Let the Festivities Begin: Processions, Parades, and Other Forms of Collective Celebration in Contemporary Art
On the morning of June 23, 2002, a strange procession leaves the New York Museum of Modern Art, crosses Queensboro Bridge, and arrives at the museum’s temporary venue in Queens. The event has all usual accoutrements of a parade: a brass band made up of around a dozen Peruvian musicians, a horse, dogs, close to a hundred participants, including children, floats topped with replicas of masterpieces from the MoMA collection—Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, Duchamp’s readymade Bicycle Wheel, Giacometti’s Femme debout no 2—, and artist Kiki Smith herself, raised like a “living icon,” or the statue of the Virgin in a religious procession. It all takes place in a festive atmosphere and, along the way, a hundred or so bystanders join the festivities to swell the crowd at this public event.
The Modern Procession is the work of Francis-Alÿs.1 1 - The parade format that seems to have inspired Alÿs is the religious procession. He presented his project to the MoMA one month after having seen the Santa Cruz Procession, in Morelos, Mexico. See the catalogue, Francis Alÿs: The Modern Procession (New York: Public Art Fund, 2004). The highly singular event was surprising in every way, though we know the artist has always sought to disrupt the normal flow of things and to act upon our experience of the world by exploring various figures of mobility and urban peregrination. Strange, to say the least, midway between the sacred and the profane, by emphasizing its popular dimension, this procession revives an ancient form of commemorative celebration. This idea of a gathering has captured the imaginations of a few artists in recent years. Whether in the form of a parade, a procession, or an event or demonstration, this resurgence testifies to renewed interest in types of celebration and commemoration whose participatory and collective dimension would seem to have particular importance. Inscribed within the stream of life, street life in particular, artists attempt to establish new, playful and festive modes of participation that mesh with social and political reality. Whether they take on the characteristics of ritual, spectacle, attraction, masquerade, or carnival, these festive manifestations are, above all, moments of popular gathering, group activities where different and normally unrelated worlds—different social groups, of varied cultural and political backgrounds—come together.
Jeremy Deller explores the potential for gathering that characterizes popular celebration, considered from an anthropological point of view.2 2 - Space prevents me from elaborating on this anthropological definition here; for details, see the articles by Jean-Pierre Martinon and François-André Isambert, in Encyclopeadia Universalis, Corpus 9, 2002, 347-353. For Manifesta 5, European Biennial of Contemporary Art (2004), he organized his first parade in the streets of San Sebastian, Spain. His earlier production, Veteran’s Day Parade: The End of the Empire (2002), where he filmed the passing cars and floats taking part in veteran’s day celebrations in the United States, had been all about observing social phenomena. Here, he literally creates the social phenomenon himself with the inclusion of social groups and fringe associations outside the art world. The Social Parade brought together people of diverse cultural, political and religious backgrounds, including gay and lesbian activists, a martial arts club, the deaf-mute, the blind, gypsies, and retirees. A parade has the power to bring together socially and imaginatively different, even opposing interests. A truly populist gathering, The Social Parade took shape within a collectively constituted space with a dual function: while reflecting the social and cultural diversity of a city awash in cultural symbols and allegiances, even by European standards, it also represented a form of temporary reconciliation. Diversity appears in a new light, as groups temporarily put aside their marginality, their differences, even their conflicts. Social and cultural boundaries tend to blur in the new space the celebration has created. Few spaces are as amenable to the meeting of such socially, culturally, and politically heterogeneous groups. Deller uses the characteristics of the parade to explore conflictual situations and to hint at their possible resolution.
