Curling snow drifts are magnified by the terrain around the 1,400 mile Dnieper River, flowing from Russia to the Black Sea.
Book Chapter
Peer Review
Press Here: Cultural Acupuncture and Civic Stimulation
I want to focus on three diverse examples of trickle-up innovation—Theatre of the Oppressed, ACT UP, and the Pro-Test Lab—with mentions of others to encourage more cultural-agent spotting. Artists are never simply victims of circumstance. Their agency sets off creative responses. To follow through from the call of social challenges to the responses of aesthetic innovation is to stimulate collective change.
Book Title
The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities
Book Author(s)
Doris Sommer
Press and Year
Duke University Press, 2014
Medium of Publication
Number of Pages


An artist has not always to finish his he may succeed in making the spectator his co-worker.—Havelock Ellis, The Dance of Life

Press the name of your destination on a Paris Metro map and it lights up at the points between the station you entered and the one you are going to. The light-up technique now appears in museum displays about science and history, in business plans, and—no doubt—in military maps. When the electric pulse sends sidetracks beyond a straight or sinuous line, the constellation of bright paths suggests how a creative act can spark responses throughout a city. Urban acupuncture is Jaime Lerner's name for pressing on a collective nerve to illuminate a whole body politic. Antanas calls it cultural acupuncture to underline art's agency.

Some vibrant examples are the tags that teens paint on public walls to provoke cities that may respond with mural contests and commissions rather than with repression. [1] As public constituents, the youths press for recognition; and getting it can rouse them to become leaders, teachers, and entrepreneurs who mentor other young citizens of say, Philadelphia or Chicago. [2] Graffiti-inspired murals in the United States stir the imagination of officials in Paris [3] and set off a street artist to paint and paste portraits of angry immigrants at home before taking his "Face to Face" project to Israel and Palestine. [4] Melbourne's government cashes in on graffiti to attract tourists, which encourages more art-making. [5] But Beijing may be the most stunning site for wall-tagging artists; their mentor is Mao. He holds the record for the longest graffiti piece, four thousand characters of revolutionary slogans that covered public surfaces in the 1920s and ignited momentous change. [6]

Consider also "Eloi'sa Cartonera" as acupuncturist. Making new books from old cardboard was Eloi'sa's artistic response to the bankruptcy in Buenos Aires in 2001 when cardboard collectors filled the hungry nights. The storefront publisher may not have intended to ignite a chain reaction, but by now the initiative has inspired over thirty resource-poor collectives to publish literary riches all over Latin America, with new sites opening in Asia and Africa. When the Cartonera in Lima failed to sell its beautiful cheap books, "Sarita" pressed to create more readers with an art-centered pedagogy. The approach moved Harvard University's Cultural Agents Initiative to develop "Pre-Texts" and to train teachers in Boston, Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Hong Kong, and Zimbabwe among other sites. (See chapter 4, "Pre-Texts.") These responses to art with more art create networks that multiply good practices by pressing a point and stimulating far-flung activities.

Change Artists

Whether or not a work of art intends to change behaviors, its effect is provocative. Art reframes relationships and releases raw feelings that rub against convention. Wall tags raise hackles about invisibility; cheap artisanal books show up elitist ideas about who should read good literature. A fresh feeling and a critical thought can glare at (economic, racial, generational, environmental) predicaments that triggered an artwork. In other words, aesthetic effects are crises of comprehension, breaches between habit and understanding. There are at least two kinds of responses, John Dewey pointed out, to the almost perverse pleasure of losing cognitive control. Either you appreciate the stimulation of emotional and mental faculties as a satisfying re-enchantment of the world and stop there (in the tradition of art for art's sake); or your feeling kindles curiosity and arouses energy for making more art. This second option deserves more attention than it has gotten outside the art world. The very activity of art-making develops skills and imagination; it wrests some creative control over material and social constraints that might otherwise seem paralyzing. Artists are never simply victims of circumstance. And their agency sets off creative responses: Authorities who reframe graffiti "vandals" as artists are creative agents too, along with the youths who violate decorous invisibility. A publisher who puts her finger on pedagogy as an answer to disappointing book sales links education to art. To follow through from the call of social challenges to the responses of aesthetic innovation is to stimulate collective change.

Some, probably many, artists today harbor ambitions to set off chain reactions from art to social change. [7] Typically, though, they stop at an initial moment of provocation, assuming that their work is done once an art piece goes public. When I convene local artist-activists in "Cultural Agents Fairs" to mentor students, much of the proposed work tends to short-circuit until workshops press toward aftereffects. Short-circuiting is what Ben Davis of Artnet unkindly calls the "lazy posturing of the 'my art is my activism' kind." [8] If artists collapse politics into art, rather than turn one or the other onto a connecting tangent, they assume that making art is already a political move. Habermas makes this complaint about surrealism for thinking that absurdity is a straight shot to liberation. (See chapter 5, "Play Drive in the Hard Drive.") Staying off tangents doesn't get us very far. Boal knew that when he developed hybrid "Legislative Theatre." Inspirations may start onstage, but they continue in legal chambers "to follow the normal route for their presentation." [9] Political art turned in on itself winds up "unhappy," Carrie Lambert-Beatty concludes. [10] Her example is the Yes Men whose brilliant impersonations of newscasters and expert witnesses exposed the devastating greed of big business. But their widely broadcast campaign against Dow Chemical, for example, had no practical aftereffect. [11]

Compare similar tactics of falsified news in Argentina's "Tucumán is Burning," a "counter-information" operation of 1968 that ignited participation from growing numbers of journalists and broadcasters. The repressive Argentine government was promoting hype about Tucumán becoming a model "place of prosperity and development" while it approved a transnational takeover of the sugar industry that would bust the unions. [12] Taking advantage of the imminent First Biennial of Avant-Garde Art in Buenos Aires, Roberto Jacoby and fellow artists, sociologists, economists, and technicians from Buenos Aires and Rosario traveled to Tucuman to gather testimonies and data. At the art show, they presented "films, photos, documents, recordings, statistics, graphic propaganda of the unions, audio-visuals, etc., and gained an unusual degree of popular participation." [13] The next day the army closed down the exhibition, but the experience fueled demands for democracy (soon to be brutally repressed, it is true) and seeded a new "useful" aesthetics that still flourishes in creative collaborations. Jacoby continues to invent joint schemes, including "Venus," a "complementary currency" that looks like play money and bypasses "legal tender" when the law is linked to exploitation. [14] This is Argentina's version of a fastgrowing arts alternative to government-issued money. [15]

Nomadic artists like Jacoby and Pedro Reyes (see chapter 3, "Art and Accountability") move from one field to another as they gather forces. They pursue a project from its aesthetic or political starting point onto contiguous maps to recruit professionals in order to achieve real social results. One pressure point leads to a repercussion, and then to others, as the artwork becomes a vehicle for unscripted "melt-ups," as Douglas Rushkoff calls the effect. [16] "Efforts like these scale up in two ways. First, they are shared with or copied by other groups in other communities around the world. Rooftop gardens can work in any city to lower energy bills and clean the air while providing food and jobs.....More significantly, the impacts of their highly local efforts trickle up" in what business plans might call interlocking directories of services and government support. [17] Effective innovators press hard to connect strategic dots.

I want to focus on three diverse examples of trickle-up innovation— Theatre of the Oppressed, ACT UP, and the Pro-Test Lab—with mentions of others to encourage more cultural-agent spotting. Multiplying the profiles will identify their family resemblances and invite you to press on.

Stage Conflict

"Why have all you people come tonight?" Augusto Boal asked as he sat on the edge of a stage at Harvard University in December 2003. "Do you know what is going to happen? . . . No? . . . And you came anyway?" He was already an old man but still irresistibly boyish and bubbly five years before he died just shy of eighty. Who else could get a public of professors and students to play "games for actors and nonactors," to loosen up and risk looking ridiculous? This is not a rhetorical question. In fact many of Boal's trainees can perform the contagious magic. Multiplying himself was part of Boal's genius, and Cultural Agents had invited him to multiply during ten days of workshops. To prime participation in the skits his trainees had prepared, Boal told two stories that night. One was about a peasant leader in Brazil's desperately poor Northeast who was ready to take up arms after young Augusto performed a revolutionary play. The other story stars a sumo-shaped Peruvian woman who huffed and puffed her disapproval of the Brazilian director. [18] Boal had told those stories many times, including the widely read versions in his foundational Theatre of the Oppressed (1974), again two decades later in The Rainbow of Desire (1995), and then again in his autobiography Hamlet and the Baker's Son (2001). [19]

Like traumatic experiences or epiphanies, these pivotal encounters shocked Boal into turning a professional corner, and they haunted him throughout a career as animator, joker, facilitator, therapist, and legislator. Boal was not the first to experiment with interactive theater, but he was the one who abstracted the principles into an infinitely portable and effective practice. By 1932, the Romanian-born psychotherapist Jacob Levy Moreno was settled in the United States and touting "psychodrama" for patients to act out their neuroses and get dramatic relief. [20] Later, movements for political enfranchisement would stage political therapy: in 1959, the San Francisco Mime Troupe began to defend free speech; the Bread and Puppet Theater started in 1961 to protest the war in Vietnam; the Free Southern Theater became the cultural wing of civil rights in 1963; It's All Right to be a Woman Theatre validated feminism in the early 1970s. And El Teatro Campesino was founded in 1965 to build the United Farm Workers Union. [21] The Teatro's experience as partner to a political movement runs parallel to that of Yuyachkani in Peru. [22] In both cases, labor leaders discounted theater as merely representative or entertaining, not constitutive of the movement. But Teatro Campesino's founder Luis Valdez knew how theater played midwife to the nascent union, performing plays about pressing issues on the flatbeds of trucks, improvising with volunteers while insisting on aesthetic quality. The shows stopped, Valdez remembers, because the leaders "were not focused on the arts; they allowed the arts to happen. It was viewed as a tool and not a service. So the chaotic birth of our independence began." [23]

Meanwhile in Brazil, theater was also experimenting with collective processes, before the dictatorship (1969-1982) stopped the action. Boal didn't stop directing a radical theater company until he was arrested in 1971 and tortured in a military prison. [24] In exile, he made his most radical move, converting from Marxist director to nonaligned facilitator. The change achieved a distilled simplicity that can do without professional actors or a shared ideology. Boal's conversion began when Virgilio—that unforgettable northeast peasant—had been moved by the revolutionary actors' chant "Let's spill our blood." Later that night, he invited Boal and his comrades to join a raid planned for the next morning. Boal explained reluctantly that the actors' rifles weren't real but made of plastic, and that—he admitted with deep embarrassment—the members of his troupe were not really fighters. "Oh," said Virgilio, "the blood we spill is my blood"; and the white cast—so very white, Boal remembered with shame—would pack up their phony guns and return to Rio before the violence they incited could explode.

