The installation Parrhesia by artists Eric Garduño and Matthew Rana reconstructs the 1964 trial of comedian Lenny Bruce that ended in his conviction on obscenity charges.
The work—part of SITE Santa Fe’s new exhibition Agitated Histories—captures the near-comical dog-and-pony show hosted by New York’s district attorney in a judge’s stand fashioned out of cardboard, lit by comedy club lights and flanked by flags featuring Bruce, as well as the definition of parrhesia (“boldness or freedom of speech” on Dictionary.com). The evidence against Bruce includes archival photographs of him and his writings. The installation raises questions about what constitutes evidence and how that so-called proof becomes subjective.
As a whole, Agitated Histories puts history itself on the stand. The prevailing argument for understanding the past is that it teaches us how we have arrived in our present circumstances so that we can avoid repeating mistakes. The fact that oppressed and disenfranchised peoples around the world must continually hit the streets to demand their rights as citizens and humans might belie that supposition.
But what if we take their demands out of context, as Sam Durant does with his lightboxes? Pulling archive photos of three 1960s liberation movements—the Civil Rights Movement, Aboriginal rights demonstrations in Australia and the American Indian Movement—Durant first makes graphite drawings of the photos, directing us to look at the protest signs.
Then he creates large lightboxes featuring demands and charges handwritten on the signs: An 8-foot- by-9-foot yellow lightbox reads “200 Years of White Lies;” a 6-foot-by-7-foot green box reads “You Are On Indian Land: Show Some Respect.”
Co-Curator Janet Dees says that Durant’s lightboxes—as well as the faux news coverage of re-enacted protests in Mark Tribe’s videos—find the similarities in these movements rather than drawing out competing narratives.
The exhibition also asks us to consider how much we trust the available information, in terms of what it says and what it omits. The Fae Richards Photo Archive—pulling together 78 gelatin silver prints, four chromogenic prints and a notebook of seven pages of typescript—documents the life of an actress who didn’t exist. Done in collaboration with the filmmaker Cheryl Dunye and her film The Watermelon Woman, the archive calls our attention to the fact that no records exist for the “lesbian and film history of African-American women.”
Perhaps the most striking and necessarily morose piece is Daniel Joseph Martinez’ Divine Violence. Made up of 24-inch-by-36-inch wood panels coated in gold automotive paint, the installation lists 20th century organizations that use violence to push their agendas. The installation has collected more than 125 panels—around 80 hang at SITE—and it continues to grow.
Collectively, Agitated Histories forces us to re-view history as a product of subjective information based on incomplete documentation. Do we rely on textbooks approved by the Texas Board of Education, on art and literature, on documents kept by citizens (as in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States), on the filter of our own experiences and intuition? Or do we ignore all of it in the face of the conflicts right before us and take to the streets like Occupy, letting history determine what it all means?