Dancing in the Public Square: Street Music as Activism (Civic Media Lunch Livenotes) | MIT Center for Civic Media

Dancing in the Public Square: Street Music as Activism (Civic Media Lunch Livenotes)

We were lucky to host two organizers of the HONK! Festival ofActivist Street Bands - John Bell and Reebee Garofolo. These collaborative livenotes were authored by myself, Denise Cheng, Nathan Matias, Matt Stempeck, and a few others I think.

Rahul introduced HONK! fest, which is an annual gathering of activist street bands that descends on Somerville, MA. It began seven years ago. Today’s speakers will explore what it means to take back the public space. One of the things about parading is that it’s breaking a lot of rules—you’re not allowed to walk down the streets, make so much noise in normal circumstances—and it’s fun!

There are about a dozen people on HONK organizing committee. John wants to talk about public space, festival, and activism. These are complicated issues that we struggle with all the time. John was at CAVS for a bit, where Otto Piene (the former head) told him about taking a big inflatable sculpture into a parade into downtown Boston for an anti-war demonstration. There's an interesting opportunity to bring art into public space for an activist purpose.

John talks to us about the vision of public space that motivated the organisers to start the first HONK! Festival in Davis Square.

“When we started the HONK! festival in Davis Square, one of the reasons we decided to use Davis Square is because there is so much pedestrian traffic. The whole idea of using public space the way it is sometimes designed to be used is problematic."

John gives the example of Aurora, Co. as a public space designed for cars, not pedestrians. The city of Medford recently talked to HONK! about Station Landing, a development which is surrounded by highways, T station, and the river. In Medford, there is a simulacrum of a street in this shopping area, where the shopping plaza street only goes for a few blocks, but it’s ultimately not a pedestrian street. Davis Sq in Somerville, unlike Union Sq, has lots of pedestrian traffic. HONK! choose it consciously to take advantage of this environment.

John brings up Burning Man, which decided to create their own city because they couldn't do what they wanted in San Francisco. It doesn't involve an existing public space, it actively separates itself. Karen Bacon from CAVS talks about this in Celebrations and Monuments article.

“[Burning Man is] a huge festival that’s pretty amazing, but it doesn’t involve a public space. It’s creating an artificial public space … That to me is interesting, this challenge of invigorating the public space."

Honk! organizers wanted to make sure it wasn't a traditional "Street Fair" (like 17th century London) - which center around people selling socks and food, with amplified music that separates people from the performers. They don't want to create the "Oktoberfest" style event that occurs just after HONK! in Harvard Sq. Musicians play without any of the traditional performance props like lighting, stages and special equipment.

John particularly focuses on the parade, which is just one part of the larger event. He is interested in reinvigorating public space in the same way that the Situationists thought about reinvigorating public space in 1960s Paris through active exploration and temporary transformation.

Reebee jumps in to talk about how we communicate political ideas. His band plays events with 45 minutes of speeches before a band plays. The "place comes alive" when the band starts.

“People think the speech is the politics and the band as the entertainment, and that’s not the case. .. We privilege words over sounds and images in terms of how we communicate content."

Sociologists that study how music communicates politics look at the lyrics, but that is just one aspect of the music. Music communicates in lots of ways, and often lyrics aren't the best tool musicians have at hand. Reebee is curious about what types of sounds are allowed in public space - giant trucks rumble down the street in Somerville with no limits. The Boston Pops blares music from the Hatch Shell with no limit, but try Rap or Punk and you'd be shut down in a minute. This is an ideological position.

John sees this work as reactionary. The visual aesthetics are from the world of carnival and procession. They draw on old forms of cultural communication, which are ripe for re-use. Some things that are obvious to John from his theater background are surprising to others.

John shares a video of Honk made by an activist from Montreal. He describes many of the groups in volved in the parade . Many of the groups are costumed, for instance Bread and Puppet Theater - who had effective use of space by creating image-based props elevated on poles. Using the space of the street takes skill and attention to physical space.

