Art and Social Movements

The Other Art History: An Interview with Nicolas Lampert (Part 1)

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of interviewing Nicolas Lampert, a long-time artist and activist working out of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Lampert was an early member of the Justseeds Artists Cooperative — a printmaking collective — and the author of the recent book, A People’s Art History of the United States (which I reviewed a while back.) We talked about the genesis of Justseeds, working with Howard Zinn, and what we can learn from history about the challenges and potential of harnessing the arts to social justice movements.

People's Art History book coverI was hoping you could start by telling me a little bit about your background, and how you ended up working in the area of art and social movements.

My art has been aligned with activism since the early 1990s when I moved from Michigan to Oakland, California in my early twenties. My time in the Bay Area was an awakening period for me. It awakened me to so many activist campaigns and issues. It was a point of no going back. Once I learned about all these issues and saw the power of movement culture it seemed natural to direct my visual art to the causes I believed in.

When I talk to a lot of cultural organizers and arts activists, a common theme is the struggle to combine arts and social justice work since, especially in this country, the two can feel very separate. What was the process like trying to bring together your visual arts work with activism?

Well, you’re right, art and social justice work are often presented as polar opposites. I grew up outside of Boston, and was never introduced to the idea that the two could merge. This might have been because I was not looking in the right places, but I certainly was not introduced to the idea of activist art in high school or college for that matter. I went through a fairly conventional art training that focused its attention toward the art world – the gallery and the museum as the only important places where art happened. The type of art that I wrote about in A People’s Art History was all but absent from my education. When it was presented it was often presented as significant politics, but art that was subpar and far below the quality of art found in the “art world.”

Judi Bari Poster by Nicolas Lampert, from the Celebrate People's History series

Judi Bari Poster by Nicolas Lampert, from the Celebrate People’s History series

I needed to go through a period of un-training myself. My education took a jump simply by living in the Bay Area. I was exposed to groups like Food Not Bombs, Cop Watch, spaces like the Long Haul, projects like Free Radio Berkeley, and hearing talks from people like Judi Bari. For three or four years I was just a sponge for all the activism in the Bay Area. I became disenfranchised from the “art world” and the type of art that had inspired me in the past. I became much more interested in underground music and began to really question if visual art would continue to be my focal point or not. Luckily, I was introduced to art that spoke to my concerns and the movements that I was participating in. I became more aware of the artists who produced World War III Illustrated. I started seeing the graphic work of John Yates pasted around the Bay Area and on album covers in the punk scene. This inspired me to put up my own images in the street and to merge more of my art with my politics.

My own work was still developing but I had a supportive community around me. I lived in a warehouse space that had shows every weekend — touring bands, film showings, art shows. We were around a host of really interesting people that were all becoming politicized and have gone on to do some really interesting work, people like Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson, people who were living out their politics on a daily basis. The bookend for that period for me was the WTO protests in Seattle — spending a week immersed in that, seeing the power of direct action and seeing the art that happened up there, like the work that David Solnit and others were doing in Art and Revolution.

Two years after Seattle I co-organized with Sue Simensky Bietila a traveling political art show called Drawing Resistance. It included 30-plus artists and traveled from city to city across North America for nearly a half decade. The model was based off a D.I.Y. punk-rock tour and building an underground network. The show began in Milwaukee and Sue and I then transported it to Chicago. The Chicago hosts then had autonomy to choose their own location for their show and have a local art component to accompany the traveling show. However, they had to then transport the artwork to the next city — Detroit. And then the Detroit hosts had to get the show to the next city down the road. This built an incredibly infrastructure and network, and that’s where I started to meet many of the artists that would become part of Justseeds.

Justseeds Artists' Coperative circa 2012

Justseeds Artists’ Coperative circa 2012

How did Justseeds come about?

