Day one at the Artica festival had been a friendly sort of experience and the Land grab was no exception. The sun was shining and a cavalier attitude abounded. Children ran with us to grab their parcel of land, and everyone danced along with the music. No one seemed to care about the drama of one Humpback “Native” being uprooted off her land by our action.
Day two however was a different affair.
A smaller drunker group lined up at the starting line and talked over the Top Hat man, who stood on his soap box proclaiming the Land Grab was upon us. Four women with flags promised to defend the Humpback woman who stood on the parcels dancing and yelling about injustice. She was joined by a small group with a drum, who yelled insults at the Top Hat from across the field.
It was an overcast day with a chill in the air, and we waited for the beginning of the “Landgrab”. This was a performance art piece that was taking on new dimensions. Earlier that day I talked with the woman in charge who worried the rumors of protesters might deter the event. She had a glimmer in her eye, as if it was a part of the plan, while also playing her role as organizer.
Her mangled hands and old style horn spoke of some unknown causes, as if she was caught in-between progress and art.
“I sure hope, it doesn’t get ugly” she said through heavy makeup designed to make her appearance seem like a buffoon.
Still she stood by the Top Hat trying to gather momentum on a mostly bored crowd.
“Listen here” the Official Top Hat belted out of his cone megaphone. “When I say, Ready, Set…..”
She interrupted him from using the last word as the four women started to move.
“Not yet” Mangled Hands yelled loudly stopping the moment.
A photographer famous for his Artica photos had adjusted his cane and raised his camera in a ready stance, only to realize the hype was not finished yet.
The Humpback danced and pleaded with the runners to not steal the land, more protesters joined the drummer who pounded away adding atmosphere and a thick sense that things were escalating.
“Ignore those people” the Top Hat warned. “I want a fair race.”
The fairness was in question as the rules were laid down. A slow motion race to the Land Parcels and a planting of the flag. An African American man with a punk shirt and Chuck Taylor shoes, demonstrated a slow run for us.
At the starting line, the crowd began to fidget and with a quick shift in energy, the confetti Canon went off, and we took to the field. The excitement built as we placed one foot in front of the other like cartoon characters up towards the land parcels.
After the stakes were in, the speeches began by Top Hat, Mangled Hands and Humpback, only the disruption of protesters, chanting in the background became ominous. It was the same as yesterday’s script but it wasn’t coming out quite right.
Someone lit a flag on fire.
A little background might help here, several of the protesters were actually trained in this sort of thing. I know two personally and they trained at Standing Rock and are involved in the North City political worlds of West Lake landfill and the Cold Water Creek nuclear waste problem. This wasn’t just a land grab issue but real social justice crimes……becoming a rally cry of the dispossessed.
Like a microcosm of ignorance and hope, no one really knew what the score was or if the act was planned. As any great Performance Artist would do, you roll with the feeling and discover the beating heart of the matter.
A woman with pink hair ran through the parcels destroying the carefully constructed lines, and our Chucky wearing punk when handed the cone shaped megaphone, spoke about slavery, land ownership and injustice.
A line had been crossed however by the Protesters that is a bit abstract. The Performers had a script, a path that led to harmony and personal awareness. When a handful of protesters kicked dirt at an Actor and threw lit pieces of paper, almost burning a person, it crossed from Art into a dangerous balance of chaos and performance.
Some of the Protesters treated this Artica Performance Art as if it was an ignorant political action and not a participatory experience. The playful running of the Landgrab was meant to transport the participant into the drama and fun, and when the protesters ignored that part of the act was to “rescue the Native”, they failed to understand the running script.
Nevertheless, the Native Humpback woman was still taken by Top Hat over to the tiny “reservation” and she yelled loudly.
“Will anyone help me, join me on my new land?”
Half the crowd had wandered away and the protesters seemed slightly embarrassed as they stood with each other in the corner among the torn plastic lines and abandoned flag stakes.
It was however just a performance, even if that deep seated sense of injustice had taken over the narrative.
People just seemed to disappear when things got strange, and the Top Hat had attempted to keep some part of the performance going. I spoke with the Humpback afterwards, tired from dancing, ready to be out of costume and preparing to enjoy the rest of Artica. She smiled widely loving the direction the evening took, unaware some of her fellow actors had been traumatized by the event.
For some of us, there had been no sense of foul play or damage. I was never very sure what was real, what was scripted and what had just become the chaos it seemed. I did know for sure….. that this performance art piece needed to be written about and examined for meaning.
Artica is all over now and history had moved on.
Earlier in the day a troupe of five women danced a routine on the edge of a concrete wall next to a pillar. They wore similar jumpsuits and moved as a unit towards a narrative that might have been a spiritual journey away from patriarchy towards an awakening, using drums, singing bowls, yoga and those odd moves from the Netflix show “the OA”.
Social change is a big theme throughout Artica as well as a spiritual element hard to ignore. The young artists that have begun to take their place in the current pantheon of the St Louis Art scenes are having their say and finding their voices. Often found in the mix is Goddess imagery, occult symbols, political stances and an overwhelming sense that things need to change badly.
The women shed their jumpsuits like crumbled symbols of a working class mentality and proudly wear the clothes of youthful cohesion. Participating men added to the melee with cymbal strikes, wooden block noises and a crescendo of beats. The 5 spirits clasped hands together like new age saints and as they unwrapped a long cloth moving through the crowd pulling bystanders into the performance of unity, one couldn’t help but be impressed with the depth.
After the Land grab on the top field, I found Mangled Hands and asked her, what she thought. She loved that people stood up for what was right and felt that the protesters did the proper human thing, but they didn’t share the experience of allowing the narrative to be a joint effort. She shrugs and smiles with no worries about the outcome. It’s performance art after all.
Artica has a shift of spirit as the sun goes down, and some artists head home after a long day of effort. People roll in to see the Burn and place chairs around the effigy waiting for the first great bonfire of fall. The social scenes found each other and enjoyed the spectacle as a DJ who has played the event for a decade, drops his mellow beats.
Someone asks if this is Burning Man, and the answer is a laugh. No, this isn’t even the regional one, called Gateway Burn, which is much bigger and more intense. This is Artica which is it’s own special little thing.
The volunteer firefighters protect the edges as Fire Spinners do their tricks for the crowd, waiting for Our Lady Artica to burn. It’s a very diverse crowd, all hungry for fire.
When they light it up we notice the wind has picked up to possible dangerous levels, but you signed the danger line away when you entered Artica. Our Lady began to grow with an orange essence and the sparks fill the air surrounding those willing to let go and experience. Late night revelers didn’t run but danced among the sparks falling like stars. Fire roared in the wind and from the “safe” side you could still feel the burning heat of something that was just trash a couple days before. When the center piece fell, Our Lady, it felt like a vortex had opened in the fabric of space and time.
What of the Landgrab?
It was a moment in time that has past. The performance art served a function and almost no one got hurt, but much like the raging fire that was masterfully handled by all the volunteer staff of firefighters, our brave actors pushed the experience into our collective history. The lessons we learn, depend on the quality of our awareness and the simple act of just participating.