Wednesday, 20 June 2012

On Militant Art: Part 1 - Black Mask

Black Mask was a radical anarchist art collective operating in New York City in the 1960s. They cited the Futurists and Dada as their only artistic influence.
They gained notoriety for their self-titled broadsheet as well as their public actions and demonstrations. Their first act was to call for the closure of the Museum of Modern Art.  Thereafter they disrupted and sabotaged dozens of art lectures, exhibitions and happenings.  The art world fought back; a panel of experts on Futurism, Dada and Surrealism advertised, throughout the underground press, a ‘trap for Black Mask’ – in the form of a debate about the true revolutionary meaning of modern art.  Black Mask responded by printing thousands of plausible, well printed, invitations to a free party with free music, found, drink, at the same time, place and date at the ‘ambush’.  They distributed the invites to the homeless and “the hardest bastards they could find” in Harlem and the Lower Eastside shortly before the ‘ambush’ was scheduled. 

 (More Photographs from Black Mask's Wall St protest are available at 

Coming from a street and gang not middleclass art school, background the founding members were inspired by the science, elegance and violence of Futurism and stories such as Marinetti beating up Wyndham Lewis in a toilet before hanging him by his coat collar on some spiked railings.  Black Mask saw value in the looting, arson and tentative gunplay of the US Race Riots.  The French Situationists and Black Mask were the only whites who realised that the only Americans who had to do something were black Americans.  Black Mask quoted newspaper clippings from the Race Riots that could be from the London August Riots of 2011:
‘At times, amidst the scenes of riot and destruction that made parts of the city look like a battlefield, there was an almost carnival atmosphere’.
New York Times 16/7/67

‘Said Governor Hughes after a tour of the riot-blighted streets… “The thing that repelled me most was the holiday atmosphere… It’s like laughing at a funeral”.
Time 21/7/67
Another infamous stunt, The ‘mill-in’ at Macy’s involved organising large numbers of people to enter the store in small groups posing as regular shoppers or staff.  Their aim was to cause maximum disruption during the store’s peak business hours in the build up to Christmas.  Activists systematically moved stock around, stole items, broke items, gave items away and released animals, such as dogs and cats, into the food department.  Even a buzzard was seen terrorising staff in the China section.  Decoy activists identified themselves with flags and banners but made sure to stand alongside regular shoppers, who were subsequently roughed up and chucked out by security and floor staff.

Black Mask was together from 1967 to late 1968 before reforming as Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. As Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers (UATWM) they shot the poet Kenneth Koch (with blanks) and triggered militant demonstrations at police stations every time someone was arrested for possession of drugs while at the same time sending addicts and dealers on phantom searches all over town for deals that didn’t exist.  They infiltrated the most fashionable bars and cafes to spike the most expensive drinks and dishes with a variety of drugs.
They objected to the Museum of Modern Art putting on a show called “Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage’ (the heritage of Rauschenberg causing offence to the Mother Fuckers).  In response UATWMF organised 400 dropouts to storm the exhibition, on the night of the private view, screaming obscenities, hurling paint, flour and smoke bombs.  UATWM were loosely associated with the Situationist International, King Mob, and the Diggers. Their chief goal was the integration of art in to the political program of anarchist revolution. They petered out after many of their members were arrested and imprisoned for terms ranging from 10 days to 10 years.  Fleeing NYC UATWM spread across the states attempting to form their own individual, independent cells (much like Al-Qaeda).  

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