What does it mean when tons of people take to the streets dressed as the walking dead? With no political or artistic agenda, other than to shuffle around threatening to eat your brains? In this excerpt from the academic essay collection Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human — which was published right around the time Occupy Wall Street got started — Sarah Juliet Lauro argues that the zombie performances are connected to the Situationist movement.
And maybe, by their very disruption of public spaces, the zombies represent a challenge to the mechanisms of capitalist spectacle.
Top image: Peter Gorman/Flickr
Playing Dead: Zombies Invade Performance Art . . . and Your Neighborhood
by Sarah Juliet Lauro
No one ever gets caught, and no one ever gets eaten. — Jillian Mcdonald, on Zombie Loop
In the performance artist Jillian Mcdonald's video installation piece Zombie Loop, the viewer is positioned between two simultaneously running screens-one on which is projected the image of a lumbering, lunging zombie, and one on which we see the hapless victim, ceaselessly running, casting nervous glances over her shoulder. The two figures are clearly treading the same rural roadside, and they are plainly played by the same person. In fact, both are Mcdonald herself, wearing the same cotton frock in each video; aside from the transformative makeup and stiff gait of the zombie, the figures are identical. Much could be said about this doubling of the character of zombie and victim, for what it illustrates is the crux of the zombie's ability to terrify: its emphasis on the uncanny process of ‘‘depersonalization,'' whereby someone previously known to the spectator becomes something strange, foreign. As we will see, both Mcdonald's work and the phenomenon of live zombie performances directly emphasize the zombie's ‘‘odd familiarity,'' as the Toronto Zombie Walk's founder, Thea Munster, calls it, making the zombie a cultural signifier prime for exploitation in a manner not unlike the Situationist International's practices in the 1960s, which commandeered the quotidian ‘‘spectacle'' of capitalist society for the purpose of its undermining and critique. Yet, as we will see, appropriate to the zombie's perpetual trope of distorted reflection, these zombie walks defy and challenge the Situationist agenda even as they seem to resemble or resurrect it, rendering it similar and yet different.
One of the ways that Mcdonald's work investigates the zombie as an embodiment of the uncanny is by illustrating the moment of transformation, but in Zombie Loop we find something different: That moment is both present and absent.
Mcdonald explains that the viewer's location between two walls on which the images are projected puts him or her simultaneously in the position of both zombie and victim. One is not able to see the two screens at the same time, and must turn to look either at the fleeing damsel, and thus find him-or herself in the zombie's place as pursuer, or at the zombie, and at that moment step into the role of prey. Of course, there is a third term, and one senses him-or herself as the spectator ensconced in an ongoing drama.
Figure 1. The zombie of Mcdonald's Zombie Loop. (Photo by Aron Namenwirth, Zombie Loop. 2006, video installation at ArtMoving Projects, courtesy of the artist and ArtMoving Projects.)
Figure 2. The would-be victim of Zombie Loop. (Photo by Aron Namenwirth, Zombie Loop. 2006, video installation at ArtMoving Projects, courtesy of the artist and ArtMoving Projects.)
In its structure, then, Zombie Loop explores the role of the viewer. Mcdonald is known for her exploration of fandom as a social and cultural category, and her recent attention to the horror film is just the latest iteration of this theme in her oeuvre. But in this piece the spectator is pushed away as much as embraced. The climax of the piece, the anticipated attack and subsequent transformation of the victim into a zombie, is continually deferred. Because the projected images are run on a continuous loop, ‘‘no one ever gets attacked, and no one ever gets eaten.'' As such, the viewer may experience the work as a suspension of action. But because the zombie is plainly the same woman as the victim, there is also the sense that the spectator has been deprived of the pivotal moment of metamorphosis. And thus the piece is a Mo¨bius-like ‘‘loop'' not just in technical definition, but also as a description of the effect it has on the viewer, who may feel an alternation between relief and frustration, as well as a push and pull between his or her ambivalent positioning in the (non)event.
What this piece questions is what kind of catharsis the zombie fan seeks. As such, Zombie Loop provides a perfect introduction to the zombie found increasingly in performance art in galleries and in public places. Yet there is another reason that I lead into my discussion with this artwork: this chapter is a dialectical endeavor that presents a parallax perspective of the performed zombie. As in Mcdonald's piece, the two very different zombies that I am describing here (that which calls itself art, and that which does not) do not cross paths in a hierarchically structured narrative. That is, I am not going to assign either a place of privilege, but the hope is that the reader, positioned between the two, will be able to see the cross-contamination of these figures, at one and the same time very different and the same: strange, and yet familiar. To Jillian Mcdonald's various zombies- including photographic, filmed, and live performances-I juxtapose the work of Thea Faulds, aka Thea Munster, who has been credited with sparking a phenomenon that is now global: the organization of events in which large groups of people convene in a public place and communally perform as a zombie horde.
Thea Munster organized the first Toronto Zombie Walk in October 2003, and since then we have seen a cultural trend that appears viral-like in its operations and transmission, an aspect that is fitting of the zombie's most recent metaphoric instantiation: in film, the zombie has been read increasingly as an allegory for contemporary fears of disease. In San Francisco zombie ‘‘flash mob'' performances, participants come dressed either as zombies or plainly, as victims. The victims wear a small strip of duct tape on their backs to signal to zombies that they are willing targets. Zombies will attack these bystanders and transform them with makeup; thereafter, they join the marauding horde. Implicit in these gatherings is the presence of nonparticipating bystanders, who may be unaware of this signal system and perceive themselves to be potential victims as well. Thus these gatherings uphold the cinematic convention of the zombie as infectious and maintain the illusion that all spectators are equally vulnerable.
Mcdonald notes that part of her objective in putting zombies into art is to emphasize the ‘‘manufacturing of fear as entertainment that the horror film genre accomplishes.'' Indeed, the zombie has become a cash cow for the entertainment industry, but what does it mean that the zombie has now seemed to transgress this last border, and, through a strange process of narrative collaboration, stepped into the real world? Is a fictional entity now colonizing our real cities? And what do we make of it that this performed zombie's cultural capital aspires to be entirely divorced from commercialism? Is this zombie evolution or zombie revolution?
