Reclaim the Streets: a carnivalesque theatre

Anonyme, Lunes, Diciembre 1, 2003 - 20:04

Donovan King

“The new artist protests, he no longer paints; he creates directly…life and art make One."

Tristan Tzara, Dada manifesto

An activist theatre is descending on Montreal, and the “authorities" are not happy about it. In another disgraceful assault on Montreal’s culture and theatre, the cops recently busted a theatrical community event that was brimming with promise and flare. On November 20th Montrealers attempted to stage the theatrical street party to voice their opposition to the neoliberal FTAA in a participatory, theatrical, and carnivalesque atmosphere; the theatre in question is none other than Reclaim the Streets (RTS).

The goal of this RTS was to re-appropriate a corner or a part of a street and to create a space of popular education for people to come to get information about the FTAA. Planned was food, music, circus presentations, live painting, street theatre, dancing and more, all designed to make the event festive while keeping in mind the gravity and seriousness of the FTAA.

Organized in solidarity with the resistance movement Miami where the FTAA meetings were taking place, the Anti-Capitalist Coalition Against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (CACZLEA) invited Montrealers to participate in a march that converged with a RTS in downtown Montreal. Their reasoning: “After many meetings and Summits, each one more theatrical than the last, the ministers don't seem to have understood the population's direct and clear refusal of this [FTAA] agreement. Pretending that they haven't heard the protests, the government and its partners are trying to make us believe the "good intentions" of this agreement…Lets get out in OUR streets and reclaim them!"

RTS appeared as a form of direct theatrical action in the United Kingdom not too long ago, in an attempt to prevent the destruction of neighbourhoods, which were threatened by motor-way expansions. People took to the streets of the Claremont Road, prevented the demolition crews from the homes, and partied like there was no tomorrow. The mutation of the street into a phenomenally imaginative theatre of creative resistance was a transformation of personal and social space. According to cultural theorist Steve Duncombe “Reclaim the Streets pioneered a new, or rather resurrected a very old, style of protest: the street carnival (cf. Bakhtin). But RTS reclaimed more than a style of protest – they popularized a model of political action wherein the protest itself is a living, breathing and in this case, dancing message. By filling the streets with people freely expressing themselves, RTS not only protests what it is against, but also creates an experiential model of the culture it is for (cf. Bey, Epstein)" (Cultural Resistance Reader, 347).

Since the beginning of this century, attempts have been made to abolish the divisions between art and life, and introduce creativity, imagination, play and pleasure into the revolutionary project. John Jordan argues that the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) protest movement has taken ‘utopian’ demands and made them real, given them a ‘place’: “Inspired by and following in the footsteps of the protest movements and countercultures of the sixties, seventies, and eighties, the DIY protest movement is finally breaking down the barriers between art and protest." Jordan feels that by introducing play into politics, official culture’s claims to authority, stability, sobriety, immutability and immorality is radically challenged. With RTS: “The road becomes a stage for a participatory ritual theatre: ritual because it is efficacious, it produces real effects by means of symbolic causes; participatory because the street party has no division between performer and audience, it is created by and for everyone, it avoids all mediation, it is experienced in the immediate moment by all, in a spirit of face-to-face subversive comradeship." (354, The Art of Necessity: The Subversive Imagination of Anti-Road Protest and Reclaim The Streets.") Commenting on the Claremont Road action, after the police had finally managed to clear the partying street reclaimers, Jordan declared: “This was theatre like you’d never see it; theatre on a scale that would not fit in any opera house. It was a spectacle that cost the government over 2 million [pounds] to enact; a spectacle in which we were in control, for which we had set the stage, provided the actors and invited the state to be in our play; to play our game. (352, ibid.)

Given that municipal officials in Montreal had recently staged a watery version of RTS called “Car-Free Day" (Ste.Catherine Street from McGill College Ave. to Guy St. was closed on Monday September 22nd from 10 am to 3 pm.), I hoped it might be possible to get a commitment from the officials to prevent the police from attacking this proud and activist theatrical street party. I decided to write to Minister of Culture Helen Fotopoulos:

Dear Helen,

I am enclosing an article by John Jordan on Reclaim the Streets (PDF format) as a theatrical and cultural phenomenon. As the Minister of Culture I am hoping you can persuade the police not to attack our activists, who were severely mistreated at the last major demonstration. In the so-called "Green Zone" the police beat up and arrested hundreds. Reclaim the Streets IS a cultural event, as we can see by the article written, and it is an event Montrealers can be proud of. The city-sponsored "Car-Free Day" was a great success, and hopefully this Reclaim the Streets will be also. I would not worry about it lasting very long - at this time of year with the cold weather, I am told that the festival will not last until morning.

As such, I am asking you as Minister of Culture to read the essay, and take the necessary action to educate the police as to what is acceptable protocol during a creative activist performance like RTS. It would be extremely embarassing if Montreal police attack the festival, and would reflect very poorly on our city, which generally enjoys a reputation for both activism and creative expression. Here the two are combined in a grassroots celebration of resistance to corporate oppression. Let's hope the rowdier activists can learn from this, along with the police. There should never be violence on our streets, and the RTS offers a protest paradigm that can overcome the old oppressive ways by gathering the community in a theatrical interactive carnival."

Unfortunately, the Minister never responded to my letter, and predictably on November 20th when the activists attempted to Reclaim the Streets (in the same area as “Car Free Day" in fact!) the police descended quickly, dispersing the crowd with threats of violence before any festivities could begin. All street theatre, circus acts, installation art, dancing, and carnival was effectively cancelled; countless hours of preparation and rehearsal wasted, countless artists and activists furious.

It is a shame, because our city has been witnessing increasing amounts of theatre that are both critical of existing theatrical systems and the society at large, and activist in that they promote direct theatrical action. Activists are beginning to understand the power theatre can lend to their direct actions, and “Artistes" of the traditional theatre are starting to realise that the theatre is much larger than the stage. Let us hope that next time the “authorities" will take seriously our desires and our theatricals. By denying the local community an interactive theatre and ground-breaking street party, the “officials" only manage to upset everyone, reinforcing an impression of disrespect and oppression against the citizens. It is time not only for our concerns to be addressed, but also for our streets to be reclaimed - in theatrical and carnivalesque glory!

* This article will appear in the December issue of the INDIE THEATRE TIMES AND REVIEW.

[ EDIT (Mic pour le CMAQ)
* added the themes: FTAA | Resistance.
* removed the 'Summary/Text' duplicata.]
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This is an interesting thing
Mié, 2008-02-13 13:37

This is an interesting thing to hear of, an activist manifestation in theatric form is not welcomed by everybody and this is how conflicts show up. I rather get //theatre tickets// and attend classical spectacles in this case.

[ EDIT: I have removed the link to some commercial crap (was linked between the // above). This Indymedia web site bans any for-profit promotion. - Mic for the CMAQ Collective.]

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