A group of out-of-town radicals performed ventriloquism with Yale President Richard Levin’s image on the streets of New Haven Saturday afternoon.
Their newest tool in the battle against global capitalism is a small television box that allows any Yalie or New Haven resident to sit comfortably while his own lips are superimposed upon the frozen, narrow-eyed images of Levin and U.S. President George W. Bush.
“The president will now be able to say those things he’s not putting in enough effort to say himself,” explained Bradley Pits, a graduate student in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Las Agencias” fiddled with their latest subversive gizmo as they waited for Yalies to pass by their parked minivan with a parodic “Blocbastard” emblem streaked over the back windows.
The traveling pranksters are part of the Black Bloc, an amorphous anti-globalization movement that staged violent protests at the World Trade Organization summit in Genoa, Italy, last summer.
Pits developed the “Levin-Cam” and the portable video display mounted on a shopping cart that will allow Yalies to witness acts of presidential ventriloquism.
“We had people having the president confess to being a black woman with a piercing or promising to make Yale a half artistic community, half agrarian society,” said an Israeli member of Las Agencias who wore a wetsuit to the taping and goes by the pseudonym Donny Smith.
Although they thought it appropriate to protest against Levin, the activists weren’t sure exactly why.
“[Levin’s image] seemed to be something people had a lot of issues with,” Smith said. “[Levin] had a meeting with [the Yale Corporation] while we were here, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of transparency or accountability surrounding it.”
Smith further explained that he resented many of Yale’s policies, including “the corporatization of the radio station, the co-opting power and self-interest of the secret societies, and the fact that you need magnetic cards to get into anywhere.”
But though their ideas were products of a real savvy for both engineering and street entertainment, the videotapes upon which Las Agencias recorded were rented from Blockbuster on Chapel Street.
Las Agencias planned to record their messages over the previews at the beginning of Blockbuster tapes, as a prelude to actions against the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who owns the Italian arm of Blockbuster.
“If you’re being really passive, if you’re practicing nonviolence, then that’s not direct action,” Smith said, revealing a black face mask he keeps beneath the wetsuit at all times.
Once he pulled up the mask, only Smith’s moving lips were visible, creating a effect like on the video screen. Then Smith adjusted the mask, called a Black Block, over his face and neck until he could see.
The mask has become the trademark look of “anarchist tactic using anti-globalization technique,” Smith explained from under the cloth.
Members of the group said they have encountered violence from authorities during demonstrations.
“The police were the violent ones in Genoa,” insisted Oriana, a young product designer from Argentina, who would not give her last name.
“The sprayed us with tear gas just for being there,” she said.
Las Agencias was invited to Yale by Natalie Jeremijenko, a lecturer in the department of Mechanical Engineering and a techno-artist.
Members of Las Agencias planned their visit to Yale so that it would coincide with last weekend’s World Economic Forum meeting in New York. There, they constructed a giant pair of underwear to fling at the building where meetings were being held, and chanted “W.E.F. is tighty-whitey!”
But Jeremijenko was not present at the voice-over taping near Beinecke Plaza on Saturday, and the show was left to Las Agencias and those Yale students who heard about the group’s visit through activist group e-mails or other channels.
“They’re sleeping on my floor, and they’re totally charming,” Penny Herscovitch ’03 said.
Bundled in a windbreaker and probing the founding members of Las Agencias in the Spanish she picked up during a one-term leave of absence in Mexico, Herscovitch felt she had an obligation to do more than play hostess during Las Agencias’ short stay in New Haven.
“Yale has a role in globalization because as students we are members of society, even though it feels like we’re not,” she said.
But that diagnosis may have been all too accurate: most Yalies seem to bypass the chance to put words in Levin’s mouth.
“I wish more people had shown up,” said Herscovitch.
Zach Schwartz-Weinstein ’04 said that after he was e-mailed about the event, he wanted to support “a pretty good way to inject a student voice into the power structure of this University.”
Schwartz-Weinstein attended the event and wore the pink “New Kids on the Black Block” pin that Las Agencias was handing out.
He had nothing negative to say about Levin, but still maintained that “the smaller problems in this university and in this town are linked by larger processes of global capitalism.”
Herscovitch said she mostly attended the event to “learn from Las Agencias’ front-line experience” in the anti-globalization movement.
But at the end of the Levin taping, it was still hard to know just what Las Agencias’ specific political and artistic aims were.
When asked what she most wanted in the world, Oriana’s answer was threefold: “to break down capitalism, that there be no more wars, and” — in a moment of globalized desire — “that immigrants to any country have the same rights as everybody else.”