I read the occurrence of these zombie gatherings as the latest incarnation of the zombie narrative's evolution and an interesting display of communal narrative making. These performances continue to emphasize the zombie as uncanny by inserting this mythic figure into the quotidian and dramatizing its colonization of public space in the real world. Further, the participant's willful rewriting of the everyday may intend to obstruct the functionalism of the modern city and its facilitation of the capitalist grind. The zombie DIYers who participate in such events emphasize this aspect by dressing in clothing that makes them immediately recognizable as someone who was formerly a harmless cog in the system. There are certain cliche´s to look for when attending a zombie event: the woman with her hair in curlers, the cheerleader, a plethora of brides (insert your own feminist critique), and various career types, such as the zombie businessperson, zombie nurse, zombie traffic cop, and zombie soldier.
However we read this phenomenon today, zombies first started walking the city streets as advertisements. The New York premiere of the 1930 film White Zombie orchestrated the publicity stunt of having people dress like zombies to advertise opening night. This is still a popular tactic today: I saw zombies recently on street corners in London to advertise a tour called ‘‘The London Bridge Experience, featuring the Tombs,'' in Toronto, to advertise the annual zombie walk, in Times Square to hype the AMC zombie series The Walking Dead. The odd zombie out of this group is the last one, Thea Munster, who on the day I met her was passing out flyers advertising the sixth annual Toronto Zombie Walk: unlike those hawking the series, the film, and the tour, the walk costs nothing and does not accept donations. It is affiliated with no charity, corporation, or organization, and insists on its own purposelessness. People get together, dress up like zombies, and walk through town. That's it. Or is it?
Throughout this volume we have been tracing the zombie's evolution, and this is one of its most critical transformations of the past few years: the zombie has seemed to leap off the page (or the screen) and shuffle into the city, becoming an extratextual monster communally constituted. Is this a new development for the zombie, or just a turn befitting a figure that hails from Haitian folklore, and which has its roots in communally made narratives? Perhaps this figure, which many in Haiti still believe exists, was never really confined to fiction. My inquiry in this chapter will investigate whether these events are truly purposeless, or if there is a hidden agenda (or even an unintended outcome) that emerges as a result of the zombie's separation of itself from commercial entertainment. Since most zombie gatherings are clearly unmotivated by profit, what propels these zombies forward? Is this art, anarchy, or something else?
I want to make it clear from the outset that I am not trying to represent the whole of the walking zombie movement. I have corresponded with many organizers of zombie events, including some who might even contest that they were the true founders of the movement. But this chapter takes Thea Munster, whose pseudonym dubs her both goddess and monster, as my designated representative of this larger phenomenon. By no means, either, do I want to claim that Jillian Mcdonald is the only artist inviting the zombie into the art gallery. These two women represent, for me, the extremes of the movement, and they delimit the boundaries of a cultural phenomenon with a wide gray area. Between these poles we find many other zombies worthy of serious critical investigation, but I am interested here in what comes out of the stark juxtaposition of their very differently framed zombies-namely, a larger conversation about the origins, agenda, and function of performance and performance art.
I think it's performance art. Stranger on the New York subway, on Mcdonald's Horror Makeup
Better known for her work in which she splices her own image into movies so that she can be seen interacting (and even making out) with the stars of the silver screen, Jillian Mcdonald made her first artistic foray into the world of zombies by producing lenticular images that, depending on the viewer's position to the photograph, showed the transformation of a human figure into a grotesque zombie. The central narrative of these images is the zombie transformation. Posed against an ultraviolet sky, we see a smiling figure gradually become a zombie in both physical appearance and gesture. Here, too, we see the artist's play with the role of the spectator: most of the zombies are looking at the camera, and many of their exaggerated grimaces acknowledge that camp is a central feature of the zombie genre. Putting the process of transformation on display defers some of the shock associated with the zombie-the encounter of the familiar within the strange-but Mcdonald's next zombie performance directly presented the unwitting spectator with the uncanny experience of witnessing that transformation.
In the work that would draw some major attention to Mcdonald's zombies, the artist performed zombie evolution in the public arena. In Horror Makeup, a woman gets on a subway with her makeup kit. Over the course of her ride, she transforms herself not into a professional woman ready for work-an everyday occurrence often witnessed during a morning commute-but into a hideous, decaying zombie. This film was displayed in Brooklyn, from September 8 to October 15, 2006, and the exhibition notes explain some of the issues that are piqued by this hair-raising display: ‘‘This work takes cues from the legion of women who perform beauty rituals on the subway in a curious private zone where they are unaware of anything outside their activity, and the rising cult of zombies in popular culture, where zombie gatherings and zombie lore flourish. Locating the audience physically in the subway performance space positions them as both voyeurs and potential victims.'' The piece self-consciously draws on one of the most fascinating features of the zombie myth, the interruption and confusion of private and public space.
As the artist suggests, this conflation is very much a feature of the recent phenomenon of zombie gatherings, but it also speaks to that definitive element of the zombie, which some critics have claimed is the basis for all art-the boundary transgression between strange and familiar. Mcdonald's was a zombie performance aside from the fact that it performed a woman's transformation into a zombie, because it presented the viewer, particularly the first-generation audience of unwitting subway spectators, with an unfamiliar element in a familiar setting. Of course, though the performance began with the non-zombie Mcdonald, the flow of spectators was uncontrolled, and people became involved at various points in her evolution, depending on when they entered the subway car. Because the overall narrative depicts the transformation of a stranger on a train into a zombie, the sense of the strange interrupting the everyday must come more from the unexpectedness of the encounter rather than from the confrontation of change in a person one knows. This is the form that the defamiliarizing of the zombie takes in performances like the zombie walk or the zombie flash mob, where a ‘‘mob'' by definition is a depersonalizing force.
Mcdonald's Horror Makeup performance was chronicled by a hidden camera and by a journalist for the New York Times, who wrote, ‘‘Only when she slipped in a pair of green teeth and began daubing her face with fake blood did people start to stare, exchange meaningful glances and roll their eyes. When the train reached Morgan Avenue in Bushwick, the woman stood, grimaced delicately and staggered to the doorway. As the man with the messenger bag hurried out behind her, one of the noisy women hissed, ‘I think it's performance art.' ''17 Mcdonald seems reticent to embrace this definition of her work. In a statement on her website, she writes, ‘‘My work in video, web art, and public intervention is often performative and
relational,'' and she lists the many planned interactions with strangers that she has conducted over the years as ‘‘public works'' rather than ‘‘performance art''-presumably because there is more about these interactions that is real and spontaneous than staged or performed.
