In 2013 I was handcuffed outside the Bank of England. The handcuffs were bought at a joke shop and the protest – a guerrilla performance – took place on one of the few remaining pockets of public land in the City of London. In the strolling guerrilla street show BACS: Bankers on Community Service I played an ex-Banker who was, when supervised by a Parole Officer, [in]sincerely repenting and apologising for my role in the global economic crash. We, as a trio of performers, asked the people we met on the street – our participants – how should we punish the bankers? Throughout the performance I was charming and mischievous; defiant and persistently infuriating. The former helped me to avoid violent and excessively antagonistic reactions from participants; the latter aided the provocation of ‘politicized’ conflict.
As a performer I simultaneously held sociability and conflict within my body. My article for this Special Issue of Art & the Public Sphere ‘Politicizing Artistic Pedagogies: Publics, Spaces, Teachings’ argues for the value of a paradoxical approach to politicized dissent and public pedagogy drawing upon autoethnographic reflections, political theory, and Dread Scott’s Money to Burn (2010) performance on Wall Street.
My approach of conflictual sociability evolved intuitively as a street performer and then rigorously through my PhD research. The doctoral project explored if, then how, agonism can emerge through participatory and politicized guerrilla street theatre. The investigation was contextualised by Chantal Mouffe’s political theory of agonism as adversarial conflict and the instances in which she applied agonism to art practice (2001-2013). The research highlighted the intrinsic and substantial value Mouffe’s agonism holds for understanding conflict as an adversarial relation. However, when Mouffe applies agonism to art practice, she locates her examples within the frame of political theory, rather than in or through art practice. Mouffe’s descriptions of agonistic art practice did not tally with my performative experience of adversarial conflict as the ex-Banker.
Fast forward to 2015 and the year I spent dressed as the lion in my three-character politicized adaptation of The Wizard of Oz and the practice-based component of my PhD. I recharacterized Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow as failed political leaders who can only return home once they understand, with the help of participants, how to govern their constituents in Oz (also see Ian Bruff and Matt Davies and their pedagogical re-purposing of popular culture). The city streets became the yellow brick road and every participant became Dorothy: the character who, in L. Frank Baum’s story, held all the answers. Public participation was vital in questioning whether it was possible to ignite agonistic conflict with participants through ‘guerrilla[street] theatre’. The short answer to this question is yes, with difficulties. I argue that one aspect of this yes is the implementation of a politicized and paradoxical form of sociability.
The paradoxical framing of conflictual sociability recognises that sociability alone is unlikely to produce conflict: it requires politicization and participation. My approach develops two politicizing ideas that Mouffe proposes. In Agonistics Mouffe indicates the importance of ‘social relations’ and the potential sociability holds for counter-hegemonic dissent. Conflictual sociability corresponds to Mouffe’s ‘conflictual consensus’: a paradoxical and temporary agreement to disagree. Consensus in this Mouffian context is temporary, caveated and subject to imminent dissent. Similarly, I caveat sociability as contingent on the production of adversarial conflict. The politicization of sociability also takes place through participatory art practice. Participation situates the research within art history and theory, and guerrilla street theatre as a practice that engages with the public sphere and is intent on provoking dissent and disagreement.
Guerrilla street theatre is an unauthorised and disruptive artform uniquely suited to finding participants. In practical terms, The Wizard of Oz performance only took place as a participatory encounter with people: strangers we encountered in the public realm; publics we aimed to convert into activated participants. By strolling through the public realm, we performatively signalled for attention. Without the restrictions of a stage or a physical infrastructure we had the freedom to seek out temporary performance spaces. Publics who stopped and laughed, or stopped to stare initiated contact with us and through a series of tacit exchanges these moments often evolved into participatory encounters.
Guerrilla street theatre is not without its challenges. To initiate politicized participation, the performance had to overcome three key obstacles: not lapsing into a performative spectacle, an oddity easily ignored in the public realm; not collapsing into a series of selfie-taking moments with tourists; and, crucially for my article for the Special Issue, how to develop the initial social encounter into a politicizing artistic practice.
Solutions on how to politicize the performance emerged as we, my equally-mischievous co-performers and I, finessed our adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. We developed a series of playful games that relied on improvisation and could be adapted to meet the needs of individual participants. These games helped to warm up participants and build a rapport to support the transition from a convivial social moment to an edgier politicized encounter. For example, one game satirically drew upon the model of a hapless politician. By deliberately utilising jeopardy, incompetence, and naivety we placed the responsibility of our fate into the hands of our participants: our problem became their problem to solve. This process drew upon Paolo Freire’s ‘problem-posing’ method: of asking questions and placing absolute trust in the participants’ own knowledge and experience for the answers.
Articulating and posing problems in public is a pedagogic approach used by Dread Scott in his guerrilla performance Money to Burn (2010) on Wall Street, New York. Here Scott strolls along Wall Street sonorously calling out: “Money to bu-rn, money to burn” and “Has anyone got, any money to burn?”. In these repeated refrains, Scott directs a specific invitation for participants (a mix of Wall Street traders, and tourists) to join him in burning dollar bills on Wall Street. In my article I explore three tactics Scott employs to facilitate conflictual forms of sociability: public communication; adversarial sociability; and asserting the right to protest with insistent congeniality. These performative tactics amplify Scott’s strategic critique of the economic inequalities embedded into political policies that followed the global financial crisis. Asking awkward questions and deliberately disrupting the public realm through “disorderly” behaviour (as described by the law enforcement officers) disrupts the smooth veneer of the public realm to initiate a politicizing artistic pedagogy.
In constructing a paradoxical and politicized form of sociability, I argue for the potential of publics, public relationality, and the public realm as a site of protest and pedagogy. By taking an agonistic approach to politicized practice – through art practice – it is possible to be sociable and intentionally argumentative. Playfulness, or more accurately in my research, mischievousness facilitates a flickering movement between geniality and conflict.
The set image is from Freckled Mischief, The Wizard of Oz, (2015). Guerrilla street theatre, London, England. Courtesy of Freckled Mischief and Kev Ryan.