by Shreeparna ChatterjeeJan 29, 2021
A Donald Trump impersonator sits hunched-over on a stool in the centre of a cramped and caged cell. He is bound by gold handcuffs and wears a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat on his head. A pile of discarded fast food containers trawled from the streets of New York city, along with an assortment of Trump memorabilia, is spread around the floor of the cell, and live rats can be seen poking their heads from within the crevices of the messy detritus. This cell and its occupant are part of an installation art piece titled, The People’s Prison, which was surreptitiously set up at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in 2018 by a brazen and highly clandestine art collective called INDECLINE.
The group was formed in late 2001 by an assortment of graffiti writers, filmmakers and activists on the west coast of the United States. A member of the group mentions that their roster at this time was inspired to create protest art against the Bush administration and what they describe as Bush’s “illegal wars in the Middle East”. They cite Banksy and Russian street art group Voina as influences. Along with other artists and art collectives, INDECLINE also drew upon the work of political organisations such as the Black Panthers. Within the various influences that the members of INDECLINE gained inspiration from, however, they shared amongst them, chiefly an appreciation of the 1980 non-fiction book A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, a prominent historian, philosopher and socialist thinker. The book interrogates US imperialism from a historical perspective, and it is this very imperialism, along with the rampant socio-economic injustices perpetuated by unchecked capitalism that the group wishes to address and combat through their installations, performance and public art projects.
The collective’s work speaks strongly to a punk sensibility in the imagery and sound it uses in its presentation. INDECLINE layers out the footage of their installations, meant to shock and challenge the political system, over music or audio clips from speeches that meditate upon shared relevancies. What is perhaps their most striking aspect is the sardonic humour that they weave into much of their work. Their spokesperson explains, “The world is already a miserable place if you are taking the time to pay close enough attention to the issues we are addressing in our work. By adding humour, we can present these issues in an entertaining and informative way, rather than just adding to the misery”. This sentiment is perhaps most striking in their daring salvo of attacks on the soon to be ex-45th president of the United States, Donald Trump. One such undertaking was their series of installation projects titled, The Emperor Has No Balls, which saw INDECLINE installing five anatomically novel clay statues of the highly controversial leader in Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle in 2016. The feedback the group garnered from right-wing hardliners for this project was interesting as their spokesperson mentions that they were even congratulated by “the other side” for creating something humorous and thought provoking. However, if their other projects have inspired anything, it’s “lawsuits, investigations and death threats”.
This aspect of constant danger is a reality that the members of INDECLINE must contend with regularly, and during the course of a guerrilla art undertaking, the threat of imprisonment or worse becomes all-pervasive. Their member says, “We have been around (for) 20 years, so we have certainly had our fair share of run-ins with Johnny Law. Some of us have our attorneys phone number tattooed on us. We have experienced enhanced screening at airports for years and are forced to interface consistently with the Department of Homeland Security when we re-enter the country”. However, this has not deterred INDECLINE in the slightest, as they have evolved their tactics and cohesion to be not unlike a military unit or their own. The group presents itself as highly organised and meticulous in its functioning, and their spokesperson confidently declares that the many challenges they face from government agencies are “all part of the game”, and that the group is “simply better at (playing) it than they are”.
Among the many art initiatives that the collective has undertaken, few are possibly as large-scale and internationally provocative as their 2020 Freedom Kick series, which is introduced as the group’s attempt at “marrying the collective joy and sense of community felt through football with the dangerous games that world leaders play with their populations”. Freedom Kick saw INDECLINE collaborate with Spanish activist and artist Eugenio Merino in order to create hyper-realistic heads of Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro. They then organised football games with local communities in Brazil, Mexico and the United States, using these heads as stand-ins for balls. INDECLINE’s spokesperson regards Freedom Kick as one of the largest and most successful projects that the group has undertaken in its history thus far, and adds humorously, “The response in Brazil was intense. Bolsonaro held up photographs of his head on live television and his administration was far from happy about the work”.
Currently, INDECLINE stands at a very important moment, not only for the organisation itself, but for the United States in a larger sense as well: Donald Trump has lost the US Presidential Elections to Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden. Owing to the near-unanimous criticism the Trump presidency garnered, the political figure became an important point of convergence for the interests and efforts of artist and activist groups such as INDECLINE. Trump’s defeat signals what may be the end of this convergence, creating an uncertainty with regards to the direction relevant organisations will take in the near future, thereby manifesting the possibility of a division in the largely unified voice practitioners and groups have built. For INDECLINE however, the path forward is clear; it is now all about seeking accountability: “We have been here before. Our “side” watched as Obama used drones to kill innocent civilians, enforced draconian measure at our borders and bailed out Wall St. It’s up to us to enforce our own creative sets of checks and balances. If the ruling class sets precedents, we need to be in a position to kill those precedents”.