Tuesday, September 30, 2008

poet/artist KRISTEN GALLAGHER reports on the 2008 Republican National Convention 

Kristen Gallagher was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. She received her B.A. from University of Pennsylvania in 1991. In 1995, she was a founding member of The Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. It was at that time that she began to publish small books of poetry on her imprint Handwritten Press. In 1999, she moved to Buffalo, NY, where she attended the SUNY Buffalo Poetics Program. From 2000-2005, she was the editor of Rust Talks, a Buffalo-area poetry reading, discussion series and newsletter. She received her Ph.D. from the Poetics Program in 2005. She is still editor of Handwritten Press, and in 2005 became editor of WIG Journal of the Arts, a journal dedicated to publishing poems, prose, and visual art addressing issues of artistic creation, labor and work. Her on-going poetry project No Goal has been published in several chapbook installments. Her current literary research focuses on the effects of Darwin's theory of evolution on authors such as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain. She is also a member of the art collective Cheap Art for Freedom (CAFF). She has been teaching at the City University of New York since 2006.

Kristen let's jump right in with what you witnessed at the outdoor stage with the band RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE. You said you were with friends on a hill when all this occurred?

Yes. The "Ripple Effect" concert, put together by a hard-working student group from University of MN, was slated to present a set of bands and speakers from 3-7 PM on the Capitol Lawn in St. Paul. It was a lovely show. Dead Prez, Michael Franti's new project, Anti-Flag, and others all put on truly great performances. (I even got to meet Umi from Dead Prez and give him some art from our collective, which he was so gracious and kind in receiving.) At around 6:15, Anti-Flag had finished, and their lead singer said, "We've been hustling things along here, cuz there's going to be a surprise. Just wait—you guys are gonna love it." Then, it became apparent that the band Rage Against the Machine was backstage negotiating with Park Police to play an impromptu show. They are somewhat famous for doing this kind of thing, but to see it in action was truly remarkable.

As the negotiating was going on, Anti-Flag came back out on stage, and brought with them the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), who had been allowed backstage for the show. The band and the vets started the whole crowd chanting "Let them play! Let them play!" So, here you have to picture: these exaggeratedly punked-out kids with their faces painted white, their eyes painted black, with bigger Mohawks than anyone in the 80s EVER had—standing next to a bunch of PTSD'd-out ramshackle veteran-come-anarchists—together leading thousands of people in a chant from on stage. Is this a possible future? The army on the side of the people, the punks, the protesters? Perhaps! This went on for 30 minutes.

At around 6:45, Rage (fan shorthand—I'm now a fan) came out to the lawn in front of the stage. They had a bullhorn. They asked everyone to kneel. Everyone kneeled. The lead singer said, "They won't let us play on the stage, so we're gonna try in front of the stage!" They asked the audience to stay low and quiet, so that everyone could see and hear cuz they had no microphones. So, the drummer played a trash can, while the lead singer and bassist shared the bullhorn. The bassist made those wicky-wicky-wop noises like people do when imitating the Shaft! soundtrack, while the lead singer doled out words of fury and revolution. The crowd was very young, and most of them seemed to know all the words. A delightful moment came when everyone "sang along" with the chorus "Fuck you I won't do what you tell me," but did it in a whisper, still respecting the agreement we made as an audience to not overpower this unusual moment. …a thousand kids whispering "fuck you I won't do what you tell me." THAT was beautiful! After three songs, the police threatened to arrest them, so the band said, "They're trying to stop us, let's march!" And they led—pied-piper style—the entire audience in a march to the Excel Center, where the convention was being held.

My collective is made up of a bunch of folks who have already been arrested in other events since the war started in 2003. So we had made an agreement to NOT get arrested, because that just takes you out of the situation, and puts you in another one which later requires about 30 trips back and forth to MN in order to attend all the required court dates. So, we were among a small cadre of (mostly older) people who didn't follow the march. Instead, because of the capitol building being on a long hill, we were able to watch the marchers go all the way down, down, down, until they crossed the bridge into the heavily secured area near the convention center, where they were rounded up, tear-gassed, and arrested. We went later to do jail solidarity for those arrested.

