I went this past week to The Whole World Is Watching at Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) with questions knocking around in my head. Not so much "is it art?" but "does it make a good show?" The answer, I'm afraid, is not necessarily. It's an intelligently curated show, and yet there is the sense of something missing from the core. It felt thin, unsatisfying, too far from the event itself. There are two categories of work shown here: the posters, photographs, publications, and ephemera from the WTO protests, and the work by visual artists. The two weren't helping each other. The political urgency of the souvenirs was diluted by the work being hung in a gallery, and the aesthetic value of the art was lessened by repeated insistence on the political.
Political ephemera only becomes art after the fact. It's not art for art's sake; the formal strategies are used to a political end. The show includes a lot of quite good photography from the protests: portraits of people in gas masks, a woman bleeding, a horse in riot gear. The blue whale that blocked a street. Crowds. We also see the banners created by the Direct Action Network with their stark, terse messages: Resist, Rise Up, Insurrection, Liberate. We see enormous Bread-and-Puppet-style skull masks and puppet businessmen. All very thoughtful, but somehow too clean, hung side by side on a wall. I wished, wildly, for more. More of anything. I wanted to be overwhelmed by evidence of the protests.
The work of the visual artists, by contrast, feels rarefied, oxygen-free next to the free-for-all graphics of protest. This is not to say that the work isn't good--it is quite good, especially the collages by both Stefan Knorr and Deborah Lawrence (whose alter ego Dee-Dee Lorenzo has commented on many past political events). The best work there, Friese Undine's Take off the Head, combines the spirit of the political with the unflinching eye of the artist. It is a wall covered with a set of 525 portraits of world figures: the Clintons, Edward Said (looking sad and pensive), the Htoo brothers, Timothy McVeigh. There is no attempt to prettify or glorify (Christie Whitman looks to be caught in an open-mouthed rictus of pain). The flimsy pieces of canvas tacked to the wall imply not only ephemera, but also the insubstantial bodies of these people who flit across time's screen and alter the world irrevocably. You could stare at this work for hours, and yet it--and all the other art--seemed not to belong, there among the of-the-moment work spawned by the protest.
Then, in the midst of my intellectual dithering, something strange happened. I watched a jittery video recorded with handheld camera by Christopher Zimmerman of an encounter between police and protesters on Eighth and Seneca. A lot of it is what you would expect, but as I watched, the details of it began to hit me rather hard: the crowd chanting "Shame! Shame!"; someone off-camera asking "Why are you doing this? Are you so sure?"--chilling questions for either side. The police reaching into the huddled mass of protesters and ripping off their bandannas and homemade gas masks, the better to hit their targets. And suddenly I realized, to my utter, utter astonishment, that I was crying.
Finally, something had done what political art is supposed to do: It reached out and pulled me back into the event. It took the show out of the realm of the intellect, and put it back in the gut where it belongs. As I left CoCA, the whole project seemed nobler to me. Still not quite right, still a little confused, but nobler on the whole. That was what I had been missing.