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Fiesta participant wearing a military ammunition hat with flowers instead of bullets. Atánquez, Colombia (2011).
Photo: Roberto Lovato

Fiesta Politics: Dissidence as an Act of Harmony

Angela Marino | UC Berkeley

Just before their brutal removal by tear gas, hundreds of dancing couples swirled in tune to Turkish traditional music in Taksim Plaza. In 2006, half a million people gathered in Mexico City's cabaret masivo, a month long performance event with dance, poetry, art and music to protest fraud in Mexico's national elections. Occupy included hundreds of thousands of people that, like sister events both before and after, helped to claim public space, visibility and popular power through festive performance. These acts stand defiantly against the totalizing reflex of state hegemony. They also raise the question of the relationship between fiesta and dissidence: how might we see dissidence as harmony, and fiesta as capable of radical change?

As organizer and performance artist Jesusa Rodríguez said, the cabaret masivo was an occasion of "…harmony, the aesthetic, and all that art can carry on the road to non-violent action." Rodriguez's words are joined by what Emory Douglas described as defiance that is also integral beauty, the well-practiced, familiar rhythms and the routine. In the interview with Zapantera project creators, Douglas and Duarte, for this issue, I became interested in this question of what makes these familiar rhythms and the routine also dissident. What do the festive and dissident act have in common, and how might these seemingly counter-positioned acts --be reconsidered as mutually supporting? This essay suggests one of the major influences in dissident acts of the 21st century can be found in fiesta practices, an influence that presents an often-overlooked view of dissidence as harmony.

The idea of dissidence as conflict or disruption matters--and in some ways is crucial. Dissidence means literally 'to sit apart,' which implies separation, distinction and a shift between one regime and another. Dissidence antagonizes and shakes loose the consolidation of political and cultural regimes. And in order to stay free from the constraints of an abusive hegemony, the idea is to keep shaking things up.  In this view, liberation is achieved by wresting forward individual and group demands that are otherwise shut out or trapped inside tightly packed systems of control. In other words, dissidence needs rupture in order to produce a space for contestation and an alternative way of being and doing--especially in the context of hegemony.

The occupation of the cabaret masivo, with hundreds of thousands of people participating in art and performance projects, at times in unison, indeed created an alternative space. Within it were all kinds of dissident acts that challenged normative presumptions of class, race, liberalism, gender and sexuality. Yet, the cabaret másiva was also profoundly integrated; it was also a feat of massive scale harmony.

The conclusion may be that disruption is also beautiful and can follow an order of its own. Yet, for all the good that comes out of shaking things up, there is nothing more awkward than a dance partner who incessantly pretends that disruption is beautiful. What about that flow? One of the problems may be the inflation of dissonance in dissidence, or a compulsion to overscribe what Antonio Negri calls constituency power. For Negri, constituency power is an explosive force that unsettles, unhinges and disrupts whereas constituted power is an absolute order, the binding power of states (Insurgencies 1999). The distinctions of these two kinds of power, among other things, allow us to see dissidence as a necessary part of social and political process, and effectively to de-criminalize the productive forms that it takes. As Negri argues, the impulse of constituency power is a crucial part of democracy, without which democracy would cease to exist. Rather than senseless or merely destructive acts, even when it appears 'misdirected,' the eruption of mass action is a response to a system of oppression, and therefore a healthy component of democracy. This two-part taxonomy of power then situates this otherwise explosive dissent within the framework of democracy where dissidence does not so much disrupt democracy, it actually restores it.

The mistake, however, is to therefore equate dissidence to the inherently disruptive notion of constituent power, or at least we must question the frame or edges of this disruption. If on the one hand, dissidence is defined solely by rupture, the presumption is that our social movements are therefore lawless, or essentially explosive, and that what we call fiesta is somehow synonymous with chaos. On the other hand, how disruptive does an act need to be in order to really be disruptive? After all, what can be accomplished by dancing with the police if the power relations remain the same? For dissidence believers, Emma Goldman's famous line might inspire a a very different take, 'If I can't have revolution, I don't want to be a part of your dance.'

So, where then to situate harmony? At the center of the storms of social upheaval is harmony in abundance. Take for example Oscar Grant Plaza in the fall of 2011. Occupy Oakland may have seemed dangerous, volatile, and disruptive to the business-industrial life that dominates that space. Yet, for the hundreds that regularly gathered there, including dozens of homeless young people--of the more vulnerable and also powerful of our community--Oakland's Oscar Grant Plaza was safer than it has ever been. It doesn't mean conflict didn't exist internally; there were countless disagreements and disputes, and also processes for mediation and discussion to resolve them. In the tent zone of the Plaza, at its height, was a kind of autonomous zone that was harmony in its finest participatory example. A memorial tree was decorated with photos, poems and prayers for loved ones and victims of violence. An impromptu group of people worked together to build a tool shed. Several tents offered free health care. Children gathered in a song circle and displayed their finger paintings next to a vegetable stand with garden-fresh food. Artists operated a printing press that was busy churning out colorful posters for a long line of people socializing and getting to know each other. In the demonstration that headed out to shut down the docks at Oakland's harbor, a notably 'dissident' act, one of the most powerful moments was the crowd singing a song that started low and solemn. As it caught on, just as the bridge was in view, hundreds of people sang together in almost pitch perfect unison. This was more than a tactic of disruption, the song was integration.

