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Politics of Humor in an Age of Fools

Notes from Stephen Duncombe’s presentation Politics of Humor in an Age of Fools

HEMI Encuentro at UNAM, Mexico City, 10 June 2019

I’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of humor in these very dire and serious times.

So what do I think?

A great deal of humor points out the absurdity of the normal, the taken for granted, the everyday  — this is true for political humor as it is for a political humor.

But what if the everyday is absurd? How does humor work then? Or should I say now.

Take Satire, for instance. It is a politically potent form of humor.  An example we are probably all familiar with is  Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal, in which he proposed that the problem of the Irish rural poor might be solved by selling their babies to the rich for food.

Swift’s satire “works” politically because:

Extends the logic of the British Empire’s policies regarding their colonies.

The solution is so absurd — “eat the poor” — that it casts the normal as absurd as well.

Assumes that the audience will see the absurdity, and with their “awareness raised” will resist these absurd policies of Empire.

But can satire work the same way today? When the absurdity of the policies of the National-Fascists, and the leaders who propose them, is so obvious?

What is there to satirize? They satirize themselves.

Take another form of humor: that of the fool, the jester, the clown…the Heyoka. The politics of their humor often lies in their ability to use their foolishness to make a fool of those in power.

But again: what if our leaders — and I speak as a US Citizen here — are openly fools? Does the clown have the same power?

I don’t think so.

My analyses so far could lead to despair. Lo ciento. But I want to end with hope.

For what I have described above is not all that humor does: it doesn’t just function as critique, it can also provide vision.

The clown doesn’t just show the leader up to be a fool, they perform a vision of a world that operates according to radically different norms and hierarchies and values of the “normal’ one we inhabit today.  That is to say: they “turn the world upside down.”

And there is another face to satire as well.  The model of satire we are most used to is  one of negation — critiquing power as it is, that is: critical satire. But there is another form, which we might call prophetic satire, which challenges the logic of power by envisioning power as it should be.

For example, when our friends here at the Encuentro, the Yes Men, appeared on the BBC as spokespeople for  Dow chemical to take full financial and moral responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, they were at one and the same time critiquing the “normal” behavior of corporations and imagining a world turned upside down where corporations care for people and take responsibility for their actions.

This is not to say that “critical satire” doesn’t have an implied positive ideal. It wouldn’t work as satire if it didn’t. But that implied positive is dependent upon a knowing audience that can imagine, or has a memory of, an alternative to the present. And I’m not sure we possess this any longer.  So we may need to make the implicit explicit.

So, I want to end my comments here with a challenge:

To move from a humor that merely critiques, or ridicules or “raises awareness” of the problems of today.

To forms of humor that inspire us to imagine the worlds we want to build for tomorrow.

Muchos gracias.

12: The Chevrolet Suburban

“It’s a brand new car!” The gang hit the road in a 2018 Chevrolet Suburban SUV. Rugged, automation, comfort, and luxury – how can we use these lessons in our activism?

Sound Note: This show was recorded in a moving car. Thanks to Jimmy Bigbee Garver who recorded, edited, and mixed this episode.

The Chevy Suburban

Why the Suburban? It’s the longest continuous use automobile nameplate in production, starting in 1935, and has traditionally been one of General Motors’ most profitable vehicles.

Chevrolet Suburban – Wikipedia

We were driving the 11th Generation of the Suburban. Truck front, station wagon back: it’s the reverse mullet of the Chevy truck line.

If you’re not familiar with the Suburban…

Chevrolet Suburban Interior

Chevrolet Suburban history

What do we make of fake engine noises?


Thank you

We want to thank our sponsor who made this episode of the Pop Culture Salvage Expeditions possible, The Chevrol– just kidding! That’s never gonna happen. This show is paid for by donations to the Center for Artistic Activism, a 501.3c non-profit organization.

If you like the show – donate! (It’s a tax-deductible and a little bit goes a long way)


Phoebe Davies

Pictured: Phoebe Davies (left) with Jenny Moore and Chloe Cooper, co-creators of Bedfellows.


So, for me, I think that the reason that I work in the arts and not so in the charity sector is that we are able to challenge things and question things and push ideas outside of institutions or certain structures. You’ll only get to those places through challenging, through pushing, and thinking outside of how we choose to exist currently.

Phoebe Davies* is a social practice artist and producer based in London. She often works with mixed-media, including constructed social spaces, video, audio, and print works. Currently, Davies is working on multiple projects including Bedfellows, a sex re-education project working with adults and young people’s groups to explore desire, consent, representation, and feminist porn, while reflecting on and investigating current sex education.

*This interview was conducted in conjunction with the British Council’s Arts and Social Practice fellowship, of which Davies was a fellow in 2016.

Sarah J Halford: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to your artistic practice?

Phoebe Davies: In my late teens, early twenties, I was studying my BA at Wimbledon College of Arts. That was a fine arts BA in painting. But very early on I stopped making 2D work and started thinking about making time-based work. I come from an education and youth work background, so I’ve always worked as a youth worker alongside my art projects. Following the BA, I was lucky enough to get a traineeship with an organization called Arts Happening and I had the position as Trainee Producer, working across art projects and education and their advisory service that they have for artists. A lot of Arts Happening’s work might be seen as contemporary theatre, where they situate work in public space, as well as working with traditional gallery spaces and theatres. I learned a large amount from them.

We worked very closely thinking about what audiences have access to the arts, and what barriers certain people to be able to access art and others not. I’m from a farming community in South Wales, and so moving and living in an art sector in London, I’m really keen for us to really think about who we’re choosing to make work for, and how that exists outside of maybe the privileged bubbles that definitely exist within art spaces and galleries in particular – what it means to walk into those spaces, or who has the right to walk into those spaces. It’s not always just an open door, I guess.

SJH: And how would you describe your practice now?

PD: So, I work as an artist and I also work as a producer working for other artists, supporting them on their projects. I am currently making a lot of video performance print-based work, and I also make constructed social spaces – which is how I describe them – which will exist where people will maybe read them within an art context as instillations. I make work often with groups of people, so I will do large amounts of research working with groups of people that might have different expertise or skill sets or might be in a certain community or age to unpack ideas that come from that on-site research, which are often social or political.

Because I come from a visual arts background and have lots of experience working in contemporary theatre as well, if we are hosting workshops and thinking about using a gallery space or a museum, often I have a very strong design eye and aesthetic to my work. So, I will think about how we will design that space to open up conversations. Whether that’s making furniture that exists in that space that can be used in many different ways, or we’re making backdrops, fly-posting, making up some tables that have got different references, or showreels within the space. So, I guess thinking about how we make spaces and use those spaces to often share knowledges but within a certain aesthetic that I develop.

Photo by Rowena Gorden

SJH: That’s great. You say that you like to create “constructed social spaces” that often take on a social or political bent – can you share an example of that?

PD:  One example of that toured in 2013-2014 with a project called Influences, which was a feminist nail salon that was always developed in conjunction to different women’s groups locally to where it was toured. We designed not only the space as a site for conversation around contemporary gender politics and what was relevant to the groups we were working with, but also it hosted a series of workshops and events and talks – and it was a functioning nail salon. So, it’s not only a space where you come in and cruise around and look at stuff, but more that you’re sat in it, you’re learning in it, you’re hosting conversations in it, and how do we develop design to look at that.

SJH: So how did the feminist nail salon, and the program in general, work?

PD: So, when we work in groups we talk about the fact that we have the platform, if we choose to as a group, to host a space that could open up conversations that are relevant to women and non-binary folk local to the area. We talk about what issues might be relevant that they may want to host conversations about. We run nail salons that depict women or people of influence who are conversation starters around those themes. So, they might be social activists who are fighting to end violence against women. They might be photographers who depict trans communities in townships. Then, we work together to design these nail designs that depict women or people who are doing work that might be socially or politically-relevant work. So, that’s where we start from.

We want to host that space for people to have their nails done and open up further conversation. So, when you enter the space there may be a design at different tables that you can take a seat and get your nails done, and when you sit down there you’ll get a menu of people that you can choose to have applied to your nails. Then, there’s most likely going to be a live reader that we’ve put together. When we were in South Africa, an artist duo called Sober and Lonely brought a fantastic feminist and SciFi library that we were able to host. There may be some audio work that you listen to. The space will also be designed with probably vinyl wraps or fly posters that we’ve designed showing images that we’ve found as a group that depict women working in different ways. You’ll also have information about the women who you’ll have designed on your nails.

So, we spend like two months running workshops, talking about what is relevant for young women and then who could open up those conversations. Also, we think about a demographic of who we’re trying to show, if we’re thinking about it as a set of 10 [women or people]. Some of those people are local leaders, so you might have a very well-known female activist, like Malala, but you might also have somebody who’s doing really important grassroots work.

Photo courtesy of

SJH: You conducted this project for a few years, which would suggest that something kept you coming back to it. So, what was it that you kept coming back, or that you thought was working?

PD: That project was in very high demand. Lots of groups were asking for us. So, when you get continuously invited by groups who you think are very interesting – that’s the reason that we kept developing that work.

SJH: Why do you prefer to create interactive art pieces rather than having someone come into a gallery and look at a painting or instillation?

PD: Sometimes I’ll make a piece of work that is to be viewed or read by the audience where there isn’t a conversation that goes past that. Other times, the work will host conversations, so it will be about opening up those conversations. The reason I hope for that to happen is because often it’s a very one-way experience within certain art sectors. And I think that, for me, some of the most interesting moments happen when there’s things that can be discussed or unpacked, not just by yourself when you leave that space, but currently located within the work. Also, I’m really keen to create ways that those conversations can happen across different audiences. So, what it means to have conversations with those you wouldn’t normally have conversations with. And so that’s why I like constructing spaces that allow that to happen.

SJH: Can you tell me about a time when those conversations were able to happen?

PD: So, an example of that would be a research project that I’m running with two other artists called Jenny Moore and Chloe Cooper, which is called Bedfellows. It takes many different strands of art – like live performance, print, workshops, radio shows – and unpacks how we learn about sex education, which is really a life-long process – we often call it sex re-education. Thinking about how we learn about consent and desire and relationship models.

It’s quite interesting, as well, because realizing how your role as an artist within that, your role or your team’s role of hosting or facilitating is so crucial is something that I’ve definitely learned through working with Jenny and Chloe. When we have an event that we run called Sex Talk Meeting, which is where we create a space made out of about 20 to 30 white duvets and we’re dressed in like, TLC silky pajamas and we have a soundtrack and we perform some dancing at the beginning that is very tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes we offer people drinks as well. We host an evening or afternoon of talking about different issues around sex. Obviously, politically, that can be very emotional, socially, politically, emotionally. I believe that you cannot create safe spaces but you can put things in space to make sure that those people in those spaces are choosing to look after themselves and other people there.

Photo courtesy of the Tate Modern

So, often we talk about the rules of the bed when we’ve made this love bed. Everyone’s invited to come and sit in the bed. We’ve done quite a few of these. We create these booklets, and during the evening we will show three different references, we’ll have some starter questions, and we’ll invite people to talk about these ideas with whomever is sat near them. So, you’re not necessarily talking about it with the people you’ve come with. And because we ask people to mix up in various conversations, people end up having really extended conversation with people who they may have just met that evening.

How we end up advertising these events will very much determine who’s sat in the room. So if it’s a group of local secondary school teachers, we’re trying to figure out how they discuss pornography at school, with the fact that young people access pornography so much freer than maybe they did when they were younger. So, you might get people who are there for the music who’ve come because certain people are playing and they come and take part in a sex talk meeting then.

Our role within that is so important – so how we choose to facilitate those spaces and how we choose to open up those conversations, being aware of how these conversations could be triggering. So, a massive part of this is to understand that we all come with different experiences, and to not pass judgment on other people’s opinions and experiences from that. And it’s quite amazing that you can actually host spaces where people will talk very openly about sexual politics.

SJH: Would you read us some of the starter questions?

PD: Sure. “Can you be queer without being L, G, B, or T?” “Is queerness merely an identity exercise or is it tied to the more tangibly political: like economics, racial injustice, or our relationships to the state?” “Is queerness about who you are or more about what you do?” And my favorite one is: “How can you be sexually free? How do you let go? Do you always have to have the same sex or does the sex you have change with different people? What does it mean to like being penetrated or being the one doing the penetrating?”

Photo courtesy of Phoebe Davies

SJH: Can you tell me about a specific night that went really well and why you thought so?

PD: Actually, the things I think of being most successful are the research groups that we’ve set up. So, we run monthly research groups where we have a rolling email list of people who might be educators, artists, producers, academics, researchers, or care workers, or sex workers, and we invite them in to spend an evening looking at certain texts with us in a really informal way, hosted in our studios. And that has been really important to inform how the work can exist. So, that isn’t the work, but it’s definitely the model that has helped us to unpack the ideas that we’re working on and how we want to push those things forward.

SJH: Can remember witnessing a conversation where you thought the impact was really powerful, even if the responses were difficult ones?

PD: I recently finished working specifically with a school in East London, Mulberry School for Girls, which is a predominately a Muslim girl’s school – 99.97% of the women who attend the school are Bengali Muslim. Those women taught me so much about how we learn about consent and desire. We made a print, which they call a zine, and putting this together really shifted my ideas of also ability for action within schools. The school is taking this as the basis for all of their future sex education from year seven on. They are retraining their staff, they’re getting us in to help us retrain their staff, and they are talking to the students about how they can potentially work with the parents. One of the largest conversations there was the fact that we cannot just have these conversations as women, we need to also push much more broadly within our communities, which not only means men’s groups but also means our parents and the community leaders outside who, often in the UK in particular, parents and communities are very nervous about what’s taught within sex education. All of this is currently being shifted in the next couple of years.

So, the young women I was working with have advocated for the zine that they made to be translated into three different languages because some of their parents do not speak English. So, not only are they saying, “Yeah this is great,” but that it needs to be in these three different dialects. I think around the table we had seven different dialects and were like, if we hit these three, then so many of the parents who would not be able to access this information would be able to. It just kind of blew me away that they suggested such a larger action outside of that.

