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Iconic Revolutions: Art and Protest at Harvard

A protestor holds up a sign at the Black Lives Matter protest in Central Square during a January demonstration.
A protestor holds up a sign at the Black Lives Matter protest in Central Square during a January demonstration.
By Adriano O. Iqbal, Crimson Staff Writer

It’s a gray December afternoon and, in front of the COOP in Harvard Square, rain is falling on hundreds of still, supine forms, splayed out on the road. Passersby, should they want to cross, have to step gingerly between the bodies, nervously walking through the interstitial gaps. This is a “die-in” protest, held to commemorate Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two unarmed black men who were killed by police, and to decry the forces that protesters argue allowed their deaths to go unpunished. Some protesters, recumbent on the concrete, don surgical masks inscribed with the words “I can’t breathe.” Some of them have their eyes closed; others leave theirs open. There’s a strange energy in the air, some odd hybrid of solemn grief and complete fury, brought about by hundreds of people assuming the figures—and, in doing so, some hundredth part of the gravitas—of the dead men who have captured the attention of a nation. It’s hard to look away.

Harvard’s “die-ins” seem to suggest that the “Black Lives Matter” campaign possesses a very real emotional core—and that wellspring of emotion often proves to be a fertile ground for art. The energies that fuel art are similar to the ones that power politico-economic movements, and the line between the two can often blur. The protest can be considered a form of performance art, and movements at Harvard and beyond have utilized the intersection between the two.

In this context, Harvard is in a unique position within the genre of protest-performance art, organizers say. And since Harvard is constantly scrutinized by the media, revolutionary art produced on Harvard’s campus—protest-based or otherwise—has unusual reach and staying power.

PERFORMING PROTESTS

Harvard is familiar with the tradition of performance art as a form of protest. For instance, Divest Harvard, a group that calls for Harvard to divest from fossil fuel companies, recently used a tactic that showcases performance art: They initiated the Divest Harvard Fast, a hunger strike in all but name. The hunger strike is an age-old tactic, used by groups ranging from suffragettes to Indian nationalists to Cuban dissidents. The act of fasting has a peculiar evocative power to it: an asceticism that brings up images of emaciated fakirs and a willingness to use the body as a canvas, a la Marina Abramovic.

The Divest Harvard movement, in their quite public fast, was effective in part because it created a strong image, according to organizers. “It’s one action that we did in an arsenal of a lot of other really effective actions,” says Talia K. Rothstein ’17, co-coordinator of the Divest Harvard movement. “But I think it really did help to incorporate an image of us…that did stick, that image of us fasting.”

The symbolic value of the enterprise is immense—according to Rothstein, there’s something very powerful, from an artistic standpoint, about using the physicality of the body to convey a distinct message or sentiment. “Any time you put your body in a certain state with fasting—but for me even more powerfully with protest—you’re putting your body literally in a spot, and doing something with your body to say: ‘I am protesting through this physical act,’” Rothstein says. “By sitting somewhere, you’re saying, ‘I am sitting here because I believe I have to be here until something changes, until there’s justice.”

"Art unites us and gives us a common purpose. When art becomes the main focus, the meaning behind the protest becomes emphasized, instead of a specific person or event," says Fadhal A. Moore '14, a prominent member of the Harvard Black Men's Forum and organizer of a December protest on the Ferguson decision.

SYMBOLS

According to Fadhal A. Moore ’14, a prominent member of the Harvard Black Men’s Forum and organizer of a December protest of the Ferguson decision, art can strengthen movements by creating a distinct aesthetic imprint—a certain “vibe”—that can attach concrete images to the potentially hazy issues at a movement’s core. “I think imagery can serve as a uniting force—something that a lot of people can get behind,” he says. “Art unites us and gives us a common purpose. When art becomes the main focus, the meaning behind the protest becomes emphasized, instead of a specific person or event.”

This phenomenon has its roots in history, according to History professor Mary D. Lewis. In an interview, Lewis talks about France’s storied May 1968 revolutions to discuss the intertwined relationship between art and a movement’s iconography. According to Lewis, the protests came to be associated with a distinct set of posters made by French art collective Atelier Populaire. “Those images probably played a galvanizing role. It was kind of a social media thing, in a way,” Lewis says. “The posters try and make those connections.”

One poster that played a significant role in the movement bore a stylized navy-and-white image of protester Daniel Cohn-Bendit laughing in the face of a riot policeman with the caption “Nous Sommes Tous Indésirables,” or “We are all undesirables,” positioned under it. “I think an image like that, of Daniel Cohn-Bendit laughing in the face of the riot police, is potentially very powerful for people who are trying to think about this in broader terms,” Lewis says. According to Lewis, when several cartoonists at French publication Charlie Hebdo were assassinated this winter the support movement for the humor magazine rallied under the phrase “Nous Sommes Tous Charlie”, or “We are all Charlie,”—a direct callback to the 1968 protests, Tapping into the distinctive iconography of the May 1968 events recalls the ideas associated with that protests—independence, free-thought, and irreverence in the face of censorship—and placed them in the context of the Charlie Hebdo situation.

Similarly, the “Black Lives Matter” protests have developed their own distinctive icons and symbols—the “die-ins,” a hands-up gesture meant to communicate the “Hands up, don’t shoot” message, the surgical masks with the words “I can’t breathe” scrawled across the mouths. Even the slogan “Black Lives Matter” has a certain poetry to it. As Moore suggests, a distinct artistic flavor can help validate a movement by relating it to larger, more pervasive issues.

