I run with all the others; I shout: ‘Stop!’; everybody stops. Someone else shouts, ‘Let’s go!’ or, ‘To the left! To the right! To the Bastille!’ And everyone moves off, following the regulatory third party, surrounding him and sweeping past him; then the group reabsorbs him as soon as another third party, by giving some order or by some action visible to all, constitutes himself as regulatory for a moment. But the order is not obeyed.
Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘The Fused Group’1
Performance and protest are both contexts where the dynamics of permission and allowance are felt, negotiated, and tested. Of course, as domains that overlap and intersect on many levels, social movements and works of performance art involve encounters between bodies where the questions of who can do what, when, and how are played out through the embodied exchange of gestures. As experiential and often participatory situations, they are contexts to engage with others in ways that might re-align what is in and out of bounds, what is on or off the table. In performance as well as in modes of encounter specific to demonstrations and marches, social permission is hardly transparent, as explicit codes, implicit conventions, and normalized structures of power often layer or complicate who is authorized to do what.
I present here two contemporary episodes that stage the giving and taking of permission. The first takes place in the context of an evening of performance and the second, a political protest that unfolds into a freeway take-over. Occurring during the same summer in Oakland, these two events — an evening of dance and performance titled the No Thank You Biennial and a demonstration against the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile— offer instances where permission is fully granted and fully denied: in the former, the artistic sphere is constructed as one of total permission, and in the latter, the freeway is a place where a crowd is explicitly not allowed. Both the performance and the protest are situations in which those involved discovered and probed in real time what they could and could not do. The examples contrast with each other in that those in positions of authority and authorization took opposing stances: the curators explicitly bestowing permission and the police explicitly prohibiting it. These two examples point towards the ambiguity and abstruseness of how two people together, or a group of people in a dark room, or a crowd of people on the street, collectively generate what is okay and not okay, mostly through the use of their bodies. While having distinctly different stakes, political registers, and degrees of vulnerability and antagonism, both the No Thank You show and the anti-police protest offer moments to study how permission and allowance can move and morph through collectively embodied negotiation. Observing the swirls, eddies, and rapids of social mobilization may be key to the task of delegitimizing and de-authorizing the forces that keep in place structures of exploitation, violence, and dispossession.
1. The No Thank You Biennial
Bay Area-based dancers Abby Crain, Mara Poliak, and Maryanna Lachman hosted an evening of performance they entitled the No Thank You Biennial at the Starline Social Club, a performance venue and bar in Oakland on May 25, 2016. They invited a dozen local performers to present their rejected, bad, or inappropriate ideas, describing the event in the following terms:
An evening of rejected, ridiculous, uncensored, and possibly brilliant but impractical (or not curate-able or not fundable) ideas, that someone (collaborator, performer, funder, lover, yourself, or whoever), labeled impossible or too intense or inappropriate or uncool to do. Nothing is too weird, too boring, too illogical, or too intense for the NO THANK YOU BIENNIAL!
This framing of the evening granted performers a far-reaching amount of permission, and in some ways, the permissiveness of the container was a way of making visible broader codes about what is or is not allowed in social spaces. While performers approached the invitation in a number of ways, a few took it as a challenge to present some material that actually would not be allowed within the frame of the evening, calling the bluff on the expansive sense of artistic permission.
In this vein, queer performance artist Philip Huang presented a piece called ‘Trigger Warning’. After warming up the audience with some racist jokes, Huang proceeded to give an extensive trigger warning for a performance that was allegedly about to happen, where he and an assistant would select a female volunteer from the audience and proceed to rape her on stage. It escalated into Huang imitating her cries for help and whimpers of pain. This move, in a room populated by queers and feminists, was a no-no. Some people walked out. Some shouted at him. Others called back, ‘You’re failing Philip. No one is offended.’
In speaking with Huang about his work, he views his pieces as investigations into processes of collective repression.2 He takes up questions of violence, race, and gender because they are the shadowy, untouchable subjects that challenge warm, facile senses of togetherness. Modeled after the genre of drag performance that builds up to ‘the reveal’ moment, Huang likes to set up an expectation and then counter it. He begins his performances with a funny, charming tone and then tests at what moment he can detect an audience turning away from him in disgust. For him, these moments, especially when they bring out divisions and confusion within an audience, reveal the mechanisms of group repression. As someone who has experienced forms of structural oppression, Huang thinks that the best way to respond to situations of violence is to laugh at them.
While I can understand the logic of Huang’s approach, I felt paralyzed in the presence of his trigger warning by questions of intersectionality. Was I going to play the role of the white cis-woman who interrupted the performance of the QPOC artist? Was I going to sit passively and listen to a man make fun of or dig into the wounds of sexual violence against women? Was I employing a tokenizing form of identity politics that seeks to give space to people of certain social positions, irrespective of their content and politics? (People of any race, class, or gender identity can enact police violence, as the slogan goes: A.C.A.B.: All Cops Are Bastards.) Was Huang playing a hyperbolic racist and sexist so that the room would have to face its own uncomfortable complicity with these broader social structures? Was this a perpetuation of anti-black racism and misogyny, very thinly cloaked as experimental performance? In one sense, the audience allowed Huang’s trigger warning to take place. No one shut down the performance, and he eventually left the stage of his own accord. In another sense, the audience pushed back against the piece, both in the moment of the performance and in the reception of it afterwards, making it clear that the room did not tolerate his contribution. Indeed, Huang has a near résumé of performance contexts in the Bay Area from which he has been banned.