Mcdonald's work could be said to be about questioning community among spectators in a way that might be directly in line with Marxist critiques of spectacle, and it deserves much more critical attention than I can give it here. She recognized that there is a community of celebrity fans who relate to their mutual obsession with a particular film star; this is acknowledged in her pieces like Me and Billy Bob or Screen Kiss, in which she digitally inserts herself into scenes alongside Hollywood's leading men. There is a very definite experience of catharsis in her work. Just by seeing the artist intrude into Hollywood's closed frame, the viewer experiences a kind of satisfaction by proxy-as if it were us, instead of her, whom we were watching kiss Johnny Depp. By identifying with the artist as someone like ‘‘us,'' on the outside, the viewer experiences communion with the artist and becomes aware that what we are offered by the technologically enhanced medium is a transgression of cinematic boundaries.
Mcdonald's urge to create a cathartic experience in her work is equally visible in her play with the horror film, and it often reads as feminist revision. In The Screaming, she encounters famous movie monsters and screams in place of the hapless heroine-she grafts herself into classics like Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, and Ridley Scott's Alien-but here we find a different outcome than in the original texts: her screams have power, and she defeats her foes with those ear-piercing shrieks. Her own discomfort with the horror genre may be the impetus behind these reworkings, for she also provides a different outcome in her less visibly gendered zombie pieces, where violence is permanently deferred: No one ever gets caught, and no one ever gets eaten.
Most recently, she has filmed a work titled Field of the Dead and Undead, in which figures dressed from different time periods move through the same visual field, perform a death scene, and then rise as zombies. But here again, there is no interaction between the zombies, and other than the solo death sequences, no violence-definitely no blood, and no confrontation between figures on-screen.
Mcdonald's interest in and development of the zombie theme in her work has turned up the volume on her dialogue with the audience, a quality for which her work has been lauded. One of Mcdonald's latest projects pushed the limits of the boundary between artist and spectator. Zombies in Condoland was a live performance held at the 2008 Nuit Blanche art festival in Toronto. Nuit Blanche is an annual event in which contemporary artists set up installations and display their work throughout the city of Toronto, and the exhibitions last from sundown to sunup. The pamphlet describes the event thus: ‘‘For one sleepless night the streets will be bustling with activity as thousands experience a full night of contemporary art and performance in three zones across the city. Discover art in galleries, museums and unexpected places. From bridges and tunnels to warehouses and stadiums, choose from 155 destinations and chart your own path.''21 Toronto is one of many cities to host a Nuit Blanche like the one held each year in Paris, and the very nature of the event brings to mind the Situationist International's dream of transforming the experience of the city through interaction with art in unexpected places.
One might question my choice to read these movements in light of the Situationists' disruptions, rather than looking at them as a kind of site-specific art, which is emphasized by both the architecture of Jillian Mcdonald's piece and its inclusion in the Nuit Blanche festival. But one reason to do so is that the collectivity of these zombie gatherings has a much more equalizing effect even than something like the art movement's collective community projects, which, as Miwon Kwon points out in One Place after Another, have been read as advancing reformist agendas that necessarily separate the artist or author of the work from the local community of participants. It is Kwon's intention to apply Jean-Luc Nancy's model of ‘‘un-working community'' and Iris Marion Young's writing on ‘‘a politics of difference'' to suggest a more effective way of conceptualizing the community.
Claiming that community ‘‘may be seen as a phantom, an elusive discursive formation that, as Nancy puts it, is not a ‘common being' but a non-essential ‘being-in-common,' '' Kwon's intention is to reveal how we must shift from community-based art to collective artistic praxis. But there is an interesting parallel to be drawn between this commentary on the need for a sense of community in art, and the zombie mob phenomenon with which this chapter is concerned. Invoking Young's appeal for ‘‘a politics of difference'' that would allow for a definition of community that embraces rather than shuns difference, Kwon frames the argument as a utopian fantasy that is nonetheless useful for exposing the flaws of our real-life community-based artworks: ‘‘The ideal of community, in [Young's] view, is predicated on an ideal of shared or fused subjectivities in which each subject's unified coherence is presumed to be not only transparent to him/herself but identically transparent to others.'' We can see this through the lens of Nancy's reconceptualization of community as a ‘‘specter'' and a ‘‘phantom,'' so why not a zombie? Nancy writes, ‘‘there is no communion, there is no common being, but there is being in common . . . [and] the question should be the community of being and not the being of the community.'' One can see how well these zombie gatherings epitomize (and even literalize) fantasies of the unattainable community. The zombie swarm emphasizes the difference of its various participants (zombie mail carrier, zombie jock) at the same time that it equalizes all of them. The zombies are immediately legible as belonging to one community, despite differences in gender, age, race, or tax bracket. The zombie is a state of ‘‘common being,'' and the participants suggest the swarm identity (like the angry mob or the killer bee) of one new kind of being that comprises the composite parts of its individual bodies. What the community-based activity of zombie gatherings illustrates is that the fantasy of community is alive and well, shared by people all over the world, and yet it remains consigned to the status of fantasy. As Kwon makes clear, pure community is inaccessible to the kind of site-specific art projects that continually cast the facilitator as auteur; in Jillian Mcdonald's self-conscious play with this dichotomy between authored art and communally made project, the problem is highlighted, though not resolved.
I was fortunate to be able to attend Jillian Mcdonald's Zombies in Condo-land, a live performance in which the artist invited the audience to participate by becoming zombies. Makeup and wardrobe were provided for those who wanted to transform themselves into the living dead. The guide to the festivities advertised Mcdonald's event thus:
Zombies in Condoland is a series of night actions that mimic a film screening set for a low budget horror film such as the type made famous by George Romero whose latest film, [Diary of the Dead], was filmed in Toronto. Anyone can participate and be a zombie. People are encouraged to come in character-nurse zombie, business person zombie, geek zombie, sports zombie-and are also encouraged to do their makeup en route, in cafes, bars, and mass transit. There will also be make-up tents and zombie clothing available on site.
