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Wafaa Bilal

To me, there is no such a thing as a black and white. There is always, has to be, room for dialogue. Because I believe the truth doesn’t exist. The truth is very subjective and it depends on what angle you’re looking at it. So if that’s the case, how can we present something that doesn’t impose upon people, but engages them?

Wafaa Bilal was born and raised in Iraq where he survived the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, two wars, a bloody uprising, and months spent in a Kuwati refugee camp. Bilal eventually immigrated to the US and became a successful professor and artist. In 2005, his brother, still living in Iraq, was killed at a US checkpoint, and in response Bilal created Domestic Tension. For one month, Bilal lived in a prison cell-sized room with a remote controlled paintball gun. Visitors to his website could control the gun and fire it 24 hours a day. The project attracted international attention and ultimately Bilal was awarded the Chicago Tribune’s Artist of the Year Award.

Editor’s note: This interview took place in 2008.

Stephen Duncombe & Steve Lambert: How do you think about your work and the audiences that will eventually see it?

Wafaa Bilal: I always debate with myself: just how do you make a project not only interesting, but how do you engage people? And for a long time I did a lot of work that was bound by the gallery world, and I don’t know how successful or how much people were really attracted or engaged when the work is within a gallery space.

But in the last two projects that I did, I tried to break away from the gallery and perhaps establish the gallery as the physical platform and a virtual platform that exists on the website. So now you have these two things come together, which provides greater access to people who would go to a gallery and people who go online.

Since my work is political – and it seems like not only my work but other political work, as well – it alienates more than it engages. And so I started thinking about these straight engagement strategies. And for now, I’m just playing with three of them: one, is aesthetic pleasure versus aesthetic pain. Two, the body has it’s own language. And three, the conflict zone versus the comfort zone. And these strategies specifically are dealing with an artist trying to communicate a message where subject matter is very specific.

Subject matter: I am from Iraq, I wanted to do a work about Iraq. And I am currently living in a comfort zone [in the US], and Iraq is a conflict zone. And how can I engage people within this zone I’m living in, which I have become a part of? So, there is that separation; physical separation breeds disengagement. And one thing I started playing with is aesthetic pleasure versus aesthetic pain, which is: how can we engage people without directly imposing our own ideal or our own concept on them? And how can we make the work dynamic to the point that it becomes a platform for engagement, it becomes an encounter? And how can we make that encounter as a dynamic encounter?

Pictured: Wafaa Bilal in “Domestic Tension,” an interactive installation piece from 2007. Bilal spent one month in a prison cell-sized room with a paintball gun (not pictured) pointed at him. Visitors of the exhibition’s website could choose to shoot him through the click of their mouse – drawing a parallel to the dehumanized tactics used in the Iraq War and their very human effects. By the end of the exhibit, 65,000 shots were fired by people from all over the world.

So, for example, with the Shoot an Iraqi project, I also called it Domestic Tension, that was what’s behind it. It’s just like how can we put just something, make something really silly, grab people’s attention? That’s the aesthetic pleasure. Then, the aesthetic pain is delivered slowly, not only because of the content of the project, but from the engagement: when you open up the dialogue and make the platform a democratic platform, uncensored, and let other people become part of it, which makes the project an open narrative, it’s completely transformed not by the artist but by the participant. So, now with these strategies, the artist cannot become authoritarian.

To me, there is no such a thing as a black and white. There is always, has to be, room for dialogue. Because I believe the truth doesn’t exist. The truth is very subjective and it depends on what angle you’re looking at it, right? So if that’s the case, how can we present something that doesn’t impose upon people, but engages them?

S&S: Okay, so take Domestic Tension as a success story. How do you know you were engaging with the audience?

WB: That’s the simplest answer to this project. Because I kept recording everything: every IP address, every click we get. So by the end of it, which is one month long, we had 80 million hits. We knew how many shots we were directed at me, we knew how many people click left and right, and 3,000 pages of a chat room.

S&S: You had a chat room for people? Why did you do that?

WB: 24 hours, and recorded. In the end, when I look at the project, the chat room is one of the most interesting things to come from the project.

S&S: Why was that?

WB: Because of the feedback. And, I think a lot of these encounters are ephemeral by nature. They don’t leave any physical object behind. But I think what was left behind in the chat room is documentation of how diverse the audience were.

One of my fears at the beginning by doing the project, and I think a lot of people online said the same thing, is you’re gonna preach to the people who’re already engaged in this line of thinking. And I think we tend to do that. Gallery work tends to do that. So, I was aware of that notion. In the beginning, I started interfering with people’s reactions; I wanted to see what would happen. And I think one of the viewers, not a participant, alerted me to the idea that I was interfering too much in people’s reactions. And then I started stepping back. So, I became the moderator of the platform, not the enforcer. And even when I was asked, “Should we shoot you or not?” I said, “We all face that decision at some point in our lives; I’m not going to tell you what to do.”

S&S: Okay, you have these people engaged, you created sort of a space for them to both engage in the artwork, shoot you, and also talk about it and so on. What do you hope happens after that? Is that the end point or is there some goal after that?

WB: It’s a good question. I think that was the beginning of it. Because what happen is, within our comfort zone, there is a lack of platform. The public space is being taken away from us; the idea of the [town] square is being taken away from us. We have no formal democratic platform to come and engage in this dialogue. But when people come together they inform each other, and they come to a starting point, not an end point.

The virtually-activated paintball gun. “Domestic Tension” by Wafaa Bilal. 2007.

What happens when you are given the opportunity to act but there are no consequences but your conscience? Because the internet allows people anonymity, so the only thing we are left with is the guilt of committing something. I think that mirrors what soldiers are going through. When you’re out there, either you shoot or you’re gonna be shot. I think it opened the dialogue because you have so many people who shot and came back to apologize.