By the end of the No Thank You Biennial, the tone in the room was not celebratory and liberated from artistic timidity, but more aptly, confused and alienated. No one wanted to hang out afterwards for a drink. Through its polarization and extremity, Huang’s performance did compel audience members to participate in the group’s process of negotiating what it would permit in its presence. Of course, audience members likely took a range of positions on Huang’s contribution to the evening, and my narration of the events may simplify the complexity of what exactly happened, who said what, and what conclusions can be drawn about the group as whole. But what is clear is that the group found itself contesting the processes of curatorial authorization. The No Thank You Biennial provides an instance where explicit permission involved a set of implicit prohibitions as well as a circumstance where a group authorizes itself to re-negotiate decisions about the evening.
2. The Taking of the 880 Freeway
A month and a half later, following news of the deaths at the hands of police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Oakland was pissed. Black Lives Matter organizers called for a march on 7 July 2016 beginning in downtown Oakland that would ‘Shut It Down’, and I was one of more than a thousand who joined the protest. After a significant crowd had accumulated, we walked down Broadway towards the headquarters of the Oakland Police department. After lingering there to confront and shame the cops outside the building, the crowd turned around and trickled onto 6th Street, towards the off ramp of the 880 freeway. The group quickly authorized itself to walk up the off-ramp and onto the freeway’s eight lanes, blocking traffic in both directions.
Just like that, the freeway was shut down and remained so until about 1:15am. People hung out there, sitting in the freeway lanes and on the concrete divider, shouting anti-police chants, playing music, dancing, and talking to each other. Some projected video of those that had been killed on to the side of a white semi-truck. Others spray-painted the names of people shot by the police in the Bay Area. Some started a bonfire on the off-ramp, burning debris gathered from along the freeway. No one had been granted permission to do any of this. Through gesture, through the communication that takes place between bodies, and through the collective self-authorization of the crowd, those on the freeway gave themselves permission, or perhaps took permission. Of course, the police could have used force and swiftly conducted a mass arrest of everyone on the freeway. The fact that they did not, that they waited for demonstrators to leave of their own accord, indicates the elasticity and suppleness of law and order. The legal apparatus that underpins so-called law enforcement often has little or nothing to do with credibility and due process.
While Oakland police have faced severe criticism for their brutality, violence, and lack of accountability, the department has simultaneously undermined its own credibility from within. Beginning in March 2016, news broke of a widespread sex scandal involving officers from the Oakland police department and several other law enforcement agencies. A teenaged sex worker who went by the name Celeste Guap came forward with information that she had sexual relationships with local police in exchange for protection, information, and money. After the outing of this news, the Oakland Police Chief resigned, and the department went through three successive chiefs within the space of nine days. Following a series of firings, suspensions, and resignations, at least seven East Bay police offers will face trial for rape and sexual misconduct. This scandal and its reach all the way up to the chief of police makes explicit the charade of what is officially authorized as ‘law’ and ‘justice.’ The lack of credibility, among many other aspects of the police, calls for a profound distrust of their role as the official arbiters of order and permission.
The juxtaposition of the No Thank You Biennial and the 880 freeway protest demonstrates the collective negotiation of permission and its real-time contestation of who decides what is allowed. In the context of the No Thank You show, the curators explicitly granted all artistic permission to performers, yet the reaction of the audience made clear that some contributions to the evening were not allowed. This denial did not manifest through the shutting down of the performance but through both subtle and overt channels of reception. The collective, horizontal authority that contested Huang’s performance also appeared within the crowd on the freeway. No single person made the decision to shut down the freeway. In the exigent moment, you and everyone else do not know what is about to happen. You look around and watch what others decide to do and what you find yourself doing, perhaps excited, perhaps confused. Through movement, the group sets its own terms, finding within itself an embodied group jurisdiction. The instances themselves, both the performance and the freeway protest, function as spaces to contest structures of allowance. They demonstrate a challenge to who grants permission: the curators or the audience, the police or the crowd. They constitute experiments and testing grounds for the contestation of authorization in both art and politics.
The political task of our present moment could be understood as making what is normally allowed – mass incarceration, bombs raining down on whole regions, the daily and stratified misery of waged work – totally un-permitted. In a talk at UC Berkeley on 18 March 2015 titled ‘Blackness and Poetry,’ Fred Moten spoke about the dynamics of extra-legality, or the making and breaking of rules.3 What he called ‘the brutal fluidity of rules’ only becomes a problem when a certain group monopolizes the jurisprudential principle. In our present moment, the ability to make and break rules is hijacked by the state, the police, and the raced, gendered, and classed logics that underlie them. Social movements and situations of performances are spaces where groups self-authorize or collectively allow themselves to break rules, make messes, and disrupt what normally happens. They are spaces to turn the passive phrasing of ‘is allowed’ into the active declaration of ‘we do not allow.’ Both the theater and the street can be sites to figure out one’s role in the making and taking of allowance.
Olive McKeon is a doctoral candidate at UCLA, completing a dissertation on historical materialism and modern/postmodern dance history in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently teaching in the Critical Studies department at the California College of the Arts.
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason: Theory of Practical Ensembles. Edited by Jonathan Rée. Translated by Alan Sheridan-Smith (New York: Verso, 2004), pp. 379-80. ↩
- Philip Huang, interview with the author, 22 September 2016. ↩
- Fred Moten, ‘Blackness and Poetry’. University of California, Berkeley (2015): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Su7iCumqLvo. ↩