In his book Tactical Performance, L.M. Bogad makes an interesting observation about an axiom of contemporary military strategy and its relevance to social movements. In military parlance, the ground war involves the taking and holding of territory using infantry soldiers. The air war, as you might guess, makes use of aircraft to inflict destruction on the enemy from above. While only ground troops can actually achieve the military objectives, the air war makes that task easier by weakening the enemy’s defenses. Bogad continues:
With this in mind, it may be helpful to think of fantastic, spectacular pranks and guerrilla theatre actions as “air-war” actions. They soften the cultural terrain, draw attention to a problem, change some minds or at least weaken opposition, and galvanize discouraged supporters. However, a prank alone does not change a policy or the course of an election or social struggle. That is the job of the more fundamental “ground war” equivalent: the hardcore, everyday organizing, in workplaces and communities, face-to-face. You have nothing without a ground game in social-movement organizing; but that air game can really help move things forward.1
The guerrilla activist collective INDECLINE has volunteered for the air war. Dropping metaphorical bombs in the form of illicit public art projects, the shadowy group attempts to raise awareness about various social and political issues such as abusive policing, homelessness, racism and, of course, the Trump presidency. Last year they created a brief media stir when they clandestinely deployed grotesque statues of a naked Donald Trump simultaneously in public areas of five US cities.2
The mysterious band of artists and delinquents say they are based on the US west coast, but have members scattered around the country and abroad. Their core skills are graffiti-writing and film-making, but they often collaborate with other artists and groups to expand their creative repertoire. Many of their projects are illegal, mostly involving “vandalism” and trespassing.3 Since most of their public installations are quickly destroyed by authorities, videographers carefully document the creation process, producing short, slick movies for the media and the INDECLINE website.4
One project was launched a few weeks after the tragic white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia last August. In nearby Richmond, INDECLINE constructed eight life-sized clowns, dressed them in KKK robes and surreptitiously hung them from a tree in a local park. The objective was to bolster awareness of resurgent white nationalist movements. As anticipated, the stunt was condemned by civic leaders and African American groups alike,5 but received quite a bit of media attention.
Not everything INDECLINE does is illegal or transgressive. In Flint, Michigan for instance, in conjunction with the nonprofit Flint Public Art Project, they created several large murals on walls made available by the city. The politically charged artworks were intended to refocus attention on Flint’s lead-contaminated water supply and the continuing public health crisis in that city.6
For their latest project INDECLINE transformed an abandoned gold processing facility into an environmental art installation they called “Death Metals.”7 The Goldome Mill in California’s Mohave Desert has been designated an EPA Superfund site because of the dangerous chemicals left there. Late last year INDECLINE covertly entered the isolated site and used plasma cutters to carve huge images into the walls of several metal structures. The cutouts depict miners with skull-like faces as well as other symbols of death and toxicity. The collective says their goal was to protest man’s quest for wealth at the expense of the environment.
Tactics Without Strategy
INDECLINE’s actions are strictly tactical. Most of them are not closely associated with any particular ground war. Their tactics would be far more effective if they were coordinated with a specific strategic campaign that was fighting in the trenches—doing the hard work of on-the-ground organizing to achieve a goal. Nevertheless, in an increasingly authoritarian society, any expression of resistance can have value.
Curious to see how the group perceived their role in the air war, I talked to an anonymous INDECLINE spokesperson last November. I wanted to know what they were trying to achieve with their guerrilla art projects and how they saw their tactics contributing to the escalation of a culture of resistance.
Broadly speaking, what is INDECLINE trying to accomplish through its projects?
Well, it definitely varies…the purpose of them is always to raise awareness. We like to encourage people to take a second look at some of the issues facing us, whether that’s in an attempt to get them invigorated enough to go and fight as well, or just to take the time to acknowledge that something exists. They’re definitely abrasive in nature. They’re supposed to be meant to shock, but also educate. But really, I think the background of the collective is rooted in just awareness.
Are your actions primarily aimed at illuminating specific issues or more generally attacking cultural hegemony?
We’re kind of all over the place.
I guess our biggest fear is that there’s not going to be that dissenting voice to counter the mass media or the special interest groups and everyone else getting everyone to think a certain way. So we like to play that—that’s why it’s called the counterculture. So that’s where we want to be.
But do some projects aim at changing the public’s perspective on specific issues?
Yeah, in a sense.…We meet so many different people who look at our work…and see it as just a basis of inspiration. Like, “Oh, this is great. I wish more people were doing these things.” And some people look at it and it has the exact opposite effect, which is, “You’ve woken me up to this.”