Unmasked and contrite, Boal abandoned his vanguard method for an experiment with what he called "simultaneous dramaturgy." [25] It was basically Playback Theatre with an open end: The director invites an oppressed person to narrate his or her story up to a crisis point. He scripts and stages the story for actors and then asks the audience to suggest solutions, which he writes up on-site for his actors to try out. That approach fell apart in the Andean highlands.

At the beginning of Boal's long exile from Brazil he directed a literacy program in Peru. There, he formed a local theater company which, one evening, staged the dilemma of a woman whose deceitful husband would return the next day. Furious at the man, but afraid to be abandoned and even more vulnerable, the protagonist faced a predicament that the play would try to resolve. From the audience, a woman whom Boal describes as overpowering and menacing interrupted each unconvincing ending: "You have to be very clear with that man," she bellowed. Every timid adjustment the director tried confirmed her scorn for Boal, until she lost patience, turned her back on the stage, and lumbered toward the door. Equally exasperated, Boal ran after her with a challenge to show him, onstage, what she meant by "being very clear." Replacing the wife, the lumbering nonactress gave the unfortunate husband figure a blow so smart that it literally floored him. The smack also toppled what remained of Boal's top-down approach to theater. [26] His feeling for this woman, fear mixed with admiration, was close to awe, an unusual aesthetic effect for the veteran director but a foundation for ethics. [27]

From then on, Boal would encourage the public to take the stage in what he called "Forum Theatre," an innovation that features the "forum" as part of the play instead of a post-performance discussion. The one-act tragedies that play out dilemmas (about poverty, disease, violence, abuse, exclusion, homelessness) were no longer composed by a playwright but by groups of local subjects, about their own lives. Boal's lasting contribution is to recognize nonprofessional actors as both subjects and objects of politics, as he would say with a penchant for philosophical registers. One of his charms was to bring higher learning down to dirt level. He made philosophy fertile and available for everybody, like an infectious joke.

Boal was getting perspective on a range of possible paths to social justice from a broad base of creative agents, each one the subject and object of drama. (One-on-one development is a general theme of education for artist-citizens in the company of Schiller, Dewey, and Rancière.) "With Virgilio, I had learnt to see a human being, rather than simply a social class. . . . With the big Peruvian woman, I learnt to see the human being struggling with her own problems, individual problems, which though they may not concern the totality of a class, nevertheless concern the totality of a life." [28] Following these lessons, the venue for Boal's politics could no longer be a stage of trained actors raised above a public to excite one-way empathy with heroes. Now nonprofessional actors in any shared space would sympathize in an interchange of feelings between spect-actors and their tormented representations. [29]

Instead of training actors to follow directions, Boal began to train facilitators to animate self-representation and reflection among participants who would become new facilitators and continue the multiplication. During his own lifetime, Boal became an international legend, not only because his innovations are brilliant and useful, but also because he practically gave them away, welcoming replication, insisting on it. The ambition of his cultural acupuncture was to make the world throb with pointed, local, creative energies. Facilitators don't presume to know where the pressure points are, but only that they exist and can be brought to crisis onstage. For Boal, the dynamism of the word "crisis" comes out best in the Chinese ideogram; it juxtaposes the character for danger with the one for opportunity. [30] He pressed on the contradiction in crisis as the very stuff of theater, its life's blood. "The essence of Theater is the conflict of free wills!" [31] Boal quoted Hegel—lest readers mistake his lightness of touch for intellectual levity— in order to claim that acting is the best acupressure for stimulating freedom.

"What are your worst problems?" is an opener for facilitators. The sitespecific answers and their dramatizations proceed inside favelas, marginal schools, mental hospitals, prisons, community assemblies, practically anywhere. Spect-actors watch the tragedy played by neighbors; they listen actively for opportunities to interrupt an action that is moving toward disaster. Once the play ends tragically, the facilitator invites the audience to watch a rerun until a volunteer shouts "Stop!" in order to replace a character and improvise a change to the script, which prompts other actors to improvise corresponding changes. Then more replacements follow until time runs out. Inspirations hardly ever do.

Trying out possible scenarios is literally how Dewey described deliberation. He understood it as a theatrical exercise and would have recognized Forum Theatre as an ingenious medium for pragmatic ethics. The imaginative tryouts of various possible actions can explore consequences without doing harm. "Deliberation is a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action....[It] is an experiment in finding out what the various lines of possible action are really like... Thought runs ahead and foresees outcomes, and thereby avoids having to await the instruction of actual failure and disaster. An act overtly tried out is irrevocable; its consequences cannot be blotted out. An act tried out in imagination is not final or fatal. It is retrievable." [32] After playing through these tryouts in Forum Theatre, the facilitator may play the "joker"—Dewey might call him ethical philosopher—to goad participants toward ascesis, a classical term for the derivation of general principles from particular conflicts. [33] Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) is an art of the single subject representing the many; it speaks in "the first person plural." [34]

Who said that tragedy means an unavoidable disaster, and that the only good outcome is feeling relieved of the rebelliousness that got the hero into trouble? Was it Aristotle? [35] Well, Boal jabs, what did you expect from someone who practically worked for the State? [36] The clever interventions by spect-actors who set off agile improvisations by the nonprofessional actors show that the truer definition of tragedy is failure, or control, of the imagination. (Leaders of Occupy Wall Street noted the same cause for despair: "It was a lack of imagination. There was too small a repertoire." [37] ) Meanwhile, the participants on- and offstage can sense a double dose of magic: insoluble woes morph into artistic challenges that spur healthy competition for creativity as one intervention outdoes another (art is no zero-sum game); and participants experience new admiration for creative neighbors who together invent more moves than any one player can imagine. Admiration for fellow social actors is a leitmotif we learned from Mockus too. It welcomes contributions by the many and supports democracy. Boal gave admiration an aesthetic cast by attending to its formal effect of distancing one player from another, "its original sense of wondering at, standing back from something in astonishment. Surprise is in itself a rebellion; it says, 'No, I do not accept this as normal.'" [38] Our jaded times need more of this aesthetic effect. [39]

By the time he wrote The Rainbow of Desire, subtitled, The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy, Augusto had been living in exile for fifteen years. [40] France became his second home. He went there because he had to leave Portugal once "the Revolution of Carnations withered." [41] He had gone to Portugal in flight from Argentina, where General Videla started his own dirty war after the one in Brazil sent Boal packing. Several Latin American countries were locked down in dictatorship, and artists pressed where they could. The CADA collective in Chile is worth mentioning. Its "No more . . . (fill in your chosen abuse)" graffiti would appear on officially whitewashed walls day after day. [42] Young Alfredo Jaar chose exile instead of hide-and-seek with Augusto Pinochet's agents, after provoking them relentlessly with one question on billboards, painted highway lanes, and faceless filmed interviews: Are you happy? [43]

That Europeans were unhappy too shocked Boal, who was living in Paris and traveling in the region. "In Europe, I started hearing about species of oppression not discussed in Latin America: loneliness, isolation, emptiness, and lack of communication—very different from strikes, shortage of water, hunger and violence... There were more suicides in Scandinavia, where matters of basic subsistence were resolved, than in the southern hemisphere, where dictatorships murdered people, but where fewer people pointed weapons at their own heads." [44] Statistics continue to show a rate of suicide in developed Europe three times that of Latin America. [45]

Suicide was the pressure point that connected theater to therapy for Boal. Until then, he had located his work in Brecht's line of experiments to distance the public from bourgeois ideology, not in the line of Ibsen's psychological drama. But now, Brecht's techniques for dislodging audience sympathy from the action onstage served to develop theater as psychological therapy. With his wife, psychiatrist Cecilia Thumim, Boal put patients and normally neurotic subjects onstage inside and outside hospitals. The subject of distress would double as the agent of relief. One actor at a time would tease out personal conflicts between desire and fear. Teasing elements apart is just what theater does, Boal explained, simply by staging a problem. More dramatically than ever, he appreciated the "aesthetic space" of theater, where actions are performed and recognized as performance. Patients are often overwhelmed and trapped in internal conflict. But theater externalizes conflict in ways that the protagonist can explore. Even before a joker invites spect-actors to play out interventions, the very fact of playing oneself doubles the subject's perspective. Actors know that they are acting.