SJH: And why do you think caused that to be so successful?

PD: It was about working collectively, it was about the fact that there were different opinions in the room – that my opinion was one of seven or eight equally valid opinions in that space.

The other thing is that when we work as me, Jenny, and Chloe, we work as Bedfellows, but we’re three white women in our early 30s. So, we’re really conscious of [the fact that] it’s really important for us to establish that we’re not an authority on any of this. We’ve done a lot of research into it, but we constantly collaborate with other artists. It’s really important to acknowledge a multitude of different histories and stories, not just certain voices.

Photo courtesy of the Tate Modern

SJH: And what about one of the sex talk meetings or workshops that didn’t go so well?

PD: That one, actually – we were invited to come and do a sex talk and it was the first time we’d actually done one. And what we wanted was about 50 people, and we wanted to make sure that everybody who’s working on it had been briefed before and everybody knew how we would work as a team to safeguard that area, and how we can make sure that, where possible, we’re making a space that people felt comfortable in. And we had 500 people turn up. This was in [one of] the galleries in the Tate that is really, really big. So when you plan to do something that you hope is going to be quite intimate, and then you have 500 people, you have to totally change the way you’re going to host those conversations with that work.

So, for me it was a huge learning curve because so much of it actually failed. Well, not failed, there were people who really got into the conversations and really benefited from what we were doing, but at the same time we maybe couldn’t give it as much time as we wanted to because we were hosting this very large group of people who all wanted to talk about different sexual experiences.

Photo courtesy of Phoebe Davies

SJH: It sounds like there have been some interesting conversations generated from your projects, but what happens after the initial conversation is over? What next?

PD: I think that the kind of projects that I’m involved with push toward long-term change. If you think about me working at Mulberry School for Girls, you can see very quickly an outcome: institutional change, the retraining of all of their staff. The whole of the senior leadership team having a conversation around queer desire. Offering sex ed, from year seven, all the way to being trans inclusive and intersex inclusive. These are things that are happening. Specifically, in the Bedfellows program, within work that’s maybe the video work that I do, the print work that I do, that you might see and then leave from it, it’s not so obvious where that sits. It also, to me, I don’t want it to be that obvious. I want it to slowly choose to challenge or question the perceptions you might have on how people choose to situate themselves within society.

So, for me, I think that the reason that I work in the arts and not so in the charity sector is that we are able to challenge things and question things and push ideas outside of institutions or certain structures. You’ll only get to those places through challenging, through pushing, and thinking outside of how we choose to exist currently. A lot of the choices that we’re making are influenced by the fact that we exist within a patriarchal, racist society, and the only way that we can dream of spaces that are outside of that is to be experimental and to be imaginative and to think about alternative ways, and one of the ways that I choose to do that is as an artist.


If you want to help C4AA train and continue to support more groups, artists, and causes like these, please donate. Your contributions really help.

Owen Griffiths

[E]ssentially, it’s about: how can you subvert an artistic process to also be a useful one?…I think what’s happening in my practice is that I’m realizing that there’s an archipelago of projects which don’t necessarily function as art projects now, but were afforded or created through the mechanism of an art project and now continue in another way. I like the idea of the legacies of these projects being connected up. I think the strategy is part of a broader process of the need and the want to collaborate. Whether it’s with a housing association or with a local government, a gallery, or with other artists.

Owen Griffiths* is a social practice artist based in Wales, UK. Focused on site-specific, community-based projects, his work utilizes multiple mediums, including community gardens and edible landscapes, architecture, green public spaces, and more. Griffiths uses “art projects” as tactics to enter into publicly-owned spaces, transforming them into beautiful and useful landscapes that are co-authored by others in the community. Ultimately, this tactic beautifies the space, creates community buy-in, and keeps the space in the hands of the people – rather than sold to a private corporation.

*This interview was conducted in conjunction with the British Council’s Arts and Social Practice fellowship, of which Griffiths was a fellow in 2014.

Sarah J Halford: Can you tell me a little bit about your practice and how you came to it?

Owen Griffiths: I’m an artist. I work in the social practice realm of things. I work with communities, and on the basis of co-authorship and collaboration, which is sort of central to the practice. That means that sometimes with a gallery, sometimes with a community, or an institution, or organization. And it’s based around trying to work in conversation with as many partners as possible to create the work, or create a change, or create whatever the project is. So, my work is about seeking out the kind of constituencies that kind of feed into the process, place, or the objective of the work.

I had a kind of fairly traditional route to becoming an artist. I went to art school and got a B.A. and then an M.A. But where I work in South Wales, working with social practice here isn’t necessarily something that’s happening all the time. We aren’t as fluent, necessarily, in some of these ideas here in places like the UK – in Britain and in Wales. But I think there’s a real urgency around the political climate, the economic, social, environmental climate, and what’s happening in Europe where this work can actually play an important role in countries like Wales. So, even though I call it an artistic practice, and it’s sort of talked about as an artistic practice, it’s sometimes hard for galleries to get into that or think of a way of working with me. So, I tend to author a lot of projects myself or with other artists. Or work with communities on things.

SJH: For those galleries or to someone who maybe doesn’t know much about ‘social practice art’ – how would you describe yourself as an artist?

OG: I would say that I’m a social practice artist – I think that term is really important. But I think also what I’d say is that I’m really interested in finding out the potential of a place or a community through looking at the vernacular of a place, or things that are specific to that situation. I’m really interested in looking at the quality of that stuff, how we can build cultural confidence and build cultural partnerships. Whether it’s about celebrating their locale, or their role in that locale, or re-politicizing people to play a role in their community. So, that’s what I’d say – I’m interested in that work. That can take lots of different forms. But it’s not about saying that there’s a form to each project, and it’s not like you get the same project every time. You change and adapt, you’re site-responsive, you’re dialogue-responsive. So, you have to kind of move and shape-shift a lot with this kind of work.

Pictured: Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: Can you give me an example of a project that you’ve done that you thought went really well?

OG: I think the Vetch Veg project in Swansea was a seminal moment for me in how this kind of work develops and how I found my language as an artist. I was asked to look at the idea of developing a project in my local environment, and there was a football stadium that was being demolished just in front of our house, before you get to the sea in Swansea. It was the centenary of the football field, and they took the thing down and moved it out of town. So I thought, how can we develop this piece of land and how can we talk about what it’s future will be when it’s had this kind of iconic symbolism in the city for a hundred years? So, we ended up making a vegetable garden in one section of it. That is still there, 5 years on, and about 150 people garden and grow stuff through this project.

I think before [Vetch Veg] I’d been working in and out of galleries, or on the fringes of things. I’d been teaching a bit, I’d been working with communities or children and educational stuff. And this project really accelerated the understanding of what social practice could be. And, also, I lived within a square mile of this place. So, it was a project that happened through the Cultural Olympiad in the UK in 2012; I basically worked on this thing every day for 2 ½ years, so it really took over my life. But it was incredible because what you’d see when you go there is that this is a functioning and sustainable resource that was created through the the processes of art but is now no longer talked about, or needs to be talked about, as an art project. It just exists as a community resource, which is really exciting.

But, what’s really interesting is that this vegetable plot influenced the future of the site and influenced people’s political and social consciousnesses in the area. To connect to this piece of land and say, “actually we want to keep this piece of land – we don’t want you to sell to Tesco. We think this is a really important place to keep green.” Because often in city centers we have a lack of green spaces or resources for children, a lack of tranquil spaces, and the connection between places like that and mental health are really, really huge. So, how, as an artist, can you work with a community on a project like that to help to be part of a conversation about what the future of this piece of land is, and how can you be an author of this piece of land rather than give all of that to the council?

Because we presented this idea to the local authority that owned the piece of land as an art project, we weren’t seen particularly as serious threats in the sense of – we’re taking ownership of a piece of land. Because we called it an art project, they let us do it because they thought it would either fail or it would be temporary or it would just be something for the Olympics and it would move on. But, as I said, 5 years later people are still there and the park is now green. Now, that’s not all because of the Vetch project, but it did play a significant role in how that piece of city center green space has been altered and kept green. So, I’m very proud of that piece of work and of the collaboration that we worked with in the area.

Pictured: A sketch of Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

We were there every day, in the rain, building raised beds for planting. The stadium was compacted into building waste that was buried underground. We scavenged bits of football stadium roof for the cafe and the shed, and all of the other things that we used, the roof of the bread oven, all of those things. We just borrowed materials from the demolition. So, it’s how a project like that can be a kind of social connector in that area – how this endeavor of creating a garden can bring a lot of people together and cross lots of boundaries.

The best thing was when we had 10 tons of topsoil delivered, because the kids would just climb this mountain of topsoil and play on it. Just to be outdoors with their neighbors and their families, that’s really great in an urban area to have experiences like that. Now, kids go there after school, they water the plants, there’s an old pipe where they’ll play with the water, and people are growing stuff – maybe not to feed their whole family on that stuff, but actually it’s a social space. That’s really important, as well as the growing. It’s sort of talked about, in Wales anyway, as a project which has started a conversation about what it is to work in your local area, what it is to work in communities, what social practice can be, and is recognized as an example of good practice, which I’m really thrilled about. But I definitely learned so much by doing it because I’d never done such an ambitious thing before, and it really changed the way I work and practice.

SJH: As a community garden, you obviously needed the community. So, how did you get their buy-in to work on this project?

OG: We basically just went around, knocking doors and talking to people and went for pints in pubs and talked to people about the project. We put posters up, and got people to just come and see it. We worked with local counselors, we worked with sustainable groups in Swansea to talk about the project, we just went around and chatted to people.

And, also, we realized that regular consultation groups weren’t the way to go – questionnaires and things. It needed the human conversation, which you can’t just do in a form and send in the form. It was really important to go meet people and talk to them. What would happen then is that people would say, “I’ve never talked to my neighbors and I’ve lived on this street for 20 years.” And you just thought, well that can’t be, surely, but actually these things are really common.

It was really interesting to see things like racial tensions come to the surface, and the changing relationship to the community – the effect of the student population, the Chinese community, the Bangladeshi community that lived in this area, and people who were from Swansea and born and brought up there. So, it was all of these stories coming together, and whatever these urban conflicts are – conflicts around parking, or whatever, that you find in areas of dense housing, it was really interesting to say, “well, [at Vetch Veg] we’re not going to talk about any of those things – what we’re going to do is build this thing together. And, none of us are gardeners, so let’s just try to build this infrastructure together and develop this project.”

And then, throughout that year it was building that community partnership, really working with lots of different groups in the community, encouraging the Chinese retirement home to be part of the project, encouraging the churches and the tenants association, and all of these different groups that are active to come and be part of the project. I worked with about 4 or 5 people who were totally key and who emerged as community leaders to the project who really saw the project through and are very active there today.

SJH: It sounds like the community was really hungry for something like this.

OG: Yeah, I think we just hit the right time. Nobody had asked them what was going to happen in this piece of land. They’d lived with an empty stadium for 5 years, which had gone into dereliction, and no one had ever really had conversations with them about what this could be. So, having established this community confidence through the work that we were doing, we felt capable of challenging some of these prescribed ideas or possible routes that this piece of land would go down.

SJH: Why a garden? Why not a community center or just make it a dog park or something?

OG: Well, they have a community center, they have a beach across the road where all the dogs go. It was more about creating a green space, really, than a vegetable garden. It’s not as prolific of a growing space that you could have if you didn’t have individual beds. But it felt necessary to have individual plots so that people might have a plot next to someone they didn’t know. You wouldn’t necessarily be next to your neighbor, but you might be next to someone you’ve never met before. Mixing it all up like that was quite key when we came to work on this.

SJH: How does a garden like this fit into your larger “social practice”?

OG: I think that since Vetch Veg the gardens have been quite a theme in my work, because what it gives you is a space to nurture something, a space to talk about everything – politics, place, community, identity – you can talk about all that stuff, but you can do it while moving soil or building something. So, really, it’s kind of a vehicle to get to the conversations and get to the work that you want to do. I suppose that I’m probably a frustrated landscape designer because I love the idea of these spaces as anti-capitalist spaces that are somehow connected to a community-oriented belief. So, in a privatized landscape, I think about how spaces like these have a real strategic importance, as well as a biodiversity importance, as well as a social, political, cultural importance. So, they kind of work on lots of different levels for me. And being outdoors working with other people is just such a great experience for people to connect food politics to a sense of place. I don’t always make gardens, but they’re definitely a theme that I’ve been working with.

Pictured: Hillside Secure Children’s Home – Neath, Wales

I also worked, as well, in a secure unit for 12 to 16 year old kids, which was basically a prison and a school all rolled into one, and they lived on site, just outside Swansea. We made a garden there as well because often in institutions like that, the outdoor spaces are not very cared for, there aren’t enough resources to look after them, and people aren’t empowered to take them on.

The prison project was in a place called Hillside Secure Unit. Its courtyard is basically the only space that the kids all use at some point in the day, crossing it to go to class or whatever. And it was a completely unloved space that was just mossy and damp and just really boring. So, we talked about linking that space to a pedagogical role. We created a raised bed system again and we worked with the kids and staff to develop an outdoor classroom, essentially, and a space where other conversations can happen.

Especially when you’re in a high security institution, sitting in a polytunnel and hearing the rain fall on the polytunnel and having a conversation with your therapist is such a nicer experience that sitting in a strip-light room where the furniture is bolted down and everything around you is about hostility and coldness. Even though the staff might be trying to bridge those gaps, the architecture is working against you all the time.

Pictured: Inside a polytunnel at Hillside Secure Children’s Home – Neath, Wales

So, after consultation with the staff about what we were trying to do and how it would work, this outdoor class would be a place where we could have conversations, they could have family visits there, and the [garden] beds were just chalk-full of stuff. It was a really rich biodiversity – a complete mixture of planting. We grew everything with the kids, so you really get to talk about the idea of the seed growing into the fruit. We would connect that garden to a bigger conversation of things in the outside world and how in a few years time when they might be leaving that place or going onto a different institution, how they’ll work with that. So, those transitional conversations about place, and also abstract conversations about life and the world and our place in it, ecosystems and materials, all these things. It’s just a great vehicle to talk about all of this stuff.

