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Reclaiming the power of art

Lynn Di Nino shows us the way

Mega-Chess event held Sunday, Sept. 20 at Tollefson Plaza in downtown Tacoma.

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Last week Lynn Di Nino and a group of Tacomans staged a mega-scale chess game at Tollefson Plaza. Chess pieces made from recycled 5-gallon buckets and discarded household appliances were spray-painted day-glow pink and green and pushed around a human-scale chessboard that had been chalked over the plaza floor. Color commentary rang out over loudspeakers and black- and white-suited players reenacted a legendary chess match involving prodigy Bobby Fischer and a once member of the Tacoma Chess Club. The Mega-Chess event was not authorized by the current managers of the Plaza, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, which tacks a fee of several hundred dollars onto any use of the so-called public space.

With delightful irony, Di Nino and others waved picket signs protesting their own unauthorized use of the space. It’s the kind of delightful irony that makes onlookers think, makes participants feel empowered, and motivates political change. Or at least it gets the conversation started. But Di Nino, the mastermind behind some of the most potent displays of artistic power Tacoma has ever seen, doesn’t think of herself as a political artist.

Maybe that’s why she’s so good at it.

“I live in a small town, and it’s easy to observe the politicians and the policies and the things that go wrong,” she says. “I just use the skills I have to get involved.”

In some sense, it’s become too easy to separate art and politics anymore. We gawk at art. We intellectualize it. We talk about it. Sometimes we’re inspired by it. But rarely do we wield it. Rarely do we conceive of art as something that can change the world.

The whole idea of art for art’s sake — pure aesthetic — sends a pernicious little message — that art only functions per se as some sort of power — that it really just describes the world, rather than moving or changing it. Every time there is a censorship scare, the NEA art defenders come out of the woodwork, claiming that the offending work should be allowed because, after all, it’s only art.

But Di Nino, and her work, tell a different story. When she first arrived in Tacoma, the Brame scandal hung like a malevolent cloud over Tacoma. Di Nino, inspired by those circumstances and others, conceived Heads Will Roll. The project involved taking casts of the faces of 40 Tacoma leaders who volunteered to participate. Those casts were reproduced as plastic heads, 1001 of them, and rolled down Ninth Street past city hall. Citizens packed the streets with bags of shredded city documents. The heads didn’t roll as expected, and people began to swell into the streets, grabbing the heads and throwing them in the air, tearing open bags of shredded documents. The event became a sort of beautiful, though messy, kind of riot — a peaceful purging of the frustration, depression and angst that had infested the city. And while the display may not have single–handedly purged corruption from city hall, it certainly helped.

That’s the power of art. Let’s follow Lynn Di Nino’s example, and reclaim it. Di Nino’s example, and reclaim it.

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