Garden Rant
Gardening While Intoxicated
Buffalo Spree


A year ago, Licata became the fourth member of a group of garden bloggers with an attitude. Garden Rant one of my favorites: A blend of gossip, news, crusade and, yes, raw rant, it blows the cobwebs out of gardening's mustier corners.

–Adrian Higgins,
Washington Post

... co-curators Elizabeth Licata and Amy Cappellazzo have magnificently transcended the limitations of what is, at bottom, a show of books. ...Preciousness—the bane of such exhibitions—is nowhere in evidence.

–Richard Huntington,
Buffalo News

"Garden Walk Buffalo: A Celebration of Urban Gardens," is a tour guide into dozens of gardens during the annual event held the last full weekend in July. It's knowingly written by Buffalo Spree editor Elizabeth Licata, and packed with gorgeous photographs...

–Mark Sommer,
Buffalo News

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Art Writer

"Theater of Choice,"

"We represent the lunatic fringe, the lunatic fringe, the lunatic fringe,
And in the name of the lunatic fringe
We wish to welcome you to Buffalo!"

© Ladies of the Lake Feminist Theater Troupe

Most of the residents of Buffalo watched the "Spring of Life," Operation Rescue's anti-abortion April offensive in their city, the same way everybody else in America did--on T.V. Friends were spotted, landmarks noted and, amid the tsk-tsking, a strange sort of shamefaced fascination took hold. After all, how often does a place like Buffalo get this much media attention? In the Buffalo News, the local daily, a special column carefully reported exactly how much airtime Buffalo received on ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN, and whether or not it was the lead, the second, or the third news item. Maybe that was what mayor Jimmy Griffin had in mind when he issued his famous "open-armed" invitation to Operation Rescue. Sure, a bunch of people screaming, yelling, spitting, and waving signs at each other isn't the nicest sort of publicity, but...better than nothing?

Such speculation may seem perverse, cynical, disingenuous, or merely beside the point, but creation and control of the media image is an imperative at the heart of the pro-choice/anti-choice issue. A battalion of cameras marches with the Operation Rescue army. They have been trained on O.R.'s every move, in every city they've visited. Whenever a group of blockaders drop to the ground in front of a clinic door, a rapt circle of videographers from various local and national news services records every mumbled prayer. In the same way, Buffalonians were enthralled when this explosion of bizarre activity was happening in the middle of their city. The grim allure of extremism is easy to understand--less apparent is how long the anti-choice movement will be able to maintain their hypnotic spell on the media, and if the spell will work the way they want it to. The Supreme Court's recent decision to regulate but not abolish the right to an abortion seems reflective of both the antics of the religious right and the indifference of those who watch the show on T.V., entertained but not really won over.

So far, it would seem that Operation Rescue has won the media battle--if very few others--hands down. They closed no clinics in Buffalo, were met at the clinic doors by pro-choice activists whose numbers equalled and often exceeded their own, and were arrested by the hundreds (the movement now has a hard time finding enough members willing to be arrested). But their unique brand of civil disobedience--accompanied by all manner of symbolic, colorful, or downright grisly image-bytes--still holds sway in the collective imagination. Who could forget baby Tia, the formaldehyde-preserved fetus Reverend Paul Schenk cradled in his hands, shouting, "This is not a social issue! This is a dead baby!" The fact that Tia turned out to be a stillborn rather than aborted child is a footnote of interest only to those who still think a fair debate is being carried on.

For the most part, groups on the pro-choice side have decided against symbolic actions, taking a more utilitarian if equally passionate stance toward the situation. Operation Rescue is usually met at clinic entrances by a highly organized, businesslike coalition whose central purpose is to keep the doors open and protect the patients' rights to get in and out without being harassed. They lock legs, link arms, hold signs, and chant: the effect is one of solidarity and angry defiance. It is intense, and uncomfortable to watch unless you're involved. On the other hand, the Operation Rescue protesters, unless they're in the act of actually rushing a clinic, are much more diversified. They wave bibles around, drop to their knees, politely request that you look at their ghoulish signs, sing quietly, and sometimes even hand out candy or doughnuts. Their activity is like a carnival made up of several different sideshows. If you don't like the fetus act, you can watch the praying, the singing, or the exhortations. Now there's even a kids' show, the Teddy Bear Club, run by a local pastor, which features anti-choice coloring books, balloons, candy, and teddy bear T-shirts.

