The combination of art and activism has been on the rise. Social Practice, Creative Time’s Living as Form, the Occupy Movement, and much more have been working to understand and use aesthetics for change. In some instances, artists are moving out of the insular art world and into culture writ large, dropping their craft in favor of the theater of politics. On the other side, activists are developing and administering new aesthetic and tactical approaches to their work to become more effective in our visually overloaded culture.
Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lamberthave planted themselves squarely between the two by creating the Center for Artistic Activism. Their work has ranged from conducting interviews with political artists to leading workshops around the country, and now the world, to help activists and artists become more politically efficacious. The Steves were kind enough to sit down and have a Skype conversation with me about their work:
Ben Valentine (BV): How did you come together to start the Center for Artistic Activism?
Stephen Duncombe (SD): Steve was doing an action with our friend, who is also in a way our West Coast branch, in Berkeley, Larry Bogad. The action was around McDonalds, in Union Square. I think the real thing though was we had a brainstorm session over beer, which ultimately resulted with Steve working with Andy Bichlbaum, of the Yes Labs, to create the New York Times Special Edition.
During that brainstorm I think Steve and I realized, we had a shared sensibility; a shared sensibility about art, and about activism, and that these things worked very well together. But also a shared sense of humor about it all, which is absolutely essential for a working relationship.
Our first project together, which is a continuing project, was interviewing self described political artists, and asking a very simple question which was, “How do you know if it works?” And we have interviewed about 25 artists, and we are slowly, about once a month, releasing the transcripts that we have edited down, and they will become part of this book we are working on. It is really fascinating asking this question. I think the best response we ever got was also the shortest, which was Hans Haacke, who said, “Well, it takes a long time to circumnavigate that question before never answering it.” And that was it.
Here is this renowned political artist, who is basically shying away from a answer, and we’re fascinated in hearing these folks, because creative activism, political art, socially engaged art, social practice art, is really booming right now, yet still there is no criteria for actually making that judgement. It usually becomes “Well… it got written about a lot.” Which is good but, then what happened? Not to say there is anything wrong with getting your issue or your artwork written about in the New York Times or Art in America, or what have you, but then what is supposed to happen? Trying to really push people, but also push ourselves to think about what we really want to have happen in this case. On an aesthetic level but also on a political level.
Steve Lambert (SL): And realizing that with those two things the goals might be different, and need to be articulated. Since doing this sort of research, it is like putting on x-ray glasses and we can look around at all of this work and say, “Oh, they’re getting this part, but missing this part,” or, “these guys are doing these things well, but they need to be able to articulate the different parts of the project.”
I mean a couple of years ago we realized, and this is obvious, that there is a difference between artwork that is political, that is effecting power, and artwork that is about politics. The other day we were discussing how much of art criticism, or the people who were writing about the Creative Time Summit that happened last weekend, do not understand that difference. [more here] Not because they are incapable of understanding, but to evaluate a creative activism kind of project or campaign, well, the tools aren’t there. It is the same on the activism side, people will say, “Oh, we did a march and a lot of people showed up,” but, well, what did it do?
SD: To think about them in terms of strategy, which always leads to something else. When talking about art which is about politics, which is probably something like 90% of what political art is, vs. political art, which is something that actually transforms politics. What we are into doing is having people ask themselves, “What do I want to have happen?” and then ask, “Will my work do that?”
We developed a training program for grassroots organizers, and we go around the country, and tried to get them to think and to tap into their creativity, and how they can use creativity, arts, aesthetic criteria, in their own activist work. It has been really successful, people like doing it, but it is our conceit that we essentially live in an aestheticized age, that we live in a time of signs and symbols, stories and spectacles, and unless you can speak like that then you are basically rendered mute. Activists get that, they might not know how to do it, but they get it.
BV: How does your curriculum change for the specific location, or what differences have arisen from different places?
SD: That is a great question. The cool thing about our method is that unlike if we were to teach legal strategies or electoral strategies, where we would essentially be experts, flying in from New York, and saying “Here is the legal system, here is what you need to do, and bingo, you’ll have it.” There are plenty of legal consultants to do that. When we fly into Texas, the first question that we ask when we do this brainstorming work is, “What are the local cultural conditions?” That is, we don’t know the signs, symbols, stories, and spectacles that will work there.
