Look at the Activist Artists Who Actually Walk the Talk

Now is the time to get political. Some of us are already doing that. Brilliantly.

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BRICK X BRICK Takes Trump Tower. Photo: Brickxbrick.org.

In a modern democracy, protesters, demonstrators, marchers and strikers serve their country. Creative protesting has a long history and a promising future. The present, though, leaves much room for stronger involvement.

When asked by writer Vincent Intondi if contemporary artists should replicate the actions of the “artivists” of the past, Kathy Engel, one of the organizers for Dancers for Disarmament, a series of performances and large-scale actions in the 1980s against nuclear weapons, replied:

No, we shouldn’t do it again. We should do something different. Not sure what, but we should take from it the best and evolve. We can be much more imaginative.

Where we are now, we are primed.

While many artists voice their politics in their artistic content, most remain apolitical in their public activities. Arts managers and administrators typically make few, if any, political statements. Being a public antagonist or partisan entity risks repelling current and prospective supporters.

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The good news is that, when it comes to demonstrations, artists have many choices. From a solemn candlelight vigil to a post-conflict project like the Genocide Memorial Park, Rugerero Survivors Village in Rwanda to an outright riot, the spectrum of public gathering is broad. Typically, a protest is against something, and a rally is in support of something. Artists can bring their processes and products into the political sphere in many ways.

True, in our current political climate almost any activity can be seen as partisan. Oh well. Maybe Kenyan photojournalist and artist Boniface Mwangi puts it best:

We have made a choice to creatively use art and culture to continue making a contribution toward the struggle for good governance and accountability. At the center of our work is our deep love for our country.

My Egyptian friends and colleagues taught me that lesson. I was honored to be in Cairo, Egypt, in late 2010, the summer of 2011, and then again from 2012 to late 2015. They showed me dozens of ways that artistry and culture can be weaved into public, political action. Tahrir Square had both a pop-up museum and tents for artists to gather, farmers created creative installations and sculptures, singer-songwriters led the massive crowds in song, filmmakers documented the events, artists organized and inspired action via social media, the Cairo Opera went on strike and refused to perform Aida, and muralists and graffiti and street artists came back — brushes at the ready — every time the downtown walls were whitewashed by the state.

Many Egyptian artists I know went willingly to the front lines, even as things got dangerous. Multimedia artist Ahmed Basiony (who posthumously represented Egypt in the 2011 Venice Biennale) suffered beatings by riot police and was shot and killed by police snipers, while wearing the costume from one of his installations. Artists continuously stepped up to lead the cause; they were tortured and kept making music, they were crushed by tanks and kept dancing, they were threatened and kept making award-winning films.

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Danger, though, is not a requirement or even a hallmark of this type of practice, generally. Artists can base their work with their own risk tolerance and unique contributions in mind. Artists who do find themselves in political danger have some resources and support. We have an important role in modern society and can decide how far we are willing to go.

Artist activism was written about in the US Department of Art and Culture’s (USDAC)’s August 2017 crisis response guide Art Became the Oxygen, which proclaims that,

Artists with skill and experience in participatory, collaborative work can hold a central role in building community relationships.

USDAC’s focus for this guide is artistic response to environmental and social disasters. What we are discussing here in this article is artistic response to policy, government mis-action or government inaction. We are thinking about arts practices designed to bring awareness to issues or stir civic participation.

Below are example artist activists who put their art where their mouths are and deserve our attention.

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Craftivism
Folks of many genders and generations, motivated by the circumstances of the 2016 US Presidential Election and boasting of sexual harassment by a certain candidate, put their knitting and crochet needles to work, creating a mass of pussy hats. While donning those hats made a statement, it was in their handmade production where the real power lied. A supporter of this type of work calls it “quiet activism for everyone including introverts.”

Shannon Downey (Chicago) and Sarah Corbett (Liverpool) are two major leaders in this realm. Through Badass Cross Stitch and Badass HERstory, Shannon inspires other craftivists; she also provides free patterns and tutorials. Sarah, of Craftifists Collective, explains the journey to her practice,

Burned out from too much confrontation, slactivism and clicktivism, and doubting the effectiveness of many elements of conventional activism, she started looking for alternatives. She discovered craftivism — a term coined by American writer and crafter Betsy Greer in 2003.

Party as Protest
On the more louder side of activism, sometimes you just need to smile and dance right in your opponent’s faces. What good protest doesn’t have a drum circle? For example, Armenians of all ages recently filled the streets with song and dance as their roaring, joyous cultural collectivity took centerstage in their mass protests. Similarly, the Ceilidh-IN! that took place outside the Scottish Parliament before the Brexit vote made a bold and defiant statement. Here in the US, LGBTQ+ activists held a dance party outside Vice President Pence’s home and mariachi bands have showed up from Trump Tower to the home of a racist lawyer caught on camera. Demonstrators often need this type of release, a passionate display of a shared culture or identity.