Which is kind of the origins of INDECLINE…this sub-title or…byline of “Do you ever wonder where your thoughts come from?” We’ve always really tried to keep that in the back of our minds as we go through day-to-day life and we consume our little bits of media here and there—how does that form our opinion on certain things? And then how do we conduct ourselves? Do we do anything to change it?
Some of your actions might be seen as shocking by some. What is the value of shock?
We want to punish people but we want to punish people in a constructive sense, so when you sit down and see this thing come up on your news feed about Klan dummies being hung from the neck in Virginia, I want there to be an adverse effect. I want you to watch that and feel sick to your stomach but I want you to have the capacity at the end of that piece to listen to the voiceovers, to understand what we’re trying to say, and be as indignant as we are, you know?
But with us…we don’t have the ability to tone it down very often when we go out, and a lot of that is by design and a lot of that is just our inherent nature. So many of us grew up in a very punk rock culture and…everything was very over the top and this is how you get people’s attention. And we are always very invigorated by the loudest artists, and the loudest ways of getting people’s attention sometimes can be the most effective, provided that you’re creative enough to spin it.
INDECLINE videos remind me of [the Russian guerrilla art group] Voina in that their illegal operations seem extremely well planned and conducted with military-like precision.
And I think that’s disarming. We respect the hell out of that just because to me there’s something very noble about being able to go out and do what we do but to do it at the level of competence and efficiency that we do it. It’s easy to take a fire extinguisher, fill it with paint and then go spray a bank and just make a mess. But that’s not really going to accomplish, much is it? Most people are going to be pissed about that. The people that are going to be stoked on that—they’re just vandals. There’s something about political theater and risk and all of these things. To me, the more artistic the presentation, whether that’s the actual video or sometimes even spending six months on a sculpture—it just adds so much more weight at the end of the day. So like, okay, these aren’t just some fucking troublemakers, there’s something more to it.
Do you see your actions as somehow supporting the rest of the activist community in some way?
You have to remember we all come from a certain point in our lives where we feel inspired to do something but we don’t exactly know how to do it.
We’re not one to go march. We’re not one to paint a sign and stand with 50,000 people in an Occupy movement. We are one to go out with three people—but we’re going to make the headline news in the nation the next day. And so we’ve kind of created our own little thing and as we get these emails and these messages, it’s very evident that there are young kids who are discovering us and going through the body of work on our website and being inspired to go figure out how they’re going to forge their own path, whether that’s joining us or not.
How do you evaluate success?
That’s a tough thing to quantify, because really, with success—most artists are going to be looking at that from sales. You put out a record or you put out a play or a series of paintings, then you go and you put on an art show and then hopefully you sell out of your art or your record. With us, it’s not as tangible.
But if you get a lot of media coverage, is that your standard for success?
Yeah, that’s where I was going with that. Sometimes we go into projects knowing, like Flint for instance—that’s not going to take over the national media two years after the fact and become some sensation, right? We knew that. But there’s other projects that we know they’re going to be big and they’re going to generate a lot of interest and a lot of conversation. So yeah, that would definitely be the barometer on that—did we break the Internet for a little while? Did one of our mothers hit us up because she saw something that happened and knows that one of the kids did it?
- L.M. Bogad, Tactical Performance: The theory and practice of serious play (New York: Routledge, 2016), 51
- “We Talked to the Activists Responsible for Those Naked Donald Trump Statues,” Newsweek, accessed January 14, 2018, http://www.newsweek.com/naked-donald-trump-statues-indecline-ginger-491711.
- One of the founder’s of INDECLINE, Ryen McPherson (possibly the anonymous spokesperson interviewed here), is no stranger to controversy. As a teenager he directed the notorious reality film Bumfights: Cause for Concern. The video featured homeless men fighting and performing dangerous stunts, allegedly in exchange for payment from the filmmakers. Although it was widely condemned for being exploitive, hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. The film was banned in the UK for showing “homeless people (‘bums’) being abused, assaulted, and humiliated.” And in 2014 McPherson and another man were briefly detained in Thailand for trying to ship human body parts back to Las Vegas. They said they were going to give them to friends as a joke.
- “Art Provocateurs Hang ‘Ku Klux Klowns’ in Virginia’s Capital,” Hyperallergic, accessed January 14, 2018, https://hyperallergic.com/399424/art-provocateurs-hang-ku-klux-klowns-in-virginias-capital/.
- “indecline: greetings from flint,” colabs, accessed January 15, 2018, https://www.co-labs.us/indecline/.
- Undated INDECLINE press release