The Winter 2008 issue of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society has a fascinating article on the activist art of Women on Waves, "Twelve Miles: Boundaries of the New Art/Activism" by Carrie Lambert-Beatty. Noting that "while political art represents political subject matter, activist art does politics," Lambert-Beatty cites Lucy Lippard's distinction ["Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power" (1984)]:
Although "political" and "activist" artists are often same people, "political" art tends to be socially concerned and "activist" art tends to be socially involved.... The former's work is a commentary or analysis, while the latter's art works within its context, with its audiences."
Women on Waves carries a portable gynecological clinic operated by two physicians and a nurse from port to port on a ship they rent with a largely female crew, flying the Dutch flag. The clinic is funded largely by the Mondriaan Foundation (a Dutch arts foundation dedicated to the visual arts and design):
In port it offers legal and medical workshops, sex education, and contraception; on the way out to sea it gives sonograms and counseling; and in international waters it provides the abortion pill to women who want it. Its missions have been controversial enough to earn its doctors and volunteers not only bombardment with eggs and paint but also court cases and even death threats; it was radical enough in its challenge to national sovereignty to move the Portuguese government to launch warships to protect its populace from the feminist invasion. As a result, Women on Waves has spurred debate on aboriton law where such debates had not occurred for years. Its visits galvanized the local groups of activists that invited the abortion boat to each country, and more such pro-choice groups were formed in its wake. A Polish government survey in 2003 found that popular support for liberalizing abortion law had gone up 12 percent in a year and cited the Women on Waves visit that summer as a source of the change.
Lambert-Beatty compares Women on Waves to the Yes Men. The Yes Men, in case you've forgotten, are those devious, ingenious parodists who create strange and wonderful moments in the corporate business of the day. They declare, on their website:
The Yes Men agree their way into the fortified compounds of commerce, ask questions, and then smuggle out the stories of their hijinks to provide a public glimpse at the behind-the-scenes world of business. In other words, the Yes Men are team players... but they play for the opposing team.
In 2004 the BBC mistook one of them for a spokesperson for Dow Chemical and broadcast the "breaking news" that Dow had decided to own up to its responsibility for Union Carbide's poisoning of the population of Bhopal and offer compensation to the multitude of victims (whose lives have been wrecked by Union Carbide's criminal negligence). The Yes Men provided a more frivolous moment in 2006 at the Catastrophic Loss Conference when claiming to represent Halliburton, they unveiled the "SurvivaBall":
"The SurvivaBall is designed to protect the corporate manager no matter what Mother Nature throws his or her way," said Fred Wolf, a Halliburton representative who spoke today at the Catastrophic Loss conference held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Amelia Island, Florida. "This technology is the only rational response to abrupt climate change," he said to an attentive and appreciative audience.
Here's where I think Lambert-Beatty's article gets really interesting:
To me there is still no more moving statement of faith in the revolutionary force of imagination than the one on the streets of Paris during the uprisings of 1968: "Under the cobblestones, the beach." But "twelve miles from the beach, the Netherlands," Women on Waves might respond, for the project is driven by a similar determination to replace what is with what could be. Instead of the 1960s vision of liberation, however, it imagines something concrete: a world in which women have access to safe and legal abortion no matter where they live. And instead of symbolically promoting change, the project's method is to make it so: to use maritime law and the concept of international waters to actually create--however temporarily and provisionally--the dreamed-of situation. This, the performative quality of Women on Waves, was captured in 2001 by critic Jennifer Allen. The project "does not thematise, represent, or illustrate the problem of abortion," she wrote, "it imposes a new geo-political reality that challenges [the] status quo in ways that cannot be fathomed, let alone controlled."
It is at this point that she makes the comparison to the Yes Men. After which she argues:
From one perspective, the opposition between the legalistic, earnest Women on Waves and the mischievous, hoaxing Yes Men is as complete as that between the genders in their names: as clear as the difference between real and virtual,between what one group calls campaigns and the other hijinks. [...] And yet, while they do not have the power to make real the changes they announce, the Yes Men nevertheless have real effects--on Dow's stock price that day in 2004, for example. And for its part, Women on Waves lists toward the unhappy performative more than one might think. For the fact is that two of the group's three campaigns to provide legal abortions were thoroughly thwarted. [...] And yet this does not mean the project failed--far from it...Indeed, its brilliance is in recognizing the special power of doing both [i.e., media politics and medical service] at once: of using bodily care to do representational work.
Lambert-Beatty describes this as "the politics or aesthetics of plausibility":
By providing opportunities for belief--however fleeting, and no matter how stymied--such tactics of plausibility provide especially rich, emotional experiences of "what-if." The art of the plausible works to edge an imagined state of affairs from the merely possible to the brink, at least, of the probable.
Lambert-Beatty insists that "the category of activist art starts from [the] belief that the aesthetic is not a retreat from the real but is in and of it." "Those of us who believe in a political and activist art," she says, "want to eat our cake and have it too."
We do not accept that art is an apolitical space apart from worldly pressures, and yet we want it to be a zone of special freedom. This is either an embarrassing lapse or, as Jacques Ranciere would suggest, a structuring paradox for political art today. According to Ranciere, there is a constant tension in modernity "between the logic of art that becomes life at the price of abolishing itself as art, and the logic of art that does politics on the explicit condition of not doing it at all." But consider a corollary: the possibility that the category of activist art is not just defined against but actively requires its nonactivist counterpart--it needs borders around art so that it might sail through them; or, so that, as Ranciere puts it, "the border be always there yet already crossed."
Lambert-Beatty concludes her article by discussing the "political unconscious" of the Women on Waves project, which is characterized as some critics as having colonialist undertones or by others as being meolilberal. All in all, it's a fascinating piece. Check it out if you get the chance.