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Crowd Control
Often, bigger is better for political demonstrations. Tools include social choreography, site-specificity, place making and temporary public art. In 1967, when The Yippies founders, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, planned an exorcism and levitation of the Pentagon building more than 100,000 came through and were met with ramparts, tear gas and violence. And for more than five decades, Bread and Puppet Theater (Vermont) has been bringing pageantry and puppetry to these large crowd situations. As their website says, they continue their “prolific output of new shows, addressing the issues of the day — like militarism, capitalism, and ecology.”

Recently, groups like Dancing for Justice (Miami, NYC, Detroit, Chicago, Philly, Tallahassee, and DC) and our more informal and localized Dance Demonstrators (Chicago) bring a sense of abstraction and artistic voice to political gatherings, beyond the generic flash mob. Other important artistic demonstrations center on the superb act of carrying — be it a mirror casket or a weighty mattress.

Note: Be sure to know your rights as well as what to do if you’re arrested during a protest before engaging in an artistic political demonstration of scale.

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Digital Artivism vs. Organizing in Real Life
While the tools of modern technology open up a world of possibilities for artistic organizing — the #icantkeepquiet song being one strong example — we have to remember that much of this work can be done offline. The Singing Revolution of 1987-91 in the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania toppled four decades of Soviet oppression with a musical movement that went viral long before the hashtag was born.

Artists as Occupiers
As the artists of the Occupy Wall Street movement reminded us, many times the fight demands a certain use of space. Where people are, and how they are in that place, matters. In 2013, a group of Egyptian artists including my colleagues and friends entered and took over the Ministry of Culture building and its surrounding grounds, launching what was to be a 33-day occupation. With the sit-in/sleep-in, the occupiers also produced nightly street performances, film showings, collective murals and more; the protest performances even made their way onto a what to see this weekend article. The artists’ occupation culminated and fed into what some folks deemed to be the largest political demonstration of modern times and was uplifted by TCG Circle’s internationally-signed Letter of Support.

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Dressing the Part
Back in the US these past weeks, the bursts of mostly-female voices coming from the back of the hearing of Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, have been framed by the silent but strong presence of protestors in handmaids’ costumes, including celebrity Alyssa Milano. And then there’s Serena Williams who proved that a tutu can speak volumes. Yes, protests can be effectively produced through the art of costume and fashion design. During the recent campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment in Ireland, an army of people all wearing matching black and white sweaters made a massive and successful impact. And in the US, the BRICK X BRICK team’s brick wall jumpsuits are powerful for those wearing them and those seeing them.

Note: Nicole Garneau’s recent book Performing Revolutionary: Art, Action, Activism is a great resource for any artist activist, including a discussion of the choice of outfit.

Mirror Shield Project. Photo: Courtesy of Cannupa Hanska Luger.

Holding Shape, Holding Ground
From die-ins to human chains, sometimes protest is best made through the act of collective, physical formation or tableau. One common but bold example is when Christopher D Lutter-Gardella, Cannupa Hanska Luger and their crews made a few hundred mirror-shields for the water protectors at Standing Rock. Every shield served as a mirror so anyone who attacked them had to watch themselves doing so.

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Truth Be Told
Society needs creative approaches to uplifting, remembering, and addressing real life. Some artists, like Katherine Dunham, put truth to power by putting shocking truths on stage. Some practitioners host story circles while others like photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind collect testimony and document/present true life. And — of particular interest considering the current-day dispute of real and fake news — the Federal Theatre Project of 1935 to 1939 had a Living Newspapers unit that “engaged in portrayal of the news of the day, by [play]writers who are attempting to dramatize salient situations objectively.” Imagine that today.

Making a Gesture
Lastly, sometimes the most profound protest is found in the art of a simple gesture: hands upbra burningarms crossed overhead or one knee on the ground. And if the gesture is too much, artists can support the gesture makers. Take inspiration from the “Take a Knee Pad” exhibition in Philadelphia.

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Now is the time to bring your artistic practice to the planning of your nearest March to the Polls, if that’s your thing: or maybe you can motivate voters who have to take an extra step, like college students and touring artists. Perhaps you can take some inspiration from Anna Sokolow, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Peggy Pierrot, Christopher Robbins, Dylan MinerW.I.T.C.H., Dread Scott or the Industrial Workers of the World (The Wobblies) with their little red songbook, comics and wood cuttings.

Oftentimes artists living and creating is in itself a form of resistance. But now is the time to do something downright political, if you want to.

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.