The same person can be both victim and viewer of victimization. More than the entrenched narrated content of the tragedy, the protagonist becomes a narrating subject at a critical distance from the character. [46] (Emmanuel Lévinas had an ethical preference for narrating, "saying," over inflexible content that is "said." [47] ) Boal calls this dynamic doubling "metaxis," which means belonging to two worlds at the same time. [48] With characteristic flair, he announced that therapeutic theater is a "Copernican Revolution," because the subject is no longer the center of his universe but a moveable piece in a dynamic system of stars. Unmoored from habit, he or she can join forces with others, including psychiatrists. [49] The staged process can produce relief, called catharsis. Deliberately and from the hospital ward, Boal liberates this medical term from Aristotle's coercive theater where desire is pathological and relief means purgation of nonconformist energy. Boal instead defines catharsis as the expulsion of the very "cop in the head" that Aristotle had engaged to torment protagonists and to terrify their spectators. [50]

The path from vanguard political theater—that peaked for Boal in the 1960s—to socially interactive Forum Theatre, followed by the Rainbow's subjective drama, came full circle back to politics when Boal returned to Brazil and invented "Legislative Theatre." Having lit up points along his path, Boal produced what amounted to a floodlight on theater's liberating work: from representation to reflection to imagining change. The cumulative effect moved the vice governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro to invite Augusto and Cecilia back to Brazil, to develop theater education in a new statewide network of Centers for Integrated Popular Education. [51] By 1986 oppositional Boal was working for the government! It was a dream come true; he wrote about integrating theater into basic education. But it lasted only until the next election. [52] The following years were a struggle on decreasingly fertile ground. Grassroots TO companies dried up because members couldn't pay bus fares, because facilitators were afraid of the crossfire in favelas, because injustice became so habitual that people were losing the energy of indignation. By 1992, Rio's Center for Theatre of the Oppressed seemed light years behind the shining moment that brought Boal back. Only foreign visitors were interested in the afterglow.

Even so, we lived in great hope, which is, as the saying goes, the last thing to die.
It died.
One day we decided to put an end to the Center, to carry out compassionate euthanasia on our moribund dream. How best might we lay this dream to rest, after its death? We didn't want a sad, tearful burial; we preferred something in the New Orleans style. A musical funeral, a funeral which would have a joyful aspect—a bang not a whimper.
By coincidence, 1992 was an election year and elections in Brazil—in marked contrast to many European and North American countries—are an erotic moment in national life. [53]

During the political campaigns that year, TO's tragicomic antics ramped up to a good-bye bash reported in avid media outlets. A spectacular funeral procession for democracy, classroom simulations of materialist history lessons on Ipanema's beach, quick-change artists whose bikinis winked underneath nuns' habits, were all coveted photo ops for newspapers and newscasters focused on a group that seemed poised to win an election. Against genuine or histrionic protests—that he was a man of the theater not of politics, that the funeral and other "invisible theater" events were "only" arts interventions—Boal ran for city councilor on the Workers Party ticket. He won and took office as vereador of Rio de Janeiro in January 1993.

Boal fills some funny pages with scenes from that allegedly unintended campaign, including his distress at the possibility of winning. Nevertheless, he took advantage of the office to develop art's potential over the next four years. It was an unprecedented opportunity to create a hybrid of theater and procedural politics called "Legislative Theatre." "As the function of vereadors is to create laws and to ensure the proper enactment of those that already exist, the people's participation in this process could be achieved by means of theater: transitive democracy." [54] Democracy in the Greek polis belonged to the few free citizens "the fasces, or small bundle of sticks," and in contemporary politics the bundle collapses under abusive "pragmatism." [55] But transitive democracy can engage economically and educationally uneven populations, respecting the rules of each without missing their points of contact. [56]

His autobiography, published in 2001, pinpoints some practices that link art and politics: doubling the protagonist as subject and object of drama, multiplying the effects of theater by training facilitators to animate "rehearsals for life" with nonprofessional actors, cajoling the public to derail tragedy and to admire a range of inspirations, all add up to an expansive aesthetic education in everyday life, in psychiatric therapy, and now also in procedural politics. "We formed nineteen groups doing theater as politics, as opposed to the old political theater; we presented thirty-six bills, and promulgated thirteen laws. Thirteen times, in Rio de Janeiro, the desire of the population became law. Perhaps that has been the Theatre of the Oppressed's main conquest: transforming desire into law." [57]

After publishing the story of his full life, unstoppable Boal launched a new and final adventure in deliberate homage to Paulo Freire, The Aesthetics of the Oppressed (2006). The focus here broadens from theater to general arts education. [58] One school-based activity was to paint personalized images of Brazil's national flag. A YouTube video shows an eight-year-old boy painting the standard image and then covering it in shades of gray that deepen to black. "It's because the country feels like a prison to me, dark and airless," he explains to the facilitator while texturing the thick paint into a jail-like grid. [59] Another activity, just to mention one more, was to recycle junk into sculptural self-portraits that explored environmental and personal adaptation and sustainability. [60] (Jaime Lerner's urban acupuncture included teaching children to recycle, so they could teach their parents.)

In some significant way, these stimulations follow from the acupressure that Freire administered. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1969) he pressed on top-down teaching to level hierarchies into horizontal relationships. Respect without deference would curb authoritarian habits and cultivate student initiative. Freire's best disciple took the theater as his classroom; he brought directors down to the level of jokers. Contemporaries and friends during Brazil's dictatorship, Freire and Boal were tired of revolutions that, true to their literal meaning, go around in circles. [61] Freire chided teachers who bank data in students presumed to be empty depositories; and Boal scorned directors who stage spectacles that pacify the public. Anyone who works for the people rather than with the people does them a patronizing disservice. [62] In complementary manuals, Freire and Boal orchestrated polyphony in schools and onstage. You can log onto a combined PTO (Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed) website to clinch this relation-ship. [63] Boal's last father, as he calls Freire, knew how to convene pupils and teachers, citizens and spectators, for sessions from which everyone takes away more than they brought. [64]

Among the countless contributions of Boal's acupressure (including the collective Jana Sanskriti that just celebrated 25 years of TO in villages around Calcutta, where twelve thousand peasants had gathered to hear Boal speak in 2002) I can report on sequels he sparked close to home: Following Boal's Harvard workshops in 2003, Betsy Bard facilitated a summer theater program at the local high school. [65] After seeing the high school production, doctors Felton Earls and Maya Carlson developed a Forum Theatre approach to AIDS prevention and treatment for youth in Tanzania. [66] Meanwhile, Cultural Agents offered "Pre-emptive Acts" for the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission so that law enforcers and human resources officers could rehearse responses before discrimination explodes into actionable cases. Similar workshops support MIT's Interfaith Fellows Program. [67] Colombia's Ministry of Justice invited cultural agent Carmen Oquendo to facilitate for its LGBT rights campaign. [68] And plans are under way to make Forum Theatre an alternative to just talking about race and gender at Harvard College.


It can be a hard history to tell, hard for the survivors who still choke up when they talk about the losses though they cannot stop telling. Mostly it is hard for historians who are used to holding a narrative together on the anchor of singular heroes and villains. [69] The protagonist of ACT UP is a loose collective of mostly arts activists who fought the AIDS epidemic. Wisely anonymous, their activities would have been short-lived if each artist had taken credit for brilliant work in the homophobic and triumphant corporatist environment of the late 1980s and early '90s. Like Boal's theater and Lope de Vega's Golden Age drama about an entire town that takes responsibility for confronting abuse, [70] ACT UP protected itself from persecution with a "first person plural." Here was no charismatic Martin Luther King Jr., no Mahatma Gandhi, or Harvey Milk, or Cesar Chavez; no icon of leadership, but rather a rush of iconoclastic artworks that disturbed the superficial calm of New York City.

The headless nature of this story keeps ACT UP from making appearances in history books, observers will say. And it is true; there seems to be no one point on which historians might focus to light up a sequence of events that moved from arts interventions into far-reaching effects in medicine, law, commerce, and public space. A result of this narrative failure is that new generations of citizens won't easily find the information that could trigger their own feelings of outrage, inspire responses, and acknowledge the considerable accomplishments of coordinated arts activism. Citizens have some idea of the civil rights movement and of the feminist movement, but hardly a notion about their sequel in ACT UP, though it impacted health care for everyone in the United States and laid claim to general human rights. While the "plague" of AIDS continues to ravage enormous populations—at least thirty-three million worldwide with a disproportionate numbers of nonwhite citizens in the United States—we need to connect the dots between current disaster and future solutions. Or should we conclude from the decrescendo of U.S.-based activism that the disease and the inequalities it diagnoses don't engage our civic concerns?

In fact, AIDS continues in the spotlight, now that the threat of infection has become universal. What falls out of focus, survivors of the early crisis years complain, is the history of homosexuals as both victims and the vanguard of intervention. The movement, which erupted three hundred members strong after a first call to arms in 1987, may be too particular (in both meanings of minority and queer) for straight readers to take to heart. "They don't give a shit," says popular playwright Larry Kramer. [71]

I am convinced that the majority's reluctance to remember goes even deeper and is overdetermined by another bad habit: not only a refusal to register the experience of a sexually nonconformist population but also an indifference to art as an agent of change. Does one prejudice link onto the other? Perhaps homosexuals are disrespected in the history of AIDS activism because they are associated with art. Would their social capital be greater if they represented, say, finance? The abundant evidence of aesthetically arresting art as the vehicle for ACT UP's effective eight-year campaign doesn't command much attention in standard accounts of the epidemic. And silence about homosexuality is haunting, in good measure, precisely because of the enduring artwork. Think about the relentless leitmotif Silence=Death, plastered on every available wall, stuck on stickers and pins, worn on T-shirts, and projected in neon lights as a window display at the White Columns Art Gallery.

