Gloves Off Arts Activism

“If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it.” ~ Art Buchwald.

That’s one of the things that has long concerned me about many of the environmental organizations we have supported for years. Example: the beautiful Nature Conservancy magazines that arrive every month with their gorgeous covers, great writing and photography.  You can’t help but get an impression of a polite, established organization dedicated to conserving pristine swathes of nature for those who have the time and money to enjoy them. This is far from the whole truth, of course, but by its own definition, TNC prefers “non-confrontational, pragmatic solutions” over, say, dressing up in a gorilla suits and scaling a wall to protest rain forest destruction in Indonesia, a Green Peace stunt that caused giant Nestlé to reconsider where it accesses palm oil for its popular KitKat brand.

From my perspective, we need it all, the whole shebang of responses to avoid a continued mismatch between the urgency of the planetary crisis and what can be done to arrest the worst impacts on species, including us. Which is why kudos to the Sierra Club Loxahatchee Group for inviting two local arts activists to show and tell about Artful Activism for Pro-Environment Community Engagement. The event at the Jupiter Library last Saturday morning deserved a larger audience. But what it lacked in size it made up for in age-diversity and enthusiasm, and I left with a sense that we might all access our inner artist, and/or support the professionals in their efforts, to reach people emotionally. And while we’re at it, let’s broaden the definition of art to include poetry, spoken word, improv, street theater, and more, to arrest the slide to ecocide we are currently headed for.  Here’s a model: Eve Ensler’s one-woman show, The Vagina Monologues, has morphed into an international V-Day movement to end violence against women.  Clearly, it has a long way to go. The epidemic of domestic abuse currently in the news is a sign that facts alone are not going to get us where we live.

My friend and colleague, Mary Jo Aagerstoun of EcoArt South Florida, led off with a slide of the Stone Crab Alliance which, that very afternoon (October 18) marched on Gov. Rick Scott mansion in Tampa, brandishing banners that read: It’s All About Our Water.  Founded seven years ago, EcoArt SF aims to integrate and infuse art into sustainability strategies: “Art and science, as twin knowledge forms, must be tapped in tandem to create the wisdom, and activate hope, that underpins sustainability.” See an example of ‘social sculpture’ by Jackie Brookner at Elders Cove, West Palm Beach, and click the link to find drip-mist-2 (1)out more about the organization’s goals and projects.

Dr. Aagerstoun then showed slides of other groups that are using art activism in their communities, many of them examples of exactly the kind of prankish, gloves-off approach that Green Peace favors in its campaigns. Two resonated especially strongly with me (see the list at the end of this post for more).
The Illuminator’s mission is to “smash the myths of the information industry and shine a light on the urgent issues of our time.” During the recent People’s Climate March weekend in New York City, it projected this glowing message #FloodWallStreet Stop Capitalism! End the Climate Crisis! on the side of a building.  I also love the BackBone Campaign and supported their work for the People’s Climate March with a donation. Their mission is “to train progressive activists and organizations nationwide who are working toward human dignity, environmental sustainability and peace.”

Next up, visual artist and research biologist Diane Arrieta, with examples of her work which “illustrates the links between biodiversity (including endangered species), healthy ecosystems and human health.” Like street artist and activist, Banksy, Diane uses available exterior walls as a canvas for her stunning murals. If you can get this image out of your mind, you’re more organized (or is it Little Panda 2distracted?) than I. While Miami is a public space art-friendly city, Arrieta has found that getting permission is no easy task in some municipalities. I cannot imagine my hometown allowing public buildings to be used for art activism of this cutting-edge kind.  But maybe no one has put it to the test.  If people we elect to serve our needs fail to grasp the connection between a healthy ecosystem and the wellbeing of our cities and citizens, what is the point of clean, tree-lined streets, top-notch schools, and excellent sports facilities?   Join the Scouts’ beach cleanup by all means,  but first do everything possible to ensure that there will be a beach for us and our children.

The Sierra Club audience was more eager to share ideas than talk about their response to the art, per se, but you could read that as a sign that we intuitively ‘got’ how powerful and edgy arts activism could be, and were already thinking about ways around roadblocks and new forms of expression. Why not more artists-in-residence so they are paid for their work? Why not students teaching their peers? Why stop at buildings and overpasses?  Why not project messages on clouds? How about a more mobile form of message delivery where by the time someone complains, the show has moved on? How about peel-off art activism decals with potent images and messages for our homes and/or cars? Why not? Michael Moore, move over.

More resources from the presentation:

Beautiful Trouble — A Toolbox for Revolution

The Yes Men

Raging Grannies

Living Planet Report — “…not for the faint-hearted.”

Overpass Light Brigade

Rude Mechanical Orchestra

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