Artica — the Land Grab

A true story descent into the weirdness of Artica and one particular artistic narrative.

The bullhorn announces to us Land Grabbers, the time has come. With our stake flags raised high we scanned the horizon for our goal. A piece of free land, as advertised by the town criers and salesmen. The man in the top hat told us the rules, thanked our local government for the opportunity to take this free land and all we had to do was race.

“God bless the United States of America” he said. His face twitching with glee. This was his moment of fame, the man on the soap box, preparing to make history.

“Don’t worry about those good-for-nothing squatters, it’s not their land anymore.” he said with contempt.

Across the field the woman with the hump yelled.

“You can’t own this land, this land belongs to all of us, we are a part of the land.”

It didn’t matter at that point with us “Participants”, waiting at the starting line. Trouble was brewing and I had played my part booing loudly when the Top Hat said the rules, showing a certain anarchist contempt at the capitalist language. Now was the time and the canon went off spreading confetti on the ground.

Everyone ran in slow motion.

The Land Grabbers crawled, tumbled, yelled and flailed our arms, only at a snails pace. We didn’t really want the dirt space, in fact the area itself had been abandoned decades ago. This land was a post apocalypse wasteland, with collapsing buildings and industrial remnants, getting free land wasn’t the point, Performance Art was.

If Burning Man is a “Charlie Brown” in the festival world, than Artica is its “Pig Pen”.

I’ve written about Artica before, and to surmise..

  1. It is local festival that rose out of the Burning Man/Underground Art Scenes and operates on some “abandoned” land north of the Arch in St Louis.
  2. The art is participatory and experiential, often built on the spot using local materials, or recycled trash.
  3. There is of course a wooden effigy burnt at the end. People party, bands play, performers perform, odd artists of all types and mediums come out to play.

To give you an example of the type of art 2019 had: A piece called Wanderlust with Alice in Wonderland characters on separate planes of glass, a statue containing an old M-Dos interface that grants wishes with the click of a “Y”. Old painted doors, and hanging chimes made of trash. At least 3 mazes, one “sacred” with plants and rocks, one out of long Nylon, and a cardboard castle. 5 massive kites flew above us, and acrobats hung with chains in a steam punk style Flow state and of course Our Lady of Artica to be burned on Sunday night.

Art becomes very strange when given the right form and this is that forum.

The Performance Art actors dressed like bad caricatures from a turn of the century novel, all were part of a troupe of local artists. The pretty “wench” with a baby doll told us about the land grab first and when I compared it too a Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman movie called “Far and Away” that featured the Oklahoma land rush of 1889. She broke character and smiled with a wink. I understood the territory.

This is St Louis, a city that loves it’s history. A true St Lousian knows a lot about the western expansion that is a part of the city legacy. There are many generations still living within its borders having a deep history in it’s streets.

I met the “humpback” earlier while walking the train tracks …we assumed must be abandoned too, turns out it wasn’t ….as a locomotive dumped some old rail cars there in the midst of the festival. One of reasons the original organizers knew about this land, was they might have once used it as major train-hopping spot. Hobos and travelers often sleep in the Cotton Belt building and jump the trains in the morning.

The Humpback was a rebellious woman who told us about the landgrab in garbled Americana, as all the characters did for the last hour. They had to drum up interest in the show, after all, they were clowns she said in need of an audience.

That’s how Artica works. A crew would often get an art grant from a St Louis Art Council to make their statement with a tiny budget.

So they did it for the love of art!

The troupe had a message, a plan and since it was a public experience, it was also a performance.

If the theme was a Land Rush, me and the Humpback got to the heart of it.

“I am an anarchist, I don’t believe you can own land.” I said

She got excited and spoke exactly like her character.

“I know, this is our land already and they are trying to give it away.”

I wasn’t quite sure what her character was, but she represented a sort of indigenous type soul who was being forced off her space.

Later as my crew passed by the marked off parcels of land and she sat in the middle, as if to protest.

“Those capitalist pigs up front are saying this land can be taken, on whose authority?”

“That’s right” I yelled to her companions, “down with the railroads!”