The neon version of the pink triangle pointing upward from a base that spells out Silence=Death was on display at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in the fall of 2009, as part of the exhibition ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the aids Crisis, 1987-1993. On the opposite wall, a backlit transparency glared: "Call the White House. 1 (202) 456 1414. Tell Bush We're Not All Dead Yet." Helen Molesworth projected this reminder throughout the powerful exhibition that she managed to curate after hunting down artworks that most ACT UP participants considered to be ephemera. The work had use-value, not the exchange-value of collectible art. Yet one of the impressive results of the exhibition is appreciation for the usevalue created by art. The call to action came through in the stunning visual quality, the witty turns of phrase, public choreography, and the general aesthetic sophistication of artists who knew how to activate their arts. One display case in particular documents the painstaking development of work by one of the movement's art collectives, Gran Fury, with paste-up drafts of posters, variations on the pink triangle logo, and notes to the printer. Pieces from the New York Public Library, to which ACT UP donated its archives, from Rochester University's Library, and almost-forgotten personal stashes were collected by Molesworth to display once-ubiquitous posters, stickers, MTV-style videos, and hundreds of filmed interviews from the ACT UP Oral History Project.

Together the evidence commemorates artistic agency during plague years that would otherwise have been entirely tragic. On wall text, the gallery displayed precise and escalating numbers of yearly deaths from AIDS adding up to 150,000, more than the number of U.S. soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. The devastation of AIDS never inspired the City of New York to publicly commemorate the dead, Molesworth winces, in contrast to the commemorations of September 11, 2001, though all the victims are innocent. "We Are Innocent" reads an enormous banner that straddled New York streets in 1989. With the exhibition—and gallery talks, conferences, poetry readings, and course development—this engaged curator created a stir against the silence that mutes a movement founded over twenty years ago, forty years since the Stonewall Riots of 1969 set off the gay rights movement in the United States. The exhibition hoped to revive the throb of energy that circulated through ACT UP in order to animate students, teachers, and other visitors who can again act up against indifference.

The show is not nostalgic, Molesworth insisted if anyone asked. Horror years of the epidemic are not magical times to be recovered, she chastened us. But her decision to dedicate the show to the movement, rather than feature particular artists, amounts to framing the exhibition as homage to creativity in difficult times. Unlike the sudden victims of 9/11, the ACT UP artists had precious and concentrated time to react to disaster and to open routes for continued, sometimes posthumous, action. Molesworth puts her finger on a spectacular convergence between political activism and art, inviting us to press for future results. Her curatorial work is a second-degree activism, a response to the artworks and to their impressive effects, that links interventionist art directly to students, to the spheres that they will develop, to visitors, and even to readers of reviews such as "Blunt Instruments: Collectives' AIDS Art Made an Impact with Just a Few Strong Images." [72] By a subsequent, tertiary ripple effect I feature her work in my courses and in this book on arts interventions that don't give up. Maybe readers will dare to design new arts interventions, or just register the connections between art and activism as voting citizens. In both her case and mine, humanistic interpretation extends art's impact.

"Act up!" was the challenge launched by Larry Kramer at New York's Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center early in March 1987. A crowd had come to hear him talk about his art, but Kramer had tired of talk while the AIDS epidemic raged. He turned his session of the speakers' series into a platform for planning direct action. [73] The audience must have expected the confrontational style; he was famous for it. The angry energy had just been staged in shout-down scenes of his autobiographical play The Normal Heart at New York's Public Theater. [74] But that March evening, Kramer's disturbance played more like a Forum Theatre intervention than a scripted drama. His message to the AIDS tragedy was "Stop!" Then he got on history's stage to change the script and set off a new dynamic. Other spect-actors joined to improvise more developments. By March 24, the new AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power was demonstrating on Wall Street against pharmaceutical profiteers. After seventeen arrests and a follow-up infiltration of the New York Stock Exchange, the price of treatment fell by 20 percent and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shortened its drug approval process by two years. [75]

The weekly meetings of ACT UP convened in spacious Cooper Union Hall, where the New York 300 put into practice their readings on "radical democracy," which featured Freire's pedagogy along with counter-hegemonic political theory. [76] Anyone could take the floor for ten minutes, only ten. If the speaker wanted to continue, permission was decided by majority vote. All decisions were reached that way. For example, when impressive actions were planned—on Wall Street, in St. Patrick's Cathedral, at the FDA—a minority could not block the action. Instead, dissenters would design an alternative action and broaden the movement. The spirit of autonomous leadership repeated through specific collectives. Intentionally outrageous names gave an edgy charm to assaults on murderous respectability: Gran Fury, Silence=Death Project, Gang, and Fierce Pussy used guerilla marketing techniques to reach a mass audience. "In subway cars, transit stations, taxi cabs, outdoor billboards, and bus panels, their wheat-pasted posters and crack-and-peel stickers powerfully communicated ACT UP's outrage and were ubiquitous throughout New York City. Pairing text and image with penetrating anger and searing wit, ACT UP's art collectives targeted specific individuals and institutions at the local and national level, advocated for safer sex and gay and lesbian rights, and galvanized broadband support for the AIDS activism movement." [77]

Marginalized in political histories, ACT UP fills pages of art history. (Does this dissuade other historians from taking it seriously?) The visual sophistication of activists commands the attention of art scholars just as it had arrested citizens on the street. Taking techniques from notable contemporary artists, such as blowing up ads the way Richard Prince did with his Marlboro cowboys, citing the tormented doll that Hans Bellmer twisted into a swastika for the poster "AIDS: 1 in 61," and borrowing Barbara Kruger's favorite font for Gran Fury's "Read My Lips," puts ACT UP artists on the crest of a contemporary art wave. Inside the collectives, anonymous ACT UP artists competed with the best advertising talent to outshine commercial messages with bold and often tragicomic visual arrests. "He Kills Me" identifies a portrait of Ronald Reagan. "MEN, Use Condoms, Or Beat It," read the big block letters on a fluorescent yellow background. These strategies of repurposing existing forms, "appropriating," and disrupting visual and verbal regimes became fundamental to the history of postmodern aesthetics, impossible to narrate without addressing Gran Fury, for example. Outside the collectives and under their proper names, the same artists produced first-rate formal and abstract work, doubling between political and nonpolitcal art in a feedback loop that demonstrates the connections between critique and creativity.

Apprenticeship to both civil rights and the women's movement linked ACT UP to a Marxist tradition of "immanent critique," analysis that locates contradictions in the ruling discourses (of citizenship, medical responsibility, equal rights) and demands accountability. The earlier movements had already added performance to political philosophy: civil disobedience for civil rights, bra burning for feminism, and egalitarian circles at meetings where everyone was expected to speak. This choreography of consciousness-raising was part of Molesworth's show. She filled a gallery with fourteen video monitors that showed concurrent testimonies of activists. Each monitor played seven or eight interviews of about an hour each and then repeated the sequence from morning until the gallery closed. As visitors watched one or another of the testimonies they were aware of thirteen more playing at the same time, and of the total 103 narratives that represent only a third of the core New York collective. The concurrent narrations of discontinuous memories and interpretations constitute an aesthetic and ethical achievement of the exhibition. The gallery performed the radical democracy it commemorated. Standard histories may not have found the appropriate narrative form to frame the movement's hydra-like progress, much less its incursions into medicine, law, and commerce. But two artists, Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, captured the diffuse quality of ACT UP in their Oral History Project. And curator Helen Molesworth designed the simultaneous display, suggesting (as did Boal) that narrative impossibility may be a failure of will or of imagination. [78]

Freire's pedagogy was a turning point away from vanguard stories of progress. He invited activists to pursue analysis but not to stop there, because critique is useful only if it links onto a developing sense of personal and collective potential. The ACT UP women who staged the "Cosmo" affair took Freire's advice when they moved from analysis to action. In January 1988, Cosmopolitan had published a dangerous article by Dr. Robert E. Gould entitled "Reassuring News about AIDS: A Doctor Tells Why You May Not Be at Risk." [79] A few women who had been meeting at "dyke dinners" hoped to engage Gould on scholarly grounds. They pointed out several misleading medical facts, the lack of peer review in the popular women's journal, and the doctor's credentials as a psychiatrist, not an internist. Their research substantiated a demand to retract the article. When he refused, the "dykes" decided to "shut down Cosmo." It was the first time that ACT UP women organized separately, both for the confrontation with Gould and for the 150-person protest at Cosmo. The action got good media attention, and the collected footage appears in the video "Doctors, Liars, and Women." Cosmopolitan finally issued a partial retraction. [80]

Showy and effective actions like this one, and the ones on Wall Street, at the National Institute for Health, and other sites continued, inspiring thousands to join ACT UP in more than seventy cities nationally and world-wide. [81] So it seemed on first blush, to judge from a poster, that the Canadian government joined the movement. The poster warned compatriots not to repeat U.S. mistakes and gave outrageously direct advice not to swallow a certain sexual secretion. [82] But on second and deeper blush, it becomes clear that the ACT UP artists of Gran Fury plagiarized Canada's federal insignia to underwrite the poster. In any case, Canada would be a main stage for the activists. In 1989, hundreds of U.S. participants came to Montreal to interrupt an international AIDS conference. Disconcerted when no arrests followed, ACT UP improvised a new performance. It announced the "first Treatment and Data report calling for a parallel track to speed access to drugs." [83] The pharmaceutical industry capitulated.

That made the front page and started a round of talks both with government and industry to make expanded access a reality. Bristol-Myers called the ACT UP Treatment and Data Committee and said that they wanted to provide [the drug] ddI through expanded access and, amazingly, wanted the ACT UP members to assist in developing the protocol.
The program provided ddI to over twenty-five thousand people with AIDS at no cost until the drug was approved. Data from the expanded access program provided important safety data. Not only did we succeed in getting the drug out, but we also proved our argument that expanded access programs and working with patient activists could make for better science and faster drug development. [84]

This exemplary case of acquired expertise in medicine, law, and commerce repeated throughout ACT UP's history. Larry Kramer recounts an earlier moment when straight activist Iris Long joined the Treatment and Data committee. Appalled at their lack of scientific information, she trained several members. "And they branched out and met other people in Boston and at the NIH. So that by the time—a few years later—I would take Mark [Harrington] to a meeting, they would think he was a doctor." [85] While ACT UP was a major movement, activists became their own informed and eloquent advocates. The urgency pressed artists into professional service in lieu of doctors and lawyers. The disease may have been too new or too stigmatized to engage reliable professionals, so activists "achieved concrete changes in medical and scientific research, insurance, law, health care delivery, graphic design, and introduced new and effective methods for political organizing." [86] Among the ripples the movement made was the expansion of universal human rights. In academics, ACT UP raised demands for queer studies, perhaps disability studies too, and it inspires civic humanities through lessons about art's effects through direct action and interpretation.

