Nato Thompson: Trespassing Toward Relevance.


Banksy, I Remember When All This Was Trees (2010).

In his article, Trespassing Toward Revelance, Thompson discusses the emergence of political art as a product of artist intervention in the 1990s.  Thompson argues that political artists of the 1990s were no longer representing their work visually, or through language, but instead began to insert themselves and their work into the political issue itself. Thompson refers to these artists as interventionists. While referencing political artists through his text, Thompson also identifies key tactics to discuss and identify the practices of interventionists:

  1. Detourné: the pre-arranging of popular culture to provide a new meaning or narrative.
  2. Derivé: short meandering walks within a work that are intended to awaken the idea, in the participating audience, that ways of being in physical spaces are political acts.
  3. Humor: in making a work amusing or comical the artist can secure the audience’s participation in the sharing of their political agenda, which may have otherwise been too difficult to engage with.
  4. Dismantle: the use of a work to metaphorically break apart systems of power, through the audience’s participation.
  5. Revelation: a decision made by the artist(s) to provide their audience with information that will make public the presence and influence of those in power, particularly in areas we (society) believes we control.
  6. Illegality: the placement of works in unsanctioned areas to increase visibility.
  7. Mobility: mobile works magnify issues of social oppression.  Through mobile works, visibility is increased and a wider audience is reached.
  8. Disguise: a work’s ability to conceal identities provides artists, and sometimes their audiences, with the ability to move freely amongst different social roles – some of which would be out of reach with out the costumes.

The use of these tactics are successful in the work of political artists because the strategies themselves, outside of the intent of the work, go against dominant systems of power.  The progressive nataure of the tactics work in tandam with the author’s intent to push forth, or make more visible, a political message.

In reading through Thompson’s text, and learning about the tactics used by  political artists of the 1990s, I began to reflect on the works of political artists today.  Which of these tactics are still used today? What new tactics have developed as our technologies have advanced?

Selections from the text:

“Instead of representing politics (whether through language or through visual imagery), many political artists of the 1990s enter physically, that is they intervene, into the heart of the political situation itself. “Tactics” is the key term for discussing interventionist practices, and it will be examined at greater depth later in this essay. However, for now, let us think of the term tactic as a maneuver within a game, which for the interventionists is the real world” (Thompson 1).

“Tactics can be thought of as a set of tools. Like a hammer, a glue gun, or a screwdriver, they are means for building and deconstructing a given situation. Interventionist tactics are informed both by art and (more importantly) by a broad range of lived visual, spatial and cultural experiences.3 They are a motley assemblage of methods for bringing political issues to an audience outside the art world’s insular doors” (Thompson 2).

“The United States officially shifted toward an “information economy” with the often contested but frequently used term “globalism” as its dancing partner” (Thompson 2).

“The dramatic increase in popular visual inundation coupled with the growing use of symbols of political action (like Che Guevarra or Bob Dylan) for commercial purposes, meant that artists needed to reconfigure their tactics to make themselves heard. How could any artist compete with visual machines like Nike, Gap, Starbucks, McDonalds, MTV, etc?” (Thompson 3).

“The first is the detourné, which basically is the re-arranging of popular sign-systems in order to produce new meanings” (Thompson 5).

“The second tactic was the derive: a short meandering walk determined by one’s desires… The derivé would reveal hints of what the Situationists called psychogeography, “The study of the precise effects of geographical setting, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behavior of the individual” (Thompson 5).

“The streets have long represented the public sphere: a space where all citizens can participate democratically and freely. Most political artists operate with the desire to expand, test and operate in the public, and so the streets are in a sense a second home” (Thompson 7).

“However, political artists are constantly concerned with, to use De Certeau’s term, strategies. They want socially beneficial results… They understand their work means different things to different people. With this in mind we can sidestep the argument that these practices, in and of themselves, are not politically effective. Their connection to a robust array of audiences and methods, such as activists, publishers, or everyday people allows their specific project to come into light. The false dichotomy between activist (utilitarian) and artist (ambiguous) need not be such a devastating issue if we shift terms toward interventionists operating within a network of resistance” (Thompson 12).

“They are methods for resistance integrally connected to larger social movements sweeping the planet… Tactics for broadening social justice and public dialogue are not simply an artistic challenge, but one placed on everyone interested in democratic participation. The artists in the show are not telling us what to do, but are providing tools for us to engage these questions. In short, the interventionists provide, as William Pope L.’s Black Factory explicitly advertises: “opportunity”” (Thompson 13).


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