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Bathrobe Warriors

Feel Tank Chicago takes its misery to the streets.

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Professors are always late. If there's one lesson I should have learned during my abortive attempt at graduate school, or from my chronically tardy academic friends, that should have been it.

Instead, stupidly, I turn up at the Thompson Center at exactly 4 PM on Thursday, May 1, just as the press release--E-mailed to me by two different politically active friends--advised. I'm looking for the Parade and Depress-In, a demonstration being staged in commemoration of something called the "First Annual Day of the Politically Depressed."

The Depress-In was organized by Feel Tank Chicago, a group of five artists and academics who have been meeting since spring 2002 to discuss "public feelings in the political sphere." Three are University of Chicago professors--cultural theorist Lauren Berlant, political theorist Debbie Gould, and art historian Rebecca Zorach--and the two video/multimedia artists, Vanalyne Green and Mary Patten, teach at the School of the Art Institute. The press release for the Depress-In included a long list of social ills that can trigger political depression: tax cuts for corporations and the rich, 40 million Americans without health insurance, racial profiling, Guantanamo, Enron, Rumsfeld, orange alerts, Fox News. "How DID we get out of bed this morning?" the release concluded, urging the masses to "bring your meds" and converge on the Thompson Center in bathrobes and slippers in protest.

In an article for a forthcoming issue of Critical Inquiry, Berlant explains that Feel Tank is part of "Feminism Unfinished," a project sponsored by the gender studies programs at the U. of C., Barnard College, the University of Arizona, and the University of Texas at Austin whose goal is to explore future directions for feminism and the relation between feminist research and activism.

I trace the circumference of the Thompson Center in the drizzle, wondering why I can't find anybody. Were the organizers too depressed to show up at their own event?

Returning to the plaza on the south side of the building, I notice two women taking shelter under an overhang. One has dark, close-cropped hair and a vaguely professorial air, but I'm not sure. A few minutes later, she changes into a blue-and-white plaid bathrobe. Bingo.

The bathrobe lady turns out to be Debbie Gould; her friend is Mary Patten. Seemingly attracted by the robe, a smiling police officer wanders up, wanting to know what they're protesting. "It's against the war or something?"

"Well, it's against everything," Gould deadpans. The officer laughs. "No, not really everything," she says, correcting herself. "It's about the fact that a lot of people feel pretty hopeless given what's going on in the world."

"Oh, OK," says the cop.

"And we thought, we experience that as an individual feeling, but in fact there's something quite political about it," Gould continues, serious now. "So instead of becoming apathetic, we should politicize our depression. Do you know what I mean?"

"OK," the cop says, laughing again.

By ten past four, another person has joined the group: Michael Wolf, a soft-spoken young man in a soaking-wet raincoat.

"I think people are very depressed, so it makes it harder to get anything together," says Gould.

"Depression slows you down," Wolf agrees. "And it's rainy. Though I think the rain is appropriate given the theme."

The wheels of my tape recorder spin as Patten and Gould take turns giving long, detailed explanations as to what they're trying to accomplish. "We need to provide some space for multiple, contradictory emotions in the face of what's happening politically--to be able to offer space that allows for a politics of negativity," says Patten. "We're trying to combine humor with expression of multiple feelings, including despair, to acknowledge this is how we feel. The first step towards recovery is acknowledgment that there's a problem, right?"

"It's an attempt to inject some of the feelings that none of us want to acknowledge, and that we tend to individualize," says Gould. "It reminds me a little bit of consciousness-raising groups--women getting together and realizing that the feelings they were having individually were actually socially produced feelings, and that then became generative of a whole liberatory politic."

As Gould finishes making her point, Patten pulls on her own bathrobe, a garish green-red-and-blue plaid. "It's over many layers," she says. "I'm not really this fat."

The group's signs haven't arrived yet, and three people aren't really enough to chant slogans, so they stand around for another ten minutes, looking like very clean homeless people. Patten continues to rail against the so-called "coalition of the willing." "We're trying to offer a coalition of the unwilling," she says. "We want to offer a space where people can feel [free from] guilt, shame, a sense of demobilization, apathy."

Finally Lauren Berlant and Rebecca Zorach arrive with a motley collection of multicolored, hand-lettered placards stapled to wooden sticks. The cheerful police officer returns to advise the group that if they want to go inside the Thompson Center, they can carry the signs but not the sticks.

"So do you have a name for your organization?" she says. "I have to do the paperwork on this."

"Actually, we don't have a name," says Gould.

"Who do you represent though? What is it, Health Care not Warfare?"

"No, that's another demonstration," says Patten.

"Then what are you demonstrating for?" the cop persists.

"International Theater of the Politically Depressed," says Patten, in a maudlin voice.

"It's a kind of theater," adds Gould. "Performance art."

"It's about the arts, then," the cop says. "OK, thanks. I guess I'm not understanding completely what you're saying, but now I do. It's about more funding for the arts?"

"Sure," says Patten.

Slowly, more people join the demonstration, including graduate student Mia Ferreira, who's wearing a green-and-purple hospital gown, green scrubs, and red bedroom slippers. "To show how clinically depressed I am, I thought a hospital gown would be more appropriate than a bathrobe," she explains. "What I'm really depressed about is that the media will stop showing the people of Iraq now that the war is gone. I'm a public health student, so the health issues, the lack of sanitation and medical supplies, hunger, infectious diseases--those things really depress me."