SL: Yeah, we can’t go to North Carolina and say, “Here is what you’ve got to do.”
SD: They have to tell us, and that is what is cool about it because basically, they are the ones with the reservoir of knowledge, because they live within this culture, and they actually know what people like and what they don’t like. So, usually we would be… terrified. We’re terrified to fly into Southern Africa and talk with healthcare workers, we have no idea what the issues are, we have no idea what their cultural landscape is, but because of our methodology we’re like, “Explain it to us, help us map out what the cultural terrain is and how we can use these symbols.”
BV: That’s interesting because at the Creative Time Summit, Žižek asked the audience, “is it your impression that there is a global left that knows what it wants?” The Center’s principles speak of an idea of utopia as a direction, instead of a destination. Could you expand on your moral leanings?
SD: No we have no morality. (Laughter)
SL: Well we don’t say, “In order for us to work with you, you must agree with these certain politics that we share,” or “everyone must be on board with this certain path.” Our thing is more, that there will be this diversity of tactics, right? I mean we choose the people we work with but what we choose is often based on things like, how boring the project they are working on is. For instance, we are really excited to work on problems like tax issues, which are so boring we feel like we can do the most for them. But early on we said we aren’t going to do anything with corporations.
But there are all kinds of people around that are doing good work, stuff that needs to get done. In North Carolina, the big issue there is basically there is a really wealthy guy that is railroading all of this policy that is going to re-segregate schools there. They call it neighborhood schools, so there we think that’s a problem too and we are going to help them with that, and really not just think through how we protect these schools and stop this from happening, but what do we really want for an education system, what would total victory look like? And go really far with that so instead of only working against something they have their own vision.
SD: I think this is key, because I think the easiest way to understand what we do is that we help people on a tactical front. We make your protest look better, make your communications read better, we help you to essentially attract as opposed to alienate, and people get that. That is something that is easy to explain and we have lots of examples of people doing great work right here. The more difficult but also the more exciting stuff we do is how to get people to think creatively about strategy and goal setting.
Steve put his finger on it, the goals of these exercises is to get people to imagine a utopia, whatever their utopia might be. Then push them into a place where getting past an individual win of, “I want to stop this vote,” or, “I want to stop this policy,” but ask what is behind that? What is the emotional affective space in which you occupy or hope to occupy if you won absolutely everything?
Then we say, work back from that. Essentially this is something we saw from advertising, nobody actually sells toothpaste by saying, “Look, we are able to clean off 1.3% of plaque,” what they say is that you will inhabit this life where you are loved and people flock around your power and confidence if you use our toothpaste, and then of course, the toothpaste sells. That is unethical, no amount of toothpaste is going to get you that world.
Oftentimes activists start by trying to convince people to join in a campaign for these small small things. We say, “look people do not get involved in politics to change policy of A, B, or C, you didn’t get involved in politics to do that, you got involved in politics because you wanted to transform the world.” That vision of the world we try to get people to conjure up often cannot expressed by a rigid plan or one new policy, it is the arts that can actually tap into them.
SL: Going back to the Žižek quote: No, there isn’t an articulated vision of the left and a plan, and I don’t know how much we can expect that without having a party that is controlling, but there are a lot of people with similar visions of where we can go. People often don’t do a great great job of thinking through what it is that we really want, and so I think a big part of what Steve and I do in these workshops, and just talking to people too, is getting them to thinking through that part of what a victory for them really is and what it looks like. Once you have that in mind you can work towards it.
SD: And then building that dream backwards, so that every tactic one employs has a kernel of that vision that remains, which makes sense in a string of tactics which you have to put together to form a strategy. Often what happens with these tactics is that they become a sort of one-off, where someone has an idea, and then they put forth another idea, and another idea, and there is no real linkage that sort of builds towards anything. When we say utopia is a direction not a destination, we mean it, it gives you a direction in campaigning that helps you put the pieces together.
When we do this exercise where we get them to imagine what a win would look like, we get to this awkward emotional moment where people will often choke up, and start to cry, because what they’ve imagined is what they have not allowed themselves to imagine. Because they are in this workaday world, they have forgotten why they had gotten involved.
It’s not that I have a moral problem telling people what to do, if anyone listened to me I’d be fine with that, okay? But the fact is that they don’t listen, and also, that model brings with it, whether we think about it or not, a model of politics which is not the model of politics we want to endorse. We do believe in democracy, however quaint that is. If we believed in authoritarianism we wouldn’t have a problem with it, but how does someone who thinks of themselves as a progressive activist can embrace that model is beyond me.
BV: I was thinking about this quote from Albert Einstein, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” I thought this might be a really applicable rationale for marrying art with activism.
SL: Well I think that’s one strategy. With the capitalism sign, I think it works because with that topic, people have an especially hard time thinking of any other kind of world existing besides it. But that doesn’t doesn’t always work. Like we were saying before, we can’t go to a place and say what they have to do.
In some places people are more ready for an idea. In North Carolina, to go back to the example of the re-segregating the schools, a lot of people knew that was what was happening, maybe it hadn’t been framed that way for them, but the work wasn’t in having them imagine this other way. It was in realizing the change that was happening and also what was possible, and then beyond that; how do we work towards that. Because there were some immediate threats it was a different sort of situation.
In the workshops we do we use what I call lenses to look at a problem or issue so they show you different things. These come from sociology, from theory we pull from, but also other realms like health marketing, like how do you get someone to wear their seatbelt or get a regular check up? You can use these types of tools and focus them on schools in North Carolina and realize that there is a big chunk of people who are ready to do something but they don’t know what they can do to stop this.
So instead of imagining something else, it becomes providing this tool, an action, a focus point, or something. This is when every situation, every location, every person is different, and when you give them these tools they can come up with some solutions themselves. My hope is that when we leave, this process, these tools and lenses that we leave behind, they still have that and they can re-apply that as the situation continues to change.
SD: Steve might not agree with me on this, I actually think we do have one general idea on how the arts and activism work, and I think it is really based on that we believe a good piece of art, like good activism, opens up spaces as opposed to occupies space. A lot of both political art as well as political activism tells people what to think, and then when they don’t agree with them, they just say it louder, and louder, and louder.
We really believe in creating situations, creating spaces, creating works that actually get people to look at things differently and to open up the space for dialogue and action. Good political art doesn’t tell you what to think, that is what Steve and I call political expressionism, where it says, “I’m so angry! This is what I think!” We are much more interested in work like Steve’s capitalism sign, which gets people to stop and ask, “Well, does it work for me? Does it not work for me? How does it work?
BV: Do you stay in contact with the people you have worked with all over the country?
SL: Yeah, and that is a big part of what we are doing this year. We realized that needed to be a big part of what we do because we hold a pretty high bar for ourselves. What was nice about North Carolina was there was actually a group that retaught the whole thing as best as they could remember to another group of activists. That is exactly the kind of thing that we want.
Now we are trying to make a post-workshop alumni group where they’re meeting on a regular basis to critique each other and help each other be more successful and support the ideas. Sometimes they will go back to their organization with a street theater idea, and the people in the organization have no clue about what they’re talking about. The activists know how it will, but to have another group of people who can support those ideas are critical.
BV: Could you talk about a project that was really successful, either while you were there or after you had left, and some specific tactics used and some metrics that proved the success?
SD: Well, we will tell you one that we love but hasn’t been implemented yet. We have this exercise where we get people to do three different paths, we have their goal up one side, and where we are on the other side of the paper, and we ask them to do three things: One is, we get them to do their normal organizing path, how to get to that goal. Because these guys are experienced organizers they can do this stuff in their sleep. Then we say, “Okay, now suspend the laws of gravity, common sense, budget, be crazy, be ridiculous. How would you get to that same goal?”
We ended up doing this in Texas around redistributing the budget, boring stuff, and one of the groups of organizers had in their sort of magical path, the reappearance of Jesus Christ. Basically Jesus came back and solved all of their problems for them. The third path we asked them to do is what we call the ‘Creative Path,’ which is to combine the two into a realistic but fantastical approach.