It came about through mutual friendships and mutual respect for each other’s work. Josh MacPhee first started Justseeds in the late 1990s as a way to distribute radical art through the mail. He was distributing his own work, plus the Celebrate People’s History project that he still curates to this day. At the same time, he began reaching out to other artists whose work he admired and began distributing their work as well. After a while, Josh reached out to the folks in Clamor magazine who expanded the reach of his distro, but when Clamor went under, their assets and stock was seized and Josh found himself in major debt, with no way to distribute his work. So he reached out to 10 or 15 of his friends and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I want to turn Justseeds into a collective.” We launched Justseeds and it just amplified all of our practices. We now have 30 artists in Justseeds and are going on close to 10 years as a worker-run print cooperative.

Let’s turn to your book. What inspired you to write A People’s Art History of the United States?

I was directly inspired by Howard Zinn. I wouldn’t have written the book without his influence or direct guidance. I had read his book – A Peoples History of the United States — and was really surprised about how much I didn’t know, especially about the early labor movement. It really rekindled my interest in history and my interest in scholarship as a form of activism.

When I first started teaching at the college level in Milwaukee I wrote to him. I knew that he would speak in Madison a couple times a year, and I asked him if on one of his trips if he’d visit my classroom. He wrote back and said, “I’d love to, and I’ll be in town in a couple of months.” He noted that for it to work, I would have to pick him up in Madison and drive him to Milwaukee, which was pretty much too good to be true.

So a few weeks later I found myself driving down I-94 with Howard Zinn in the passenger seat en route towards my classroom. And during the whole ride he didn’t want to talk about himself. He wanted to know about what was going on in Milwaukee, about my interests, and about my teaching. So I talked to him about radical art, and the role of art in the anti-war movement, and by the end of that ride he basically said, “I initiated the People’s History series through The New Press and we are lacking a book on visual art. If your interested, send me a one page proposal for A People’s Art History and if I like your proposal I’ll put you in contact with my editor at The New Press.” This invitation propelled me on an eight-year project to research and write the book. Howard Zinn wasn’t my editor, but from time to time I would send him drafts, or send him emails, or call him up on the phone. It was inspiring, to say the least, to get feedback from Howard Zinn.

Click HERE to read Part 2 of my interview with Nicolas Lampert

Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy

This post is a review of the report Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy, from the Culture Group.

making waves coverFresh off the presses in 2014, we’ve got a new guide for organizers and activists interested in developing cultural strategies for social change. This one comes to us from The Culture Group, a collaborative of artists and social change experts committed to the idea that “there is no change without cultural change.” It’s a highly visual and readable look at the power of art and culture, and how to begin building partnerships between artists and organizers.

Making Waves uses the metaphor of an ocean wave to describe cultural change. Culture, they explain, is like the ocean: vast and ever-changing. It is all around us. Cultural strategy is about making waves in that ocean through the use of cultural practices and activities like art, media, sports, etc. — what they refer to as the “big tent of arts and culture.” Given how many definitions of culture are floating out there, this is a useful metaphor for re-imagining social change efforts, and one of the most accessible explanations of culture and social change that I have seen.

For the most part, this report is targeting organizers who may be skeptical of the importance of art and culture in social change, or who don’t know how to go about addressing culture. The #1 strategy they offer: Partner with artists. In a section titled “Why Artists?” the authors offer a compelling, if somewhat romanticized, view of the particular strengths of artistic voice. This includes artists’ ability to connect with people emotionally, to be bold and visionary, and to address fundamental social issues.

It is clear, however, that the authors have seen organizer-artist partnerships go poorly, as evidenced by my favorite section: 13 Key Principles for Working with Artists. Organizers are called upon to “involve artists from the beginning,” and “let the artist lead in the creative.” Implied in these principles is a history of artists being brought in at the last minute and told what to do, rather than being seen as an integral part of the social change effort. (There is also a page of tips for artists, but it’s mostly about helping those organizers remember those 13 principles!)

