Monday, January 8, 2018

Effective use of art and aesthetic methods in activism by Mary Jo Aagerstoun

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by Mary Jo Aagerstoun

Why is it, I wonder, that activist art is so often seen as limited to posters or demonstration props? There is a rich tradition of art for activism reaching back to ancient history’s processions and spectacles. The common denominator is a “pattern language” consisting of flexible, interlinked tools that allow practitioners to apply them in unique ways in different situations. 

Essentially, activist art is analogous to theater. The process includes coming up with the central idea, creating a story, developing a script, rounding out the key roles and the responsibilities of those “playing” them, casting for the roles, rehearsals, costume, prop and scene design and making. Artists must be engaged with every stage of the process of creating activist art, not just called on at the last minute to come up with a well-designed logo, banner or puppet. And, all of this must be done in conjunction with the advocates and specialists with deep knowledge of the subject. 

In our current (2017) situation and going forward, I hope it is clear that not only are activist interventions that apply great aesthetics needed, they are required. We need actions that continue, expand, and localize mobilizations (like the current RESIST actions across the country) with indelible images that burn into the public consciousness. We need actions that amplify the warnings from our scientists, back up the legal strategies of advocates, and are based in careful forethought and planning. It will not be enough for our actions addressing the rapidly morphing political threats attacking from all sides, to pursue unvarying strategies. We must be prepared with a toolkit of diverse methods and a tactical mindset. 

And, artists themselves must have courage. Even when not engaging activist art practice, most artists today feel their precarity, marginalization and vulnerability daily. 

So, what would such a truly effective use of art and aesthetic methods in activism look like? Some great ones are in my 2015 essay for Love the Everglades Movement: 

 And, here are a few more of my favorites: --the now venerable Guerrilla Girls. Sometimes it is crucial to hide your true identity. Many artists fear engaging in high profile activist art interventions, and for very good reasons. Artists who act outside the gallery and museum on controversial issues of importance are under suspicion and attack both inside and outside the art world. The identity of the GGs is by now, three decades on, a public secret. Largely because, in 2017 their popularity has not waned, and they exhibit and perform activism across the planet. 

--Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping choir. Definitely not Guerrilla, this band of pranksters have, since 1999, skillfully deployed humor, irony and music to bring the sordid activities of corporations and academia to light. Viz this superb action “exorcising” the robobee at Harvard University a couple of years ago. 

Natalie Jeremijenko’s “Art of the Eco-Mindshift.”. The project of hers I love best is the X Clinic in which Dr. J (an engineer and an artist who teaches at NYU), sets up her clinic in high traffic areas, inviting passersby into an “environmental diagnosis” in which the “clinicians” hear out the issue the person is most concerned about, then writes a “prescription” for action s/he can take. Dr. J says: “We work with IMpatients rather than PATIENTS!” A frequent prescription is urban farming Dr. J calls the FARMacy. Truly worth it to catch Dr. Jeremijenko’s TED talk 

Mary Jo Aagerstoun has studied a lot of activist art history and theories of cultural activism. She enjoys brainstorming with likeminded folk on how to get epic stuff out there that can change the way things are. She lives and schemes in West Palm Beach, FL. See her on Facebook, or contact her at:

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