certain protest tactics to a form of sympathetic magic or ritualized mock combat where symbolic action in the public sphere can help others to bring about material results in the political sphere. Some anthropologists would argue that is perhaps the oldest form of social art. However, this is not merely wishful thinking. To be clear, we cannot hope that a festive and spectacular 5-hour public art event is capable of resolving our current social crises of war, economic disparity, police brutality, and racial inequality. But, we can certainly attempt to creatively highlight current efforts that continue working to establish Dr. King’s goals. In this respect, we are presenting Freedom Fighter – Round 1: Fight for $15. That is our “dream."