ART ACTIVISM CASE STUDIES

DISCLAIMER

The contents of this article are for information and educational purposes only. Patriot Propaganda does not officially recommend using any of the tactics, techniques or procedures presented. 

***

You’ll never plough a field by turning it over in your mind. IRISH PROVERB

WHAT IS ART ACTIVISM? At this point, you may be thinking, “OK, all this theorising is really interesting (or not), but what is art activism?” 

Art activism refers to the use of art as a tool for social and political change. It can take many different forms, from street art and performance art to documentary films and websites. Whatever the medium, the aim is to use creativity and originality to get people thinking about important issues and inspire them to take action. Art activism is hard to define. Sometimes it looks more like art, and sometimes more like activism. There are so many great examples that cover a wide range of media and issues that we could never come up with a list of the “best practices,” but here are some case studies from the past twenty years or so that may offer inspiration for your own campaigns. 

Remember, patriots, we’re not concerned about the specific political motives – woke or not – behind the tactics presented. Our aim is to study mechanisms that work; to keep an open mind, and imagine ways we can use them ourselves. While platforms and technologies may change, the principles remain essentially the same. Study what the adversary does, and do it better.

OPERATION FIRST CASUALTY

Moving purposefully through an urban landscape, a squad of troops in desert combat fatigues scan with their eyes, up and down, side to side for threats. Observing them are civilians, standing on the sidewalks and looking out of windows and doorways.

Suddenly the squad leader shouts and motions to the corner ahead. The tension is palpable. The soldiers spring into action, rapidly closing the distance and grabbing a man dressed in street attire. They throw him to the ground, slipping ties around his wrists and a bag over his head, muffling his screams. The crowd’s piercing shrieks ring out into the street as the soldiers form a ring around the body, screaming at people to get back. “Move it! Get back – get away!”

Some of the bystanders yell back at the soldiers, others move quickly to get out of their way, still others gaze on in confusion, unable to process what’s happening in front of them. A child stands watching, arrested by the scene, wiping tears from his eyes. In a matter of minutes, the street has erupted into fear and chaos.

This is not a scene from the streets of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria. This was a creative protest staged by the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) in the streets of U.S. cities, including Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Denver, and Los Angeles in 2007.

The former U.S. Army sniper and chairman of the IVAW,  Garett Reppenhagen, explained that, “Just walking around talking and marching wasn’t getting the point across … We wanted a demonstration that depicted what we wanted to show people. I don’t have to talk to them, I don’t have to show them a piece of literature. They can see what we are doing, and see that the soldiers in Iraq are going through a hell of a time and the occupation is just really oppressive and violent.”

The art activists of IVAW brought the war home to the United States by creating a powerful performance that made it “real” for the American people. This performance helped to raise awareness about the realities of the war, and to inspire others to take action in support of ending the war.

UNDOCUBUS

The Undocubus was a bus driven by a group of undocumented immigrant activists in order to protest local anti-immigration laws that had created a “climate of xenophobia and fear.” The bus was decorated with brightly coloured monarch butterflies in order to symbolise the hope and courage of the immigrants involved in the protest.

The Undocubus activists drew inspiration from the civil rights movement of the 1960s in their efforts to register Latino voters. Like the freedom riders of that era, they adopted and adapted the symbols of past social movements. In addition, they made their own symbol – the monarch butterfly. This beautiful creature migrates across North America every year, from Canada to Mexico and back again.

Artist Favianna Rodriguez and others in the group, Culture Strike, developed designs featuring butterflies that helped to spread awareness about the movement. The activists wore butterfly wings at events and had designs of butterflies emblazoned on their shirts and bus. This helped to reframe the image of immigrants as a natural and majestic population.

A DALLAS DRINKING FOUNTAIN

In 2003, a sign above a drinking fountain in the County Records Building in Dallas, Texas, fell down. Underneath that sign were the remnants of an older one that read “Whites Only.” A public debate about what to do with this sign ignited, with some people arguing that it should be left alone as a visual reminder of our past, and others arguing that it should be covered up again to reflect that the South had moved on, and to leave the past in the past.

An artist named Lauren Woods had a different idea… rather than tear down or cover up signage pointing to racism in the past, she set out to draw more attention to this history and to how history changes. So, she designed a new drinking fountain that was stainless steel with a video screen positioned behind the water bowl. When pushing the button to drink, before any water comes out, the video screen plays scenes from civil rights protests from the 1960s.

The water doesn’t come on for the visitor until they have taken time to watch the video and reflect on the struggle it took for all people to be able to drink from the same fountain.

In the public debate leading to the installation, an exchange occurred between two county commissioners. “If somebody is interested and wants to see the history of it, that’s fine,” said Commissioner Mike Cantrell, “But, to force people to wait 45 seconds to get a drink, you basically make that water fountain inoperable.”

“I think it’s OK to wait 45 seconds for water,” fellow Commissioner John Wiley Price said. “Some of us have waited 45 years and longer.”  The fountain has been a contentious issue for years, but was installed in 2013 after nearly a decade of political wrangling. 

