- Ecoactivist PerformanceThe Environment As Partner in Protest?
Ecoactivist protest in the final decades of the 20th century, in common with most other kinds of protest, increasingly was shaped by overt performative tactics. Part of protest's purpose in turning to performance was, of course, to gain high-profile media space: resistant representations to raise general ecological awareness. But also there was for some ecoactivists a more radical agenda, one that was based on the awareness of the contradictions involved in such dangerous dancing with the prime agents of cultural commodification—the press, TV, film and so on (see Schechner 1993:45-93; Kershaw 1999:89-125). John Jordan, for example, a leading figure in the UK's so-called DiY (do it yourself ) protest movement,1 draws on Guy Debord when he argues that:
Art has clearly failed historically as a means to bring imagination and creativity to movements of social change. [...] What makes DiY protest so powerful is that it "clearly embodies a rejection of the specialised sphere of old politics, as well as of art and everyday life" [Debord]. Its insistence on creativity and yet the invisibility of art and artists in its midst singles it out as an historical turning point in the current of creative resistance. By making the art completely invisible, DiY protest gives art back its original socially transformative power [...](Jordan in McKay 1998:131; Debord 1977:Thesis 155)
This claim may seem contradictory in the context of performances designed to hit the headlines, so Jordan also quotes Jean Dubuffet to clarify his point: "Art [...] loves to be incognito; its best moments are when it forgets what it is called" (131). This shifts the contradiction into the much more interesting area of paradox, for the flip side of this forgetfulness, so to speak, is about an art that does not declare its name, about the way that art lies in concealing art. In other words, Jordan is suggesting that the power of the art of performance is greatest when you do not know you are seeing it.2
In this article I use the attempt to produce such "invisible art" in two ecoactivist protests to explore the tricky territory in which art and environment, performance [End Page 118] and ecology, might successfully meet in resistance to a global progress that is killing us all. I work more by association than by argument in an effort to sneak up on perspectives on the ecologies of performance that threaten to cloud over as soon as you try to describe them. For trying to talkintellig ibly about the ecologies of performance is, to adapt a phrase from Alan Watts (in Hughes and Brecht 1978:61), a bit like trying to bite your own teeth: the moment you think you've done it you haven't.
I am writing, therefore, in a paradoxical landscape. It is paradoxical, firstly, because any attempt to comprehend "nature" from within "culture" is similar to thinking you can turn on a light quickly enough to see what the dark looks like. Simply by using the word "landscape" I am casting a shadow over "nature."3 Secondly, it is paradoxical because even as ecoactivist protest became more performative it tried to make performance transparent, so that only the "issue," the "point," of the protest is seen. Thirdly, it is paradoxical because ecological activism itself is almost inevitably riddled with paradox:
To stop a logging company from destroying the old-growth forest on Mare's Island, British Colombia, the local Indian nation drove 400,000 steel spikes into the trees they wanted to save: You have to damage nature in order to save it.
To stop the road builders at Fairmile, East Devon, protesters burrowed into the ground, dug holes in the floor of their tunnels, poured concrete into the holes, set iron loops in the concrete, and chained themselves to the loops: You have to use the technologies of progress to attackits effects.
To stop toxic waste from a chemical plant from poisoning the coastline for miles around Lavalette, New Jersey, Greenpeace plugged the plant's underwater outlet pipe, causing a higher concentration of pollution on the site...