On May 1, 2003, Folie/Culture, an atypical artistic group focused on raising awareness about mental health, organized a demonstration for the right to happiness in the streets of Quebec City. Like Deller’s parade, the event gave rise to a new celebrative and political space within public space, though its tone was more euphoric than social. The event brought the public into contact with a variety of artists and artist collectives, including Sylvie Cotton, Massimo Guerrera, ATSA, BGL, Cooke-Sasseville, and Les Fermières Obsédées, each producing “portable demonstration kits” conceived specifically for the occasion.3 3 - Organized by Folie/Culture, Chacun sa part du gâteau: Manifestation pour le droit au bonheur was presented as part of Manif d’art 2: Bonheur et simulacre, in 2004. See Patrice Loubier’s article, “Faire œuvre utile – les kits de manifestation de Folie/Culture,” esse, No. 51: 54-59. These “kits” are real objects, works of art meant to transform their users into socially engaged individuals. Meant, as the title clearly suggests, as a demonstration for the right to happiness, the gathering coincided with International Workers’ Day, or May Day, once an important day of celebratory events and demonstrations honouring the workers’ movement. The emancipatory image of revolutionary celebration is a strong one, even if the idea of standing up for the universal right to happiness may seem fanciful at first. These two aspects of celebration, political considerations and broad appeal, are in fact not so far apart, and Folie/Culture makes good use of them. The demonstration, both as revolutionary gesture and as euphoric moment, enables one to free oneself of everyday political and social constraints. As historian Mikhaïl Bakhtin’s foundational studies have shown, celebration is a kind of “liberation. . . the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions.”4 4 - Mikhaïl M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, tr. Hélène Iswolsky (Indiana University Press, 1984), 10. For the brief time of the event, life escapes its usual, consecrated space to attain free, critical consciousness. The emancipatory dimension is here intensified by the artists brandishing their demonstration kits—more playful than actually revolutionary—, the public’s participation in the collective discourse, and the possibility of fighting prejudices.
In still more carnivalesque spirit, Les Fermières Obsédées have paraded themselves in several performances in recent years.5 5 - Among Les Fermières Obsédées’ other parades, worth mentioning are Stars sur Boulevard Rodeo Drive, June 3, 2005, 8 p.m. in Quebec City, organized by Le Lieu; and Le Carnaval, presented as part of Paysages éphémères, Wednesday, July 2, 2008, on Mont-Royal Avenue, in Montreal. Donning their outlandishly feminine “uniform”—wigs, high heels, miniskirts, makeup—, they parade in their open convertible, waving ironically to the crowd. Les Fermières Obsédées’ performances are known for upending feminine clichés, turning appearances into masquerade, and spectacle into mockery. Their parades all partake in a subversive endeavour, becoming the locus for questioning power, authority, and established values, especially those regarding femininity. Akin to public attractions, part carnival and part funerary procession, they borrow all the devices and icons of the traditional parade. In these paradoxical and ambiguous celebrations, marching bands, hubbub, police escorts, and floats all have a part. The carnivalesque, as Bakhtin explains, represents a moment of collective activity in which rules are suspended.6 6 - From Mikhaïl M. Bakhtin, see Rabelais and His World, and from Jean-Claude Aubailly, Le théâtre médiéval profane et comique: la naissance d’un art (Paris: Larousse, 1975). It is the locus of a calculated transgression of the prohibited, a pretext for overturning codes, conventions, rules, and temporarily shaking up social order. It enables one to turn the socially acceptable on its head and authorizes a reversal of social roles. It is a function not only of disguise, but also of actors changing roles and acting out improbable and nonsensical situations. For instance, in a parade significantly titled Le Carnaval (2008), a motorized heap of trash under police escort made for a perplexing sight. Out of the loop, police officers (in my view, infelicitously called agents de la paix—or “peace officers”—in French) were absorbed by the performance. Called upon to play their role, they took active (though perhaps unintentional) part in a performance they had obviously not been expecting.
This parodic demeanour and emphatic predilection for spectacle present two coexisting aspects of the world, as Bakhtin points out when juxtaposing the serious and the comic in the carnival. Celebration breaks or, rather, temporarily disrupts the social fabric. If it marks a passage from order to chaos, this is because it radically changes the rules of the game and renegotiates space to give shape to new realities. The participatory dimension takes a peculiar turn, for to participate in such a celebration is to be involved in an event that one doesn’t control, to be drawn into a game that goes well beyond one’s own choices, activities, social position, or even one’s intentions. Festive spaces such as parades, processions or demonstrations not only invite people’s involvement, but also urge them to change behaviour, to adopt a festive attitude, a frame of mind shared by all participants. That is to say, we are affected, changed, displaced. Celebration creates a new cohesion within a reality. It both suspends time and renegotiates space.7 7 - Again, there is a very strong link that I can only suggest at the moment between the carnival and its outcome, as described by Mikhaïl Bakhtin: time is suspended, the temporality of the carnival and, by extension, that of celebration, is a moment of death and rebirth, of change and renewal, not of a coming-to-be but of a coming back, a time and a space of re-negotiation.
