Art, Politics, and 1968

On Saturday, August 2 artist Mark Tribe will organize a reenactment of an Angela Davis speech from 1969 connecting the liberation of domestic political prisoners from the civil rights movement with the war in Vietnam. A performer portraying Davis will stand at a podium and deliver the speech at its original site of deFremery Park in Oakland, CA. Like all the public art I work on, I have to close my eyes and imagine who is in the audience, how does it resonate, what social inspiration does it provide? Last Saturday, June 19, Tribe produced another reenactment, this one of a speech by César Chávez. After a broad organizing effort, a cross-section of about 200 Los Angelinos whose lives found resonance in the eloquence of César Chávez attended the event. For the speech, given at the height of the Vietnam War, places the social justice fights of farm workers in relationship to a global war being promulgated by the United States.

"If we provide alternatives for our young out of the way we use the energies and resources of our own lives, perhaps fewer and fewer of them will seek their manhood in affluence and war. Perhaps we can bring the day when children will learn from their earliest days that being fully man and fully woman means to give one's life to the liberation of the brother who suffers."

Much and nothing has changed since this speech was given. That is, of course, the power of reenacting speeches like these, in what Tribe calls The Port Huron Project (taken from the Students for a Democratic Society declaration in 1962). In September Tribe will continue the project by reenacting a 1968 Stokely Carmichael speech near United Nations Plaza. The context of the Vietnam and the radicalism of the '68 New Left haunt these speeches. Surely, these forces haunt us as well. Even the main protest organized at this year's DNC is entitled Recreate 68 -- there is more than a palpable feeling that the specter of '68 stays with us today, as either inspiration or nostalgia. It is hard to say which.

Reenactment is quite popular in contemporary art today, but in essence, art is simply a reflection of larger social currents operating in our daily lives. Barack Obama's famed oratory skills and charisma has led to enthusiastic comparisons with John F. Kennedy. In fact, I already own a pin with Obama's face with the ghostly of visage of JFK in the background. Contemporary politics, as well as art, seems to be in the grasp of the past.

This project is one part of a large public art project organized by the New York City-based organization Creative Time, titled Democracy in America: The National Campaign. Comprised of numerous public political projects as well as a central convergence center in New York from September 21 to the 27 at Park Avenue Armory, this project hopes to take a political pulse from the artistic community across the country. Over the coming months, I will be sharing with the readers of the Huffington Post some insights from these projects as they intervene in the public life of America.

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