Embracing the Society of the Spectacle as a Strategy to Combat It
By Steven Frost, in response to the Tilt West Roundtable: The Lure of Spectacle in Politics and Art
Artist and filmmaker Laurie Anderson called for January 20th, 2018 to be named Art Action Day. Through a coalition known as The Federation, she asked artists and arts organizations across the globe to respond to the policies and rhetoric of the Trump Administration with creative community action. Here in Denver, in conjunction with Art Action Day and The Federation, and hours after the 2nd International Women’s March, a group of 30 artists, activists, curators, and curious people gathered at RedLine for Tilt West’s roundtable forum on The Lure of Spectacle in Politics and Art. The starting point for the conversation was Guy Debord’s seminal text, The Society of the Spectacle. Given the shifting state of contemporary art, the Denver gentrification boom, and the reality TV star who now occupies the White House, it is hard to find a more timely text to discuss than Debord’s 1967 treatise. Participants in the roundtable shared their anger towards the Trump Administration; considered the concept of spectacle in relation to Denver’s current art scene; and offered possible strategies to engage art and spectacle as tools of political resistance.
The conversation began with a prompt by filmmaker, DJ, and DIY organizer, Laura Conway. Conway tied Trump’s rise to power directly with his status as a reality TV star and highlighted his ability to always be at the center of public discourse. She connected the spectacle of our national politics to recent trends in the contemporary art world. As she pointed out: “Museums are now filled with tourists, Instagrammers, and, frankly, just normal people. Spectacular attractions make the museum a pedestrian place, one that many types of people might visit on a weekend afternoon. One person’s dumbing down may be another person’s democratization.”
Conway’s observation instantly focused the room on Denver’s next big art spectacle, Meow Wolf. It’s a welcome new tourist attraction in the eyes of the city’s developers, but for others it’s a sign that Denver’s DIY days may be coming to an end. As a recent transplant and newcomer to the Denver art world, I hadn’t fully considered how artists in this region would receive Meow Wolf. Many in the room expressed distrust of the Meow Wolf artists who have found a way to capitalize on the DIY space aesthetic and build it into a multi-city, profitable empire. Denver artists are welcome to hate on Meow Wolf. We wouldn’t be artists if we didn’t throw shade once in a while. I and other participants offered strategies for Meow Wolf’s impending arrival. Perhaps, instead of standing outside of the spectacle of Meow Wolf and passively watching its impact on the region, we should step inside and learn its tricks. Spectacle is everywhere in society today, and it’s powerful. Why not harness it to achieve our artistic and societal ends?
When describing the spectacle, Debord wrote, “It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society.” Undoubtedly, this was an impending concern in 1967 in response to the prevalence of film and television, but a half-century later, the society of the spectacle has gained even greater traction with the arrival of the Internet, cell phones, and social media, and each of us plays a part in its perpetuation. It would be difficult to step away from these technologies and still maintain our professional and personal relationships. The spectacle — as Debord imagined it — has consumed our very existence.
In a world measured by likes and clicks, it is fair to say that the spectacle has become one of the primary rulers by which we measure our place in our culture. Clicks and likes provide instant feedback; they tell us how cute our dog is, or how impressive our meal is. This dynamic has inspired restaurants to install more camera-friendly lighting and has increased everyone’s self-policing and self-staging. A few years ago, I broke my arm in a bike accident. The thought of sympathy-clicks so disturbed me that every time I had to be in a group photo (which was surprisingly often), I would take off my sling and hide my arm brace behind something or under a jacket. The self that I presented to the world on Instagram and Facebook was one that was fully-functioning and required no one’s sympathy.
In his 2009 essay for e-flux titled “Self Design + Aesthetic Responsibility,” curator, theorist, and author Boris Groys wrote, “Where it was once a privilege and a burden for the chosen few, in our time, self-design has come to be the mass cultural practice par excellence.” Groys sees a world where our ability to be part of the spectacle, constructing our own image, has become one of our primary functions as participants in contemporary culture. He goes on to write, “The aestheticization of politics is similarly considered to be a way of substituting substance with appearance, real issues with superficial image-making.” This suggests that perhaps our power as artists to influence society has diminished; today, everyone can be entertainers and image-makers, and — because of this — politicians, too, have the ability to construct their own public images. Like everyone else, their actions are influenced by social media’s feedback loop.
