Creative Resistance: Why We Need to Incorporate Art Into Our Activism
In 2011, when Occupy encampments exploded across the United States putting the issue of the unfair economy and corruption of Wall Street on the political agenda, there was also an explosion of activist art. Beginning with the iconic image of the ballerina on top of the Wall Street bull, art has been central to Occupy and was an important reason for its powerful impact.
The explosion of arts activism involves a wide variety of artistic forms: puppets, balloons, music, memes, posters, banners, plays, street theater, poetry, animation and light displays among others. Art has added vitality and energy to advocacy, and it reaches people at deeper emotional levels, conveying what cannot be said with mere facts.
We had been covering art as part of our reporting on the movement at Popular Resistance, but it wasn’t enough. There has been so much artistic activism we decided it needed to be highlighted with its own website, Creative Resistance.org. It is a place where community members, activists and activist artists can connect and inspire each other. We encourage everyone to find ways to incorporate art into your actions and the work in your community.
Art Builds Commitment, Community and Movement
Charles Tilly, who some describe as the founding father of 21st-century sociology, wrote that social movements are driven by "contentious politics," ideological conflicts that result in social change. He described social movements as a series of “repeated public displays” that bring greater visibility to the issue in contention.
We have written in other articles that the goal of public protest is to pull people to the movement in order to grow into a mass movement that cannot be ignored. Activist art turns a protest into a spectacle, from a turn-off to a turn-on, from an event ignored to one that is widely reported. The protest itself becomes art. If done well and with intention, it will draw people to the movement.
For example, before a protest or other event, a community art build can be organized where people involved in advocacy create art together, and where families, community members, professional colleagues and others are invited to co-create. This process builds stronger connections within the community, deepens the understanding of the issue and provides a way for individuals to express their personal relationship to the issue.
One of the goals of building a mass movement is to pull people from the pillars that maintain the power structure such as workers, students, business owners and the media to the movement. Art is a tool for outreach. Inviting people from these pillars to participate in art builds on issues that they care about provides an opportunity to build relationships. Inviting the local media to cover the art build is a great good-will story about the community coming together.
In the process of creating art there is a tremendous opportunity to build deep support for the issues the movement is working on. During the occupation of Washington DC on Human Rights Day we had a banner creating event organized by Baltimore artist, Diane Wittner. It was a tremendous opportunity to get people thinking about what human rights they had and what human rights were being denied them. It was powerful to look at all of the images that were created together in one place.
As Tatiana Makovkin, an organizer with Creative Resistance, wrote recently: “Art is good for our communities, and artistic collaboration is a bonding experience. We make art together, not just because of the changes it can bring to the world around us, but because of the way it changes us internally.”
Another group that uses the creation of art as a catalyst for change is the Beehive Collective. This Maine-based group does incredible graphics that tell a story in a sophisticated cartoon-like style, making them accessible and engaging. The stories are based on concerns communities have about their lives and the environment. They have gone to the coal fields of Appalachia, refugee camps in Latin America and partnered with other communities whose voices need to be amplified, whose stories need to be heard and whose struggle for social and environmental justice needs to be told. The graphics are made collaboratively—the mastermind is not one person but the group: the Collective and community. The result is an in-depth narrative that pulls many stories of the community together. The Collective then tours with the artwork and makes prints to be shared so that the narrative can be heard more widely.
In this respect, art becomes a catalyst on multiple levels for change. The individuals involved deepen their commitment and understanding. They discover how an issue affects their friends and neighbors to develop mutual understanding. The relationships they build create community and solidarity that is essential in a successful social movement. The art that is created reaches out to people who see the protest, installation or other event. All of this adds up to empowerment of the individual, community and movement.
Sometimes art lifts a protest to what Bill Moyer of the Backbone Campaign calls a “spectacle action.” We’ve been involved in protests against the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Moyer and each was a spectacle action. In a recent TPP protest we draped four massive banners on the building of the US Trade Representative, across from the White House complex. The activists became actors, wearing construction uniforms, climbing scaffolding and attaching massive banners to the building in the middle of the day when people were out of their offices for lunch. The action, which the Washington Post called the greatest guerrilla theater in DC history, created images used by media all over the world and showed people who are opposed to the TPP in other countries that there is opposition in the US too.
