Spiders growing native corn and saving the seeds to avoid growing genetically modified varieties, native birds shredding power lines meant for Big Business, bees getting kicked off land owned by the World Bank, and tadpoles running a community radio station. These are just a few of the images you'll see in the new educational graphic, Mesoamerica Resiste. The graphic is the product of several years of work by the Maine-based Beehive Collective.
The collective hopes to distribute half of their anti-copyright posters to groups in Mesoamerica, where they spent many months working with people who would be affected by Plan Puebla Panama*, a trade agreement that activists worry will strip much of Latin America of its natural resources. Recently, several collective members (referring to themselves as "the pollinators") sat down to tell WireTap about their humble origins, the challenges they've encountered, and their hopes to take what they call the "complex, overwhelming realities of our time" and make them accessible and engaging.
WT: Can you explain the idea behind the Beehive Collective? How did you get your start? What is your core philosophy?
The Beehive Collective Pollinators: We say our mission is to cross-pollinate the grassroots by creating images for use as educational and organizing tools. Popular education is part of our core philosophy. The posters and banners we put out there are part of a bigger process we call graphics campaigns. Months of research, travel, and relationship-building goes into the campaigns, and we continue the conversations throughout the illustration process. When the graphics are done, we take them on the road to present and distribute them. Each one has become more collaborative than the last and we're working to document the model we've been developing as we go. The first posters were about biotechnology, and then we started a trilogy about corporate globalization in the Americas. The first two are done and are about the Free Trade Area of the Americas and Plan Colombia. The third one will be finished this summer and is about the resistance to Plan Puebla Panama. After the trilogy is complete we want to make a coloring book and teacher's curriculum. And we have a new food systems graphics campaign in the works.
We are working to illustrate the complex, overwhelming realities of our time in an accessible and understandable format. People are craving healthier ways to deal with the bad news out there. The graphics campaigns are an alternative communication strategy, and reach out across boundaries of language, age, knowledge levels, and learning styles. And, oh yes, the insects! ... we don't use humans in our graphics. Instead we use images of insects, animals and plants to be able to talk about biodiversity, to avoid stereotypes of people, and to create engaging metaphors.
We try to dispel the notion that art is made by a select few and shown in fancy galleries. All of our work is anti-copyright, and anonymous; we simply credit it to the collective, since there are so many people involved at different steps along the way to make the posters happen, not just the illustrators. We're not interested in art-egos! We'd rather shift the focus from "who made that?" to talking about the issues in the poster. Our graphics are printed in black and white so they are easier to photocopy. The point is for the graphics to be reproduced and used for education and mobilization, as tools that break information down into more digestible, and therefore memorable, pieces.
WT:How long have you been a collective? How many people are involved?
Pollinators: We're turning five this year! In August we're having a big birthday party, along with celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Grange Hall we work out of in Machias, Maine. Bees and friends of the hive from far and wide will be there! We get excited when there are a lot of bees in one place; the mother hive is in Maine but we're a very spread-out swarm, living and working in multiple states and countries. At any given time there are probably 8-10 core bees doing a lot of work in the hive, and maybe 20-30 bees involved more part-time. To back up to the beginning, a less-well-known story about the Beehive is that it formed around finishing a large-scale stone mosaic installation in Maine, and that it's been a majority women. Stone mosaics are still an important part of our work in Maine, and we have a summer apprenticeship program to teach mosaic. We are working up to a long-term mosaic mural project on the political history of agriculture. But what we are known for internationally now is our graphics campaigns.
WT: How does the process to create the graphics usually work?
Pollinators: The creation of Beehive graphics is an ongoing and collective process that takes on a life of its own! The design of our dizzyingly detailed illustrations starts with intensive interviews, meetings and firsthand investigation. Bees work to distill the information gathered so that it can be translated into metaphors and images, and finally, woven together into a circuit of drawings. This collaborative design work is essential to coordinating our campaigns in the most informed, respectful and responsible way.
For example, the new poster we're working on. A swarm of bees travelled from Puebla, in Southern Mexico, all the way to Panama, to consult with a wide range of people who would be affected by proposed mega-industrial development plans know as Plan Puebla Panama (PPP). Bees in many parts of the continent had been gathering contacts for the trip for two to three years before any of us showed up in Mexico to design a poster. We met with over 75 diverse groups including rural communities, non-governmental organizations, human rights groups, families, students, indigenous groups, and grassroots organizations. We spent four months working on firsthand documentation before beginning to draw.
A key part of the graphics design process is to gain familiarity with flora and fauna local to the region we're illustrating. Since we work to create clear and captivating metaphors from the natural world, we seek out details such as insect and animal characters in folklore and mythologies, species threatened with habitat loss, and behavior of critters that are unique to the region. Each insect, plant and animal represented in Beehive graphics is carefully researched so that we draw bioregional species accurately. In our latest work, so far we've included over two hundred endemic, endangered and requested species of animals & insects and over one hundred native plants!
WT: What are your biggest challenges?
Pollinators: One is funding ... we're very hand to mouth, all volunteers, working hard to fund our projects almost entirely through donations we get through poster sales and giving presentations. We are repeatedly turned away from grants because we mix up all the categories, combining graphic arts with political organizing, a bridge which has made many foundations reluctant to support our work. But the whole ongoing funding question is also a source of energy because it creates pressure for us to come up with our own ideas for keeping the collective afloat. We've distributed our graphics by hand, 50,000 posters to date!