SJH: Did you have any specific goal in mind when you went in and did that end up changing by the end of it?

OG: The goals of the prison projects are really open because the environments are so different. They have different categories of people who are in there for different reasons, with a massive difference in needs and mental health, so you’ve got to be really flexible to sustain a conversation with a place like that. That is the goal: if you can have a conversation with the institution and create something that hopefully lasts beyond your intervention as an artist. So, the fact that the garden in Swansea [Vetch Veg] and the Hillside [prison] gardens are still there and still used is a great result in that sense. We can leave something that doesn’t need prolonged artistic intervention to keep it up. So, I think that’s the goal when you go into a situation like that – how can you create something sustainable and useful through the project? How can you manipulate an artistic process or artistic funding to create a wider conversation about what the usefulness of this is?

SJH: What is it about these conversations that’s so important to you?

OG: Well I think that the conversations that you have as an artist – they’re interesting because you’re kind of like a trespasser, you’re coming maybe with no expertise in this sector, and you’re allowed in through the label of an artist to work with people or an idea, so there’s a sense of privilege around that a lot of the time. What’s amazing is that people will tell you stuff. You have amazing conversations with people about all kinds of things. But it’s incredible to learn about the perspective of the workplace or the world or politics from people in different situations. It informs your work and what you do, so it’s absolutely key in the way that we create a space and allow people to be heard. How you bring people into the role of a collaborator or a sense of co-authorship. You can’t do that unless you have a real understanding of them.

SJH: Regarding the prison project, you said that there was an effect on the students and educators. What did that effect look like? How did you first realize that it was happening?

OG: I think the effect was almost immediately because they very rarely get the time to spend outside doing something that’s not sports-related. So, to be outside with permission to do things like wheeling a wheelbarrow full of soil, and just really simple tasks like that, you could see how much they enjoyed doing it and how extraordinary the effect was of them being outside and doing something that wasn’t necessarily competitive.

You can use the garden as an example to talk about any educational process. So, that’s what was interesting was that they sort of began to see the possibilities of the garden. And then, we would sit in the polytunnel and have our tea breaks, but instead of having these really bad, sugary snacks we would bring in different, healthier things. And just that somebody had offered them something different and that we were sitting in this polytunnel listening to the rain, chatting, just the informality that the garden gave, you could see this kind of weight shifting – not necessarily lifting, because you’re still in this high-security space – but the sense of having permission to be outside in a different way. And then the staff came to us with ideas – it was their idea to bring the therapists into the garden. We had hoped that things like that would happen, but you never really know, depending on the context and what’s happening in the institution.

So, it was really great because the young people enjoyed being outside in a different way, and then the adults could see the possibilities of the garden as a metaphor for a bigger way of working in spaces like that.

SJH: And what about the conversations that happen within the groups that you work with? You said earlier that sometimes real social or political conversations can come up amongst the co-authors. What do you hope comes next?

OG: I guess you just take things from the conversation…I don’t know the answer to that, really. I think it’s just about…yeah, I don’t look at things like that. I just sort of carry on. They don’t stop, these conversations, they just carry on. You know, like after we’ve left a project, for example, or after I’ve stopped working on something — knowing when to stop working on something, knowing when to stop having those conversations is really difficult, because you might work with a group of people for 2 years and you become friends with them, and you develop relationships with people around this work and these roles and these ideas. There’s a sense of a real, common ownership of a project, and then you leave. It’s really hard for the community, it’s really hard for you as an artist. So, it’s a tricky thing for you to work on. And I think I’m learning how to do it all the time.

SJH: Were those conversations part of how you knew that the project was successful?

OG: Oh yeah, definitely. I think that the difficulty is that the markers of success in projects like this are very subtle, and actually you’d have to ask them what made it a success because my criteria would be different to theirs. Also my criteria is from the perspective of someone who leaves at the end of the day, and their criteria is that they managed to stay out there for an hour without misbehaving or being sent back in or being restrained.

Now, they might not be able to necessarily express the fact that that was a successful experience, but for the staff, they’d say, “Wow, it’s amazing to see so-and-so in the garden, he’s totally different here than he is in an educational context.” And I’d say, “Well, this is also an educational context, it’s just an informal educational context.” We’re talking about a lot of complex things like building, co-planting, but actually the informality and the outdoor element just gave people spaces to breathe. I think that’s so important in a high-tension environment like that. All the kids are between 12 and 16, majority of them in the 16 age bracket. So, they’re like these big teenagers with a lot of energy and hormones kicking around, and so to be outside and to give them spaces to talk about this stuff was really key.

So, yeah, I think the markers of success were kind of always moving and different depending on who was coming in and out, but I think when someone would say something like that to me, it was like – great! Because you might feel like something didn’t go very well, but actually then you’d be informed by one of the teachers that that was a really successful engagement. Specific environments offer different things; you have to attune yourself to those, and that takes a bit of time.

SJH: It sounds like you measure success with a variety of metrics that are based on one’s perspective. Have you felt that way about other projects?

OG: I think it’s with all the projects, really, when you’re working with groups of people. How do you evaluate the experience successfully, and honestly, and how do you use a process of evaluation as a creative process to inform how you go forward? So, you’re not doing it at the end, you’re doing it throughout. And I think that’s the key: to try to work with these processes throughout. And it takes a bit of time, but it actually informs a more sustainable practice of working. You basically get to achieve something that’s a more real connection to a place by adapting things all the time.

Pictured: A community gathering at Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: These sound like incredible projects, but what about the times when things don’t go so well?

OG: Yeah, I’ve certainly had projects like that where things haven’t worked for various reasons.

SJH: Does an example come to mind?

OG: Yeah, sure…I want to be somewhat vague with this because the project is still ongoing. But looking back now I can really see why it didn’t work, but at the time it’s really hard to work out. In a partnership project recently we had difficulty having a conversation with all the key partners. I think that’s a really important part of something. So, when things haven’t worked, it’s been about not having access to the people who have conceptualized this creative project, who have maybe thought: what we need here is an art project, when actually they don’t need an art project. But they bring in an artist and you work on this project and you get to meet people and have conversations, but actually you don’t get to talk to the right people or things aren’t properly communicated.

SJH: So is it that this project wasn’t hitting the right chord with the community?

OG: It’s not necessarily that, I think that when social practice projects don’t necessarily work it’s because what they need is an architect or a better resource. So, I think when it’s not worked very well it’s because they didn’t need an art project or the community didn’t want an art project but the landlord wanted an art project. Or the consultation they’ve done around this is just a form-filling exercise or something.

SJH: So in the project that you’re thinking about, what were some indicators that it was starting to go south?

OG: The fact that they’d say things like, “We’ve done a community consultation and we sent out 300 flyers and nobody showed up.” Things like that where you have a track way of doing things and you’re not willing to change your way of doing things. We were trying to do something different than what they normally deliver, and therefore you might want to change your consult methods. So, things like that were clues to this kind of conversation not going forward.

And, also the fact that we couldn’t speak to the director or the landlord of this piece of land, we were meeting other people. So, sometimes it’s really useful to speak to people at the head of an organization to talk about what this is, because actually what most people are not prepared for is the time that these projects take and the money they take because they can be big beasts sometimes. They take a lot of time and a lot of resources and money and they don’t always necessarily give you a big shiny thing at the end of it.

Pictured: Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: Do you connect these community-based projects to a broader idea of social change?

OG: I think so, yeah. I mean, they’re attempting to be – sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. But I’m working in Wales, and I’m really interested in the idea of small nations as authors of change, and the idea of being based in somewhere like this, working in your locale as well as internationally, as a way of creating a sustainable shift, or a greater participation in something to enable things to happen. Of course, there are loads of other models and ways of doing this not as artworks, which are much more successful or give greater agency or at a greater speed, but I think what’s achieved through social practice can be really unique and really transformative, and can provide a really poetic space for intervention.

But, essentially, it’s about: how can you subvert an artistic process to also be a useful one? So, how can we use a Cultural Olympiad grant or commission to achieve something long term, all the way out in Swansea? I think it’s about that question, really, it’s about the usefulness of this and the utility of it. How can we participate in a greater idea of connection to place, to neighbors, to cities, to urban design, to the questions of the environment around us and how we can participate in those changes and not have things done to us all the time.

SJH: Do you think of your work as one-off projects or do you connect them all together to a larger strategy for change?

OG: I think what’s happening in my practice is that I’m realizing that there’s an archipelago of projects which don’t necessarily function as art projects now, but were afforded or created through the mechanism of an art project and now continue in another way. I like the idea of the legacies of these project being connected up. I think the strategy is part of a broader process of the need and the want to collaborate. Whether it’s with a housing association or with a local government, a gallery, or with other artists.

I think those small-scale changes are inspired by changes on a mass-scale. So they’re a part of bigger changes that I’m not authoring, but they’re part of a much bigger thing. So, the Venn Diagram of how these things connect up to a revolution around how we use land in this country. Or say food justice, social food politics, is the big issue, then this work connects up to that as a small part. So, I feel like there are plenty of enormous social change movements happening that these projects can assist in. I think they’re one and the same, really.

I’m always interested in the idea of collaboration, but I think now it’s about strategic collaborations, probably with other artists, to get these projects moving in a quicker way. That’s what keeps me in Wales and that’s what keeps me working here – the possibilities of working in a small community and creating these changes, creating the landscape that you live in, and also having international conversations from this perspective feels like a really good time to challenge the neoliberal structures, to challenge land privatization, to challenge the lack of green spaces in cities. These are conversations that a lot of artists are having, there’s a lot of artists becoming social practitioners now. It feels like a really rich time.


For more information on Owen Griffiths, visit


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Ben Davis

[P]eople want to have it both ways. They want to say “This is my form of intervention in the world. This is how I’m going to change the world — but don’t ask me how because I’m an artist.” It has all of these little noble effects, [which] they call the “message in the bottle” theory, which is the de facto theory that most people have when you try to figure out what circuit connects what you’re doing to how you change the world. Why not put a message in a bottle and eventually it’s going to wash up on the shore and someone will find my message? I think we can do better, basically.

Ben Davis is a New York-based radical art critic. He is the author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (2013) and the current National Art Critic at artnet News. With a special interest in political art, Davis focuses on art’s role in political and social movements, the breadth of art’s impact, and how art activists think about and execute their work. His work has been featured in venues such as Adbusters, The Brooklyn Rail, e-Flux Journal, Frieze, New York, The New York Times, Slate, The Village Voice, and many more.

Steve Duncombe: How did you get into the business of doing art criticism, and particularly art criticism with an emphasis on class and politics?

Ben Davis: Well, that’s pretty organic. I moved to New York in 2004. It’s a long story but by a series of random encounters, I ended up writing for a paper in Queens about community art and then ended up working for a fine art magazine. At the same time, during this period of the mobilization against the Iraq war and a lot of other things, I became involved in various forms of activism. In the end, I was particularly focused on criminal justice activism against the death penalty. Most of the time these things were just parallel tracks in my life.

I do think there’s a way that this background helps: so much of the intellectual production around fine art traces back to various kinds of political claims that are being made covertly or overtly for art shows and the art object. This can be overinflated, [but] can also be really genuine and easy to overlook or underestimate. We should try to put a little bit of perspective on some of the claims that are made for art.

SD: What do you mean by that?

BD: Well, it becomes clear when you’re actually involved in politics that the term “politics” contains a multitude. In art, the question is treated as if it’s a self-evident thing. It’s like: What is the connection between art and politics? And I realize that my question is: “What politics?” All these ideas that are really vital, and are actually the subject of really acrimonious debates in the activist organizing space, are almost never the subject of discussions in the arts. There is this whole huge universe  that ranges from progressive electoral politics, to nonprofit politics, to community organizing, to socialist movement building, to anarchist communal space building, that just collapses into one thing. The conversation about art and politics is sometimes all these things, one of these things, none of these things.

SD: Why is that? Why is it that politics become this abstraction in art? Where, for an activist, “politics” tends to be the politics of getting this person elected or not, the politics of mobilizing these people or not, get this policy passed, or, even the politics of world building and self-expression. But it’s defined. We know what it is.

So, why in the art world is it this abstraction: “art and politics”?

BD: I don’t know if there’s exactly one answer. I think in some sense though, I’ve come to think of it like an original sin, [as if] it’s sort of baked into the idea of art. “Art” is a fairly modern concept. I always like to say if you look at the people that we consider to be the first real critics of modern art, Charles Baudelaire and John Ruskin, they would have all been in the same high school class with Marx and Engels. I mean, they’re all born within one year of each other. So, the development of capitalism and the various kinds of attempts to theorize and think against it, and the modern idea of the artist, they’re simultaneous tendencies.

These are all pretty specific counterpoints to the birth of consumer capitalism. The world’s more and more alienated. People don’t know where their commodities come from, or they don’t have control of their labor. And so, society invents this alternate route to salvation. On one hand, people are theorizing political resistance. On the other hand, people imagine these fantastical forms of resisting through artistic expression, where we’re going to be redeemed by people who feel harder or who offer this imaginary escape route where your children can love what they do and be these visionaries who show us an alternative route out of alienation.

That strand continues  through our history. In the 60s, they talked about the opposition between the hippies and the politicos. That’s a displaced version of the opld opposition: people who believe in transformation through living passionately and creatively vs. the people who are, like: How do we actually shut down the Pentagon?

I wouldn’t be dismissive of the artistic route. I think it actually poses an interesting problem for the organizer route — how you coordinate or integrate those kinds of energies. But it is a problem. On one hand, art contains within itself these strands or strains where you think about [it] as an alternative to the [everyday] world of exploitation and alienation. That can be an entry into alternative modes of thinking or it can be a deflection form alternative modes of thinking. It can be both at once or neither. That’s kind of the eternal conversation that’s latent within these debates.