Playing the part of the director, Mcdonald wore a cream-colored corduroy suit and gave direction to the actors, whom she affectionately called ‘‘my zombies,'' through a megaphone. Interestingly, her own makeup depicted her as a zombie with a bullet-hole in her forehead, which (as every good zombie film fan knows) is the most surefire way to de-animate the undead. Perhaps this signified that the director had been freed from her zombie state, and thus Mcdonald was positioned outside the throng, able to steer the zombie horde. Mcdonald had several ‘‘scenes'' scripted: zombies rising from the ground, zombies lumbering, zombies attacking a building, and so forth. As there was a wide range of participants, there was also a great diversity to the type of zombies portrayed. Some growled and lunged after the large crowd of spectators that gathered to witness the event, some drooled and wheezed, ‘‘Brains!,'' circa 1985's The Return of the Living Dead, some adopted the somnambulistic style, arms outstretched-but even though it has become the latest trend in zombie cinema, I personally didn't see any fast zombies among the crowd. In this way, Mcdonald gave over creative control to an audience of nonperformers, invited them to make themselves strange, to perform; thus she played her role as director, but simultaneously, she was as much of a neutral witness as the camera lens. As such, it was an event that pushed at the boundary between art and experience, and for this reason it called into question the nature of performative art and its historical intersections with a revolutionary agenda. For many citizens of Toronto, however, Zombies in Condo-land may just have been a dress rehearsal for the zombie walk slated to take place only a few weeks later.
Toronto, of course, is no stranger to zombies: as the Nuit Blanche program notes, many zombie films have been shot in the area, and Thea Munster's annual zombie walk, the first of its kind, has been a staple since 2003. Mcdonald coordinated with Munster to try to bring out her base, and she had an open call for participants on her website for months in the hopes of drawing out Toronto zombie regulars. Mcdonald has acknowledged how much her interest in zombies was and continues to be informed by the zombie mobs and zombie walks that people have organized in cities across the world. This overlap between Mcdonald's accepted brand of performance art and these other zombie events resurrects questions about the definition of art, and the boundary lines established between performance and protest, with which the Situationist International struggled in the 1950s and 1960s. True to the ultimately unsatisfying, irresolvable duality of the zombie-which is immortal, but also dead and decaying; which is clearly a metaphor for slavery, but is also historically tied to the only successful slave rebellion in history-the zombie mob phenomenon seems to resurrect some of the techniques of the Situationists, if only to defer the prospect of actual revolution. In a frustrating ‘‘de´ tournement'' of the Situationist apparatus itself, consumerist spectacle, in the form of the Hollywood zombie, becomes the unifying force that takes over the urban landscape, yet it may only demonstrate our own mute impotence against the capitalist machine.
We never called what we were doing ‘‘art,'' but big movements usually don't — Thea Munster, on Toronto Zombie Walk
In The Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967, Guy Debord describes the detriment of capitalist culture to society; ‘‘spectacle'' is defined as ‘‘capital accumulated to such a degree that it becomes an image.'' Debord writes of the epistemic turmoil of the artist amid this social climate: ‘‘Art in the period of its dissolution, as a movement of negation in pursuit of its own transcendence in a historical society where history is not yet directly lived, is at once an art of change and a pure expression of the impossibility of change. This is an art that is necessarily avant-garde; and it is an art that is not. Its vanguard is its own disappearance.''31 As we will see in the following section, the Situationists' conundrum is very zombie-like in its dialectical struggle with antinomies: It is both absent and present, (not) occurring in a time that both is and has not yet begun; it is an art that is not an art. Currently, we are experiencing a strange confluence of zombie events and zombies in the arts that not only calls to mind the rhetoric of Situationists like Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, but may also signal the second coming of a movement that never truly arrived.
Thea Munster has been running the Toronto Zombie Walk since 2003, and she has seen her ingenuity give rise to a host of imitations. I met up with the self-proclaimed founder of the zombie walk phenomenon in a little coffee shop in Toronto. She was easy enough to identify: at a corner table in the back sat three young zombies, two men in mostly white face paint with some black circles hollowing their eyes, and with them a young woman (who with her slight frame and dyed orange hair appears much younger than her thirty-odd years), wearing a white eyelet blouse splattered with blood underneath her zipped-up hoodie. Her makeup betrayed the six years of experience that she has at playing dead: some sort of putty was used under her makeup to give the effect of open wounds; there were marks on her neck that looked like bloody fingerprints; purple bruises played on her cheeks, just as, in the later stages of rigor mortis, coagulated blood will puddle underneath the skin. This is someone who knows her zombies.
On the day I interviewed Thea she was dressed the part to advertise her upcoming zombie walk, and she would also be making an appearance at Mcdonald's event later in the evening. Despite multiple overtures from Mcdonald to collaborate for Nuit Blanche, and an acknowledgement of Munster's zombie walks in the Nuit Blanche pamphlet, the physical and temporal proximity of Mcdonald's installation to Munster's own scheduled event seemed too close for comfort. In fact, Munster was rather upfront about feeling disrespected by the festival and its coordinators. This candor about her bruised ego seemed somewhat incongruous in a woman who spends so much of her time playing a being without consciousness or a sense of self. Still, there are many immediately noticeable differences between the style and approach of the zombie works of Thea Munster and Jillian Mcdonald. Unlike Mcdonald, whose interest in the zombie came out of disbelief that anyone would want to watch this type of film, Munster has had a lifelong love affair with the horror genre. Further, whereas Mcdonald's work is widely recognized as participating in a genre of contemporary art, Munster's events are harder to define. She is vague on the details of her education, saying instead that she situates her background as ‘‘punk rock/death rock.'' The impulse that led her to organize the first zombie walk in Toronto, in October 2003, came out of an anarchic impulse to disrupt, to ‘‘shake things up.'' ‘‘I was always saying to my friends, let's dress up like zombies . . . so I started putting flyers up to see who else would come, and only six people came to the first one.''
