This is a transcript of the first part of a talk Iain McIntyre gave at Counteract’s Art and Heart gathering in 2017. In it he discusses the meaning of creative activism as well as broad approaches to its planning and use. Separate articles hosted in the Commons Library’s Arts and Creativity section outline a wide variety of tactical forms, such as protestivals, visual artworks, music and more.
A compilation of creative actions undertaken by the Last Stand during 2011
Creative Activism – What is it?
Today’s gathering is all about creative activism. When I think about a creative approach to activism what comes to mind is one that doesn’t just use elements of the arts or humour, although they are important. Instead I’m thinking of an approach that applies creativity in its broadest sense to all aspects of campaigning, that’s always looking to add or invent something new to the toolkit. That seeks to make the most of one of the few resources we have in abundance, that is our ability to come up with imaginative means to challenge, resist and solve the many problems in our society. Ones that take advantage of our often small size to rapidly pivot and experiment with means, strategy and tactics.
As people trying to change things for the better we all too often slip into habits and tend to apply the same tactics, messages and strategies over and over again. Sometimes this is because they worked well for us at one time or because they suit our personality and political leanings or ethics or ideology or because we’ve been inspired and enlightened by a particular people or historical figures and want to emulate them. Sometimes we’re locked into the same way of doing things because we’re afraid of bringing wider opprobrium upon ourselves and getting into trouble. That might be with the authorities or with our compadres. Because the police, bureaucrats, large companies, etc are often based on command and control hierarchies and established methods of doing things there is an ability for agile tactics and thinking to wrong-foot them, both in the realm of ideas and physically through protests and direct action.
However the efficacy of the unexpected is soon lost when we do the same thing over and over. Our opponents may be slower, but they too adapt and learn how to counter us. A lack of imagination and innovation can also lead us into a dead end where we simply find ourselves being arrested in a slightly novel fashion rather than effectively shutting down a logging site, power plant or shaking things up in some other way.
So, a lot of our tactics and messaging can become boring and ineffective, not just for the people we’re trying to reach or influence, but also for ourselves. This can include what seem like, or once were, exciting and creative means and tropes. Deciding when a tactic is played out can be a tricky proposition as most of this is fairly intuitive stuff that requires experimenting and taking risks.
However creative activism is a craft like any other and we all can learn and build experience along the way. Just to show that there isn’t a one size fits formula sometimes returning old tactics can make them seem fresh if they haven’t been seen for a while or if they are applied in a new setting or have a new twist added. Doing something new, or old, can fall on its face, but so can applying the same means you always have. Using unconventional tactics runs the risk of alienating some people, but may draw others in who would otherwise be dismissive or pay little attention.
Creative activism of course can also be interpreted as engaging in activism amongst creative types, scenes and the “art world” to shake up existing hierarchies, challenge rampant exploitation, expose the true nature of corporate sponsors, and ensure neglected communities, issues and practices are represented and celebrated.
A boat-people.org event protested the use of nationalism and racism to silence pro-refugee voices during the 2010 election.
Creative Activism – Why do we do it, what can we achieve with it?
Pretty much all the inspiring figures and movements we draw inspiration from are those that used an innovative approach which tapped into the zeitgeist of their times in order to majorly shift social perceptions and unleash new power. Not all of us are going to part of collective and individual efforts that invent the next game shifting Occupy or Aboriginal Tent Embassy type approach, but we can apply creativity to whatever we’re doing in order to make it more engaging and interesting for ourselves and those we’re trying to reach.
In the other parts of this talk/article I’ll cover a variety of tactics and actions, some of which were self-contained events that were ends in themselves and others which added something extra to ongoing campaigns. A lot of what we’ll be looking at will apply to protests, disruptive direct action and other public events, but can also be used in relation to more mundane promotional and informational materials.
So what are the advantages of using cheek, shock and surprise?