Protesters marched up Western Avenue towards Central Square shouting “We Can't Breathe” in December.
Protesters marched up Western Avenue towards Central Square shouting “We Can't Breathe” in December. By Tiana A Abdulmassih

According to Sarah F. Cole ‘16, protester and president of the Black Students Assocation, the use of distinct iconography propelled the movement at Harvard by viscerally connecting it to the larger, national movement. “You share about the die-ins, you share about the highways being shut down, different places being shut down—even just the term ‘shut it down’—you share in all these key characteristics that really tie the movement together,” Cole says. “It makes you feel like we’re a part of something much greater than just Harvard’s campus or Boston.” Mutual participation in the creation of revolutionary art can also promote solidarity in the participants of a movement. Rothstein notes that simultaneous fasting also served to bring the Divest members closer together. “The hunger was a thing that all of us had in common that day, as well as in common with people actually suffering from [hunger],” she says. “It was a very strong community-builder for our group.”

"We've seen so much of these campaigns being centered around art because it is one of those few things that can make you stop, that can help distance us from the violence we see on a day-to-day basis," says Paige R. Woods '16, the assistant director and script editor for 'I, Too, Am Harvard.'

ARTISTIC PASSION

Unlike political rhetoric, the unique emotional aspects of revolutionary art enable it to be an effective form a protest, according to some protesters. “Art has the power to take you out of you current consciousness into someplace else,” says Paige R. Woods ’16, the assistant director and script editor for theater production and social media campaign “I, Too, Am Harvard.” “And it really has the power to instruct your line of thinking, to challenge you in a way that gets you thinking.”

More specifically, Cole notes that the particular “die-in” demonstration is powerful as it consciously uses powerful images and symbols to trigger responses. “[The form is] very effective because it gives people who wouldn’t normally encounter this issue a visual of what is happening, a visual of how this issue of police brutality is affecting communities,” she says. The group performance that is the “die-in” protest attempts to make a distinct emotional imprint on the spectator in a way that other communicative forms cannot.

Protesters in the Black Lives Matter campaign staged die-ins around Central Square in January.
Protesters in the Black Lives Matter campaign staged die-ins around Central Square in January. By Zorigoo Tugsbayar

It’s difficult to ignore the intense emotionality of the protests. “We’ve seen so much of these campaigns being centered around art because it is one of those few things that can make you stop, that can help distance us from the violence we see on a day-to-day basis,” Woods says. “Art can make us think about [our lives]. It can take us out of what we view as our reality into someplace else. Or, conversely, it can make us very very aware of our reality and the issues pertaining to it. That’s why it’s so popular, why so many movements are using it—it’s a form of therapy, a way of dealing with what’s going on.”

"What I do think Harvard has the power to do, has the responsibility to do, is provide a foundation and a platform from which those individuals can raise their voices," says Sarah F. Cole'16, protester and president of the Black Students' Association.

HARVARD PROTESTS

Harvard’s position in the protest-performance art scene is a unique one—according to Cole, Harvard’s visibility places it and its movements in the public eye. “Harvard does have that distinction, and people do listen, and people just look when we do things,” Cole says. The “I, Too, Am Harvard” movement, a photo campaign addressing black students’ experiences at Harvard spearheaded by Kimiko M. Matsuda-Lawrence ’16, is a prime example of Harvard students’ capacity for creating revolutionary art that many students found meaningful. Initiated to promote her show of the same name, the photo campaign, as well as its distinctive photographic style, that captured students holding up statements on dry-erase boards, has become iconic. Variations on its eponymous slogan have also started to spread—“I, Too, Am Stanford”, “I, Too, Am Oxford”, “I, Too, Am Berkeley” have become rallying cries for students of color on other campuses.

Beyond the success of “I, Too, Am Harvard,” however, Cole believes that Harvard cannot see itself as the only agent of change. “I don’t believe that Harvard students, or even Harvard professors, are going to be able to swoop in and save the day at all,” she says. “What I do think Harvard has the power to do, has the responsibility to do, is provide a foundation and a platform from which those individuals can raise their voices.”

Woods echoes Cole’s sentiment. “We shouldn’t try to come from the outside in these situations and take control. I don’t think that’s it,” Woods says. “But it’s just a matter of fact that once Harvard’s name is placed on something there’s more media attention. The public eye is on us, and that can be good. There’s a way of being strategic about that.”

Furthermore, Cole stresses that Harvard should use its publicity to aid the fellow branches of larger movements. “I really see our role at the institution of Harvard as being a supportive role, and I think that’s what’s going to be most beneficial,” she says. In fact, the “Black Lives Matter” movement, as well as the Divest Harvard campaign, don’t have their roots here on campus, but are branches of larger movements—local expressions of larger, national patterns.

BEYOND THE MOMENT

In talking about large, pervasive protest movements, it’s easy to lose track of their effects on individual participants and spectators. Amanda D. Bradley ’15, a veteran protester and former president of the Association of Black Harvard Women, writes of her experience in an email. “During one of the protests I helped to plan in reaction to Darren Wilson's non-indictment, some Kuumba members sang while other students participated in a die-in. As I lay on the concrete as rain poured on me, I felt sadness for the first time. I'd felt sad before about the Michael Brown case, but most of it was anger. But that day, I cried as they sang.”

On that grey afternoon, the hundreds of protesters’ bodies created a tableau—a true piece of ephemeral performance art. The minutes passed, and the protesters got up, and continued on with their demonstrations—and, at the end of the day, continued on with their lives. But perhaps some spectators—random passers-by going about their day—were left with a visceral image of the stillness of death, the suffering of a people. For them, the deaths of Brown and Garner were more than another article in a paper.

—This cover story is the first article of a bi-weekly series that examines the intersection between art and social issues. Staff writer Adriano O. Iqbal can be reached at adrianoiqbal@college.harvard.edu.

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