Thea's annual zombie walk has grown in size with each passing year, and on the day of our interview, she was expecting 2,200 zombies at her upcoming event. She seems to have all the facts at hand. She can tell you exactly how many people attended each event, and how much she has raised in funds, which she and her ‘‘zombies'' (read: volunteer assistants) call ‘‘fiend-raisers.'' They sell T-shirts to raise only enough to pay for insurance for the event and the cost of the flyers that she passes out in the weeks leading up to the walk.
Although at least initially pure disruption was the goal, defining her motivations and the ramifications of the event is becoming more complicated for this unwitting founder of a movement. Much like the history of punk rock, there is palpable tension surrounding the issue of other zombie organizers not giving credit where credit is due, and the acceptance of corporate sponsors by other zombie walks, something that Munster denigrates. She is particularly vexed by the fact that the City of Toronto, which has never before been a help to her as she tried to facilitate the walk, is now sponsoring Mcdonald's event. ‘‘Why?!,'' she demanded rhetorically, handing out flyers in full zombie drag. ‘‘ 'Cause it's labeled ‘art'? Sponsored by Scotiabank and the City of Toronto? This is art, in the streets!''
In many ways, this seems a fair question, and one with which artists and critics have struggled since the beginning of the twentieth century. What is the difference between an event like Jillian Mcdonald's and that organized by Munster, except for the acceptance of the art community and the embrace of the definition of the performance as ‘‘art''? While Mcdonald's installation is not high-tech per say, she does have the assistance of makeup artists; she has lights and several cameras, a megaphone, and tracking shots, and yet the event is close in tone to, and admittedly inspired by, the playfulness of a DIY zombie event like those Munster coordinates. Nonetheless, there are elements of Mcdonald's spectacle that, for me, distinguish hers and Munster's zombies as accomplishing two very different agendas.
The flyer that Thea is passing out on the day of our interview reads, ‘‘The 6th annual Toronto Zombie Walk 2008. Sunday October 19, Shuffling Starts at 3 pm. Starting Point: Trinity Bellwoods Park, Destination: Bloor Cinema.'' Munster coordinates ‘‘walks'' only in that there is a starting and an end point. There are participants, and undoubtedly observers; thus such an event directs and deflects the normative gaze. There is doubtlessly both an individual and a collective experience fostered-and true to the zombie narrative, these categories are sure to bleed one into the other. Individual participants each bring new narratives to the walk with their choice of costume and gestures, and they continue this narrativizing as they interact with others. The artistry of the individuals' makeup, as well as their performance, qualifies this as collectively produced street art. One has only to peruse the photos of the Toronto Zombie Walks and you will see the lengths to which people go to make their zombies every bit as convincing as Hollywood's: One man has a fake eyeball dangling from a hollow socket; another carries his own detached and bleeding arm; another portrays a bizarre tennis instructor fatality with multiple balls lodged in his chest.
In comparison, Mcdonald's play with spectacle betrays much more nuance just by virtue of the interface of the cameras and the illusion of the film shoot, which allows her to ‘‘play'' director without becoming the author of the spectacle. On the level of audience, the most removed is the second-generation viewer, who may see the film or the stills that come out of this night's performance at a later date and in a different venue. At the performance on October 4, 2008, there were many different kinds of participants and the roles were constantly in flux. Mcdonald was both conductor and observer; her zombies were both artists themselves and-at the same time-volunteers in someone else's project. The non-zombie witnesses both were and were not participants. Even while dressed as a zombie, I felt there to be many different levels to the performance and the experience of it: at times I perceived myself to be a non-active participant, observing the other zombies in between ‘‘takes,'' or when I would momentarily slip out of character. I felt there to be the experience of performing zombie, when I was self-consciously trying to act like a zombie, thinking about how a zombie would walk, lean, moan; I felt myself to be myself when I caught my analytical eye at work. And yet there was a third state of being that I experienced, what I would say was the most authentic zombie, when I would sort of lose my own consciousness and just be a part of the lumbering mob. I really tried to expand into the collective, sensing myself propelled forward by the motion of the crowd more than by my own will, and, odd as it sounds, I do think I achieved, albeit temporarily, a kind of walking meditation, a zombie Zen.
Of course, from Elias Canetti's description of the depersonalizing effects of the crowd, we might argue that all mobs are zombies: individual consciousness abates, and the one collective drive (in ‘‘baiting crowds'' it is thirst for blood; at Mecca or in a revival tent, it is desire for communion or transcendence) overtakes the participants, inducting them into a kind of swarm experience. Do these types of coordinated zombie events afford the kind of revolutionary shift in consciousness that earlier avant-gardes hoped would come out of collective or Situationist art?
Certainly not, for Munster's events have the shape and form of insurrection, but, like a zombie, are just contour, devoid of sense. Is the zombie event therefore a hollow spectacle, or is its emphasis on spectacle revelatory of the nature of collective awakening? Is there room, within the performance of the brainless horde, for political commentary? Pardon the paradoxes here, but if Guy Debord were a zombie, what would he think? Has Thea Munster started a zombie revolution or just reduced revolution to dramatic spectacle?
We must try to construct situations, that is to say, collective ambiances, ensembles of impressions determining the quality of a moment. — Guy Debord, ‘‘Report on the Construction of Situations and On the International Situationist Tendency's Conditions of Organization and Action''
The group that called themselves Situationist International was led by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn. They were affiliated with the earlier Lettrists, and like them, the Situationists yearned for the kind of disruption
they associated with the century's earlier movements like Surrealism (minus the emphasis on individual consciousness) and Dada (minus the nihilism and with more of a Marxist influence). Simon Sadler's The Situationist City depicts the Situationist movement of the 1960s as coming out of a fundamental distrust of the way that capitalism and institutions like the government and the Church had organized modern cities. Functionalism, like that seen in Haussmann's Paris, was considered particularly objectionable, and they advocated for the disruption of the normative flow of traffic and the making of new narratives within the cityscape. The Situationists called for the ‘‘de´tournement,'' or diversion, of everyday elements of the city. But most important here, the SI called for the coordination of and collaboration on situations that would take place in public, thereby challenging notions of what constituted art by moving it from the gallery to the street. Inspired by theories of dialectical materialism, the central tenets of the movement also questioned the boundaries separating art and revolution, and above all, had the aim of illustrating that the ideology of modern functionalism and capitalist spectacle were covert mechanisms for control of the populace.
