Thursday, March 11, 2010
Good-Bye to a Riot (previoulsy published in catalogue for On Procession curated by Rebecca Uchill at the Indianapolis Museum of Art
I remember going to parades as a kid and never quite understanding what was going on. Every time I heard the family was heading out to see the parade, I equated the affair with the rare times I attended church. I felt that creepy uncomfortable feeling you get when you are participating in someone else’s meaningful experience. My family never had the fold out lawn chairs. For that matter, we never had any of the proper gear. No coolers. No sunscreen. No visors with sunglasses. We would hover in the back and I would long for some fried dough. Standing in bored bafflement on a hot summer day, I would listen to the marching band and think, “I hate this music. Who sits back and listens to a marching band?” The marching band reminded me of the high school football teams with their near fascist-like stampede; my supposed peers falling over themselves desperate to enact the grand high school, John Hughes film narrative. The marching band screamed a victorious battle cry for the great blonde beasts of high school power. I would see the Shriners driving around in the little cars buzzing around like little gnomes. Why am I standing on the sidelines? I did like their tiny fezzes propped up on their heads with their tassels wiggling around as they winked at the ladies. But I intuitively sensed this was some hangover from the great generation. A mobile display of the good old days when patriarchal old men gathered together in lodges, watched blue movies with cards, beer and hackneyed Masonic rituals.
What did this have to do with me? I couldn’t understand why my family would stand on the sidewalks of our town and wave at various city dignitaries (the mayor, and the head of city council, and the police chiefs) as they drove by in some convertible Cadillac with their angelic daughters sitting with them. My parents were broke. The city gave us nothing. Boy, this sure feels alienating. Who cares about these people? At the time (the time being when I was 14), I found my mother’s sage advice becoming a reality, “Son, the world is a lot like junior high school. Get used to it.” Our local parades only validated this haunting truism. The parade had been effective in making one thing clear: I was an outsider.
Then, much later, when I was 31, I had the opportunity to participate in a parade. I was volunteering for a small non-profit art space, which had been, for the first time, invited to participate in the local State Street Parade. We held meetings to discuss what our float would look like and came up with a pretty bad idea (I think it was a girl in her bed with haunted monsters jumping out of a closet), but we were all eager to wear monster costumes. As I gathered in the parking lot in our appointed section, I watched the local marching bands getting prepped. The band members’ eyes popping out with painful nervousness. The tuba player fussing with the straps around his bulging belly. I saw the sweet little girls with their batons and their parents excitedly tucking in their outfits. It felt like I was watching my town get all getting gussied up. We were in some back room of the city, intimately choreographing some collective project together. As I marched through the town in an Oscar the Grouch meets Sponge Bob costume, and waved at (and scared) children, threw candy, and attempted to be entertaining, I realized being in a parade was far better than watching one. So many of the towns people were in the parade, we joked that the whole city should join in and we would simply march past each other in an enormous circle parading and looking at each other. Being in the parade, I realized that what I found so gratifying was the simple emotion: look town, I am here. I exist.
If I take my small alienated feelings from my first parades, and then extend them to the gratifying emotions I gained in my monster costume 17 years later, a shimmering line of tension emerges that makes the political power of parades come to light. Moving from a familiar ritual of social alienation (the parade is there to confirm your position as loser) to the center of attention at the center of the city (the parade makes you a winner) is akin to a gateway to junior high heaven. The parade becomes the red carpet of social acceptance. Being in the parade is a statement on the social body that says, “I’m here and I’m part of the grand ‘we’.” Joining a parade, I can only guess, can be a sort of social graduation or urban baptism. From the doldrums of your undignified aberrant outsider position, the parade can jettison your tawdry life into the Pretty-in-Pink limelight. And such an experience clearly has attracted a bevy of ‘outsider’ parades. Gay Pride, Puerto Rican Day Parade, May Day Parade, Cinqo de Mayo, Take Back the Night, and Ku Klux Klan (what is the name of their parade, for that matter?) all represent communities and identities demanding a presence in the fabric of cultural and spatial life in a city. “We’re here! We’re Queer! Get used to it,” the Gay Pride mantra tellingly goes.
Gay Pride was once a parade of liberation. Born out of the Stonewall riots of 1969 in Greenwich Village, this anti-puritanical street festival originally possessed a more severe tone of revolution. The Stonewall Riots erupted when police raided a popular transsexual bar in the Greenwich Village frequented predominately by people of color. In fighting back the police, the legend of the Stonewall riots circulated with an urgent underlying appeal: we will no longer be silent. Originally, part of Gay Liberation Day, the parade which emerged a year after Stonewall retained a productive defiance in its assertion of not only existence for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual community, but more importantly for rights. In the 1980s, the parades shifted away from the term liberation and moved toward Gay Pride. As of the 21st century, the Gay Pride parades are a fixture of contemporary life whose radicalness is still felt, but at the same time feel somewhat different from a rhetoric of revolution or liberation. In fact, tellingly much debate has surfaced on whether or not the parades benefit from being a party of excess or one for rights. What a wonderful tension to wrestle with.
