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Port Huron Project via Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions

By Christopher Knight, Times Art Critic
July 25, 2008,0,321940...

Early Saturday evening, Providence, R.I.-based artist Mark Tribe orchestrated a reenactment of a 1971 speech by Chicano labor activist César Chávez protesting the Vietnam War. On the South Lawn of Exposition Park, midway between the Natural History Museum and the Coliseum, a call went out for "organized and disciplined nonviolent action," aimed squarely at those "seeking [their] manhood in affluence and war."

Actor Ricardo Dominguez spoke from the podium to a crowd that numbered perhaps one-tenth of the 2,600 who had gathered in the park 37 years earlier. Tribe's audience, in fact, was roughly equal to the number of uniformed police and plainclothes officers reported at the original (peaceful) event. Most of the attendees were probably not yet born then or were too young to remember when the brilliant, charismatic Chávez joined Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and other speakers calling for nonviolent civil disobedience to deter American militarism abroad.

The original event represented cross-fertilization in two New Left social movements, pro-labor and antiwar. Its star power -- Fonda and Sutherland's Oscar-winning "Klute" was just about to be released -- also gained special wattage from Chávez's presence. Two weeks earlier, when the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that his free speech rights were violated by an injunction against a lettuce boycott, he had been released from jail. He had been locked up for contempt.


* Port Huron Project reenacts seminal events of the 1960s
Port Huron Project reenacts seminal events of the 1960s

The performance piece, funded by New York's Creative Time and coordinated by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, was the fourth of six reenactments in Tribe's Port Huron Project. It was no doubt a bit less surreal here than the first three might have been.

During the last 22 months, a 1968 Coretta Scott King speech was staged in New York City's Central Park, a 1971 address by author and activist Howard Zinn was repeated on Boston Common, and a speech given at the 1965 march on Washington by Paul Potter, president of Students for a Democratic Society, was given again on the National Mall. (Tribe's project takes its name from the Port Huron Statement, the 1962 manifesto of the SDS, which was formed in Port Huron, Mich.) In August, an actress in Oakland will re-create an Angela Davis speech, and in September an actor portraying Stokely Carmichael will repeat a speech near United Nations headquarters in Manhattan.

What made the L.A. component seem commonplace was of course the proximity of Hollywood, where camera crews filming scripted action on the streets are plentiful.

Chávez's words are as meaningful today as they were then, and the occupation of Iraq provided a transparent if unspoken context. Likewise, Potter talked about the government's use of the rhetoric of freedom to justify war, Zinn called on Congress to impeach the president and vice president, and Scott King spoke of women's untapped political power. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

But it's the scripted, taped and electronically distributed nature of these performances that is distinctive, differentiating them from the originals. Tribe's "We Are Also Responsible" -- a line from Chávez's speech that disparages the common tendency to blame "the bosses" while waiting for them to act -- is performance art about the process of one person making a freely distributed Internet video.

The performance at Exposition Park was staged, directed and repeated three times so different camera setups could be arranged.

It employed two actors (Brian Valparaiso was the second) and involved the participation of the audience as extras. The edited results of all six parts are finding their way onto and YouTube -- search for "Port Huron Project" -- and the Chávez piece should be online in mid-August. In the fall, portions will make their way onto a jumbo screen in New York's Times Square and to a show about art and political engagement at the New York Armory. The Port Huron Project is a kind of digital samizdat, a technological twist on the distribution of political leaflets that is as American as Tom Paine and as revolutionary as farmers and small-business men toppling the combined power of George III and the East India Co.

Activism seemed futile when, despite the hundreds of thousands of people flooding into city streets around the world in protest before the invasion of Iraq, the ill-fated war went on. Yet there's a difference between old models based on mass culture, which had their zenith in the 1960s era of these original speeches, and the new "niche culture" of our high-tech present. Mass culture is effectively over. The possibility for closing the contemporary gap between activism and the individual is underway in the netroots -- activist blogs and other online communities, including artistic ones.

At the end of Dominguez's second performance of the Chavez speech, the crowd spontaneously erupted into a loud chant of "Si! Se puede! Si! Se puede!" Under the circumstances, it resonated as an Obama moment.

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