We’re not here to debate over whether the installation was justified. The point is, the artist was effective at influencing change. Now perhaps we can imagine designing another, VACCINATED ONLY water fountain? 

JOURNAL RAPPÉ

Makhtar “Xuman” Fall and Cheikh “Keytii” Sene, two Senegalese rappers, inspired by the Y’en a Marre (“Fed Up”) rap-infused youth movement in 2011, launched a news program in order to provide youth with the information they need to become more politically involved and informed citizens.

In Senegal, as in many places, there’s a general distaste for political language, since it’s associated with corruption and abuse of power, especially among the young people who make up 60 percent of the population. So, using their talent and experience, Keyti and Xuman created Journal Rappé, a regular video show where they provide a long-form investigative report in the form of a hip-hop mixtape. They rap the current news in Frenchy and Wolof (Senegal’s dominant local language), giving viewers a unique perspective on current events but in a more relatable and digestible format. 

The show provides political information for young people in a language and culture that they can understand and relate to. The show was so successful that it was replicated in countries across West Africa, East Africa, and as far as Jamaica and Vietnam.

WAR ON SMOG

Chinese cities are notorious for their smog. Terrified of a repeat of the Tiananmen Square protests, the Communist Chinese Party is equally notorious for being hostile toward street demonstrations.

In a clever response to the difficult political terrain, art activists in Chongqing city in Southwest China staged a street theatre performance piece in 2014 called War on Smog (the name borrowed from a public proclamation by the Chinese premier of the necessity of staging a “War on Smog”). The “war” was fought by a couple being wed in formal marriage attire and gas masks, a parade of tutu-clad women, likewise in gas masks, and other art performers, with the aim of bringing attention to air quality in the city.

The mixing of a street protest and an art piece was a brilliant way to get the message across without getting arrested. By disguising the protest as art, the authorities didn’t know what to do and no activists were arrested. The staggering creativity and style of War on Smog provided arresting images for local and world media.

Art activists in China found a way to safely express their political views by walking the line between political expression, which is often repressed in that country, and art, which is tolerated and even celebrated there. This allowed them to create a space for protest, even within an authoritarian regime.

UNITED VICTORIAN WORKERS

Troy is a town in upstate New York whose heyday has long since passed. A century-and-a-half ago it was a booming industrial town. Today, its largely deserted and its factories are boarded up, abandoned, or torn down.

Despite often being a depressing place to live, the annual “Victorian Stroll” in Troy is a fun event that everyone in the city looks forward to, where the remaining residents dress up in Victorian-era costumes and parade up and down the main street. In 2005, however, art activist, Dara Greenwald, noticed something strange about the event: everyone was dressed up as rich Victorians, but the poor factory workers who used to make up the majority of the population were nowhere to be seen. In an effort to resurrect them, Greenwald and a band of local artists and activists donned period working-class clothes and held placards with radical slogans from the previous century. 

The United Victorian Workers, as they dubbed themselves, printed a radical newspaper and held a “period-inspired” strike for higher wages. The organiser of the official event, dressed in proper bourgeois Victorian attire, was not amused. She even tried to get the police (also in Victorian outfits) to intervene and stop the workers from “ruining everything,” unwittingly adding the critical element of class conflict to the festivities. By trying to stop the workers from having their fun, she unintentionally fanned the flames of the art activists’ message. 

Rather than sit on the sidelines and holler incoherently about the revisionist history of Troy, Greenwald and her pals “corrected” history by joining the parade and steering the spectacle to their advantage. Art activism judo.

TRAFFIC MIMES

Antanas Mockus faced lots of tough challenges when he became mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, in 1995. One of the most violent places in the western hemisphere, Bogotá also had a seemingly insurmountable problem with traffic congestion.

People and cars ignored signs and laws, and the result was major gridlock, chaos, and fatal accidents. The mayor knew that imposing heavier fines or displaying more signs would be resented and ignored, so he did something very creative. Using the centuries-old art of pantomime, the traffic mimes brought attention to the problem of traffic fatalities by roaming the streets in brightly-coloured clothes and painted faces, mocking and shaming pedestrians. The shock value of the mimes’ presence, along with their appeal to citizens’ sense of humour – not to mention their fear of ridicule – was effective in getting people to pay attention.

Thanks to the mimes, and other creative tactics, traffic fatalities in Bogotá dropped by over 50 percent. The mimes were so successful, other Latin American cities followed suit, using humour and ridicule to solve their own traffic problems.

DOW CARES

The Yes Men are imposters. In real life, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (not even their real names) are activists. As the Yes Men, they act as corporate and governmental spokesmen. The Yes Men are a famous example of pranksters who, working in conjunction with Greenpeace, pretended to be representatives of Dow Chemical. 

They were invited to appear on television by the BBC. The twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster was a time for reflection on the chemical giant’s corporate responsibility. The disaster, in which a leak at an Indian chemical plant killed thousands of people and maimed nearly half a million, called into question Dow’s corporate responsibility … the topic of the day.

