Living Arts, Some Notes from the Solidarity Sing Along by Wendy Vardaman

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


Madison, Wisconsin, 8-7-13

Traditionally a symbol of religious expression, late nineteenth century American architects transformed the dome and its interior into one of civic celebration. The soaring rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol is designed to induce its citizenry to be, as individuals, among the “resources of Wisconsin.” Whereas some statehouses are maintained apart from the urban fabric, the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda functions, both literally and symbolically, as a city center and is fully utilized as a public space to which all have claim. — National Historic Landmark Application, Wisconsin Capitol

Art and creativity have been both an outcome and a necessary mechanism of resistance, as we’ve seen it in Wisconsin the last 2-½ years. In the case of the Solidarity Sing Along (SSA), the art is part of the protest, but protest is, itself, performance art, partly rehearsed, partly improvisational in nature. The ability of the event to respond to new circumstances infuses life into it, and Governor Scott Walker’s Capitol Police, acting on orders this summer to arrest singers — including ministers, retired veterans, older women of the “Raging Grannies,” teenagers as young as 14, an alderman, a firefighter in uniform, the journalist Matt Rothschild of The Progressive there to cover the story, a young African American man violently tackled while taking video — gave the Sing Along the fresh material it needed to stay lively “One Day Longer,” as singers say, than Walker’s reign.

The SSA began in response to the passage of Wisconsin’s austere and union-busting “Budget Repair Bill” (3/9/2011), growing out of the previous month’s massive, round-the-clock protests against that bill. Events in Wisconsin don’t tend to make, or remain in, national “news.” You may not know details about the Wisconsin Protests of February-March, 2011 (which the progressive movement here believes inspired the Occupy movement elsewhere), but for those of us who participated, the outpouring of creativity that attended the protests was remarkable, thrilling, and community-building. It’s one of the things that certainly drew more than 100,000 on multiple occasions to a month of outdoor protests in bone-chilling sub-zero temperatures and to indoor protests that involved sleeping on bone-chilling marble. Every day was an improvisational carnival that took inspiration from an early delivery of Valentines to Governor Walker from university students and from the theatrical flight of fourteen Democratic senators to Illinois to prevent quorum; a series of what nows, new dramas, new actors: What leaders and celebrities would suddenly appear in front of your eyes downtown? How many people would come on a given day? Would we be able to stop or slow down different legislative votes? What creative costumes and clever signs would people make overnight to bring to the next protest? What new themes and conflicts would emerge? What new buttons and cartoons?

The “Ash Wednesday Ambush” on March 9th was followed by the much more work-a-day petition drive that forced recall elections and by a massive, unsuccessful volunteer effort to flip the senate majority and unseat the governor mid-term. Though the protest movement lost visibility and stopped attracting crowds in the Spring of 2011 for a variety of reasons, specific creative protest efforts that began during that early period, including the Overpass Light Brigade and the Solidarity Sing Along, have continued, along with a wider culture of imaginative protest arts.
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Over 200 people were arrested during the weekday, noon-hour SSA in late July and August. NPR reported on September 12 that more than 300 arrests have been made since July 24th.

That number includes multiple arrests and citations for many people. The “First Amendment Protection Fund” has been established to help pay the legal costs of fighting these arrests and continuing to sing. There’s quite a bit of speculation about why now with these arrests, since the singing has occurred for over two years, but the Department of Administration (DOA) doesn’t say. Maybe it’s part of Walker’s Presidential run: either he doesn’t want to be embarrassed by this quirky collection of Madison characters singing the same 52 songs in the rotunda every lunch hour in order to assert their, everyone’s, right to assemble and to speak up, or he just wants to claim that he’s tough on liberals, or upholding law and order, as he crosses the country raising capital to get him out of the Capitol. Ironically (or not, depending on motives), the arrests have resulted in more audience, more local support, and more media coverage. But maybe that’s what his campaign does intend?

