The Federation: Keeping Our Trump-Era Cultural Borders Open

A new coalition urges artists to be louder and more visible than ever.

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Tanya Selvaratnam. Photo: Thomas Dozol.

On Jan. 20, 2017, our 45th president took the oath of office. On Jan. 21, 2017, the Women’s March, the first formal national protest under the new administration, inspired boots-on-the-ground activism across the globe. Possibly taking a cue from that powerful demonstration of full-on activism, a silver lining has now emerged. In the midst of partisan rancor, oppressive ideologies, hate speech and other threats to our democracy, our nation is experiencing a renaissance of grassroots activism and political participation.

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On the culture front in particular, activists are using the power of art to speak out, fight back and connect people across political divides. One of the newest arts-based coalitions, The Federation, aims to “heal the national psyche.” The brainchild of Laurie Anderson, Laura Michalchyshyn and Tanya Selvaratnam, The Federation officially launched in October 2017 during the New York Film Festival. It is organizing a global initiative designated “Art Action Day” for Jan. 20 — the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration.

For information on how you or your organization can participate on Art Action Day visit The Federation’s website.

So, what does The Federation think it can accomplish? I asked Selvaratnam that very question in this interview.

Robin Rothstein: What is your background both as a person and as an artist?

Tanya Selvaratnum: I was born in Sri Lanka and came to America when I was a baby. I was raised in Long Beach, CA, like Snoop Doggy Dog and Cameron Diaz. I live on the Lower East Side of NYC, and spend a lot of time in Portland, OR, where my best friend from college lives.

From the time I was a child, I loved experiencing and making art. However, I never thought I would be a professional artist. I studied Chinese and the history of law at Harvard University, and planned to be a diplomat or academic. Before graduate school, however, I assisted Anna Deavere Smith on Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, about the human toll of the LA riots. That sparked my interest in the power of the arts as a tool for social justice and understanding between diverse communities.

Never tell artists to be silent.

While I was in graduate school, I was a youth organizer on the steering committee of the NGO Forum/Fourth World Conference on Women in China in 1995. I produced youth arts and culture events, and learned how art brings people together in unexpected and life-changing ways.

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RR: When did arts activism begin to play a role in your life?

TS: In college, I was part of a group called Students for Creative Action (SCA). We were a bunch of misfits who wanted to have fun while rallying around various campus issues. For example, we staged a concert behind a [male-only] club to protest it. Each of us had talent — we played instruments and we sang — so we were able to attract people to watch and listen. I remember even the Dean of Students, Archie Epps, came by.

RR: What exactly is The Federation? What was the impetus for its creation?

TS: The artist Laurie Anderson and producers Laura Michalchyshyn and myself formed The Federation to keep cultural borders open and fight against the defunding of the arts. The idea sprang out of a conversation we had in March 2016 where Laurie talked about her recent experience working in Germany, and observing the refugee crisis there and rising nationalism. She was concerned about the increased closing of physical borders. So, we decided to gather people together to talk about what we could do. That gathering in April 2016 led to this unprecedented coalition of artists, arts organizations and allies committed to showing how art unites us. There is a list of participants on our website. It includes PEN America, Spotify, The Public Theater, Brooklyn Public Library and more.

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RR: How will you keep cultural borders open when there seem to be more obstacles and negative messaging with regard to crossing physical borders?

TS: On our website, we have a toolkit that gives people ideas for how to keep cultural borders open. It means many things. To cite a few specific examples among our participants: globalFEST’s red state tour with Mexican artists; Spotify’s campaign I’m With The Banned, “When people can’t travel, music will”; PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection.

It means supporting programming that features artists from vulnerable communities. In America, this includes immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, LGBTQAI, and women — a lot of people. It also means supporting programming that shows how art unites, art uplifts, and, as our Federation slogan states, “art is essential to democracy.”

RR: You have designated Jan. 20, 2018 “Art Action Day.” How did the idea come about? What do you hope to accomplish at this inaugural event and down the road?