The members of ACT UP learned a lot from civil rights. They learned to press citizens into action through civil disobedience, to occupy public space on streets, buses, and in buildings. The new movement also multiplied public sites by adding advertising and the virtual space of media. Along with massive demonstrations at strategic locations, ACT UP plastered the public sphere with provocative art that seemed to be selling something (a flip strategy of the advertising campaign that Oliviero Toscani developed for Benetton where selling clothes was a prompt for circulating socially urgent messages). [87] And bold performances by veteran artists were sure to get on TV's universally viewed six o'clock news. For example, the demand inside the stock exchange to "Sell Wellcome"—the pharmaceutical company that kept their AZL treatment prohibitively expensive—floated up on an enormous banner attached to balloons, while bullhorns insisted on the message. Better yet, artists documented the visually arresting actions on newly affordable video cameras. One of the lessons learned from civil rights was that filming arrests makes them safer. Police don't want to play bad guys in the movies.

Perhaps it's unfair to wonder if ACT UP schooled itself in the civil rights form of nonviolent activism, but not enough in the content of racial justice. [88] Of the more than a million HIV infections in the United States today, the rate for African Americans is seven times higher, three times for Latinos, than for whites. [89] It would be tragic to speculate that the decrescendo of the New York movement coincides with the release in 1996 of affordable treatment for the mostly white activists and their younger social classmates. Uncannily, or cynically, the treatment beckons with the name of ART (antiretroviral drug treatments). Art historian Douglas Crimp explains the demise of ACT UP from exhaustion and mourning after the "immediate emergency" became a "permanent disaster." [90] To be fair, the movement had fallen apart from internal pressures by 1993, years before ART was developed. Kramer accounts for the demise more critically, as a case of tragic hubris when the increasingly sophisticated Treatment and Data spokesmen declared independence from the movement. Nevertheless, the current statistics and the paucity of nonwhites in the images of New York AIDS activists suggest that a general feeling of white entitlement helped to fuel ACT UP. [91]
Internationally though, AIDS receives sustained and growing attention, perhaps disproportionate attention from the perspective of women's health, for which AIDS is a complication in the general disaster of genderbased violence. Rape is an epidemic for which medical and legal remedies treat only symptoms; violence against women demands the kind of cultural acupuncture that ACT UP pioneered.

At the end of Molesworth's gallery talk, a young man asked about musical creativity during those ACT UP years. The question stirred a memory of "utopia" for her in clubs like the Paradise Garage, where music mash-ups paralleled the postmodern pastiches of visual artists. The dress, the music, drugs, dancing, the joy and the admiration that her quickened voice evoked certainly seemed nostalgic despite her disavowal, contagiously so. I gave into a reverie about Latin dance halls during those years. They were acupressure sites that made syncopated, socially uneven crowds throb together with the same music. And though I cannot yet follow through to significant reforms and improved social conditions that the clubs must have facilitated, I know that they expanded the interracial space to make new hybrid families. Allow me an irrepressible memory and a few more connections between music and social movement.

Dance-Hall Democracy

"¿De dónde es usted?" I asked the best Latin dancer I ever followed around a floor. It was in "centrally isolated," as the locals say, Ithaca, New York, where a friendly gay club went Latin on Wednesday nights. Once a week we broke up the bucolic boredom that helps to make Cornell University so intellectually restless.

"Sorry. I don't speak Spanish," my partner said.
"Where are you from?" I code-switched.
"From Bosnia. My name is Nedim."

That stopped me short. He had kept me in step through changes in rhythm and turns I only half anticipated, but now he lost me. Confused, I went back to my cultural roots in Brooklyn, where salsa began. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, in this north-of-the-Caribbean island, deterritorialized music was mixing one rhythm with another, guaguanco interrupting rumba to slide into merengue anticipating rumba's return. The weaving created an interethnic fabric that had us all covered. Though the Bronx and Manhattan must have been spots just as hot for salsa, Brooklyn stays central, maybe because master pianist Larry Harlow— "el niño judío de Brooklyn" — made the musical mixes especially open to cultural chameleons like me. Years later, in 2005, Cultural Agents, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Americas Society would celebrate Harlow and other unlikely salseros in "The Jewish Latin Mix: Making Salsa." [92]

From the provisional Latin quarter of Ithaca, my thoughts continued to wander to other clubs in less exotic cities for Latin music where dancers create oases of sociability. A kind of utopian Jetzeit, to use Walter Benjamin's word, flashes through memories of dance halls in Monterrey, Montevideo, and Montreal, in Santo Domingo and San Juan (where the guy in a baseball cap and too chubby to be Elvis Crespo turned out to be the real thing), where dance floors are the spaces of urban utopia. By that I mean that everyone fits in, not by looking and acting the same, but by improvising variations on a given theme. Ernesto Laclau might describe the design as "universal" in the contemporary sense, a shared context that accommodates differences. Its saucy name suggests how salsa depends on differences of origin, rhythm, mix. It's an inspiration for democratic politics. Seriously.

"What would a better world look like?" I teased Arjun Appadurai after a scholarly meeting about worldwide equitable development. The obstacles were clear to academics, but the desired vision was not. "Do you want a glimpse of utopia?" I took the urban anthropologist dancing that night, to the Copacabana of glorious memory. The legendary club is no more, but on that night, the Copa was still making its public appeal with a long line of patrons waiting to get in. Like an antechamber to heaven where roughened souls prepare for the exalted other side, the line primed celebrants of neon lights and electrifying music by congregating us in mixed formations. Dark people, light people, every shade of Africa and Asia, combined sometimes with white, some old ones, more young ones, maybe a mother with young girls or a madam with youngish girls, mixed couples and hybrid singles, glamorous gowns and skintight jeans, the lineup seemed as endless in variety as in length. Variety is not informality. Latin dance halls are governed by a tacit contract that Brazilian gafieiras make explicit: at the entrance, a list of rights and restrictions insists on exemplary participation. "Gentlemen will be respectful and not get drunk," and "Ladies will accept invitations to dance from gentlemen who ask appropriately."

The democratizing effect of Afro-Latino dance was clear even before the Cuban Wars of Independence, when black leaders got whites to follow in step. Readers of novels like Cecilia Valdés set in the 1830s know that the popular bailes de cuna—where classes mixed freely—had already developed a Cuban taste for freestyle partnering. But the revolutionary camps turned dances into a main stage for democratic performance. Campaign diaries tell of two similar incidents where dance was the cipher for democracy. During the Ten Years' War, a black officer was snubbed by a white woman and he threatened anyone who would dance with her. Twenty years later during Cuba's successful war against Spain, a rejected black officer "gave a long speech on valor, patriotism, and equality, and he condemned her refusal as anti-patriotic." [93]

Arjun and I finally passed the bouncers who frisked the men and stared down the women. Then we saw the miracle inside: Beyond the floor-to-ceiling fluorescent palm trees and before the stage where a twenty-piece orchestra alternated with another one just as fabulous, everyone was dancing to the same music, gracefully, with variations that kept partners attentive to each other and aware of admirable neighbors. Liberating for a feminist like me, dance-hall democracy is an appreciation for strong partners and a relief from self-reliance. My freedom is in the counterpoint between voice and exit, deciding whether or not to stay for the next number.

Nedim was an admirable partner, which brought me back to our halting conversation.

"Did you learn salsa in Bosnia?" I asked incredulously.
"No, actually, it was in Germany."

Popular music also primed the struggle in the Prague Spring of 1968. During the permissive 1960s hundreds of "garage" rock bands filled the city and lasting groups like the Plastic People of the Universe made counterculture count for civil disobedience after the Soviet invasion in August 1968. By September, half a million troops from the Soviet Union and four Warsaw Pact countries marched into Prague. Without arms, funds, or friends, the Czechs managed to resist the invaders for eight months. "There are, of course, the Molotov cocktails and human roadblocks," writes artist Paul Chan. But there were wily tactics too: "pornography thrown at young and frightened soldiers patrolling the streets, (to distract them from shooting at pedestrians) and graffiti (like the one that reads, 'Why bother to occupy our State Bank? You know there's nothing in it'). My favorite: Within a few hours of the invasion, all the street signs in Prague are painted over. The tanks wander directionless through the streets for hours, then days, and then for the rest of the occupation, because all the maps in the city are destroyed as well." [94]

The Plastic People continued to rock in secret and out of town, including at Václav Havel's country house. Several members of the band were put on trial in 1976 and two musicians went to prison. General outrage inspired Havel to draft the human rights manifesto, Charter 77. The notorious trial rippled in waves of solidarity for the persecuted musicians and also for Havel's leadership. The tide would topple the communist government in November 1989, during an uprising called the Velvet Revolution. Why Velvet? The name was borrowed from another rock band. When Lou Reed, founder of the Velvet Underground, came to Prague in 1990, Havel asked him, "Did you know that I am president because of you?" [95]

Popular, socially mobilizing music now includes the classics, counterintuitive though it may seem. As surely as rock resisted the Soviets in Eastern Europe, classical music breaks the ice of class differences in Venezuela, thanks to El Sistema of musical education pioneered by Jose Antonio Abreu. (Classical music also invites Israeli and Arab youth to play together in the "West-Eastern Divan Orchestra" founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. [96] ) Since 1975, Abreu's youth orchestras are social networks of rigorously trained but otherwise disenfranchised children and teens. By now international offshoots have developed in Latin America, the United States, Britain, and China. [97] One spectacular sequel is Paraguay's recycling of a garbage dump into the space and material resources for the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra. [98] Of the 350,000 current participants in Venezuela (about four million over the years) 90 percent live under the poverty line. They do well in school, don't drop out, and find employment, sometimes as music instructors and internationally coveted professionals. One graduate is Gustavo Dudamel, named director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 before he turned twenty-eight years old.

