On March 30th, the artist collective INDECLINE put President Trump in a jail cell. In a $1000-a-night suite at the Trump International Hotel, an actor dressed as the 45th president—replete with a Make America Great Again hat and iridescent, ocher face-flesh—sat handcuffed behind makeshift bars, attended by a quorum of live rats. Below him lay the detritus of an oily McDonald’s feast. Above him a message read: “Rats will eat anything, even their rat king.”
“Trump” entertained members of the media invited to the installation with characteristic presidential aplomb, declaring his administration’s achievements (“Unemployment is lower than Bill Cosby’s zipper”) and commenting on the images of revolutionaries and activists, such as Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Edward Snowden, that INDECLINE had hung on the walls surrounding him. “That’s Robin Williams,” he said, pointing to a painting of Noam Chomsky, “in that movie where he pretended he was a woman.”
Dubbed “The People’s Prison,” the performance art piece moved out of Trump International after its one-night run and is now open to the public as a 30-day installation at Pasadena’s Gallery 30 South. Proceeds from the exhibition will be donated to The Native American Rights Fund and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“The People’s Prison” is just the latest project from INDECLINE, whose past efforts of art-based activism have drawn both praise and ire from viewers and the press.
Their 2017 project “Death Metals,” in which members of the collective broke into an abandoned gold-processing facility in the Mojave Desert to carve images protesting “man’s constant quest for wealth at the expense of everything else,” was lauded by many art blogs as ambitious and poignant.
Conversely, the collective’s debut project—the 2001 video series Bumfights—is widely regarded as one of the internet’s most deplorable nadirs. The series featured scenes in which homeless individuals are enticed to harm themselves and each other, get tattooed with the word “BUMFIGHTS” and engage in other demeaning activities for small sums of cash and not-so-small quantities of malt liquor. INDECLINE maintains that these videos were “a project rooted in social commentary.” In an interview for a 2004 documentary titled Bumfights: A Video Too Far, a founding member of the collective was quoted saying, “Bumfights was something that we had set out to make money with.” The rights to Bumfights were sold for $1.5 million.
In a 2016 piece called “The Emperor Has No Balls,” the collective took another jab at Trump, eliciting a mixed response. They erected life-sized statues of the politician/reality TV personality—void of his clothing and his testicles—in five major U.S. cities. Many called the action “hilarious,” while others saw it as an instance of body shaming (the parts of Trump’s physiology the sculptor had not omitted were depicted in a unflattering manner), or as a writer for L.A. Weekly put it , as a piece that “lower[s] levels of political discourse and exploit[s] our basest instincts in the name of exposure.”
That same article also questions the collective’s practice of prominently including the INDECLINE brand logo in projects presented as activism, pointing specifically to an instance where the collective placed the names of African Americans killed by police on the stars that line Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The INDECLINE logo sits right below names like Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, in what the Weekly writer called, “A tacky move from a bunch of white kids publicly appropriating minority rage.” This wouldn’t be the first time an INDECLINE action intended to show support for the African-American community wasn’t interpreted as such. Their project “Klu Klux Klowns,” in which INDECLINE hung several effigies of clowns dressed in KKK robes from a tree in a Richmond, Virginia park, was swiftly condemned by black community leaders.
It’s difficult to know what to make of INDECLINE. Seventeen years ago, they were producing Bumfights. Today, they orchestrate projects like “A House in Oakland ,” cutting the vinyl off corporate billboards and fashioning it into shelters for the city’s homeless. Their ever-present logo, emblazoned on both their projects and on the products they sell online, could be seen as a shameless plug, or as a necessity in the age of social-media branding. Or maybe it’s both. Maybe INDECLINE are modern heroes; maybe they’re a group of kids raised on MTV’s Jackass who use activism as a justification to pursue on-camera adrenaline. Maybe they’re both.
In an era in which the integrity of our highest institutions crumbles in a hail of hollow deceits, in which the actions of our nation’s leader have transcended the ability to shock, in which criticism and protest rooted in factual grievances wilt under the tanning-bed glare of the phrase “fake news,” perhaps activists who use shocking tactics to “lower levels of political discourse” are simply evening the playing field. What is Trump if not the figurehead of an attention-seeking brand with a shady past? Maybe collectives like INDECLINE are American culture’s way of fighting fire with fire.
PRØHBTD spoke with a representative of INDECLINE in the hopes of finding some answers.
How has “The People’s Prison” been received?
The response has been really good. I’d say it’s one of the more positive responses we’ve seen through and through. Obviously, there’s going to be a faction of society that finds everything we do repulsive just because of who their allegiance is to. So we kind of write them off.
