“Cardboard is the medium of protest.” —Zoe Beloff
As Occupy Wall Street hit full stride in Zuccotti Park in fall 2011, all flavors of curious people arrived, including large numbers of artists. Zoe Beloff decided to check it out, too, not with any predetermined notion of a theater project, but rather to sketch portraits she terms “Drawings of Modern Life.” Most image-making took place, understandably, on various digital video platforms, for obvious motivations: what better mechanism to instantly document, upload, and spread the spoken word of the People’s Microphone? Beloff, however, dedicated herself at first to a slower art, a “transcription of experience” that often extended into dusk as General Assembly meetings stretched on and on.
Like so many of us who cracked open our musty copies of Marx’s Capital following the so-called “crisis” of 2008, Beloff had been immersed in a study of radical art and politics; in her case, she had been working through Brecht as part of research for an earlier project, Adventures of a Dreamer. It wasn’t until the forced evacuation of the encampment by the N.Y.P.D. that Beloff discovered an appropriate way to wield a digital camera with regard to OWS. Suddenly, Brecht’s late play, The Days of the Commune, penned upon his return to East Germany following his controversial appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, seemed like an obvious cipher for the contemporary occupation.
Produced in the early spring of 2012, and now available in a new Blu-ray edition, Beloff’s The Days of the Commune is full of playful and important adaptations. As she explains in an informative interview with Jonathan Kahana that accompanies the release's lovely packaging, she cast professional and non-professional actors alike, with the sole requirement that each person possess “enthusiasm and a loud voice,” along with a willingness to swap roles, hold signs and props, and adapt to changing weather, as each shoot would take place over a weekend at multiple locations. In the spirit of OWS, Beloff committed to run-and-gun guerilla filmmaking, no permits asked, none taken. To her surprise, it worked.
As the piece unfolds over 155 minutes, a portrait of New York emerges in addition to the story of the Communards: the beep-beep-beep of garbage removal, traffic hum, pedestrian walla, and tourists drifting through parks, maps clutched, cameras in the air, snapping away. Workers stream to work, eat sandwiches, and occasionally stare at the production. Cops, ever-present in the background, remind us of our “freedom” to protest, or at least, stage a version of it, replete with 19th-century costumes and cardboard cannons.
Some actors attempt French accents, to greater or lesser effect, whereas others stick with a nudgy New York City-ese, which makes for a displaced and contradictory patois that mirrors the back-then/what-now aspect of the production, and speaks to some of the tactical questions that constitute OWS: to what extent do civil rights and Vietnam-era movement building strategies apply today? How can prefigurative politics mic-check itself beyond “mere” voluntarism or temporary liberated zones? And perhaps most directly, Beloff seems to ask, as does OWS, what are the limits of late ’90s and early ’00s anti-globalization street theater when the “Miami Model”* (or worse) has become the norm and financialization becomes ever more encrypted? Furthermore, how much contemporary adaptation can Brecht withstand, and how valuable, really, is the Commune to our present-day struggle?
To those people who think plein air political theater is a theoretical dead-end street, Zoe Beloff’s The Days of the Commune proposes some answers, albeit in ad hoc form, as the piece will remain forever a work-in-progress, much like the OWS legacy. As such, The Days of the Commune is an opportunity to think through the failed street tactics of OWS as much as it is a celebration of its successes. One is left to wonder, among other things, how would the Oakland Commune stage their version?
* The “Miami Model” has come to stand in for the trend toward pre-emptive, legally questionable tactics used by police and Federal agents to squash activists ahead of planned actions. The name comes from protests around the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) sessions held in Miami, November 2003.
The Blu-ray of Days of the Commune may be purchased at: http://daysofthecommune.com/pages/purchase.html
JASON LIVINGSTON is a filmmaker currently teaching in the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa.