The Introvert’s Protest – An Interview with Artist Morgan O’Hara

by Aidan McGarry

In January 2017, as the inauguration of Donald Trump neared, New York-based artist, Morgan O’Hara felt the need to protest. As a concerned artist, she had marched many times, but this moment seemed to call for something else. She wanted stay clear of the campaign’s toxic excesses, and take action silently. On Jan. 5 she woke up with the idea of copying the U.S. Constitution by hand. While she often hand-copies texts as part of her art practice, she hadn’t thought much about the Constitution before. She only knew she wanted to do it, and to do it with others in a public space. On Inauguration Day she went to the New York Public Library with a small suitcase of pens, a few Sharpies, papers and copies of the Constitution. She brought old notebooks, half-used drawing pads and loose sheets to share with anyone who might show up. She began writing.

To date she has organised 43 sessions. ‘Handwriting the Constitution’ has been taken up in many states in the United States, as well as in Italy, Germany, and Portugal. Plans for next year include sessions in Ireland, Israel and Japan. In each case, people handwrite their chosen documents written to protect human rights.

Morgan O’Hara is an artist. Her work can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the British Museum and elsewhere. Aidan McGarry spoke with her about the ‘Handwriting the Constitution’ project, protest, and politics.

AMG: You describe your project ‘Handwriting the Constitution’ as the introvert’s protest? What does this mean to you?

MOH: Well, it is an example of protesting which is silent and pretty much immobile, as opposed to the kinds of protests which were happening at the time of Trump’s inauguration, or have traditionally been done where people go out and march, chant slogans, or yell or wave banners. All of those are quite extrovert activities which I have done in the past, but this situation got me to thinking about what an introvert could do. I thought this action had to be something quiet, something silent, but active. I don’t know exactly where the idea came from but I woke up one day and it was in my head to handwrite the constitution and it made me smile because an introvert can write something, can read something and it can still be an act of protest. I soon realised I had to do it in a public place so I decided to do it at New York Public Library in a quiet room. I think it would have been performative whether I had done it with other people or not, just because it was an action I was doing and it had its own parameters. A friend of mine asked if she could publicise it on Facebook and initially I wasn’t sure as I was concerned that it might change the quality or it could be distracting but I decided to embrace it. So I prepared extra materials in case more people turned up. At the first session, I was writing for an hour on my own, then two people I know turned up and then seven people I hadn’t met before arrived. We were soon all handwriting the constitution together.

Do you think there is a performative quality to the writing or what purpose does the action of writing serve?

The action is very important. Writing is very different from reading and typing. When you write something out it somehow gets into your head and your body in a more profound way. I think drawing serves the same function. I don’t own handwriting and I don’t own the constitution. I just happened to put them together at a key moment. The combination of the two is very powerful. It’s definitely performative even when I am there alone because when I there I feel visible as I am the only one writing. In addition, it is my intention to do this publicly as a performance. It is a private action consciously made public.Full group

Is it just the US constitution?

No. I am interested in handwriting any documents which have been written in defence of human rights. I have written out the UN Declaration of Human Rights in Taiwan when I was working there. It didn’t make sense to write the US Constitution in that situation. Some of the participants in Taiwan chose to handwrite the Declaration alternating paragraphs in both Chinese and English.

In the testimonies of the participants I read they talk about how handwriting the constitution anchors them. How is this possible?

I’m not sure how this works, but it definitely does. It has a calming effect. It’s like reminding yourself that rights exist and that you have rights at a time when everything else is falling apart. It is the grounding; this is the earth on which we stand, the fact that we have these rights and they have been defended time and again through all these different documents. And when you are in time of crisis, these documents remind you that you have a right to live in peace, to live unmolested, to live in harmony.

I am surprised that people immediately think it is art. I have not mentioned this when describing the project. I am an artist, so I suppose people think it is art. Actually, I don’t care what it is called as long as we do it.