A few minutes later the group attracts its first passerby, a pale man dressed entirely in black: slim waist-length leather jacket, turtleneck, slacks, and briefcase. "Today is the biggest holiday of the year for me. It's May Day, the international day of workers. So it's good to see that there's political action taking place on this day, beyond any other day," he says.

"These people are doing nothing else but displaying themselves and we've got Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"--the police officers in riot gear who have quietly gathered about 15 feet away--"ready to exercise their billy clubs on their skulls. The major crime isn't happening here," he says, his voice rising, "it's happening in the boardrooms!"

I ask his name. He answers "Vladimir," then "Lenin." When I laugh, his blue eyes flash angrily. "I was named after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin," he says with convincing Russian pronunciation. I apologize. "It's OK," he says. "I get that all the time."

By 4:30 there are ten demonstrators, but they're still outnumbered by police, of whom there are now ten in riot gear and three in regular uniform.

I ask if the lighthearted demonstration might be seen as insensitive to people who are genuinely mentally ill. "Of course not!" Berlant says. "What we're saying is, if you're politically depressed, that's an appropriate response, and you shouldn't confuse that with psychological depression.

"Depression is an appropriate response to the bad world, while a lot of psychoanalysis is an attempt to get people to adjust to the bad world," she continues. "But it's not just the chemicals inside of you that generate the feeling that the world is inadequate to your desire. The world really is inadequate, and you ought to feel bad about it."

The group begins to chant slogans, while one protester, Amy Partridge, beats on a shallow drum that from a distance looks like a flour sifter. Berlant steps to the front of the group. "Pissed off?" she shouts. The group shouts back, "It might be political!"

The plaza begins to fill with after-work pedestrians, several of whom cut straight between Berlant and the others without a glance. Ed Rankus, an SAIC instructor who's stopped by to see his colleague Patten, stares at the group but doesn't join in. "I don't know quite what they're doing," he says. "It's kind of a nice, cute Dada thing." The riot police, seemingly convinced that the group is harmless, start to drift away.

For Dave Grant, a bespectacled young man in a red Patagonia jacket, the Depress-In was his third protest of the day: he stopped at two separate May Day demonstrations in the morning before work. "The red jacket does express some of my political sentiments," he says, "but I own black jackets too."

I ask if he's observing the National Day of Prayer, which coincidentally falls on May 1 this year. He counters that it's also National Loyalty Day. "Colonizing powers like to camp on other holidays," he says. "It makes sense that neoliberal capitalism would camp on holidays of workers' movements. Christmas was once a pagan holiday, and now May Day is a capitalist holiday."

Just before five, the final Feel Tank member, Vanalyne Green, arrives in a cab with a box of white T-shirts: "Depressed?" they read. "It might be political." While helping to carry them across the plaza, Berlant ends up in a heated discussion with uniformed mechanic Francisco Nino. "The president of the United States is like the father of the whole family," Nino says. "If he makes a position, shouldn't we actually support him, because he's got a lot of information that you and I are not given access to?"

"Well, I don't really trust the president of the United States," Berlant says.

"Why wouldn't you trust the president of the United States?" Nino says.

Zorach sneaks over to extract some T-shirts from the box, which tips and almost spills its contents into a deep puddle. Berlant and Nino barely notice.

The rain having let up, some of the protesters move to the curb, where they chant more slogans and wave their signs--"Got soma?" reads Ferreira's--at passing cars. David Getzin, a dark-haired man in an Eisenhower jacket, is also marching and dancing. "Physical movement is a means of expression that is not used often in real life," he says. "And because it's unusual, it can reach people more directly. It displaces them from their usual expectations."

Their long discussion over, Berlant and Nino have parted friends. "He didn't realize that we were arguing on behalf of a more active citizenship," Berlant explains, "and he thinks it's a really important thing, as an immigrant, to respect citizenship."

Meanwhile the curbside protesters are swiftly losing momentum. Two of them have stopped chanting to smoke, while four others are eating soup and croissants brought by one of the later-arriving protesters. Patten admits she's tired, and wonders if it's time to go home yet.

Just when it looks like the demonstration might fizzle out, poet Greg Gillam comes striding purposefully across the plaza, full of energy and enthusiasm. He doesn't know the Feel Tank members, but the Depress-In E-mail was forwarded to him by a friend and he took it upon himself to write a manifesto. "I didn't think they would be organized enough to write it themselves," he says. He's also brought a Radiohead CD in case anyone isn't depressed enough.

Berlant excitedly drags him over to meet Green, and Gillam reads some excerpts aloud: "Why May First? Think about it. People died to give us a 40-hour workweek." Berlant and Green nod, laugh, and groan at appropriate moments. "I didn't have time to get to Kinko's," Gillam says, "but I have one copy if anyone wants it."

Just before six, the demonstration wraps up. Berlant seems tired but elated. "I don't know what the criteria for success of any demonstration are," she says. "One criterion is a lot of people come. But the only way that an action is important is if it leads to other actions, and they lead to other reactions, and that builds solidarity. Our view is, this is a long-term project. We're trying to get people to think about their detachment as a kind of engagement."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.

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