With the [project], there was a little bit of risk but a huge reward, with the art itself and the charities involved, and the lack of destruction in the hotel room. It’s really hard to get mad at something so innocuous. The statement was pretty heavy, but a lot of the things that people seem to latch on to when criticizing our work is they look past the message and focus on things like trespassing. But being that we booked the room and went about things as legitimately as possible, there’s not a whole lot to say.
It’s one of the most overtly comedic projects INDECLINE had done. Is there a reason for the lighter tone?
No, not necessarily. I think the project just in essence lends itself more to humor. We had to dress up in suits and go through a little song and dance to get into [Trump International Hotel] without setting off any alarms. It’s a nice hotel, and some of us are pretty heavily tattooed. So behind the camera, there was a lot going on in terms of the Trojan horse element.
Everyone knows that Trump is a pretty significant threat to our country and the world. But sometimes it’s important to add some irreverence to these projects, too, just so people aren’t so bogged down with the news and everything else. I don’t think it does anyone any good to watch our projects and be any more depressed and fucked up over the current situation.
How does it feel to participate in one of the actions?
It depends on which one. All of them have different levels of risk. There are some similarities between each one, in terms of their being a Trojan horse [aspect], or a kind of bank robbery aspect—where you have to get in, get out, and make off with the goods. Sometimes “the goods” are just a memory card full of content to release to the media and then get them to cover it. It’s always pretty intense.
A lot of us come from various backgrounds, and we’ve found a really good way to gel when it comes to logistics and execution. It’s almost like military precision the way we do our thing. There’s very little room for error so we spend a lot of time on recon, making sure everything is where it needs to be. We don’t just show up and wing it. I don’t think we’ve ever done that. We try to make sure every hypothetical is considered, down to, “What happens if you put a naked statue up in Times Square and someone thinks it’s a bomb?” We try to be pretty thorough.
A lot of times it’s really stressful and you’ve got to focus really hard, and there’s not a lot of room for fun. Then when you’re driving away and you see the project from afar, or, even better, the next morning when you see it blowing up all over the internet with all the news coverage, that’s a pretty gratifying feeling.
The best thing we can hope for after we go and put everything on the line is for there to be widespread coverage and for people to respond to it. It can be pretty addicting. It feels nice to go out and do something as small the “Shoot a School Kid” billboard and then the next day it’s everywhere. You get to provide a voice and a new narrative on something that was getting drowned out. We like that.
You’d stated in another interview that you’d be lying low after The People’s Prison. Is there any sense that you’ve drawn some heat in the project’s wake?
No. We’re not feeling pressured by any authoritative figures or entities to step down and relax.
Since November of last year, we’ve been going pretty hard, from Death Metals to the Inauguration project [with] the graveyard, to the “Shoot a School Kid” billboard, and now this one. It’s just time to lay low, think up some new projects, and work on our merch.
The merch sales are the only way we can fund these things. So it’s kind of crucial to take a step back right now. We have a bunch of new t-shirts, bandanas and hats we’re releasing, so we want to make sure that side of the collective is looked after.
When did you start selling those INDECLINE-branded products?
We started selling them in 2001 when the collective was founded.
Why is it important to include your brand logo, not just on your merchandise, but to incorporate it into your projects, such as on the Hollywood stars for #BlackLivesMatter: Hollywood, or on the tombstones you guys installed on Trump’s golf course?
We want people to know who did it. On the off chance that we don’t have coverage of it, or that the media doesn’t pick it up, it’s important to make sure that it has our signature on it.
Also, it drives recognition to the collective. These pieces are essentially commercial pieces at the end of the day.
Once they’ve fulfilled their purpose of going out into the public and raising awareness and speaking on behalf of a certain topic, we rely on them to educate people as to who we are and then inspire them to check us out and hopefully buy a t-shirt. Then we can use those funds to create the next project.
It’s important that we’re able to pay for these projects. We don’t have funding and we probably never will. We all have day jobs and things that we do. The way INDECLINE is set up, that’s an important element.
Your videos are as much about the process of executing the projects as they are about displaying the finished product. What would you say to someone who sees that as glorifying vandalism?
If you take one of our projects, A House in Oakland , that’s one of the best examples of a video starting off with just blatant acts of vandalism: climbing corporate billboards and cutting the entire piece of vinyl off and running away with it. Fully stealing billboards from corporations. But then it ended with those billboards being fashioned into tents for the homeless on Valentine’s Day.
Anyone who wants to miss the mark so completely and get hung up on vandalism is either not intelligent enough to realize what we’re trying to do, or they’re just looking for that error, that chink in the armor where they can say, “You didn’t have to break laws to make this point.” A lot of times that is what you have to do.
We don’t subscribe to playing by the rules because the other team doesn’t play by the rules. So why should we need to conform to permitted marches and signs with puffy paint on them saying how we feel? We’ve grown up in a certain culture, and we’ve watched the way thatgovernment and law enforcement agencies have played this game. So we’re playing by our own set of rules.