From ages two and three, children attend núcleos where they develop friendships through music-making, not gangs. The joy of playing together sustains them during long hours of training. For pragmatic reasons, Abreu placed El Sistema under the Ministry of Family, Health, and Sports, not the Ministry of Culture where support would have been precarious. The aim is to be in every public school in the country by 2015. [99] At the Inter-American Development Bank where Abreu pressed for loans, there were objections to classical music as an elite and exclusive art. But follow-up studies of more than two million young people concluded that every dollar invested in El Sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends. [100]

Pro-Test Lab

They figured it would be impossible to fight city hall. Authorities in Vilnius had already sold the last movie theater to developers. So two local artists made saving the cinema called "Lietuva" (Lithuania) into an art project. That way Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas wouldn't measure success on reclaiming the theater but on seeing how far they could go. This aesthetic criterion freed them to launch an impractical project. They also acknowledge another—extra-artistic—reason for pressing past despair. It is an ethical imperative to protect public space. No amount of subsequent blackmail and bullying deterred them from the exhilarating obligation to participate in a free, post-Soviet society. The Urbonas project runs on the double motor of civic responsibility and experimental art. If it were not for civic commitments, Nomeda and Gediminas would not have taken this art assignment. And were it not for this work of art, Lithuanians would not have defended the political right to assembly. [101] Meeting in public space literally sustains the res publica, which was imploding under rampant postSoviet privatization. [102]

Restrictions on assembly were inherited from Soviet times. Kitchens, where people normally cluster, continue today to accommodate only three people, maximum. [103] By contrast, the beloved "Lithuania" is roomy and welcoming. Built in 1965, while the Soviets developed a people's urbanism inspired by an exhibit in 1958 of U.S. modern architecture in Moscow, the cinema's attractions include its sleek lines and broad access from a popular plaza. [104] The same centrally located plaza had long been the site of demonstrations and meetings, including the anti-Soviet People's Road to Independence. The building seated almost one thousand in the main hall and another eighty-eight in the intimate theater. This is substantial capacity for a city of only half-a-million inhabitants in a country of barely more than three million. The enormous lobby hosted poetry readings, art exhibits, concerts, even "decadent" jazz concerts. Relatively free from official vigilance, the cinema was a safety valve built into a totalitarian Soviet state. Throughout the 1990s, it showed mostly independent films, becoming the city's art house and home for a successful international film festival. By 2005, when plans for demolition were announced, the Lietuva was about to celebrate its tenth annual festival.

It was technically a private limited liability company, with 93 percent of the shares owned by the Vilnius Municipality and 7 percent acquired by the fourteen cinema employees. The public future of the building and its accompanying plaza had been secured in 1994, when the company signed a State Land Lease that was good until 2093. [105] Scandalously, "Lietuva" was put up for auction to private bidders in 2002. And tragicomically, the municipal government included the cinema among its treasures in a proposal in 2004 to designate Vilnius as Europe's Capital of Culture. Almost everyone felt frustrated. What had been common—libraries, stadiums, concert halls, public swimming pools, and other recreational sites—became private or disappeared altogether along with the collective memories that places embody. During the twenty years of official independence since 1990, nothing public had been built. The only new structures were shopping malls and private housing. But no one protested. The very word "protest" conjured an unpopular Soviet ideology.
A first move was to invent "Vilma," an e-mail list of artists and activists invited by Gediminas and Nomeda to formulate questions for the municipal government. Questions were an innovation akin to art. During Soviet times, questioning anything official was vilified as bourgeois backsliding. Complaints could be registered, but the consequences were either insignificant or unpleasant. By April 2005, "Vilma" spurred a wildly heterogeneous coalition, though few artists joined because political art had long been associated with service to the state. [106] But vegetarians, feminists, alternative educators, students of architecture, new media activists, leftists, nationalists, and neighbors came together "For 'Lithuania'" to create the Pro-Test Lab.

The clever name contains protest in the double sense of inclusion and control. The Lab's activities would be experiments in art-making. Events in public spaces throughout the city included private screenings of sometimes pirated films, rock and folk concerts, milk bars, masquerades, all of which produced almost daily interruptions of neoliberal business. There were more than sixty events in the first half of 2005, a barrage that worried the new owners of "Lietuva" enough to resell the property to "Paradise Apartments," a front for Lithuanian and Russian investors. [107]

The movement started modestly inside the movie house. Gediminas and Nomeda proposed to interview patrons of the final International Film Festival and to produce a documentary called Cinema Spring in reference to the Prague Spring of 1968. The cinema staff gave more than permission; they invited the collective to occupy the ticket office that would become headquarters. The challenge became how to "curate" the explosive differences among pro-testers who had huddled in the cinema to shelter particular partisan positions. The solution was to promote a variety of activities that kept the Lab clear of any one ideology. It is a strategy that comes instructively close to the model of autonomous collectives that developed in ACT UP. On April 9, 2005, the mix thickened when the Pro-Test Lab convened a public meeting to change its mission from defending the cinema, "For 'Lietuva,'" to recuperating the country, "For Lietuva without Quotation Marks." The two hundred attendees represented new groups: anarchists, members of the Green Party, true Social Democrats ("the losers"), a good number of heritage experts, passersby, and strangers. The citizens' movement was founded at that meeting.

Among the numerous happenings of this newly national movement was America Will Help Us! (June 2, 2005). It was a photo op of a crowd wearing President Bush masks and eating popcorn. Bush had visited Lithuania in 2002 and famously declared that "from now on any enemy of Lithuania is an enemy of the U.S." The backdrop for the photo was a huge poster of the quote in the style of George Maciunas—the Lithuanian-born founder of Fluxus, New York's playful art movement meant to embarrass bourgeois culture. [108] Had the event been a political demonstration it would have required permission and suffered delays or denials. But as an art project, America Will Help Us! and other contentious displays of dissent passed under the legal radar though all the media outlets picked it up.

Another successful event was Fashion Collection for Work and Rebellion (July 12, 2005). A well-known designer and several glamorous models turned the cinema's rooftop into a catwalk and made the show irresistible to the media. It covered the front pages of the newspapers, including Business News. This was the last straw for the already harassed VIP developer. Wasn't it enough that a sweet deal with the city had just gone sour and cost him a fortune? Or that the cinema's plaza had hosted a Monopolylike game called VIP Market where architecture students displayed scale models of churches, parks, and an opera house, with offers to turn them into garages, shops, or apartments? (An Internet version in 2007 would invite players to "develop" the city as one of four characters—the corrupt mayor, a gas tycoon, a local gangster, a vamp. The trick at the end of the game is that no matter how high a player scores, the Pro-Test Lab destroys the profits.) Now the mogul's own friends and allies were humiliating him with enthusiasm for subversive fashion. (Anarchists tried to undercut the Lab's victory with objections to "collaborating with spectacle.")

The Lab also experimented with a TV talk show to get politicians, architects, human rights activists, and city planners to talk about public space. One show featured the architect of the cinema's replacement building. Another brought in lawyers for the developers. The show also reported on the disastrous gentrification of Oslo as a warning to Vilnius. The cumulative effect was to ground the concept of public space into a concrete demand. Therefore, frustration escalated when the cinema closed in September 2005 to be immediately sold to Paradise Apartments. Citizens' voices had not been heard, so Vilma invited everyone to bring out their dogs and make more noise. Dogs Barking Will Not Disturb the Clouds is a Lithuanian folk saying about purposeless complaining. On the square in front of the condemned building, the dogs created a media success, and also disagreement with activists who objected to the post-protest message.

Vilma was the Pro-Test Lab's electronic afterlife. One powerful connection that it brokered was an invitation for Gediminas and Nomeda to speak on the state-owned radio station. This got journalist Rasa Kalinauskaite fired; she then joined a private TV show and developed her new passion for heritage. Becoming the Lab's lead spokesperson, Rasa also founded Lithuania's Alternative Heritage Commission to hold government accountable to the law.

By the end of 2005 Paradise Apartments hired media monitors to track the artists' activities. And when another heritage expert spoke on national radio about abuses committed by the developers—collapsed buildings, illegal elimination of a playground—the monitors provided "evidence" of libel. From late 2005 to the present, the company has tried to have the artists' accounts arrested, and in 2008 it sued the heritage expert for damages. No lawyer would defend her, but an artist stepped in as happened in ACT UP. Musician Tomas Bakucionis was only a law student then. He had gotten interested in the law while drafting a 2006 Pro-Test Lab petition to the national government demanding responses to a series of municipal abuses regarding public space and zoning. A year and a half went by and, astoundingly, the government found four of the seven petition points legitimate. This was a real victory. One of the points was to explore the establishment of a "Public Space Committee" in the Ministry of Culture, though municipal lawyers had argued that the term was bogus because property was private by definition.

A series of suits and countersuits forced Gediminas and Nomeda to investigate their civil rights. They discovered the International Aarhus Convention, which explicitly guarantees the right of citizens to participate in decisions about environmental use. [109] This right was a surprise to Lithuania, though the country had signed the convention, translated from a mistranslated Russian version. For example, "environment" turned into "nature"; "transparency" became "publicity"; "sustainable" translated as "balanced." The document had never been cited in Lithuanian courts and the artists' case depended on approval of their fresh translation, which finally came in January 2009. The developers retaliated with a civil suit to demand compensation for compounded losses, alleging that the Lab experimented with public resources, including the very courts that were judging their pranks. But the artists assured the authorities that they were following the law to the letter, an innovation in Lithuania that evidently had a defamiliarizing effect.

