Extreme Costume Ball


In Seattle last November I watched a hundred sea turtles face down riot cops, a gang of Santas stumble through a cloud of tear gas, and a burly Teamster march shoulder to shoulder with a pair of Lesbian Avengers naked to the waist except for a strip of black electrical tape across each nipple. In April, the same militant creativity was on display, this time in Washington, D.C., as Radical Cheerleaders, people carrying 12-foot puppets of martyred third-world activists, and a roving gang of corporate loan sharks denounced IMF/World Bank policies that are devastating poor nations. This summer promises another wave of street resistance focused on the Republican and Democratic conventions, including a “Million Billionaire March” in which Billionaires for Bush (or Gore) will take to the streets in top hats and gowns to flaunt the fact that Big Money has already bought the election. Protest has become an extreme costume ball.

To some it’s all just kids cutting up in the street. To others this brand of theatrical DIY street politics represents a new kind of anticorporate movement distinguished by creativity, self-organization, coalition building, and the will to take on global capitalism.

I was in Seattle under the auspices of United for a Fair Economy, a Boston-based economic justice group that had hired me to organize a theater troupe. On Tuesday, November 30, we headed downtown to help shut down the WTO meetings. By 8 a.m. a full-blown blockade and festival was under way. Activists had “locked down” at strategic intersections, chaining themselves to jerry-built structures and to each other with steel tubing. People were jamming out a beat on newspaper boxes, lampposts, and dumpsters. It was raining. Spirits were high. At 10:30 a.m., the cops opened fire with tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray. The festival against corporate power morphed into a running street battle. By twilight the city was on fire and engulfed in tear gas, but the party was still going on.

There was one sublime moment in Seattle when I realized that the wild yet focused energies in the streets could never be resolved into a folk song—we were now part of Hip-Hop Nation. The rhythms of the chants were rougher, more percussive. The energy was fierce and playful. The street resonated with an in-your-face confidence. The activists were comfortable with irony, but not bogged down by it. We were no longer caught up in mimicking the ’60s or distancing ourselves from its failures; neither nostalgic for the “we can change the world” attitude nor stunted by the “everything is corrupt, what good did it all do” stance that followed. We had achieved a new attitude—sly and mischievous, yet full of hope for the future.

FIVE MONTHS LATER, MY FRIEND LOIS AND I drove from New York to D.C., the back of her pickup crammed with shark costumes for a Reclaim the Streets (RTS) action. RTS began in London’s early-’90s underground rave scene when ravers and performance artists came out of the warehouses for political actions that were part protest, part party. Exciting and easy to reproduce, these “festivals of resistance” quickly went global. As part of RTS’s “flying squad,” Lois and I were dressed as corporate loan sharks, wearing plastic jaws, fins cut from file folders, and gray tuxedos borrowed from a South Bronx community center. With about 100 other sharks we moved from blockade to blockade, bringing cheer to those linking arms, and joining human chains at flash points along the perimeter when, for example, a bus of delegates tried to push its way through to the meetings. All the while our costumes made the visual statement that the IMF and World Bank operate much like predatory lenders on a global scale, their loans to poor countries coming with cruel strings attached.

“The costume ball is the one formal convention in which the desire for individuality and extreme originality does not endanger collective performance but is actually a condition for it,” the architect Rem Koolhaas once said, describing the urban chaos of New York City. He could just as easily have been describing the new sensibility of protest. “It works because we’re all expressing a similar message in a different way,” says Emily Schuch, 22, who was in D.C. for the anti-IMF action. The phalanx of corporate loan sharks, the Rube Goldbergian contraption that ate pieces of Earth and shit out coins, the contingents of indigenous peoples in striking native garb, combined artistically and politically to say: “More World! Less Bank!”

For Schuch, a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts, the creative invitation offered by a carnival-like protest meshes well with her peers’ do-whatever-you-feel-like attitude toward drugs, sex, and music, summed up in her mind by a recent bumper sticker—”My body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park.” This movement’s costumed protest provides an exciting venue for self-discovery and artistic experimentation, where every giant puppet is a barricade and every creative gesture a challenge to the corporate manufactured consumer sameness that passes for culture.

“We felt that art shouldn’t be just an ornament, but rather an integral part of the movement,” says David Solnit. “Everything is theatrical. Traditional protest—the march, the rally, the chants—is just bad theater.” In the mid ’90s, Solnit helped launch the Art and Revolution collective, which was inspired by the DIY alternative youth culture of the hip-hop and rave music scenes, as well as by groups like ACT UP, WAC, and the Lesbian Avengers, whose high-concept shock politics were both identity affirming and visually arresting. Pioneering a powerful fusion of direct action and Bread and Puppet-style street theater, Art and Revolution has organized “Convergences,” to train activists and artists in nonviolent tactics, prop and puppet making, and decentralized decision making. By bringing people together in a carnival-like atmosphere to challenge institutions of global capitalism, this movement has found a way to push beyond identity politics, yet create a space for it. “We were in Seattle for the world and for justice,” says Mike Prokosch, a Boston activist, “but we were also there for ourselves, to create a new culture.”