Above: OWS Puppets protest the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The Joy and Resolve of a Movement Built on Creative Resistance
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.
Art adds vitality and energy to advocacy; and it reaches people at deeper emotional levels and in their hearts 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 that 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 that art can be incorporated into your actions and into the work in your community.
Art Builds Commitment, Community and Movement
One 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 becomes art itself. 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.
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 Bee Hive Collective. This Maine-based group tells stories through incredible graphics. They are done in a sophisticated cartoon-like style in order to make them accessible and engaging. The stories are based on concerns that 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.
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 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, 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.
These spectacle protests also sent a message to our adversaries that we are a force to be reckoned with because we were willing to take risks and were 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 precious fresh water sources and to the Gulf of Mexico to be processed for transport overseas. When the Tar Sands Blockaders began in the southern portion of the pipeline, they put up massive banners in the trees where activists were doing tree sits. The message on the banner: You Shall Not Pass was a clear threat of resistance.
In the South and 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 planned 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 use of art in resistance can make protests less frightening and something people want to attend and join. Protest signs that advertise an event or are used at the event draw attention and spread 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 and some end up participating. Street theater is another way to attract people. Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir is one example of many groups who perform.
A book which shows the breadth of creativity in activism is Beautiful Trouble. It compiles hundreds of examples of creative resistance. The authors write, “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 contradict 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 writing:
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 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.
Another path into the emotions of people is humor. The Yes Men are one of the groups that have used humor to make a 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.” And, they have mocked some of the biggest corporate criminals on the planet. 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. And it is also a tool for creating solidarity and confidence when activists face difficult situations.
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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