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The Red Brigade: Bodies as a Form of Artistic Resistance

By Ilana A. Cohen, Contributing Writer

An ensemble. That was my first thought as the Red Brigade, a procession of perfectly poised bodies cloaked in a red so vibrant it was almost entrancing, passed me by at Extinction Rebellion’s Flood the Seaport protest on September 27. It was an ensemble not only because of the striking unity of the group’s movement but because of the drama its synchronization produced. Its members’ white-painted faces looked twisted in agony as several of those in front raised their hands to the sky, as if to demand from the universe an answer for humanity’s destruction of the planet and so much of the precious life it supports. Through the spectacle of its fashion and coordinated collective movement, the Red Brigade uses bodies to sound the alarm about the climate crisis.

In many ways, the Red Brigade defies description. One article published about Flood the Seaport describes the group as an “international theatrical movement that attempts to draw attention to the climate crisis.” While this description captures what the Red Brigade is at its most basic level, its practices are far more nuanced. The surprising universality behinds its radical use of bodies as an expressive medium also compels public consciousness. Rather than warmly invite people into the climate movement, the Red Brigade forces them to confront the reality of the climate emergency with a challenge to use their own bodies in this artistic resistance.

From Boston to London, the Red Brigade has a uniform presence wherever it appears, manifesting in its distinct fashion. Their costumes — an artform in and of themselves — resemble an almost nightmarish combination of “The Handmaid’s Tale” characters and mimes. The striking contrast between their vibrant red apparel — bright red robes, long red gloves, headdresses pinned with red roses, and even red lipstick to complement — against the harrowing white of their face paint almost feels like a visual assault. As the group chooses red to symbolize the “common blood” of humans with non-human species, this assault seems to make visible the otherwise quiet violence of the dramatic loss of our non-human compatriots amidst the background of the sixth mass extinction.

Working in parallel with these eye-catching costumes, the Red Brigade is extremely deliberate in its movement. The nature of its procession alone requires significant coordination. Like a kind of modern dance, members craft tableaux that create a sense of harmony and collective stake, and which at once contradict and complement the otherwise discordant and disruptive nature of their appearance. Their unity reflects their vision for society’s relationship with the earth, making them appear as one body, rather than as individuals. This appearance of collective identity not only speaks to the principle of collective action in combating climate change, but also fosters a more imminent feeling of occupation in the spaces through which the Red Brigade passes. Such occupation invokes a sense of reclamation of the built environment, namely the city streets and tourist destinations, where their demonstrations convey the pervasiveness of ecological grief in daily life. To this end, the group also specifically aims to transform historic and conventionally tourist-centric spaces, including landmarks and monuments, into places of performance.

It is paradoxical, considering how much it disrupts business as usual, that the Red Brigade proceeds and performs in complete silence. The group’s lack of conventional communication reinforces its appearance as a cohesive and self-contained unit. In a way, this silence is all the more communicative. It reflects the pervasive threat of the climate emergency — when our words are insufficient to capture all that is on the line, it seems that our bodies must do the talking.

Also integral to the Red Brigades’s mission and impact is its accessibility. Following instructional videos online, anyone can become a Red Brigade member. It is a decentralized and community-organized project. This openness speaks to the universality of the body itself as an artform, and people’s complete authority over their bodies makes them a unique tool for expression and protest. How people choose to use them automatically makes a statement. It shows what people are willing to risk — that they are ready to put themselves metaphorically and physically, on the line. There is also a sense of simplicity in this action, a suggestion that individuals together are crucial to achieving a more just and sustainable society.

From its ornate red headdresses to its synchronized procession, the performative protest of the Red Brigade is redefining the notion of artistic resistance in the face of the climate emergency. The group channels ecological grief into a radical and transformative kind of public communication that is inspiring followers around the globe. Nothing about the Red Brigade or its message is usual; but then again, neither is anything about the crisis it hopes to combat.

— Contributing writer Ilana Cohen’s '22 column, “Expressions of the Climate Emergency” is a nonfiction column that discusses artistic response and resistance to the climate crisis.

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