If there’s no news, make your own. That’s what former School of the Art Institute students Paul Chan and Andrew Natale decided to do when they received press passes to attend the Democratic National Convention last summer. While photographing various protests around the event for the school’s newspaper, F, they learned of a vacant slot in the rigid schedule of demonstrations permitted in the United Center parking lot. After winning their spot, they spent the next 24 hours creating dances and slogans for a group they christened MEDICARE (Male Exotic Dancers in Coalition Against Right-wing Extremists).
Wearing business suits and false mustaches, the five MEDICARE dancers took the stage early in the morning on the last day of the convention. They sang songs with words lifted from overheard conversations and slogans used by other protesters: “Read Noam Chomsky?” was a variation on a chant by members of the Autonomous Zone; “Colonize Mars” came from the National Space Society; and “Cut the Pork, Tax Meat” originated with two PETA members disguised as a cow and a pig (the pair were mistaken for the characters Moo and Oink, TV mascots of the local butcher shops). Another song was drawn from the city’s instructions on how to construct protest signs–“No Sticks Please.”
The state troopers, four civilians, and one dog who caught MEDICARE’s early morning act responded with a mixture of boredom, amusement, and befuddlement. “It had a Beckett-type feeling,” says Chan, a video teacher (and part-time Reader production assistant). “People were dancing their hearts out and no one was watching. We were waiting for the media who didn’t come, like Godot.”
Chan had the foresight to videotape the event, which he then worked into a clever half-hour mock documentary called The Exotic Body Politic, or A Brief History of MEDICARE. It profiles the dancers, examines their motivations for joining the group, provides political commentary by “experts,” and features the occasional cutaway to a confused audience member.
“The idea was not simply to parody the protest,” explains Chan. “That would have been too superficial. What happened was an accumulation and summation of the whole DNC process, which had been going on for a couple of months, and this was the proper forum for it.
“The idea of scheduling protests is oxymoronic. The whole point of the protest is not only to bring your message to the front but to shake the physical foundations of where you are to make people see what’s going on– to scare the shit out of people and make them see things in other ways. But if you’re worrying about getting protest time, you’re not worried about the more fundamental issue of getting your protest out there.”
MEDICARE had a repeat engagement this July, when they traveled to Michigan to participate in an AFL-CIO rally supporting the locked-out employees of the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. This time they videotaped their protest in front of a crowd of more than 30,000. “The response from people was generally good,” says Chan. “They just didn’t expect to see guys in suits with fake mustaches.”
The Exotic Body Politic: A Brief History of MEDICARE will be shown at 5:30 this Tuesday in the basement of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State; admission is free. Call 312-243-4914 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): video stills by Steven Arazmus.