Teaching the Yak to keep its balance
Yak Dance at HONK Festival

John mentions many of the bands and the traditions they build on. Comparsas in Bolivia parade with brass bands. The miners organize them. This type of tradition fits in to the HONK! message. Unions used to parade on the street all the time in the ‘30s, with puppets and other strong visuals. Unlike the veterans parade in Boston, HONK! welcomes the Veterans for Peace. Part of the open policy is the make sure there is stuff in between, so they welcome groups like the Masonic Temple in addition to bands. There are loads of international street performance traditions that fit into what HONK! is trying to create. John says "All of these arts are ready for the street, so we just invite them in."

The HONK!parade has the tagline “Reclaim the streets for horns, bikes and feet" - they haven’t found a better one yet. John would be OK with a Tea Party group joining the parade, because he wants to support the idea of activism for whatever purpose. John wants more and more artists to join in, like the Somerville Open Studios group did this year. The parade closes with Bloco Afrobrazil (disclosure: Rahul's a member) - who operate on "Brazilian Standard Time". The Brazilian sense of parading isn't about getting from point A to point B on time, and after a few years they decided to put Bloco at the end to allow for that.

An audience member asks what makes these street bands activists? What about them is political? Reebee tackles this - some bands think of themselves as mission driven to work with activist movements. Some resist it, and some see themselves as non-political. Even those are generally "civically engagement in some sort of community building activity". They play on the street, for community activities.

Andrew wonders if that is the connective thread, the performance in public space. John talks about how they make a space for activism; people take advantage of it as they will. In some ways just the form of playing on the street, rather than the music itself, is the activist part. John remembers during the Seattle protests some of the reporting was dismissing the public performance as old school. He argues that the street presence itself is a radical expression. Many activists are upset about what HONK! does because it isn't tied to one particular point of view, or agreed upon political ideas. John sees that as difficult for HONK! for tackle, because of diverse points of view. He likes that there are a variety of performers.

Catherine supports the idea that going into the street is a radical act. She sees congregating as a temporary transformation of the street. It can give us a sense of hope and possibility. John agrees, and talks about how it is super simple. You don't need a lot of resources to make that happen. The street architecture is already there. ReeBee wants to make a festival that creates a space for public activism. There aren't any corporate logos, no commercialism of any kind. Everyone is driven to local Davis Sq. businesses, and they love it. There's no stages, no electricity, no amplification. With nine hours of continuous music in 9 places, there isn't a moment of silence. This lessens the distinction between artists and audience - "Our goal is to eliminate the audience completely".

Rahul asks what he thinks the community takes away from the single event. Does this change how people see their public space throughout the year? Reebee says growth is a huge issue for them. 35 bands in the festival. 89 entities in the parade. That's about as big as they can get. They think about how to deliver to more and more people. People are courting HONK! now, they've gotten so big. They resist this because the home is meaningful to them. Replication is the model they are thinking about now. For instance, Providence held a one day fest afterwards, and a 4 day fest in NYC. Other cities are running their own, and even more want to host. This year's symposium had a session about how to run your own HONK! fest; that's how popular the model is. John acknowledges the power of one example.

Rahul asks how they think about the balance between running HONK! well and supporting other organisers. How do they see HONK! as changing the world? John wonders about activism and how it impacts the world. The activism iteration cycle isn't clear to him. Sometimes the effects of art are felt on a longer timeline, so it can be difficult to judge. Maybe they can inspire people at places like MIT to develop street spectacles. The annual nature can create lasting effects. They want to make "image on the street" a normal part of life. Reebee points to an article in the Somerville Journal that ended with the line that HONK! shows another world is possible. They can change the relations of the space without changing the infrastructure - no new vendors, no street closures, etc. He argues that people can get along in new and interesting ways without altering the built landscape. John reminds us that the Republican Convention in Florida outlawed puppets. There is a fear of performance. Things like Occupy create an unease for the authorities; it is seen as suspicious.

John mentions Ersnt Block wrote The Principle of Hope- his point is that carnival like performance offer the idea that another world is possible. These events demonstrate that ideas through art and performance, and he suggests that is an important thing to keep alive. But maybe Carnival is conservative; it's time restricted and followed by Ash Wednesday, where everything goes back to normal.