And I think that’s one of the engagement, I said strategies of engagement, the body has its own language. So what happens is when the body is present, our body’s being affected because of the movement. So having the body streamed live, I think that affected people a lot because they see the physical impact. Also, one of the decisions I made is to release a video once a day, or two, on YouTube. So while I disengage people on purpose from the website, grainy image, no sound, I engage them mentally on YouTube because they were waiting to see what I’d been going through that day. And I did not hold anything back.

S&S: So you’re narrating and talking to the camera?

WB: Oh, yeah. And I didn’t hold anything back in terms of my emotional rollercoaster on a daily basis. Because, part of it, I think I wanted them to connected, I wanted them to be confused just like how is it terror? It looks like it’s a playful game. And look at the complexities of it. And I think that established kind of a culture around the piece. And it started spreading beyond my expectations. And because of that video I’m releasing every day, that culture around the work started growing and growing and growing. And to the point if I don’t release the video on time, people start complaining. It’s like: where is the video?

S&S: A week later, or two weeks later, a month later, a year later, what do you want those people to have taken away from it?

WB: I think to me, if the notion of the connected between these two zones [comfort and conflict] illustrates the point that we are far removed from the conflict – if people get that from the grainy image and them shooting me, versus the emotional rollercoaster I am going through every day – if people connect these two things, I think the project is a success.

S&S: So what comes of that connection?

WB: Of that connection – awareness. And with awareness comes action.

S&S: How do you know people aren’t just wanking off on the computer?

WB: Oh, that’s possible too.

S&S: I don’t mean quite sexually, but I mean—

WB: No, but seriously.

S&S: But like politically wanking off into the computer, which is, “Okay, I’ve done my job, I felt guilty, I’ve now created a human shield, and now I’m going back to work.”

WB: You know, you don’t have control over that. I mean how could you control that? Change does not come very easy. And everyone who is in art and activism understands that notion. I’m not going there and saying, “okay I wanted to change people’s lives and how they behave.” I am hoping just to touch one person’s life. And that person might touch another person, people’s life. But the fact is you have 136 countries participating in this; it led me to believe, it wasn’t just gonna stop after the project stops. And I think following that with a book also in a way is going to continue the dialogue. It’s not going to stop when the project stopped.

S&S: Do you think dialogue, discussion, change of mind leads to change in action?

WB: If it’s a real one, yeah. What else can bring us to take an action except our belief in a dialogue or an argument?

S&S: Well, you often talk a lot about the body and moving the body, which seems like it’s a little bit separate from dialogue. I mean, when I was an activist, my job was to get someone to do something, no matter how small. Not to think differently, but to get them to do something because then I knew they would do something else and do something else. It was very bodily.

WB: But I’m giving them the option. I’m giving the option to do it or not to do it, which I think might be more effective because sometimes I see activism disengage, or alienate more than engage. But by approaching it differently, I’m not placing guilt on people. What I’m doing is to give them the opportunities to see other points of view. You have the hunters who come to the site, you have the hackers, you have the paintball players, you have the moms, you have the kids 17 and 13 years old who are hacking it, so but every one of them is just saying what’s on their minds from cursing at me and calling me a sand nigger, to highly refined political dialogue. Either way, it’s exposure to other ideas. And I think one of the things I was hoping is when we hold the mirror to ourselves, sometimes that image scares us because we are so engaged in our own beliefs that when that image is reflected we get so scared by it.

S&S: So, if your work is trying to effect change, it’s not a visible thing, it’s more internal – more in people’s minds.

WB: And it might be more true. Because if I am on the street and I just approach somebody, saying here, do something, change. He might do it just because I am confronting him, but not out of choice. I don’t want it to confront them –

S&S: You want them to confront you.

WB: Exactly. And I want the conflict to be within that person. And that might have a longer effect on people’s lives.

S&S: I’m still unclear what the effect is. That is, or do you just say: “I want people to confront themselves, I want people to have a discussion, created a public sphere where they have to think about their actions. Then I’m done, and what they do after is their business”? Or do you have an ideal of what might happen?

WB: Yeah, I mean, you can’t follow everybody’s actions, but it’s just about continuing to create the dialogue through other pieces. To me, the project was the first step.

Still from “Raze 213” by Wafaa Bilal.

S&S: Have you ever done a project that just didn’t work?

WB: Yeah. Shit, yeah, so many of them.

S&S: And why? Why did Domestic Tension work and not the other ones?

WB: There was a project I did called Raze 213, which exposed one of Saddam’s methods of torture, where the prisoner is confined to a very small cell with pipe that drips acid from different points of view. I built that project at the University of New Mexico, a lot of people were outraged by it, and even fellow Iraqis and Arabs said, “this is so fucked up.”

S&S: Why was that?

WB: Because it alienated people. And I think the effect that it generated was totally the opposite of what I was hoping. So I was hoping that, by exposing this method, people would sympathize. On the contrary. People were so shocked by it, they totally rejected the notion, totally rejected the ideas, and the project stayed idle until the state university was like, you can’t have this anymore. Just because I created so many layers into it: the body movement, the smell…

S&S: Was it performance? How did the piece work?

WB: I built a physical space but instead of a body I recorded a body and then replayed it in the space itself. But the way you view it is through a window –

S&S: From the interrogator’s perspective?

WB: Yeah, exactly, it was a window cell. It was closed down by the Health Department, which I understand. I used meat, acid, excrement, just whatever just to create the smell. And then later the History Channel did a piece on it. It was before the war in 2003, they did a program called Why They Don’t Kill Saddam. That’s the name of the project. At the time, I didn’t know their intention, but it was basically the drumbeat for war. And they came to Chicago for two days, and they recorded it with me. But then, the way they edited it, it sounds like I’m the one who built the torture method for Saddam. And I start receiving phones calls, like, “I didn’t know you designed torture methods!” So, then I fought them and they agreed not to show it again.