As such, the SI, a movement that was ill defined even in its own time, would likely applaud Jillian Mcdonald's artistic hijacking of the subway car, and perhaps even her Zombies in Condoland for its insertion into the public space of a collaborative performance that calls spectacle into question. But to an even greater extent, the agenda of diversion espoused by SI is not so dissimilar from the punk-rock credo of disruption of the mainstream that inspires Munster. But over and above these points of comparison, there is also something inherently zombie-like about Situationist discourse and its key texts that lead me to draw the comparison.
In 1959, Asger Jorn would describe his ‘‘Modifications,'' in which he painted over the paintings of others, in a way that suggests the living dead: ‘‘Painting is over. You might as well finish it off. Detourn. Long live painting.'' This description of artistic resurrection has been explicated by Hal Foster as exhibiting the afterlife of the carcass more than the zombie potential of the transcendent signifier: ‘‘Like the old king, Jorn suggests, painting may be dead; but like the new king it may live on-not as an idealist category that never dies but as a materialist corpse that rots subversively.'' Herein we see the revolutionary reframing of the Situationists' practices (repossess, redirect, reuse) in light of its commonality with the walking dead. What is the zombie, after all, if not a dead thing put to new, and infinitely stranger, uses?
The paradox of modern life illuminated by SI also recalls the zombie's contradictory nature. In The Situationist City, Simon Sadler quotes Debord's 1961 film Critique de la se´paration: ‘‘Until the environment is collectively dominated, there will be no individuals-only specters haunting the things anarchically presented to them by others. In chance situations we meet separated people moving randomly. Their divergent emotions neutralize each other and maintain their solid environment of boredom.'' Until the formation of a collective identity (one that is not the false unity presented by the capitalist spectacle), freethinking individuality will not be available to the masses. Elsewhere, particularly in Debord's important text The Society of the Spectacle, everyday life is further characterized as a kind of zombification from which we should strive for liberation: ‘‘When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings-dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behaviour.''
I recognize some of the difficulties posed by my assertion that we should read Munster's zombie walks as the kind of collective ambiances that the SI was describing in the 1960s. I take these inconstancies not as problematic, but rather as suggestive of the usefully irresolvable dialectic of the zombie's ambivalent position-opposing life and death, subject and object, human and nonhuman, individual and collective. For Jorn, even time was out of joint: ‘‘Our past is becoming, one needs only to crack open the shells.''45 We might claim then, that at its core the Situationists were as dialectical (and perhaps at times as paradoxical) as the zombie. We should always remember that the zombie's simultaneity as living and dead makes it a figure that defies temporal law: the zombie exists always outside of time.
One of the Situationists' practices was itself a kind of de´tournement of an earlier artistic practice: le de´rive, or ‘‘drift,'' having its predecessor in the flaneur's idle and purposeless wandering through the city, was considered by Ivan Chtcheglov (author of Formulary for a New Urbanism, a text that was a major inspiration to Guy Debord) to be a therapeutic technique. Taking up what was formerly associated with the leisure culture of the bourgeois class, the Situationists' de´rive involved ‘‘radical rereadings of the city-what Michel de Certeau was to call ‘a pedestrian street act.' '' Drift rests somewhere between the personal and the collective, the private and the public, and it resembles the sort of dialectical discovery the SI posited would come from opposing terms like revolution/art, performance/life, individual/group.
That we could call Thea Munster's zombie walk a ‘‘pedestrian street act'' cannot be doubted. In this elucidation of some Situationist tenets, we see how inserting zombies into the space of the city (with or without the embrace of a definition of it as an art performance) is inherently a kind of de´tournement of the Hollywood spectacle that facilitates a new experience through the unpaid, non-commodified, novice performer's ‘‘drift.'' Yet can we call this practice revolutionary? Here it gets more complicated. One might argue that, ultimately, what the zombie walk de´tourns is, in fact, the Situationist practice, and that by means of remapping the city in a collectively made narrative predicated on the false unity of consumerist culture, it actually undermines the potential weapon of mass assembly (and all of Debord's careful theorizing) even as it satirizes the society of the spectacle.
The Situationist embrace of paradox had a limit. Beyond the obvious push and pull of the Situationists' seemingly contradictory concepts, like the dictum that we must ‘‘work to make ourselves useless,'' there was the grander notion that the goal was ‘‘to take theatre beyond entertainment and into revolution.'' The SI was aiming for a ‘‘revolutionary transformation of consciousness,'' and other movements that lacked this as the agenda, like the contemporaneous New York avant-garde's ‘‘happenings'' were dismissed as glib or shallow.
What attracts me to draw a comparison between these zombie events and the Situationists-rather than movements like Fluxus or Allan Kaprow's happenings, which likewise emphasize communal involvement and the use of public space-is precisely the zombie-like quality of the Situationist use of notions like ‘‘de´rive'' and ‘‘de´tournement,'' which give new life to existing monuments or works. Guy Debord wrote, ‘‘We can use, with some light touching up, certain zones that already exist. We can use people who have already existed.'' The aesthetic of recycling the components of the city (and perhaps even the dead), which have formerly been used by capitalist spectacle culture to inculcate ideology, suggests a kind of zombification, a wiping clean of these signifiers in order to reveal a latent potential within the community.
For this would seem to be the only definite message that one might take from the zombie walk movement: that other movements might yet be possible. Ironically, and even appropriate to Asger Jorn's comment that ‘‘our past is becoming,'' social protests and disruptions hereafter will look to the model of these walking dead, making use of the techniques honed by zombie walk organizers, but instead using Facebook, Twitter, and texting.
