Creative Activism: Art on the Activist Front
Who needs to be engaged in politics?
Anyone who wants current social structures to change! Anyone who is unhappy with oppressive structures and practices. Anyone who is interested in preserving self-determination – who wants to be an agent in this wide wild world.
So the question becomes: How do you engage in politics when you don’t like engaging in politics? And why make the step in the first place?
It can be intimidating, and it can be discouraging/disillusioning, but change can only come from engagement. Usually, the answer is to engage directly with the issues that affect you on a personal level. When political activists rally for against oppression or corruption, for environmental issues, for civil rights, it’s because they are passionate about the heart of their cause, and passionate about organizing for change.
We at the ASC! Project would say art is one of the most fluid, accessible, truly collaborative modes of getting people going. The words “civic engagement” can conjure images of boardrooms, business suits, and poster-boards, but what more and more people are seeing is that it can also mean street art and theatre, guerilla skit shows, folk music festivals, improve workshops. Artistic creation as a process asks us to reach into our selves, untangle what moves us, brings us joy, makes us shake our fists and scream at the world, and turn that reflexively outward. For myself, to create is to investigate, to illuminate, and to remind each other that we are not alone in the tempest. At the Center for Artistic Activism, based out of New York City, they share this rhetoric. They, like myself and the team at ASC!, believe “there is an art to every practice, activism included”. From staged military operations by veterans opposing the US-Iraqi war, to collaborative poster-making on blogging platforms like Tumblr, creative expression is open access and open visibility.
The Vancouver Women's Caucus demonstrating at Parliament. Photo taken from rabble.ca.
In the late 1960s and 70s, Simon Fraser student groups and women’s organizing in particular were instrumental in creating real social change at the level of local consciousness and in parliamentary action. How did they organize and mobilize effectively? Rallies and events that revolved around staged guerilla theatre! For instance, the Abortion Caravan led by the SFU Women’s Caucus that crossed Canada to Ottawa in 1970 staged scenes across the country in which they enacted women’s trials in procuring reproductive health services, coming up against classist doctors. When they arrived at Parliament, “80 women donned black headscarves and circled the centennial flame with a coffin and banners proclaiming 'twelve thousand women die’”. The Vancouver Yippie movement around the same time gave students and youth platforms to voice their disillusionment with existing institutions and, in addition to militant action, they used self-published creative magazines (zines) that incorporated and satirized popular imagery but gave voice to indigenous struggles. The Yippies also organized around punk rock concerts and staged theatrical events where they used props like gorilla suits and toy machine guns to challenge authority. Using creative activism and mobilization around the arts, again and again people find strength in self-determination. They create their own platform and then speak loudly and freely from it!
Art from the cover of Yippie zine "Yellow Journal #6". The image likely refers to Mayor at the time, Tom Campbell.
Art from the cover of Yippie zine "Yellow Journal #6". The image likely refers to Mayor at the time, Tom Campbell.Now we find ourselves looking toward the 2015 federal election and have to ask ourselves – what matters to us? Even if we strip away the labels “art” and “politics”, at its core, supporting social change, supporting electoral change, is about caring. What do we care about in the world? And how can we make sure our perspective is heard, so that oppressive or otherwise harmful policies and practices will change? Housing, welfare, environmental and economic sustainability, reproductive and sex workers’ rights, employment equity, education, affirmative action, anti-racism, indigenous rights, foreign policy – regardless of the issue close to your heart, real change starts with the people.
Expression breeds awareness which, given enough momentum, breeds dialogue almost as if autonomously. Art is commentary by virtue of existing. Put two pieces of commentary in the same space and even if they are not speaking with each other, they will speak together. Art can stand and ask its questions alone, and it can supplement organizing practices and strategies. It’s all about creative and engaging consciousness raising efforts. History shows us that making art together builds and prioritizes solidarity and community amongst artmakers. Give that art a political heart and grassroots artmakers have the tools to visibly, loudly, engagingly hold governing powers accountable to the needs and interests of the public. Art becomes a tool of agency, self-determination, and confrontation for those who don’t have direct access to institutional control.
For some examples of the good work continuing today, explore the YesLab or Vancouver’s own Purple Thistle Centre, which holds regular events, classes and workshops in East Vancouver. For strategies for how to incorporate creative activism in your own life check out the School for Creative Activism, and the resources compiled by the “beautiful troublemakers” at Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution.
Written by Kellen Jackson, November 27, 2014