S&S: Tell me about the alienation thing because I think that’s a problem a lot of artists, and political activists face. Here you are, you’re trying to show the horrors of prison and Saddam, but somehow people have the opposite reaction. Why is that?

WB: I think part of it, one, is we don’t want to be exposed to such a thing. It’s about implication. Because if we admit it exists, we are part of the system. Creating as much distance as you can is safer for us. And second, it really affects people to see, to smell it, hear it, it just affects people, and I think that’s why it created the opposite. And I think with political work in general, a lot of time, we don’t want to look at it. We close our eyes. Because if I admit that it exists, I am part of the system of oppression. So, that’s why we don’t want to look at political art, we don’t want to engage with it, and the more distance we create, the better.

S&S: A lot of people talk about media hits. And this sounds like it had an immense media saturation. The smell and everything was so effective that people were talking about prisons. Is that controversy something you want?

WB: I’ve been accused of that a lot. And the latest accusation, I’ve been called attention-whore. Some have the suspicion that I create these projects to get that attention so the art will be exposed, or that I just love controversy. I think some artists do. But we have to look at the bigger picture: what’s the objective of the controversy? Is it really just to get attention? Or is it to engage? These are two separate, different things. If the objective were to raise awareness, to let people know what you’re trying to do, I think that’s a noble objective. But if the objective is just to get media, I think that’s crappy because then the work is not going to deliver what you want, and you’re not going to go very far.

S&S: Speaking of media, do you make an effort to get media?

WB: No. I think it’s the other way around.

S&S: They make an effort to find you.

WB: Exactly, exactly. I used to send out a press release and try to get the media, but I find viral connection is much better than going straight to the media. And here’s why: a lot of times people think that the big corporations broadcast the news they want, like a George Orwell world. But a lot of it is the opposite. Look at CNN – how does a story gets to the top of their website? It’s basically by clicks. So it’s helpful to understand how the web is serving us. So, when I decided to do Domestic Tension, I did the opposite of the traditional press release, and I went to the internet from my email list, to friends’ email lists, to friends’ email lists. So that’s what creates media attention, and what happens when you have such a huge amount of attention is that it puts pressure on the established media to bring them to talk about it.

S&S: When you sit down to plan your work, do you think about your audience, do you think about effectiveness, engagement, how best to engage them?

WB: I recently give a talk, at Pomegranate Gallery about these two works. The one, Domestic Tension, and the other Virtual Jihadi. And at the end, there was a young guy who stood and said, “I’m an American soldier, I just came back from Iraq, I appreciate what you do, but please explain this to me: with Domestic Tension, you engage a lot of people, with Virtual Jihadi, you alienate a lot of people. Why is that?” And you know, one must consider who the audience are. With Domestic Tension, it was a lot about bringing people together and have them talk. The Virtual Jihadi, it was about exposing our hypocrisy and getting people who didn’t want to talk about it to talk about it.

S&S: And when you sat down to plan these projects, did you think in terms of this?

WB: You do. You have to.

S&S: So you think of the audience first or simultaneously…?

WB: No, I think the project determines a lot of things. The project can determine the media, the project can determine the audience, I mean a lot of things. Saying, “why do I want it to be this project?” – that’s the first question; second, “who do I want it to engage?” – third is “what’s the medium?” The medium is determined by the project itself. But then the audience, that’s your second question: “who do I want to engage?” Or maybe sometimes it’s the first question, too. “Who is the audience, and what do I want to do with this project?” And I think the question “what do I want to do with this project” is basically saying, “who is my audience?”

S&S: Why use art? Why not write essays? Why not go out there with a picket sign?

WB: I think it’s the medium where I can best express myself. But also writing. Writing’s a great thing. I’ve held so many signs, you know, and stopped traffic. But beyond that intersection, they move on. Art, I find it effective because way early on I found out that the [Hussein] regime would kick people out of art school if they’re in any way engaged in politics or even if their families are engaged in politics. So it has a lot of power.

Art is not concrete. The narrative is open. The idea of me as a viewer assigning my own value to the object, establishes a connection which is unique – your connection is your connection. And it has a lot to do with what I see in that object and where I’m coming from. And I think that’s why we engage sometimes in an object for so long while rejecting others.

Edited by Sarah J Halford

Why Artistic Activism?

Sometimes we’re asked, “What’s this artistic activism thing all about?” and “What’s the difference between artistic activism and regular activism?” and “Is this something you guys made up?”

So, here’s a primer on Artistic Activism, and 9 reasons why we’re so into it. 

You can also download the printable version of this booklet.


Artistic Activism Mobilizes Affect and Effect

Artistic Activism is a dynamic practice combining the creative power of the arts to move us emotionally with the strategic planning of activism necessary to bring about social change.

Art and activism do different work in the world. Activism, as the name implies, is the activity of challenging and changing power relations. There are many ways of doing activism and being an activist, but the common element is an activity targeted toward a discernible end. Simply put, the goal of activism is action to create an Effect.

Art, on the other hand, tends not to have such a clear target. It’s hard to say what art is for or against; its value often lies in providing us perspective and new ways to envision our world. Its effect is often subtle and hard to measure, and confusing or contradictory messages can be layered into the work. Good art always contains a surplus of meaning: something we can’t quite describe or put our finger on, but moves us nonetheless. Its goal, if we can even use that word, is to stimulate a feeling, move us emotionally, or alter our perception. Art, equally simply stated, is an expression that generates Affect.