There’s a resemblance, especially on the police side, to theater that is scripted, rehearsed, planned, produced, inflexible. The Sing Along, in contrast, has been reclaiming some of that feeling of expectation and surprise that marked the original Uprising of 2011: Who will show up? What signs will they carry? What will they wear? What creative ideas will they display and embody? What will happen next? Are observers of the Sing Along participants and also subject to arrest? Can you participate in the balcony of observers? Can you observe downstairs in the crowd of singers? What constitutes participation? Singing? Sign carrying? T-shirt slogans? Clapping? Foot tapping? Dancing? Costumes? Aren’t the Capitol Police themselves participants? Should they be dispersing and arresting themselves?

I get a bit of a start when I pass our family’s campsite from the one night we spent here in February, 2011, during the weeks when people occupied the Capitol around the clock, as well as at the balconies where I know I stood that month. A worker in the Assembly Sergeant at Arms office stops to check me out, as I scribble in my notebook. He warns me that the noise levels will elevate in a half-hour and asks if I’ve been inside for the singing. I try not to rest my spiral notebook on the marble. I know they’re sensitive to it being sullied — a point of contention and downright lies during the protests, as the DOA claimed that the occupation had resulted in millions of dollars of damage from all the signs and decorations hung with painter' blue tape. In the end, the cost of clean-up (mostly reseeding the grass around the building and wiping down all this marble) totaled $100,000.

We discuss the building. He’s worked here six years but hasn’t ever gone on a tour. I recommend it. He marvels — we marvel together — at the beauty and grandeur. He says something I’ve often heard older people say in other contexts: They couldn’t do it today. Not they wouldn’t want to, but they couldn’t. There are two-hundred light bulbs to change daily in the Capitol. There is duct work for a defunct central vacuum system. The third such building on this site, constructed 1906-1917 for 7.5 million dollars, it contains 43 types of stone from 14 different countries and states. It has the largest granite dome in the world. And at the very top of the dome is a gold-leafed statue of a young woman, “Wisconsin,” and on her head is a hat, and on that gold-decked hat, 284 feet, 5 inches from the ground floor of the building, sits a badger.

Just think about that a minute. This fancy Beaux-Arts Capitol is topped by a gold-leafed woman wearing badger headgear. Or, as the National Historic Landmark application puts it: Her headdress incorporates iconography symbolic of the attributes of the State.

That statue’s design was awarded originally to Helen Farnsworth Mears, an artist from Oshkosh who bears some resemblance to Wisconsin-born Georgia O’Keeffe. She had already begun the work when Daniel Chester French, who originally turned down the commission changed his mind. Mears and French were in contact at the time, and  the Capitol’s architect George B. Post dumped Mears when French, who made the famous statue of Lincoln in D.C., decided he was available after all.

As far as I can find, none of the art on display in the Capitol’s chambers or in the rotunda has been created by artists from Wisconsin. And none of it was made by women, indigenous people, African Americans, Latinos, children, the living. Should a democracy exclude either past or present from its public spaces? What if the past misrepresents the present and constituencies of the present, such as women and people of color, or doesn’t represent them at all?
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It’s 11:53. There’s a couple with a baby in a very elaborate back pack with a weather/sun hood. It’s starting to get a little noisier. I count 30-some people on the second floor balcony. Spontaneous gatherings are not illegal without a permit, per the building’s official rules, available since 2011 as a 24-page pdf called the Wisconsin State Facilities Access Policy, though “planned events” of more than 4 now require them. A judge has already ruled that the number 4 is too low and says 20. A court hearing next year will rule on the legality of the permit requirement. The prior building-use code was a single page.

Two people wear orange vests that say Tourist. Do Not Arrest. The URL for state tourism, travelwisconsin.com, is also on the vest. I don’t know if they’re serious, ironic, or both. They take each others’ picture next to Wisconsin’s copy of the Liberty Bell, one of several memorials in the Rotunda area. They wear khaki shorts and identical Teva sandals. I decide they probably are tourists who probably are serious. Unless they are really, really excellent performance artists. But they look a little old for that.