I think that is what is so interesting about this project. I think many people think of rights as an abstract ideal but all laws come alive when you invoke them or they are violated. So they are dead letters on a page but there is something in this project when you write them out, they are being invoked, they are made to be alive, they are not just abstract words arranged on a document. Their meaning is much more significant. Do you think that the project is political?

Yes. I have never identified myself as a political activist and I am surprised by the discussions I get into because of this. I have to learn a lot because people ask me questions about history and the documents. For me it has becomes an intellectual and conscious and creative process.We the People

It would be interesting to see this project manifest in different places. There are places where rights are under attack like in Hungary, Turkey, Russia, Poland, and increasingly in the USA. And there are places where the squeezing of rights is more latent. That’s why it is interesting this is happening in Germany and Italy, as we think of Germany as a stable democracy but rights are constantly being squeezed and ignored. So it is good to have this, as a reminder of what you have and what you have a right to.

There’s a wonderful word in Italian when you have had enough of something, you say ‘Basta!’ which is exactly as it sounds. Enough! I take this idea-word-feeling to indicate that we have had enough with these encroachments on our rights. There has been so much in US politics which has been uncivilized and crude, not to mention illegal, and many worse things are happening in many places around the world. Collectively we need to remind ourselves of our dignity and our rights and insist that they be respected. So, yes, Handwriting the Constitution is political, yes, it’s introspective and yes, it’s performative. All three. It is also a silent action which has the potential to be transformative. I hope that in 2018 and beyond more and more people will participate and will feel empowered through this simple action.

 

Maybe we will benefit from our neighbours’ good fortune?

Catherine Moriarty attended the opening and reflects on the exhibition.

Luchino Visconti’s film La Terra Trema captures the idioms and characteristics of a Sicilian fishing village. Released in 1948, the film addresses the shared experiences of this regional community and the complexities of the dynamics between the individuals it comprises. There’s a great shot of the village houses from above, which is held as the narrator says: ‘Neighbours are like roof tiles: water flows from one to another.’ (Fig.1)

Screenshot La Terra TRema

Screenshot from Visconti’s La Terra Trema, 1948.

A similar Turkish expression was selected by artist Isil Egrikavuk for the exhibition she curated with the Halka Art Project, Istanbul 14 September – 14 October 2017. Inviting various artists already working together, Egrikavuk wanted to explore the nature of collective action through shared processes. Coinciding with the Istanbul Biennial with its title ‘A Good Neighbour’, Egrikavuk asked her participants to critique the assumptions of this concept and to consider the form and implications of neighbourhood in the context of contemporary Turkish politics, and its potential as a ‘field of solidarity’.

The collective ‘dadans’ did this brilliantly with their performance Playing House which considered the speaking and listening dynamics of neighbourly communications. They deployed the snooper’s device of the drinking glass held to the wall to point out the tensions of ‘keeping an ear out for’ and ‘keeping an eye on’ the neighbours. These bodily metaphors were acted out throughout the spaces of the gallery and with the many visitors present on opening night. (Fig. 2 and 3)

performance photo

Dadans, Playing House, performance at Halka Art Project, 14 September 2017

Speaking glass

Dadans, Playing House, performance at Halka Art Project, 14 September 2017. Detail of ‘speaking glass’.

In a rather different way, the collective HAH also looked at the dynamics of neighbourly proximity and the experience of knowing or not knowing the individuals we encounter. They asked visitors to write either a question, or to offer an answer, in order to generate coincidental and undetermined chains of multidirectional communication. The resulting web represented our dependency on local information exchanges whether serendipitous or sought out, understood or misconstrued. (fig. 4)

Card installation

HAH, Without Encountering, Halka Art Project, 14 September 2017. Installation.