Another audience member asks what kind of publicity do you do? Do you track it? They actually hire a friend to do publicity. Some of the media outlets discuss it as a performance spectacle rather than the activism piece. Jennifer Bruder's A NYT article this year captured this well, to John's surprise. The HONK! fest might have been an acceptable context for the journalist to discuss her narrative about the Rude Mechanical Orchestra. Reebee is consistently baffled by the print media covering the festival so strongly, yet TV stations aren't covering the festival. There is lots of video social media generated, but TV doesn't show up. There's a big Flickr group. There's a lot on Facebook.

An audience member asks about the logistics - how do you convince people and make the call for participation in the parade? John says that they leaned on some of the groups to do outreach - like Bread and Puppet and the Veterans for Peace. There is some word of mouth. Some student groups get engaged. The first year a great dialogue came out of the fact that they did setup in the VFW parking lot, with the Veterans for Peace. The Davis Square Live Journal created a lot of traffic the first year, mentions an audience member. Playing on the street itself attracts attention.

Matt asks about the pickup band that happened. John talks about the latent musicians that could be engaged in a pickup band. A friend volunteered to put that together. So HONK! created a space and invited them to the parade. Friday night there was a lantern parade by a park off Davis Square, in the tradition of 19th century political campaign parades in places like Baltimore and New York. This built on traditions of lantern parades, bringing in the residential streets. The police in Somerville has responded well to these, and Davis Sq is good a limiting noise movement.

John wonders about the connection to our work here at Civic Media. Rahul sees the connection as obvious as an exemplar or what gets people involved and how to do it. Civic works on technologies and social processes that help get people engaged in public life - HONK! is a great example of this. We try to bring in a diverse set of people to provoke conversation and connection.

Another audience member wonders who comes to the festival? John guesses that the audience is mostly white middle class. The Hatian group and Afro Brazil help that a bit. Families are definitely there. Reebee acknowledges the limited audience that comes out in Davis. On friday they do "HONK! in the neighborhoods", where they send the bands out to different low income areas. The goal is to partner with a local organization to take ownership of the event, to connect the band with musicians in hopes of culture sharing in novel ways. He remembers sending the Brass Liberation Orchestra to a Boys and Girls Club in Dorchester. Two members of BLO wear dresses, which made a big impression on the 14 year old African American kids. This outreach can create a more inclusive event.

Diane asks about widening your circle by reaching out. What about changing your leadership circle to be more inclusive? Reebee points out that while this is very worthwhile, it's harder to do.

An attendee who walked the parade from the Open Air Circus says he noticed many more people in costume along the street. The first year, the festival got only one lane of Mass Ave. There was almost nobody along the parade route. That has grown over the years to the point where HONK! is a major civic event. Being allowed to hold an event in Sanders Theatre felt like an overwhelming, if complicated, success.

Extraordinary Rendition Band

John points out that their relationship with the Harvard Square Business Association is complicated as their mission is to promote Harvard Square, which has become increasingly commercialized. HONK! could be seen as providing the "local color" for the otherwise commercial Oktoberfest. HBA depends on this collaboration now to animate the space.

Honk! at Oktoberfest

John is continually surprised that these sorts of events don't happen more often. He's been to events with stage and amplification where New Orleans Jazz Bands will play. All that infrastructure gets in the way for him. He argues you don't need that "superstructure" to create the festival.

Rahul notes that at Civic Media we see this kind of overproduction as well rather than keeping things simple. He fights against this in his work that helps sommunity organization present their data more creatively.

Reebee shares a story about the Youngfellows band from New Orleans who was slated to do a workshop in the Somerville high school. Unfortunately the schools closed at the last minute for a teachers' professional development day and they had to try to organize kids to come to school on a day off. They assumed the workshop was dead in the water but all of a sudden 30 kids showed up to Union Square with Marcus Santos and they decided to hold the workshop right there in public space. Within a few minutes the groups were broken down into section and they were all learning together. After a bit they brought everyone together and they played "Billie Jean" together for about 30 minutes. This demonstrates the HONK! pedagogy that Reebee has been writing about lately. He's interested in the lessons for how we teach and learn across lots of discipline. The Youngfellows aren't into the activism message as all. They are professional musicians for whom the norm is playing in the streets. The police in New Orleans have arrested kids for playing in the streets.

Rahul notes that there are powerful connections between these ideas and the work that Civic Media and Lifelong Kindergarten do at the Media Lab. He thanks John and Reebee for their time and looks forward to finding more connections.