In front of millions of viewers, “Jude Fenestera” (Bichlbaum) calmly explained that since Dow was making billions of dollars in profit, they, as good corporate citizens, were taking full responsibility for the disaster by making full financial restitution to the victims. The news that Dow was accepting responsibility for the disaster caused its stocks to plunge, illustrating the financial – not social – values that corporations are held to.

The Yes Men were then asked back onto the BBC to explain their “stunt,” which they turned into another opportunity to highlight the difference between genuine corporate responsibility and corporate crisis management.

ZAPATISTA AIR FORCE

On New Year’s Day, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Thousands of indigenous peasants from Mexico’s Southern mountains walked out, wearing black ski masks – some carrying rifles and machetes – and declared war against the Mexican oligarchy. 

They were the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) who quickly gained international attention in 1994, when they staged an armed uprising in southern Mexico. Images of the rebel army and the words of its resident poet-in-arms, Subcomandante Marcos, spread rapidly across the globe.

After six years, dozens of campaigns, and hundreds of communiqués, the Zapatistas unveiled their “air force” against a Mexican Army encampment. EZLN guerrillas wrote notes to soldiers asking them to lay down their weapons, folded these notes into hundreds of paper airplanes, and then flew them over the razor wire encircling the army camp.

Of course, they would have been crushed in a direct kinetic fight with their adversary, but with humour and creativity, they successfully captured public sympathy and support, which established their potent political force. 

24-HOUR MUSEUM

Alfredo Jaar is a Chilean artist. Trained in architecture, he is well known in the art world. He was invited to Skoghall, Sweden, to do an art installation. 

Skoghall is a company town where the local paper industry, working with the government, provides jobs, housing, and municipal services for everyone. The people of Skoghall were content with their library, gym, grocery store, and park. Jaar noticed that the townspeople did lack one thing: a museum. So he built one using the heavy waxed paper produced by town’s mill, along with the long wooden poles it used as paper spindles.

Once the construction was complete, the museum held a big celebratory opening with a brass band playing.  The people of Skoghall were happy and everything was great. Then, just 24 hours later, Jaar removed the art and burned his museum to the ground.

Jarr’s activism could be seen as cruel and disempowering to the people of Skoghall. However, after he left town, the mayor of Skoghall called him to say that the previously laissez-faire citizens of his town had, for the first time ever, actually petitioned for something themselves. The people demanded that a permanent museum be built, and they wanted Jarr to be its architect.

After having only experienced the museum for one day, the people longed for what they hadn’t even known they wanted, and they mobilised themselves to get it.

CONCLUSION

When considering these or any examples of art activism, keep the following three things in mind:

1.     These won’t work for you. Don’t try simply repeating these projects. You won’t achieve the same outcomes in a different place and time because… 

2.     Context matters. These pieces were designed for a particular political purpose and cultural context. When taken out of that context and used for a different purpose, the result is diminished, and often a failure. However, these examples are still valuable because … 

3.     Creativity comes through combination. It’s helpful to learn from what others have done, borrowing bits and pieces — a style here, an approach there — and putting them together in new ways, in new places, and for new uses. It’s through this process that we create something new.

These example actions may be inspiring and all, because of the reasons above (and others) we don’t advocate arson, armed occupations of cities, or stepping into traffic wearing face paint. 

Art activism is a way to engage with the world and effect change. It can be tied tightly to campaigns, or it can skirt the edges of what we traditionally think of as politics by raising questions and providing perspectives. Some creative activism is more affective, while some is more effective. However, they all have one common goal: to blend arts and activism together.

And we can’t wait to see what you come up with.

REFERENCES:

This article was adapted from Duncombe, Stephen, and Steve Lambert. The Art of Activism: Your All-Purpose Guide to Making the Impossible Possible. OR Books, 2021.

Other References:

Sharp, Gene. From Dictatorship to Democracy. Serpent’s Tail, 2022.

Beer, Michael, et al. Civil Resistance Tactics in the 21st Century. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2021.

Popović, Srđa, and Hardy Merriman. CANVAS Core Curriculum: A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle: Students Book. Serbia, CANVAS, 2007.

Marovic, Ivan. The Path of Most Resistance: A Step-By-Step Guide to Planning Nonviolent Campaigns, 2nd Edition. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2021.

Sholette, Gregory. The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art. New York, United States, Macmillan Publishers, 2022.

Clark, Howard; Garate. Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns. Revised edition, War resisters’ International, 2022.

Thompson, Nato. Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-first Century. Melville House, 2015. 

Gavin, Francesca, and Alain Bieber. The Art of Protest: Political Art and Activism. Gestalten, 2022.

Miller, Matthew, and Srđa Popović. Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. Random House, 2015.

Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. Vintage; Reissue edition, 1989.

Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. Ig Publishing, 2004.

Abbott, Daniel. The Handbook of 5GW: A Fifth Generation of War? Amsterdam, Netherlands, Adfo Books, 2021.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Replacement Request

Name(Required)
Accepted file types: jpg, jpeg, gif, png, pdf, Max. file size: 10 MB.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Join Us

Name
Max. file size: 512 MB.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.