The collective Pelesiyer, based in Ankara, invited visitors to Halka art space to eat slices of fresh bread. This handsome loaf was made from the many responses the artists received from their different neighbours when they asked, ‘May I borrow a cup of flour?’ Presented in assorted vessels, the combined result of the numerous gifts was sent to a bakery in Istanbul. The flour, as the artists speculated, was made of various kinds and possibly from different bread-making cultures. The loaf, a co-produced and magnificent object, presented in front of photographs of the various gestures of giving, manifested the flows and exchanges of deliberate and direct interaction – verbal, bodily and material – complementing the work by the HAH collective which focused more on the coincidental. (Fig. 5)

Pelesiyer, Pelesiyer’s Table, Halka Art Project

Pelesiyer, Pelesiyer’s Table, Halka Art Project, 16 September 2017. Installation.

Urban development in Turkey and disregard for its impact on the relations between people in habitually shared space underpinned the Gezi park protest in 2013. The projects at Halka, the exhibition and its programme of workshops, in exploring the choreography of quotidian interaction, its familiarity yet unpredictability, and particularly its embodied nature, opened a window on the power of negotiated engagement as both restorative and potentially dissident.

Posters for the 15th Istanbul Bienial in Kadikoy, 16 September 2017.

Posters for the 15th Istanbul Biennial in Kadikoy, 16 September 2017.

The energy and fresh air this generated contrasted dramatically with the stifling, overheated spaces of the official Biennial with its largely predictable content, arrogant presentation, and lack of genuine hospitality. As we queued for our QR codes to be scanned at the Biennial venues on the European side of the city, the open door of Halka, over the water, seemed particularly sweet. Without doubt, Isil Egrikavuk’s project encouraged more careful observation of the way the residents of Istanbul come together and move apart, to fish on the bridges and waterside, to sit in groups along the pavements, or gather around its monuments. (Figs. 6, 7 and 8)

Fishing near the Karakoy ferry, 16 September 2017.

Fishing near the Karakoy ferry, 16 September 2017.

Sitting around the Monument to the Republic, Taksim Square, 16 September 2017.

Sitting around the Monument to the Republic, Taksim Square, 16 September 2017.

Reflections on The Performance of Protest: a panel on visual culture and aesthetics

by Guy Juliet

Friday 9 June, 2017. Muzzy-headed after election night, panelists and participants for the final Salon of this season filed into the dark of the ICA’s cinema space for an afternoon of laughter and concern. As a panel on the Performance of Protest, this was to focus more on the thought that, as Aidan McGarry pointed out, democracy takes place beyond the ballot box. So what ever viewpoints on the election night before remain, the struggle goes on.

Beyond the ballot box is where attitudes and political viewpoints get changed, Aidan argued. It is where positions are played out in various locations and through various media. Performance is important in this. Often, this fills out cultural fissures — the unsuspecting gaps where we don’t necessarily expect political utterances — with challenging messages.

‘La Beauté est dans la rue’: iconic slogan and image from Paris 1968

‘La Beauté est dans la rue’: iconic slogan and image from Paris 1968

The panel itself was built on an AHRC-funded research project at the University of Brighton that is investigating the ‘Aesthetics of protest: Visual culture and communication in Turkey. This a country where, currently, there are sometimes heavy consequences to such acts. Pelin Başaran reminded us that deep strains exist at the backdrop to protest. In recent years in Turkey, over 100,000 civil servants have lost their jobs as a result of political tensions. Given the challenges of public protest, new spaces have to be found which both avoid issues of censorship but also by their very act may draw attention to the processes of censorship at the same time.

What are the choices? Presentations by Işil Eğrikaruk and Umut Korkut showed two complementary opposites. One is in the staging of complex, spectacular events that are absurd, playful and revealing. The other is in making an event of the mundane, where the simplest act becomes a radical gesture. It’s about context, of course.

In broad terms, Umut Korkut noted how authoritarianism may not necessarily disappear upon regime change. Drawing from his research in Hungary, he argued that while a backdrop of moving from command-economy state socialism to neoliberal models takes place, authoritative styles may remain and/or be extended. The use of absurdity therefore becomes a last resort in preserving hope and dignity — it outflanks the opposition.

