No More Boring Protests!

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“How about Support the Troops—Bring Them Home Now,” said Margaret, a middle-aged woman who was new to activism.

“That’s not really a tactic,” I offered. “Maybe we can think about slogans after we decide on a tactic.”

Five of us sat around a rickety table in a musty church basement. It was the first planning meeting for a “stop the war” protest, marking the third anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.

“What do you think about No More Cash for Caskets,” asked William, an elderly old-school socialist.

“Oooh, I like it,” said Margaret.

“Once again,” I said, “not a tactic.”

It soon became clear that the type of protest we were organizing was a forgone conclusion. We would do the same thing we did last year and the year before that (except with ever decreasing numbers of attendees):

  1. March to a park.
  2. Hold a rally and listen to a few rousing speeches telling us what we already knew.
  3. Go home feeling better about ourselves.

No one’s support for the war would be challenged. In fact, no one would pay much attention at all. A small blurb about the march might appear in the local paper.

******

In Macedonia, four “henchmen” dressed in yellow robes haul a large red box around the center of Skopje. The box is labeled “Give Bribes Here.” The men are accompanied by supporters who hand out fake money representing different kinds of payoffs necessary to receive services in Macedonia’s corruption ridden society—from timely surgery to a better job. The protest action prompts plenty of dialog on the street and garners major attention from the press.1

C4AA endeavors to help activists climb out of their boring protest rut while teaching artists how to venture out from the galleries and make a difference in the real world.

In my experience, protests—and local protests in particular—seem to suffer from a profound lack of imagination, as illustrated by the meeting I attended a few years ago while the Iraq War was still going on.

But it doesn’t take much money or effort to do something really innovative that can surprise people and jostle them out of their cognitive quagmire. The creative dramatization of corruption organized last month by Macedonians is a case in point. The action, planned and executed in just twenty-four hours, was simple and effective. It was inspired by a training session led by the Center for Artistic Activism (C4AA).

Founded by artist Steve Lambert and scholar Stephen Duncombe, C4AA has been teaching artists and activists how to blend art and activism for almost ten years.2

In addition to running a variety of training workshops around the world,3 C4AA provides tons of resources on their website for activists and artists interested in dreaming up more effective tactics. Even experienced rabble rousers will find ideas to get their creative juices flowing. I especially recommend the recorded webinars, which are both entertaining and peppered with keen insights.4 It’s apparent these guys have been studying and thinking about this stuff for many years.

I spoke with the two Steve’s to find out more about their approach to art and activism.

All successful social movements have used stories, signs, symbols and spectacle.

James VanHise: What is the Center for Artistic Activism’s unique perspective on art & social change?

Stephen Duncombe: All social change has some sort of aesthetic factor. You can go back thousands of years in history. Most social movements, whether they call themselves political movements or religious movements or what have you—movements which were about critiquing the world as it is but also imagining the world as it could be—always had an aesthetic dimension. That is, they always used stories and signs and symbols and spectacle. These are the basic building blocks of the arts.

Effective activism engages the emotions.

JV: What do you mean by combining effect and affect?

Duncombe: Effect basically is about material transformation, whereas affect is really about an emotional state, an emotional change. If you are going to have effective social change both of these things have to be in operation at the same time.

Any activist can tell you that people don’t become activists because they read a good white paper or they listened to a good argument. They become activists because they are outraged at some social injustice or because they’re moved by some act of compassion or act of bravery. That sort of affective response is absolutely critical.

The problem with working at the purely affective level is that it doesn’t get shit done. You can be moved by art but unless it has some sort of material impact—by material impact I’m thinking about a change in law, a change in policy, a change in material conditions, a change in economic structures—unless those things happen, essentially all of that sound and fury signifies nothing.

So we’re really interested in combining affect with effect, which we used to call “effective affect,” and then “affective effect” and then Steve Lambert came into my office one day and said “I’ve got it. We can make it one word—æffect.” [pronounced eye-fect]

Artistic activism creates a learning experience, not by dictating what to think, but by offering new perspectives. However, it must be done skillfully.

JV: How do you walk the line between boring didacticism and art for art’s sake.

Steve Lambert: I looked up didactic because I had my artwork called didactic. It means “teaching.” People started meaning it as a pejorative right? It’s an insult to say that somebody’s artwork is didactic. But if it’s teaching and it’s doing it well, I’m okay with that.

Duncombe: I think people use didactic to mean propagandistic. That is, telling people what to think as opposed to teaching them.

Lambert: Or you can overtly see the teaching. If it’s done really well you don’t notice that you’re being taught something. You’re just experiencing it and you feel like you’ve taught yourself something or you’ve learned something.