At 11:59 the singing starts as always with “We Shall Overcome.” About a dozen people are in the area where I stand on the third floor. I say hello to those I pass and move to the second floor. Maybe 50 or 60 are downstairs in the rotunda. Lots of people with video equipment and cameras. A guy wearing handcuffs as jewelry. About 50 watch from the second floor balcony. The Capitol Police sign board below says that if they determine the event has more than 20 people, they will declare it unlawful and participants will be subject to arrest. Then it says with very little thought devoted to line breaks:

We Are Declaring
This An Unlawful Event
Please Move Your
Group Outside Or Disperse
Immediately
If You Do Not,
Each Participant Is
Subject To Arrest

I talk to the orange-vested woman about the costumes, realizing that I could just ask about their meaning rather than speculate about it endlessly in my head. She says they’re from New York and that their son lives in Madison. He is worried about them visiting the Capitol, and the vests are a sincere effort to avoid arrest.

At 12:05 the police announce with their speakers: “This is State Capitol Police Chief David Erwin. I have determined that your group is holding an unlawful event. Please lead your group outside.” They read some ordinances but they’re too garbled to understand.

I see lots of familiar faces, especially from photos and video of the last week, during which daily arrests of about 20 people have been made. They’re singing, “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” as two people are handcuffed and led away. Three police surround an older man. One puts out her arm to indicate the distance the cameras should keep, and he is led away after a short discussion. They move on to a younger man, whom they also cuff and lead off. Then a young woman who resists. She wants her arms cuffed in front of her, but they insist on putting them behind her back. She points at her shoulder and shakes her head, but it does no good, and she is led away. The next person to go wears a shirt with the message Whose House. He has a camera. Don’t give them the camera, a woman says. They’ll erase all your video! They lead both of them away, but people do hand off their bags, cameras, whatever they are holding to others in the crowd, and the police let them.

Lots of folks are in the balcony documenting, writing, talking, taking photographs. We’re not singing or clapping. We’re watching and witnessing. Senator Jon Erpenbach is nearby, and people gather around him.  A policeman startles me from behind as I write, telling me and the person next to me that this is an unlawful gathering. If we watch, we’re subject to arrest. So I ask if we can watch from upstairs. He says, If you’re in the viewing area, you’re subject to arrest. I ask if we can sit down on a bench out of the viewing area and he repeats that if we stay in the viewing area, we’re acting unlawfully, that we should go away. I guess he expects us to comply, but I nod and go back to writing in my notebook and he leaves. I don’t know if he will come back, but it all seems like part of the performance.

Later today the DOA will decide it is not so keen on arresting spectators after all, though it will continue arresting singers who are part of this “unpermitted event.”

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The police come and go. By “Which Side Are You On,” they seem to have lost enthusiasm for their parts. I count five children and one baby at this point. Three police below. One is upstairs telling a group of kids and a mom what’s what. He smiles at them as he insists that they have to leave the viewing area. There are still about 50 of us up here and about 100 downstairs.

A reporter wants to know what I’m observing. The kinds of stuff poets observe.

I ask if he has ever tried out the sing along. No, he says, I’m an impartial observer.

And I nod. I guess that’s the difference between poets and journalists.

Have you? And he sounds a little wistful.

Yes. A few times.

The final song is always “Solidarity Forever,” accompanied by a march around the middle of the Rotunda. Many “observers” join in. Fists go up. The Union makes us strong. And it’s true, Unions are important, like governments and non-profits and other institutions that exist to make people’s lives better, but I believe that union (small u) makes us stronger, and that union, at least conversation, needs to occur among individuals across difference: of gender, race, language, age, occupation, class, political and religious beliefs. For union and dialog to occur, we must lift and listen to each others’ voices.

An enthusiastic singer erases “not” from the whiteboard, resulting in We declare this is a    lawful gathering … Foolery at its finest. Applause for the end of the Sing Along, and at 1:00 there’s a chant of We’re still here, as the police come through to collect their altered whiteboard and Exit Stage North. I don’t think they’re enjoying their parts. I wouldn’t if I were them, and I wonder whether they couldn’t use a little performance-poetry training instead of donuts and flowers: Theater of the Oppressed and spoken word workshops. A chance to express their creativity. The costumes definitely do not provide that opportunity and neither does the whiteboard or the script they use day after day.

