“In the art world, it is individuals who are recognized, not collectives. John Cage is lauded in the art world, but how many can rattle off the names of those people involved in an art collective like Fluxus?”—Stephen Duncombe

Stephen Duncombe + Steve Lambert: Center for Artistic Activism / New York NY

“in the art world, it is individuals who are recognized, not collectives. john cage is lauded in the art world, but how many can rattle off the names of those people involved in an art collective like fluxus?”—stephen duncombe

Why do we need to teach activist art collaboration today?
There are really two questions rolled into one here, so to separate them out:

1) Why teach activist art? We think activist artistic techniques, practices, and perspectives are uniquely valuable in engaging the highly mediate terrain in which much of activism currently takes place. We often use this explanation: The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage. Today’s political topography is one of signs and symbols, stories and spectacles. This is a landscape that artists have been operating on for millennia, and therefore, if activists want to learn to use it to their advantage, they need to learn from the arts.

2) Why do it collaboratively? Because social change does not come through the actions of one person, no matter how powerful, charismatic, or creative they are. Change comes through collective action—people working together to take on powers that be and create alternatives. Artistic activism is no different.

Steve Lambert (L) + Stephen Duncombe (R)

photo: patricia jerido

courtesy of steven duncombe

Why do you think collaboration is the answer to making art, design, ideas, or work in general relevant and receptive?
Ideas and creativity, no matter what romantic visions we may have of being inspired by the divine Muses, really come through sharing ideas: putting one idea up against another, and coming up with new combinations of ideas. This is the foundation of the collaborative process. The more input there is, the more creative and innovative ideas and actions that follow from them are. That said, there is a moment when that plethora of voices and ideas need to be organized and operationalized. This calls for another form of collaboration: working together to meld the disparate ideas into one practice or action.

How does activism facilitate collaboration and vice versa?
Again, there is really no such thing as an effective individual activist. Activism, in order to work, counts on the mobilization of a multitude of people. One can be a dictator, we suppose, and order people to act together—and certainly this is what the “creative activists” of the Nazi party did—but if you believe in democracy, as we do, then collective action entails participation and collaboration. Duncombe describes this as “ethical spectacle” in his book DREAM.

How does humor facilitate smart, activist, collaborative work?
If a comic tells a joke in the woods and there is no one around to laugh, then she or he is not funny. That is to say: a comic needs an audience. The power of comedy is that it takes two or more for it to work; comedy is a failure if no one laughs. This is what makes comedy so powerful, or so painful; if there is no connection between the comic and the audience, then the whole enterprise fails. This collaborative relationship is particularly important when using satire or irony. In this form of comedy, the comic suggests the opposite of what she intends, and leaves it up to the audience to fill in the blank in order to “get” the intended message. It is truly a collaboration. It’s no coincidence that irony and satire are the forms of humor most often used by activists.

How does the Center for Artistic Activism select students/groups?
It depends. When we are able to get our own funding from outside sources, we have an application process, and we pick people to participate depending upon a few criteria: Do we think the group will work together after the training is done? Do we feel they are open to new ideas and new ways of doing activism or art? And, do we think they would benefit from the training? When we have outside funding, it allows us the luxury of working with groups that otherwise could not have access to a training like ours, for example, undocumented youth immigration activists in South Texas, women whose children have been incarcerated in East Texas, LGBTQ and Roma rights activists in Macedonia, or AIDS and maternal rights activists in East Africa.

Other times, we are contacted by groups who want us to train them—Pro-Democracy activists in Scotland who are facing a vote on independence from the UK, or Russian artists in St Petersburg, for example. With these groups, we have less control over who shows up, so we make a determination on whether we think the issue, or population, is something we want to work with.

Why do you think non-art/design students are particularly receptive to design collaboration?
Generally speaking, artists have been trained, both in art schools and through the culture at large, to think of themselves as special, individual, and cut-off from society. The image of the lonely artist high up in a garret painting away, caring little about what the world thinks, looms large in every artist’s imagination. There are also real, material constraints in many of the arts that lead toward isolationism; writing and painting are largely individual acts. In the art world, it is individuals who are recognized, not collectives. John Cage is lauded in the art world, but how many can rattle off the names of those people involved in an art collective like Fluxus? We’ve found that artists often have very deep-seated ambivalence, at best, antipathy, at worst, collaboration.

There are exceptions, of course; artists active in theatre and film have to think in terms of collaboration, as their medium necessitates it.

Arts Action Academy at Portland State University 2014

photo: steve lambert

courtesy of steven duncombe

What comprises a good activist art collaborative? Examples?
Some of the exercises we do in our trainings are pretty good examples. We do one we call “creative mapping.” Participants are divided into groups, and each group comes up with an issue they want to work on. They are given markers and large pieces of paper and told to draw a picture—no words—of the current state of their issue. In the opposite corner, they are asked to draw their dream, the ultimate win. Then they are asked to draw three paths, from the present to the future, but drawing only one at a time. The first path is Activism-as-Usual: information tables, petitions, marches, lobbying, etc. The second path is Utopian, where money, politics, person-power, and even the laws of physics don’t apply. The third path is the Creative, in which they must merge the two previous models, finding a way to make the impossible possible. Once done, groups present their maps and take comments and suggestions.

The exercise makes the point that creative activism involves a modulation between the utopian and the practical, but it also demonstrates the importance of creative play and impossible thinking in opening up new approaches and ideas. The idea, and ideal, is that these exercises only work as collaborative exercises, both within the smaller groups, but also within the larger group, during presentations. By asking people to propose absurd ideas, it forces the group to work together to reason through what is possible.

How do you teach artists/designers/activists to organize themselves effectively?
We’ve found that the easiest way to have people organize themselves effectively is to set a goal, create a framework within which to reach that goal, and then let them organize themselves. This is one of the reasons why we teach “Activism 101” to artists we work with in the Art Action Academy. This is a quick course on how to run a campaign, and the component parts: Tactics, Objectives, Strategy, and Goals. By taking them through how a campaign works, and then planning a complete, creative, activist campaign with them at the end of the training, we create a framework within which collaboration is expected, yet also has a direction.