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.
Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything. GEORGE LOIS
When you first gather with your team of activists, we suggest you always start with introductions. First, share the usual things – your names, the causes you’re each working on, the organisations you’re each a part of – and then, ask: “What made you step off the curb?”
STEPPING OFF THE CURB?
When used by activists, the phrase “stepping off the curb” refers to the moment that one leaves the sidewalk and enters the street to join a protest, but in a broader sense it means making the step from passive indifference into active engagement.
When first forming your group of fellow activists, the aim is to find out about the moment that people decided to become activists or socially-engaged artists, or just to give a crap. Ask everyone to recall the first time they realised that the world needed changing, and felt stirrings within themselves to be part of that change.
“But wait a second,” you ask, “who, exactly, is supposed to be leading the group here?”
Well, if you’re reading this right now, then that leader is you!
It may have happened long ago, and they may not have realised the importance of it until much later. And it may be that there was never a singular, defining, “aha” moment.
Then, take a quick poll, asking participants to raise their hand if any of the following activities is what got them to step off the curb:
- Signing a petition
- Reading a flyer
- Studying a policy report
- Sitting in a political meeting
- Listening to a public speech
- Watching a public service announcement on TV
- Being approached by an earnest young person holding a clipboard
- Writing a check to a cause
- Reading a Facebook post
- Retweeting a tweet
As no hands are raised, it begins to dawn on everyone that many of the typical methods that activists use to get others involved are not how they got involved themselves. Running this exercise with hundreds of artists and activists, of all ages and ethnicities and from all over the world, you’ll find that very few people become politically engaged through encounters like those listed above.
Yes, they’d all heard a great lecture and been outraged by a set of facts, or may vividly recall their first political meeting. But what brought them to their work was usually far more personal and emotional.
For example, one of the participants (we’ll call her Monique), tells the story about how her two young daughters were in Australia with her ex-husband when the covid outbreak was first declared. The borders were shut down, and for the next year, she was prohibited from visiting her children because of arbitrary, unscientific travel restrictions by the government. Monique didn’t have a medical degree, but she had common sense, and she was hurt and angry about being gaslighted by “the authorities” who were preventing her from seeing her daughters. Monique, of course, would sacrifice everything for them. This experience set her on the journey to where she is today. Now an independent journalist, Monique started her own resistance movement that has successfully mobilised thousands of other mothers across Canada who march in the streets as a form of peaceful protest against government mandates that have caused incalculable harm to their children.
Chris, a wounded army veteran who was nearly killed by an IED blast in Afghanistan, has always felt a sense of duty to his country. With his broken body, he kissed his wife and children goodbye and made the long journey from his home in New Brunswick to Ottawa, where he joined thousands of Canadians outside of Parliament Hill to protest the same mandates that kept Monique from seeing her children.
While standing peacefully in the snow, with his war medals pinned to his chest, the Ottawa police charged forward on the order of their platoon commander to clear the protestors with force. Despite informing the police beforehand that he was a wounded war vet with a severe handicap, the police ignored Chris, threw him to the ground with tremendous force, and proceeded to knee and kick him in his spine which had already been brutally shattered in combat.
Following this tragic assault, Chris gathered his courage and went on to co-found a national organisation of Canadian Armed Forces veterans who are now answering the call to mobilise nation-wide. Together, Chris and his fellow veterans are on standby to respond to future calls for peaceful resistance against government overreach.
As with Monique and Chris, stepping off the curb may be like an epiphany, a blinding moment of clarity in which the injustices of the world are dramatically revealed, while for others it may be a slow awakening, learned indirectly.
You will have your own unique story of what led you to step off the curb. Whatever it was, it was likely a powerful experience. You can probably feel this experience even better than you can explain it, and words (or even images) may feel inadequate for capturing it. That’s because its effect upon you was felt more than considered, sensed more than reasoned. It’s what may be called an affective experience. While we each have our own individual story, what we share is a transformative process that began with something deeply personal, emotional, and experiential.
Now, think again for a moment about how most activists often build membership in their movements. How do they convince newcomers to step off the curb of indifference and join in our struggle for a better world?
Activists ambush people on the street, clipboard in hand, asking people to sign petitions and donate money. We stuff fact-filled flyers and pamphlets into people’s hands. We build websites where people can access information. We organise public forums at which people can hear the truth from experts, and fantasise about having the media reach of a cable news station. We dump overwhelming amounts of often depressing information about the world on people, and then expect them to be energised and excited about joining us.
This is routine activist practice. And it doesn’t make sense. If the tactics we use to raise attention about the causes we care about are not what attracted us to politically engaged art and activist work, why do we expect them to work for anyone else?
EXERCISE: YOUR ORIGIN STORY
Time: 15 minutes
This exercise encourages you to explore what made you interested in changing the world — what made you “step off the curb” — as well as how art activism can help others step off the curb.
All superheroes have an origin story. For Batman it was seeing his parents killed in a robbery, for Spider-Man it was being bit by a radioactive spider, for the Black Panther it was a mystical herb native to Wakanda, and for Wonder Woman it was simply being born as who and what she was: a warrior princess of the Amazon. In this exercise you are going to discover the story of what led you to become an art activist.
1. Go back in your mind to the first time you realised that the world wasn’t just, that it needed changing, and you felt stirrings within you to be part of that change—that moment when you decided to step off the curb and into the street. We don’t mean the moment that you literally stepped off the curb to join your first protest march, but something earlier that led you to even thinking about political participation in the first place. It may have happened years before, when you were much younger, and you may not have realised the importance of it until much later. Maybe there was never a singular, defining, “ah-ha” moment for you. That’s OK. Just transport yourself back to a time when you felt that something was just not right and you needed to do something about it.
- Where were you?
- What were you doing?
- What was going on around you?
2. Close your eyes and remember, giving yourself a few minutes to really get back to that place and time.
3. Take a moment and ask yourself: Is this even the origin? Or is there an earlier experience or event that led you there? If so, close your eyes again and allow yourself to remember that experience. The experience you remember may be something you treasure; it could be something mildly challenging or deeply traumatic. But the experience is uniquely yours. Take this opportunity to reframe that story from the past in terms of the story of who you are now and who you aim to be.
4. Once you’ve opened your eyes, get out your pen or pencil, and draw that scene on a piece of paper. Stick figures are fine, and if you really don’t want to draw you can always cut and paste images from magazines or online. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, just record your experience.
We all have our own activist origin stories, our moments of deciding to step off the curb of indifference, but we’re guessing that yours was not the moment someone handed you a pamphlet, asked you to sign a petition, or shared a social media post with you. If you are like most other, normal-functioning human beings, your origin story is a powerful, emotional experience. If we want to motivate others, we need to speak to their emotions as well. Art can do this. Art activism — like all artforms — can tap into these emotions, creating an affective experience and mobilising people to take action. This is its superpower.
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.
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