9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis

SD: In your 9.5 Theses on Art and Class you talk about how part of the problem of art itself, but by extension political art, is that it has a middle class analysis of the world — that the individual is the agent of history as opposed to the class or the collective being the agent of history. Is that part and parcel of this alternative model of social change?

BD: Yeah, I think there is a kind of constant deflection in that direction, towards solutions that are based around the individual visionary. Art tends to go in that direction. It’s not fated to be so but I think it’s useful to start from the point of view that art politics, the kind of politics that tends to manifest within these spheres, has a natural bias towards that. Just because of the entire conception of art and that function.

This is one of the reasons, frankly, that rich people are comfortable funding artistic causes: because cultural politics is much more friendly ground than “straight” politics. There’s some paper I was reading on the Ford Foundation’s investment in black activism in the early 1970s where they talk about [how they] funded black cultural causes because it was friendlier terrain to them than some of the more revolutionary or community organizing activity that was going in the African American community at the time.

SD: And I imagine more legible to themselves. Which is why we can understand this idea of the individual artist who’s seeing the future because we, ourselves, are individuals who can imagine ourselves as agents of history.

BD: Right.

SD: Bringing it back to this idea about socially engaged arts, social practice, or whatever you want to call it — one of the reasons why I really wanted to talk to you is that you’re one of the few people, I think, who’s writing today that is at one and the same time genuinely sympathetic to the aims of things like social practice arts, socially engaged arts, but also doesn’t give it a free pass.

Can you tell me a little bit why you don’t give it a pass? Why don’t you just accept the work based on its artist’s intentions?

BD: Because anything that is unquestioned is the tool, the instrument, that power turn on you. When you define anything in such a way as to make it off limits to criticism — I’m just saying that once you do that, you’re just giving people this huge stick to beat you with.

Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby at the Domino Sugar Factory is a great example. The project is actually a landmark project [that is] totally fascinating. It has attracted a really interesting audience, and I know activists who went there as soon they could [to] talk about racism and criminal justice issues because it attracted such a diverse audience. It definitely opened up a kind of space.

But it was all funded by Two Trees Real Estate Development, and it was all an attempt to get people excited about the waterfront in advance to this very controversial redevelopment. So I think you have to come up with a complex way to look at it. Otherwise, you’re not taking the politics part of art-in-politics seriously enough.

SD: Okay, so let’s play this out a little bit because the counter argument would be something like “You can’t hold art to the standards that you’re holding say a housing organizer, an anti-racist organizer. That art is this thing which has myriad sort of impacts and influences and so on and so forth. To be critical of it is missing it’s possibilities.”

BD: Sure, except people make claims for it all the time as if it’s equivalent to housing activism or it’s like your form of intervening in the world. That’s the thing. It’s that people want to have it both ways. They want to say, “This is my form of intervention in the world. This is how I’m going to change the world — but don’t ask me how because I’m an artist.”

I call this the “message in the bottle” theory, which is the de facto theory that most artists have when it comes to the circuit that connects what they’re doing to how it changes the world. You are just putting a message out there and hoping it does something, like putting a message in a bottle and eventually hoping it’s going to wash up on the shore and someone will find the message. I think we can do better, basically.

And particularly now, I try to be critical of the new forms of art and politics — but supportively critical. Constructively critical.

Because there is also a dangerous tendency that I see, particularly in young critics who are progressive or radical, and it partly comes as a reaction to the kind of inflation of claims around art and politics. There’s a kind of criticism that starts out of a left wing tendency to criticize some of the vagueness and opportunism of the art-and-politics conversation and really ends up in a right wing place, dismissing all politics in art. I think of it as a course of antibiotics that you haven’t taken through all the way to the end. Then you build up more and more resistant strains of bacteria.

I think you need to head that off. And a way to do that produce a critical way of looking at things where you define some of the criteria by which you say a project would be successful so that it doesn’t all disintegrate into this obviously massive hypocrisy. Or you moderate the claims you are making.

SD: As a constructive critique, what would your advice be to an activist artist? Imagine I’m like: “Ben, I really want to stop racism and I’m going to do this installation. It’s going to stop racism and it’s based on my experiences as a white guy and about how white supremacy was part of my family. Yeah.”

What would you say to something like that?

BD: First of all, the problem with that is not the second part, I don’t think,  where you want to make an installation exploring the complicity of my history with racism, or any other issue. That’s a fine thing, though [you] want to be sensitive to how you do that. [The] problem is the first part:The claim that it be evaluated as your intervention to change the world. It’s just like, to a certain extent, you should unburden [some] art from having to change the world. That’s not the only thing it’s for.

That’s something I say in my book: art is a Swiss Army Knife not a hammer. Some art is just [about] an artist working through things. It doesn’t [have an] instrumental effect? That’s fine. It’s when the claim is made that [the art] is something else that it can become a way to deflect from other conversations, to redefine social change in a less threatening, more individualistic, more artistic way. So that’s the first thing I would say: Be sensitive about the claims that you’re making, the space you’re using and so on.

The second thing I’d say is define the politics of it. I think the pernicious thing is that, by its nature, the art sphere really wants to aestheticize politics. By the nature of the space you’re in, it really wants to take politics and turn it into a motif or a theme and so on. It wants heart-warming stories. It wants tales of transcendence. It wants the most symbolic form of politics possible. You just have to push against that as hard of possible. You want to be able to know really specifically what you believe, politics-wise.

Then the third thing is to attach yourself to something. I think this is the best way that you can actually better define the stakes or outcomes of things. There are all these people doing this kind of work. Sometimes it seems like we start from the point of view that the artist is going to figure problems out for society, which, again I think is an inheritance of our romantic conception of the artist and all these kinds of attempts to redefine art as a form of wisdom or social knowledge. I don’t think artists are particularly smarter about politics than anybody else. Some of them are but the majority are just — it’s not any more likely that an artist has something visionary to say about politics than a scientist or a plumber or anyone else. I just cannot believe that. And the best way you can check yourself is to be associated with people who actually know their shit, who you can check your work with.

All the time people make claims about various forms of struggles they’re representing and you just have to be following the news around the struggles to be like, “That was the debate about five years ago.The thing that you’re advocating is the conservative wing of this particular movement,” and so on.

A few years ago I was part of a talk about activism in Chinatown, and someone from CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a tenants rights group, talked about what a burden artists were on [them]. CAAAV was constantly getting inquiries about artists who wanted to do a project about gentrification. And their organizers were like, “You realize that we have to train you, every single one of you? Every time we get one of these requests. It’ll be better if you just volunteered as a person and then see what comes of it.” To start from the position [where] you’re assuming that you’re a special visionary person and that you’re going to bring your solution to something is already starting behind. I think you should start from the point view of a citizen, activist, organizer. Then from there,  artists definitely have skills that are needed—but work backwards from the material involvement.

SD: What do we have to learn from artists? I can organize a bunch of tenants to throw out a landlord. But why do I need some artist that’s always talking about: “you can’t tell me what to do. I need my artistic freedom. I’m a creative, blah blah, blah”

BD: Well, you definitely don’t need that kind of artist.

SD: All right. Okay.

BD: Politics, I believe, is movement-building organization. So it is true, in my experience, that a lot of the work of movements and organizations becomes really instrumental. It’s always focused on the next thing and always focused on the hard problem of just trying to figure out how we’re going to get 25 people to this vigil so that this politician [or] local official is shaken a little. I think that’s probably the most important piece of organizing. It’s the piece that art always leaves out. The problem with most art stuff is that it’s attached to nothing besides the art world. What it produces is more a conversation about itself and it never produces the output linked into the second space. It usually never [raises the suggestion] of: “Should you be so inspired by this poster show, there’s the next meeting where you can go and plan…”

But sometimes what the most urgent organizing leaves out is the time space to think about where you’re recruiting people and bringing new blood in, in between actions. A lot of times, that new blood comes in through the less instrumental parts of this work. My conclusion from that is that the question is not so much that everything has to have clear output or a clear propagandistic function. It’s really more the question ultimately of what it’s attached to. Artists can play a key role in opening up the spaces where people enter movements.

Pictured: 9.5 Theses on Art and Class Poster by N+1 Mag.

BD: My friend, [who] is a lawyer who does housing rights, he’s like, “What you do is stupid.” I have to agree with him a little bit. I have to agree with him. But that sort of sits over me like a challenge. How do you prove that this is not stupid?

You have to think both thoughts at once. I don’t think that you should try and reduce everything to the instrumental “How are we going to shut down x” level. But, on the other hand, that stuff is important too. I think we’re in a really interesting moment, a really interesting historical, political, communicational moment where I think there’s all of these questions about these things that haven’t been worked out yet that I’m trying to work my way through because I feel like they’re unfolding around me all the time.

It’s almost like the rise of the internet and social media and a variety of other phenomena have made it so that every single movement gets translated immediately to the thing that’s most purely expressive. It’s like everything immediately becomes an open letter, an online petition, various forms of shaming and attack. It’s almost like people have doubled down on expression as activism. We’re going to hold the line on the —

SD: On the cultural infrastructure.

BD:  — on the cultural infrastructure. In some ways, that’s important but in some ways I think it’s also that was the problem we were in in the first place. People have just doubled down on politics within the cultural space. If you look at the serious history of cultural politics, that’s often a danger is that people over-estimate the good that they’re doing in the cultural sphere and don’t see what’s going on outside of it.

I think of the example of Brazil in the 60s. The coup happens in 1964 and there’s four years of incredible culture in Brazil where you get the Theatre of the Oppressed, the Tropicalia Movement comes out of that. Incredible developments in worker education, art, and art hybrids. There’s a great essay by Roberto Schwarz about this where he says, “If you were in one of these theaters at this time, you would have think that we had won. No one was asking the question: If we were so brave, how come we’d lost?” Then [by] 1968, they polished off the peasants. They polished off the workers’ movement. They’re finally like, “We’re sick of the intellectuals and the artists and we’re coming for you.” They passed the 5th Institutional Directive. And all of the artists go into exile or go silent and it becomes clear that that was all this weird interregnum.

I just really worry about that [in the Trump era]. And it’s another reason why you need to be constructively critical of all of this stuff and ask what it’s building towards. What are the larger things it plays into? Because it’s very possible that these are just spaces that are loaned to us.


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Pam Korza

I think of that “why?” question. For artists who are really serious about doing this kind of change based work, many of them come to it with a kind of moral imperative. And the folks that you probably intersect with most as activist artists really see it that way. It’s all about the change. And so, it’s like if you can’t figure out whether you are moving the needle at all, or contributing in some meaningful way, then why do it to begin with?

Pam Korza is the co-director Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts that connects arts and culture to community-building and social change efforts. She has consulted and offered workshops and presentations on the principles and practices of arts and civic engagement for artists, cultural organizations, funders, and universities. She has co-written and co-edited several books, including Civic Dialogue, Arts & Culture: Findings from Animating Democracy, and the Arts & Civic Engagement Tool Kit.

Steve Duncombe: This is the 10th year of the Center for Artistic Activism and in the back of my brain, I’ve always had the question: but does it actually really work? I’ve read a fair amount of stuff from theorists, and they’re super smart and really interesting and all, but I’m more interested in how practitioners, people like you and the artists themselves, address these questions.

In any case, I’d love to start out with just a personal question: How did you get into all of this?

Pam Korza: Well, if you trace back where I originated in my career, it was with the Arts Extension Service at the University of Massachusetts, and that organization in the early years, which was in the 70’s, was looking at the role of arts in community development. Mostly regionally [at first], but soon AES became a national organization. In the context of that work, community development was the holy grail or the end point. It was important even then to say what are we aiming for and [ask if] we are getting there. So evaluation was maybe more subliminal than explicit, but it became a part of how we looked at the world.

So, fast forward to the Animating Democracy work, which is decades later. The investigation in the early years of Animating Democracy was: What does this intersection of arts and civic dialog look like? And, if we’re really aiming to shift the way dialog happens in communities, what does that look like and how do we know if it’s happening?

There was evaluation built into the grant making that we were doing in our early 2000s with Ford Foundation resources, and we encouraged the grantees, with the help of coaches, to look from different angles at what difference their projects were making. Maybe they would choose to look at the artistic investigation and how that’s influenced by civic and social intention; maybe it was looking at the community or audience response to the work; maybe it was looking at the contribution to some sort of change in the community.

We gave them different lenses to choose from and so that was it. And then in 2007, as part of a civic engagement cohort that the Kellogg Foundation assembled, we got an unconditional grant and chose to take up the question: How do we evaluate this arts and civic engagement work?

And that sort of launched us seriously into the evaluation work, but really trying to get at some DIY ways that artists and cultural organization folks and their partners could do evaluation that was manageable and meaningful for them. Because just getting the work done is about all everybody can manage, evaluation is not a thing that most people will choose to put resources to or time toward.

SD: Well let’s talk about that. Are there other reasons — besides where one devotes their resources —  which contributes to this resistance to assessment amongst artists?

PK: I think there is a reality of resistance to assessment. And some of it is grounded in the connotation of judgment that evaluation carries with it. And that, I think, is related to what people think of as quantifying evidence, you know, and empirical approaches that many think are ill suited to art, ill suited to art and social change.

There’s also a perception — among some, but not everybody — that evaluation is just not possible. We had a conversation amongst a bunch of evaluators in LA a few years ago, and two of them actually brought up this phenomenon of exceptionalism that they encounter a lot with some arts folks, that we’re exceptional. Like: “We can’t be quantified. We can’t be assessed in the same way that other things are.” There’s also a nagging fear that we’ll find out that we aren’t making a difference, or to the degree that we hope we are.

Maria Rosario Jackson, an urban planner who looks at value propositions around the arts and arts impact, has observed that, amongst different fields, the arts, are highly aspirational.  We often set unrealistic expectations based on what a project or initiative can actually achieve. So we’re setting ourselves up for failure, in a sense, by doing that. What’s actually needed is to set outcomes that you can actually achieve, given the nature of the creative project.