At first glance these aims seem at odds with one another. Activism moves the material world, while Art moves the heart, body and soul. In fact, however, they are complimentary. Social change doesn’t just happen, it happens because people decide to make change. As any seasoned activist can tell you, people just don’t decide to change their mind and act accordingly, they are personally moved to do so by emotionally powerful stimuli. We’re moved by affective experiences to do physical actions that result in concrete effects: Affect leads to Effect. We might think of this as Affective Effect, or perhaps, Effective Affect. Or, combined in a new word, Æffect (pronounced Aye-fect).

Artistic Activism is a practice aimed at generating Æffect: emotionally resonant experiences that lead to measurable shifts in power.


Artistic Activism Thrives in the Contemporary Landscape

The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage. Today, this doesn’t mean studying maps of the mountains of Cuba or the jungles of Vietnam. Our modern political terrain is a highly mediated landscape of signs and symbols, story and spectacle. To operate successful on this cultural topography we need to observe, analyze and respond creatively. We need to be Artistic Activists.

We may like to think of politics as a purely rational business, where sensible people logically discuss and debate the issues at hand, come to a reasoned decision, and then judiciously act. Certainly this is how politics has been taught to us in our civics classes. But as recent developments in cognitive science suggest, humans don’t think and behave this way: we make sense of our world through stories and symbols that frame the information we receive and then act accordingly. The principles governing civic action are more likely to be found in the worlds of popular culture and entertainment, and artistic expression and reception, than in textbooks of political science.

Acknowledging that the political landscape is also a cultural landscape opens up new terrain to work upon. Whereas art tends to be limited to museums and galleries, and activism to street demonstrations and state houses, artistic activism is at home in town squares and shopping malls, on billboards or through social media…as well as galleries and state houses. This new terrain, neither overtly “arty” or “political” is more familiar and safer to an audience than a museum or a rally, and thus makes artistic activism more attractive, approachable, and friendly than traditional art or activist practices. Artistic activism – as an affective image, performance, or experience – is also well suited for an age of cell phone cameras and social networks. People don’t share policy papers, they share things that move them.



Artistic Activism Has Been Used Throughout History

While Artistic Activism is particularly well suited for the contemporary moment, throughout history the most effective civic actors have married the arts with campaigns for social change, using aesthetic approaches to provide a critical perspective on the world as it is and imagine the world as it could be. In the struggle for Civil Rights for African Americans in the US, for example, activists drew upon the stories and songs and participatory culture of the black churches, staged media-savvy stunts like Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus, played white racist reaction against peaceful protesters as a sympathetic passion play during the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, and, most famously, used imaginative imagery (and popular cultural references) in a speech to call America to task for its racist past and articulate a dream of a better future. While Martin Luther King Jr is now largely remembered for his example of moral courage, social movement historian Doug McAdam’s estimation of King’s “genius for strategic dramaturgy,” likely better explains the success of his campaigns.

From Jesus’s use of parables to engage his audience, to dramatizing “this is what democracy looks like” in public squares around the world in 2011, working artfully makes activism effective. Many activists know this intuitively, but by naming it “artistic activism” we take what would be a folk art and turn it into a defined practice — giving it the attention and study it demands.



Artistic Activism Creates Openings

Art and activism often conforms to expectations — and for many people those expectations are, unfortunately, negative. Artistic activism is activism that doesn’t look like activism and art that doesn’t look like art.

The ability of artistic activism to surprise us – to show up in unlikely places (e.g. not a gallery) or take on unfamiliar forms (e.g. not a protest march) provides an opportunity to disrupt people’s preconceived notions of art and protest, and their predetermined ideas about the messages we are trying to communicate. Artistic activism creates an opportunity to bypass seemingly fixed political ideas and moral ideals and remap cognitive patterns. Surprise is a moment when hearts can be touched and minds reached, and both changed.

Artistic Activism’s ability to escape easy categorization is a benefit in societies where protest is commonplace. Whereas traditional forms of protest, like marches, need to constantly increase in size or scope, or descend into violence, to become noticed (and newsworthy), the creative innovation at the heart of artistic activism provides something uncommon, or out of place, that can attract attention and become memorable. The boundary slippage of artistic activism works equally well in repressive regimes where overt political protest is prohibited, yet artistic practices are tolerated. Slipping under the radar, artistic activism is not identified as “politics” to authorities while still being able to communicate a social message to the public.


Artistic Activism is Accessible

“I’m not political,” is a phrase one hears often; it’s a rare person, however, that doesn’t express themself through some form of creativity. We go dancing on the weekends, perform songs in our churches, compose raps with our friends, make memes for social media, customize bicycles, assemble scrapbooks, sew quilts, and prepare dinners for the table. While it takes years of professional training to practice (or even understand) law, policy analysis, or governmental lobbying, creativity is a skill we all already possess and can learn to hone and use to great æffect.

Indeed, well-honed cultural creativity and artistic expression is often the possession of those — youth, the poor, people of color, migrants and immigrants — that are most marginalized from formal spheres of politics, law, and education. Artistic activism plays to their strengths.

Even with the best intentions, artists and activists can be paternalistic toward those whom they are trying to assist. They, as “experts,” have the knowledge and creativity which they bestow upon “disadvantaged“ people. Artistic activism does not work this way. Here the relationship is reversed: it is the people who possess what is valuable. While culture is something we all share, we don’t all share the same culture. The building blocks – the symbols and stories that give artistic activism its content and form – differ from people to people and place to place. When it comes to local culture the locals are the real experts.

Activism is foreign to many people, and a bit daunting: it seems to take too much commitment, too much risk, and too much time. (Oscar Wilde once quipped that “the problem with socialism is that it wastes too many evenings on meetings.”) But that’s why mixing arts and activism works so well. Because we all have a creative life, using the arts – and culture, more broadly – in activist work lowers barriers to entry. Culture, as something familiar, can work as an access point through which organizers can approach and engage people who are otherwise alienated by institutional systems like voting, lobbying, political campaigning, and legislation. Unlike fine arts or political policy, artistic activism takes no specialized knowledge for an audience to “get it.” And, as an art form, artistic activism is always open to multiple meanings and, thus, multiple ways for the audience to connect.

Because artistic activism crosses boundaries, it not only opens up multiple access points for creators and audiences, but also for mass media outlets who may cover events in both arts and politics sections, and for funders who can support projects with arts and culture grants as well as through social justice portfolios.



Artistic Activism Stimulates a Culture of Creativity

There is an art to every practice, activism included. It’s what distinguishes the innovative from the routine, the elegant from the mundane. Creativity is essential to good organizing. It enables activists to imagine new tactics, strategies and goals to keep campaigns fresh and make them more effective. At one time protest marches and mass rallies were powerful innovations; today they are routine. Millions of people may have marched in the streets protesting the American War in Iraq, but public sentiment turned against the war when the mother of a dead soldier – Cindy Sheehan — staged a dramatic encampment outside the president’s vacation home. This was artistic activism.

But artistic activism is more than coming up with creative tactics – it stimulates a culture of creativity that extends from tactics through goals to overall campaign planning. Drawing upon creative processes familiar to arts and design, artistic activism encourages blue sky brainstorming, quick sketches, multiple iterations, rapid prototyping, and a spirit of play — as well as risk, and the acceptance of failure. Approached as a creative process, we are more apt to see multiple solutions to problems, and new pathways to attain our objectives. Free to experiment, we may identify and solve problems we didn’t set out to solve, end-running the commonplace framing of politics to open up new possibilities for interpretation and action.

Artistic activism, as an art form, is forever doing things and creating reactions that are unintended — what we might call an “abundance of æffect.” Rather than seeing these unintended consequences as a detriment to be ignored or controlled, the creative process of artistic activism encourages us to notice, reflect, and be open to new creative and political possibilities.



Artistic Activism Energizes People and Organizations

Caring about the world is hard work. We open our eyes to things other people do their best to ignore, and in our work we constantly fight against forces greater than us: ancient prejudices, entrenched institutions, well-funded opposition. As an activist it is easy to get burnt out as our life becomes increasingly defined by “the struggle.” As an artist it’s easy to get frustrated that the creative work we do has little impact on the issues we care about so deeply. Artistic activism is a way to connect with the artist inside of every activist and the activist within every artist, redrawing connections so that artistic activism generates fun and pleasure rather than sacrifice and guilt and, in the process, reintegrating and re-energizing our lives.

Re-energized people revitalize the institutions they work within. In this way, artistic activism is a form of organizational self-care. The purpose and play of artistic activism can reanimate “dead” cultural and civic organizations like museums, galleries, and NGOs from the inside out — but also from the outside in: creativity is infectious. As fun as artistic activism is for those doing it, it’s also exciting for those people on the outside experiencing it.

Artistic activism is not as simple as privileging creativity over clipboards. Petitions still need to be signed and people need to canvass door–to-door, marches need to be planned and politicians lobbied. But making space for creativity makes the necessary drudgery more bearable, and keeps people in the organization longer. And through the practice of artistic activism it just may be possible that a more creative way of canvassing can be discovered.



Artistic Activism is About the Long Game

Creating and sustaining lasting change demands a change in values, beliefs and patterns of behavior, that is: cultural change. While changing laws and policies are essential, laws will not be followed nor policies enacted unless people have internalized the values that lie behind them. And while marches, rallies and protests are important, they won’t have lasting impact unless the issues resonate with people. Culture lays the foundation for politics. It outlines the contours of our very notions of what is desirable and undesirable, possible and impossible. Culture makes us, as we make it, and culture is the base material of Artistic Activism.

Artistic activism draws from culture, to create culture, to impact culture. An artistic activist might craft an image that prompts people to rethink how we look at reality, or stage a performance which calls into question what values and institutions are “normal” in a society, or create an artifact prefiguring an alternative, better world. In each case, expanding, and prodding what we consider normal, possible, or even conceivable. If artistic activism is successful, the larger culture shifts in ways big and small.

To change the world we need to imagine what a changed world might look like. These “utopian” visions are useful for setting pragmatic goals and concrete objectives, and provide a loadstone to orient our direction so we don’t get lost. Most important, these ideas and ideals inspire us to get up and out in the morning to change the world, and attract others to work with us.

Articulating our dreams is not easy, as our very ideas of what is possible are shaped by the culture of the world we want to change. But, as Audre Lorde once wrote “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” Art is a means by which to imagine the unimaginable, and artistic activism is the medium that can suggest it as a possibility. Through sound and image and movement, artistic activism can conjure up a vision of what could be in the future and communicate it to others in the here and now. Art gives us the vision. Activism helps us make the road to get there.



Artistic Activism is Peaceful and Persuasive

A final note. Artistic activism, as a cultural approach, is inherently non-violent. Although groups have used creative methods for violent ends (most infamously the Nazi Party) the tactic itself is peaceful. Artistic activism is aimed at hearts and minds, not bodies or buildings. The goal is not to force compliance, which art can never do, but to persuade by creating moving experiences that prompt people to question the world as it is, imagine a world as it could be, and join together to make that new world real. Artistic activism is Æffective power.


Download the printable version of this booklet

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New Training!

We have three trainings coming up in the next two weeks, which means three opportunities to up your creative activism game. Register quick, as this is a rare opportunity!

Putting Your Skills To Work With For Social Change

Steve Lambert and Patricia Jerido are doing a special online webinar with Creative Capital to give artists practical guidelines on how to be effective and resilient creative agents for social change.

Wednesday, April 26. 7:00 – 8:30pm EST. Online. Free. Register Here

Artistic Activism: Making Art Work

Learn how you can use your creative practice for social change. A rare Artistic Activism in-person workshop with Steve Duncombe, Steve Lambert, and Patricia Jerido in NYC.

