Un/settling scores: Actions for Torture Justice
101. Forget to die. Repeat and live forever.
— Lucky Pierre, Actions for Chicago Torture Justice
Another potential use of the score which I’m increasingly interested in is in the realm of political activism. How might the performance writing form of ‘action’ expand beyond the recognizable activist performance model (scripts for street theater, etc.) and/or the much more militant and confrontational modes of direct action which are generally discussed in terms of efficacy (symbolic &/or material) rather than ‘as performance’ (as if the latter threatens to turn the political into the ‘merely’ aesthetic)?1
One recent example of new thinking along this continuum uses the instruction-art model to propose actions that range from the more conventionally confrontational political activism to ‘symbolic’ art-actions to the seemingly impossible/ ‘imaginational’2 / ‘unthinkable.’
In 2010, former Chicago Chief of Police Jon Burge was convicted for crimes related to decades of torture during his tenure, including 110 confirmed cases of torture by white cops of African-Americans held in custody. In response, the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial Project began tracking the case histories, including victim testimonies and cases of torture and police repression that have continued long after Burge left the force. Additionally, the Project called for proposals for a ‘speculative monument’ to memorialize the victims and honor the twenty-nine year battle for justice. By opening the call to the widest possible interpretation of what a ‘speculative monument’ might look like, numerous artists have submitted plans, proposals for public sculpture, sound pieces, and the like, in a compelling example of how the proposal itself might move from the bureaucratic realm of the grant application/competition to the aesthetic-activist realm of the speculative (in the sense that with no budget or state backing, it is unlikely that many of the proposals will actually be made), such that a collection of proposals might activate the affective and political imagination and serve their intended function as memorialization without requiring the (often watered-down-by-committee) object/action to be actualized.
This brings me to the example of a written score for political action-art I want to look at — Lucky Pierre’s 100 Actions for Chicago Torture Justice, published by the indefatigable cultural workers Temporary Services. The booklet collects 100 instructions for how one might respond to the legacy of torture by the CPD, but as a work of writing it is much more than that. Far from being a how-you-can-help pamphlet or a simple set of suggestions, the actions — not tips, legal remedies, social movement slogans — push the boundary of what might normally be considered political actions or cultural propaganda, or even realistically feasible art actions:
Still other actions put the reader in the uneasy shoes of the torturer, whether as a supporter of the international network of torture (as in #18 above), or more chillingly, ‘performing’ the action itself. For instance, the instruction “Go to a pet store, buy a puppy, bring it home, burn it with cigarettes” is (presumably) not intended to be performed, but it is not simply parodic or cynical. By aiming the directive at the reader, one must imagine one's complicity in forms of torture. The action is not unimaginable as much as ‘unthinkable’ — at least in the realm of liberal moral discourse — and yet here it is very much ‘thinkable,’ just as torture performed by the CPD (and by the US more broadly) is not only imaginable and thinkable, but continues to be performed.
If we think of the booklet in relation to works of performance writing, the project raises many questions that I find productive for thinking critically about what language art can do beyond/outside the frames of avant-garde art practices, in a way that such practices and more overtly political work can helpfully provoke each other:
1 This is a gross generalization, of course, and there certainly are assessments of the aesthetic and performative nature of direct action activism, though interestingly coming more often from anthropology than from performance studies, which tends to focus on the more explicitly aesthetic forms of protest such as street theater