One group of women in Buffalo, longtime pro-choicers and feminists, analyzed the Operation Rescue modus operandi, and decided that, although pro-choice activism was fine as far as it went, it was time to mix things up a little. Calling themselves Ladies of the Lake, the group created a series of satirical street actions, actions that might at first be confusing to both sides of the issue. With homemade costumes, grotesquely overdone makeup, and various props, the Ladies took to the streets as personifications of the feminist backlash, die-hard opponents of abortion, sex education and equal rights, not to mention secular humanism, evolution, and gay rights. They had correctly discerned that the best way to point out the absurdities of the religious right was to turn the absurd into the surreal, the merely ridiculous into the frankly preposterous. After the first few impromptu actions--one performance was a disruption of their own Pro Choice Network rally--the Ladies have become creatures of the stage more often than the street, but even during the hectic and occasionally dangerous "Spring of Life" protests, the Ladies sporadically donned their aprons and regaled clinic-watchers with cabaret like the Fund-a-Fetus-Foundation, which aims to put little booties, pearls, and bowties on the pink plastic fetuses brandished by many anti-choicers. Another action made use of comparisons between Buffalo and Wichita, Kansas, site of one of the more successful Operation Rescue rallys. Dressed as various characters from the Wizard of Oz, the Ladies toured the clinics, singing songs (such as the one quoted at the beginning of this piece), and acting out various confrontations between the pros and antis.

Ladies of the Lake is made up of about 20 women from the ages of 17 to 62. Their professions vary almost as widely--there is a therapist, a teacher, a college professor, a quiltmaker, a beautician, a graphic artist, a high school student, a professional singer, and a video artist--but the constants are that almost none of them think of themselves as full time artists or performers, and all of them have been actively involved in social issues at one time or other. Camille Cox, one of the founders of the group and an accomplished designer who has created most of the costumes and props, explains that she and her friends heard about Ladies Against Women, a San Francisco feminist street theater group, and considered an affiliation so that they could do similar actions in response to local Operation Rescue activities in Buffalo. "But they never responded to our request to become affiliated," Cox explains, "and then we decided we were moving in a different direction. More elaborate costumes, more theatrical. They did give us some ideas."

Susan Clements, another founder, and songwriter for the group, differs slightly: "I never thought of the Ladies as being that elaborate although all the work that goes into it is elaborate. The way it comes together is the way it came together when we put together skits in girl scout camp. I tend to think of it as feminist vaudeville. In fact, I always thought we should have a character called Mrs. Rimshot to have a snare drum and say va-va-voom." Highly stylized as many of the group's characters and routines are, they are also easily accessible to a broad range of audiences. It doesn't take a very sophisticated sense of irony to respond to country songs (by Ladies Lily White Angel Brite and her daughter Pearlie White) like "Back in the Stirrups Again," "Mommas Don't Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to be Gay Boys," and "Feminists Are Scum." Nor will it require a college education to understand the wit of "Marilyn Quale's Boot Camp for Political Wives," which teaches mincing and simpering, the adoring gaze, and how to muzzle that pesky intellect. Prophetically, the Ladies proposed a Hillary Clinton bake-off months before Ms. Clinton's recent decision to challenge Ms. Bush's cookie recipe in Family Circle.

Although the Ladies reach their peak in more controlled environments, their street actions have at least been successful in creating complete confusion among the neatly polarized sides at the clinic protests. On one occasion, a Ladies subsidiary called the Beka Beta Pie Moral Sorority came twittering and chirping on the scene, accompanied by a large banner for the Fund-a-Fetus Foundation, and an ironing board with appropriately entitled baked goods (Lemon Harangue Pie, Buns-in-the-Ovens, Wedges of Sin) and Block-Ade for sale. Some anti-choice activists at the scene actually donated money to the Fund-A-Fetus cause before realizing the gag. Significantly, one even laughed at it. The Ladies are sporadically popular with the Buffalo police, some of whom appreciate their frequent jabs at Mayor Griffin, and others who may just be looking for any kind of diversion from the dreary task of keeping the clinics open without having to break heads. The Ladies admit that their effectiveness at massive clinic protests can only go so far but welcome their role as comic relief. Babs Conant, a founding member who has been a feminist activist since the infancy of the movement, stresses a USO persona, saying, "A lot of what the Ladies evolved to is that we're comic relief for the troops, for the people who are out there doing feminist stuff day in and day out. When they have some kind of gathering they want the Ladies to come and make them laugh." Susan Clements concurs: "I'm really sick of hearing that feminists have no sense of humor."

