Lessons about the effective use of art in campaigns from three activist artists.
The Art and Campaigning forum was presented by the Melbourne Campaigners’ Network, in collaboration with Arena Project Space, on the evening of Thursday 15 March 2012. There was a great crowd in attendance, with around fifty people braving a rainy night for a far-ranging discussion on the relationship between art, social change and campaigning.
It was excellent to see Arena Project Space filled with people engaged in discussion of the issues the space has been formed to support, and with examples of the artists’ work up on the wall.
The forum included a panel of artists producing diverse visual art:
- Tom Sevil (aka Civil) – community graphic designer and artist. Tom along with Lou Smith runs Breakdown Press, an activist publishing initiative which has produced poster series, zines, miscellaneous publications and the book ‘How to Make Trouble and Influence People’. Tom has worked as a graphic designer for many political and community organisations including 3CR 855AM and the 2006-9 Seeds of Dissent Calendars; Stolenwealth Games, Stop G20 and Tassie Forests campaigns. Tom has exhibited in a variety of art spaces and run mural and stencil-making workshops with young people.
- Arlene TextaQueen – Australia’s felt-tip super heroine. TextaQueen explores politics of sex, gender and identity in tangent with ideas of self-image and inter-personal relationships. Her work has appeared as commissioned tapestries, animations, surfboards, album cover art, murals, tattoos, billboards, postcards, posters, colouring-in books, calendar tea-towels, zines and pin-up playing cards. She has exhibited widely and wildly, hosts drawing workshops for kids, teens and grown-ups, performs narrative ‘slide-shows’ and creates live drawing-performance spectacles.
- Van Thanh Rudd – artist and activist. Van’s art is influenced, inspired and directed towards movements of social justice around the globe. His major aim is to expose his often controversial art to as many people as possible in order to inspire discussion and debate about art’s role in today’s environmental, political and economic crises. His artworks include the mediums of installation, drawing, collage, painting and performance.
Each artist spoke for around ten minutes, sharing their perspectives on the topic and showing examples of their work. Here are some of the ‘take home messages’ I gleaned from their presentations, which are my interpretations rather than what they said verbatim:
- Build strong culture. Tom Civil emphasised that art doesn’t just play a role in communicating a cause or trying to influence people; art can be part of building a strong alternative culture around social movements, which can be sustaining, inspiring, and attractive to new people. This made me think about the way growth in social movements is coupled with cultural vitality, such as the blossoming of many kinds of artistic expression around the social movements of the 1960s, and the recent dynamic art production associated with the Occupy movement. Involving ‘culture-makers’ in social change projects can enrich them in many ways.
- Representation can be powerful; representation should be ethical. How people are portrayed can be either oppressive or empowering, as can the ways these images are viewed and consumed. Arlene TextaQueen spoke about creating her work, We Don’t Need Another Hero, featuring people of colour activists posing as outlaws of their own post-apocalypse scenario in fictional movie poster portraits. She spoke about the process of involving the subjects of each poster in picking their costumes, directing how they would be represented, and developing accompanying text. This empowering process shows through in the final artwork, which has been exhibited but also printed as posters for sale as well as distributed free of charge through events for communities of colour. Jessie Boylan’s photomedia project Inhabited involved photographing people most directly impacted by nuclear developments in Australia. Jessie spoke about the importance of building relationships with affected communities, a human connection with the people she photographs, gaining their consent and respecting their agency in how and where they want to be photographed. Questions of white privilege, racialised imagery, and the ethical use of privilege were discussed.
- Consider your audience. Arlene TextaQueen spoke about how some art may be appropriate to display for a particular audience or in a particular context, but not others. It’s important to be clear about who you seek to communicate with and what you want to say – and be mindful about how this might impact on others.
- Art can attract attention and controversy. This controversy can potentially be politically beneficial, beyond the actual artwork. Van Thanh Rudd has produced a number of explicitly political artworks which have sparked significant reaction, including censorship. One example is ‘Economy of Movement – A Piece of Palestine’ which highlighted the activities of Connex in occupied Palestinian territory. In response to the artwork Connex put pressure on the body exhibiting the work so that it was no longer displayed. Media about the censorship potentially raised awareness of Israel/Palestine issues wider than the display of the artwork could have done alone. This brought to my mind Brian Martin’s backfire model, ‘a framework for understanding tactics used by perpetrators of injustice and how to oppose them’. Activists can make attacks by power-holders ‘back-fire’ by exposing and publicising the injustice and mobilising support.
- Always remember the visuals. Tom Civil emphasised the importance of visual communication as part of activism. He encouraged us to always have a camera at events and actions and to use this to capture and communicate what is happening. Think about how things will look – our actions can be composed with an artistic eye. Allow enough time for the best use of graphics, for example in fliers and publications, and value graphic design. Tom also emphasised the value of street art including paint, posters, and stickers as a way to communicate directly with people and show the presence of resistance in everyday life.
- Value the labour of artists. Art takes time, resources and skill to produce, but many artists are low paid and rely on other work for their income. Activists, always keen to maximise impact with minimum expenditure, can look to artists for free work, or use artwork without acknowledgement or consent. While artists may be prepared to produce artwork to be used in campaigns, and make that art available at low or no cost as a political contribution, the panel emphasised the importance of asking artists before using their work. If your campaign has the means, factor the cost of art and design into your budgets. The Creative Commons licensing system is a useful for way for artists to license their work and make it available under different conditions – you can search for Creative Commons licensed images to use in campaign materials.
Following the panel there was plenty of discussion, both during the forum, and afterwards with a number of people staying behind to talk amongst themselves. Some gems from the discussion:
- Alex Kelly, a media/arts practitioner based in Alice Springs, shared two quotes to illustrate the importance of storytelling in campaigns: ‘Nations are narratives’ (Edward Said), and ‘It’s harder to hurt someone when you know their story’.
- Yikes from Occupy Melbourne issued an invitation for artists to get involved with OM and participate in Occupy Fridays.
It felt like we only touched the tip of the iceberg of this topic – there is clearly much more to explore.
Big appreciation to Jessie Boylan of Arena Project Space for developing and organising the workshop with me, and to APS for hosting. Thanks to the fabulous panel and all the participants for making it a great night.
Thanks to Jessica Parra Nowajewski for taking photos on the night: 1) Anti-nuclear poster, Breakdown Press, 2007 election; 2) Arlene TextaQueen and Tom Civil; 3) Van Thanh Rudd and Jessie Boylan; 4) Facilitator Holly Hammond with poster by Arlene TextaQueen from the ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’ series.