You were also at the 2004 RNC in NYC, and the 2000 RNC in Philadelphia. What differences have you noticed between this latest convention and the others?

Well, there are a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. The main ground-level differences are two:

1) This time, the police were more violent and more preemptive. They also ignored rules about arresting the media—that had never happened before. (If you don't know what happened to Amy Goodman and two of her producers, then get thee to the Democracy Now website and FIND OUT—it is a dire and disturbing series of events.)

2) Apparently Tim Pawlenty, the Gov of MN., decided to "make money" off the protesters, by being sure there were many legal, sanctioned events, and that they were all fully stocked for hamburger sales, over-priced Ben and Jerry's ice cream stands, $5 glasses of lemonade, etc. It was very, very odd to feel like they had developed a marketing campaign toward anarchist protesters…but then again, everyone gets thirsty….

On a larger scale, it is also worth noting that Minneapolis/St. Paul is perhaps one of the easiest American cities to turn into a fortress. The whole situation with the water separating St. Paul from Minneapolis, and then more water further separating Minneapolis in two, made it TOO easy for the "homeland security" storm troopers to instantly lock down entire parts of the cities. One day we parked our van in one place and got stuck in another place and couldn't get back over any of the bridges for HOURS while they held a bunch of anarchists in there teargassing them. That would have been much less possible in Philly's wide, open, uninterrupted grid and alley layout.

You went this year to take part in the Unconvention with your art collective. Tell us what the Unconvention was like, and tell us also about the public art you brought with you.

I'll answer these questions in reverse order: collective first, then "The Unconvention."

The art collective I'm in is called Cheap Art for Freedom (CAFF). We hail from
California, Chicago, and Brooklyn. We have doctors, soup-kitchen and shelter workers, practicing artists, teachers and poets. We are some of us gay, some of us straight, ALL QUEER MISFIT FREAKS. As a collective of incredibly strong-minded people, we disagree a lot, so anything I say is subject to disagreement from my comrades. We've written manifestos, but we remain forever riddled with contradictions because life is complex and ever-changing.

The basic idea of CAFF is to

1) defy, ridicule, undermine, and make obsolete the sanctity of affluent-society art
2) create cultural spaces that will be managed by the people who use them
3) explode the myth of scarcity by making beautiful art out of trash and/or super-cheap surplus materials
4) never exchange money with the people who we exchange art with
5) redistribute creativity to the masses
6) function as a collective, never as a hierarchy or out of forced unity
7) collectively share all our personal resources according to the differences in our abilities and incomes, so that we can all take part in CAFF with equal expense/burden

Every year, we get together in a different city for one week and attempt two types of action:

1) to give away cheap art we have made (sometimes together, sometimes separately) or taught others to make (in street education workshops in screen printing, spray paint art, sewing, cardboard sculpture, etc.) over the previous year (and we try to do this either in poor neighborhoods, shelters, or in solidarity with other events like community protests or political street theatre events, etc.)

2) to make a large-scale cardboard-based interactive sculpture in some kind of park or public place. (For example, last year we made a large sculpture in Washington Square in honor of Iraqis who dies from the war—we get the names and photos of as many as we could and built a monument which invited passersby and people from the community to take part in writing the names. After about 12 hours of manning the site, we left it, only to return hours later to find the whole thing still going strong WITHOUT our presence. The people took it over—as we always wanted!)

This year, we decided (but there was severe disagreement amongst us) to take part in "The Unconvention," a loose chain of interdependent leftist and anarchist groups committed to producing a counter-convention at the RNC. Our Chicago comrade Mike Wolf got hold of an art gallery "Art is This" in Minneapolis for the month of August. The gallery always features political art, so our thing fit in well, PLUS it had a front yard, excellent passing foot traffic, and a cheap bar next door! Heaven!

