CT - vvalentine_5148
Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

YESTERDAY AFTERNOON, A GROUP OF ARTISTS staged a die-in at the Armory Show in New York. About a dozen people chanted “I can’t breathe” and then they fell to the floor at Pier 94 where the international art show has been open to the public since Thursday.

According to the New York Times, the demonstrators were members of Artists for Justice for NYC, a group formed after a grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who used a chokehold on Eric Garner shortly before he died July 17, 2014.

I was at the Armory Show within earshot when the performance got underway. I quickly went to watch what was happening and observed the response of Armory Show officials.

The unsanctioned public art performance began Saturday, March 7, a few minutes after 3 p.m., gaining the attention of fair goers in the vicinity who formed a circle around the group. The demonstration began with a chorus of “I can’t breathe,” the words uttered by Garner as he was being choked. Then Christian Felix recited a lengthy series of phrases, attributed to Garner, that were printed on a poster. The words on the poster began, “I didn’t do shit. Minded my own business.” And continued with: “Every time you see me you wanna mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today.”

The words on the poster began, “I didn’t do shit. Minded my own business.” And continued with: “Every time you see me you wanna mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today.”

CT_vvalentine - 5136
Christian Felix, a member of Artists for Justice NYC, recites the words of Eric Garner. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

As Felix spoke, other members of the group stood with both of their hands holding their throats. When he finished his statements, the racially diverse group fell to the floor. Next, Shyvonne, one of the performers who has long, sea foam green braids, stood and began to sing.

The demonstration brought contemporary social justice issues to the attention of the international art world audience attending New York’s oldest and largest art fair. The group’s message addressed police brutality, strained relations between police and communities of color across the country, and emphasized that black lives matter in a venue where a coterie of critically recognized black artists has gained traction and commercial success but the racially and culturally charged issues raised in some of their work earns little hearing.

A coterie of critically recognized black artists have gained traction and commercial success but the racially and culturally charged issues raised in some of their work earns little hearing.

One demonstrator, Patrick Waldo, told the Times that participants chose the art fair for a performance with an eye toward reaching an audience that might be sympathetic but that probably was not typically involved in protests. “We’re trying to get our message out to a crowd that is historically out of touch with the struggle of black America,” he said.

The action drew a crowd of more than 100 as the performance unfolded just inside the entrance of the fair in front of the Artsy booth, a bar and lounge area where Hank Willis Thomas has an installation. Thomas, whose work examines representation, cultural coding in advertising, and often utilizes text, created an installation that draws on an elusive play of words and ultimately spells out “Art imitates life imitates ads.”

 

CT-vvalentine_5141
At left, a security guard (in the red tie) stands before the crowd as Christian Felix leads a demonstration to raise awareness about Eric Garner’s death and strained police-community relations. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

From the outset, Armory security attempted to interrupt and stop the performance, and then seemed to be unsure whether it was an official part of fair programming. Soon a woman showed up bearing a clip board and what looked like a fair badge. She appeared to communicate with security about whether or not the performance was authorized.

The demonstration lasted about 10 minutes. Due to its brevity and the confusion about its merits, it appeared that Artists for Justice NYC was able to present its entire performance.

Here is the full text of the poster from which Felix was reading:

    I didn’t do shit. Minded my own business. A fight break out and I stop it. And all of a sudden you come running up on me. The people that’s fighting just walk away.
    Are you serious. I didn’t do nothing; What I’d do?
    No, I don’t have my ID on me.
    Take me back for what? I didn’t sell anything. I did nothing.
    We sitting here the whole time minding our business. What’re you talkin about? Who did I sell what? Who did I sell a cigarette to? To who?
    Easy way or hard way FOR WHAT?
    Every time you see me you wanna mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today.
    No – whatchu grabbing me for? Everybody see I ain’t Everybody see I ain’t do nothing. Everybody standing here could tell you; I ain’t do nothing. I did not sell nothing.
    BECAUSE every time you see me you wanna harrass [sic] me. You wanna stop me. Talkin bout I’m sellin cigarettes. I did not sell nothing.
    I’m minding my business officer. I’m minding my business; please just leave me alone.
    I told you the last time: Please just leave me alone.
    Please don’t touch me. Do not touch me.
    — Eric Garner, July 17, 2014

Noah Horowitz, the executive director of the Armory Show, told the Times that the art fair welcomes visitors from far and wide, but emphasized the following in an email statement: “As a matter of policy and due to a combination of both curatorial and safety concerns, any performance or action that has not been preapproved has to be asked to leave. This is precisely what happened at the fair this afternoon.”

 

Complex reports that as they were being escorted out, the group filed through the exit singing the civil rights folk song, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: Members of Artists for Justice NYC stage a die-in at the Armory Show on Saturday, March, 7, 2015. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

UPDATE: WATCH VIDEO of the demonstration. | Video by OrderVision

 

CT-vvalentine_5143
A group member picks up the poster Christian Felix was reciting from as fellow demonstrators grasp their throats. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

CT-vvalentine_5146
Christian Felix lies on the floor during die-in demonstration. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

CT- vvalentine_5154
Shyvonne, standing in background, sings as fellow members of Artists for Justice NYC stage a die in at the Armory Show. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine