Image: George Grosz, Pandemonium (1914). India Ink on Paper: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/9e/94/c6/9e94c626c1412e97733c42da07e23f9c.jpg
On December 14th 2016, I was fortunate enough to attend the Art Activism short course at Autograph ABP with two of my fellow Shades’ members Tiffany and Charisse.
While Brexit was horrifying–and arguably will cause longer term damage to the institutions and ‘values’ upheld by Great Britain–it was the election of Donald Trump that motivated us to attend the course. This year has brought a global sea of change–and not the progressive kind. Change that moves retroactively. Towards division, hatred, bigotry, greed, racism, misogyny, money, corporations–and the blatant rejection of knowledge.
So what is the role of the artist? Some of the discussions we had at Shades of Noir were around practical change. And although Tiff, Charisse and I are all trying to incorporate social justice into our studies, our artistic practice, and our work with Shades of Noir–we are hungry to learn new ways of applying our knowledge in a way that can be of practical use. What do I mean by practical use? I’m not exactly sure. I think it comes down to being useful. In less than a month, a demagogue will be president of the United States–some would say ‘leader of the free-world’. Resistance to his tyranny has to be systematic, well organised, focused, and perhaps most of all (I believe) it has to be collaborative.
The short course was at its best during discussions around either examples of ‘Art Activism’ from the past that we can learn from, like the ‘Rock Against Racism’ movement–or in debate over our current climate: what are we to do now? What obstacles are unique to our era? Our generation? My background is in history, so I found discussion rooted in tangible examples of past or present to be most productive–the most focused in the every-day obstacles and every day benefits we need to deal with. This is in contrast with more theoretical discussion that I can find overly-intellectual at this point in time. Personally, I’m less interested in debating hypotheticals and abstracts–and more concerned with how I can be most effective.
I may be biased, but I was grateful for the time the course gave me with my fellow members of Shades. Tiff put it best when we were discussing Art and Activism when she described it as a form of intersectionality. It’s difficult to delineate where the art begins and the activism ends when a project, piece, movement, book, artefact and individual operate in the true spirit of ‘Art Activism’.
One of my biggest frustrations with the course is, in many ways, my own fault. I found it limiting to discuss Art Activism surrounded by the four white walls of the gallery. I’ve just finished a Masters course at Central Saint Martins that has pushed me out into the world more than ever before for my research and for my practice–and I’ve found it to be a transformative way of learning and understanding systems, people, and places. At this point–if I’m going to really learn about how to create Art Activism as a form of resistance–I think I need to continue to educate myself with certain reading–but even more importantly I want to learn by doing.
At this point, maybe that means trying to become involved with more organisations or a collective who are using their work as a change-agent–shadowing and learning from first-hand experience. Or it means being even bolder with my own work–pushing out further into environments that do not agree with the kind of work I am doing. What this last year has demonstrated–so painfully–is the deep divisions in both my home country and the country I’ve made a home. Can art transcend certain divides? I don’t know. I don’t know if I can claim lasting positive change or transformation at least in the work I’m doing. But I think the process of doing it–particularly when it is collaborative—when it draws on different voices–when it seeks to undermine systems and individuals of oppression–can be of real transformative use. A group of new people in a room discussing issues is a start–but action is the crucial next step.