All the major movements in performance art have their roots in the pure disruptive principles of the earlier Futurist and Dada movements, yet I prefer the vocabulary of the Situationists even to their close contemporaries, the kineticists, whose GRAV movement in Paris staged simultaneous disruptive events in Paris on April 19, 1966, such as the distribution of balloons and pins with which to pop them on the Boulevard Saint-Germain and whistles for art-house moviegoers in the Latin Quarter. In the case of the New York happenings, audience participation would grow in importance as the movement developed, became more complex, and began be held outdoors rather than in galleries, which is admittedly akin to these zombie events. But Debord criticized the movement for not being political enough, deeming it insufficient because ‘‘revolutionary transformation of consciousness among its participants was neither its prerequisite nor its result.'' On the flip side, George Maciunas's goal for the Fluxus movement was nothing less than advancing the ‘‘socialist aspirations for the group as a viable economic and politically engaged collective.''55 But because Fluxus emphasized that everyday actions should be considered art, they tended to produce performances of the banal, such as Alison Knowles's Make a Salad (in which the performance consisted of the artist making a salad). One has difficulty hearing the call to arms emanate from within the safe domesticity of the housewife's kitchen: elevating the everyday to the status of art may actually seem to justify the banalization that is the reverse of spectacle.
Just by virtue of the fact that these zombie gatherings mobilize thousands of people in their city streets (never mind the fact that many of them hold potential weapons, like golf clubs and tire irons, and are covered in fake blood) is more suggestive of the possibility of revolution than many of the now-classic performances of the 1960s and 1970s that were truly iconoclastic in the world of art. Of course, a revolutionary transformation of consciousness akin to that advanced by Debord is not the goal for either Jillian Mcdonald or Thea Munster, but it may be an unforeseen result. Many participants who play dead feel the experience reveals something about the material conditions of our society: namely, that the commercialized spectacle that normally surrounds us has an anesthetizing effect. (Debord might say, How do you do an impression of a zombie? Just imagine yourself watching TV.) Thereby the Zombie Walk phenomenon ironically fulfills Debord's dictum that there will be no individuals until the collective is formed: but that which is subjected to de´tournement is not just the modern city, but also the figure ensconced in the commercial spectacle; belonging to the B movie, the zombie wrested from Hollywood and taken to the streets is thus made to stand for the liberation of consciousness, rather than its diversion.
But once again, the zombie metaphor returns us to us, this, its frustrating dialectic: In playing zombie, one becomes aware of the subject/object duality of our everyday existence, that which specifically inhibits the success of revolution. For Debord, when we confront the spectacle we sense ourselves as the object in a large matrix of Capital. But in general, the zombie is a reminder of the inherent duality of the human condition: as thinking subjects, and as future corpses. In playing zombie, we make visible the thingness of our body as that recalcitrant object from which we do not hurry to separate, and which real revolution endangers. In zombie makeup, we see our own distorted reflection: we perceive that as mortals, we are already split between object and subject. Simultaneously, the zombie mob's ultimate failure to live up to this comparison to the SI is analogous to the figure's larger insufficiency as a symbol for revolution. A figuration of both the slave and slave rebellion, the zombie always connotes the annihilation of revolution at the same time that it embodies revolutionary drive; likewise, these zombie mobs are antirevolutionary even as they illustrate the concept's latent potential. In playing dead, in trying to become blank, one becomes aware that some kind of subjectivity is nonetheless alive and well within us, be it the higher consciousness of the swarm identity, or the realization that we are seeing the surface of spectacle exposed as a screen onto which false consciousness is projected. This kind of frustrating paradox seems endemic to the living dead trope of the zombie, and perhaps it is only natural that such complexity arises when playing dead. Put simply, we become zombies to discover what we are as much as what we are not.
Conclusion: La revolution est morte. Vive la revolution!
Interest in Situationist practices (for as Foster clarifies, ‘‘the result was not intended as art or antiart at all,'' but merely a ‘‘ ‘dialectical devaluing/ revaluing of the diverted artistic element' '') did not end with the dissolving of the SI into component groups scattered across the globe, though the group's fracture was caused in part by disagreement over Debord's staunch affirmation that Situationist art and politics ‘‘could not be separated.'' Rather, various groups have carried on the tradition of ‘‘anart'' (anarchist art), or art with a political agenda.
In the compendium titled The Interventionists: User's Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life, Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson write specifically on collectivist art that involves the disruption of the smooth everyday workings of the capitalist machine: ‘‘The desire to speak in a collective voice has long fueled the social imagination of artists. Futurism, Constructivism, and Surrealism shared this early aim in the 20th century, as did collectives such as CoBrA, the Situationist International, Gutai, and the Lettrists after World War II.'' In this same volume they define contemporary Interventionism as kind of ‘‘art activism,'' the goal of which is ‘‘to create situations in the world at large''; many of these groups, like the Situationists, emphasize collectives or collectivism. Sholette and Stimson write, ‘‘New collectivism gathers itself around decentered and fluctuating identities that leverage heterogeneous character of any group formation.'' The authors here are most likely thinking of artists that question the stability of categories like race and gender. There is no mention of zombie gatherings among the pages describing the Interventionists, but perhaps there should be. For what is a more ‘‘decentered and fluctuating'' identity than that of a collective zombie performance? In this regard, another advantage of these amorphous zombie events is that they do not seem to have embraced one set identity; it is indeterminable whether they are art, anarchy, play, or protest. Thus the zombie event remains, like the zombie identity, ever decentered and fluctuating.
Zombie events emphasize the collective, and not just on a local level. The organizer of the Chattanooga zombie group was first to propose a ‘‘Zombie World Invasion Day,'' originally set for May 25, 2007. Organizers in cities across the world would plan simultaneous events. The people who coordinate these events call them by different names and no doubt think of them differently, and overall, there is no uniform agenda (aside from dressing like zombies and occupying public spaces) and there is no universal message to convey. The zombie gatherings that most interest me are those that are neither organized fund-raisers nor overt protests, but rather demonstrations that communicate nothing but the participants' embrace of the zombie as a legible cultural signifier; the signified is up for grabs. The mute, staggering zombies that are coming soon to a city near you do not affirm that this revolution is aimed at articulating the rights of the worker; but nonetheless, they attest to the possibility of organized rebellion, giving us the form but not the substance of insurrection. The zombie always, in some tacit sense, bears the trace of the Haitian slave and his rebellion, and these events serve as a reminder that power can be exercised by the horde. But yet, that there is no rebellion is only fitting of the zombie metaphor's lack of potential: the frustrated antipathy of its inherently dual state.
