March 16, 2008 Sanctuary Revisited: ‘now that was a lynching!’
lately, i’ve been working on a new piece. it’s a large scale performance that will be shown via the scraps of its passing, its detritus…
essentially, i’m going to attempt to recreate the site or space of a lynching. i want to bring together various performers and myself and enact a similar spectacle to what might have occurred in the 1920s or 30s here in the united states at an actual lynching. gather together enough actors and other types of performers to recreate a small town hosting a typical lynch party.
there’ll be a photographer, steve miller, to document it via stills. he’s the main documenter. and a wonderful collaborator. there will also be people making amateur video and others making audio field recordings. the exhibition will consist of photos and videos and audio atmospheres attempting to invoke the spectral image of the scene.
but there will be bents to it. i’m not going to say how i’m planning on changing things up, but it’s all to invoke ideas about the nature of class and social violence and to enhance the dialogues on social and domestic violence. i’ve decided to publish a short essay on my ideas about lynchings in this country and how i look at them. view them. understand them. this essay is unfinished, as of yet, but it gives a pretty clear idea of how i’m approaching this project and perhaps some insight into how i plan on accomplishing my goals…
feel free to comment on it either via the comment system in the blog or via private email. hell, you can even call if you want if you have my number. my hope is to divest myself of any trivial approaches in my thinking and the work itself. this is the biggest project i’ve taken on yet and i don’t want to mar it with insincerity. if you find yourself questioning my approaches or my conclusions in this essay please do tell me.
thanks for reading this far. i appreciate it. the next installment of the “sense of being” photo/text series is in the works, too. i’ve just got a lot of things to work on right now and some crazy surprises for seattle in the hat… as i don’t want to do a half-assed job on them everything comes a little slowly… (p.s. for those who have been asking: yes the woman in the sense of being shots is aware that i am using them; that’s why they were produced in the first place. and she is very pleased with the first installment. she’s an artist as well and is working on a companion piece that we created at the same time, but was done with video. pretty exciting. if she makes it postable i’ll drop a link so people can check it out. her’s should be happening at the end of the summer unless we change it around.)
In the 1920 and 30s in the united states a project was initiated to deal with the perceived problem of undesirable natives, freed slaves, immigrants from europe and women attempting to rise above their sanctioned stations, making demands for their rights. White americans occupied a position of dominance and desired to maintain that hegemony. To that end began their perpetration of acts of great violence against these undesirable, but somehow necessary, groups.
Accusations leveled against members of these groups included: rape; hubris; theft; violence; anything that could be used as an excuse to punish some members or individuals. It was hoped that this would harness the remainder to a yoke of fear immobilizing them socially, keeping them trapped in a space of irrelevance. These events happened with great frequency and were sanctioned by members of the white elite and lower classes.
One particular form these public punishments would take on is particularly interesting. Sometimes, in rural america, when a lynching was about to be initiated, the entire town would come out. Schools and businesses would close for the day; everyone would come out to participate. Cookouts, musical entertainment, religious services would occur on site. While bodies were tortured and lives taken, local residents congratulated and celebrated themselves on maintaining the social order.
The question then remains: what are the effects on our present of these acts of the past. as a project were lynchings successful in their aims. And not lastly, but sufficient for the purpose of my work, with the project of lynching mostly starved out by shifting social value systems does the project continue on ’til this day, masked or transformed so as to hide itself from our discernments and continue on invisible to our senses.
“What are the effects on the present these acts of the past”
An obvious answer to the first question is the endurance of skin color-based distrusts. Whites (male) still hold the greater hegemony and many darker-skinned folks and same complexioned women find themselves distrustful of their continued rule. Even as members of these ‘lower classes’ find themselves exercising more power with in their continuously evolving enfranchisement they still voice concern, resentment and anger at the actions of the white elites. Even as they begin to rise and participate in the class actions of these elites and in turn turn their backs on their former communities in their desire to rise out of their own socially constructed straits (‘poverty,’ racism,’ misogyny,’ ‘genocide, and etcetera).
“As a project was the lynching successful in its’ aims ?”
The last observation leads us to direct confrontation with question two: was the vigilante justice model of the lyncher successful? many would point out the success of minorities post the civil rights era as a rebuke against its efficacy. minorities have risen to lead multinational corporations and participate at the highest levels of national policy making. Some are considered amongst the finest american role models for their intellection and academic prowess where before they were considered no capable of such feats as a dog who would learn
to count. Black americans in particular have become amongst the most notable cultural exports for their contributions to the global entertainment enterprise as musicians, wordsmiths, artists, dancers, athletes and fashion icons.
But buying into and participating in the citizenship franchise is not to be equated only with liberation and freedom (a manumission) from social isolation, constraint and domination. (In many ways) it is the method of this liberation that should have us hesitate and reconsider our immediate response, our answer.
In moving out of those undesirable locales many individual turn not just their backs on their former communities leaving them to their own fates, but some actually turn: new members of the franchise participate in the oppressive tactics of their former trespassers. Chastising the poor for their methods of speech and survival; harassing, condoning and encouraging violence against women and sexual minorities, these newly embraced members of america’s transforming cultural elite repeat the the repressive tactics their forbears withered and suffered under. Let’s not make a mistake here by crudely stating that these people have ‘become white,’ an impossible task, but rather that they have come to see themselves as distant masters.
This self-perception of ‘distant master’ is what allowed and allows the dominant culture to not convulse into immobilization with guilt from its crimes. Racism and misogyny, nationalism and collectivism allow us to say that ‘we’ are not ‘they.’ Pride in those ephemerals allows us to know that ‘we’ are superior to ‘them.’ These divisions allow us to stand at great remove from our fellows and justify our actions against them as just and necessary. Not only for maintaining social cohesion and order, but also to keep the underclass from giving into their ruling and basest desires and run amok destroying, raping and pillaging everything in its wake.
French philosopher Michel Foucault in a radio interview with young marxist students who had taken a factory manager hostage in a revolt against working conditions of the french poor reminds them that they must be careful in their revolutionary zeal not to repeat the actions of their oppressors. That is a warning that all too few heed on their ride ‘out’ of poverty and ‘into’ the benefited society. That is a warning of suitable challenge for us all.
‘Does the project of lynching continue to this day yet invisibly?’
The third question is the only one difficult to answer. How does one show that which was once so evident: that the question of its existence has evolved to such an exalted state that it has been rendered invisible? That a societal function once writ so large in contrast against every day life has instead become its language? Can i convince you to consider my argument that the lynching project has ceased as a mechanism of interventionist minority control and has become business, big business, and business as usual.
This is not an ellipse back to my answer to the second question; this work is not for the lazy. My perception is that the manner in which we conduct the business of poverty here in the u.s. is the silent continuation of the lynching project. When acts of great violence are perpetrated against our wicker man victims, donald byrd in texas, matt shepard in colorado, everyone who gets raped or beaten (especially the systematic ones), the continued existence of Indian Reservations, the expanding presence of our prisons, the renewed vigor of our economic disenfranchisement of our poorest citizens, then they are generally perceived to be unjust. But very little is done about it to stem their further occurrence and far too often the opposite transpires: minorities calling for the murder of queers and the subjugation of women and, in a conversation i had with a poor person of pale complexion on a long bus ride:
“i don’t care if they have casinos on the reservation as long as i get my cut…”
appalling actions and statements to be sure, but still not subtle enough to back my argument on point number three. Or are they?