It was bone cold in Madison yesterday. My partner and I drove early from Milwaukee, wanting to find parking in order to set up our Labor Dollars project later in the afternoon. Even by 9:00 a.m. the streets were filling. By 10:00 the square around the State Capitol was packed. We walked and chanted ("What do we want? SPRINGTIME! When do we want it? NOW!") in the strange ambulatory rhythm that I have become fascinated with; an odd mix of purposeful direction and random milling about.
At around 10:30, Teamsters and other union semi-trucks parked around the square began blasting their airhorns, signaling the arrival of the much anticipated Tractorcade. It very slowly arrived, and it was truly marvelous! I grew up in farm country, and used to work around tractors as a kid, yet have never before yesterday truly appreciated the tractor as an American icon, a category of vernacular sculpture.
They are things of beauty: orange Allis-Chalmers, with their curvilinear forms, showing off their open engines under the manifolds; rectangular International Harvesters with their big boxy design, square and upright and battered by field work; little Fords, faded gray, looking more and more like artifacts from bygone days; and those brilliant emerald green John Deeres, proud testaments to American manufacturing. I've been to many parades, Rose Bowls, junkyards and art museums, and this Tractor Procession beat them all!
And, my god, the huge crowd was enthusiastic! We danced to the various drum cells that grew organically around us, we laughed at the creative ingenuity of the farmers, with their manure spreader tableaux of Scatological Scott Skits, and we reflected on their signs and reminders that they, too, are worried citizens working the backbone functions of our society, threatened by the same forces of mass unification and absolute corporate hegemony that have lurked behind the protests of the last three weeks. Many people have stated this recently, but I'll say it again: I've never been so happy and proud to call Wisconsin my home!
In the late 60's, French political theorist Guy Debord wrote about "the society of the spectacle." He explored and explained how contemporary media creates spectacle that is essentially devoid of content. This spectacle creates a fake reality in order to mask our degradation and alienation at the hands of consolidated power. A founder of the artistic and political movement Situationist International, he sought, through the construction of "situations," to create multiple strategies for reclaiming an individual's self-determination from the sedative effects of ubiquitous spectacle.
I was thinking about this, in rather vague terms, while watching my favorite tractor/assemblage pass slowly by. An old rusty tractor driven by a middle-aged farmer was pulling a hay wagon full of people, young and old. There was no separation of viewer and viewed: we were all both, watching each other, fluidly moving between subject and object. The people packed on the wagon were drumming ecstatically and we all danced. They chanted, and held their signs and placards. In the middle of the group was some huge man (was it a man?) dressed in animal skins, wearing a mask of animal hide and antlers, and blowing on a resonant animal horn. The sound resonated loudly, its deep and beautiful booming tone rose above the din of the crowd. It was, in the middle of this intensely topical political assembly, a mythic figure centralized, a fascinating reminder of chthonic power.
This is where these reflections lead: Without play, without art, without song, we have no movement, we have only politics. We are now Situationists, but not through esoteric French intellectualism, but in our own homegrown Wisconsin sensibility, where tractors, by god, come miles from their fields of labor, and are transformed for one morning into the most beautiful and powerful kinetic sculptures that you have ever witnessed, recouping a bit of power from the trickery and fakery of our narcotic media, and where mythic figures remind us that our political struggle is here and now, rooted in these specific communities, but also timeless, rooted in a much deeper human struggle.