It was mainly Latino organizers working in Latino neighborhoods, and one of the campaigns they came up with, by an organizer whose name was actually Jesus, was to petition for him to run for the up and coming governor’s race as Jesus. Maybe ask him to grow his beard and hair a little longer, maybe wear some flowy white shirts, and engage in the debates entirely in the persona as Jesus. Use Biblical language, quote scripture, talk about what is morally right and wrong, and use the slogan “What Would Jesus Do?”
Using this idea puts right wing politicians who are arguing for cutting budgets, and cutting tax for the rich in the name of Christianity really on the spot. Because if you start quoting scripture for that [cutting taxes for the rich] you are on pretty weak grounds. It was that moment of the absurd being married with the practical and coming up with this creative campaign. Now, they haven’t done it yet, but we hope they actually do.
BV: Can you talk about the differences between your web presence, the book you are writing, and your very locationally specific work? So much is moving entirely online now, could you talk about your decision to use all three, but emphasize the physical presence?
SL: I don’t think we could do what we are trying to do entirely online. Also, we are both teachers, I teach at SUNY Purchase and Steve teaches at NYU, maybe this is something you see in universities, but we’re always being asked if there is a way to move a course online, because it would be cheaper. And, I’ve just never seen it work as well as being in the room.
SD: And so much of the work that we do is really in dialogue and brainstorming with the people in the room. The big thing that we do is to give people the permission to brainstorm, and be silly, and be creative, and to tap into parts of their lives that they usually segment away from their political lives. I can’t imagine that working online because it really is about the creative group process.
It is not just a set of skills and, “Fill out this, fill out that.” When we do this book we’re kind of being forced into that model, but it’s never going to be a replacement for being in the environment. We ask people to leave their cities and we usually have a retreat outside, to sequester and brainwash them over the course of a couple of days. [laughs] It’s really about building a sort of community as well.
SL: Yeah, and we have realized in the last two months actually that this is a big limitation… I mean we reach like 75 people a year, maybe, doing it this way. But the quality of that is so great, so we are trying to think about ways to increase the number of people in the workshops. Also, the book is a big part of that; getting that information out, and the interviews we’re publishing.
SD: And all of the curriculum is going up online. So people can download it. And it is going up in iterations, so you can basically do the Austin workshop, the Houston, or the Boston workshop. Which changes over time. So while we reach these 75 people we are hoping to do transformative work, where then those 75 people go back to their host organizations and spread it that way.
SL: Our goal really is to make ourselves obsolete. And to change the tone of activism on a really broad scale, to where people think of activism as a cultural activity.
BV: Steve, in your most recent video, I saw you talking about this struggle between existing as an political activist and as a gallery artist. Who are these mega-wealthy buyers? How do you navigate that space, and is that even an ethical space to be working within? You seemed a little conflicted about that.
SL: I was until I figured out, I mean I didn’t want to do a show until I figured out how I could navigate that. I felt like I did it in a way that worked for me, with the amount of information that I have, but you know, we will see what happens. Realizing that this is an audience that I can talk to, that I have an opportunity here, a voice, and it is my work so I can do whatever I want, you know?
It is definitely a different skill that I can keep sharp, this aesthetic part of making objects, and a different use of my brain, and I just try to balance all of those things. But I think part of what you might be asking, is can you do both of these things? One of the things that keeps people from doing this kind of work is feeling like they have to do all or nothing. That feeling of like, if I am an activist, or if I commit to this one thing, someone is going to call me out as being a hypocrite.
BV: Yeah, like now you have to be vegan and also drive a hybrid.
SL: Yeah, and walk to work barefoot. And it just goes on and on to a point where you cannot live that way. So we are all trying to find a way of living in 2012 in a way where we feel comfortable. You know, part of what I have talked about for a long time and what is part of this workshop, is realizing that people live in the United States in 2012 and have lives. So, part of the reason they might not be at your march is they had to go to the soccer game.
SD: We always recall that Bertolt Brecht wrote an essay I think in 1926 where he called out his fellow theater folks for promoting the fact that people would rather go to the soccer matches than see his avant-garde theater, and his response was, “Maybe we should make our avant-garde theater a little bit more like soccer matches.” His point was not to pander to the lowest common denominator, but that you can learn from these things. He ends the essay by saying, look, you have got to sail with the wind in your sails, it can’t be tomorrow’s wind, or some imaginary wind, it must be the wind of today. What you do once you have that wind in your sails, whether you tack left or drive right is up to you, but without any wind, you’re going nowhere.
That is our idea as well, we take these workshops on Saturday night, and we go to some cultural activity. Now, you ask a group of Leftists what they are going to do for their cultural activity and we will end up going to some vegan restaurant where we end up doing some craft work or something. But we say we take them to see Batman in IMAX. One or two of them will be really excited and then there are some who don’t know what that is, who have never seen an IMAX before, or who have never been to a Batman movie.
Our point is, look, you don’t have to like this stuff, but to be an activist in 2012 and not going to see blockbuster movies is not doing your homework. You’ve got to be able to use this vocabulary, use the spectacular vernacular, because if you don’t, nobody is going to understand you except you and your small group of friends.
SL: So, going back, that all or nothing idea is in a way destroying activism, because you get people who are completely isolated from the regular culture, or carry so much guilt, that it becomes impossible to live that way and impossible to relate to other people who don’t.
BV: At the Creative Time Summit, Leonidas Martin, said activism has to be easy, and fun.
SD: Leo! Yeah, he is our European ambassador, he is an old friend.
BV: Yeah, well his actions looked like a party that I wanted to go to. But I heard a lot of people uncomfortable with the idea of having fun while confronting these serious matters.
SD: Well, there are very few active activists who will actually take issue with that sort of thing. If it’s not fun, you know what? People aren’t coming.
There is a thing in social theory called prefigurative politics, which is, you have to prefigure the politics you want in your actions into the present. I mean we use the word demonstration all of the time, but what are we really demonstrating? Half the time what we are demonstrating is how not to have fun, how to get beaten over the head by police, and how to be basically powerless. That is not a demonstration, a demonstration should be demonstrating the world we want to bring into being.
SL: But also, one of the things we’ve been talking about is that you kind of have to live like you have already won. If you’re not embodying what it’s like to live in that world and be that victory, how do you bring people along in the process? Leo is just embodying that.
BV: Lastly, I wanted to see what advice you have to somebody who wants to help but is unfamiliar with activism?
SL: One, I think is throw out the all or nothing idea, and just think about doing something. Then it can be a part of your life. That you don’t have to become a different person. One that I have found myself saying a lot actually, is that raising awareness as a goal is selling yourself short. Raising awareness is the low-hanging fruit, especially for artists. If you have any kind of fluency in any medium, then you know how to get people’s attention. What do you want to do once you have that attention?
SD: Taking the first step is critical, and just freeing yourself up to fail, is a really big thing, because you are probably going to fail, and that is okay. What we do is try again, fail differently and better. The idea of just go out and do something, get a bunch of people together and do something, we can do more than we actually think. Just like how you don’t have to be the complete utter activist, never wearing leather, not every action has to do with everything. But be aware of what it does do, and if you want it to do more, take the next action and do that a little more. Just do it.
SL: Some of it is, you are going to die. The time and energy you have in the world is limited. The idea of wanting to change everything just leads to burnout. Don’t go insane. Figure out how you can be most effective, because you don’t have limitless amounts of energy and time. So how can you take the little bit that you have and leverage it? Like Leo said, do less.
SD: But in the same time as you do those little acts, allow yourself to dream the world that you want to bring in. It is that dialogue, or dialectic you have between your huge vision, and the small creative act, you have to keep those in tension all of the time. Antonio Gramsci, when asked, “What does it take to be an activist?” said, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” These things have to happen at the same time. You have to put yourself in the space of what this utopia would be like, but also do something today.
BV: Any big things on the horizon for you guys?
SD: Well we have the book, but we are trying these different formats, to see what works and what doesn’t. Most of our work has been in these two and a half day workshops, but we’re actually working with a public high school to do a workshop about alternative activism. We’re going to be meeting with organizers with the Work Life Coalition, to do a four hour workshop for 100 people, we usually cap at 17. Some of them aren’t going to work and we’re going to fail, but we are excited about the possibilities of reaching out to different groups and different people.
BV: Great well thank you both for taking the time to talk with me, it’s been a pleasure.
SD: Of course, it’s been great.
SL: Yeah, thanks, see you later.