In the Sunday sunshine after Tropical Storm Hanna, about a hundred people—most of them in their twenties, backpacked and sandaled—milled around the northern edge of Tudor City. There was a light police presence nearby, and as the speaker came to the lectern, the audience stood to attention. “Only the white powers of the West will deny that this is a racist war,” the speaker declared. He wore a crisp blue shirt and spoke firmly into the microphone, but he didn’t shout. “When the colored peoples of the world look at that war, they see just one thing. For them, the U.S. military represents international white supremacy.” Cameras snapped. A young woman pumped her fist quickly. “Wow,” someone said.
This was probably the most controversial major political speech delivered the week of the Republican convention. It was also 41 years old. Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael wrote and gave the speech in 1967, speaking to a crowd of hundreds of thousands of peace protesters gathered outside the U.N. The man who redelivered the speech earlier this month was a well-rehearsed actor playing Carmichael in a performance project by the artist Mark Tribe.
Carmichael was 25 when he gave his speech, and although he was known as a powerful orator, he still must have been nervous: The speaker directly before him had been Martin Luther King Jr., whose shadow had hovered over Carmichael’s early career as a younger, more radical activist. Ato Essandoh, the actor who played Carmichael, was born at the very moment that the New Left revolution was ending. Times have changed, and yet they haven’t. Now Essandoh stood shadowed by history, at the center of a performance project that expressed the still overwhelming influence of the New Left.
The son of liberal legal scholar Laurence Tribe, Mark Tribe has spent the past two summers traveling the country enacting what he calls the Port Huron Project—his response to current politics through the resurrection of a radical past. Tribe has staged performances of six speeches, borrowing from New Left heroes like Carmichael, César Chávez, and Angela Davis. He hires two actors to deliver each speech, and when he finishes editing the video footage, he posts it to MySpace, YouTube, and Blip.tv.
Tribe said he looks for speeches that made connections between national and international affairs in ways that still resonate today. (As Carmichael put it, the draft sent young black men to kill “people of their own kind: poor and powerless.”) But he’s also trying to link the fighting words of his parents’ generation with today’s more connected, less outspoken political climate. “Are there online equivalents to bodies in the street?” Tribe asks.
This may not be an outstanding time for political protest—at least in comparison with the tenor of Carmichael’s times—but it has certainly been a good year for political art that historicizes it. In fact, Tribe is one of many artists (including Jeremy Deller, Omer Fast, and Allison Smith) currently producing work that resembles reenactments. Earlier this year, P.S. 1 presented “That Was Then … This Is Now,” a group exhibition of political art inspired by the late sixties. And the Port Huron Project is just one part of “Democracy in America: The National Campaign,” a larger production that curator Nato Thompson calls a “counterconvention,” in a nod to both this year’s campaign season and the legendary DNC demonstrations in Chicago 40 years ago.
It is striking how deeply enthralled Tribe and the entire Creative Time project seem to be by the New Left—a time of “almost utopian optimism,” says Tribe, “that young people acting together could form a broad coalition that could change the world.” But in a way, it wasn’t just Carmichael’s rhetoric that made the recent U.N. performance rebellious. Tribe, who founded the Web art portal Rhizome, is a strong believer in open-source culture, the free sharing of existing information. (In an earlier work called Revelation 2.0, he created abstract images by reducing the CNN Website to bands of color and photographs.)
For the Port Huron Project, Tribe didn’t ask for permission to use all the speeches, despite the possibility that an estate might object to their use. But he’s confident in his decision both legally and morally. “Access to our shared history is crucial for the functioning of democracy,” he says. “It makes a lot of sense to me for this project not to lock these speeches down in any proprietary way, but instead to make them available to anyone to appropriate or show or remix.”
After having sponsored five “town-hall meetings” and protest-performance art like Tribe’s across the country, “Democracy in America” culminates next week in a seven-day exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory. The counterconvention will include work by more than 40 artists, an ongoing lecture series, and tables for local activist organizations. It’s one of the largest undertakings in Creative Time’s 34-year history.
One way to understand “Democracy in America” is as an enormous effort by artists to simulate a grassroots political movement, recycling features of twentieth-century radicalism that now, paradoxically, seem almost familiar. the Port Huron Project, however, suggests an act of genuinely contemporary subversion. “I am fundamentally interested,” says Tribe, “in politics that question not only the means but the very assumptions upon which our society governs.”