Regardless of whether these events are labeled ‘‘art'' or ‘‘demonstration,'' these zombie gatherings are both of these things, and neither of them. Even something as gruesome and nonsensical as an assembly of people made up to look like oozing, bleeding, bruised corpses is not only a demonstration that citizens have the capability to organize and to assemble (and now, due to new technologies, they can coordinate at the last possible moment to prevent the intervention of authorities), but also that they will do it for no reason, for pure enjoyment divorced of any commercial impulse, and stemming from a desire to make something together.
To me these zombie happenings are, most aptly, non-events, anti-revolutions; it's not, after all, what the zombie says that is important, but rather its mere presence that communicates. The zombie presents a theoretical oddity, a frozen, irresolvable dialectic, an embodiment of opposites that displays simultaneously that which is not there by that which is: Even something as innocuous as 2,200 people convening on a street corner to moan and stumble around in fake blood and face paint is a display of the collective working together, a reminder of the Haitian revolution in which the zombie has its roots, and a veiled threat, as if to suggest what else might be possible-what dark army could rise and exact its revenge . . . if it ever comes to that.
And yet, appropriate to the frustrating ambiguity of the living dead, and just like the disappointment of predecessor movements like Situationist International (which failed to achieve its revolutionary agenda) or even punk (which was subsumed under capitalism as just another marketable ‘‘Hot Topic''), the commentary of these zombie gatherings is often too hard to read, which allows it to be co-opted by the very forces it mirrors and mocks. One of the leaders in the world of zombie organizers is ‘‘David,'' of the San Francisco Zombie Mob. His events have sometimes employed overt social critique, as when zombies occupy shopping centers to draw attention to the capitalist spectacle. But as I alluded to at the beginning of this chapter, the zombie hordes tend to reiterate the power of spectacle and celebrate Hollywood's industry, even as they purport to denigrate the economic system that sustains the status quo. In a nutshell, the zombie de´tournement is too easily turned on its own head.
Recently, the SF Zombie Mob's revolutionary potential might have been dealt its deathblow. I received this e-mail on September 28, 2009:
Undead Threat Level: Orange
Quarantined Area: Century 9 Theater at 817 Mission St.
Planned Activity: 6pm Zombies gather in Quarantine zone, possible
security breaches subjecting innocent bystanders to zombie infection and/
Containment Plan: Lure the Undead to a free screening of the movie
‘‘Zombieland'' at 7pm, Century Theater. Placate their simple minds with
Hollywood eye candy and the acting of Woody Harelson [sic].
Even though the movie is a ‘‘free screening,'' and despite the tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment that this event is contributing to, rather than effectively challenging, the culture of consumption, I am tempted to consider this as the end of the walking zombie movement-which began in the 1930s as a publicity stunt, and could appropriately end here as well. Indeed, the zombie-gathering phenomenon appears to already be destroying itself. Of course, there are Thea Munsters who will resist the temptations of corporate sponsors with their cross-promotions and merchandise tie-ins, and kindly decline the good citizens' requests that the events morph into fund-raisers. But just like zombies, these temptations to take the easier, more fiscally rewarding path can't be resisted forever; they are relentless, they just keep coming. The zombie walks that began as a playful resistance to consumer culture are becoming the very thing they set out to mock. Appropriately, they have been bit and have changed.
I would like to conclude by revisiting the words of Guy Debord, whose Society of the Spectacle nonetheless provides a way for us to consider these zombie gatherings in the discourse of the future, rather than just as chronicles of the failed revolutions of the past. I recognize some of the complications that arise from reading these zombie walks as the kind of revision of geography that Debord desired: First, there is Debord's indebtedness to Henri Lefebvre, who asserted in Critique of Everyday Life that literature should investigate the everyday rather than the magical or fantastic. And second, Debord's Situationist International failed to achieve what he intended. Still, it is haunting to see how neatly his words fit here: ‘‘We have to multiply poetic subjects and objects . . . and we have to organize games of these poetic objects among these poetic subjects. This is our entire program, which is essentially transitory. Our situations will be ephemeral, without a future: passageways.'' This seems to me to describe the ludic quality of these zombie events, and to once again flip the dialectic on itself, opening up a space to question whether the zombie mob's anti-revolution, and even its failure, is revolutionary after all, if only in part: a dry run, a dress rehearsal. The zombie mob's contribution is not that it models progress by looking to the future, but only that it reads our present moment's relationship to revolution as one that, like the zombie, is out of step with time. These words of Debord's echo back to me, taking on new and strange shapes when read in the light of these zombie gatherings:
Proletarian revolution is this critique of human geography through which individuals and communities could create places and events commensurate with the appropriation no longer just of their work, but of their entire history. The ever-changing playing field of this new world and the freely chosen variations in the rules of the game will regenerate a diversity of local scenes that are independent without being insular. And this diversity will revive the possibility of authentic journeys-journeys within an authentic life that is itself understood as a journey containing its whole meaning within itself.
In the end, though, perhaps we need to dig up even older graves, and spend a moment with the predecessor theorist who spawned Debord's description of revolution as it was imagined in the halcyon days of advanced capitalism. Henri Lefebvre wrote of his own vision of change in 1947: ‘‘When the new man has finally killed magic off and buried the rotting corpses of the old ‘myths'-when he is on the way towards a coherent unity and consciousness, when he can begin the conquest of his own life, rediscovering or creating greatness in everyday life-and when he can begin knowing it and speaking it, then and only then will we be in a new era.'' Perhaps, at this historical moment, we need to revisit Lefebvre's imagery. These events seem to me to incarnate the youth culture's lament for its lack of real social power, and perhaps signal a willingness to change this. Like the zombie as vacant shell or soulless body, the zombie mob, zombie gathering, and zombie walk demonstrated only the form of social insurrection devoid of content, yet this phenomenon illustrates the profundity of this absence by the sheer magnitude and scale of these blank cultural events. I wonder if the rise of this phenomenon, which ostensibly began in Canada in 2003 but quickly spread across the United States and then globally over the course of the first decade of the twenty-first century, might not have been influenced by the highly unpopular presidency of George W. Bush, and specifically the broad population's inability to effectively demonstrate their disapproval of the Iraq invasion in the public sphere. Maybe, when the zombie walk phenomenon has slouched toward its final resting place, we will begin knowing and speaking that which the zombie mob only played at: community, action, (r)evolution.
Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human, edited by Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro, is available at Amazon.