Just previous to the summer of love and its various counter positions, the French political avant-garde association the Situationists were invested in producing alternatives to the social control of the city. They believed that our behaviors and emotions were produced through the control mechanisms of capital (both in terms of visual culture and the design of the city) and they referred to the study of this phenomena as psychogeography. In reaction to the Surrealists position that the imagination derives from the subconscious, the Situationists radically posited that the subconscious was structured by the formation of the city. If one wanted to alter the subconscious, one had to alter their relationship to the city. One of their multiple methods for accomplishing such a profound task was an ambulatory stroll called the derivé. The derivé is simply a walk through the city following ones moods and desires, and in essence, resisting the utilitarian and capitalist structure that moves us through the city. It strikes me as odd that the Situationists never discussed parades. How large groups of individuals moving through space can re-structure the veritable cerebral cortex that is the city. For, clearly, if our relationship to the city is at the core of our self-image, large groups of people collectively dancing, jamming and rollicking through the two lane byways must surely be its ultimate expression. As men in leather buttless pants spank each other, moustached dikes stride sleeveless up main Street USA and towering transsexual gogo dancers smile to the sky, the city’s brain mutates. The IRA and Protestant Orange certainly understood such powers as they wrestled for power with parades through the streets of Belfast to confront and redefining cultural, political, and social territories. When Hitler organized the Third Reich to dramatically trounce the streets of Berlin in cavalcades of swastikas and knee high glistening black boots, he literally felt like the brain surgeon of the urban body.
Maybe the Situatinists didn’t write about parades, because parades require permits. They have to be sanctioned by the state and thus, in some way, are not a dangerous threat. Contrasted with the riot, the parade seems a little more prepped and condoned. The riot on the other hand, feels wild, feverish, aggressive and furious. Rather than casting streamers and chewing gum, the riot runs with guns and torches, smashing private property, igniting and upturning cars. The riot explodes as the disenfranchised crash against the urban body in a sudden and feverish jolt. How enjoyable to think that such raw emotion lurks behind the pageantry of Gay Pride, Puerto Rican Day Parade or May Day. The ghost of a riot haunts the parade. I like to think of the mayor of my town waving goodbye to whatever social upheaval gave birth to its beginning. During the Rose Parade in Pasadena, I can picture the community leaders waving goodbye to the memory of the Watts riots and Rodney King riots. The little hand of the mayor’s daughters turning, robotically, to cast away the memory of the viewers’ liberation like a magicians’ charm. Poof! Good-bye riot. Hello victory march!
It is true that some parades are made as the legitimating stamp of approval for the powerful. We’re here. Our streets. Get used to it. While others, are perpetually in the throws of resistance. The ghost of social tensions and historic trauma feed each parade as a social writing happens with each pace of the foot or revolution of the car wheel. The best of parades, take their ghosts, dress them up, and let them lead. The social unrest becomes the death march of a powerful exaltation affirming life, death, existence and social space. And no city in the United States is more comfortable and skilled in such use of public space as the post-Hurricane Katrina city of New Orleans.
I spent much of last year in this incredible, complicated and culturally dense city. Amongst the wreckage of a community in the throws of social and political turmoil and trauma, I found the robust reality expressed by Michal Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. The parade, in New Orleans, is what the freeway is to Los Angeles. It is the fabric of the city. Traveling precariously between life, death, happiness, and agony, these emotional sojourns meander through the humid streets of the Big Easy beckoning all in attendance to collectively make their own rules. Beads, glitter, horns, body fluids and floats continuously plaster the sidewalks. A buoyancy of the imagination infuses the city’s cartography with possibility. All emotions are re-invented as you march with thousands of New Orleanians to the up temp blasting of the brass bands and the spontaneous eruptions from the increasingly intoxicated crowd; people dancing in front yards, on top of fire hydrants, slapping a stop sign, and in the back of their cars. There is no audience. Everyone participates. The city is a stage.
Almost every weekend in New Orleans, a new neighborhood will throw a parade referred to as a second line. These day-long parades were organized, and many still are, by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, a term used for the community organized social clubs that would band together to assist in funeral marches. The funeral feeds the march. Death is in the air. Like all things in New Orleans, everything is tempered with a deep understanding of tragedy. In these all day second lines, the social order is not only upturned, but one could go so far as to say that the social order is continuing to be defined. What happens in New Orleans is an ongoing dedication to a rule structure not in cahoots with capital or a traditional social order. As second lines maintain a regular schedule, one could say New Orleans runs on parades.
Unlike the clunky parades of my youth, New Orleanians don’t simply reflect their extant communities but use the parade to bring them to another level. The parade becomes a mobile collective space of becoming. The rules of the city are constantly up for grabs. The sidewalk is a dance floor. The porch is a bar-b-que pit. The street is a water slide. If the Situationists are correct, and the way we move through the city defines who we are, I want to be dancing on a fire hydrant and not waving from the sidelines. I want the memory of the riot to make those in power unsettled. I want the parade to unsettle the city. To give it the jitters. To make its waving hand shake, quake, and roll.