SD: So for you, evaluation isn’t something that comes at the end, necessarily. It’s actually also something which is part of the planning of the project. So to set the aspirations and so on.

PK: Absolutely.

Pictured: Pam Korza

SD: Let’s go back to the fear of numbers and the immediate assumption I come across this all the time when I talk to artists or art-affiliated folks. They say: “Well, you can’t count these things,” when I’ve never brought up anything that’s quantitative. It’s just assumed that if I am talking about assessment it must mean numbers. But I’ve noticed that the sort of assessment tools that you’re proposing are not quantitative at all.

PK: Right.

SD: So, can you talk a little bit about non-quantitative approaches to assessment?

PK: Well, you know, there’s a lot about art that is subjective, qualitative, and not quantifiable. And the effects of art are the same sort of thing. So, looking at those effects means actually paying attention to social, emotional, educational or learning kinds of outcomes. We, Animating Democracy and some evaluators, devised a Continuum of Impact that defines six families of those kinds of outcomes: [1] Changes in knowledge or awareness, [2] changes in attitudes, [3] changes in discourse. How people speak to each other. The nature of what’s discussed. Who’s coming to those conversations. [4] Changes in capacity to engage in civic life or public life. [5] Changes in behavior in action. [6] Changes in conditions, equity systems, and structures.

The beautiful thing is, all of those things are are qualitative in nature, but can be quantified if you take a methodical approach to collecting that qualitative evidence.

There’s just a gap of knowledge that folks have about what can be quantified. So, that’s been some of the work we did with the Kellogg resource, [putting] together a field lab of evaluators, artists, and funders. And we created little teams, four or five teams of evaluators and artists who work together, not necessarily to evaluate a project, although a couple of them did, but to think together about what it is those artists really wanted to be looking at. And then how in the future they could actually describe and quantify some of the more qualitative evidence of change that their projects promoted.

I think that’s a significant shift in the way that a lot of people are looking at the arts’ role and potential to contribute to change. To look at story, to look at the six families of types of outcomes, and to map and potentially quantify change.

SD: Right. Well let’s ask the big question: Why bother with assessment at all? Why not just go out and do it, and you know let the magic of art take its course?

PK: Well, the magic of art is a reality, but you can’t really just say that to the many powers that be that are able to resource the work or include artists in sectors or contexts [where] they can make a true difference. Somebody needs to understand: Well, how does that work? And does it work?

I think of that “why?” question. For artists who are really serious about doing this kind of change based work, many of them come to it with a kind of moral imperative. And  the folks that you probably intersect with most as activist artists really see it that way. It’s all about the change.

And so, it’s like if you can’t figure out whether you are moving the needle at all, or contributing in some meaningful way, then why do it to begin with? Or are you being responsible and accountable if you’re not somehow trying to track [the change].

SD: Can you talk about that? This idea of being responsible and accountable.

PK: Right now Animating Democracy is partnering with A Blade of Grass to create a guide for artists and municipal governments about how artists can play a role in government systems. The moment you start intersecting with other spheres that also have civic or social or justice-oriented goals, then it’s not all just your own little project. There’s a bigger frame around it, and a particular interest that those other partners have in the kind of change they want to see. You’ve got to be accountable in those kinds of relationships because there’s stuff at stake. And you can make mistakes. You can do harm. And you can also have really positive impact that, if you aren’t tracking it and figuring out that value-add of art, then people won’t believe that it can be a value-add.

Pictured: Rha Goddess in a performance of “Low”

SD: But let’s flip this question on its head, which is not about why we should assess art and actually see if it is creating social change, but instead the question of: “I’m interested in social change, why should I care about art? I mean, what is art actually bring in terms of value to the social change projects?”

PK: Sometimes I can think about these questions in relation to specific examples, and so when we were doing the Kellogg initiative, we connected with Rha Goddess. She is a hip hop artist, and at the time was based in New York. She did a project called Low, which was a one person performance about issues of mental health and stigma, and the health care system, particularly in the African American community and how it’s impacted by mental health and lack of services, stigma.

And so, as part of the lab, she worked with two different evaluators. A researcher at City University of New York and Suzanne Callahan, an evaluator who’s worked more in the arts. Rha had two different evaluations happening around her work because she was really trying to understand how her aesthetic choices were affecting people emotionally when they saw the performance, and in turn how that emotional response might influence them to think differently about what mental illness is, and that was addressing the stigma question. And how people who saw her show and participated in dialogues around it might actually take action differently in their personal lives in relation to perhaps people that they know, or whatever. But also how the arts could have value in the work of mental health workers. And so, those investigations were part of her evaluation work. The mental health workers that connected to her project commented that the treatment of using a provocative work of art coupled with dialogue, which was a part of her whole structure after the performance, worked better than counseling in getting people to disclose their issues and pain related to mental illness.

I think, you know, that notion of being able to demonstrate and give evidence of the value-add of art, compared to not, is an important part of the argument if you’re really trying to work across sectors, which many artists are interested in doing. Or if you’re an activist artist who’s trying to say there’s a role for art in movement building.

SD: Definitely. But let’s abstract that a little bit. This is something you’ve spent years working on. You could’ve done evaluation of so many different things in your life. Why art?  What do you think that art can do?

PK: Well, you know, I think there’s a range of unique capacities that art brings, that other things probably don’t. You’ve heard people talk about opening hearts as well as minds. So there’s the emotional dimension of art — that art is very effective at engaging people in a place that’s beyond the cerebral and really gets internal to personal connection to issues, understanding the human implications of issues, and that using things, whether it’s story, metaphor, non-verbal ways of engaging with an idea or an issue. Those are all alternatives that are unique to art and that art brings.

I think art can create a way of engaging people to participate, whether it’s because it’s opening up a kind of different space that’s more attractive and maybe even fun. Or it’s creating a sort of safe zone for exploring complicated or emotional things. And it can also be a form of expression that involves people in bringing forward their own thoughts and ideas, emotionally connected to an issue.

Pictured: Pam Korza

SD: I’m going to play devil’s advocate: You know, politics is really just about power. It’s really just about taking power from someone, passing laws, getting politicians elected. And art, you know, it’s really as you’re explaining, it’s just about sort of emotions and confidence. So what’s the use?

PK: I don’t like this question.

SD: I don’t like it either. That’s why I’m playing devil’s advocate.

PK: So, I think part of it is just a lack of understanding and education about the fact that art is a discipline. It’s a profession and a discipline like engineering or anything else. And that artists are critical thinkers and have ways of doing things that are sequential and build on theory, as well as their own experience. I might be skirting the question.

SD: No, no, I like that. Now I’m going to play the other side: Isn’t all this talk of art doing this or doing that, just instrumentalizing art? And aren’t people like you and I who are trying to think seriously about evaluation and what art can do, aren’t we just crushing the life out of this beautiful thing?

PK: I don’t think so. I mean, I think the beautiful thing should have as many values and applications in our world, and society, as possible. I think that there is absolutely still room and space for the true just pure joy and appreciation of creative expression. But [if] we are talking about art that has [the] intention to contribute to civic or social change, then it’s a different animal. You’ve got to begin to think about [the fact that] change means you’re working toward a different kind of end, and so you have to think about what is it in service to.

Now, the Aesthetic Perspectives framework that we introduced last year, in some regards, was a flip side to the Continuum of Impact that I mentioned earlier, in that as arts folks began to say to themselves: “We don’t really know how to evaluate the civic or social contributions we’re making,” they to some extent we were losing sight of: What about the creative work itself? What about the aesthetics of it is strong? And how are those artistic choices advancing the civic or social intent of the work? So, the aesthetic framework was really a response to the aesthetic excellence of that work.

Artists were really the instigators of this framework. They were saying: “You know there is such a thing as mediocre or poor arts-for-change work, and we do believe there are standards of excellence for this work, so let’s start framing what we think those qualities are in excellent arts-for-change work.” They were seeing that the work was being viewed as social work or instrumentalized, perhaps too much, and not being seen as art. So how do we elevate the aesthetics as essential to effective work? They were seeing that the creative process is often huge, and maybe sometimes even more important than final product [and] wasn’t being recognized as a dimension of the work — or it was being misunderstood or underappreciated. So, the framework was a way to ensure that that aspect of the work was being looked at, as well.

And then finally, and importantly, a Euro-centric aesthetic paradigm has been in operation for since we can remember, in terms of assessing the aesthetic aspects of work, within funding panels, by critics, etc. But there’s a whole other range of cultural and artistic practice to look at, whether it’s traditional folk arts or hip-hop or pop culture.  We have to be sure that we’re being fair in how we’re looking at the work.

So, the aesthetics framework was, like, let’s make sure we’re not diminishing the potency of the art in arts for change, because if the art is impotent, then it’s not going to be as effective as it could be.


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Marlène Ramírez-Cancio

What kinds of worlds do not yet fully exist for these people that they would like to see enacted? And they just sort of come together and they know. World-making [as José Muñoz names it] is the willful and relentless enactment of the self that creates a world in which they are possible. There are trans artists and people who are gender nonconforming or people who don’t quite fit categories in which they are comfortable. It is the mere act of creating the worlds in which they exist and [are] reaffirmed, not only for themselves but for their audience. When you ask: “Does it actually work?” I would ask, “For whom?”

Marlène Ramírez-Cancio is an interdisciplinary artist from Puerto Rico who co-founded and co-directs Fulana, a Latina video collective based in New York City. Using parody and satire as a critical tool, Fulana’s faux television commercials, music videos, and print pieces respond to the ways ideologies and identities are marketed through the mass media. She is currently Associate Director of Arts & Media at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. There, she facilitates EMERGENYC, a program that fosters the growth and development of emerging artistic activists.

Steve Duncombe: Marlene, could you explain just in a couple of sentences what your practice as an artist is?

Marlène Ramírez-Cancio: Okay. What I have done since the ’90s to now has mostly had to do with satire and parody. Initially, [it was] with theater and women’s groups where we would write and direct and perform in our own pieces. Then, later, [I focused] more on videos, even though it still had some stage elements in it like video parodies, etc. [My practice] has morphed within that role to pedagogy and teaching — satire as a teaching tool, teaching it for different college-age and above audiences.

As an opener of spaces for artists, and especially emerging artists, you have to think about: What’s the point? Why am I bothering to have these programs that are hard to pull off, that have no funding, that get people together?

SD: What would an example of one of these programs be?

MRC: One of them would be EMERGENYC, which is a program with the Hemispheric Institute  where I’m Associate Director, that has been going on for the past 10 years.  We get together a group of about 18 emerging artists who want to explore whatever performance politics means for them. It’s not like a conservatory where they hone their craft in a traditional way, but a place where they can  delve into what’s pissing them off in the world, and [figure out] what’s their stake. And, importantly, its a way to create a community of artists around them that they’re not perhaps finding in other circles. It’s for artists who are trying to engage in what José Esteban Muñoz would always call “world-making,” yeah?

SD: Right.

MRC: It’s like, what kinds of worlds do not yet fully exist for these people that they would like to see enacted? And they just sort of come together and they know. World-making is the willful and relentless enactment of the self that creates a world in which they are possible. There are trans artists and people who are gender nonconforming or people who don’t quite fit categories in which they are comfortable. It is the mere act of creating the worlds in which they exist and [are] reaffirmed, not only for themselves but for their audience. When you ask: “Does it actually work?” I would ask, “For whom?”

In that sense, I remember one time Holly Hughes was talking about WOW Café in the ’80s, and she talked about going to that tiny, tiny space for women and for queers as almost like going to church, because it was a place where they felt they were creating the possibility for their very existence in a world that wasn’t really there for them. When I’ve talked to folks that talk about the black church, for example, [there’s a] whole trajectory of worlds in which they were under Jim Crow, or worse. But within the structures of the church, they had power. There was an actual structure, structures of respect and of something that did not exist out there in the world where they were still being called “boy.” So, I understood when she said it was like going to church, it’s like: Yes. In here, we are creating this world for ourselves first, and that matters. Because without that, how do you then go out there?

[There’s] an EMERGENYC alumni who works with folks with kids in homeless shelters. She was saying that we want people to vote, we want people to go out there and demand, but if you don’t even know that you exist, [then] how do you even go out there and demand? She said: “I exist, therefore, I demand,” and you have to get them to feel like, “I exist and I have opinions.” It’s like basic, basic, basic. Without that, you don’t get anything else.

[World-making] is for folks who don’t already have that [place and power] in the world; that don’t expect to be listened to and don’t see those universes — even small, like an audience of three — doing work that works. A lot of that work has to do with feeling, so they make people feel something first and then they get to think about it.

SD: Why is the feeling important?

MRC: Because it’s how the work first impacts you. It makes you feel something.  I think in my experience, and I think in general people might agree,  a lot of art is not necessarily thinking first. You might think about it later, but it impacts you [emotionally] somehow, whether it makes you laugh or whether it’s something that makes you sad. You have empathy, those are all feelings. And then you might reflect and think about the issue, but it’s not like reading an essay. It’s a different form of expression. You could go out and write an essay. You could go write an op-ed. You could write a book. You could do a performance. You could do a satire. There’s all different ways, so for me-

SD: You say that in generosity.

MRC: I think we need it all. It’s like when I hear people starting to get into their camps as if the one thing they do is the one right thing or the best way, it’s like no, no. That’s the way you are choosing to do it [but] that’s just one way. We need all of it. For the worlds we open up, there’s ways in which other things happen, too, in terms of feelings.

From “Tea Harmony: Fall in Love for all the Far Right Reasons” by Fulana, Ramirez-Cancio’s satire collective.

SD: Let’s go back to this idea of what precedes voting, the demand to vote. If you said, “Look, the call is really to make art to make people vote,” then it’s pretty easy to assess the success of that, right?

MRC: Right.

SD: Then people go and vote. It’s easy, right? But how do we know when we’ve been successful in world-making?