Through Mike, we also connected with Red 76, a pirate radio station in Portland Oregon. With Red 76, we did a radio show and free food community BBQ (cooked by Mike and his partner Courtney) where we asked participants (anyone who wanted free food and conversation) to finish this sentence on-air: "Since the Iraq War I…." It was a lovely event, attended by people from all ages, races and walks of life. Again, BEAUTIFUL!

We also did some instruction in spray paint art with a bunch of kids in the gallery front yard. We also did free art lines at the Ripple Effect event. We also (without invitation) took part in the Walker Art Museum's front lawn exhibit of anti-convention art.

Without invitation? Yes. You see, there is a large hill in front of the Walker, and along that hill there is a large sidewalk. We planned all week for this. We figured out last winter that these things run almost entirely on RUMOR. The cops, the protesters, the media—all running around responding to, spreading, and trying to verify RUMORS. So we began immediately when we arrived to the Twin Cities to eavesdrop, ask for, and write down ALL RUMORS we heard, no matter how crazy, no matter how true. Then on the last day of the convention, we arrived at the Walker and set ourselves to collectively FILL the sidewalk with writing, to write ALL the rumors from the week large in bright, colorful chalk. No one from the museum hassled us, which was nice, and many citizens stopped to talk and/or express their outrage over police brutality, Sarah Palin, and other rePOOPlican topics. Then we planted some Cheap Art INSIDE the museum (a large Medusa Head made out of paper maché and gold spray paint). I wonder if it's still there….

At this latest RNC you also took part in a very interesting kind of protest outside the hotel where representatives from big oil companies were staying. Please tell us about this experience.

Through our California comrades, we hooked up with some folks who were doing a satirical "Billionaires for Bush"-style protest against Big Oil. About 40 people fake-dressed-up like rich oil barons. About 10 people wore cardboard bobble-heads, each with the face of an oil company CEO. There were boxes and boxes and boxes of very beautiful fake money with John McCain's face on the front and an oil well on the back. That money was for throwing around. It was tremendously fun.

We stood outside a hotel where there was a meeting of oil company CEO's. While we waited for them, people took turns giving fake-toasts congratulating the Republican Party on the renewal of its marriage vows to Big Oil. As the oil-men exited one-by-one, we threw gobs and gobs of fake money at them and confronted them (it was easy to recognize who was who, too, because we had those large bobble-heads to check for face-matching). Many of them stopped to talk, seemingly interested in trying to explain to us how they were really saving the world. One oil guy started a strange debate with one us, saying "If you believe in corn-based fuel, then you believe in child labor, because all the corn-based fuel comes from Columbia, where they abuse children and make them work to make this oil—so YOU support child labor!" Fortunately our side wasn't foolish enough to take the bait, We called him out on his false logic and the basic fallacy at the root of his theory. This protest wasn't about corn oil. What a jackass!

You had also mentioned that the businesses in Minneapolis-Saint Paul had prepared for an enormous influx of hungry, thirsty conventioneers with extra staff and later hours, but the city was virtually EMPTY at night. Tell us about this and what you suspect to be behind the republicans not venturing out into town at night.

Yes. Every waitress, every bartender, every cab driver we met COMPLAINED immediately and vigorously about how the "plan" was to use the Republicans to make money for the city, but in fact, all the businesses were hemorrhaging money due to lack of business. The twin cities changed the laws to allow bars to say open until 4am, but the Republicans mostly had corporate-sponsored private parties in hotel rooms, so the bars and restaurants were largely empty. There were also limousines everywhere, so the cab drivers were frustrated.

Republicans may have been afraid to be anywhere protesters could find them. There were rumors that someone had hired anarchists to kidnap convention delegates…so perhaps they were afraid of being kidnapped by vegan anarchists and being forced to eat pot luck supper all week! Still, that would be better than getting tear-gassed and sent to jail for the week, like so many protesters and journalists.

Thank you Kristen for sharing these details with us.

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