The idea of celebration also recurs in the work of Pierre Huyghe: in La Toison d’or (1993), in l’Association des Temps Libérés (1995)—whose “mandate” is to organize different public gatherings, celebrations in particular—, in the exhibition Celebration Park at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and the Tate Modern and, more significantly still for my purposes, in Streamside Day (2003) and One Year Celebration (2003-06). Huyghe uses the concept of celebration to produce a situation in a given reality. With Streamside Day, he was investing the new village of Streamside Knolls, located in an old forest on the banks of the Hudson River, to celebrate the birth of the new community. As Huyghe explained when describing the project: “celebrations define a shared understanding,” they consist of proposing, producing, and cultivating ways of being in the world that, by their nature, can only be renegotiated. “It’s sort of what I did with Streamside Day, where a fiction produced a reality, since it was a question of inventing a custom, a celebration, a new village. This ritual was based on the situation of this new community and became a celebration. It was an experience based on a fiction and it had a potential for renewal.”8 8 - Pierre Huyghe, in Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Entretien avec Pierre Huyghe,” Pierre Huyghe Celebration Park (Paris: Paris musées, les musées de la Ville de Paris, 2006), 124. [Our translation.] All the devices of celebration were explored. An invitation was launched in the form of a poster to celebrate the first anniversary of the founding of this new community, which responded overwhelmingly and plunged into the organization of the social event, creating costumes, a parade, musical shows for children, participatory potluck meals. Celebration creates a new social cohesion and develops a sense of community. Huyghe goes so far as to want to put the event on a yearly calendar, to emphasize the festival’s ritual, even commemorative dimension.
What is the meaning of celebration? Why are artists reviving these forms of celebrative gathering? Two aspects of the relationships they establish between art and life seem particularly revealing. First, this interest must be connected with a reflection on space, with the idea that contemporary art seeks to act within a given reality while simultaneously transforming it. Celebration allows one to activate and renegotiate space, to temporarily modify its rules, to compose new relationships. It takes place in its own, one might say extra-quotidian space, while at the same time it is inseparable from the quotidian because its popular dimension constantly returns it to the everyday. Also, it is composed of the heterogeneous, as Michel Foucault pointed out in regard to heterotopias, of which he in fact gave celebration as an example. Celebrating brings different worlds together—social groups, communities, sometimes even individuals from opposing camps—in order to share and exchange. Renegotiating space rests on the idea of bringing the heterogeneous together, where different groups, cultural backgrounds, identities, communities, and political and social interests can meet on common ground. Celebration is a locus of exchange and a factor of cohesion that avoids social normalization and hierarchy.
Second, celebrating is a collective action. By drawing on celebratory forms, artists are seeking new ways of integrating the world and engaging the audience. Celebration has the capacity for generating collective participation, which, unlike pure entertainment, implies not just the audience’s presence but also its participation. This performative dimension of celebration has inspired many artists who have invested such public contexts as city streets to create something that would be part of everyday reality and that would generate new relationships based on collective, grass-roots participation. Celebration redefines the connection between art and the public. All the celebratory forms we have seen here may be considered new collective modalities of the public art work, which has a dual function: artists use the celebration both as a space for addressing social and political issues and as a locus and moment of commemoration and celebration as such. Parades, processions, and celebrations may thus be understood as contemporary artistic forms of commemoration, hearkening back not only to their popular tradition, deeply rooted in reality, culture, and custom, but also to their ritual dimension, heavily anchored in the time of repetition. Foucault is sensitive to this aspect when he describes celebration as diametrically opposed to the museum: celebrations are “heterotopias linked to time in its more futile, transitory and precarious aspects. . . . marvellous empty zones” not bound to the accumulation of time.9 9 - Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” in Rethinking Artchitecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach (New York: Routledge, 1997), 335. There would be much more to say, for this ephemeral time of repetition is what gives celebration its intensity. The past returns, but only by the presentness it bears. In other words, it is actualized.
[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]