ACTIVIST ART: Effective Resistance / Dreaming the Future We Need
But, to stay relevant to the crises besetting us in the South Florida region, there is nothing like being willing to entertain a little criticism and self-criticism. This is what I offer here.
I believe the time is now to get much more strategic and tactical about how we deploy art activism. We need the whole spectrum from the quieter, slower EcoArt to the high profile, high energy pranks and hijinx of the YES MEN. And we need to learn how to do them, as well as when and where for greatest effect and impact on the public.
For seven years I have worked through the organization I founded, EcoArt South Florida, to promote site specific art interventions into ecological damage. We searched out opportunities for local artists to create eco-positive artworks that engaged science, engineering and community engagement as well as more traditional visual means like scale, color, texture and more.
This does not mean I think the EcoArt I have worked hard to help establish in our region is no longer relevant. I believe it is vitally important to produce EcoArt direct intervention projects as models of what a sustainable presence of humans on this planet can and must become. I consider these EcoArt works to be “slow activism” and intrinsically valuable.
The term “slow activism" was coined by British theorist Wallace Heim who has proposed that some of the most effective art interventions are consciously designed to proceed slowly: “…in the time it takes to engage in conversation…” A great example of “slow activism” as “conversation” is the human-generated trophic cascade that occurred with the reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone National Park. This intervention was not EcoArt, it was a straight science action, but it shows what can happen when a species long gone from an ecosystem reenters it, and by human design. Soon after the wolf was reintroduced, aspen, cottonwood and willow, that had been all but extirpated, began to reestablish. Why? Because wolves were eating the elk, and therefore not as many elk were foraging on those trees, allowing small trees of these species to proliferate. Trophic cascade as conversation between natural systems and human intervention was occurring!
But today, in this space Love the Everglades Movement has so generously provided, I want to urge all of us, especially artists, to engage a different kind of activism. While EcoArt’s slow activist conversations with ecologies in crisis take place on one stage -- ecological restoration art as slow activism performance -- we also need to take assertive action on another stage -- the doorsteps of the entities causing the ecological damage. We need actions that continue, expand and localize mobilizations like the impressive Climate Action event last September in NYC.
Tactical is the operative word. Two of my favorite theorists come to mind: the Chicana feminist thinker Chela Sandoval, and the Argentine born anthropologist Néstor Garcia Canclini. I propose we consider their advice for how to engage a tactical art activism in the current context in which we find ourselves.
Sandoval’s concept of tactical activism is elaborated in her classic book Methodology of The Oppressed. This is the concept of the “differential.” Sandoval’s construct of “the differential” is not unlike the differential in the manual transmission of a car – it is the mechanism that allows gears to shift based on changing terrain; it is what makes the car adaptable. Like the now old-fashioned stick shift, Sandoval asserts that contemporary activists can be more effective by being knowledgeable about and prepared to use multiple methods in their pursuit of social change. They must have “differential consciousness” and engage in “differential social movement” that allow them to shift “gears” deftly from one approach to another. In an environment of rapidly morphing political threats, it is not enough to use one method or pursue a single, unvarying strategy; today’s effective art activist must be prepared with a toolkit of diverse methods and a tactical mindset.
My other favorite theorist to whom I recommend we look for advice is Néstor Garcia Canclini. In his 1995 book Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity, Canclini argues that politicized art gestures cannot, by themselves, lead to real change. Canclini proposes that art should be deployed in situations calling for change as “performances” which represent and simulate political action in sync with other politically transformative energies, but on different stages at the same time.
Keeping Sandoval and Canclini in mind, then, I would like to introduce several examples of current art activism that tactically deploy both the “differential” and the “performative,” are directly engaged with environmental crises, and operate in sync with politically transformative energies in the culture.
Over the next decades, Aylon carried out related Earth Ambulance projects in the Soviet Union, Japan and Israel as well as the United States. The original Earth Ambulance has been decommissioned from active travel, and is reconstituted as a permanent exhibit at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill. Viewers are invited to sit inside the ambulance, which is outfitted as a kind of meditation space, decked with photographs and video documentation of several previous Earth Ambulance projects.
In a recent prank, the YES MEN crashed a Homeland Security Congress in Washington DC, attended by government contractors, lobbyists and officials, including a retired Navy Admiral, a retired USAF general, a former Seal team leader, and an aspiring Republican Congressional candidate.