Duncombe: Both Steve and I are teachers so we take umbrage at this idea that teaching is a bad thing. A bad teacher goes up and lectures. A good teacher asks questions, uses surprise and has the students actually come to the answers themselves through the conditions they’ve set up.

Lambert: And creates an experience for the student.

Duncombe: Right, and we think that’s what good art does too. Good art doesn’t tell you what to think. What it does is prompt questions and steers you in a direction, changes your perspective and asks you to look at the world in a different way. And we think that’s good teaching. To work as propaganda, it’s got to be really sublime propaganda.

JV: You’re saying it needs to be done skillfully…

Duncombe: Yes, if the art and any sort of artistic activism is not done well, then it’s sad art and it’s bad propaganda and it’s bad didacticism. This is why we say we don’t have a problem with people calling it propaganda or didactic art as long as it’s sublime. That is, it triggers something—which we almost don’t know how to describe what that feeling is—but it moves you none the less. Because that’s what great art does. It has to have esthetic quality, not because we’re some effete aestheticists, but because unless it has aesthetic quality it won’t have political power.

Everyone has creative talent. But creativity is a tool especially accessible to people on the margins of society.

JV: Do people have to be creative artists to use your ideas?

Duncombe: Our basic conceit is everybody has a creative life whether they’re an artist or not. One of the things people—when we work with activists—will often say is, “This is really interesting, but I’m not a creative. I’m not an artist.”

In the introduction [to our workshops] we ask, “What are your creative outlets?”

People say, “I don’t really have creative outlets.”

We say, “Well, what did you do last weekend?”

“I threw a dinner party for a friend.”

And then we get them talking about how they thought about who would sit where, how they put together the music for that night, how they thought about the food and so on. That’s part of a creative process. So how do you tap into that and bring that into your activist work?

We do not believe that people are not creative. The problem is that we give this rarified position to artists and creatives and by doing that we exclude all these other people who actually do have a creative life.

One of the things about creativity that makes it powerful is that unlike other activist tools—legal tools, for example, or educational tools—which are essentially relegated to those who can afford legal training or educational training, creativity is something which people on the margins of society usually have more access to and more comfort with than people in the center of society. Imagine, for example, what American culture would be like without the contribution of queers and black people and marginalized people and so forth.

Basically, culture comes from people on the margins. It’s the tool that they have already and the thing is just about recognizing it. When you work with activists, you just try to recognize what they have already.

Isolated tactics have limited effectiveness. C4AA consultations with sex workers in South Africa illustrate the importance of strategic, long-term campaigns in order to have a real impact.

JV: Are there any recent workshops you guys have done that have been especially effective?

Duncombe: Yes, there’s one in particular…One of the problems with any training is that you go in, you work with people for five days, it’s super exciting, everybody is really hyped up and then everybody goes back to their organizations. You go home and you lose contact with people. What we’ve done in working with sex workers in South Africa is that we’ve developed a long-term relationship.

We started out by having a preliminary workshop with them. Then we did intensive mentoring over a long period of time, where Steve Lambert went down to Cape Town, worked with the sex workers organizations as they were gearing up for a major action, and really developed an intimate relationship with them in so far he would spend time just hanging out at their office talking about strategy and talking about tactics. Then collaboratively working on a whole range of different tactics that they were employing at the AIDS conference in Durban that year.

Then following that, going back and having another training, but this time with artists who wanted to work on sex work issues in South Africa. Then going back and creating mini-grants so we could work individually with artists and activists who wanted to do further work in South Africa. And this has been a two-year process.

For that stuff to really work it has to be this long-term process. Not artists just jumping in and doing something around an issue or trainers coming in and just doing a little training, but this deep, embedded long-term process.

We think we’ve seen real results in how the South African sex work organizations are doing their activism in South Africa, and the impact that they’re having in so far as they’re making a name for themselves. [The government] just recently changed policies towards decriminalization in South Africa, which is a huge, huge gain.

JV: So it was more of a long-term strategic approach than tactical…

Duncombe: Exactly. We believe that if artistic activism is going to be effective it can’t just stay at a tactical level. It has to be processed at a strategic level. But we would even go farther. It has to be brought into how we think about how we organize ourselves as well.

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Footnotes

  1. See https://c4aa.org/2018/06/macedonia2018/?mc_cid=c4c81d5567&mc_eid=b95142926e
  2. https://c4aa.org/ For a good summary of C4AA’s philosophy, see https://c4aa.org/2018/04/why-artistic-activism/
  3. C4AA’s workshops are not free, but they can advise you on writing training grant proposals.
  4. https://c4aa.org/webinars/