Sadly, hard-to-explain images like a lady in white gloves selling Lemon Harangue Pie rarely appear as media-bytes. Irony can't be reduced to an easily-read tableau, while the image of a man in a black suit praying in the street has instant resonance. The Ladies of the Lake are joined in their efforts to expose the fallacies behind the Operation Rescue crusade however, not by the local or national media, but by a group of independent videomakers called the Media Coalition for Reproductive Rights. In a weekly public access T.V. show "Pro-Choice Planet" this group showed their own footage of the clinic battles as well as some behind-the scenes-interviews with pro-choice activists. After the Wichita debacle last year, "Pro-Choice Planet" ran a speech by 80% Majority leader Ann Baker, who explained the rarely-debated financial structure of Operation Rescue, including its function as a unincorporated money-machine for leaders Randall Terry and Keith Tucci. Another episode, "The Angry Show," focussed on more personal responses to the events. Several video artists talked about what they might be doing if not for the need to respond to Operation Rescue's presence.

The climactic episodes of Pro-Choice Planet, however, were the ones which chronicled the protests themselves. Under no restrictions as to content or time, the MCRR videomakers were able to tape events the networks didn't bother with, including the beating of ACT-UP member Craig Close after a protest at Mayor Griffin's house. Typically, both the newspapers and electronic media steered clear of the event, figuring that ACT-UP wasn't popular enough to make the beating of one of its members an issue (Close's jaw was broken in six places). During the clinic battles, MCRR commentators provided voice-over explanations of events, identifying players, and making sense out of what network cameras usually presented as a chaotic melee. The fallacy of news coverage's "objective" role is at the heart of MCRR's operating philosophy. "I get personally offended when I see people trying to show 'both sides.' Only a very small percentage of the population are right-to-life, and even if they are, only a small percentage of that group would support O.R.'s tactics." says MCRR video artist Jody J. Lafond.

Some MCRR members advocate a confrontational role, foregoing the illusion of objectivity altogether. "I like to make the camera an issue," says Ed Cardoni, MCRR video artist and director of Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center. "I happen to have a camera, but I can also confront people. I'm the video extension of the pro-choicers. Of course, the most damaging thing is just showing what they're [Operation Rescue] doing." Cardoni has succeeded in making his camera such an issue that by now most of the Operation Rescue regulars know him as a hostile and often try to block his attempts to tape them. In a particularly dramatic episode of "Pro-Choice Planet," Cardoni is shown trying to tape the Teddy Bear Club, while some of the parents of "members" of the club (infants and toddlers) stalk toward him, daring him to push them out of his way. It's unlikely, given Operation Rescue's usual alacrity to be filmed, that a network camera would have received the same response.

When asked about publicity stunts like the Teddy Bear Club, baby Tia, or the recent thwarted presentation of "fetal matter" to Bill Clinton, Operation Rescue spokespeople generally hew closely to the party line. They claim that their only objective is to "draw attention to the victims." One local O.R. leader, Johnny Hunter, claims that Reverends Paul and Rob Schenk (pictured, with Tia) have been trying their best to keep out of the spotlight, but the media keeps chasing them down anyway. "Nobody that's pro-life really wants to be seen," Hunter contends. On the other hand, he agrees that "Art is a powerful tool."

Operation Rescue continues to practise its arts in city after city across the nation, as the mangled Roe vs. Wade limps toward extinction. States like New York and California will probably be among the last eligible for such activity if, as predicted, they become nationwide abortion centers when other states begin to severely hamper abortion rights. The long-range fate of Operation Rescue is less predictable. A movement which depends on kneeling Reverends and formaldehyde fetuses for its media appeal wields a very unpredictable double-edged sword.

High Performance, Fall, 1992

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