Brett Morgen’s film Chicago 10 (2007), which documents the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the circus of a trial that transpired in their aftermath, captures the explosive atmosphere of a country torn by conflicting value systems. 1968 was a watershed year in the United States. American casualties in the Vietnam War surpassed 30,000, while the military draft raged on without end; Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and the politics of identity emerged as a catalyst for disassembling a social order based on white, heterosexual, male domination. Morgen combines riveting archival footage of the confrontations between the protesters and Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley’s veritable army of police, with animated courtroom sequences to make palpable the tensions between authority and the youth culture that rose to challenge it. The film brings to life the various voices of dissent – including Yippie founders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, peace activists Rennie Davis, David Dellinger and Tom Hayden, and Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale – that have come to define the multivalent nature of the opposition. These individuals and organizations embodied the spectrum of countercultural resistance, from pacifism to an absurdist theatre of pure revelry to armed militancy. What comes across most clearly in Chicago 10 is their ability to cause a momentary breachin the political system, which simultaneously underestimated and overreacted to this call for change. Almost 40 years later such mass disturbance is impossible to imagine. The political machinery of the neo-con right, born out of the anarchy of 1968, has come to anticipate and control most forms of political protest. While the left stayed on the barricades, shouting obscenities at the powers that be, the right has infiltrated the churches and the media to such an extent that today our justice system (read Supreme Court) has fallen deeply under its sway.
More than ten years ago Felix Gonzalez-Torres warned us against the insidious encroachment of the right. He understood that their seductive strategies were an effective counterpoint to the easy-to-target, outdated signs of revolution: the red banner, the protest sign, the slogan-covered T-shirts, the marijuana leaf on a flag. He claimed that we needed to become invisible, to go undercover and become part of the system in order to change it. Grabbing the attention of the media was no longer enough; you now had to own it, or at least write the script. Within the (albeit small) context of the art world, the selection of Gonzalez-Torres by the State Department to represent the US at the Venice Biennale this year fulfils his concept of total infiltration, of operating from a well-sanctioned platform in order to interrogate current narratives of power and privilege. Although some have suggested that it is Gonzalez-Torres who is being co-opted by a government eager to appear progressive in what amounts to a fairly low-risk public arena, I would like to believe the opposite is true. But even if this were the case, the artist’s subtle yet critical message will still be communicated in an international setting, with his outdoor billboards and continuously depleting, always replenishable take-away stacks and candy spills.
Like the activists of the 1960s, Gonzalez-Torres was motivated by outrage and hope. Where is that catalytic anger today? And given what we know about the right, what are its possible outlets? We are enmeshed in a senseless, politically contrived war, our civil rights are threatened, economic disparity is ever widening, and our environment has been ruined by the interests of big business. Yet the campuses are relatively quiet. Sure, there are organized marches and petitions to sign but there is very little evidence of the paradigm-shattering sense of disequilibrium that emerged in the 1960s. If Morgen’s film resurrects the energy of that era, today the most effective type of protest is a film – in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) has done more to mobilize people against the realities of global warming than any march on Washington. Coupled with real-life evidence of a changing climate (such as Hurricane Katrina), the film continues to have traction within the general populace.
It is the third-largest grossing documentary film in the US to date. In the UK the government has plans to issue DVD copies to every secondary school in England and Wales. With its promotion by the Internet-based activist group MoveOn.org, the film will continue to reach millions of new viewers. The film’s phenomenal success indicates the great potential of media intervention, here writ large on a Hollywood-scale screen. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll concluded that 84 percent of Americans now understand the consequences of human activity on the environment and want their government to provide leadership in efforts to address climate change. Whether they are ready significantly to alter their own lifestyles is another question entirely.