The Performativity and Mediation of Protest




Everybody remembers him as Tank Man, the unknown protester who – on June 5th 29 years ago – obstructed a column of Chinese tanks in Beijing, the day after the Chinese army forcibly suppressed the student demonstrations and killed hundreds of protesters. Wearing a white shirt and black trousers, he stood up in the street and with his body impeded the military parade to move forward.

Tank Man’s gesture became a symbol of resistance all over the world, not only in that specific Chinese context but for decades to come. A student leader who was present that day remembers witnessing several people stopping the tanks, yet, neither videos nor photographs captured them. Thanks to the iconic image that froze this man’s action, within modern history’s imaginary Tank Man is, and always will be, the sole brave man in the square.

Almost thirty years after this event, in a moment of political turmoil and social disorder, the performativity of protesting has reached its full potential. Emphasised gestures, a witty use of language, and charismatic symbols are fundamental characteristics of the 21st century protest. Tank Man taught us that the performativity of resistance attracts the camera, and what attracts the camera captures the attention of the crowd. Young protesters from all over the world are becoming increasingly aware of that, and by staging symbolic agencies of confrontation aim to show their power. Leshia Evans, photographed whilst facing numerous policemen in full riot gears as they arrested her during the protest in Batoun Rouge, Louisiana, became a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement. Evans became the ‘Tank Man’ of another suppressive system.

The performativity (and the mediation) of protest entails a visual element that communicates more effectively than words and slogans. Once captured by the camera, the message of resistance is framed forever, becoming a clear statement of intention, of fight.