In Occupying Language, Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini write, the idea of rupture is one of the many key concepts that has transferred hemispherically from Argentina to Quebec. In describing the cacerolazo in protest (a practice now adopted across the political spectrum), they write, "People sang and banged pots and greeted one another, kissing the cheeks of neighbors, really seeing one another for the first time. It was a rupture with the past. It was a rupture with obedience and a rupture with not being together, with not knowing one another" (30). I am most struck here by the double negative of a 'rupture of not being together, with not knowing one another.' What makes me curious is to consider where or what is the actual point of rupture? If there is a rupture of that which was the disruption in the first place, can we not see this as a mend? It may seem purely semantic, but this slightly larger frame repositions the norms and makes it more evident who and what actually is the problem. In other words, the double negative effectively seeks to denaturalize the original problem, where to break from 'not being together' is really an act of integration, and where the rupture of one order could also be seen as the simultaneous embrace of another. If, as Sitrin and Azzelinni argue, the cacerolazo is a protest act adopted from South to North, a look to fiesta practice offers even more. The proposal that has emerged is to join direct action with a long line of influence and knowledge that travels transnationally in fiesta practices --an influence that models 'dissidence' as the constitution of a vital alternative.

Take for an example, the devil dances in the state of Aragua in Venezuela. These fiesta-like religious manifestations have also occupied a space--but they've been doing it for nearly 400 years. Like many other small communities along the Afrodiasporic Caribbean, these dances have been practiced since at least the early 17th century. Since then, they have created what many organizers recognize as a means of maintaining collective rights sometimes in direct opposition to the state or church authorities--and sometimes entirely alongside them where the priest or other officiates of power are incorporated into the narrative of the dance itself. Dancers dressed as devils, accompanied by musicians, organizers and neighbors bless houses and altars that are set up throughout the town on the day of Corpus Christi, turning the abject devil into a familiar and celebrated symbol of popular culture. The masks are huge, horned and gnarly. Capes are made of ribbons, bells and brightly colored fabric. The dances are spectacular, involving sometimes hundreds of people in swirling circles and criss-cross steps. They are also devotional and involve strong commitments, promesas to dance for several years at a time. With all of what appears to be eruptive and extraordinary, the manifestations of the devil dances for the coastal Caribbean are also an entirely regular, well-rehearsed and customary event. They build their presence and power on the rules and tradition of what took place in the past, where precedence offers an easy lead to follow for the next year's event. Despite significant pressures, the devil dances have retained semi-autonomous forms of production in Venezuela-- as one lead dancer put it, we are 'revolutionary' devils (with some hint to Chavismo). However at its essence, these are performances organized independently from partisan political alliances. As 'revolutionary' as they are, what is interesting here is that these dances do not overtly seek rupture. Instead, more relevant to these performances--much like thousands of fiestas in the Americas, is how they align to a broader principle of equilibrium --one that deals with and ultimately harmonizes conflict.

In a dischordant world, it may be that the most dissident act is harmony. Without negating in the slightest the importance of defiance and direct action, this implies another frame or way of exercizing dissident performance. Its one that strategically sustains a rhythm and balance of another order. Perhaps it points to another current of hemispheric and global influence at work, where popular fiestas generate balance to suture, rejoin and integrally restore. It valorizes the past such as the traditional Turkish dances on Taksim Plaza, and builds from it for the recurrent presence of an alternative space and gathering site. It feeds both the spectacular and also ordinary life like the devil dances. Dissidence as harmony may be strategically our next move, with fiesta as a renewable resource powerful enough to uphold 'all that art can carry' on this long road ahead.

Ángela Marino, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. Her research focuses on fiesta and carnival, and U.S. Latin/o American performance, plays, and politics. She is co-editor of Festive Devils in the Americas in Richard Schechner’s Enactments Series (Seagull Press, forthcoming), and is currently writing a book on populism and performance in Venezuela.

Works Cited

Negri, Antonio. 1999. Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State. Vol. 15. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Sitrin, Marina and Dario Azzellini. September 18, 2012. Occupying Language. Zuccotti Park Press; PAP/PMPLT edition