MRC: Right, that’s the hard thing. I hate when it’s like: “I’m going to do this performance and you’re going to think this and I’m going to pass this information to you.” Really it’s like: you might think that you’re doing one thing and it might be received in a completely different way because that person heard something else before that sounded sort of like what you just said and they completely took it in another direction. You have no freaking idea.

So, it doesn’t bother me, I guess, to not know. Because at base level, the people involved in whatever we’re doing — whether it’s a collective thing, if you’re doing an action, or a performance — there’s already probably some “work” being done, some transformational things happening.

I wish I could quote her perfectly, but I saw an interview with Emma Gonzalez, who was one of the survivors of the Parkland shooting, who said explicitly that if it hadn’t been for her ninth grade creative writing class, in which she got to understand that she was queer, she would have never gotten involved with queer activism at her school. If she hadn’t been involved with queer activism at her school, she would have never been ready to take [the school shooting campaign] nationwide and been able to stand in front of everybody and be like, “We just got shot at and people died, and this is why this is so messed up.” She, herself, made the connection to her 14-year-old [self]. That teacher had no idea. 

I guess I’m an optimist. It’s different paths. I would never say: “This is the most important” or “This is the one correct way.” One thing that I don’t like is when folks dismiss the [work] as something that “is just making you feel good about yourself,” and that’s it. It’s dismissed as if you’re not really doing anything, like that has no impact in the world. Instead, it’s: “Let’s talk real political work.” That, I have little patience for. It’s like, really? I invite you. Come over here, just sit, papi. Tell those people to their face that this is making no difference to anybody. Not true!

SD: Let’s go back to this notion of world-making and the idea that it’s really important to create a world in which you see yourself and others see you as belonging in it, empowered, and so on and so forth.

You’re someone who develops programs to help artists do this sort of work. So, you must think sometimes: How can I help this person best actualize that? Which seems to me that you’re also thinking at some level: “Is this person actualizing this for themselves or are they lost? Are they getting sucked back into art school patterns or other sort of bullshit that allows them to do what they intend to do?” Which means at some level, you are thinking about “is this working or not working,” right?

MRC: Yeah. It’s funny. I just had an experience at OSF hearing Nana [Oforiatta-Ayim] speak about her project. She’s Ghanaian and she wants to do a pan-African encyclopedia, like a virtual thing. Her posture, the way she was sitting, the way she was talking, she was lit up. I mean, this person was aligned. You could see.  I loved how her philosophy of how she was doing her work [and] research was very intuitive. I loved watching somebody be so connected to the work they are doing. It has to do with everything: arts, culture, politics, spirituality. It’s all connected.

I just saw a very aligned person, which was beautiful.  I don’t know what to tell you in terms of “how do I know?” [that what she was doing worked].   I also don’t have the funding to follow up systematically with everyone. But I can see [that] generosity is something I’ve identified over the years in people that continue to open up spaces for other people. I can observe who is thinking: “How can I help this person? How do we connect with each other?” We’re going to live and then we’re going to die, so [we] might as well just live as connectedly as possible.

Image from Tercer Impacto, Fulana’s satirical news program

SD: I love this idea of the success in this case being someone who– I don’t know if she would describe it this way — knows who she is, knows what her practice is, knows her place in her practice.

Without naming any names or even giving any descriptions, have you ever come across  someone who’s just not finding or creating that world for themselves? 

MRC: Most people I see continue to show up and they continue to do the work. Even when I’ve seen they’re in a moment of things not working, when they get disconnected and there’s a lot of self-doubt and isolation, predictably. But I haven’t yet had the experience, unless I’m totally blanking out, and I might well be, where somebody just went in a completely different direction. Even if they went into non-artistic things, I still see the effects.

SD: I think you are too nice Marlene. You seem to will-away indicators of when it isn’t working for them. Why do you think that you’re always looking for success? 

MRC: I just don’t know that [it isn’t working]. I know what you’re asking: Is the thing that they’re trying to do working or not working? I guess they don’t talk about it in those terms.

It’s like, did some kid have this transformational experience from the program that they were in and then they were able to blah, blah, blah? I hear anecdotes, but I don’t get a lot of numbers, that kind of stuff. Even with folks that are in the life and are continuing to do it, I don’t get a lot of evidence that would be measurable in other ways.

I’m trying. I’m trying.

SD: I think we are always trying because we don’t really have a vocabulary to talk about how socially engaged art works. We have the vocabulary to talk about material success, but we don’t have a vocabulary to talk about what you’re talking about. And so evaluation and assessment and metrics just becomes about banal forms of measurement.

MRC:  Right. One of the people that’s in Nana’s videos was a young Ghanaian artist. He was wearing a shirt that said, “Kiss my black arts,” which I loved. People are living in their universes of creativity and they are waking up in the morning and are all about it, and their kids are growing up in it, and it’s like a whole integrated thing.

I don’t know how to name that. How do you quantify that? I don’t [know]. You are happy. Your life is worth living, because you wake up in the morning and you feel motivated. Are funders really that dense that they don’t have a heart themselves? They can’t meet with the artist and be like, “That’s working. I’m looking at it [and] that works.” I guess that’s the thing that I would question: Are funders not people? What is it about these metrics that they need an excess of that they can’t see with their own eyes and they can’t feel when they talk to their grantees? I don’t understand.

If you’re talking about delivering 50,000 gallons of milk to the community, that’s a different goal. But when you’re talking about the arts, I don’t know why you have any business being an arts funder if you don’t understand wellbeing as a holistic thing that [has] to do with how you feel when you wake up in the morning and how you’re making people around you feel and how you’re making a community feel. I guess I would have to wonder: What do they need?


If you want to help C4AA train and continue to support more groups, artists, and causes like these, please donate. Your contributions really help.

Gan Golan

“If we can somehow observe the process that happens between a work of art and an idea reaching a community, and then that community taking a defiant form of action, that’s the black box.  That’s where the great mystery is happening in these beautiful, unbelievable processes of moving from meaning to building relationships, to building power to taking action. That’s where I would love to be able to peer in more clearly.”

Gan Golan is a New York Times Bestselling Author, Artist & Agitator. His most recent works include the bestselling children’s book parody Goodnight Bush, and The Adventures of Unemployed Man, the critically-acclaimed graphic novel about the economic crisis. He has 20 years experience as a grassroots activist, having worked on issues from housing, to policing, to global justice, and militarism. He has created giant Mayan God protest puppets with indigenous collaborators in Mexico, and dropped 4-story banners from buildings with supergeeks at MIT.

George Perlov:  So Gan,  it seems as if you are everywhere. What’s up with that?

Gan Golan: I work independently for the most part.  I’m affiliated with a lot of really great people on an ad hoc basis depending on the action, the opportunity that’s in front of us.  I’ve worked with The Yes Men, I’ve worked with Citizen Engagement Lab, I was part of The Culture Group, and their Waves Report, and I was the training director for Beautiful Trouble for awhile.    

My training is as a visual artist and performance art, kind of performance interventions.  You know, I have my own arts practice as well, but it’s really trying to look at where these mass social movements and creative practice intersect.  

GP: Right.  So talk to me about these intersections.

GG: Yeah.  These are overlapping communities.  We connect with people who have learned a lot from each other as people experiment with this stuff. I think I come down on the social movement end of the spectrum, and I don’t work as much with, I think, groups that are affiliated with the art world.  I think for me it’s about how creative practice works in service of social movements, where I think, at least at this moment in history and the challenges we face, are the most important places we can have impact, and so I’m very interested in acting in the role of creative activist within popular social movements.  And I also work with another group called the Movement NetLab, which is really a think tank that came out of Occupy and Black Lives Matter, and it’s really looking at trying to understand the kind of underlying structures that often govern the success of mass popular social movements.

GP:  Okay.  Is there a basic process that you use for your trainings? Or is it more fluid than that?

GG: For me, it’s pretty fluid.  There’s now a broad range of different tools that have been developed by this landscape of creative activists, which I think is fantastic, but it also means that we have a toolbox from which to draw from to figure out what tool is going to fly for each challenge.  It might be very different. It looks very different in different situations. Whether it’s grassroots community-based stuff, as opposed to people who have never worked with creative activism before and are very much at the beginning of their own organizing, but just have a very urgent fight that they’re involved in; to working with large coalitions of as-you-go’s, who are trying to organize a maximal organization of hundreds of thousands of people and already have a bunch of media people and everything in place.  And you’re really trying to help them jump tracks into a different way of strategizing and making a creative activist practice.

GP: What is a creative activist place to you? How does it offer a different impact?

GG: Yeah.  Well, I think, particularly because of my orientation looking at mass social movements, which I think are a key entrance to driving change right now, but I think there are some practical – not necessarily my personal preferences – practical reasons that we’re focused on.  I think they ask us different questions about what impact is and where to look for it.

GP:  That’s interesting that your personal preferences don’t align with some of the practical reasons of social movements. In terms of its impact then, where do you look for it?

GG: I think it can be useful to reframe what we mean by ‘an act’.  It’s often different than the way that we have tried to look at it.  I think that when you talk about artistic activism – that artistic activism is the nexus between creating meaning and building power.  These two very different practices that, when they intersect, can become very powerful. And it’s really about channeling collective energy on a massive level, which is different than some of the individualized waves of personal transformation or shifting someone’s opinion or all of those things which we sometimes try to look at for impact.

From the People’s Climate March, 2014

GP: Okay, so what I’m understanding is that impact is different on a larger scale than an individual one. How does that differentiation apply to work you’ve done?

GG: Another group that I’m associated with is People’s Climate Arts. It came out of the group that helped design the People’s Climate March, which is the largest climate globalization in history that happened in New York City in 2014, in which we were successful in really putting creative activism at the very center of the strategy for the entire organizing effort. That was a major shift because we were dealing with a large coalition of big power players.  So, we were very entrenched in an area with loads of organizing. What that meant to them [was that] we got them to make a shift, and the shift proved revolutionary for their practice. We got 400,000 people in the streets, and we communicated in an entirely different way [about] what climate activism meant and who really was at the forefront of the Climate movement. I think we reframed what the environmental activism is in the United States.  It was a pivotal moment.

GP: That’s amazing. How did that happen?

GG: I think a lot of it had to do with the narrative strategy of the creative organizing that was at the center of it.  And what we came out with is the idea that [while] creative activism or artistic organizing can be many things, we felt we really exceeded in understanding that art is an organizing strategy, and to organize those.  Everybody does this differently and there are some ways to do them better. And that’s different than artistic journalism, art as personal transformation – all these other important things that art can do.

GP: How does artistic and creative activism fall in line with art and traditional activism?

GG: So for us, yes, it was phoning people, inspiring people, but it was also about mobilizing people, engaging people on a very large, broad level. And then, [it was about] building the relationships between those people and getting them into new forms of work.  And so, to build relationships is relational organizing. It is really kind of the covalent bonds that allow individuals to form into things that have power.

GP: In building relationships between people, how did that change the impact of the project?

GG: The art played a really significant role in that.  And yeah, you can zoom in on the individual level and look at the way opinion was shifted or think of self- transformation or things like that, but what we were really able to see was how this was operating collectively at a very large scale, and creating new webs of relationships that many of them are doing to this day – a number of organizations came out of that effort, as well as things like shifting the popular narrative around these issues.  

So, I guess the short answer is: I think that we need more metrics around collaborative mobilization about relational density, looking at the densification of relationships within certain communities that are engaged in the creative practice, as well as a marriage just on a large scale. If we want to see how a new narrative was injected into the popular discourse, that’s a really interesting question and I think there are some answers to some degree.  But to the degree that people have attempted to look at that — I think there’s a really interesting site on the way different firms started to become big within the media. There was a LexisNexis search done around income equality in 2011. And the economic crisis started in 2008. And really, there wasn’t a whole lot of talk about it, but suddenly Occupy happened. There’s a massive proliferation of the term “income equality” through the media that almost dovetails perfectly to the day of the kind of public life of the Occupy movement. So, you could see Occupy as a kind of form of public performance art, really, as a creative intervention itself.

From Occupy Wall Street, 2011

GP: How does creative intervention change or assist the movement?

GG: Political theater, or whatever we want to call it, really helped generate this entire – it injected an entirely new conversation into the public discourse in a really powerful way.  And I think there could be lots of other interesting ways to measure that, but the kind of ways in which creating meaning really starts to be visible and seen on that collaborative level.  You could also see the proliferation of hashtags for more complex narratives around climate change. I would love to see people do studies around these new areas that were introduced during the Climate March that had previously not been talked about, and environmental stuff like climate change and immigration, for example.  There was a huge section of the march designed around that. The whole march was designed as a story from beginning to end. So a 20-block-long story with 400,000 people in it, which is very different to the way marches are organized.

I also think that it would be really interesting to see more of a focus on the way that new identities – collective identities, political identities – are created, and I think a lot of that has to do with artistic practice. And when you look at Occupy as an identity, right, Black Lives Matter as an identity, Creative Defenders as an identity, you see that people are highly motivated to take action because basically they have internalized that identity.  It has become meaningful to them. But it’s something that is shared with other people.

GP: Okay.  So if I’m correct in what I’m hearing from you, impact can be assessed at at two levels: the ability of changing the organizations and how they do their work, and also in terms of narrative, how the narrative changes in the public and/or leads or whomever it is.  

GG: Yeah.  The language changing, but also the impact is creating – and I think this notion of identity is really, really important.  Because these are invented identities, these are artistic acts that are then popularized by the idea that we are a part of this thing, that is X, and it means it is a very specific thing to be a part of.  

I think, if you look at the history of the labor movement, so much of the art and culture that accompanied it was about: Who we are as a labor movement and as a working class people? There was a class identity.  It was about union membership. It wasn’t just about contract fights and negotiations and policy to try a popular idea, it was about redefining who is the “we” and who is the “they,” you know, and creating that story that people were then living with the activism.  

Cultural organizing is nothing new. Religion has done it for thousands of years.  Political parties have done it since their existence. And these are very much around the idea of forming collective meaning.  The way art is practiced as it happens now in the contemporary setting, is it’s very much about the individual – the individual artist, the individual audience member having some sort of personal transformation, and I think that’s been a huge liability, actually, to the left.  And we can see these tensions erupt very quickly when artists try to work with organizers and they don’t have a great understanding of each other.