In a protest in Salt Lake City as TPP negotiators were inside a hotel conducting secret negotiations that affect our futures, the Backbone Campaign and other groups flew massive weather balloons holding a banner outside their conference window saying “Psst TPP. What are you hiding?” The banner used humor to mock their secret negotiations and raise the issue of why they were hiding from all of us who will be impacted by the deals they make behind closed doors. The image created was a great one for all types of media from the people’s social media to television news.
These spectacle protests at the secret meetings of trade negotiators and at the national headquarters of the US Trade Representative also sent a message to our adversaries. It showed that we are a force to be reckoned with because we were unpredictable, willing to take risks and clear in our denunciation of their unpopular, anti-democratic actions. They were put on notice—proceed and you should expect resistance.
That same type of message has been sent all up and down the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring toxic tar sands sludge from Canada through the farm belt of America, over our precious freshwater sources and to the Gulf of Mexico to be processed for transport overseas. Tar Sands Blockaders began in the southern portion of the pipeline where President Obama had approved construction. They put up massive banners in the trees where activists would do treesits. The message on the banner, You Shall Not Pass, was a clear threat of resistance.
Now in the northern part of the pipeline where Obama has not yet approved construction, indigenous peoples, landowners, ranchers and farmers have joined people concerned about climate change and ecological destruction to protest in creative ways like putting up a solar energy producing barn where the pipeline is scheduled to go. TransCanada is so afraid of this resistance they are urging police to treat protesters as terrorists, including an absurd glitter terror case in Oklahoma. The message—expect resistance and resistance is growing.
The use of art in resistance can make protests less frightening and something people want to attend and join. Protest signs used to advertise an event or at the event draw attention and get out our message, as do the massive puppets seen at many protests produced by groups like People’s Puppets, Bread and Puppet Theater, the Backbone Campaign and others. As these puppets march through neighborhoods accompanied by singing and chanting, people are drawn to them with some ending up participating.
Street theater is another way to attract people. Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir is one example of many. Rev. Billy is an evangelical character who uses evangelical imaging, language and garb to advocate for climate justice, an end to consumerism, stopping the abuses of big banks and other issues. The humor and theatrics of Rev. Billy and his team of singers and performers allow artistic advocacy to make points that might not otherwise be heard.
A book which shows the breadth of creativity in activism is Beautiful Trouble. It compiles hundreds of examples of creative resistance. As the Arab Spring, Indignado Movement and Occupy Movement developed the authors saw the increasing power of art: “The realization is rippling through the ranks that, if deployed thoughtfully, our pranks, stunts, flash mobs and encampments can bring about real shifts in the balance of power. In short, large numbers of people have seen that creative action gets the goods — and have begun to act accordingly. Art, it turns out, really does enrich activism, making it more compelling and sustainable.”
Reaching People Beyond Their Heads
To be effective in our advocacy it is not enough to provide facts, figures and graphs and reach people in their heads. Studies have shown that facts that disagree with someone’s belief are often ignored and even have the opposite effect of strengthening people’s preconceived notions. In order to change people, we have to reach them at a deeper, more emotional level.
The Center for Artistic Activism describes their rationale for the use of creative resistance:
Throughout history, the most effective political actors have married the arts with campaigns for social change. While Martin Luther King Jr is now largely remembered for his example of moral courage, social movement historian Doug McAdam’s estimation of King’s “genius for strategic dramaturgy,” likely better explains the success of his campaigns.
Dramaturgy means the art or technique of dramatic composition and theatrical representation. One of the co-founders of the Center for Artistic Activism, Stephen Duncombe, describes the story of how King used drama when the civil rights movement selected Birmingham, AL as the place for protest by creating a confrontation with Police Chief Bull Connor. Connor had been an abusive police chief in Birmingham for 23 years and in 1961 had abused the Freedom Riders. Connor tried running for mayor, but lost the election. The day Connor lost the election, King’s group announced Project C (for confrontation) challenging the abusive and racist police practices of Connor. The goal was mass arrests and confrontation that would overwhelm the police and penal system. King’s arrest led to his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
On May 2, 1963, King’s group used a new tactic in Birmingham by having children march through the streets, resulting in 959 children aged 6 to 18 being arrested. The next day large numbers of protesters came out and Connor turned the dogs and fire hoses on them. This went on for several days and produced images that created anger at Connor and support for the civil rights activists. Three thousand protesters were arrested over a five-day period. The impact on the reputation and economy was extremely negative causing a majority of businesses to reach agreement with King to desegregate lunch counters, rest rooms and drinking fountains on May 10. The businesses also helped to get the protesters released and created systems for black-white communication. On May 11, Connor was ordered to leave his office.