- A stirring announcement of a fictitious new US government plan, the "American Renewable Clean-Energy Network" (AmeriCAN), to convert the US to 100% renewable energy by 2030. The completely false, but also completely doable new energy initiative would redirect oil company tax breaks and subsidies to support renewables; commit to "Manhattan Project-level" Defense spending on conversion to renewables in order to prevent future climate-change-related conflicts; and partner with Native American nations whose lands could provide all of our renewable energy needs. The announcement was interrupted repeatedly by audience applause.
The announcement was made by the (allegedly) US Department of Energy's "Benedict Waterman" (Andy Bichlbaum ) wearing a page boy grey wig recalling the hairdo of the recently appointed Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. The wig was made especially for the occasion by RuPaul’s wigmaker.
- This was followed by an eloquent speech by "Bana Slowhorse" of the “Bureau of Indian Affairs” (actually Gitz Crazyboy, a youth worker and anti-tar sands activist from the Athabascan Chippewayan First Nations, whose land includes the Alberta Tar Sands). “Bana's" speech concluded: "We are all the Department of Energy.“ Accompanied by enthusiastic audience applause and whistles.
- All attendees then danced a “celebratory circle dance” to the singing of "Drum Chief Four Feathers" (actually Tito Ybarra, an Ojibwe comedian and singer). After the event, two dozen contractors lined up to hand "Waterman" and "Slowhorse" their cards and offer their services in carrying out the conversion.
I consider the YES MEN to be the sine qua non of the super-sophisticated, brainy end of the artistic activism spectrum. They do their homework. They craft their hijinx carefully to gain maximum exposure in all corporate “news” media, create and circulate films in traditional venues, and for free online, and take full advantage of social media’s viral effects. They utilize satire, shaming and wild humor, turning the real life ridiculousness of huge international corporations’ poisonous actions, responsible for our many environmental and human tragedy crises, against them. They fund all this successfully with crowdsourcing, and have a team of probono lawyers ready to respond to lawsuits. That they now focus almost all their efforts on their YES LAB, teaching others how to incorporate these kinds of approaches in their local efforts means this is a resource I hope we can’t refuse to use!
Like The Illuminator, Light Brigades are highly mobile, placing illuminated messages at targeted locations, appearing and disappearing quickly. Events are photographed, and have a longer life via postings on social media. There are several points at which individual community members can engage in Light Brigades, including planning and strategizing for where the Lighted Messages should appear, development of the slogans, creating, maintaining and storing the lighted letters, and holding the messages at targeted locations, as well as keeping social media updated as events unfold. Costs are relatively low, so this explains why so many brigades are appearing across the country, as opposed to Illumination projections, which do require a major investment in 10,000 lumen (minimum) projectors.
Music is so important to activism, and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra provides a mobile alternative to the stationary concert which often is expensive, discourages those not actively playing in the band from participating directly, and obviously cannot be deployed at fraught locations such as the headquarters of oil companies. Activist musicians in the orchestra also point out that “To be effectively loud on New York streets, you usually need a loudspeaker, and to use a loudspeaker, you need a permit from the NYPD. If you’re planning on playing loud instruments, however, no such limitation exists, and this has made the RMO an essential ingredient in many impromptu demonstrations.” TMO is a great example of the tactical wisdom of figuring out ahead of time what needs and what does not need a permit! And acting accordingly!
Along with the YES LAB and Beautiful Trouble, the vibrant Backbone Project not only plans and carries out their own artistic activism related specifically to local issues in Washington State, but they also provide assistance to other groups locally in Seattle and other WA cities, and elsewhere, both coaching actual actions on site, and training groups to do their own actions. One very impressive offering is assistance with personal and group security, very much needed when activist art is introduced in contested public spaces. Backbone also personifies the Sandoval prescription that activists become proficient in advance planning and the use of a wide range of approaches, tailored to specific on site requirements. A new Backbone emphasis will be to develop a program to prepare CSOs (Community Supported Organizers) in local areas, based on the model of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs).
I end this discussion of a selection of the best of the best activist art initiatives currently available with Beautiful Trouble and Beautiful Solutions. As concept and ongoing resource, these twin entities speak eloquently to what two of my favorite theorists, Chela Sandoval and Canclini pointed to almost two decades ago. Beautiful Trouble and Beautiful Solutions demonstrate the effectiveness of acknowledging, utilizing and distributing the best theoretical thinking and the best examples of intelligent, creative, strategic resistance visioning and deployment.
I look forward to working with many of you to address what needs to be confronted, and what needs to be dreamed into existence here in South Florida. There is so much that can and should be done to which all our innovative, artistic and creative thinking and action must be directed.
— Mary Jo Aagerstoun