C Magazine


Issue 130

Notes for Performers
by Annie MacDonell

Notes For Performers: Part Ⅰ

On the Ethics of Recreation

It is strange and awful to remove these images from their original context. It is terrible to erase from them the extended struggles that preceded the split-second they represent. But that is what I am asking we do. Together, we will work to reproduce the various configurations of bodies depicted in the still images. But in restaging these events for the camera, the intention is not to memorialize them. It is to hijack and rewrite the power relations they describe.

To do this, we will temporarily set aside the imbalance between police and protester. We will erase the street, the violence, the swarming crowds, the yelling, the uniforms, billy clubs, guns and riot gear that are the essential constituents of the events. We will turn our focus instead to the bodies as they interact with each other. In the photographs, it is very clear who is who and where the power lies, but in our recreation we’ll ignore those distinctions. Instead of imagining ourselves in the role of police or protester, of state en- forcer or dissident, we’ll work together as equal and interchangeable agents in a collective experiment of holding still and holding together. We’ll remember the nature of the original events, but we’ll also think about the times we’ve held on to other bodies (friends, lovers, children) in very different situations from the ones depicted in the photographs. We’ll seek out these overlaps and others, in order to better understand what it’s like to put our bodies on the line for our politics.

What the Images Show and What They Don’t Show

These images do not represent the standard exchange between police and protester. These are instances in which the peaceful refusal of the protesters was met with fair compliance by authorities. These are events in which the cameras were present and so they are, by and large, peaceful images.

But it would be wrong to talk about these images without talking about violence. Most acts of resistance, peaceful and otherwise, are met with an aggressive response. Police regularly hit, kick, restrain and pepper spray protesters. Sometimes angry mobs form around the protesters and do this job on behalf of the police. Sometimes protesters kick, spit or charge the police with equal hatred and violence. Sometimes they break windows, set cars on fire, loot, destroy and provoke. Violence is not represented here, but that is an exception. We must remember that it remains both the condition and the horizon of these events.

If these images obscure the violence that is fundamental to them, what is it then that they show us?

In the images, we see protesters going limp in the streets as an act of passive protest. The police, strong and upright all around them, are carrying them away as best they can. Sometimes the limp bodies are being dragged along the pavement and sometimes they are suspended above the ground. The police hold on to the protesters in positions that are comic and tragic, horrible and strangely familiar at once. This is what makes the images confusing. Sometimes the protesters look like they are dead or hurt, and then it becomes hard to tell if the police are arresting them or pulling them to safety. Sometimes the police hold the protesters carefully in their arms, like children or lovers. This is confusing too. But when the police are turned towards the camera, we can look at their faces to better understand. Often there is hatred flashing there. Sometimes there is disgust or panic. Other times there is fear and concern.

The photographs document political protests from around 1940 to the present. They were produced in the Western World, mainly Canada, the US and the UK. They show people demonstrating for civil rights, racial equality, organized labour; against nuclear war, environmental destruction, the inequality generated by rampant networked capitalism. Often the protesters close their eyes and hang their heads to signal their absolute evacuation from the moment. But other times, they raise their faces to the cameras to smirk and mug. Sometimes the limp bodies are strong young women and men, sometimes they are fragile and old. In any case, you worry for them, because the police bodies are always strong, armed and uniformed; mostly male, mostly white.

In Search of Complicated Images

We are engaging in a project of recreation that is as much about looking as it is about moving, lifting and posing. Before we begin the physical work, we’ll look long and hard at these images that resist an easy reading. In a time when our outrage is most often expressed through hashtags and scrollable status updates, let’s engage for a moment in another type of consideration.

Look at these bodies tangled up all together. Trace the line of each limb to its conclusion. Gauge the weight of the body being lifted or dragged, and then calculate how it is shared among the lifters. Think about the places where these bodies touch, and how the skin must burn and twist there. See how closely these people grasp on to one another and consider how that experience might be confusing for those involved. Bone, muscle and flesh are conspiring here. They are describing the conditions under which we are bound up together. These bodies are diagrams of power and precariousness, and through them we see how those things form each other in every which way.

How does it feel to be locked deep in this contradictory embrace? What is it like to make yourself vulnerable in the arms of the state? What are the police thinking of as they hug these supple bodies in close to them? Where does the control lie in this situation? How was it established and how can it be maintained?

The Act of Going Limp

Resistance is never an isolated action. It is a series of reciprocal events arising between those with power and those without. Any effective effort of resistance must continuously adapt in response to that which it is resisting, and so there can be no one right way to perform it. But in searching through the disasters of the past for clues as to how to respond to the disaster of the present, these images of passive protest hold some kind of key. There is potential in this action that is not an action at all, but rather its opposite. Through their stillness, their limpness, their lassitude, the bodies are expressing their complete and total non-cooperation with the systems that exploit and degrade them.

As the authorities advance, the protester slumps over. Her fists unclench, her head rolls, her limbs go limp and heavy. She is still, but she is not dead. When she stops moving, she is transformed into a heavy burden, deeply inconvenient to the police who now can neither ignore her, nor kick her and cuff her like a common criminal. She becomes both absent and ultra-present at once.

