“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is — it’s to imagine what is possible.”Bell Hooks
Artivism is made up of two words: ART + ACTIVISM and I’ve been fascinated by the term since I heard of it. Art has always played a vital role in expressing messages of freedom, revolution, and creativity about global issues. It has the power to transform through communicating ideas of hope and transformation in digestible ways.
Activism describes activities carried out by groups or organisations with specific aims to achieve political, social, or environmental change. Bringing them together, for me, conjures up exciting prospects and the idea that the process of change can be engaging!
The origins of Artivism were in a gathering in 1987 between Chicano/ Chicana (Mexican American) artists from East Los Angeles and the Zapatistas (Mexican liberation group for land reform) from Chiapas, Mexico. The words “Artivist” and “Artivism” were made popular through a variety of artworks, actions, and events by musicians and artists at the time in East Los Angeles.
In more recent years artivism developed as part of antiwar, and anti-globalisation protests. Artivists are changemakers; they are disrupters, visionaries, storytellers, and experimenters that attempt to engage creativity for change.
The media used for their work is wide-ranging including film and music, street art, spoken word, protesting, culture jamming (the creation of images or practices that force the viewer to question the status quo), and subvertising (parodies of corporate and political advertisements).
Some artivists that you may have heard of include Ai Wei Wei, Banksy, Bordalo, The Yes men, and Extinction rebellion.
What I notice about this kind of work, street art, street theatre, graffiti, interactive installations, and activism that invites participation and experience, is that can capture our imagination and move us!
I love how it causes me to pause and reflect on issues in new ways. Sometimes I can find my brain jumping somersaults to understand what I am experiencing and I realise that the understanding lies in my body and my heart. I feel a childlike sense of amazement when I realise that I see/understand in a new way!
So it is with this capacity to see with new eyes and experience with our bodies and hearts that I would like to describe ways artivism can support you in your changemaking work — whatever that may be.
1 Push boundaries
Artivism can free our imagination and expand or alter our perception of what is possible. At times it grabs our attention and can jolt us into a new way of seeing the world.
This has the capacity to bring us (individually and collectively) back to a different way of understanding our relationship with particular issues. It can remind us that there are different ways to look at your messages and how to express them.
2 Move beyond dialogue
It is important to talk. Artivism engages the head, hand, and heart and in so doing moves us beyond dialogue and engages us via physical and emotional experience, opening us up to new possibilities for answers and ways to move forward.
This idea of Introducing different ways to connect through the head, heart, and hand can be particularly effective and helpful if you work with groups. Through games, movement, theatre, music can build connection, rapport, spark fun and creative interactions without dialogue.
3 Invite participation
There is a huge amount to be gained with regards to expanding the understanding of issues from inviting participation with your audience/ community.
Participation allows for a new understanding of issues, it is a means for stakeholders to feel heard, igniting lines of communication, building trust, and opening new possibilities for collaborative solutions.
Consider how your message can be received by the relevant stakeholders that you are serving (community members, the general public, etc). In what ways can they be actively involved in various stages of your projects — for research, preparation, creative input, feedback, etc that could potentially enrich the experience for everyone?
4 Transform environment and experience
A wonderful example of this kind of transformation is in Rob Hopkin’s book “From What is to what if” where Transition Town Tooting used a small amount of funding to create the Tooting Twirl. This was a project where the community turned a tarmac-covered bus turning circle into a village green for the day by placing down grass and inviting market stalls. It altered people’s experience of the place and gave them a sense of how it could be different. [For more lovely details listen here]
You can think about how you can transform a space or a place to create an experience for stakeholders. This is an amazing way to capture attention, inspire, bring people on a journey, etc and it can be done with simple materials and a lot of fun!
5 Reveal reality
Artivism makes the invisible visible: visualising or performing a truth that would otherwise remain hidden. This is done to powerful effect in the work of the Yes men who, through culture jamming (as seen in their films) use “humour and trickery to highlight the corporate takeover of society, the neoliberal delusion that allows it, the corporate Democrats’ responsibility for our current situation…”
In your work, you might not have the budget to make a film but this can be done in subtle ways using comedy or satire through the use of theatre, installation, street art, or performance and creating digital art or animated responses.
6 Encourage experimentation
From looking at the array of creative responses engaged through Artivism there is huge scope for inspiration and experimentation.
You don’t have to initiate a big project or a grand event. Simple steps can be taken to experiment a little and learn from the results. You never know where it might lead. It is important to keep the ideas and concepts clear and simple.
7 Inspire dreaming
Artivism asks “What if?”. It helps us visualise an alternative world. This reminds us why we do the work we do – to create a better future for the coming generation and to create better ways of living.
Too often we can presume we know what the answer is or should be. It is healthy to get into the practice of allowing space for what is not yet known. Remember to include space for dreaming what is possible in the projects that you create. Allow a balance of suggestion and space for dreaming in your interactions with participants and stakeholders.
Take aways from an introduction to artivism
If you are interested in exploring Artivism as a means of supporting your work try to:
- Take time to look at very different projects and see alternative approaches.
- Give yourself some time to notice your responses to things you initially don’t like — let yourself define for yourself what it is that is causing the strong response rather than immediately rejecting something. Learning what does not resonate is as important as learning what does.
- It can be helpful to keep a file or a physical notebook or scrap book of projects that inspire you. They might be projects that are directly relevant to your work or might spark your imagination through how they are managed, carried out or what their affect is.
- Remember that you are creative in many myriad ways. There is no one way to create a project, it is a creative, learning, experiential process.
Preparation and planning
- Hold a clear intention.
- Assess the desired shift you want to see. Be clear about what defines success in this project and find a way of measuring it.
- Ensure that you clearly understand the issue at hand — research and prepare — a lack of understanding can undermine your cause.
- Be clear on your methods. It is important to critically assess your actions and reflect on them afterwards
- Remember that collaboration requires building good relationships.
- Take into account possible unintended or unanticipated effect that could occur in creating and carrying out the action: the challenges of new concepts through engagement or insufficient time, resources or man power. (Can art save us from bullshit? — Duncombe & Harrebye)
- Try to let go of expectations and open to be being surprised, inspired and awed.
- Engage wholeheartedly in the experience.
- Assess what worked and the measure of success.
- Assess how it could be done differently next time/next iteration.
I hope you gleaned some inspiration from this brief introduction to Artivism.
What aspects of these kinds of actions do you find challenging? What aspects do you find inspiring?
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. I am always happy to hear from you.
Wishing you a beautiful week.