This case conjures up other grassroots projects to develop shared space, such as the Sustainable South Bronx. Bogotá, by the way, is among Majora Carter's inspirations for revitalizing her polluted neighborhood in Hunts Point, New York. [110] Her project addresses land use, energy, transportation, water, waste, education, and, most recently, design and manufacturing. It "creates opportunities for people to grow vegetables at home, to get paid to do environmental cleanup, and to work through local government to stop New York from using the neighborhood as a dumping site for 25 percent of the city's waste." [111] The main innovation was to develop rooftop gardening to provide high yields of organic vegetables for urban dwellers and local restaurants. Ex-convicts, gang members, and the elderly have together managed to reduce exposure to toxins, curb childhood asthma, and energize the local economy. Newly skilled residents are able to find work elsewhere; but they don't leave the neighborhood. People stay to become teachers and to invest in the Sustainable South Bronx. [112]

It bears a family resemblance to Aula Verde (Green Classroom), an ecological park and science center for school children in Puerto Rico. The amphitheater's flora, designed to facilitate lessons by practiced guides; the elegant simplicity of the laboratory building that borders the butterfly farm; and the space for arts and crafts are admirable but not unique. The surprise is the staff, all parolees and probationers from an abusive jail nearby. With help from Marco Abarca, a Costa Rican human rights lawyer who won a class action suit for the prisoners, they transformed two acres of mosquito-infested woods into a tropical teaching forest. A side effect through Abarca's law students is applied research into a range of community concerns, including adolescent pregnancy, breast-feeding, school retention, and prevention of drug abuse. Press on any point and the issues connect.

Making Sidetracks

A map of intersections will include lines of influence from one artist to another; but there are more links to plot. Studying "influence" in art often centers on one practice at a time to trace lessons and provocations, as in Shakespeare's influence on Milton, or how Picasso influenced Gris and was influenced by African masks. When we observe influence in art, this usually means a creative appropriation by another artist, an oedipal dynamic that Harold Bloom described as the "anxiety of influence." [113] But you are invited to explore acupunctural art and influence beyond the line of master to disciple, to notice the ripples that art makes elsewhere. Side effects can turn a chain of events into a chart of obstacles, allies, and countercurrents where art provokes responses that no one would have anticipated. The effects can add up to social change, possibly for the good when art connects with accountability.

About the Author

Doris Sommer is Ira Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.


[1] Norman Mailer and Jon Naar, The Faith of Graffiti (New York: HarperCollins, 2009). Also Banksy, Wall and Piece (New York: Random House, 2005).

[2] Jane Golden's programs for Philadelphia make it internationally recognized as the "City of Murals." See Lauren Silverman, "On Philly's Walls, Murals Painted with Brotherly Love," All Things Considered, npr, August 23, 2010,

[3] Melissa Dribben, "1.5 Million Philadelphians Can't Be Wrong: Parisians Look to Copy City's Mural Program," Philadelphia Inqirer, May 8, 2009, p. B2.

[4] "JR" is a semi-anonymous French street artist. See his ted talk, "One year of turning the world inside out," 2011,

[5] Rennie Ellis, The All New Australian Graffiti (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1985),


[7] See for example, Lucy Lippard, Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984).

[8] Ben Davis, "Rancière for Dummies," review of The Politics of Aesthetics, Artnet,

[9] Augusto Boal, Aesthetics of the Oppressed, trans. Adrian Jackson (London: Routledge, 2006).

[10] Carrie Lambert-Beatty, "Twelve Miles: Boundaries of the New Art/Activism," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2008, vol. 33, no. 2. 309–327.

[11] See Liza Weisberg, "The Yes Men Fix the World One Prank at a Time," Huffington Post, July 27, 2009,

[12] Luis Camnitzer, "Tucumán Arde: Politics in Art," chapter 7 in Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), p. 64.

[13] Clemente Padín, "Latin American Art in Our Time" and "Tucumán Arde: Paradigm of Revolutionary Cultural Action," chapters 1 and 4 in Art and People, trans. Harry Polkinhorn (Web publication: 1997) .

[14] Jacoby also directs community arts projects such as Proyecto Matanzas and recently opened a multipurpose arts center, the cia, in Buenos Aires. See

[15] Douglas Rushkoff, Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back (New York: Random House, 2009), pp. 234–239.

[16] Rushkoff, "The Melt-Up," chapter 9 in Life Inc., p. 227.

[17] Rushkoff, Life Inc., p. 234.

[18] Mady Schutzman and Jan Cohen-Cruz, Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 22.

[19] Augusto Boal, Hamlet and the Baker's Son: My Life in Theatre and Politics, trans. Adrian Jackson and Candida Blaker (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 194–200.

[20] J. L. Moreno, The Essential Moreno: Writings on Psychodrama, Group Method and Spontaneity, ed. Jonathan Fox (New York: Springer, 1987).

[21] Schutzman and Cohen-Cruz, Playing Boal. p. 110.

[22] Ana Correa, "Yuyachkani over Thirty Years," presentation at Harvard University, April 12, 2009.

[23] See Yolanda Broyles-González, El Teatro Campesino: Theater in the Chicano Movement (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994).

[24] Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (originally published in Spanish as Teatro del oprimido, 1974), trans. Charles A. and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995), p 156.

[25] Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, p. 132.

[26] Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, chapter 4.

[27] Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Martinus Nijhoff Philosophy Texts, vol. 1. The Hague, the Netherlands: M. Nijhoff Publishers, 1979.

[28] Augusto Boal, The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy. London: Routledge, 1995, p. 7.

[29] Boal, The Rainbow of Desire, pp. 26–27.

[30] Boal, The Rainbow of Desire, p. 59; Legislative Theatre: Using Performance to Make Politics. London: Routledge, 1998., p. 56.

[31] Boal, Legislative Theatre, p. 57.

[32] John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, quoted in Steven Fesmire, John Dewey and Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), p. 69.

[33] Boal, The Rainbow of Desire, p. 27.

[34] Boal, The Rainbow of Desire, p. 45.

[35] Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, chapter 1.

[36] In Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal summarizes Arnold Hauser's argument in The Social History of Art (London, 1951). See also George Thompson, Aeschylus and Athens (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1941).

[37] Nathan Schneider, "Paint the Other Cheek," Nation, April 2, 2012,

[38] Adrian Jackson, Introduction to The Rainbow of Desire, p. xxiii.

[39] Néstor García Canclini. Globalización imaginada (Narrativas Históricas) (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1999) p. 115.

[40] Boal, Legislative Theatre, pp. 3–4.

[41] Boal, Legislative Theatre, p. 6.

[42] Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art, p 89.

[43] Alfredo Jaar, "Conversaciones en Chile, 2005." In Jaar scl 2006, edited by Adriana Valdés, 67–88. (Barcelona, New York: Actar Ediciones, 2006).

[44] Boal, Hamlet and the Baker's Son, p. 324.

[45] Matthew K. Nock, Guilherme Borges, and Yutaka On, Suicide: Global Perspectives from the Who World Mental Health Surveys (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[46] Boal, Rainbow, p. 25.

[47] Emmanuel Lévinas, Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, [1974] 1991), pp. 5–6.

[48] Boal, Rainbow, p. 43.

[49] Boal, Rainbow, p. 26.

[50] Boal, Rainbow, pp. 70–72.

[51] Roberto Schwarz in Pai de família e outros ensaios (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1980) had also celebrated Boal as an alternative to Tropicalismo, which allegedly romanticized rather than developed Brazil.

[52] Boal, Legislative Theatre, pp. 6–8.

[53] Boal, Legislative Theatre, p. 11.

[54] Boal, Legislative Theatre, p. 15.

[55] Boal, Legislative Theatre, pp. 21–22.

[56] Boal, Aesthetics of the Oppressed, p. 6.

[57] Boal, Hamlet and the Baker's Son, p. 325.

[58] Boal, Aesthetics of the Oppressed, p. 6.

[59] "A Estética do Oprimido nas Escolas."

[60] "May the trash be with you," is the slogan of the collective Basurama. See their website,

[61] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New revised twentieth-anniversary ed. 
New York: Continuum, 1993, p. 28.

[62] Freire, Pedagogy, pp. 39–40.


[64] Boal, Legislative Theatre, pp. 21–22.

[65] Betsy Bard facilitated these very successful programs at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School from 2004 to 2008 with a combination of techniques from Boal and from Anna Deavere Smith.

[66] See Norifumi Kamo, Mary Carlson, and Felton Earls "Young Citizens as Health Agents: Use of Drama in Promoting Community Efficacy for hiv/aids," American Journal of Public Health 98, no. 2 (February 2008): 201–204.

[67] EEOC New York regional director Spencer H. Lewis Jr. and Joseph Alvarado, state and local program manager, hosted a Cultural Agents workshop for the Boston EEOC office on March 21, 2006, and at a national taps meeting of EEOC directors in Stamford, Connecticut, in September 2006. The workshops for MIT's Addir Interfaith Program took place during the Fall Retreats of 2007, 2008, and 2009.

[68] Carmen Oquendo-Villar and Lisa Pic-Harrison, "Acting Up in Colombia: Police Accountability and Anti-Transgender Violence," e-misferica 3, no. 2 (November 2006).

[69] See a recent contribution with popular appeal: Linda Hirshman, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 2012).

[70] Lope de Vega, Fuente Ovejuna, Biblioteca clásica, vol. 54. Barcelona: Crítica, 1993 (first published in Madrid in 1619).

[71] Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, Act Up Oral History Project, 35, p. 34. For more about the project, see here:

[72] Sebastian Smee, "Blunt Instruments: Collectives' aids Art Made an Impact with Just a Few Strong Images," Boston Globe, October 30, 2009.