My crew moved on to the cloth maze behind her, and the colors of shifting perspective. A wonderful piece that surprised me with its depth of thought on color. Perhaps it was the burning sage in the center that brought the sacred experience to understanding. I did the maze twice returning to the land grab parcels.

“I had a spiritual awakening in the maze and a new take.”

“Yes?” Said my fellow revolutionary who was fighting for freedom and sanctuary.

“What about God?” I said “God told me I could have this land while I was in the Maze.”

“God?” she said “God is all around us and in the land itself”

Was I a distraction to the performance or simply a part of it?

Another couple set up chairs on a corner parcel, covering the little white PVC pipe designed for a flag. They were gonna cheat and there was no power structure to stop them. The anarchy was spreading.

The crowd grew, and we waited entertained by the lovely “wench” character. She told us the rules, made sure we all had flags, and told us the most important part…our teams, our family and our crew were the essential element.

We were land grabbing together, as a silk screen artist made personal flags for those who participated. Team Squirrel, Dragon and Lion lined up with their besties for a race to the end.

First they talked safety, and for a better explanation of the dangers of the rail tracks next to the long stretch of grass between us and the land parcels, a real crusty train hopper stepped forward and told us all about the hobo lifestyle and the dangers in glorious detail.

Next to the soap box, the Top Hat man was schmoozing like a politician. He might have been, but his main role was explaining the stakes of the game and serving at an archetypal symbol of power.

“At the end of the race are the parcels of land, when you get your spot, place your flag to claim your right.” adding “there might be some riff raff on the land but pay them no mind, they will go away, hopefully.”

I thought back to that Oklahoma land rush, deep into territory once sacred and very much occupied. Remembering that Trail of Tears and the death of the Natives who felt the brunt force of American Colonialism at it’s best. Here we were reenacting one of the great horrific events in history, but one that also brought a promise and freedom to many who participated.

I grabbed my foam sword, damn it, I was getting a spot. I looked down at my anarchist sympathetic making her stand, soon to be surrounded by hungry land grabbers. She knew what was coming, choosing not to dance with the Wench, or run with the Simpleton with the odd stuffed-animal horse strapped to his chest. Nope …. she squatted and held her ground.

Top Hat spoke again about America and the sovereignty of her blessing, towards our free land. I didn’t boo this time, like I did early into his speech. I was now a part of the dance of humanity.

The slow motion running looked great on camera. Here it is…..

After my theatrical run , I slid into a parcel with my son at my side swinging at all who would dare take it. If this was capitalism, then I am glad I brought weapons. It was a friendly crowd so no one tried to take my land and it proves a point, the sword, even foam ones, can still tame the wild spaces and drive fear into the Pioneer.

The true heart of the performance came next ….as we got to know our neighbors, toiled the land, called to the rain, danced and ate pretend food from our land giving parcel.

Our Humpback hero was welcomed by some children into their space, but was eventually moved to a tiny “reservation” spot away from everyone else. The Land Grab was a success with a feeling of fun, and silliness washing away those bad feelings of injustice.

To capture a certain feeling, one might need a stronger allegory.

Imagine those pioneers who braved the wilds with nothing but grit. They toiled, built towns and merged communities with other folks. They created culture and are in fact many of our ancestors. An American dream exists that says one can raise a family and have the sort of freedom you couldn’t get on the East coast or the Old country. Western expansion in all it’s complicated glory is also a beautiful feeling of freedom that has a cost.

Shouldn’t we have an awareness of that cost?

Progress moves on and we ask ourselves whose land is it really? Before the railroad, the Cotton Belt building, and this City itself, a Mound city stood on these grounds with pyramids as large as the Cahokia ones across the river, but now they are gone, destroyed like the cave network that once thrived beneath our feet.

It’s all a part of the picture and a reflection of human beingness is captured in these moments.

This is after all the point of great performance art. The characters were clowns, foolish versions of humanity, personalizing a part of our collective lot and with their pouring of artistic love, we get to see and experience something profound.

Artica is filled with these moments and often these artist operate in the local St Louis landscape doing other types of art, but here at Artica, one gets to push the envelope of artistic vision and do something new and profound.

THEN….. I went back the next night and everything changed. Let’s just say the political climate ended up with a few protesters and a flag burnt into nothing. A story for part 2

The Landgrab part 2