When we consider the damage that Trump’s seemingly insatiable desire for retweets, likes, and clicks is doing to our economy, to vulnerable communities, and to our national discourse, it is easy to feel lost. It’s easy to blame the technology that he has employed for his rise to power. However, it’s far too simple and genuinely dangerous to dismiss Trump as mere spectacle. He is, unfortunately, very real. He is working to counteract the shifting demographic of America as a majority minority country, to keep power in the hands of wealthy, white Americans. His is an agenda of white supremacy and, while spectacle propelled his election success in 2016, it can also help us design the strategies we need to combat him.
Queer communities have often used the spectacle as both a mask and megaphone in times of crisis. The ballroom culture, made famous in Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris is Burning, provided an opportunity for a group of queer people of color to perform wealth, power, and privilege that they couldn’t experience in their daily lives. For many in the 1980’s ballroom scene, the spectacle of voguing was both a creative and a political action. At a time when expressing their gender identity or sexuality in daily life meant risking their health, safety, and livelihood (this is still true in much of the world including most of the US), being themselves could only happen in a private space or in the safety of a dance hall. The AIDS crisis in the 1980’s inspired many creative actions like the Names Project and Act-Up. Each utilized spectacle to combat the Reagan administration’s willful inaction on AIDS research. We see time and time again that when a group of people is rendered powerless by outside forces, the power of spectacle can engage audiences and move social justice agendas forward.
Days after the 2016 election, at a moment when progressives and people of color were feeling defeated and powerless, the Chicago-based artist Aram Han Sifuentes started the Protest Banner Lending Library project. Her project teaches people to sew their own protest banners and serves as a library where people can lend or give protest banners. It started as a way to process her own feelings about the election and voice her thoughts on the state of our country, but it quickly it grew into a an international project. The library now contains hundreds of banners with phrases as hopeful as, “Fight Ignorance/ Not Immigrants,” and as reactive as, “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK!”
Other artists like Carole Frances Lung, based in Long Beach, California, are asking people to take a break from spectacle and slow down to contemplate what they can do in reaction to the current administration. Lung’s ongoing Mend America project is built around public workshops. Mend America invites participants to sew patches with an upside-down image of the American Flag embedded in a map of the United States. Participants finish their patches and then are asked to send a letter of thanks, a rant, or a call to action to an elected official. Lung ties the act of making to a direct political gesture. She catalogues the Mend America patches that are sent to hundreds of public officials. These messages are small but powerful statements. Their slowness and connection to the culture of the handmade gives them less visibility — but more creative currency — than a tweet.
In Denver, artists are also using this moment in our national conversation to build community around a collective response to the Trump Administration. This month, artist and curator Anna Kaye will launch an exhibition called Pink Progression at the Boulder Public Library, Denver Public Library, and Center for Visual Arts (in April). Her ambitious project (which I am humbled to be a part of) gathers together nearly 50 artists and writers to consider the color pink in relation to the Women’s March. The artists in the show have created workshops, writing, works of art, and participatory responses to gender roles, ‘pinkness,’ the Women’s March, and the Trump Administration. Kaye’s exhibition includes many voices but together their responses continue the conversations started by the first Women’s March.
The history of harnessing the spectacle as a political and creative tool, and the recent success of projects by local and national artists, suggests that our collective response to the spectacle of Trump has to be something greater than simply exasperation, anger, and fear. Instead, artists need to build communities that can support and sustain efforts to respond to political issues as they pop up, while also pursuing long-term goals tied to social justice and reform. In addition to designing DIY forms of protest, we must utilize all modes of the spectacle to resist. While Trump may be the pinnacle of the modern spectacle, it doesn’t belong to him. We as artists and activists must not shy away from the spectacle but instead take inspiration from Paris is Burning and own it!
Artist Steven Frost makes visible the hidden histories of materials through collaborations, objects, and performances. A fiber-based artist, he uses the history of textiles as a window into issues of community building, queer culture, and conservation. His work includes investigations into the secret life of Liberace, collaborations with civic organizations, marketing in the firearms industry, and projects exploring fiber and masculinity. Frost holds a BFA from Alfred University and an MFA in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Currently based in Boulder, Colorado, he has performed and exhibited his work across the country for nearly 20 years. He hosts monthly Sewing Rebellions at the Boulder Public Library. Frost recently presented his research on the history of the marketing and production of pink firearms at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. On March 30th, he will host an evening of performances and workshops at the Denver Art Museum. Frost is also an instructor of Media Studies and Performance Art at the University of Colorado Boulder in the College of Media Communication and Information.
Tilt West’s mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture through live events and publishing efforts. We aim to provide a platform for inclusive community discussion and debate on a range of issues relevant to cultural production in Colorado and beyond. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions of the organization. For more information about our programs, including audio recordings of roundtable discussions, go to our website: tiltwest.org.