The report addresses many of the key terms in the area of art and social change in a useful glossary. They define cultural organizing, for instance, as

“Practice that fuses arts, culture, and political organizing. Cultural organizing seeks to organize politically engaged artists together into networks of collaboration, and form intentional, cohesive partnerships between artists and like-minded advocacy organizations, funders, and political campaigns. Cultural organizing builds the power and capacity of artists as a community, both as skilled workers whose labor has value and as essential partners in the progressive movement.”

This definition is intriguing to me because of its heavy emphasis on organized artists, which calls to mind historical organizations such as the American Artists’ Congress. This report also introduced me to the idea of a “cultural producer”: a cultural strategist who can speak the “languages” of both art and organizing, and can help develop partnerships between the two worlds.

Overall, Making Waves is  stronger on making a case for cultural strategy than for guiding how it can be done. There are some great case studies, but I personally didn’t need 20 out of 50 pages dedicated to proving that  cultural events have often outshone and even preceded political events. And the sections on strategy and tactics are useful, but aren’t particularly tailored to cultural strategy. Tips about setting goals, defining an audience, and outlining how decisions will be made are relevant to any sort of organizing campaign.

I believe the reason that the “how-to” section seems very general is that the authors don’t want the organizers to have their hands in the art too much — organizers are told to make room for the artists to lead. This is a very important lesson for organizers who in general have under-utilized cultural approaches, seeing artists as adding “decoration” rather than substance to campaigns. But it seems to assume the artists more or less know what they are doing in terms of using art to support social change. For most artists, this is likely not the case. Perhaps a good companion to this report would be the book Re:Imagining Change, by the Center for Story-Based Strategy whose theories on narrative could be very useful to both artists and organizers.

I love how this document seeks to re-imagine the role of artists in organizing. At the same time, I’m not sure how I feel about the advice that organizers “don’t try this at home…creating an effective, powerful work of art is not easy…be willing to invest in real talent.” It is true that well-meaning but untrained activists have made some pretty bad art. But, to me, this argument makes too strong a distinction between “artists” and “non-artists,” and focuses a bit heavily on the arts that involve individual training, as opposed to more grassroots arts practices which have been so important to social movements in the past — African American spirituals, Native drumming practices, etc.

I would recommend this as a good starting point for any organizer looking to move beyond short-term policy wins to long-term change. If you are an artist working with social justice organizations, you may want to pass this along. And while you’re at it, check out the other great resources from the Culture Group.

Cultural Leadership: An Interview with Dr. Toby Jenkins

I recently had the chance to talk to Dr. Toby Jenkins, Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the College of Education at the University of Hawaii. I had come across her work on cultural leadership and was very curious to learn more about the concept, as well as her work. She spoke passionately on the topic, raising issues of family, pride, service, community, and love. She definitely pushed my own thinking about the kind of leadership that our communities need.

Why don’t we start with the course you teach called Cultural Leadership; how did that come about?

Toby Jenkins

Dr. Toby Jenkins

It’s something that I’d been developing for a number of years. I worked at the cultural center at the University of Maryland and developed a leadership program focused on leadership in underrepresented communities. We were trying to figure out what we could learn from studying social movements and leaders of color. Probably at that point is when I started looking at combining the concepts of leadership and culture. Then, when I got to Penn State, I developed it into a formal course experience. It was a hodgepodge of different things. We were looking at the history of leadership in communities of color, so we looked at Che Guevara, the Black Panther Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez. We were looking at the ethics, the values, and the commitment to cultural community that were espoused in a lot of those movements. We were also looking at arts and music and poetry — things like the Black Arts Movement or the Harlem Renaissance — as forms of leadership and social education. We were looking at the advent of hip-hop and spoken word, and the different ways that leadership may not look like a boardroom, but it definitely does move communities and create action.

