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Artist Puts His Foot to American Commerce

Marshall Weber, a Bay Area performance artist, could be an antidote to Ollie North. With coat hangers and paper money in hand and a TV monitor on top of his head, Weber is ready to debunk secret doings and public foibles faster than you can say shredder .

He will perpetrate his "(C)overt Action” at Highways tonight, challenging everything from Exxon to the “Cocaine Bush Presidency.” His combination installation and performance uses video, a grab bag of unconventional props and even its own audience to get the message across.

The pre-show, for instance, includes artist Chuck Z. French-frying dollar bills for the crowd. Later, dead geese and ducks covered with tar drop from the ceiling to describe--in Weber’s words--"what happened with the Exxon Valdez and how incredibly ugly that was.”

Weber, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and co-director of the alternative space Artists Television Access, says his guerrilla tactics are designed to point out the relationships between art, politics and the almighty buck.

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“Many of the pieces (within the longer performance) are aimed at a deconstruction of the ideals and icons of the commerce economy,” he says.

“The flag is a nice symbol and they can fight all they want about burning it, but to me the real American symbol is the dollar bill.”

Weber’s collages of dollar bills hang in the Highways gallery. There is an homage to Abbie Hoffman and several pictures that capture George Washington as never seen before.

These images, however, will come as little surprise to those familiar with Weber’s previous doings. A 1986 sculpture of his consisting of dollars in the shape of a swastika provoked an outcry in San Francisco similar to the furor that has surrounded work by Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and others.

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“I had strong reactions to that work,” says Weber, whose swastika angered another artist in the same show to the point where the latter tried to tear down Weber’s sculpture.

“I was directly equating our commerce with commerce with the Nazis,” he says, asserting that many political acts are motivated by economic concerns. “It wasn’t a good-will act to put flowers on a Gestapo gravesite,” he said, referring to then-President Reagan’s controversial visit to the West German cemetery at Bitburg in 1985.

Weber, 28, also says it’s no coincidence that so many artists are seeing the specter of artistic censorship these days. “I’m just another of many young artists who is dealing with political content, the way artists in the ‘70s dealt with conceptual content,” he says.

“It coincides with a bad political cycle. Now that there’s political art going on, all of a sudden it’s time to censor it.”

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“We should have been (alerted) that these (attempts at censorship were) going to happen by the reception to Godard’s ‘Mary’ film and ‘The Last Temptation . . .’ ”

Nevertheless, Weber believes that what we’re hearing is the voice of a vocal minority: “I feel that the public supports (controversial) work even more now than in ’86. Even though my work is provocative and political, both conservative and liberal Americans are willing to deal with it.”

Those who would have work like his censored belong to what Weber refers to as an “evangelical” faction. “We’re seeing evangelical elements everywhere in the government. (The attempts at censorship) have gotten worse, because of men like (Sen.) Jesse Helms making (such art) seem negative.

“The superstructure of the evangelicals is solidifying, although some say it’s already peaked. They’re involved in most arms of the politics of this country, especially with regard to Central America and colonializing.

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“We’re approaching the millennium, and that’s key for the Christians,” he says. He believes the increased sense of urgency may translate into even more activity and an increasingly politicized agenda.

His task, as he sees it, is to provide a rejoinder to negative forces--and the forces that he feels may be in silent or even inadvertent complicity with them, such as the news media:

“Much of what I do deals with topical reports and ideas about manipulating people aesthetically with the news--which is as much a fantasy as (many of the) conspiracy theories floating around.

“It has to do with greed and desire, but greed itself is too simple a word to describe the way people’s desires are manipulated by the media.”

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He would like people to take it upon themselves to analyze the interplay of commerce and our everyday lives. “I want them to take away some of the things I discovered while making this piece about complicity and collaboration in systems of culture that we may not have control over,” he says.

Such insights are for Weber the first step toward questioning our stake in the system. “How much of our integrity do we sacrifice?,” he asks. “How much control do we give over?”


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