Un/settling scores: Actions for Torture Justice

Flavio Rodrigues, proposal for Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, 2011
Flavio Rodrigues, proposal for Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, 2011

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 Justicepublished 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:

16. Be a black man and commit aggravated assault, official misconduct, perjury, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, compelling a confession by force, and intimidation. Do not be charged or prosecuted for your crimes.

17. Make a list of 100 acquaintances, friends, and family members. From that list choose 26 who will not be tortured.

18. Contact the Boeing Corporation at 100 N Riverside, Chicago, IL 60606 and ask for use of a secret torture rendition flight through their subsidiary Jeppesen International. Pick up a terror suspect in Macedonia, Hong Kong, Thailand or elsewhere. Bring suspect back to Chicago.

19. Present an over-sized novelty check in the amount of $1,278.27 to a torture survivor and ask them if it was worth it.

20. Make a list of all the people from whom you require complete obedience. Make a list of all the people you are required to obey completely. Compare the lengths of the two lists. Reverse-categorize.

Some actions, like #19, use the form of agit-prop theatrics to highlight the absurdity of state-sanctioned ‘legal redress’, while others, such as #9 — “Slap someone on the back daily” — put a simple everyday action in the context of complex questions about the line between inflicting pain and showing support for a 'job well done,' an ambiguous dance that here feels more like a performance art action than a recognizable trope of political theater or the 'poetics of witness'. 

Using the Fluxus-like form of instruction/action language art becomes even more troubling when instructed to re-enact actions that other have already ‘performed’ — in some cases, under duress:

91. Stand upright each day for eleven hours as in Argentina. Assume a contorted position as in Vietnam. Walk ceaselessly on bended knees as in Spain. Squat and carry a heavy stone as in the Philippines. Throw your head back as far as possible as in Greece. Subject yourself to ear-splitting heavy metal for hours on end as in the United States of America.

Here, what might in another context be celebrated as a feat of endurance art (compare “stand upright each day for eleven hours as in Argentina” with “sit eight hours each day in a museum in New York”)3 makes us instead think of the similarities between self-chosen/inflicted durational acts (listening to loud music by choice) and forms of torture (heavy metal pumped into cells at Guantanamo at different times of day and night), as well as the kinds of actions torture demand of the body. Additionally, that the form of the instruction is a directive (if not an order backed by the threat of force) complicates the premise of the ‘action-score’ as a means towards liberation from artistic convention and instrumentalism. 

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:

Is it useful to think of such actions as performances?

Would doing so diminish or ‘drain’ them of their political intent/impact?

What’s at stake in such reframing, for both poetic and political thinking/practice?

What ‘work’ do such instructions accomplish if they are not put into action?

Should we answer that by aesthetic or political criteria? 

And: how might writers, artists, and activists think critically and creatively about the potential of Fluxus-inspired writing and action/performance to range outside frames of the museum or the literary avant-garde into broader terrains of social and political practice?

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.

2 I use this word instead of 'imaginary' to differentiate from something that is ‘made up’ (there is a purple talking dragon) and an instruction that, even if ‘impossible,’ does its ‘work’ in the imagination (‘swallow a cloud and make a poem about how the water rains inside you’). 

3. No diss on Marina; just an obvious touchstone work to make the point.