“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
It was a classic summit protest at the height of the anti-globalization movement. Thirty-four heads of state from across the Americas were gathering in Québec City to negotiate the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a sweeping trade deal with deeply anti-democratic provisions. Protests had been called, tens of thousands were expected to fill the streets, and a giant fence defended by thousands of riot police was to be erected around the Old City to keep protesters far from the convention center.
As the summit drew closer and heated debates raged in activist circles about how to oppose the FTAA most effectively, a group calling themselves the Deconstructionist Institute for Surreal Topology (DIST) circulated a satirical booklet promoting more creative protest tactics: “For those who yawn every time they see yet another Black Bloc, the Deconstructionist Institute for Surreal Topology presents this brief list of alternatives, to help spark discussion and inject a bit of creativity and derisive laughter into the mix.”
Their list of protest ideas included the Gary Coleman Bloc (tactic of choice: continuously walking up to cops and demanding, “Whatchu talkin’ bout, Willis?”), the Mascot Bloc, the Bloc Parents and the Fuchsia Bloc (“dressed in tights and pink tutus, the Fuchsia Bloc’s role is to follow the Black Bloc and tease them mercilessly”). DIST also jokingly proposed challenging the fence around the conference area with a Monty-Pythonesque Medieval Bloc: “If the man is gonna turn the summit into a fortress, the Medieval Bloc will lay siege with gusto. Beautiful battering rams, ladders, siege towers, Trojan donuts, catapults, and dead cows infected with the plague.”
It was a good laugh, but seemingly nothing more — until a public figure sympathetic to the cause contacted the group and said, “if you can find someone to build a catapult, I’ll pay for it.” A group of catapult enthusiasts in Ottawa agreed to build the prop (rigged to ensure it couldn’t launch anything very far on the off-chance it was actually taken for a weapon), and DIST smuggled it into the city. On the day of the march, activists with pots and colanders on their heads pulled the full-size catapult up to the fence and began gently lobbing teddy bears into lines of riot cops. Meanwhile, other activists dismantled the offending fence with bolt-cutters as cameras rolled.
The stunt complete, the activists disabled the prop and abandoned it to the police who were advancing through clouds of tear gas. Everyone thought that would be the end of it, but the police couldn’t bear to be outflanked on the absurdist front: they retaliated by sending plainclothes officers to snatch a prominent activist, Jaggi Singh, who had had nothing to do with the catapult, and charge him with possession of a “dangerous weapon”: the prop itself. Singh was held for seventeen days before being released.
The spurious weapons charge only added fuel to DIST’s fire, setting off a whole new round of press releases and media stunts mocking the security establishment, with activists turning in their “stuffed comrades” (i.e. teddy bears) to local police stations across the country and sending them to the Canadian Prime Minister’s office to protest the absurd charge.
The catapult action was not just good theater, but also effective activism. It attacked, both physically and symbolically, the fence that kept civil society away from trade deal negotiations that would impact everyone. In the end, the protests were a success: the Summit was a public relations nightmare for the Canadian government, public sympathy swung toward the protesters and the hemisphere-wide trade deal was never signed.
While the literal target of the airborne teddy bears was the riot police and the politicians behind them, the real target lay outside the fence. Firstly, the action captivated the public imagination with a media spectacle that exposed the absurdity of democratic leaders literally “besieged” by citizens asking reasonable questions. Secondly, the action engaged other activists with two important messages: first, don’t be afraid to confront state power, and second, when you do so, don’t lose your sense of humor or lose sight of the broader optics of your actions.
Whether it’s a giant Earth Mother puppet, a rented woodchipper redecorated into an outsized Enron stock shredder or a teddy-bear catapult, well-chosen larger-than-life props can help create a media spectacle and tell a story. By choosing an absurdist siege engine, DIST neatly exposed the absurdity of the larger situation: democratic leaders forced to meet “under siege” by their constituents when making hugely unpopular decisions.
To operate, power requires the aura of authority. The man in the uniform or the business suit has everything under control. He’s sober, serious, knows best, and maybe above all, is needed (to protect you). Nothing quite undermines this aura (and the rationale for state violence that goes with it) like laughter, especially in the context of an absurd situation they don’t know how to handle. If they react to it according to their normal logic, they look ridiculous and/or paranoid—whether it’s the Polish police deciding whether to arrest a bunch of dwarves for going to a meeting or Canadian police confiscating a teddy bear as a dangerous weapon.
As Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” This action succeeded because those involved responded intelligently and creatively to the unexpected opportunities that presented themselves: first, a serious offer of funding in response to an absurd proposal, and second, a police overreaction that further emphasized the absurdity of the situation.
The Canadian security establishment justified its unprecedented mobilization by stirring fears of violent protests. But what is more non-violent than a teddy bear? By building an actual engine of war and choosing to gently fling teddy bears off of it, DIST found a playful and unexpected way to demonstrate their commitment to nonviolence and expose the government’s trumped-up fears as unwarranted.