The 2013 Taksim Gezi Park protests in Istanbul were undoubtedly important in the unfolding of various tactics of protest. The protests themselves stemmed from objections to a plan to demolish the park and build a shopping mall and luxury flats in its place.

However, beyond the concerns for the denigration of public space and environmental destruction, objections rippled out so that the Gezi Park was transformed into a symbolic space for the assertion of other positions (for instance, LGBT rights, rights to assembly or the defence of secularism). Within this, particular actions and objects became iconic: the ‘Lady in Red’; the makeshift gas mask (exhibited as part of the V&A’s ‘Disobedient Objects‘ show); the whirling dervish in gas mask. These became international, digital media events that were moved around the world that were associated with the Gezi Park protests but also a more general translation of concern into visual and material form. Ordinary acts — practising yoga, playing backgammon, having a conversation — were also assertions of humanity among the turbulence of that hot summer. If nothing else, this demonstrates the richness and breadth that is available in the aesthetics of protest.

‘Change Will Be Terrific!’ This is the title of an artistic project that Işil Eğrikavuk and Jozef E. Amado undertook in 2012. It involved a proposal to buy and exhibit the Pyramids, Parthenon and Palymira in Istanbul’s Taksim Square (before the Gezi Park issues kicked off, therefore). It culminated in a performance, photo series and rap that were presented through the medium of a TV chat show. Again, the political messages in this were multiple including the absence of new cultural developments in Istanbul and Turkey’s isolationism from its neighbours. This sophisticated project was full of twists and turns, unfolding in sometimes improvised ways as historical events caught up with it.

V&A panel

l. to r.: Guy Julier, Pelin Başaran, Aidan McGarry, Işil Eğrikaruk, Umut Korkut. Photo: Olu Jenzen

The close relationships of the spectacular and the mundane in the context of the aesthetics of protest seem inevitable. Borders between high and low cultural expression, the original and its serial reproduction or the functional and the symbolic are collapsed. Humour is poignant in both.

Politics and protest isn’t just about hard facts and figures but also bout capturing the imagination. Something, judging by the surprise of the UK election results and their aftermath, that Jeremy Corbyn succeeded in it seems.

Cue White Stripes, Seven Nation Army chant.

@guyjulier

Protesto Estetiği Anketi – the Gezi Park protest and aesthetics survey is now live!

If you were involved in or followed the Gezi Park Protests, you can help us create scholarly knowledge on aesthetics of protests, by participating in the survey. We’re keen to find out about the types of artistic and / or strategic expressions that were used and shared among participants and followers of the protest as it unfolded – this may include particular imagery you found powerful, the types of slogans you found effective, the humour that made you take notice, or the type of street performances that made a statement. What did you mainly get in your Twitter feeds or on your Instagram? What was most popular among protesters? What do you remember particularly well today? What stands out?

To take the survey click here.

aesthetics of protest

Aidan McGarry, University of Brighton

The intersection between art and protest has been well documented in popular culture and highlights the power of aesthetics to communicate ideas across linguistic frontiers, ideological terrain and state boundaries. Historically, human existence has been characterised as much by conflict, oppression and domination as it has by peace. Such conditions are never stable because of societal desire to challenge injustice and inequality through collective struggles which shows the importance of social agency in forging change.

labeaute2At the heart of politics sit protest and social movements: democracy is found more in the streets than at the ballot box due to the propensity of representative democracy to pacify the public. A celebrated image of this idea was expressed during the Paris 1968 student riots with the ‘La beauté est dans la rue’ poster. Over the years struggles have been captured and framed by artists, articulated by activists, and documented by photographers and journalists in myriad ways becoming part of our everyday culture.

