Art, Anger, and the Choreography of Protest

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about anger and the place of art and activism. I was feeling feeling angry and tired and demoralized. No big surprise. (See Mike Brown. See Eric Garner. See the list of names that haven’t been as publicized. See the non-indictment of police officers in the murders of black, brown and indigenous people. See America.) I feel the kind of frustration that comes from still having hope but not having belief. The stagnation of anger without action, and the sense that action will not amount to anything.
I’ve been going to a lot of protests- space for collective anger. I’ve noticed the different energies at each protest: the shift from outrage and grief right after Brown’s death towards greater fury and righteous indignation when his killer was not indicted. The energy matched the actions- the first rally culminating in a permitted march through downtown Minneapolis and the second culminating in a direct action march on 35 W, shutting down the highway. I felt drained with sadness at the first and devastated at the second. #Shutitdown was a hashtag meant for the highways, but it resonated with my emotions, my body, my self.
More recently I attended the Million March Artist Movement and was struck by the distinct sensibility of a protest organized by artists. Still fueled by anger, the aim was to harness that anger, use the power of people and art to transform that anger into action. While the general format of the rally was the same as the first one I had attended (a gathering of people on the government plaza listening to speakers), the air felt different. Umbrellas emblazoned with positive messages decked the stairs. There was a station for making signs and a quilt of messages that people could add to. There were postcards with a clear message of demands that we could send to our legislators. The speakers were poets, writers, singers. My anger was lighter. The message had morphed from Hands Up, Don’t Shoot to #shutitdown to #blacklivesmatter. And this was a specific #blacklivesmatter with a People Power Change; Art Powers Change chant.This was a protest that had space for anger, hope, and the seeds of belief.
Though of course one of the major aims of protests it to be seen and heard by outside forces, (e.g. institutions and people in positions of power), it was clear to me that an important function of protests is also internal. These spaces allow us to channel the feelings and frustration out into the world, not keeping the anger bottled up, unable to go anywhere, eating at us from the inside. It resonated with what I’ve been learning about somatic therapy through another art project I’m involved with, Marcus’ Young’s practice called “Don’t You Feel It Too?.” Somatic therapist Thea Lee talked with us about not only regulating individual nervous systems, but also our collective cultural nervous system. Protests and art are ways of helping us culturally and individually move through feelings, through obstacles, through frustration and injustice. In order not to stay stuck in “fight or flight” and “freeze and dissociation” we need to move. The choreography of each of these protests does something specific for the participants, reshapes us and directs our energy.
There is a beauty in bringing art and protest together, infusing them with each other. I want to imagine this fusion as a whole, integral thing. Not dressing the protest up in art, or sticking a protest message into a performance. How can our understanding of how to organize a protest change when it is also art? And how does our understanding of how to make work shift when it is also a protest?
I have seen clarity and solidarity of the choreography of Hands Up, Don’t Shoot. I have felt the choreography of a die-in and the performance of standing to the sound score of Black youth reciting lines from Maya Angelou’s poem “Like dust, I rise.” We have practiced the dance that is people marching and chanting together and the dance that is stillness, sitting to occupy the Mall of America rotunda. I want to know, what is the dance that we will do next? What can we do to choreograph liberation?