Worker's Play Time | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Worker's Play Time 

Activists have figured out that using puppets, costume, and street theater is a good way to get attention.

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By Linda Lutton

Standing on a chair, Marla Rose carefully considers the gigantic face before her. She dabs her paintbrush over puffy cheeks, protruding eyebrows, and puckered lips, but even on tiptoe she can't reach the hairline, which remains cardboard brown.

"This is the worker puppet," says Bill Olbrisch, pointing to the face while stepping around a pail of glue. "He's gonna take on Corporate Greed and take him down." Corporate Greed--his face, anyway--is propped up against a table nearby. He's not as big as the worker puppet, but he's got the same bulbous features. His skin is purple, and his green eyes have dollar signs in them.

"He's going to be backed up by an army of these guys," says Olbrisch, pulling out a cardboard effigy of a nondescript man in a suit and tie. "We call them the Gents." But then, the worker puppet will be flanked by a swarm of his own cardboard comrades, men and women, each unique. The two sides will face off on the street during a May Day march to support, among other things, amnesty for immigrant workers and reforms in the day labor industry.

Olbrisch and Rose belong to a local group that's adding a new tool to the arsenal of Chicago activists: art. "Visual images are a very quick, easy, attention-grabbing way to get your message across," says Kim Feicke, a founding member of Art and Revolution Chicago. "It's a way of bringing culture into the movement that we're creating. We consider culture and art to be a very important part of our lives, and it needs to be an important part of the world that we're trying to change."

Art and Revolution and groups across the country like it are changing the face of protest by using papier-mache puppets, costumes, clowns, and street theater to bring the atmosphere of carnival to demonstrations. At the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle last year, and at protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago, sea turtles, giants, and huge puppets representing the haves and the have-nots dotted the crowds. So did cardboard-and-cloth butterfly costumes, while birds attached to sticks flitted above. "The birds escaped the police in D.C.," says Feicke. "They just kept flying around. They were the first puppets to escape police."

Feicke and others knew they were onto something in 1996, when artists built a 30-foot-high papier-mache "corporate tower of greed" for a counterconvention staged here during the Democratic National Convention. "It had its own head at the top of it, and in each hand it had a puppet--one was Dole, the other was Clinton," says Feicke. Counterconventioneers hauled the tower and ten-foot-tall Clinton and Dole puppets to the intersection of Milwaukee, North, and Damen. "The whole tower was being pulled by welfare mothers and different folks who were being affected by the corporate powers," says Feicke. "And then they pulled it down. And then there was a whole utopia on the inside." Actually, there were multiple utopias, all painted on cardboard: the workers' cooperative utopia, the bikers' utopia, lots of flowers...

Hundreds of people came to Chicago for that counterconvention, and before long, groups committed to making art a part of protest began to spring up across the country. Art and Revolution San Francisco was the first; there are now autonomous Art and Revolution groups in Seattle, Olympia, Portland, Santa Cruz, Tucson, Austin, and Washington, D.C.

"People are becoming more media savvy, just to overcome that kind of 60s march-around-in-a-circle image that dissent gets now," says Olbrisch, who makes his living as an actor and a clown. "In our new world, our digital world, one has to change the tactics to fit the time. But at the same time, this is a way not to buy into the whole culture, but to take simple materials--like cardboard and newspaper and the refuse of society--and turn it into images that the media does want in their glitzy media culture. Because they don't want to cover that one more march, but they do want to cover the image."

Art and Revolution Chicago has about ten core members, but they've worked with dozens of Chicagoans who are trying to get a particular point across to help them win media attention. "Are you an organization that works to create change for your community?" reads an Art and Revolution flyer. "Well, you don't have to plan another action/press event with the same old placards and chants."

Joining with Illinois Peace Action, Art and Revolution members built the Berlin Wall and then knocked it down. They made a giant Mayor Daley and a cardboard bulldozer driven by a cigar-smoking papier-mache developer to help the Coalition to Protect Public Housing protest a west-side tax increment financing district. They came up with a circus theme for last year's broad-based protest of the bombing of Serbia as President Clinton gave the commencement address at the University of Chicago. "We thought that Clinton was the ringmaster of that circus of a war," says Olbrisch, who dressed as a clown on stilts. "We had three people in the same pair of pants who couldn't really get anywhere because they were all going in different directions--that was Congress. Clinton was the ringmaster and was making the soldiers jump through a flaming hoop."

Last November Art and Revolution worked with Greenpeace to stage a skit outside Food and Drug Administration hearings into the safety of genetically altered foods. A protester dressed as a mad scientist used a giant cardboard syringe to inject bovine growth hormone into a papier-mache cow with an oversize neon pink udder. Children in monarch butterfly costumes sank to the ground after approaching a protester dressed as a gene-altered ear of corn. Photos of the ear of corn and monarchs ran in the Sun-Times, Tribune, and Washington Post, and on the cover of Streetwise. The New York Times mentioned the skit.

