Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Labor Histories

The Howling Mob Society

The Howling Mob Society (HMS) is a collaboration of artists, activists and historians committed to unearthing stories neglected by mainstream history. HMS brings increased visibility to the radical history of Pittsburgh, PA through grassroots artistic practice. Our current focus is The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, a national uprising that saw some of its most dramatic moments in Pittsburgh.

Ten New Historical Markers Commemorate The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

The Howling Mob Society has created ten historical markers, detailing events and significant locations from The Great Strike, and mounted them throughout the Strip District, Downtown, Polish Hill and Lawrenceville. Visit the map link to find out where the signs are located.

The events that unfolded in July of 1877 marked a unique moment in the history of the United States. Exceptional as it was, however, what has come to be known as the Great Railroad Strike goes largely unmentioned in mainstream accounts of Pittsburgh history. Common people were pushed to the breaking point and struck out in resistance, however they did not have the opportunity to preserve their stories for posterity. Those who had the means to record the strike quickly revealed their sympathetic relationship to the business leaders of the day and set the tone for how 1877 would be remembered. Their bias can be seen in published accounts of the riots, which use racist and xenophobic language to blame immigrants and transient laborers for the property damage and looting that took place. Considerably less attention is paid to the conditions that incited the riot in the first place; the fact that one quarter of the cities entire population participated in the uprising; or the lives lost at the hands of the state militia and National Guard.

In a culture that tells its history through the stories of great men and war heroes, a movement without iconic leaders quietly falls to the wayside. Telling the story of a decentralized social insurrection requires a different approach to history making. It requires that individuals outside the traditional power structure stand up and take responsibility for setting the record straight. The Howling Mob Society seeks to do just that.

Thanks Dara Greenwald and Just Seeds!!!

Don't Mourn / Sarah Kanouse / Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies (Volume 3, Number 3)


Dust rises in sheets from the hard-pounded ground, hesitates for a moment, and disperses on the dry wind. Hulking steel and concrete structures, their functions lost to Free Trade, rust ominously. A few second-generation industries — mostly recycling and storage concerns — have set up shop in some of the scattered outbuildings, and a trickle of dirty pick-ups checks in and out at the guard post, though the automatic gate seems permanently open. They take little notice of the car, my videographer, or me, a young woman with a battered, vinyl-sided suitcase and a HAM antenna cut to a commercial FM frequency.

I’ve been making pilgrimages to sites like this for a few years now to bear witness to the unmarked relics of old and not-so-old labor struggles in my home state, a place known for a solid union backbone that’s been much bent in recent years. Maybe it was always bent: the struggles I commemorate were not always the heroic or victorious ones but also the shameful episodes: armed conflicts between white strikers and black workers brought from faraway and tricked into taking their places, big unions selling out their struggling locals with a wink and a nod. Sometimes struggles that were victorious and heroic on one level were shameful and disquieting at another. I come to mourn but I don’t want it to stop at that.

The premise is simple: I make radio monuments, monuments composed of radio waves. I squat in the dust for two minutes to broadcast a mournful, distorted version of the Internationale over a commercial radio station to the usually empty immediate vicinity. Without a radio to listen in, it looks like a moment of silence, with luggage. In the name of the events that took place here, I bathe the site in radio waves in a slight, invisible, ephemeral memorial that doesn’t make heroes of the fallen, doesn’t fix the narrative, doesn’t pretend that the story — of the strike, the massacre, the battle, the labor movement, or capitalism — ended any differently or better.

Pana, Illinois

I do not make the bronze plaques, stone monuments or epic murals often sought by labor groups for their permanence and aura of legitimacy. I am not inspiring or instructing but remembering these events and their sometimes ambivalent outcomes. “Public memory” is more often performed than it is read, a difference that Diana Taylor has identified between the “archival” knowledge of history and the “repertoire” of embodied understanding. “Performed, embodied practices make the “past” available as a political resource in the present.... [A] performance may be about something that helps us understand the past, and it may reactivate issues or scenarios from the past by staging them in the present.” Uttering, singing, dancing, visiting, eating or drinking in a ritual fashion, imbued with symbolic meaning, is how individuals access the accumulated experience of a culture such that what has happened in times past to others feels as real, as palpable, as understandable as what has happened in their own lives.

Battle of the Viaduct

To my ears memorial is silent, and I have two minutes of silence in which to think — think about what I am doing, think about what happened here and about what is still happening here and in other places like it. The metal box, its whirring fan faintly audible even in the wind, is reorganizing a sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, encoding it to carry my Internationale, more dirge-like than martial, to the unsuspecting receivers of passing cars. The disturbance to the commercial frequency I am jamming is so localized that car radios may flicker with only a few notes of a strange, sad march before resolving again to a steady, static-free mix of Top-40 and commercials. I have no way of knowing for sure how far my signal travels or if anyone is listening, yet the temporary and quixotic interruption of frequency-modulation-as-usual resonates in satisfying ways with the battles I am marking. The symbolic value of reclaiming the electromagnetic commons collides with the fact that the transmissions are local, dissipate, and are drowned out, just as the battles won or lost have been made mute by the onward march of capital and time.

The Labor Trail

The Labor Trail is the product of a joint effort to showcase the many generations of dramatic struggles and working-class life in the Chicago area's rich and turbulent past. The Trail's neighborhood tours invite you to get acquainted with the events, places, and people - often unsung - who have made the city what it is today. In addition, the statewide map is just a starting point for further exploration of Illinois' labor heritage. We invite you to report new themes for research and investigation on both the city and state level.

Labor Trail Map / Interactive Labor Trail