If you can’t watch these videos and see that [more] so than they are attacks on those agencies, they are on behalf of the people. Like the #BlackLivesMatter [project] on Hollywood Boulevard is not so much an anti-police piece as it is about standing up for African Americans who are being murdered by the police and going and doing something that’s going to get national media attention and draw it to that group of people.
It’s kind of ridiculous. We don’t spend a whole lot of time considering those opinions, just because they’re so off base and irrelevant when it comes to the messages we’re trying to convey.
Did you feel the opinion of someone like Bernice Travers, the president of Richmond Virginia’s oldest advocacy group for African-American voters, was similarly irrelevant when shecriticized Klu Klux Klowns? She said INDECLINE “does not understand the pain black people endured then, and still feel today, about hangings.”
She has her own opinion. And so do the people that responded to that project in the dozens and dozens of emails we received afterwards. She’s more than welcome to weigh in on that. But she’s also a politician, and not exactly someone who’s on our team.
The opinions that matter to us are people who are working class. People like us. Any public official or authoritative figure is going to have their own set of values and their own agenda. I don’t think what she said was necessarily right or wrong, it’s just that it doesn’t necessarily matter at the end of the day. That project needed to be made. It needed to be made the way we did it. She’s free to have her opinion, but it doesn’t make a difference to us. We’re not going to change the way we do things.
INDECLINE stated in aninterviewthat these pieces, at least on some level, are “built for the masses to enjoy.” Can you elaborate on how a mural that says “Rape Trump,” or how the lynched KKK dummies in Richmond, are intended to evoke enjoyment in a viewer?
This is what we do. This is what we’ve been doing for 17 years, and we don’t assume, when we release these things, that our parents are going to call and congratulate us. It’s not for everybody.
But we also created that project in Richmond as soon as Heather [Heyer] was hit by that car by a racist piece of shit in Charlottesville. The first thing we did the day that happened is we went on social media and said, “Every dollar you spend on our website is going to go towards funding a project that criticizes the alt-right and the neo-Nazi movement.” We made about $4,000 in 20 minutes. If that’s not indicative of people supporting us, I don’t know what is.
That [support has] grown exponentially since then because people are seeing us, not just as an effective body of artists that go out and fight for different causes, but also one that’s really reliable and consistent.
If you look at INDECLINE’s body of work, we’re not Banksy. We don’t just do stencils. We have sculpture, we have Death Metals, we have public performance pieces…. Our biggest asset and the thing that makes us most excited to do these things is keeping it fresh, keeping it new and keeping it controversial.
Speaking of INDECLINE’s controversial body of work over the last 17 years, are you including the Bumfights videos under the umbrella of what INDECLINE stands for? Are those videos part of the consistent ethos you mentioned, or are projects like A House in Oakland a way of making amends for the harm many accused INDECLINE of perpetrating against the homeless community?
We’re not making amends for anything. Bumfights was INDECLINE’s first project, and it was a project that was rooted in social commentary—[it was] our way of drawing attention to the homeless issue. And it totally blew up in our face. Being as young as we were and approaching it the way we did, did not work to our advantage.
In our minds, at that age, we thought, “Are more people going to watch this, and is this going to have more of an effect than trying to put together some kind of Michael Moore, touchy-feely, sort of piece about homelessness?”
INDECLINE stands behind it. It’s not so much about making amends; it’s about just continuing to make projects. Luckily for us, we haven’t done anything that was as financially successful as Bumfights, which I think is where a lot of the problems came in. No one would have cared if people weren’t making money, and specifically making money off what looked to be exploiting the homeless.
What’s your overall goal with these projects?
First and foremost would be awareness, and then beyond that would be inspiration. We want people to stop what they’re doing sometimes and realize that we’ve been afforded a lot of freedoms and rights as Americans, and it’s a shame to not put those to use. Especially when so many of us are so privileged and so few are. Sometimes it’s nice to think about what you can do to fight for the voiceless and do things on behalf of people who don’t have a way of effecting change in their life.
This is a fight that will be going on long after we’re here. It’s not about winning necessarily, because there are so many battles happening, but it’s about ensuring that with each generation there are people to look to for that inspiration to keep that fight going. That’s always going to be a part of our culture. It’s going to be a part of the world. Every country has its struggles.
If you look at America, we’ve got a really vibrant history of protests and revolutionaries in our own country. We’d like INDECLINE to be its own voice of this particular generation in the same way Hunter S. Thompson was through literature when Nixon was in office. We hope and strive to be something people can look to 50 years down the road when Trump is this historical president—which he definitely will be—and people are going, “Fuck, what were people doing when Trump was in office?” We hope they can look to us.