The performance oof protest is communicated through images and visual culture which have the potential to resonate because they demonstrate courage and defiance in the face of a powerful adversary or threat. In 1989, the Chinese government sought to crush an uprising in Tiananmen Square in Beijing by killing several hundred in a single day. tankmanThe following day, June 5th, a column of tanks was making its way across the city in a show of state strength when one lone man stood in front of the lead tank and refused to move, shaking his fist and shopping bags at the tank and placing himself in the path of the tank as it attempted to negotiate his act of defiance. Whilst his identity and fate are unknown, his protest was spread throughout the world by news media. This dramatic act signifies a public performance and represents the possibility of human agency. The fact that the Chinese government has gone to great lengths to suppress this image reveals the potential of protest aesthetics to inspire further acts of civil disobedience.

flowerpowerDefiance, usually peaceful, is a popular trope in protest aesthetics and has found expression in social movements around the world. In 1967, the iconic ‘Flower Power’ photo was taken in Washington D.C. by Bernie Boston during a national protest march against the Vietnam war. The war was a living drama whose political success depended on its cultural power: its ability to project powerful symbols, evoke emotions, and foster solidarity by defining ‘them’ and ‘us’ (Alexander 2011). Through protest aesthetics demonstrators changed the public discourse of the war from one concerning the defeat of communism and defending the interests of the United States abroad to one of peace or war, implying ordinary people had a choice and could influence politicians. This photo allows us to process a simple argument, asking whether we want peace or war.

When looking at significant moments of collective mobilisation, we will always find key elements: an opponent; solidarity; an action; and a representation of what happened. Whilst some inevitably argue that protest matters only if it brings about social change in terms of legislation, policy, attitudes, government, we should remain attentive to how the production of cultural texts and codes shape ideas, identities and values. An excellent example is provided by T.V. Reed in ‘The Art of Protest’ (2005) who examines the ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash actupPower) which demanded medical research, legislation, treatment and policies to reduce the spread of HIV in the late 1980s. From 1987, protestors deployed diverse aesthetics in order to grab the public’s and a hesitant government’s, attention including the slogan ‘SILENCE=DEATH’ under a pink triangle, a symbol of gay persecution by the Nazis during World War 2.

The impact of AIDS and government inaction was reframed to place the emphasis on members of the LGBT community, particularly gay men, to do something about it due to the US government’s inaction. Failure to do so would mean more unnecessary deaths due to AIDS. Gay men, in the 1980s, were seen to deserve HIV due to moral deviancy and sexual perversion: ACT UP challenged this blame by symbolically representing their collective experience as a group deliberately excluded by the nation, as not being seen by the government as deserving of the protection of the state.

usflagThe US flag is re-appropriated bringing in intersectional identities including race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation to reflect the widespread impact of HIV infection, and places the blame squarely at the government’s door. Aesthetics of protest are inherent to the formation and communication of political demands and signify socio-cultural interventions with the potential to raise consciousness and effect social change. Aesthetics of protest are crucial for political struggle as they engage communities in the dynamics of shaping hearts and minds.

References
Alexander, J. C. (2011) Performative Revolution in Egypt: An Essay in Cultural Power. Bloomsbury.
Reed, T. V. (2005) The Art of Protest: Cultural and Social Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Image Citations

‘La beauté est dans le rue’, Affiche – Sans tampon [Montpellier] – BnF, Département des Estampes et de la photographie, ENT QB-(1968) /W3945. Modified from original. http://expositions.bnf.fr/mai68/grand/065.htm. Accessed 03.11.16

Jeff Widener, ‘Tank Man’, Associated Press, 5 June 1989, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tank_Man#/media/File:Tianasquare.jpg. Accessed 03.11.16.

Bernie Boston, ‘Flower Power’, 1967, originally printed by the Washington Star, 504 x 322, wikipedia https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/52/Flower_Power_by_Bernie_Boston.jpg. Accessed 03.11.16.

ACT UP New York (organisation), ‘Silence Equals Death’, pink triangle on Black backdrop, 1987, Wellcome Library no. 669136i Photo number: L0052822. Accessed 03.11.16.

ACT UP New York (organisation), ‘American Flag ACT UP Poster,’ Greenwich Village History, http://jonreeve.com/dev/gvh3/items/show/2394. Accessed 03.11.16.