The enemy of my enemy is my friend1. Turn the proverb around a time or two and you might be able to locate yourself and your allies in the confusing terrain of the present.
The question of how to define an enemy as distinct from a friend has been a longstanding preoccupation of politics. Today, some conventions for deciphering alliances have become complicated. For instance, you can’t look into someone’s eye or shake their hand while safely practicing physical distancing, and still others are intensified as the ability to track a person’s positions through the convoluted archive that is the internet. Those ideological signposts that render some as perpetrators of oppression and others sided with the angels have also experienced some surprising movements in the current climate as fundamental concepts of health and safety encourage surprising alliances. In this moment, masking has become an electoral issue and the movement upsurges following the murders of Black civilians by police have forced a reckoning with racist conceptions of justice from every imaginable form of organization. And turning the question on oneself to examine complicity has become a worthy and dizzying preoccupation of the moment as sometimes the most urgent question can be what if my friends’s enemy is me?
In this issue of A Blade of Grass Magazine, we engaged an inspiring group of thinkers and makers to consider what it looks like for various socially engaged art practices to venture into enemy territory. As socially-engaged art has become more institutionalized, the risk has been that it becomes more ameliorative, but for many artists the possibility of using art to engage conflict is increasingly urgent. We hope that by sharing these examples we can all learn what crossing these lines can lead to, and to move from healing to accountability. Furthermore, knowing this issue was coming out on the eve of the 2020 elections in the U.S., in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic, and in conversation with a wave of uprisings against racial injustice, we felt it all the more important to include cultural practitioners who may not all define themselves as socially engaged artists, but who encompass a wide range of collaborative creative practices that seek to confront facist tendencies and redress the trauma of historical violence.
Our historical reprint for this issue is Grupo de Arte Callejero’s (GAC) writing from a decade ago, just released last year for the first time in English by Common Notions press. GAC has been working together for over twenty years and has honed a practice of organizing communities to use street and protest art to publicize and confront perpetrators of Argentina’s military dictatorship in their midst.
Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger was interviewed by Prerana Reddy about his Settlement project, designed to bring Indigenous artists from North America and the Pacific to reverse-occupy the town of Plymouth, U.K., where the original Mayflower ship set sail 400-years-ago. The wide-ranging interview covers Luger’s increasingly collective practice leading up to Settlement and how the project had to pivot in the context of the pandemic.
Movement journalist Neesha Powell-Twagirumukiza explores how communities in Georgia, Ohio, and Florida have partnered with the Equal Justice Initiative’s engagement efforts to mark the sites where Black residents were lynched. The story is framed by the recent chase and murder of Ahmaud Arbery by vigilantes in the Georgia region where the author was born and raised, and the dramatic rise of movements celebrating Black life and opposing police brutality and white supremacy.
Connecting to Powell-Twagirumukiza’s essay, this issue’s guest editor Daniel Tucker shares scenes from the last five-years of actions related to monuments commemorating the Confederacy and police brutality. The piece considers experiments such as Monument Lab, Paper Monuments, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, and the “Haymarket 8-Hour Action Series” as ephemeral and process-based strategies for memorializing conflicts.
Journalist and filmmaker Michael Premo’s interview with filmmaker Arthur Jones offers insight into a new film that follows the heels of cartoon character Pepe the Frog from ambiguous slacker to a right-wing meme charged with hate on 4chan. Tracking the frog’s trajectory, we see what happens when the original illustrator, Matt Furie, has to confront his social responsibility and Jones shares what it took to enter into the online depths of the alt-right.
Amita Swadhin’s writing on her oral history project Mirror Memoirs asks what happens when the remedy is the enemy? Sharing the stories of victims of childhood sexual violence and their experiences of violence is further compounded within the very social work and justice systems intended to assist them. Without restorative justice practices designed by survivors and an understanding that perpetrators are often also victims of violence themselves, these legally rehabilitative programs do more harm than good.
The issue concludes with artist and organizer Carol Zou performing as a modern-day Martin Luther by drafting nine bold theses for debate around reproductive labor inspired by the crisis of care and work that has infected our lives alongside the pandemic.
When you find yourself in enemy territory, it is best to have some friends. The contributors who brought their generous engagement with this issue are unified in a symbolic framing that brings their complex experiences together. In this temporary association, there are ideas for ways to confront white supremacy in its most violent and viral forms. They also give us models for how artists can take on state-sponsored disappearances at the neighborhood level and how to reverse-engineer settler colonial movements. They help us understand that these fights are in psychic and symbolic territories as much as physical ones, and that “winning” is not always about defeating our enemies, but about generating more active accomplices. And yet, alliances can be tenuous unless the work is done to consider what makes them cohere or contradict. It is our hope that with this issue, reflected and refracting off one another, these words offer ideas for new and deeper forms of affinity. We need friendships worth fighting for.
I’m lucky to join the A Blade of Grass team in making this project a reality: Vicki Capote, Sabrina Chin, Deborah Fisher, Kathryn McKinney, Karina Muranaga, and Prerana Reddy. It has been a pleasure working with the team and in particular the tireless work of the editorial team has made the thinking through this complex subject matter always stimulating.
Thank you to Mia Henry, Lewis Wallace, Anna Simonton, Danielle Purifoy, AC Thompson, and Malav Kanuga for their help lining up content for this issue.
Daniel Tucker works as an artist, writer, educator, and organizer developing documentaries, publications, classes, exhibitions and events inspired by his interest in social movements and the people and places from which they emerge. His writings and lectures on the intersections of art and politics and his collaborative art projects have been published and presented widely and are documented on the archive miscprojects.com. He is currently curator-in-residence at Mural Arts Philadelphia and in 2019, he completed a nine city tour of the curatorial project Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements. He works as an Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director in Socially-Engaged Art at Moore College of Art & Design.
1. Variously attributed to 400 BC India to Kautilya or 19th century France to Gabriel Manigault