Cover of The Adventures of Unemployed Man by Gan Golan and Erich Origen

GP: I can imagine. Going back to measuring impact – are there some groups who are doing a good job of this do you think in the field?  Or what’s your sense?

GG: I haven’t seen – and again, I’m not nearly as close to it as other people – I haven’t looked at this stuff for a couple of years.  But I have not seen anything that really blew my mind in terms of: “Oh, that’s what we’re looking for.” But also, for me, there’s also a question of: who are we trying to convince, and of what?  Are we trying to convince funders? Are we trying to convince economists? Are we trying to convince advocacy organizations? And to do what? To spend more money on this stuff? You know, to respect the role of art and culture?  Those are part of my questions.

GP: Well, let me ask you this: Who do you think is driving the process?  Is it the funders or academics, or others who are interested in that?  Or where is the energy coming from on this topic?

GG: I feel that I’ve seen advocacy organizations try to get more funding [by] making the case to a lot of tone-deaf and culturally deaf organizations to spend more money on culture.  And then I have also seen people in the entertainment complex trying to make the case for this stuff to then integrate more of this stuff and put it into popular media, popular culture.  But I do think in doing that we often miss what is really working.

We no longer have to talk about this in theory — we can point to a few examples. The two major shifts we’ve had, and the call to discourse on the progressive side of things in the last decade, have been Occupy and Black Lives Matter – equality and racial injustice.  And those came from outside the advocacy structures, outside the established media structures, outside the unions. But interestingly enough, artists have been very central and pivotal to both of these movements. If you look at the people who are leaders in these movements, even though they may not be known publicly as artists, these are not people with law degrees or MBAs.  Some of them have an academic background, but they’re not PhDs. They are people with a lot of background in creative and artistic practice. And I think what they are doing is pitching to their community or to a larger public different narratives that create a sense of meaning to help organize the people’s sense of frustration and injustice in a coherent way. That is a creative act.

GP: Right.

GG: And they’re practicing it on a massive level.  They’re not creating any identifiable piece of culture.  They’re not creating movies, you know. And that’s where I think that has been, and I don’t know if anyone is mentioning that other than, you know, social media, something like that, which I think are useful, but they’re not getting at the heart of why these things are meaningful and powerful and mobilize human labor on a massive scale towards a particular goal.

GP: You’ve brought up both  Occupy and Black Lives Matter.  I’m curious to hear what your take is on why they were successful.  What did they do that you feel you’ve seen impact?

GG: Right.  Well, first of all they created a narrative in a vacuum where people were having a very difficult and painful lived daily experience, around which there was no narrative to really explain being offered by popular culture or the State about why their experience differed so much from the popular discourse.  They were being told one thing and experiencing another thing entirely. And that vacuum of meaning is an incredibly fertile area for any kind of opportunist to intervene.

If people’s experience is dramatically different from the narrative that they’re given to understand that experience, someone is going to offer a new narrative.  And that narrative, that web of meaning is going to tell them who they are, who they are fighting against, what they are fighting for, and how they should do it. And whoever can come in and offer that framework in a way that actually makes sense based upon what people already know, is going to be able to mobilize people on that scale, and I think Occupy did that.  I think the Tea Party did that. I think Black Lives Matter has done that.

GG: Okay, so ultimately they’re successful because they’ve been able to mobilize people to do something differently.  Or do something.

GG: Yes, but in a meaningful way.  It’s told them something about who they are and given them a sense of agency in that story.

Page from The Adventures of Unemployed Man, Gan Golan and Erich Origen

GP: I guess the other question I have is about the assessment and evaluation of all of this. Is it assessment part of your planning and training process when you’re working with groups?  Do you set goals and objectives with them or how does that work when you’re working with an organization?

GG: You typically find metrics that match the most important aspect of this process.  I don’t use them. And the reason is that I think – I don’t know if you ever saw the famous “I Love Lucy” episode, and it’s an old vaudeville joke, but Ricky comes in and Lucy’s crawling around on the floor looking through the carpet.  Ricky is like, “What are you doing? What are you looking for?” And she says, “I lost my earrings.” And he says, “where did you lose them?” And she says “in the bedroom.” And he says “well, why are you looking or them here?” And she says “because the light is better.”  It’s a classic joke [that] I think it says a lot about metrics, which is that we often look where the light is rather than where the answer is.

I think where we keep it clearest is where we start to focus a lot of our activity.  I think a lot of the conversation on metrics has been actually damaging because the things that are the most measurable are sometimes the least important.  And I think that the most important are the least measurable. And as a result, the metrics and the money and support and the institution building all go in the other direction. I think the most important things we can be doing needs less support.  

I actually think this explains a huge amount of the diversion of the left for the last 30 years into professional forms of organizing that have depleted the things that are actually effective and meaningful.  And that’s why most of the collective organizing that I see that is really shifting the discourse is coming almost totally outside of the professional vendors. We built up a nonprofit industrial complex for 30 years, and it coincided with total increase in the power of the [professional] left.  And then these breakthroughs are happening from almost totally outside the system that we created in order to address the problem. So I think there can be a danger, actually, in pursuing kind of metrics as a means to target the work that we do.

GP: Can you give an example of something that is measurable but maybe not that important?  A lot of folks talk about success in terms of how much social media coverage they get. Likes and clicks.

GG: Yeah, I think social media is actually a stepping stone metric.  Because it’s the first time we’ve actually [been] able to measure the way in which people are responding to something on a massive level.  So I think it’s a really important metric, but then people are just saying, well how can we get more hits, how can we get more views? And then there are all kinds of artificial ways to create that.  So people are going after the metric rather than the thing that actually causes the metric.

So, people are gaming the system and then looking at their own false results as examples as having impact.  So, we’re tricking ourselves in the lab, so to speak. I don’t think we have yet found metrics that really show meaning, but I do think that when you see massive levels of people willing to undertake risk, willing to exert their energy, particularly when they’re not being compensated by anything else, that’s when you start to see human meaning being actualized in concrete form.  Meaning is what motivates people to do the work.

GP: Does it matter if these programs are effective or not?

GG: I think it matters if they’re effective, of course.  But it really depends on how we define “effective” and “impact” – all of these things.  Like I was saying, we’re often looking in not the most potent places. And I’d certainly like to measure places where it is most potent.  So I do think it matters that it works, but I think artists are often accused of doing things that don’t matter because they are intuitively doing things that are meaningful and makes sense to them that are not measurable.  

So in doing so, sometimes they may be plugging into something that is incredibly powerful and important.  So I would encourage people to keep doing things that don’t matter to others the way that we define them, because we’re reaching out into that dark, undefinable place in which so much of human experience actually happens. These are the key places in which people often are motivated to change.  So yes, keep doing things that “don’t matter” because that is likely the place that matters most.

GP: So, given your suspicion about metrics and what they are actually measuring, do you think there is any value in assessment, in theories of change,  or impact measurement?

GG: Yes, if it can help us see into some of those black boxes, some of the dark areas.  We’re trying to see the dark matter that’s out there and detect it and really understand it.  If we can somehow observe the process that happens between a work of art and an idea reaching a community, and then that community taking a defiant form of action, that’s the black box.  That’s where the great mystery is happening in these beautiful, unbelievable processes of moving from meaning to building relationships, to building power to taking action. That’s where I would love to be able to peer in more clearly.


If you want to help C4AA train and continue to support more groups, artists, and causes like these, please donate. Your contributions really help.

Fernando Garcia-Dory

I think it’s about creating a situation where we do art with political discourse inside an economical-political structure that is in itself transformative. So it’s not so much what we talk about or how we talk about it, but where we talk about it. The context of the production is important.

Fernando García-Dory’s work engages with the relationship between culture and nature in the 21st century, as manifested in multiple contexts: from landscape and the rural, to desires and expectations concerned with identity, to global crises, utopia, and the potential for social change. He studied Fine Arts and Rural Sociology, and is now preparing his PhD on Agroecology. His work addresses connections and cooperation, from microorganisms to social systems, and uses traditional art languages, such as drawing, in his collaborative agroecological projects, actions, and cooperatives.

Emily Bellor: So Fernando, to begin, could you tell me a little bit about your practice and how you came to it?

Fernando Garcia-Dory: Well, in general I would say I don’t actually define my practice as art and activism.

EB: Really, how you would you define it then?

FGD: I would say that I did define my practice as activist for a couple of years when I was younger, around eighteen years old, but then I realized that activism wasn’t the form of political action I wanted to develop. I believe more in creating ways of living than activities, that’s why I became involved in cooperative farming and economies. So I started developing my art practice and developing collaboratives of social practices with people, with political critiques of the status quo to promote social change. But I wouldn’t say that necessarily connects with activism.

For example, I started a project called European Shepherds Network, which connects shepherds from different countries with each other. That was presented at Documenta 12 in Kassel as a kind of performance: the shepherds were meeting in the future and talking about the events that had produced social change in Europe. I try to think about bringing the political question of art, and try [not] to be goal-oriented. So, I try to be effective and make useful projects. But I think there is some difficulty and bringing art and activism together.

EB: Why do you think there’s difficulty there?

FGD: Because, as I said when I received the Creative Time prize, there are different elements, like the possibility of engagement in a question, and dissolving oneself in a collective, that are contradictory with how the art system works. So I said that maybe a good activist makes a bad artist, and a bad activist could make a good artist. The art system recognizes artists who legitimize themselves through self-promotion—because it’s based on the notions of career and success—but those are contradictory to true, real activism.

EB: So by the conventional definitions of art and activism there’s some dissonance between them?

FGD: You’re right to say by the conventional definitions, yes. The art system works as a professional structure, so art could be activist, but the content or activity probably wouldn’t circulate within the art world, it wouldn’t get press, it would just be something that happened. For example, if you work with a community garden to produce a theater piece to protest against development—that’s a cultural form of activism, a cultural expression of political action—which is fine, but will it have any relevance in the art world? Not necessarily. It would be something that only exists and resonates in the community itself.  

EB: But does that make it an unsuccessful piece of art? That it only resonated on the community level and not on the level of the art world?

FGD: No, I think that it could be a successful art piece in any case, but we wouldn’t use the parameters of the established art system to validate it, we would validate in its context.  It exists between two spheres: the sphere of community action and the sphere of established art.

From Fernando Garcia-Dory’s “A Shepherd’s School”

EB: Can you think of a project that you’ve done that you thought was successful, in any or either sphere?  

FGD: Well, I’m still running A Shepherd’s School, [which] I started ten years ago, but I wouldn’t consider it activist. It’s more of a sustained, useful social process. It works well, and we’re developing the village that will host the headquarters for it.

EB: Can you talk a little bit more about that?

FGD: So the school started in 2004 due to the needs of shepherds that are being left alone in the mountains. They need young people who want to learn the trade, so we put together both shepherds and young people in a collaborative system for the exchange of knowledge and the reinvention of the profession of shepherding in the 21st century. The project also offered dairy workshops, and huts in the mountains that are free to live in for people who have finished their training and would like to stay. So far two people have stayed.

The course has a theory component and a practical component, in which students spend four months with a shepherd. I think it’s changed the perception of the shepherds from people who just live in the mountains to people with knowledge that is demanded. People come from the city, people with college degrees that want to learn these forms of life.

EB: So the specific markers of success for the school are —

FGD: How it’s changed the perception of the shepherd and brought new people into the profession, and how it’s created infrastructure that is free to use.

EB: So do you think the projects that you do have an audience?

FGD: Yeah, I think there’s an audience. There’s the primary audience of the people who take part in the project and the secondary audience of the people who see the project presented.

EB: And how do you think about those two separate audiences? What do you want them to do upon being a part of or witnessing your work?

FGD: Well, the primary audience isn’t really [an] audience, they’re participants, they’re the users of the project and not a passive audience.

EB: So what about when you present the work, then—how do you think about and communicate with that secondary audience?

FGD: The secondary audience exists when I show my projects, so I go to the space where I’m going to do the show and then organize the work [and] how it’s going to be shown. And then, if there’s a chance, I try to enlarge and expand the experience with the format of activations. We use the shows to try be spaces of activation of the work, with discussions and forms of the work so the audience can try to understand what has been experienced with the primary audience of participants.

EB: So now going to the other side, is there a piece of work you’ve done that you believe didn’t work, for whatever reason?

FGD: I think things don’t work when you are very conditioned by the art system and when there is no infrastructure for connection with the community or no continuation. It’s important to be aware of the deepness of the engagement, if it’s not deep enough then the project won’t be a real or lasting engagement or interaction. For example, [I had] a project that could’ve been better connected with the farmer’s union so it could’ve been continued, but it had only the scope and exhibition of two months, so it was limited.

EB: So how exactly would you define “working”, then, in the context of creative activism in general?

FGD: It’s something that happens when there are good feelings between the participants, when they feel they were useful in either deepening the meaning of the project or disseminating it. But it’s an evaluation you make at the end and depends on each case.

EB: It sounds like you’re saying success can mean when there’s a wide-spread understanding of what you’re trying to do?

FGD: Yes, it’s a very subjective feeling. Also, it can’t just be pure activism, it has to have some sort of art quality to it, a notion of creativity, of beauty.

EB: Right. So what change do you see your activism and practice bringing?

FGD: Well it depends on the kind of practice. In the art context, my practice is more about just diverting attention to certain questions and topics I find interesting, like food systems or rural environment. But with my projects, like what I’m doing with this village, it’s more about creating a space for other forms of life—a collective life with a land-based economy, a community of practice that’s beyond the discursive aspect of activism. With this we’re challenging ourselves with making and seeing [what] one makes.

From “Land/Use. Blueprint for a New Pastoralism” by Fernando Garcia-Dory

EB: And can you talk a little more about your current project?

FGD: The project is rebuilding a whole abundant village as an infrastructure for farms, craft, and art production with a community of practice, a collective of people that run it and live in it.