King had picked the stage, the antagonist and protagonists. The narrative was predictable because they knew how Connor would react and the civil rights activists had been trained to respond appropriately. Through dramaturgy, King had created a dramatic composition that was vivid, emotional and engaged the American people—based on the truth—to tell the story of racism in Birmingham and advance the cause of civil rights by reaching people beyond their minds, deep into their emotions.
Think of the iconic photos of African Americans being attacked by dogs and having the fire hoses turned on them; and of children being arrested. These iconic images are still carried with many Americans because they reached deep down into people. Sometimes when the stage is set and the narrative is being told, the iconic image, unimagined before it happens is created and advances a movement.
Humor is another path into the emotions. The Yes Men have used humor to make their point. The Yes Men describe their work as “Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them, and otherwise giving journalists excuses to cover important issues.” They have mocked some of the biggest corporate criminals on the planet: Dow Chemical, Peabody Coal, TPP negotiators, General Electric, Enbridge Energy, Apple, and Chevron. Their method is to put these corporations in an uncomfortable position, forcing them to respond to hoax news that "reports" the corporation is going to do something good. The corporation then responds, "No, we’re not going to do something good."
The Yes Men are now working to share their experience and broaden the talent of hoax humor activism with the Yes Lab. Their goal is to help activists carry out media-getting creative actions through a series of brainstorms and trainings. They call their tactic that creates a public spectacle to spark public debate "laughtivism" as they recognize that humor opens people’s minds.
Another powerful artistic tool is music. It draws people in and can open the door to a movement message. From hip-hop to folk music to rock and roll, there is musical activism. It is also a tool for creating solidarity and confidence as activists face difficult situations. When climate justice activist Tim DeChristopher was found guilty of fraudulently bidding on leasing gas lands, his supporters filed out of the courthouse singing “We will stand with you, will you stand with me, we will be the change that we want to see” and when DeChristopher came out, then facing up to 10 years in prison, he was hugged while his supporters continued to sing.
DeChristopher than gave an inspiring speech about the power of the joy and resolve of their solidarity. They all went on to sing “We Shall Overcome,” a song which has given activists the strength to continue on in movement after movement all over the world.
Creativity Sustains Movements
The struggle for social justice is a long-term endeavor that goes through periods of ups and downs. Artful activism in resistance movements can provide new energy and make the goals feel more tangible. Art allows us to imagine the future and sense the world differently.
Art does not have to be expensive. It can be as simple as a can of spray paint for graffiti. The artist Bansky has brought street art to a new level, but at its root it is simple and accessible. Another group that takes graffiti to a new direction is the California Department of Corrections, which "corrects" billboards to put forward a social and economic justice message by adding their comments or changing a few words on the billboard.
Bread and Puppet Theater describes the birth of the “Cheap Art Philosophy … born in 1979 when [they] filled their old school bus with hundreds of small pictures painted on scraps of masonite, cardboard and newspaper, painted slogans and statements about art and Cheap Art, and hung them on the outside of the bus. Then they drove it to neighboring towns and sold the stuff for 10 cents to 10 dollars.” They report the idea has spread:
“Today Cheap Art is practiced by all kinds of artists and puppeteers all over, and continues to cry out: Art is Not Business! Art Is Food! Art Soothes Pain! Art Wakes Up Sleepers! Art Is Cheap! Hurrah!”
Isn’t this the sharing world want we need to see? Imagine art builds in every town bringing communities together and deepening commitment, massive puppets and balloons carrying the message of justice in parades and protests across the country, entertaining and educating theatrics in the streets, music reaching the uninvolved and strengthening the resolve of the already active. People sharing and participating together in building a movement of creative resistance whose foundations are joy and resolve spurs us to re-imagine and create the world we want to see.
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