Blood Sacrifice: Notes on Red Shirt Aesthetics

White, an identification of purity tied to a conspicuous yet static morality; blood, the moving force within the body that perpetuates life. In the aftermath of Black May 1992, a “Clear Thai Image’ campaign, the first signs of a “clean” politics used by the Democrat party to gain power, “sent reps from Thai tour agencies out to the agencies in foreign countries to assure them personally that everything was A-OK.” (Klima 2002: 131). With a landscape painted by blood as the Thai military opened fire on unarmed ‘non-violent’ demonstrators and innocent bystanders, new investment had to be assured the country’s return to white in what Alan Klima calls “bloodless power”. In Klima’s excellent account, blood was removed from the streets and wiped from the trees, just as all traces of bodies—of the dead and of a previous presence signified by graffiti—were erased. The environment, the Rajdamneon Road of today’s UDD “red shirt” protests, was effectively sterilized. Staging the scene of erasure, re-purifying the set, and revising the national image in the days after Black May was the primary goal. Today it is the government authorized “white coats” erasing the UDD Red Shirt’s elaborate, if not ingenious, production of a crime scene.

Now there are any number of furtive attempts to offer one’s hand in the appearance of the landscape, especially today, but across the city the site of life, solidarity, people of all varieties trumping the solitary indifference of the city, are contained within the limitations of space in a furnace-like heatThe protestors of Black May, were quickly forgotten, removed by the military (some say secretly hidden in containers of the coast of Thailand) and made invisible. It is against this present and impending invisibility that the recent ‘blood’ politics of the UDD can perhaps be better understood.

For the uninformed, UDD leaders announced yesterday that the 100,000 protestors in the city would donate 10cc of blood, as assisted by 300 volunteer doctors and nurses. This blood, drawn in the non-diegetic (off screen) space of air-conditioned tents at Phan Fa bridge, was pooled and dumped at the office of Prime Minister Abhisit Wechachiwat—and then his house in well-choreographed fashion. The military led them to the gates, and even offered words of support. This is how New York Times Bangkok correspondant Thomas Fuller narrated the scene:

The protesters held up the containers of blood like offerings to an angry god before pouring them out. Clumps of coagulated blood clung to the pavement. A Brahmin walked barefoot through the foamy red pools and performed a ceremony. A soldier in full riot gear fainted.

In response, numerous health “authorities” have rendered their voice to the Thai media to explain that diseases (like HIV or Hepatitis C) could be transmitted through this unhygienic visual display. The UDD are not authorized access to the cinematic mode of mise-en-scene, a means of re-designing the landscape—an urban space too purified by the structures of neoliberalism to dabble in the Brahmin blood rituals of sacrifice. The newspapers likewise interpret the event as a sign of “fiction”, using the cinematic headlines “There Will be Blood” (Bangkok Post/The Nation) and “True Blood” (The Nation) to project a stain to the national image.

I see it another way. The UDD have come up with one of the most penetrating responses to the rudimentary surface of two groups: the de-politicized urbanites who wear white as a sign of purity in non-violence, and of course white coated public health officials that act as the government’s on-set clean-up crew; and the Abhisit coalition who choose not to “see” the UDD by allocating power to the military and police for a few weeks (via the Internal Security Act), or assigning low-level officials to negotiate with them. The fact that a Parlaimentary session was cancelled yesterday because no one showed up, speaks to the latter point. The UDD have responded by approaching these thin institutional surfaces with the depths of the body, invoking the “traces” of previous events in Thai history. Blood is a sign of their presence, and inclusion into a history that offers its present manifestation as non-violent in a reality that is better expressed as forgetful.

Today, on the walk to the boat between Siam Square and Hua Chang bridge, I stop and look at a group of white shirt demonstrators outside of the Singapore-modeled Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). Here, young middle class Bangkokians have arranged an outdoor art installation of “conscious” art (their white shirts read “consciousness” in soft blue text) with the theme of non-violence. They proclaim to offer “free hugs” and there is a band in the background that plays songs about peace or the need to avoid death (presumably), including a cover of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”, after which the singer says “let’s let the foreigners know that Thais are non-violent.” This clean and orderly display of happiness, a de-politicized post-Black May generation of IPod hipsters that were likely in Siam Square for last week’s candle light vigil for non-violence, clashes with my arrival 20 minutes later in the Old City. Gridlock traffic and other machines of modernity have been replaced by sounds of the political. Here, thousands of red-clad people from all over the country have created their own art installations, their own mise-en-scene, only they do not wish to be commissioned by purified white interiors. Authorized, what Sirote Khlamphaiboon called “on screen,” political science professors and news correspondents towed the government line to suggest the demonstrator’s use of blood was unsanitary, crazy, and perhaps not even “real” (e.g., maybe most of it was cow blood they suggested). But, in my opinion, the “blood sacrifice” brought back the realism to the landscape, connected to a memory (Thaksin mentioned Black May in his call-in to the demonstrators last night), and stained the landscape in blood by producing their own paint. Where both aesthetics and politics meet, I consider their act ingenious.

“relational aesthetics”:

After giving blood, demonstrators discuss it
Dear protestors: "stop destroying the nation"
The shopping district offers the free hugs of non-violence

In this sketch, red is "violence"

inside/outside: political argumentation bad, depoliticized white good

See also Alan Klima. 2002. The Funeral Casino. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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