Mark Yudof’s Thriller: A Performative Protest

27 Jul

Creative activism by a student shows the unique role that art can play in representing conflicts playing out on a rhetorical level.

From: Chrissy Noble, UCD


[To view the video of this performance click this link]

On June 1, 2010, students around the Memorial Union Patio gathered and watched curiously as a polished but oblivious man in a crisp business suit laid out a blanket in the center of the patio, one of the most highly trafficked areas on campus, and began picnicking from a basket filled with gourmet cheeses, breads, and “wine.” After he took only a few elegantly executed sniffs and sips, a nosy reporter, who began asking questions about budget cuts and furloughs, interrupted him. Perturbed but obliged, the man humored the reporter. As his final response echoed through the patio, an eerie and familiar tune began to waft through the area. “Student-zombies,” adorned with theatrical makeup, typical college wear, and backpacks, began to emerge from various spots on the patio and angrily approach the picnic blanket. This is Mark Yudof’s Thriller.

A performative protest, Mark Yudof’s Thriller was devised and created over the course of ten weeks as a main component of Professor Larry Bogad’s Tactical Performance course at UC Davis. Directly satirizing Yudof’s 2009 claim that “being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening,” the performance utilizes simplified and easily-recognizable choreography from Michael Jackson’s 1982 music video, Thriller, embellished with some lightly subversive performative commentary. Our June 1 audience laughed and cheered for “Yudof” as he stole cash out of a student-zombie’s pocket while having his shoe polished, kicked a zombie out of his way, gyrated against his seemingly endless supply of cash, and, quite literally, climbed his way to the top by stepping on the backs of student-zombies. Satirical lyrics sang our Mark Yudof’s praises to the tune of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the recognizable tune thumping in the background.

By the time the performance ended, about 200 students had gathered, cheering, clapping, and shouting messages of solidarity. Fliers including the satirical song’s lyrics and an explanation of the performance’s intent were distributed to onlookers. While generally well received, our performance was not without flaw; an unintentionally early start had us performing just before our targeted rush of hungry students and competing with the noontime bells, nervous performers made a few mistakes, and some students simply had no idea what they were watching. Fortunately, a collective frustration among the campus community due to tuition hikes, furloughs, a lack of transparency, and perceived flaws in leadership within the University of California created an audience already ripe with emotion and generally in agreement with our perspective.

While some very important protests, marches, and rallies have taken place on our campuses, few have achieved far-reaching results and many have resulted in arrests, disciplinary action, and lowered morale. I am under no false pretenses – Mark Yudof’s Thriller is not likely to change philosophies among the policymakers of the University of California, lower our tuition, or put professors back in the classroom full-time. Rather, through the performance, I hoped to create a fun, creative, and safe outlet for dissent, and I hoped to achieve elevated morale among a community in dire need of change. While we’re all suffering the burdens of a University in crisis, we can still find satisfaction in challenging and criticizing power dynamics – at least, in the case of Mark Yudof’s Thriller, for three and a half mischievous minutes.

Chrissy Noble is an undergraduate student at UC Davis, about to complete her studies in Visual Communication and Dance. She enjoys arts and performance of all kinds, is passionate about working toward social justice, and loves animals. She hopes to earn her teaching credential post graduation and continue to perform. You can visit her website at www.christinanoble.com.

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