Thursday, May 4. 6:30-9:15 pm. 15 Maiden Lane, 18th Fl New York, NY. $35. Register Here

How To Win Webinars #15: Make The News

We’re bringing in the press expert Marisa Mazria Katz who will help us all understand how and when to connect with the press, how to communicate yourself and your campaign, how to write a great pitch or op-ed, and, very importantly, what NOT to do.

Send us your pitch – we’ll polish it! We’re looking for proposals from artists and activists to workshop live. This will be a good opportunity to think through any ideas and projects with someone who has experience pitching artists and activists to the mass media.

Friday, May 5. 12:00pm EST. Online. Free. Sign Up

If you can’t make it to those, sign up for our mailing list to keep up with future events and actions.

How To Win #15: Make The News

We’ve all been there: you’ve done a brilliant, funny, creative action but no one except some passersby and a handful of your Facebook friends have any idea it happened. Or maybe worse yet, you get some press coverage but the journalist completely missed the point. Well, we’re here to help.

In this webinar, Steve Lambert was online with the journalist Marisa Mazria Katz, former editor-in-chief of Creative Time Reports and writer for the The Wall Street Journal, Monocle, The New York Times, and more. She helped us all understand how and when to connect with the press, how to communicate yourself and your campaign, how to write a great pitch or op-ed, and, very importantly, what NOT to do.

What Would Jesus Do? (as a Creative Activist)

By C4AA Co-Founder Stephen Duncombe

My proselytizing here is of a political rather than religious nature. It isn’t the divine figure of Christ I am interested in but the purely historical Jesus, a radical Mediterranean Jewish peasant building a revolutionary movement two millennia ago. Jesus of Nazareth was an activist, and, judging by the two-thousand year duration and global spread of his message and movement, a very good one. He was successful, in part, because he approached activism and organizing creatively. Jesus understood the fundamentals of using story and spectacle, signs and symbols as means to criticize the status quo and offer up an alternative vision.

When Jesus entered the main temple of Jerusalem and overturned the tables of the money changers and sellers of ritual objects he was staging an effective political performance. He could have stood outside and harangued the passerby with his opinions, the ancient equivalent of the activist on the soapbox, but instead he demonstrated his politics though a spectacular act of civil disobedience. Through such an action he not only demonstrated visually and bodily his political ideals, but did it in such a provocative way that news of his deed, and therefore his message, was sure to travel. In modern parlance: Jesus went viral.

Consider next Jesus’ use of parables and how, by employing these often oblique stories, he created an opening for his audience to make the message their own. Unlike a list of grievances or demands, easily understood and just as easily ignored, the parables asked listeners to puzzle through the mystery of the stories and their meanings. It was an “invitational form of speech” to quote the Bible scholar Marcus Borg, that does not command, but instead works in its “ability to involve and affect the imagination.”[1] One can almost imagine the scene following an impromptu teaching of Jesus: people walking away, debating amongst themselves exactly what this crazy holy man meant by comparing the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. But with every argument and counter-argument, Jesus’ words ceased to be his alone and became the common property of his audience.

Jesus’ famed “miracles” demonstrate his understanding of spectacle. As the seminal Jesus historian, John Dominic Crossan, points out, faith-healing and magic tricks were stock-in-trade for the many wandering holy men and prophets in Biblical times who employed these spectacles as a means to fame and fortune.[2] These miracles may be fantastic by our standards but at the time they were popular entertainment, a sort of Cirque du Soleil of the day, and Jesus, by all accounts, was an adept performer within this common culture. Learning to work within popular forms is a good lesson for any activist to learn, but it’s what Jesus supposedly did, and didn’t do, within this medium that is inspiring. When asked by the Devil, and later the Roman imperial authority, to perform miracles to benefit himself Jesus refused. Instead he healed the physically and mentally ill, mastered the seas for simple fisherman, and conjured up food and wine for the multitude. It matters little whether these miracles happened or not, what matters is the message the spectacle communicated: an ideal, not of power used selfishly for power and privilege as it often is, but as a gift for helping, caring and sharing with those on the bottom of society. In brief, he used popular culture to articulate a message that ran counter to its traditional practice; Jesus was a master of what I’ve called elsewhere “ethical spectacle.”[3]

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus’ crafty reply to the question of whether it was okay to refuse to pay taxes to the ruling Roman Empire, posed by officials trying to trick him into uttering treasonous remarks, has been used to justify the separation of Church and State for millennia. This orthodox interpretation serves liberal secularists who would like to keep religion at arms length from their government and conservative Bible-thumpers looking to justify their distaste for the secular state, but this reading completely misses the radicalism of Jesus’ reply.[4] He was not simply making the case that religion and politics occupy different realms, he was arguing for a re-framing of reality whereby Empire might be rejected, not on their terms: paying or not paying taxes, but by creating and enacting an entirely different way of seeing, being and making meaning that refused to acknowledge their authority. To borrow a phrase from the aesthetic philosopher Jacques Rancière, Jesus was calling for a “re-distribution of the sensible.” [5] Furthermore, Jesus was shifting the political terrain from the material, where poor people like himself are always out-gunned, to the cultural: the traditional weapon of the weak.[6] To do this cultural re-calibration of reality, Jesus understood that it was not enough to merely criticize the way things are (as this, perversely, reinforces the status quo by re-centering what is) but what was needed instead were new models for the way that things might be; “an aesthetic anticipation of the future,” to quote Rancière once more.[7]

Jesus was able to prefigure his vision of a better world tomorrow though creative actions situated in the present day. By sitting down to dinner –a deeply meaningful ritual in Biblical times – with women, tax collectors, sinners and the ill, Jesus enacted in the here and now the egalitarian community he foretold for the future.[8] Similarly, by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, the titular “Son of God” seated upon a lowly ass, he acted out his ideal of a world turned upside down in which “the last shall be first, and the first last.” Jesus took the ideal of a political “demonstration” quite literally… and thus employed it very effectively. (Riding a donkey into town also fulfilled Old Testament prophesy, demonstrating as well Jesus’ skill in drawing upon traditional culture while promoting a new sensibility.)