A group of school kids arrives. Some of the singers stand in the middle of the Rotunda talking. The police are still visible, but they stop arresting and warning people precisely at 1 p.m. People walk off with their signs. The folks with cameras leave. The writers finish their notes and pack. The next tour isn’t till 2 p.m. Reporter Guy goes off to file his story. Bloggers put up video and commentary.

It’s something of a tribute to what I think of as the “Wisconsin Protest Arts Movement” that I’d even entertain the idea that these witnesses and these officers and these activists might be performers. But here they could have been, in a context that includes crafts, visual art, visual poetry, music, performance, poetry, film, zines, and hip hop: Artistic responses to events by ordinary people — individuals as well as (dis)organizations — creating a broad array of political, word and image-based artifacts: witty protest buttons and signs, “uprising quilts,” one-of-a-kind and limited-edition T-shirts, cartoons, songs, plays, citizen-performance artists wearing costumes and wielding chalk, projects such as Madison’s SSA,  the marvelous Milwaukee-based Overpass Light Brigade, Verse Wisconsin’s “Poems About the Protests,” The Exquisite Uterus Project: Art of Resistance, poetry and photography-focused chapbooks by individual authors, as well as anthologies.

Are these sorts of things happening in your state, too? Perhaps they are, and we don’t hear about them where I live. But I believe these local actions give all of us new ideas, inspiration, courage, and resolve to act and keep acting against reactionary political forces, including Scott Walker, the governor without a college education who decommissioned Wisconsin’s Poet Laureateship (a $2000 annual budget item originally created by a Republican Governor) even before disempowering state workers, a man determined to be the next president of the U.S.

Such improvisational projects bring together communities of like-minded people to be visible, producing protest art out of nothing in the spirit of fun, friendship, and the power of creative thinking. In solidarity. They change according to the situation and the needs of those served. They assess quickly and non-bureaucratically what those needs are. Performance, in this context, like creativity, is more than surface: it’s the means through which community makes itself, over and over, becoming visible both to members and non-members and allowing any number of individual creative actors to perform under the same tent. Essential to this visibility is a predictable, regularly staged, site-specific performance, in this case, the Sing Along in the Capitol Rotunda, which functions, as the DOA itself said in its application some years ago to be a National Historic Landmark, literally and symbolically, as a city center.
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When Reporter Guy asks about cultural significance, I say something about participation, about singing and poetry and art. But it’s more. It’s about participatory government, this building, Helen Farnsworth Mears, the glorification of marble, representations of Native Americans and Asians and African Americans and women in the art who have not been included in producing the art. Badgers. Fossils. Breath. The direct relation of poetry, performance, democracy. The importance of word-wise and engaged citizens. The presence of Veterans for Peace and children. The importance of enjoying governance. The Solidarity Sing Along comes together as a peaceful, creative community to witness to elected officials that there are viewpoints and people who are not represented in this government; they welcome anyone who would like to take part; they make some, though not all, of what is invisible visible; they enjoy doing it; they play, and play is a seriously necessary ingredient of functional societies. They fulfill the rotunda’s purpose as city center … fully utilized as a public space to which all have claim. All. Not some.


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Wendy Vardaman, has a Ph.D. in English from University of Pennsylvania and a B.S. in Engineering from Cornell University. Co-editor and webmaster of Verse Wisconsin and co-founder/editor and webmaster of Cowfeather Press, her poems, reviews, essays and interviews have appeared online and in a variety of anthologies and journals. She is co-editor of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets' 2013 Wisconsin Poets' Calendar and the forthcoming anthology, Echolocations, Poets Map Madison (Cowfeather Press). The author of Obstructed View (Fireweed Press, 2009), she has been nominated for numerous Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net Awards. With Sarah Busse she is Poet Laureate of Madison, a volunteer post overseen by the Madison Arts Commission. Poetry at Common Council Meetings; the anthology of poems set in Madison; and the annual Olbrich Gardens Poetry Marathon are some of their projects. She lives in Madison with her husband, Thomas DuBois, has three children, and has never owned a car. More information and links to her poems and prose are at wendyvardaman.com.