The oppressive atmosphere of police cracking down on political speech is potently conveyed the moment you walk in the exhibit:
It is dimly lit. A haunting, multi-layered audio track of police radio runs from the Ferguson Uprising, helicopters hovering low, and a rhythmic, deep thumping like a heartbeat fill every room. Wooden police barricades hang on almost every wall.
It immediately sent me back to the sleepless nights after the non-indictment of the cop who killed Eric Garner, when after hours of being followed by helicopters, doused with pepper spray, chased by cops, and blasted with sound cannons through the canyons of midtown Manhattan, those sensations pounded through all of my senses long after, keeping me awake as I lay in bed.
In a back corner of the gallery, a room is walled off with a heavy black curtain, behind which guests can hurl salvaged plates at the plywood walls.
The explosion you can create by smashing a plate is far louder and more satisfying than you would imagine.
The act of shattering is itself a release from the oppressive barrage of constant police audio and iconography in the exhibit.
But after emerging from behind the curtain, you begin to feel like the act of shattering the plate was not just a momentary release, but part of a process of reimagining the entire oppressive landscape, and the exhibit begins to feel redemptive.
Empowered by feeling that sense of relief from smashing plates in this atmosphere, you can begin to see beyond the historical meaning of the iconography – the literal and figurative restrictive nature of the police barricades – to the new possibilities being presented by the artist.
Barricades are historically oppressive and literally restrictive, but here they are not dividing. They are charred (by molotov cocktails), disassembled, reimagined, and placed on the wall.
They have been stripped of their original meaning. They can no longer function as they were intended. Now, they contribute to the freedom of expression and reimagining of our culture they once restricted.
The plates, too, are reimagined. And while they, as objects, lack the inherent repressive symbolism of the police barricades, they had to be smashed to realize this transformation of the overall atmosphere.
The way in which they are pieced back together reflects this. Even more than the barricades, they are popping off the wall, contributing to a feeling of genuine creation emerging from destruction. They have been transformed from something one dimensional and complacent into something three dimensional and dynamic, reminiscent of a flower springing forth from a seed.
Having walked through the exhibit, I felt like I had gone through a transformative process with the artist.
I could not escape the trauma of those sleepless nights after the Eric Garner non-indictment. The triggers in the room still flooded my senses with those sensations. But the experience of the exhibit helped me cope with them.
I have no doubt I will be forced to deal with those traumatic experiences again while protesting, but standing there, communing with those sights and sounds while seeing beyond them to what can be created from their pieces once they are shattered, helped me resolve the trauma and prepare me to deal with more of it in the future.
As gilf! says in “The Evolutionist Manifesto,” her written companion piece to this exhibit:
We must shatter, then reconfigure the system with which we struggle. These shards are to be considered the seeds for sowing a garden flush with unconventional thought and innovative action.