TS: We decided on that day because this past Jan. 20, arts institutions were encouraged to close their doors in protest of the inauguration. Never tell artists to be silent. On Jan. 20, we want artists to be more loud and visible than ever. We will use our platforms and our voices to represent that art is essential to democracy.

For down the road, we have big dreams: to do a 50-state listening tour with artist town halls and create a Federation curriculum. But if “J20” is the culmination, that’s fine, too.

RR: You have a lot of artists and arts groups participating in Art Action Day. How will you bring all of these actions together into one cohesive, powerful message?

TS: We have provided messaging and images for people to share. However, we aren’t interested in one unifying gesture. We want it to be chaotic and individual, like democracy. We will be aggregating the actions on our social channels, and then take some time after J20 to reflect and strategize for our next actions.

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RR: The Federation’s founding leaders are all women. Does your group take a special interest in women’s issues, especially in light of the #MeToo phenomenon?

TS: The Federation is women-led, but not women-centric. Vulnerable peoples exist among all genders. Nonetheless, 2017 was a watershed year in terms of attacks on women and in terms of women’s activism. Women are leading the way, in the resistance, the revolution and towards a better future.

RR: You’ve stated that corporate influences create an atmosphere of social media siloing that keep people of different viewpoints separated. What did you mean by that?

TS: Corporate interests can serve to perpetuate division and separateness because it’s easier for them to make money that way. Fox has its red audience; CNN and MSNBC have their blue audience; and Facebook needs to do more to bust its own algorithms that keep people viewing only content that’s targeted towards them or that aligns with their interests and beliefs.

I’d like to see a media corporation that attempts to unite people through speaking to issues that everyone — unless they’re totally inhumane — can get behind. The two-party political system has ruined this country. I believe it has completely failed women and vulnerable peoples in general. The systems aren’t broken, they’re working as they should, but I hope new paradigms emerge and I believe they will.

RR: How can art make a meaningful difference to the health of our country? Do you believe that art can really “change the world”?

TS: Art alone can’t change the world. People can. What art can do is help shape consciousness through creativity.

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RR: Do you feel The Federation could develop into a movement?

TS: We’re not interested in turning The Federation into a movement. We’re not interested in ownership or leadership. We want to provide people with the tools and ideas to incorporate in ways that make sense for them and their organizations.

We want it to be chaotic and individual.

And it’s going to take a whole lot of people working together to transform and heal the national psyche. As painful as current events are, I like to believe that we will end up with a more democratic, more humane America. I just hope I’m alive to see it.

RR: How does The Federation plan to reach those who are resistant to its message? Are you not ultimately preaching to the converted?

TS: I heard Anna Deavere Smith talk recently about how those who criticize the work that artists do as preaching to the choir. We have to remember, though, that even the choir needs a rehearsal.

And no, we’re not ultimately preaching to the converted. The mission to keep cultural borders open and show how art unites us is not partisan or elitist. It’s a message that most people can get behind. We’ve had participants join The Federation from organizations in states like Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and more. We’re growing.

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RR: Are you concerned that the repeal of Net Neutrality will impede The Federation’s goals?

TS: No, because The Federation works with a broad array of organizations that won’t abandon their commitment to upholding the goals of our group. But the Net Neutrality repeal will impact artists and creatives across the spectrum. It’s an example of partisan and corporate interests crushing human interests, and it’s a direct attack on artists.

The long-term repercussions for innovation and creativity and for democracy itself are staggering. Everyone should take time to educate themselves about Net Neutrality and why it’s so important. There are many organizations such as Federation participant PEN America that are strategizing around this issue.

RR: What advice do you have for artists resigned to the notion that their ability to make change is a hopeless endeavor?

TS: Never feel like you’re too small to make a difference or that the difference you’re making is too small. Identify an issue you’re passionate about and figure out what you can do to contribute to it.