By using creative troublemaking we enhance our ability to:
Make activism fun, exciting and fulfilling
Creative approaches and handiworks can provide ourselves with a laugh, liven up a standard event, or enable us to carry out actions for kicks as a form of artistic expression and political extreme sports. This won’t necessarily eliminate the hard slog involved in effective campaigning, but if the boring stuff is interspersed with and guided by tactics and events that are cheeky and adventurous then they should lift our spirits and give heart to ourselves and our allies. It’s important during campaigns to have perceptible results along the way and creating artworks and holding actions and events, particularly those that involve collective participation, can generate these. I’m a big believer in having ends and means match as much as possible so creative tactics can also subvert everyday reality, including activism, and provide a glimpse into a different world.
Grab attention and transmit messages
We can use innovative and artistic events, works and actions to draw attention to an injustice and the solutions to it indirectly via mainstream, alternative and social media coverage or take our message directly to passers-by, rally goers, politicians, corporate heads, etc.
Maximise limited resources
Once again the fact that we are often outgunned and outnumbered requires we think creatively in order to maximise the impact and power of what we have in order to move things forward and mobilise support.
Make direct action and civil disobedience more effective
Humour, ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking and creativity can make civil disobedience and disruptive direct-action fun rather than a grim exercise in bearing witness to horrible acts. Music can generate unity, raise spirits and defuse tensions (both amongst protesters and with opponents). Along with props, banners, t-shirts, etc transmit messages it can cut through mainstream media framing. Thinking creatively can help us find new ways to subvert laws or make them look ridiculous through the exploitation of loopholes, such as when free speech fighters in the early twentieth century took to marching backwards or speaking in boats offshore to flout repressive laws.
Broaden the field of conflict
Using the creativity and arts allows us to challenge our opponents on terrain and in areas of belief and knowledge beyond the courts, parliament, workplaces, etc.
Transmit multi-layered messages
Whilst simplicity can be the key, a creative action can also engage people on a number of levels. When Aboriginal activists walked out of the Hogarth art gallery in 1979 with six paintings by Gunwinggu artist Yirawala they didn’t just reclaim work whose ownership had never been renounced. They also asserted their sovereignty, drew attention to the widespread exploitation of Indigenous artists, and upended the concept of theft and ownership in a settler colony. Despite being arrested they convinced others of the righteousness of their act as 18 months later a jury found them not guilty of theft despite instructions from a judge to only follow strict interpretations of NSW law.
Impose economic and political costs
This might be by directly disrupting economic activity in the course of a performance or action or indirectly through damaging or reframing our opponents’ brand or reputation. By forcing authorities and authority figures to comment or intervene we can demonstrate state or corporate complicity. Whilst not everyone sees opponents as opponents, getting one back, making the bastards pay and humiliating and undermining them whilst creating a beautiful piece of music, art or theatre can do wonders for the spirit.
Ideally our campaigns and movements will allow the broadest range of people to participate and involving creative elements is another means for doing this.
A Little Bit of Planning Can Go a Long Way
Whilst our actions and performances can be spontaneous, and should allow for last minute surges of inspiration and improvisation, planning, forethought and strategising can make them a lot more powerful. Forgive me if much of this seems obvious, but I’ve often been part of actions in which we reactively rushed into action in response to some terrible deed without considering this stuff. There is plenty of material out there on strategy and planning so I won’t go on too much about it here, but as with most campaigns and events things to consider include:
(a) What are you hoping to achieve or get out of out of the performance, event or action?
(b) What are your messages and which audiences are you trying to reach with them?
(c) How might the one event or artwork reach and be read by differing groups of people?
(d) How might it affect, inspire and reinvigorate those involved as well as communities in struggle?
(e) What are the best tactics and forms to achieve all this?
(f) How can you create the most opportunities for people with differing skills, abilities, availability, etc to get involved?
(g) What materials do you need?
(h) What are the technical considerations and what skills and people do you need to fill them?
(i) When and where is the most effective time and place to carry out the event or action in terms of gaining access to the point of protest/performance, getting participants along, getting media coverage, recording the event, being seen by maximum number of people, etc?
To read about tactics visit: Changing the world via shock and beauty.