Community organizations have known for a long time that they have to be creative if they want attention. So they've tied red ribbons around banks to protest redlining, dumped manure at the mayor's residence to say his policies are horseshit, donned gas masks to demand clean air. But according to community organizer Kelley Ford, art adds something more.

"It brings in a lot of energy. People get excited when they see a puppet. People are too threatened when they see demonstrations, but when they see the puppets they wonder, 'OK, they've got the puppets here. What is that supposed to represent? What is it all about?'" Art and Revolution helped National People's Action, a West Town-based group where Ford used to work as a housing organizer, make a 12-foot puppet of U.S. labor secretary Alexis Herman. Herman had refused to meet with members of NPA, so during NPA's annual Washington meeting last year, protesters carrying the 12-foot Herman and also a "Herman the Hermit Crab" performed street theater outside her apartment.

"We really stretched it pretty far," says Ford. "We made a shell, and we put a Herman the Hermit Crab in there, and that was supposed to be her, since she would never meet with us." NPA members took turns inside the shell. A sign attached to the crab read, "Come out, come out, come out of your shell, Alexis Herman." In a skit watched by dozens of bystanders and plenty of Herman's neighbors, the huge Herman puppet swung her arms at protesters wearing oversize masks and representing "the people," shooing them into low-paying jobs just to get them off welfare. The crowd cheered as "the people" organized and the Herman puppet agreed to heed NPA's call for job training and education programs.

"I think we get more bystanders coming in and trying to find out, why are you having this?" says Ford, who's now an organizer with the Humboldt Park group Blocks Together. And the real Herman got the message and gave the group an appointment.

"This is public art and it's political speech," says Olbrisch. "It's a way for us to reclaim streets as space for public dialogue, whereas now it's mostly private billboards and paid commercial advertising. All of these international financial institutions and global corporations seem to have their hands in every social problem, and the way that that happens is so complicated and so complex and involves economic theory and debt payments and restructural adjustments and things that are difficult for people to understand, so art can be a way of helping to explain these things in terms that people can understand, so that they can even engage in the debate."

Art also alters the ambience of a demonstration, says Olbrisch. "One of the things we found was that the art could actually go a ways in calming down edgy situations," he says. "Like the puppets could exert an influence on the atmosphere." Olbrisch spent the second day of protests in Seattle in his clown outfit. "I was doing a lot of really great stuff, and the police wouldn't touch me. In fact, they would kind of chill out when I was around. I'd juggle. I had a sign that said, 'WTO--who elected these clowns?'

"The cops had a lot of trouble going after the puppets. When you make a protest into a carnival atmosphere, it's much harder for them to just violently repress you than when you're standing there locked down with the grim look on your face. So we found that that was a very effective tactic." But the next day Olbrisch showed up in plain clothes. "That's when I got the heck beat out of me," he says. "That's when I got the baton."

But Feicke, who was also in Seattle, says that when police crack down, puppets don't get a break. "In Seattle and D.C. the first people to be arrested have been puppets at both events," she says. "I think they realize how strong of an image they present, and the corporate powers that be do whatever they can to stop us from using those images." She says the National Lawyers Guild is on line to represent any puppets who might get arrested on May Day.

Art and Revolution's worker puppet and Corporate Greed will duke it out at about 1 PM May 1 on the Tribune plaza, during a "Reclaim May Day" rally sponsored by dozens of community organizations and activist groups, among them the Coalition for the Homeless, the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, Centro Sin Fronteras, the Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican Cultural Center, the Organization of the Northeast in Uptown, and the Eighth Day Center for Justice. The groups will converge from different points around the city; one march that starts at 11 AM at Michigan and Balbo will follow the route of the original May Day march of 1886. Art and Revolution members say their goal is to involve between 100 and 200 people in some kind of street theater play or puppetry; they'll pass out worker puppets, Gents, and birds as well as drums made from five-gallon plastic buckets. "We'll find people on the site once we get there," says Feicke, who expects several thousand people. "It's a great way for people to get involved in the demonstration."

"I've been wanting to do something with wind socks," says Art and Revolution member Jennifer Verson as she brushes black paint onto a Gent's suit. When the corporate tower of greed came down in 1996 and utopia spilled out, Verson was dressed up as purity of water. "The red-black-and-white thing," she's saying now. "I want it to look like we're all together. And I want everybody to have something, and something that flutters."

"And kites are a little too complicated," jokes Feicke. "Oh, wow," says Olbrisch, "a big kite demonstration sometime--that would be really cool!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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