Finally, by accepting and even embracing his own execution, Jesus refused to do for his followers what they needed to do for themselves. By removing himself from the scene at the very moment when both his friends and enemies demanded that he lead, Jesus put responsibility and ownership back upon his followers, letting them know that if the world is to be changed then they we will have to be the ones changing it. Alas, this is not the interpretation of the crucifixion that has persevered. The Christian church, in its effort to stabilize his radical message and institutionalize his authority, transformed Jesus’ de-centering sacrifice into an act of guilt-inducing aggrandizement. There’s a good lesson here for activists about the elasticity of symbols and the dangers of co-optation, but I think Jesus was trying to impart an even more valuable one. Jesus didn’t “die for our sins,” far from it: he died so we would have to act (and perhaps sin) on our own. His message was not: “I do this for you” but instead “You need to Do-It-Yourself.” For activists interested in building a truly democratic society, one in which all people have the capacity to lead, this may be his most important lesson of all.

* * *


By making Jesus out to be a radical activist I acknowledge I am treading on heretical ground. In attributing the success of Jesus’ message and movement to his creative acumen, and not his supposed divinity, I might reasonably be accused of religious heresy. And my claim that a religious figure like Jesus has something to teach worldly activists can be considered politically heretical. Religious heresy I willingly confess — mea culpa — but the charge of political heresy I’ll contest, as I believe progressive, secular, creative activism is in desparate need of reformation. Religious figures and symbols make many in activist and artistic circles uneasy, and I readily admit that there’s much to condemn in religion: its bigotry and intolerance for starters. But we lose out when we summarily dismiss all that is religious. Religion, as a compendium of stories, a system of ethics, and a model of behavior can be drawn upon as a popular alternative to norms and ideals of competitive consumer capitalism, and most religions also extol such virtues as love, community and responsibility for others: good material for an astute organizer to work with. Refusing to engage with the signs and symbols, visions and spectacles that have motivated people for millennia is simply bad activism. Jesus is an example that many people, particularly many non-political people, or people whose politics are in need of changing, can relate to and thus learn from. And if Jesus as an activist exemplar alienates non-Christians, there’s other religious figures to draw upon for lessons and inspiration; Moses, Muhammad, and Buddha were also well versed in creative strategies for winning hearts and minds. The first rule of guerilla warfare it to know your terrain and use it to your advantage. Whether we approve of it or not religion forms the contours of a majority of people’s life and consciousness; it is a, if not the, lingua franca used to imagine how life could and should be different. To be an effective activist you need to be able to talk the talk, even if you are uneasy walking the walk, and in today’s world that may mean asking yourself, as a creative activist, What Would Jesus Do?

Note on illustrations: All illustrations come from The Brick Testament the permissions page can be found at

1. Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, New York: HarperCollins, 1995, p. 74. Further elaborating on the political power of the parables and aphorisms Jesus was fond of using, Borg writes: “As evocative forms of speech they tease the imagination into activity, suggest more than they say, and incite a transformation in perception.” [71].

2. John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992; Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

3. Stephen Duncombe, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, New York: New Press, 2007.

4. For more on the radicalism of Jesus’ reply see Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

5. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, London: Continuum, 2004, p. 13.

6. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

7. Rancière, p. 29.

8. Borg; Crossan, The Historical Jesus.


Artistic Action: Sex Worker Rights in Dublin

As part of our Arts Action Academy in December 2016 in Dublin, sex workers, artists and activists created and performed this creative action to raise awareness about, and fight against, laws that criminalize sex workers. All of this was conceived and implemented by the Academy participants in 24 hours as the last day of our intensive AAA training.

What we did

Steve Lambert Stephen Duncombe teaching

We ran a five day program in Dublin teaching artists and activists how to be more effective with their work. Two “classroom” days cover the basics of artistic activism including; history, theory, organizing, creative practice, and more.

Then we collaboratively develop, rehearse, and build a collective project so we can put the ideas into practice in the world.

Why sex work? Why Dublin?

At the Center for Artistic Activism we strive to work with the most marginalized groups and the most difficult issues we can take on. Amnesty International describes sex workers as an “extremely marginalized group of people, frequently forced to live outside the law […] they face discrimination, beatings, rape and harassment [and] are often denied access to basic health or housing services.” Sex Workers Alliance Ireland has made progress in Dublin and is in the midst of making legal changes that could mean improvements in the coming years.

At the same time, the topic of sex work ignites many deeply held moral attitudes and stigma that help perpetuate these human rights issues.

This is just the kind of legal and social mess we’re not afraid to jump into.

With the combined expertise of the sex workers, artists, and the Center for Artistic Activism we got to work.

We built a peep show

Sort of.

The group came up with a plan for a public action with multiple components. One was this public “Peep Show” that really worked as a holiday themed spectacle, just strange enough to attract people on the street, but familiar enough that they’d understand what was happening and how it worked.

The day we held our action was December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. All kinds of people approached the booth and talked to sex workers themselves about the day and it’s purpose, invited into real conversation in a way that was playful and fun.

Then we created our own “sting operation”

Again, sort of.

We were set up in the center of Dublin at a major shopping area and tourist attraction so there were plenty of passers by. These people saw signs advertising “1 Euro Massage” and saw people getting totally innocuous hand massages under tents.

