The Beautiful Awesomeness of Civic Discourse
Seattle Activist Photography Occupies M.I.A. Gallery
COURTESY Christopher L. Williams
I'm wary of protest photography. Protests are visual gold—gatherings of humanity with a clear and resonating purpose, interesting clothes, and billboards of personal convictions and goals parceled up in catchy slogans. Activism is expression at its most abundant, with just the right amount of potential destruction and chaos thrown in, making the events uncomfortable enough to be captivating. But it's easy to get bored with something that requires such little effort to photograph. Sure, you might get beat up or pepper-sprayed in the process, but it's a small price to pay for a location in which every direction you could possibly turn your camera is a seething, passionate mess.
Thankfully, M.I.A. Gallery realizes this, which is what makes Occupy M.I.A.—a group show focusing on the history of Seattle activism—a unique and effective exhibition. Don't worry, it definitely pays homage to the spectacle and chaos, with dramatic photographs of the WTO events by Christopher Williams that include a guy grinning maniacally beside a dumpster decorated with a circle-A symbol and "FUCK THE LAW," the weary masses trudging along (with hope!), and the famous flaming dumpster.
The depiction of protest in action goes a step further with photographs by Michael Barkin that acknowledge the same romantic notions of activism while adding a layer of perspective and opinion. An image of the most controversial actors (besides the police) in the Seattle WTO events—black-bloc anarchists equipped with masks and spray paint—is accompanied by a quote from Emma Goldman scrawled in marker directly on the wall: "Crime is naught but misdirected energy." In another photograph, this time of Occupy Seattle (also by Barkin), the dark and daunting backs of riot control fill the frame, but between them you see a plaintive woman sitting on the ground and gazing up at the menacing line with a look of total calm. Barkin's photographs add depth not just by documenting the beautiful awesomeness that is civic discourse, but by picking viewpoints within the indistinguishable blob of humanity to propose a statement of his own.
Each of John Armstrong's photographs takes a direct, almost theatrical stance by using the words and images society produces and spitting them back with humor-filled contradictions. (His overall program is, intriguingly, more difficult to discern—though his earliest image in the show, from 1968, is a hunky self-portrait protesting the war in Vietnam.) Armstrong's antiquey image of a billboard with a smiling family riding in a convertible under the headline "Seattle: A Nice Place to Live!" is mounted right next to the most violent photos of the WTO protests; it reminds me of the 1937 photograph by Margaret Bourke-White that contrasts a line of flood victims waiting for a free meal with a billboard reading "World's Highest Standard of Living: There's No Way Like the American Way."
In true collective fashion, credit for the show's success goes as much to the work of individual photographers as to the overall conceptual organization. The show is divided into two rooms: the back room depicting public activism in motion, and the front room focusing on societal context.
In the back, Barkin's and Williams's images from protests in action are the main attractions, along with simple, humanizing, and beautifully executed portraits of Occupy activists by Elizabeth Rudge.
The photographs in the first room are hit-or-miss—portraits of "working class Americans" by Lisa Ahlberg feel awkward and overly constructed, with the subjects posing a little too emphatically. But Marilyn Montufar's photographs of a drag queen smiling gleefully in a '50s-era kitchen, and a shirtless couple of cuddling men, depict a type of domestic activism, and the fact that the choices people make every day are just as brave as marching in protest.
Ultimately, this combination of actors in a cause and the people they try to affect lends a credibility and genuine purpose to the exhibit. It reminds the viewer that protests are glamorous and great, but they aren't the be-all and end-all of democracy—rather, they exist to improve the day-to-day lives of people who might not be found in the center of a rally. Cocurator Shaun Scott (Stranger Genius Award film finalist) wrote, "We know this current [of social change] more and more in times of bombastic property violence, anarchy, and headline-grabbing acts of civic disobedience than we do in its more staid, everyday incarnation," and the exhibit effectively seeks to expand the discussion from the drama of protest to the gravity of activism's effects and consequences.