So the course became a full and robust examination of culture and leadership. One of the most transformative parts of the course for students has been the piece on family. We ask: how does what we’ve learned from our families — the values, the histories, the stories that are told in living rooms and on porches and stoops — influence the type of leaders we become? My father was a janitor. But as much education as I’ve had, as many organizations I’ve worked with and incredible people I’ve worked for, I know that the type of leader I am ties back to what I learned from my father. Because he taught me through his life that he was never too good to do anything. He was willing to humble himself, to pick up other people’s trash, to take care of his family. And I remember how he would say, “I know you’re going to grow up and get one of these big jobs, but always remember to speak to the janitors.” So I have the students write a cultural self-portrait, kind of a cultural story of your life, and those stories are absolutely incredible. The exercise of writing them allows students to develop a whole new appreciation for their family or their community experience. Whether they’re coming out of very difficult life experiences or privileged life experiences, they see value in all of it — that it’s teaching them lessons and it’s teaching them how to navigate life.

I also think place-based, experiential, community-based learning is really important. So in the class we spend time working with community organizations. We did an international exchange, taking them to Trinidad to look at how they incorporate culture into their community’s leadership; we’ve done weekends in Newark New Jersey to look at the idea of transformation at the city level, and needing to incorporate cultural sustainability. Those experiences definitely have been transformative for the students.

I’m curious about the concept itself. What does it mean to practice “cultural leadership”?

That’s what I’ve been trying to tease out. Cultural leadership is grounded in servitude and community. It ties back to Robert Greenleaf’s theory of servant leadership: the idea that you use your talents and resources and abilities and access to help other people. It’s not just about you making decisions, it’s about you figuring out what the community needs. Another critical piece of cultural leadership is creative leadership, and this can take a variety of different forms. It can be as simple as the stories mentors tell their mentees. Basic storytelling. Here in Hawaii they call it “talk story”: sharing histories and perspectives and experiences. Some cultural leaders may use visual art, some might use music, some might use dance. Some might use food: in past programs we looked at domestic leaders, most often mothers, and the value of domestic work, the creativity and ingenuity it takes to transform food that’s really disgusting and turn it into soul food, the value and importance of nourishing.

Cultural leaders have a strong sense of cultural efficacy. They see their culture as valuable. There’s a sense of pride, and a sense of real community love and rootedness. It’s about reaching back, the idea of Sankofa, and valuing the lessons of the past. Calling them forth, remembering them, bearing witness to them, and sharing them so they won’t be forgotten. A couple years ago I started looking at what a “love ethic” means in leadership. Are you committed to helping people to live love-filled lives, lives of peace, lives of joy, lives of abundance? Even when you challenge people, do you lovingly challenge people? You have to bring a spirit of love if you’re truly a cultural leader.

I’ve been studying cultural organizing, which is a related concept. Often, cultural organizers have very cultural goals: they are focused on helping their communities to see themselves in a different way, or they are challenging deficit narratives, or trying to change the way we think. Does cultural leadership focus on affecting how we see ourselves and shaping how our culture functions?

I honestly think cultural leadership can be for anything. Some people may choose as their life work to specifically create organizations like the ones that you are talking about, rooted in community, working with a particular population of people, and advancing cultural sustainability and transformation. But I also think we need cultural leaders in non-community spaces: in boardrooms, in classrooms, in hospitals, in all these spaces where people are significantly marginalized. If you had people with a more cultural ethic to their leadership, more of a sense of responsibility to their communities, then communities would be better served.

What are you working on these days?

Right now I’m working with an organization called PLACES, and they’re working with local schools to create place-based education, and to incorporate Hawaiian culture and ways of learning into the educational experience. They are bringing Hawaiian elders into the educational experience, not just as a speaker but to help build the curriculum. They are working with farmers to transform science curriculum. You’d be amazed at how much the island itself is used as a form of education. Art forms are being used to raise awareness and consciousness and build cultural efficacy among youth — spoken word is pretty big here, and music, a fusion of reggae and traditional Hawaiian music.

I still have former students in their thirties that get in touch with me, saying how much the course really shaped and motivated them to be conscious of what they did with their careers and the kind of impact they’re having, changing that dynamic of individual success. Because that was an ultimate goal for me: to re-imagine what success looks like, so that your success is bound to the success of the world, of your neighborhood, your community. You have to figure out what your contribution is going to be.