EB: So the village will be its own sustainable economy?

FGD: That’s the goal. The goal is that the different buildings and use of the land creates a production of industry in a community of consumers. And it’s not just community supported agriculture, but community supported arts. There’s a training space, and a space for exchange between people that come and go and the more settled collective. So the people that belong to the collective can have their needs covered by the structure itself.

EB: And what is the larger goal in creating the village?

FGD: I think it’s about creating a situation where we do art with political discourse inside an economical-political structure that is in itself transformative. So it’s not so much what we talk about or how we talk about it, but where we talk about it. The context of the production is important.

EB: So creating transformative structures like this village—is this how you think social change happens?

FGD: I think social change happens through creating visible, alternative forms of life that have enough critical mass and interest. So if artists are developing these other forms of life and economies, they must be inspiring enough for others to want to work with those cultural values. Our current cultural values of competition, accumulation, capitalism—these are just part of a cultural setting created through mass media and culture, so if we can somehow develop and embody other values and other forms of life, and make them visible, then people might be able to unplug from the current system and start to work for the creation of other, better systems.


If you want to help C4AA train and continue to support more groups, artists, and causes like these, please donate. Your contributions really help.

Favianna Rodriguez

I think that art is the language of possibility. Art is the language of the future, and through art we can actually create the vision of the world we want to see…To document how you’re experiencing life in a way that may not be scientific or is more about myth-making and storytelling, that to me is art. Art is about myth-making.

Favianna Rodriguez is a transnational interdisciplinary artist, cultural organizer, and Executive Director of CultureStrike, an artist collective that uses cultural work as the central tool of their activism. In addition to her work at CultureStrike, Rodriguez is a prolific artist and created “Migration is Beautiful,” an image that has been widely adopted as a symbol of the migrant rights movement. She lectures globally on the power of art, cultural organizing, and technology to inspire social change, and leads art workshops at schools around the country.

Stephen Duncombe: I wanted to ask you about the “Migration is Beautiful” monarch butterfly. You know it’s one of my all-time favorite sort of symbols, campaigns, so on and so forth. Do you mind telling me where the idea for the monarch butterfly came from, what you did with it, and how you thought about the whole?

Favianna Rodriguez: The concept of connecting the monarch butterfly to migration is something that I believe has been going on since the 80’s. People use that metaphor, because the other sort of metaphor that exists, especially for Day of the Dead, is that the monarchs carry the spirits of the dead. So, I think in general it’s a metaphor that’s been out there. What I did differently and how I was able to really maximize it, is I created a symbol that explicitly connected the migration of insects to the migration of people, and that it was actually something that it was dictated by nature.

So, because there [were] a lot of times [that] the butterfly had been used like an add-on element to a message that would either be “stop deportation” or “migrants are human beings” or “migrant rights are human rights.” Still framing it through the lens of human rights or criminalization. And what I wanted to do is frame it through the lens of nature, and not acknowledge or give importance to the border and the wall, because it’s a man made concept, versus that it’s [actually] a nature concept. And the other things is that I wanted to sort of speak from a place of being affirmative and visionary and even futuristic, or naturalistic, using nature as a way to story-tell.

Because I feel that often a lot of our messaging is a fighting message. It’s a message about what we’re against. And so often our messages are about what’s politically feasible. And so, when I created Migration Is Beautiful, it was about making a statement that we are a part of nature; we migrate. As human beings, we’ve always been migrating since the beginning of time.

So, that’s something that I did differently that I actually think led to the mass appeal of it, because it was a very open invitation and it was an affirmative message, it was a positive message. The image  is not just the monarch, it actually has two faces in it, which added to this sort of blending of humans and the natural world.

And then I created merchandise with it, and I created things that people could put up in their living rooms, t-shirts, earrings, because I also think that so often a lot of things just live online, but I do think that people really want to show their values. It’s important that we create objects that people can attach themselves to. I also created make-your-own butterfly kits. I created an exercise with my organization, CultureStrike, where we had videos on how you can cut out your own wings. Because even though it sounds easy, it’s actually not easy. To make your own wings that’ll stay on and doing it with just like DIY in your home, it actually is a few steps, so it required a whole curriculum. It was around: How do we make this image? But then: How do we also facilitate its distribution and its use.

SD: You facilitated using your skills in order to make it look nicer, make it more accessible to people. Was that a conscious decision? Like: My role as an artist is to work with a movement and do this sort of work?

FR: Yes, I also think that I wanted for people to have fun with it. I’m an artist, and I know that making art is a big part of what I want to achieve. It’s not just about regurgitating a message, it’s actually the activity and the action of making art and community [that] is in itself healing. I always want to create opportunities for people to engage with the work in a way where they’re also embodying it. And having fun, not just attending a protest, but actually putting on a costume that is fun — [for] migrant kids especially, because I would do butterfly making workshops with a lot of immigrant kids. That they kind of have some pride in creating it, but also that it’s a fun and memorable experience.

So, I did that because I feel that our movement does not do that well. Our movement, [is] overwhelmingly pain-oriented, and a lot of the ways that we activate are not around comedy, they’re not around joy. And they’re not necessarily around nature culture. My organization’s contribution was thinking of ways that people can engage with the subject. And not just the people who are already engaging in it, but teachers [and] just regular folks who are looking for an activity for their kids or for teenagers. And I found it to be super effective.

I’ve done tons of those workshops, and wherever I go the old ladies, the moms, the kids, they come and they’re just painting their butterflies, so immersed in it. Which tells me that we actually also need to prioritize art making in our communities, because that’s also a way to heal.

“Migration is Beautiful” by Favianna Rodriguez

SD: Can you talk a little bit about that, this sort of relationship between art making and politics making, citizen making, wellness making?

FR: Yes, so, to me art is about having a voice and it’s about expressing yourself, which is a fundamental right. And it’s also about creating something to note and to reflect your existence. So, as a woman of color I make art because I don’t see my existence reflected back to me in mainstream culture, I see whiteness reflected back to me. And I want to create the stories and the images that I long for.

I also don’t believe art is neutral. I believe all art is coming from a point of view, and we’ve grown up in a world where overwhelmingly we are seeing the world through the perspective of white men and we’re seeing their art and their gain. And so because of that, I believe that art is a way for people to express themselves through the making of objects or the making of images that allows them the simple [reflection of] their lived experiences in an artistic medium.

A lot of times I’m doing workshops, like political poster workshops, where everyone gets to make their poster. And what I find is that [they’re] doing something that reflects their values or their lived experience. I’ve also taught art workshops, where I know that a lot of the kids who won’t go to math class will go to art class. So I always have believed in the compelling nature of being able to create things that are a reflection of you, because that’s what we long for as human beings. And in reality, the opportunities to do that in communities of color, are extremely limited, very, very limited. We have a lack of cultural centers, we have a lack of arts being taught in schools where communities of color live. So I think that the creation of art simply as a gesture of contemplation and also the activities that people get to do, is also part of it.

For me, the butterfly also represents transformation. I mean there’s just a lot of ways for it to be interpreted. So, at CultureStrike we believe in it so much that any time we have any kind of collaboration with an organization, we basically do a pop up studio thing. Even in how were designing things, and how we’re meeting and how we’re discussing, everything is done through the modalities of artistic practice.

SD: Nice, that’s great. In a way, you’re answering the question that I wanted to move to next, which is: How do you think social change happens? And what does art have to do with it?

FR: I think that art is the language of possibility. Art is the language of the future, and through art we can actually create the vision of the world we want to see. Human beings have always expressed themselves through two key things: They’ve attempted to understand the world through science and through art. It’s like a very, very old practice. Whether it’s people writing on the walls or the invention of the printing press, the desire to distribute knowledge and a point of view has [always been there]. To document how you’re experiencing life in a way that may not be scientific or is more about myth-making and storytelling, that to me is art. Art is about myth-making.

And I think that in the social justice world, we have overwhelmingly concentrated our efforts on policy change. And I think that’s a huge mistake, because cultural change precedes political change. And culture has to change before policy does, in fact policy is like the final manifestation of an idea. But what matters is the idea. So much of what we’re fighting is actually ideological. In order to win, we need to have a vision of where we’re going. And that is what art is to me. I mean art is really our imagination. Art is the space of ideas and myth-making and culture-making — it’s a component of social justice, [but] that social justice will only happen when you have activation in the political space, in the cultural space, and in the economic space.

SD: You said something really interesting which is this notion that policy won’t happen unless the culture changes, right? Because policy is a manifestation of culture. Can you explain that a bit?

FR: Yes, culture is a set of behaviors and ideas and beliefs. And those beliefs first have to change before someone is willing to vote on it. So, for example, people are not gonna vote for clean energy if they don’t believe that oil is dirty. They have to first believe that oil is bad and solar is good and therefore they’ll vote for clean energy. But a lot of times, the fossil fuel industry has told us that we need oil, [that] oil is a sign of progress. They’ve created a narrative. They’ve created a culture. And we actually have molded our lives around that idea. In order for people to transition off of oil, they first have to be able to imagine what their life can be like — they have to almost unlearn some things.

In order to shift that, people need to see it — they actually need to see it. They need to feel it. But it has to speak to their emotional heart. It’s not just rational knowledge, its emotional knowledge. And art is really well suited for that.

Artwork by Favianna Rodriguez

SD: One of the things I’m interested in is: how do people like you know that what you’ve done works? And how do you know when it doesn’t work? I mean you’ve done a lot of successful projects right? And how do you know when they are successful?

FR:  Well, I deal with funders all the time and they always ask me this, but I look at it in a few different ways. First, I look at what the impact on the people who experienced the art was. Like, did they have fun, did they learn a new skill, did they see something they hadn’t seen before, were they moved by the art, did they get excited by it? What was the quality of the interaction with the work or the experience? Because sometimes we also host, [so] it’s not just the creation of an object, it’s a show or it’s a film. So that’s one thing.

The second thing is: Do movement people now have another tool in their tool box that they can leverage? Are they able to tell stories differently? What changes for them? What do they notice that is different for them? I, frankly, believe that they get a different sort of way to be able to talk about the work they do.

And the third thing I look at is, artistically, what was the experience for the artist? So, for example, we just took a big group of artists to the border to have them see the new wall that was built. They were extremely moved, and they were also shocked. They [had] never seen this wall, and they realized that it’s such a fabrication. It’s a straight up fabrication that we need more money for the wall. And that it’s a highly militarized zone, and they were able to see it and experience it. So as a result, those artists now are gonna be lifelong immigration activists, because they have witnessed it, they’re mad, they’re sad, but they also know the truth. I just say, “Just take it in, and you are a storyteller, and try to think about how you want it to come out and the story that you tell.”

SD: And from that experience they have, you have faith that there will be some fruit in the future?

FR: There’s always fruit, and that’s the thing that, I trust artists. We always support emerging artists. We invest so much in the leadership development of grassroots organizers, we need to be supporting the leadership of artists early on, early, early on. And that’s what we do.

So, by the time some of these artists are ready to engage they have a solid foundation of an understanding of the issues, but they also have the ability not to just regurgitate movement messaging. Communications messaging is different than what we need in order to win hearts. Communications messaging is usually designed to get your senator to do X, Y, Z. It’s not designed to move people. So, I mean it’s not designed to move people in the same way where art I about bigger ideas, it’s about a bigger narrative, it’s not just about reacting to the current political reality.

SD: Right, right, it goes back to that sort of emotional knowledge as opposed to just information.

FR: Right. And it’s also more systemic. You know, like when I do projects on factory farming and on fossil fuels, like I really try to think about: What perspectives am I sharing here? I’m not just gonna say, “go vegan,” or I’m not just gonna say “oh, the factory farming industry is horrible,” I’m actually thinking: “I’m gonna tell the story of this little pig. This little pig who was saved, and he’s in a sanctuary now.” Or I’m gonna tell the story of a kid who has asthma because the refineries are in his town. That to me is what needs to happen more.

So, I do believe that as artists we do need autonomy to do our wild crazy ideas. Because again, we’re approaching things from a different [perspective]. We’re trying to activate culture which is different than activating legislative or policy change.

SD: Sure. Although it also sounds like in thinking about an artist’s autonomy, you also hold artists, or at least hold yourself, up to pretty high standards.

FR: Absolutely. I mean, we have to understand the issues. We’re not gonna be able to be effective artists if we don’t submerge ourselves in the realities. This is also why we need artists with first-hand, lived experience. So we also need the artists who don’t have the experience to actually go to the impacted places and see for themselves, but also listen to local people. Listen to local artists.

Pictured: CultureStrike at the People’s Climate March in 2014

SD:  Have you ever had a project that didn’t work? And how did you know that it didn’t work?

FR: Yes, I have had a project that didn’t work. And I knew it didn’t work because it wasn’t shared. The timing of it wasn’t right. [Even if] you have a good project, if some of these issues are not in the news cycle it might get picked up by some random art people but it doesn’t really move in the way that it needs to move. So I’ve had projects where the timing hasn’t been right or I’m just not tapping into the moment.

SD: And how do you know that?

FR: I follow the news, I follow social media, I see what people are talking about. I just, I’m participating in culture. I mean, I care about culture, I care about pop culture. For example, right now we’re in a #MeToo wave. And that, to me, means that this is the time to talk about a bunch of stories around sexual abuse — it’s a completely different landscape than last year. Or when the fires happened, I’m like, “Okay let’s talk about climate policy.” Now that the migrant caravan is happening, I am pushing out the butterfly again.

Many artists are not always thinking about timing. It’s like they’re spectators, they’re not participants. Like they’re not necessarily participating in the sort of dialogue that’s happening around them. So much of my time is actually [spent] understanding what solutions are being proposed. Like, what are we really talking about here? What is the narrative? What are people saying, and where is there some friction? Where are there some openings? And frankly, you could only understand that if you are watching it or if you’re engaging in it. Once you learn the sort of ebbs and flows of it, it allows you to go [for] it at the right time, and to actually ride that wave.


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