Socialist acrobatics channel class dynamics in Robby Herbst’s “New Pyramids for the Capitalist System” at Dumbo Arts Center. On display are two shows, one of his grandfather’s collection of beach and socialist acrobat photos, and the other is Herbst’s own work, including large-scale drawings, installations, and performances of human pyramids done collaboratively with Occupy LA.
Socialist acrobatics has a ring to it that doesn’t exactly sound historical, it seems like more of a present phenomenon with an eye toward some future Utopia, like radical cheerleaders pom-poming at turn-of-the-millennium counter-summits. Or, maybe it does have a more 20th century feel, evoking in our long memory performances during a time when East and West were held to be politically, ideologically distinct. Temporally, there is a chasm between these two perceptions, although the movements and contortions of the bodies involved are quite similar. Drawing on a similar divide, Robby Herbst claims New Pyramids for the Capitalist System is actually two shows. One is a display of his grandfather’s collection of beach and socialist acrobat photos, the other is Herbst’s own work, including large-scale drawings, installations, and performances of human pyramids done collaboratively with Occupy LA.
Herbst’s grandfather Martin performed with his troupe at such places as the Young Workers Athletic Club, a 1930s socialist outfit in New York. He was the strongman on whose shoulders the show literally rested, as he piled up several bodies atop his own to form the base of their acrobatic arrangements. His photographs capture the conviviality of early 20th century mutual aid organizations, and the performances documented hum with the dramatized political power that inflected that joyous space. The performers’ affiliation goes beyond either their political agency or their corporeal relationships to touch the spaces in which they worked.
Herbst’s work at Occupy LA mirrors contemporary class dynamics and is inspired by a 1911 diagram produced by Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) called “Pyramid of Capitalist System.” Photo: Lisa Anne Auerbach
Herbst’s work with Occupy LA gets at a similar behavioral shaping of the environment. As a witness to his parents rise to middle class status, as well as to the dismantling of the social structures that facilitated their upward mobility, he finds in the recent popularity of protest a way to connect with his grandfather’s work. What Herbst sees is a reappearance, rather than an insurrection, or even a reenactment. Invoking the similarities between the past and present age, he draws on the hierarchical structuring of society, and more specifically, the movements we make with our bodies to form or reform that society during times of conflict.
Robby Herbst’s Pyramid For the Capitalist System Watercolor with gouache on paper, chairs. Dimensions variable. Photo: Jeanette May, via Dumbo Arts Center
The work is about how we construct and enact the pyramidal form. It is an exegesis of the shape, literally as a rereading of the IWW’s Pyramid of Capitalist System and other texts, and symbolically as its various implementations over time. These architectural concerns lead to questioning what spacial arrangements affect us and how space comports in relation to our affect. Pyramids does not simply address social dynamics but capitalist cathexis, or how we are entrained to hierarchical notions of how society ought to operate. It also suggests that the cooperation required in that formation, indeed in any stable formation, is a profound strength that does not transmute but has the power to change.
New Pyramids for the Capitalist System is on at Dumbo Arts Center until April 8th, 2012. On March 10th, Robby will be riffing on his exhibition in a loose discourse, circling around such things as: group dynamics, group coordination, organizational structure, ideology, spectacle and pleasure. He will touch on beach acrobatics, Occupy, Spanish folk pyramids, and labor unions’ place in modernist dance history.