These face-to-face interactions allowed our team to talk one-on-one about purpose of the action, the day to end violence against sex workers, and the laws the exist and are being proposed in Ireland that would impact sex workers. Then the guest is told “by the way, what’s happening here would be technically illegal.” The proposed laws would make two sex workers working together in Ireland – looking out for each other, working alongside each other, or helping each other in any way – a crime.

The guest was then invited to be “arrested”…

siobhan arrested

… and “have their mugshot taken with Santa!”

Guests left with their mugshot in a fun holiday card that had further information about human rights for sex workers and the laws in Ireland.

Our group was able to take a complex, volatile issue and make it accessible, experiential, and fun. So, of course, we held a graduation for the Arts Action Academy.

We’ve known activism is more effective when it’s combined with the arts. This training provides the intellectual background as well as some practical experience so that participants have the foundations of an artistic activist practice. From there we do ongoing consultation to help participants make the most effective work possible.

This is what we’ve been working at for the past seven years at the Center for Artistic Activism.

How to Win #14: Learn from Hollywood

With a savvy entertainer in the White House, we need to really understand how entertainment works, and wield that knowledge like a flaming sword on a windy but beautiful hilltop.

What makes a hit show? What makes a bomb? And how can we help the Donald Trump show “jump the shark”? Friday April 7th, we’re going to talk to long-time screenwriter (Madmen, Smash) and activist Jason “Hollywood J” Grote and find out what artistic activists can learn from Hollywood.

The How to Win #14: Learn from Hollywood webinar will be on
Friday, April 7, 2017,

NEW TIME! 3:00 – 3:50 PM EDT. 

Sign up here

Some of our favorite jump-the-shark moments in Hollywood history, when the premise just goes too far:

– The end of LOST was a lazy mess, but experts say the end began with the flash-forwards in Season 3, when a beloved and weird idea was stretched to its breaking point.

– There are those who say that the Star Wars: Rogue One movie was the one that stretched the basic Star Wars plot too thin, but we can’t help but love it. Phantom Menace, on the other hand, may tell us something about the boredom that could set in when Trump has to deal with actual policy.

– Roseanne was a working class icon until she won the lottery. It was all downhill from there. Perhaps we don’t want our heroes to have it quite so good.

– And of course, Happy Days, where it all began.

There are lessons to learn here, so we can spot and exploit the critical moments when the fictions spun by the new administration reach a breaking point.

Join us Friday! It’ll basically be fun YouTube browsing on your lunch hour, but also secretly training for the resistance.

5 Ways to Up Your Artistic Action Game

Here are 5 things you can do if you want to make change in the world:

1. Steal from the Past

Borrow from successful creative movements (video). Make time to be inspired by others (check out Actipedia).

2. Know How to Manipulate Change Minds

Use cognitive and behavioral science to understand how to make change starting with people’s brains (videos).

3. Put Culture in Your Quiver

Mine pop culture (video) and learn from how Hollywood works (upcoming March 10 webinar) to exploit the current cultural terrain.

Check out our popular series of podcasts with our seriously fun fieldwork into everything from pro wrestling to the Rock and Roll Megachurch to examine and reveal lessons from pop culture for artistic activists (podcasts).

4. Be Savvy about Your Process & People

Learn how to make your creative process work, and how to best collaborate with others by making your action meetings effective and inventive (videos).

5. Choose a Powerful Message 

This last one is clearly so important! And yet often this is where activists get off track. Do we inform people about what they should do, show them how bad things could get, or present a beautiful alternative?

This is where our upcoming webinar will help:

How to Win 11: Recalibrate Reality

Should artistic activists use our work to hold a mirror up to reality to make the invisible visible? Or should we use our talents to imagine new possibilities of what reality could be? Or can we do both? Join us, Steve and Steve, as we give a brief course on the latest aesthetic and cultural theory, and discuss what artistic activists might learn from the academy and put it into practice in the real world.

Sign up for the webinar. It’s this Friday, March 3rd from 12-12:50 EST. If you sign up, you get a reminder and also an email afterward with a link to the video, even if you don’t attend. It’s free, as usual. And your donations make it that way.

We’d love it if you would tell your friends about this too.

5 Ways to Up Your Artistic Action Game

Here are 5 things you can do if you want to make change in the world:

1. Steal from the Past

Borrow from successful creative movements (video). Make time to be inspired by others (check out Actipedia).

2. Know How to Manipulate Change Minds

Use cognitive and behavioral science to understand how to make change starting with people’s brains (videos).

3. Put Culture in Your Quiver

Mine pop culture (video) and learn from how Hollywood works (upcoming March 10 webinar) to exploit the current cultural terrain.

Check out our popular series of podcasts with our seriously fun fieldwork into everything from pro wrestling to the Rock and Roll Megachurch to examine and reveal lessons from pop culture for artistic activists (podcasts).

4. Be Savvy about Your Process & People

Learn how to make your creative process work, and how to best collaborate with others by making your action meetings effective and inventive (videos).

5. Choose a Powerful Message 

This last one is clearly so important! And yet often this is where activists get off track. Do we inform people about what they should do, show them how bad things could get, or present a beautiful alternative? This is where you can think about whether artistic activists should use our work to hold a mirror up to reality to make the invisible visible, or should we use our talents to imagine new possibilities of what reality could be? We have some thoughts on what you can learn from art history and cultural theory in order to make change through art.

How to Win #13: Learn from South Africa

While having an autocratic, erratic and narcissistic madman as a president might be new to artistic activists in the US, this is standard operating procedure for activists in other parts of the world. In this webinar we talked with veteran South African activists Ishtar Makhani and Marlise Richter to learn how to navigate, and effectively operate in, this unfamiliar political terrain.

This is one in a series of webinars. You can see all of them here. You don’t need to watch all of them, or watch them in order, and they’re open to everyone – please share!

And please donate to help keep them free.