Through this action, the protester is also generating an allegory. Her limp body caught up in the arms of the police shows that she is a being bound up with others, as we all must be, that her life and her freedom are subject to a matrix of power she did not design. Her limp body is signalling her refusal to continue within that system. The force of her action lies in this refusal, which is absolute and unmistakable. But the cunningness of this action lies in its capacity to suppress the power and action of the police. As long as she doesn’t fight, tense or resist, the police must match her restraint ounce for ounce. This act of passive protest, which looks just like surrender, is an inversion of the power system that keeps the political subject bound up in its web. Also, and perhaps most importantly, it is a declaration that new possibilities for revolt continue to spring up from everywhere and at every moment, even from the very centre of the oldest mechanisms of social domination.

Perhaps the authorities see these limp bodies as nothing more than a logistical problem that must be removed in order to quell dissent and return to order. But they would be wrong in that assessment. As the cameras rise up all around, these crumpled forms send out their message to those gathering around, all the better to see.

Notes for Performers: Part Ⅱ

How does a body move a body? Let’s look at the pictures to learn.

If you find yourself one-to-one, flip his body upwards and slip your hands beneath his arms. Now lift him off the ground and pull him close to you. His heart beats fast in the back of his chest and your heart beats in the front of your own. Your heart is beating with the effort of the lift, while his is beating with the effort of the drag. One-to-one, his body is nearly impossible to move. It can only be displaced with a great deal of effort and sweat and the grasping of one body against another. His limp body gives way and folds at the hips, shifting the weight in an impossible direction. His shoulders slump and his arms hang low, weighed down by his hands, which do not make fists. His body, which could be taut and percussive, instead pours through your grasping arms like mercury or sand. You have no choice but to hug him in close to move him, and this closeness reminds you of holding your own child, or perhaps your brother, or someone else that you have held close at some moment entirely unlike this one. And can you imagine making your body so supple in the arms of the enemy? Can you imagine not raising your hands to ward off blows or protect your face? Can you imagine the fear of putting yourself in the hands of the one with the gun and the club, and hoping he will honour the precarious contract struck between you? Make your arms soft. Let your legs drag, and once you begin this process of emptying your form of action, you must hold fast to it. If you give way to the panic or pain, you will wake from your dream to find yourself already in the arms of the enemy. Here lies the paradox of your strategy: you are safe only so long as you are absent. Close your eyes in this moment if it makes it easier. Vacate your contours, for it’s your absence that makes your presence such an obstacle. When you are two-to-one, then the work becomes easier, for each man can take one arm, and hold the young woman more carefully for it. Her weight is divided between two and the intimacy is dispersed. You are more comfortable with this, and she is too, for certainly she doesn’t want to be held with both hands by one man. Offer them your arms and they will pull you up from both sides. Once they’ve got you off the ground, drop your centre of gravity and make your limbs heavy and loose. Your arms will burn where their hands are holding you and you will feel like your shoulders are being wrenched from their sockets. Your knees will scrape the pavement as they pull you away. But stay soft. Stretch your body out to achieve maximum contact against the ground beneath you. Let your sandals drag through the dirt and the mud behind you for everyone to see. Three men for the task is somehow more difficult than two. The symmetry is lost and the effort becomes disorganized. One man to each limb seems the best approach, but that leaves the last limb free. As you try to move him across the field, this loose leg bumps along the concrete, jerking you backwards each time it hits the ground. Your feet trip over themselves and over those working alongside you. You try to maintain your balance, but the whole configuration is teetering towards collapse. To be lifted by three men is to feel like an oversized object: a stuffed chair, or a rolled-up rug, or perhaps a dead body. But you are not dead, and so the places where they hold you at the wrists and ankles burn like fire. Your pants pull off your hips. Your T-shirt gets caught around your mouth and nose, and you can’t breathe. You don’t know which way you are moving or how long you will be carried in this way. But you can feel yourself teetering off-balance in their arms and that is a victory of sorts. Let your loose leg drag behind you as they heave you through the streets. Use every limp ounce of you to make their job more difficult. But don’t kick or buck, for that could be perceived as active resistance and the terms of the game would be changed. Four to one is clearly most effective, for one man can grab each limb. The body can then face the earth or face the sky. It is all the same to the lifters, who are more in control now as the weight is dispersed. The more men there are, the easier the task becomes. But there, in part, lies the problem: as the armed and uniformed figures accumulate around the limp civilian body, the optics get worse and worse. When there are four for the task, the weight is divided so evenly that sometimes you only need a single hand to grasp the ankle or the wrist. This leaves your other hand free, and then sometimes there is a club in that hand, or it hovers around the holstered gun by accident, and that too is bad optics. This is the trouble with the task. The more police there are around the protester, the worse it looks. And the papers will surely publish the pictures. If you find yourself surrounded by four cops, each one will take a limb and there will be no chance of escape. But escaping was never your intention. As they take you into their contradictory embrace, a crowd will gather and the cameras will rise up all around to see. Open your eyes wide now to show that you are not helpless, nor dead, nor dreaming either. You are mapping out a complicated set of oppositions for all to see: police and protester, state and dissident, submission and control. The image of your soft body caught up in their powerful network is a diagram. You are showing how power and precariousness are bound up together and that resistance can spring even from the dead centre of our domination.

Text written by Annie MacDonell, as preparatory notes for the performers who collaborated on the project Holding Still // Holding Together, a multi-channel video installation, on view at the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto May 4 – August 21, 2016.