[73]  Kramer had cofounded Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) in January 1982 but resigned by 1983.

[74] Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart. The Royal Court Writers Series. London: Methuen in association with the Royal Court Theatre, 1986.

[75]  "act up Capsule History,"

[76] Claire Grace, "The aids Crisis Is Not Over: Activism and Collective Art Practice in act up New York." Exhibition Essay for act up New York: Activism, Art, and the aids Crisis, 1987–1993, published by Harvard Art Museum, 2009, p. 3. See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (2nd ed. London: Verso, 2001).

[77] From a press release (July 10, 2009) published by the Harvard Art Museums entitled "Harvard Exhibition of Visual Media in AIDS Activism Marks 20 Year Anniversary of the Formation of ACT UP New York." See here:

[78] On their open-source website, Schulman and Hubbard include transcripts of the interviews accompanied by short video clips. See

[79] Douglas Crimp, AIDS Demographics (San Francisco: Bay Press, 1990).

[80] Maria Maggenti, interview with Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, ACTUP Oral History Project, February 16, 2005; MIX: The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival, December 11, 2005,

[81] "ACT UP Capsule History."

[82] I am grateful to Michele Stanners for her reading.

[83] David Barr, "Enemies at the Gate: Storming Montréal's Palais de Congrès, and Makeshift Battle Stations in Fortress San Francisco," December 2002, Index of Articles From The Treatment Action Group (TAG),

[84] Barr, "Enemies at the Gate."

[85] Act Up Oral History Project, interview no. 35. p. 14.


[87] Oliviero Toscani worked with Tibor Kalman on aids posters; they would co-create Colors to provide social context for the photographic campaigns. See Tibor Kalman, Peter Hall, Michael Bierut, Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998) and Steven Heller's "Biography" for AIGA, [Editorial note: Steven Heller's "Biography" page no longer exists, but the AIGA organizational history page can be found here:]

[88] Grace, "The AIDS Crisis Is Not Over," p. 6.

[89] Grace, "The AIDS Crisis Is Not Over," p. 7.

[90] Douglas Crimp "Right On, Girlfriend!," in Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, ed. Michael Warner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 304.

[91] Act Up Oral History Project, interview no. 35, p. 22. Kramer doesn't deny it.

[92] On October 1, 2005 Cultural Agents, Harvard University hosted the conference, "The Jewish-Latin Mix: Making Salsa" to feature master pianist Larry Harlow, known admiringly as "el judío maravilloso"; Leon Gast, who filmed Our Latin Thing (1973), Salsa (1976), and won an Oscar for When We Were Kings (1996); Martin Cohen, photographer and founder/president of Latin Percussion, the company that developed the major source of Afro-Latino percussion instruments, and Marty Sheller, composer, arranger, and Grammy winning producer of Jazz, Latin Jazz, and Salsa. Scholars included Robert Farris Thompson whose books on tha African cultural heritage in the Americas include Tango: The Art History of Love (New York: Pantheon Books, 2005).

[93] Ada Ferrer, "The Silence of Patriots: Racial Discourse and Cuban Nationalism, 1868–1898" in José Martí "Our America": From National to Hemispheric Cultural Studies, editors Jeffrey Belnap and, Raúl Fernandez, pp. 228–252. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998) p. 243.

[94] Paul Chan, "Fearless Symmetry," Artforum. New York: Mar 2007. Vol. 45, Iss. 7; 
pg. 260.


[96] See

[97] Ed Vulliamy, "Strings Attached: What the Venezuelans Are Doing for British 
Kids," Observer, October 2, 2010.



[100] José Cuesta, "From Economicist to Culturalist Development Theories: How Strong Is the Relation between Cultural Aspects and Economic Development?," European Journal of Development Research 16, no. 4 (2004): 868–891.

[101] An article from City I Q Journal, the Lithuanian version of Intelligent Life, October 2009, acknowledges that the public versus private debate originated in the controversy around the Lietuva Cinema, beginning in 2005. See Andrius Uzkalnis (2009) Sava ir Privatu: Visai Nepriesiska Bendruomenei ir Viesumai. Miesto IQ: Tarp Vieso ir Privataus. Rugsejis-Spalis 17, pp. 6–9.

[102] Independence was declared on March 11, 1990, though recognition came a year later, first from Iceland, then the United States and others.

[103] In the famous "Kitchen Debate" on July 24, 1959, Richard Nixon argued the virtues of capitalism, showing American kitchen appliances for the convenience of housewives. Nikita Khruschev countered that keeping "housewives" happy was keeping them from careers. See transcript:; and BBC review:

[104] Nomeda Urbonas and Gediminas Urbonas, "pro-test lab dossier: / 2005." [Editorial note: This dossier is no longer publicly accessible online, but (non-public) links to the works of Nomeda Urbonas, including the dossier, are currently housed on an MIT artist profile page found here:]

[105] The State Land Lease Agreement, operative until 2093 (Lease number N001194–1745). Article 8.1 determines the primary purpose of the land use: "the land lot can only be used for economic activities, associated with the mission of the cinema theater."

[106] Urbonas and Urbonas, "pro-test lab dossier: / 2005."

[107] It is impossible to know who they are because the identity of corporate shareholders is protected from public scrutiny.

[108] In 1963, Maciunas composed the first Fluxus Manifesto "to purge the world of bourgeois sickness."

[109] "United Nations Economic Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters." Aarhus, Denmark, on 25 June 1998.

[110] Her ted talk:

[111] Rushkoff, Life Inc., p. 234.

[112] Rushkoff, Life Inc., p. 234. See also Detroit's Heidelberg Project:

[113] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (London: Oxford 
University Press, 1973).

Join the colloquy

The Future of the Public Humanities

Is the future of the humanities a public one? In an era of challenges to history, philosophy, literature, and the other humanistic disciplines, utopian thinking about new outlets and broad audiences has become commonplace. Institutions of all sorts promote projects in the public humanities as an unequivocal gain for all, while reflection on the compromises of such projects—not to mention their hazards and omissions—is rarer, and sometimes difficult or unwelcome.


This Colloquy is conceived to demonstrate that a truly public humanities will encourage critical attention to its own premises. The arguments and questionings gathered here generally proceed from an awareness of the long history of intellectual work addressed to the public. They tend to recognize both that now scholarship may go public in more channels than ever—from publication to video to new media—and that, for good reasons, some of the most important work of our time will never find a wide audience. In light of these realities, one might begin by inquiring how the two terms, public and humanities, change as they come into contact, and how what they mean together might be different from what they mean apart. 

Judith Butler's essay, which appeared in a number of the journal Daedalus dedicated to "The Humanities in American Life" in 2022, sets a frame around the Colloquy by insisting that the public humanities must exist not to promote the relevant fields of study for instrumental or market-driven purposes, nor to serve or advertise, but to bring a truly public dimension to the work humanists do. Butler envisions that public dimension as introducing topics of the broadest concern into the work of the humanities, at best reorienting both "the mission of the university" and "the relation between universities and the public." She concludes with a call for a public humanities that issues "a life call, to foster a critical imagination that helps us rethink the settled version of reality." 

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, represented here by an informal reflection that appeared in Arcade's journal Occasion about ten years ago, complements Butler's argument by challenging one form of instrumental thinking about the humanities, namely rational choice, and countering that with a robust defense of the literary imagination. Spivak's argument was developed in her book An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization (2013), which was in press at the time of the essay for Occasion. As Spivak's essay shows, comment on the humanities in the public world has appeared in Arcade for many years now.

Several other recent items propose their own interpretations of a public humanities. Doris Sommer narrates three engrossing examples of how the provocations of public art (especially conceptual, avant-garde, or marginal) can prompt social change. Natalie Loveless describes "research-creation" as a practice of art informed by scholarly work (say, in history or cultural theory) that forces a reconsideration of the boundaries between not only disciplines but intellectual media and of the "rendering public (publishing) of research within a university context." Hannah Kim discusses the potential as well as the costs of applying virtual reality to the public representation of history. In a searching interview on the evolving idea of liberty, Quentin Skinner reflects on how his view of the relation of the applicability of the past to the present has changed and why he accepts the role of a public intellectual today.

In a talk for the Stanford Humanities Center in 2022, Kyla Schuller responded to my first question—about how her public-oriented book The Trouble with White Women (2021) evolved from a more conventionally academic project—by noting the diversity and sophistication of public readerships. "People are hungry for what scholarship can teach us," Schuller said, as she observed that audiences for books like hers do not exist in waiting but are convened by work that dares to educate and confront them. In an interview, Rey Chow expands on her book A Face Drawn in Sand: Humanistic Inquiry and Foucault in the Present (2021), in part a critique of recent adaptations (not only public-oriented but environmental, digital, and computational scholarship) as more or less at odds with a non-utilitarian kind of humanities. Two influential figures who are active in institutions, Susan Smulyan and Zrinka Stahuljak, describe how their centers at Brown and UCLA are adapting to the needs of public scholarship today. 

As in all Colloquies, especially on topics as open as this one, the work continues. We encourage contributions about the responsibilities of public-oriented writing in a post-factual society; the challenges of accommodating multilingual, recondite, or profoundly historical scholarship into the public humanities; and the nature and value of research that will never go public. We would be glad to receive first-person accounts of careers and projects in terms of the public humanities. Comments, suggestions, and submissions are welcome.

Join the Colloquy

My Colloquies are shareables: Curate personal collections of blog posts, book chapters, videos, and journal articles and share them with colleagues, students, and friends.

My Colloquies are open-ended: Develop a Colloquy into a course reader, use a Colloquy as a research guide, or invite participants to join you in a conversation around a Colloquy topic.

My Colloquies are evolving: Once you have created a Colloquy, you can continue adding to it as you browse Arcade.