A Riot is the Language of the Unheard: An Exercise in Unrestrained Speech

THE COOPER UNION | OCTOBER 6, 2012

Can speech acts, particularly those fueled by the aura of political gesture and first amendment rights, constitute a legitimate form of art making? Few would deny that poetry and spoken word are established art forms: consider, as only a small sampling, the urban texts of Frank O’Hara, which gave voice to a burgeoning, 20th-century New York; the talk poetry of David Antin, whose ability to seamlessly weave philosophical, linguistic, and art historical modes (all the while grounded in personal narrative) was mesmerizing in its complexity and ease of execution; or the Whitney Museum’s recent retrospective of the artist/activist Sharon Hayes, whose artistic expression finds an outlet in the vernacular participation of hundreds. Yet when it comes to the language of riot, this idea of language as art form is often overlooked—and if it is acknowledged, it is rarely committed to the chronicles of art criticism. 

Doug Ashford, “Six Moments in 1967 # 5,” 2010. Tempera on wood. 12 × 12”. Courtesy the artist.

If we hold true to the idea that all art is rooted in communication, however, we are left to realize that there is no more direct form of communicative address than that of riotous speech. Practiced in numbers, a cacophony of sound joined by a united will and shared freely, the “mob” has, throughout history, determined cultural and political outcome. On October 6, in the Rose Auditorium at Cooper Union, this historical precedent again found its staying power, with a series of readings and performances organized by co-curators Steven Lam and Saskia Bos.

Titled “A riot is the language of the unheard,” the event, held in conjunction with the larger exhibition Ruptures: Forms of Public Address, also on view at Cooper Union, featured performances, speech acts, and readings by a formidable cast: Doug Ashford, A.K. Burns, Mary Walling Blackburn + Che Chen, Thom Donovan, Corrine Fitzpatrick, Naeem Mohaiemen, Gregory Sholette, and Krzysztof Wodiczko.

Mining the annals of advertising literature, Doug Ashford—well known for his work as part of the New York based collaborative Group Material (1983 – 1996) and currently a professor at Cooper Union—recited one of the standout speeches of the afternoon. Appropriating a series of one-liners from various Nike ads, Ashford rallied the audience with discursive exclamations of love, motivation, and desire. Ripped from its original context and reassembled as a means of empathic protest, the ad-language is transformed into a genuine oration that set its sights against the mitigating power of the media, while simultaneously acting as testament to the undeniable authority of speech intrinsic to such manifestations of commodified voice.

In a more performative vein, Mary Walling Blackburn and the sound artist/improviser Che Chen more or less “sang” (if dissonant, elongated patterns of diction can be equated to singing) a text by Guy Hocquenghem, the infamous French writer and queer theorist. In the darkened auditorium, lit specifically for Blackburn + Chen’s work, Guy’s words took on a presence even more haunting than the author’s original score, the subtextual emotion of the work reverberating with controlled alienation and anxiety.

Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) founding member A.K. Burns recited her first public speech, originally delivered at the Creative Time Summit in 2008, which called for a correction in the corporate value to wage structure assigned to the economy of the artist, followed by a significantly shorter utopian plea—originally written by Lee Lozano of the Art Workers Coalition—for “total revolution, both personal and public.” During her speech, Burns also cited a number of statistics, from the later 2010 W.A.G.E. survey, which polled a cross-section of approximately 1000 artists. The results of that survey can be found here.

The issue presented by Burns and W.A.G.E. is as political as it is economic. Where the supply-to-demand ratio is so unequivocally underappreciated relative to an artist’s time, talent, and money, action must be taken. In light of the doctrines of organizations like this, it becomes impossible to deny that politics and artistic speech acts have a longstanding relationship. It is here, in the reflection of socio-economically inflected protest, whether that be in the form of a practical text, like Burns’s, or a utopian poem by a member of the Art Workers Coalition, that the artist’s voice is most clearly articulated.

Along these lines, Krzysztof Wodiczko presented on his ambitious “War Veteran Vehicle Project” (2008 − present), also on view as part of the Ruptures exhibition. The project was initiated out of Wodiczko’s need to give voice to the traumatized veterans of war attempting to re-assimilate into civilian life and, more importantly, to the secondary victims of war trauma—the wives and children of the ex-military. Noting some startling statistics—that in this country alone, over 50,000 men and women of various generations suffer from some form of war-inflicted post-traumatic stress disorder, and that only 1 percent of these victims finds the strength to speak out—Wodiczko conceived of (in psychoanalytic terms) a mobile transitional object to give the power of expression back to these (formerly) heroic figures. The transitional object, a redesigned Humvee outfitted with an industrial-grade video projector and speakers, projects words onto the façades of buildings in ricocheted syncopation with the gunfire that would have elicited the phrases to follow. Flashes of text, such as “I thought he was going to kill me” and “It’s like standing on the top of a mountain shouting I’m over here,” resound with powerful affect as the speed of the sequencing of text and the echo of firing shells gradually escalates. 

The language of riot is that echo of fired shells, targeting one formidable, moving and slippery notion: that there is no more beautiful artistic force than that of free speech. Thank you, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cooper Union, for reminding us of that. 


30 Cooper Square // New York, NY

Contributor

Kara L. Rooney

Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.

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