It can be challenging working within a collective which is geographically dispersed between Maine, the Midwest, California, Toronto, Newfoundland, Mexico, Guatemala and now, Germany. We're constantly evolving to become stronger and more effective as a collective and as a network of autonomous Hives.
WT: Are you always welcomed in the communities you travel to? What is the process like, establishing yourself as trust-worthy, sharing your ideas, collaborating?
Pollinators: Bees who have travelled to Latin America, both in the design process and afterwards to distribute the graphics, have met with extraordinary support. The friendship and solidarity extended to us is incredible. Many people are able to recognize and relate to the issues represented in our graphics, and that helps in building relationships of trust and support. But community members involved in work that carries a risk of often brutal repression did not open up and share their stories quickly. In Mexico and Central America, because organizers and activists have established regional networks, once we made a connection with one group, it became amazingly easy to find more contacts who trusted us.
WT: Your graphics show up on a number of college campuses. What kind of feedback do you get from American college students?
Pollinators: We've been hosted by college students across the country and really appreciate the work that students put into getting funding for us through their schools. To help mix up the crowd we get at presentations, we'll ask multiple student groups to work together to bring us to campus, and to find unusual spaces for us to present where we have a lot of edge with people walking by. We say we like to "ambush" audiences by hanging banners in public spaces, but we like to do more focused talks in classrooms too. A lot of students are struck by how unique our approach to education and art is; they see that you don't have to have a Ph.D. to talk about these complex issues. People get excited. They've never seen anything like this before. The graphics aren't so in-your-face or controversial; they come at you from the side, and invite curiosity and questions. We always try to make presentations interactive, for everyone there to share what they know, and to create a space to talk and think and place ourselves within larger systems. Colleges are a great place to do that, but we love high schools even more, the kids are so much more interactive!
WT: Who are your most important allies? Influences?
Pollinators: We have grown up on junk food in a brainwashed culture, with media we can't relate to and academic lectures we can't sit through. The work we're doing is an antidote to all that. We get inspiration from the people we meet, the stories we hear, and from sharing those stories Our most important allies are too many to name, and those who contribute to our work are too many to count. Each graphics campaign brings together new groups of allies. We are part of the global justice movement and what we most want is to create tools that are useful for our allies. And of course, we are influenced by looking at what the other critters on this planet do; ANTS are a source of inspiration for us ...
WT: What are your plans for the next graphic(s)?
Pollinators: The next graphic has been two years in the making, it is currently in a draft form and is soon to be printed as a two-sided, 3x6 foot poster! The poster will be folded so that the outside depicts massive infrastructure development plans encompassed by the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), and how it's linked to free trade, military occupation, and a long history of colonization -- then the poster opens up to a larger scene inside, which illuminates the resistance that is alive and well and, most importantly, the tremendous and diverse testimonies of communities working to build environmental and social justice.
In addition to the poster itself, the Hive is working to produce audio, video and multimedia resources about living alternatives to the PPP and similar plans This graphic will complete the Hive's trilogy about the Resistance to Corporate Globalization, (which began with the Free Trade Area of the Americas graphic and then Plan Colombia). After the completion of the trilogy, we will begin working in collaboration with fellow anti-globalization activists from throughout the
hemisphere on a coloring and activity book that will include images from the three posters in this series for use as an educational tool and teacher's curriculum. Meanwhile research is getting underway for the Beehive's graphic about the North American food system. See www.beehivecollective.org for updates on these projects.
WT: What if someone wants to get involved? Or start a similar project of their own? Any advice?
Pollinators: We receive tons of inquiries from people who want to get involved with the collective. We must say we are more of an organism than an organization. We're all volunteers, and what keeps us going is our shared passion for the work we're doing, and a lot of mutual aid and trust. So, there are a lot of ways to join forces with the hive. Please check out the updated "wannabee" section of our web site for the very detailed response to this question. The short response is that you don't have to come up to Maine to get involved, and we have quite a long wish list of roles to fill and projects to take on. We've been busting stinger lately to document more of what we do so that newbees can run with projects of their own. We are as eager to receive advice as we are to give it, there aren't many models out there for what we're doing. The advice we most often give is, don't be bored!
* According to the Beehive Collective web site, "Plan Puebla PanamÃƒÂ¡ encompasses a wide range of projects designed to facilitate the exploitation of resources in MesoamÃƒÂ©rica, and to transform areas of its land to create more "efficient" trade routes for global markets. Mexico and Central America is the isthmus linking North and South America between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.This region is extremely rich in resources, especially farmland, forests, fossil fuels, biodiversity, and human labor. Disguised as a development project by its funding institutions, such as the World Bank and the Interamerican Development Bank, the PPP offers these resources up to transnational corporations. It builds the infrastructure needed to conduct big business and export goods, including transporation infrastructure (e.g. roads, railroads, and ports), energy infrastructure (e.g. hydro-electric dams, mines, oil and gas piplines), maquiladoras (sweatshop factories), and the biotech-friendly Mesoamerican Biological Corridor."