A 16-year-old boy with a megaphone repeatedly shouted, “No pretty songs, gentlemen. No pretty songs,” as he stood on the corner of 163rd Street and Southern Boulevard in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. Next to him, a group of teens hoisted picket signs scrawled with variations of the slogan I heart pretty songs. Then the eight teenagers hopped on the subway, collectively planting their noses in books titled “Wake Up America” while fellow passengers stared quizzically at the group reading intently from the identical volumes.
The student artists who staged these random performances around the city call them “interventions.” They are the basis for the multimedia installation entitled “No Pretty Songs, Gentlemen,” which showcases five such videotaped interventions in which students examine the phrases and actions of musician and civil rights activist Paul Robeson during the Peekskill Riots in 1949 in order to draw parallels to the human rights and freedom of speech struggles of artists today.
Student artist Bill Martinez, 16, who lives in Hunts Point, got involved with the project when a staff member at Casita Maria, a not-for-profit arts and education center in Hunts Point, noticed that Martinez had a knack for video editing. Martinez applied for an internship working on th einstallation in June and dedicated two weeks at the end of August to the project.
“It kind of expanded my interest in art,” Martinez said. “It got me to want to do more interventions and videotape them more. When I see something nowadays on the news that I think is wrong, or that I don’t like, or that I’m against, I’ll make a video about it.”
The diverse group of high school students who participated in the exhibition includes four students from the South Bronx, who became involved with the project through Casita Maria, and four students from Manhattan and Brooklyn, who were Scholastic art and writing award winners. The students worked alongside sound artist Seth Kim-Cohen to plan, perform, film, and edit the installation. On opening night, the students beamed as they described to their parents and friends how they came up with the idea for a performance, or how they hit a roadblock trying to edit a video.
Kim-Cohen worked with students to build the exhibition around Paul Robeson but also to help students unlock their own ideas about performance art and political speech. As a starting point, Kim-Cohen introduced students to the Peekskill Riots, which took place on Sept. 4, 1949, when Robeson held a concert 45 miles north of the city in Peekskill, N.Y.
Robeson publicly expressed Soviet sympathies and, in the era of McCarthyism, anti-Communists and Klu Klux Klan members banded together to protest Robeson’s concert. The anti-Communist fervor was so great at the time that Robeson’s concert was previously scheduled on Aug. 27, 1949, and was cancelled because of violent initial protests.
Robeson returned to Peekskill to perform five days later, protected by police and organized labor members from New York City’s trade unions. After the concert, protestors rioted, injuring 140 and causing extensive property damage. The Peekskill Riots came to be viewed as a symbol of the hysteria that surrounded the Red Scare in the United States after World War II.
Students explored the underlying meaning of the incident, its impact on freedom of speech and human rights, and the role of artists in political speech and found a contemporary parallel in the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. On Aug. 17, the feminist girl group was sentenced to two years in jail on charges of hooliganism after trying last February to perform a song critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s historic Christ Savior Cathedral.
Kim-Cohen explained that his goal is to do more than just show the students how he works as an artist. “At the very least, if they get nothing out of the artistic process of watching how I make an exhibition happen, they would at least learn something about Paul Robeson and the history of civil rights in America and labor issues in America,” he said.
“No Pretty Songs, Gentlemen” opened Aug. 31 and runs through Sept. 29 at the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education gallery space located at East 163rd Street and Simpson Street in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx.