Visual Art

The Other Art History: An Interview with Nicolas Lampert (Part 2)

Below is part two of my interview with Nicolas Lampert, author of A People’s Art History of the United States. Click HERE to read part 1 of the interview, in which we discussed his early development as an artist and activist, his work with Justseeds Artists Cooperative, and how Howard Zinn encouraged him to write his book. In part 2, we discuss A People’s Art History of the United States, the rich legacy of arts activism in the US, and the importance of debating the tensions and contradictions in this work.

What was your vision when you first began writing A People’s Art History, and how did that vision change over the course of the eight years you worked on the project?

People's Art History book coverPrior to starting the project, I had been writing articles on art and activism for Clamor magazine, doing interviews with activist artists, and I co-edited a book called Peace Signs: The Anti-War Movement Illustrated, so that gave me some experience in writing and developing my voice. But really, Howard Zinn gave me this unbelievable opportunity, which was such a gift. He planted the seed of the idea and introduced me to The New Press and thankfully they were really intrigued by the proposal. I told them that I was not a PhD historian, I was an activist artist, and I wanted the book to be useful to artists and activists, and for it to be accessible to a general audience. The editor at the New Press said, “That’s perfect, that’s exactly what we’re looking for.” So all the stars were aligned to do the book.

Structure-wise I knew that I wanted to move through U.S. history chronologically. I also knew pretty early on that I didn’t want to do an exhaustive survey. I wanted to select specific examples and write critically about the intersection of art and activism. For instance, I knew I wanted to write about the Wobblies, and  I could have selected multiple examples where the I.W.W. used art in their organizing — Joe Hill’s cartoons, the graphics of Ralph Chaplin, Mr. Block, or so forth. But I felt it was much more useful and more interesting to focus on one specific example from the I.W.W. over the course of 10–15 pages where I could explain the history and have room to debate the tactics.

The Patterson Strike Pageant, 1913

So for the IWW chapter I detailed the Paterson Pageant of 1913 – a one-night pageant at Madison Square Garden where over 1,000 striking workers re-enacted the Paterson silk workers strike during the strike itself. This pageant was so controversial because the strike fell apart shortly after the performance and some blamed the use of art for its demise. (Read an excerpt from this chapter HERE)

I definitely noticed that there was more of a focus in your book on the difficulties of doing this kind of work, whereas most books on the subject are pretty celebratory. What led to that decision?

To me, the most interesting chapters are those in which the art backfired somewhat, or where it was complicated. I think a book that’s simply celebratory is dishonest, and doesn’t do justice to the realities of social movements. Movements rarely are defined as a series of victories.

My book is best understood as a series of tactics — ones that were exceedingly complicated. Again the Patterson Pageant is a good example. 25,000 silk workers, mostly recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, went on strike in Patterson, New Jersey just south of New York City. The IWW came in as strike organizers, and they made the decision to bring in avant-garde, middle-to-upper class artists from Greenwich Village to help publicize the strike. What became complicated was the class dynamics. People like John Reed, a recent Harvard graduate who directed the Pageant and later became a famous journalist, could act in solidarity with the striking workers. But he had less at stake if the strike succeeded or not. His livelihood was not on the line. The situation was much different for the recent immigrant on strike whose family was at near starvation.

That said, I think the chapter was about solidarity. Solidarity is of course positive, but the tactics have to be well thought out. Studying past examples of solidarity across class lines is instructive to solidarity efforts today. We can learn from the tactics of the past and hopefully duplicate what’s successful, or at least have a sharper sense of critique about what not to do.

I definitely appreciated the focus on complexity and contradiction. I also noticed that, compared to other histories of political art, this one strayed farther away from professional artists and gallery artists, and brought in types of art that other people may not even have thought to include. For example, you start right off the bat with wampum belts.

My decision from the onset was to focus on the art that happens outside of the art world – a parallel art history to the standard version. Of course, there is crossover, but I tried to veer away from writing about artists whose work was rooted in a gallery or a museum. Instead, I wrote about artists like Emory Douglas from the Black Panther Party, or the photographers in SNCC, whose work at the time was rooted in a movement. I was arguing that the art world is too isolated, that it reaches too small of audience to have the same level of impact that movement culture does. I wasn’t dismissing museums and galleries. The ideas put forth in the those spaces are significant, but the audience and the level of collaboration differs.

A good example today would be to differentiate between a museum show about climate change versus artists working directly within environmental groups and using creative resistance tactics to block tar sands trains and pipelines. I find the later example to be a form of activist art, whereas the artist showing in the museum is political art. Both approaches are needed, but my book was focused on a history of activist art.

In terms of individuals or groups out there today, who do you think is doing particularly good work around art and social movements?

Coming up with a list is so difficult because there’s so much good work happening. That was part of my struggle with the book and why I decided not to follow a survey route. I didn’t want it to feel like a “who’s who” of important artists.

Well, who are a few that you personally are into?

Favianna Rodriguez is doing really important work on migrant workers rights. I am also really impressed by Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group that has really harnessed art and cultural resistance better than most out there. I think the People’s Climate March was really incredible to see, not just because of how much art was in it, but because of the leadership role that artists took in framing the march.

Across the pond, Liberate TATE is doing amazing stuff, interventions into the Tate Modern where they are bringing to light the corporate sponsorship of the museum and the need to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The Illuminator Project, the Overpass Light Brigade…the list goes on and on. I admire the work where artists are directly aligned with, and part of, social justice movements. Not just on the outside adding commentary.

Even just listing artists to you, you can see my hesitation with surveys because you inherently miss a lot of important work. That’s why, in my book, I wanted to choose one specific example for each decade throughout American history, and to really lay out how the artists interfaced with a particular movement.

Poster designed by Gran Fury

Poster designed by Gran Fury

I wanted to study what worked and what did not. The model that I often look to is ACT UP, and specifically Gran Fury. Gran Fury is so significant because were 10 to 12 designers and they acted as an affinity group within the larger framework of ACT UP. This was so brilliant because it allowed them and other affinity groups to work towards a common goal, but it didn’t bog down the artists to have to get consensus or to explain their process to a larger group of 500-700 activists. That would have diluted the process and prevented artists from working quickly, which is needed when the goal is to disseminate graphics fast.

In the process of writing A People’s Art History, what surprised you? How have your ideas about art and social justice changed through this project?

Similar to when I first read Howard Zinn’s People’s History, I was surprised by how much I didn’t know. Just the pure volume of artists and activists engaged in these forms of creative resistance. I was also surprised by the recycling of tactics. Many of the conversations that artists were having in the 1920s and 1930s are conversations that resurface today: critiques of the gallery system, the economic issues of how artists survive, the need for more public art, the need to harness art to social justice movements. Those conversations happened at the American Artists’ Congress in 1936 and through the Artists’ Union in the 1930s, and among 1960s groups like the Art Workers’ Coalition and Guerrilla Art Action Group. Recently you see groups coming out of Occupy Wall Street like Occupy Museums making the same calls.

In Justseeds I work in the realm of producing graphics for movements, and to me it was really interesting to read about other artists going back through American history that were doing the exact same thing. Their technology may differ, and the way the work is disseminated may differ, but the spirit behind the work is similar. There are a lot of parallels between the past and the recent present. I wrote about the Workers Film and Photo League (F&PL) in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They remind me a lot of the “Become the Media” movement that emerged out of the Seattle WTO protests in 1999. There is a recycling of tactics because people are responding to similar calls for justice. And there is a lot to learn about from this history if we carefully study and critique it. I wouldn’t say that my book is a hidden history, but the material in it is certainly not common knowledge to many of us.

Its certainly not what you run across in your art history classes

No it was not.

Thank you for your time, and for the book.

 

 

Interview with Cultural Organizer Favianna Rodriguez

Last week I had the privilege of talking to a powerful cultural organizer from Oakland. Favianna Rodriguez is a visual artist best known for her political prints and posters addressing issues from the Iraq war to women’s rights. She is the director of CultureStrike, a grassroots collective of artists, and the founder of Presente.org, an online network “dedicated to the political empowerment of Latino communities.” She has recently been featured in an online documentary titled Migration is Beautiful.

We began by talking a bit about how Favianna came to her artistic and political work, but quickly fell into discussing the role of artists in the immigrant rights movement, the challenges political artists face, and the difference between art as a tactic and art as a strategy for social change. We also spoke about her effort to promote the monarch butterfly as a powerful symbol of the humanity and beauty of migrants.

How did you first get involved with art, when did that start?

FaviannaSince I was a child I was really into art, but it wasn’t something that was encouraged in my family. My family wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer; given I was a first generation college student it was always really important for me to pursue, in their eyes, a more meaningful career. But art has always been a way for me to claim my identity and make sense of who I was, because I grew up in an environment where I would be one of the only students of color in many honors classes in high school. I would find myself not reflected in the curriculum, not reflected in student government or extracurricular activities, so for me art was a way to claim that space.

When did politics and activism start to move into the picture?

When I was 16 the governor of California introduced Proposition 187, the first anti-immigrant state based proposition. Around that time you also saw propositions killing affirmative action; you saw the prison industrial complex creep up in California via Proposition 21, which was a way to criminalize young people of color. All of that happened in my teenage years and I found youth organizing. I got involved when I was about 14 years old, walking out of my high school, doing actions at the juvenile detention centers. For me organizing was a real wakeup call because I could really understand how political power was formed.

Back then were you finding ways to work your art into your organizing?

Yeah, I was more working in my art as a designer. I was filling the need that was emerging, which was that you needed flyers, you needed educational materials for the community. I understood art as a tactical thing, and not necessarily as a strategy.

What does it mean for art to be a tactic instead of a strategy?

For a long time I was using my art skills to serve the immediate and short term needs of movement work, whether that would be making flyers or giving away art for auctions by political organizations or doing pop-up art exhibits at rallies. On the other hand, I would spend time developing my own body of work, or working with other artists. And we were not necessarily thinking about policy outcomes or the next rally — we were thinking, “What is this space of big ideas we want to go into? What are the values we want to promote?” I began to understand that while artists were valued for the short-term work that they can do, we were not valued for the creative capacity to touch people’s hearts. Dance choreography, or a short play, or a novel — anything that did not fit into the short-term needs of a movement, people just could not see it as useful.

Now I see the value of cultural strategy, which means to me that we are thinking about culture as a tool that can move our ideas forward. Culture is a space that we actively need to be working in, and we need to respect the labor of artists. Its important to work in a rapid response mechanism, but its equally as important to work on long term ideas that are going to shift the way people fundamentally think about an issue. Cultural strategy is not communication strategy, and art is not just as a tactic. When you see artists as a tactic it means you have predesigned a pathway to a campaign which the artist is going to participate in. To me cultural organizing is to see that art it can be a complimentary path that is not driven by the short-term needs of a campaign. Another part of cultural strategy is artists also need to be organized.

What does that look like when artists are organized?

When artists are organized, it means we have an awareness of the political strategy, and the general direction the movement is trying to go in, so that we can position ourselves. This is why I think it’s important to use the word strategy. I do think we need to be strategic with our timing. We have to think about how our art is going to advance or not advance different beliefs.

What do you see as the ideal relationship between artists and more traditional organizers?

I think that there has to be ongoing communication. Artists are not sitting at the table when strategy is being designed, and I think that’s a mistake. Artists need to be a part of overall movement work in a way that really values what we do. The tendency has been to contact artists at the end, about campaign engagement, or “Now that we have our rally planned, let’s invite the artist.” That to me is only one very small piece of cultural strategy.

Also, artists need to have strong relationships with movement folks so we can understand what they’re pushing for, because some things we do could actually not help. I’ll give you an example. Steve Jobs’ widow just released a video-based site called The Dream Is Now, and its all about undocumented youth. I can tell you, as somebody who works directly with undocumented youth and has good relationships with organizers, that the dream narrative is no longer as helpful to our movement as it was 2 years ago. Undocumented youth are now saying “It’s not just about us as youth, we want our parents legalized. Our parents brought us here because they are responsible and they want opportunity for us, and we’re not going to shove our parents under the bus.” At CultureStrike I work with artists, and if artists say we want to do something around young DREAMers I’m able to say “Well, the political strategy is no longer moving in that direction. In fact, dreamers have gotten some relief via DACA. What is now urgent is that we address the deportation of parents, and move away from a youth-only lens” And by understanding where the movement is at it makes the art all that more powerful and effective.

What are the different roles arts are playing, or could play, in the immigrant rights movement?

I’ll give you a great example. A group of eight senators introduced what they call a blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform. That blueprint included drones at the border and at least two decades of waiting for citizenship. Unless you understand the nuances of what this means, the public hears the words “comprehensive immigration reform,” and may not necessarily approach with a critical lens. Here’s where artists can come in really great: artists can expose the truth about these policies and highlight the information or misinformation in a way that simplifies the message. We can begin to emphasize what drones are, connect it to the immense amount of debt, saying “This is what border enforcement looks like, this is what border enforcement costs.”

At the same time, there are 11 million undocumented migrants. How do we as artists help people see what those 11 million look like? It’s children, it’s mothers, it’s parents, it’s students it’s workers. How do we humanize that so that it’s not just a figure, so it tells a story?

We are all hoping that this is the year for immigration reform, and you can expect there to be a lot of rallies and visits to congress and marches. This is what we’ve been doing for the last six years already. What would new kinds of cultural engagement look like so we are not just repeating the same way of telling the story? Theatrical pieces, mobile art labs, filmmakers, concerts all over the country. What about Comic books, graphic novels, street art highlighting the immense pain that so many children feel from losing a parent because they are being deported.

Maybe you could talk about the symbol of the Butterfly, and what you’re trying to do with that.

Butterfly CrossingThe immigrant rights movement began to slowly adopt the butterfly as a symbol. As an artist, and as someone who studies symbols like the pink triangle, the black power fist, the black panther — I think symbols definitely have the ability to create a culture of resistance. So for me it was important to popularize the image of a butterfly. I wanted to piggyback on the symbol of the butterfly as a visionary symbol. Butterflies can cross borders, so the butterfly is the symbol to talk about the beauty of migrants as they are moving from place to place. Just like butterflies migrate in order to survive, people migrate in order to survive. It is not just about economics, it is also about people wanting to be unified with their families, or people wanting to be safe from environments where they can’t be gay, or women escaping situations that are dangerous to them, or young people trying to find opportunities. These are all beautiful stories of who we are as humans, and I think that the butterfly is very symbolic of that.

The butterfly as a symbol of policy can be a little bit tricky, because the butterfly clearly crosses borders . Yet I don’t believe in our lifetime we are going to see open borders. However, I think it’s an important idea to push out, because art sometimes is about imagining what could be, it’s about allowing people to think really big. Even though it may not translate to a policy outcome just yet, its important for the idea to be there because people in their subconscious associate migrants with really ugly concepts. People associate migrants with leeches, or they think about migrants like “Those migrants don’t belong here, they’re taking my job.” And that is because the media has repetitively shown those symbols, so we need to counter those with more positive symbols.

Who else do you see in the immigrant rights movement, or other movements, that you particularly think is doing great work around cultural organizing?

I think that 350.org does an excellent fob of activating folks around climate change. A few years back they did something called EARTH where they organized, in cities around the world, huge art productions that you could only see via satellite all produced on a particular day. I thought that was really powerful because first, it really maximized on artists being problem solvers. At the same time it requires community participation, because you needed people out there to make it work. And also it centered on a really simple idea, the number 350.

What keeps you going in this work?

Im A SlutI wake up and I am just so excited that my job is to think about how to organize artists. For a long time as an artist I felt really frustrated about the way artists’ labor wasn’t recognized, and frustrated because the art word marginalizes artists of color and socially engaged artists. The art world is already such an ultra-capitalist environment and sometimes that’s all we’re offered, that is shown to us as the ideal. So to be able to say to my fellow artists, “Lets get organized, lets think about the work that we do, and also think differently about art overall. There’s a saying that says “art workers don’t kiss ass,” and that is so true. The awesome thing about being an artist is that we have space to do the most controversial, in-your-face content that you can imagine and we can totally get away with it because we’re artists. That drives me. You’ve seen my “I’m a Slut” poster — I would never get the support to do that through the nonprofit world, and yet its so needed.

Book Review: Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex

Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, & Educational Alternatives
Edited by Stephen John Hartnett
University of Illinois Press, $25.00

I’ve been working on an edited volume about the school-to-prison pipeline, and taking the opportunity to check out recent books on the topic. One of the more rich and intriguing tomes I have come across is Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, & Educational Alternatives. The book brings together scholars and educators — along with incarcerated poets and visual artists — to illuminate the workings of the prison-industrial complex and share strategies for confronting it.

The book is split in two parts. The first — Diagnosing the Crisis — is dedicated to understanding the prison-industrial complex (PIC), the web of government and for-profit institutions that monitor, control, discipline, and incarcerate millions of US residents. This country, Hartnet argues, has become a “punishing democracy,” a system in which “punishment has become a driving force in contemporary American life” (p. 6).

The chapters span an impressively wide range, illuminating multiple facets of the PIC. Erica Meiners uncovers the economic underpinnings of the PIC, and the ways that surveillance and control are privatizing public space. Julilly Kohler-Hausmann offers a compelling and disturbing account of how our domestic police force has been increasingly drawing on military tools, strategies, and metaphors since the Vietnam war. Rose Braz and Myesha Williams outline the school-to-prison pipeline, and the increased policing of schools, while other pieces look at stereotypes in media, and the “war on drugs.”

The second half of the book — Practical Solutions, Visionary Alternatives — offers a series of stories about on-the-ground work being done to engage with, shift, and challenge the PIC. I would hesitate to call them “solutions,” given the daunting task they take on, but they certainly offer practical actions that real people are taking, and begin to paint a picture of a different world — one in which we see the humanity of everyone, and truly question the ways that we engage with one another and the conflicts that arise between people.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog, the arts play a very large role in this section of the book. It begins with Buzz Alexander, writing about the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan. This program — which I was a part of in college — runs theater and writing workshops in prisons, juvenile detention centers, and public schools, as well as an annual visual art show. Alexander gives a bold yet humble account, offering a taste of the messiness and the promise of this work, to which he has given so many years. Robin Sohnen shares the work of the Each One Reach One program, which does playwriting and tutoring in prisons, and Jonathan Shailor recounts his experiences doing Shakespeare in prisons. While each of these programs has a different focus, pedagogy, and theory of change, together they demonstrate the potential of artistic programming to build humanizing relationships between those inside and outside of the prison system; to help individuals develop and grow; to spread awareness of the oppressions of the system and of the humanity of the incarcerated; and to begin much-needed dialogue about the future of our democracy.

Throughout the book, readers are treated to pieces of poetry from incarcerated men and women, and a stunning set of images from the PCAP Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. These pieces bring some concreteness to the stories told by the authors above, and connect a reader with not just the idea of prisoners but incarcerated humans in the particular.

The book as a whole, and the scholar-educator-artist-activists within, seek to shift our country from a punishing democracy to an abolition democracy. They are calling for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Drawing on writing by Angela Davis, Hartnett argues that prison abolition is not a negative effort of simply shutting down prisons, but a proactive process of creation — which is perhaps why artistic practice can play such an important role. He says that “shutting down the prison-industrial complex will require nothing less than a revolution — the question is not only how to abolish prisons, but how to reimagine a democracy that does not need such institutions” (p. 4).

 

 

 

Occupy Design

Poster by Favianna Rodriguez

The occupy mobilizations have become famous, or perhaps infamous, for their creative, homemade cardboard signage. But across the country, graphic designers are stepping in as well to bring their particular expertise to the effort to craft a visual language for occupiers. These artists, either independently or as subcommittees of occupy mobilizations, are using graphic design to inspire, to diversify the movement, and to educate others about economic inequality.

Occupy Design is a group of designers, artists, and organizers, seeking to “provide a universal visual toolset for the Occupy movement which crosses language barriers and brings a strong visual identity to the movement.” They are calling for people to submit work, and have launched their site with a set of “infographics” that communicate the core concepts of economic inequality in ways that transcend language. It is their way of contributing to a unifying message for the movement.

Occupy Design Infographic

The Occupied Wall Street Journal is apparently going to be printing posters in an upcoming issue, and Favianna Rodriguez, an artist with Justseeds Artist Cooperative, has shared her piece for it, the poster shown at the beginning of this post. (more…)

Occupy Sotheby’s

Damien Hurst work being auctioned at Sotheby’s

Here’s a very different take on the intersection of activism and art. Protesters aligned with Occupy Wall Street disrupted an art auction at Sotheby’s, because the company has locked out its art handlers in an attempt to shrink its numbers of unionized workers and curtail benefits — despite record profits. As reported on truth-out.org, a number of activists stood up during the auction and shouted out facts about this unjust lockout, before being escorted out of the building.

Most of the organizing discussed on this site sees art as a vehicle for marginalized voices and social change. But Sotheby’s represents the other side of the art world, and this dispute reminds us that art is not inherently disruptive or radical — it all depends on how it is made and, in this case, how it is understood, bought, and sold. Whatever the original artists had in mind, in the context of Sotheby’s corporate auctions, which sell art to the very rich for extremely high prices, art becomes a commodity and an integral part of both economic and cultural hegemony. (more…)

Labor Day Art

I’d like to take a moment this labor day to remember the Northland Poster Collective. This small, Minneapolis-based collective of artists, founded in 1979, put out 30 years of creative, useful art for progressive and radical movements, including the labor movement. They came up with one of my favorite slogans for labor: The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.

The organization unfortunately closed in 2009, amidst the financial meltdown. But their posters and slogans continue to show up on walls, cars, and lapels across the country. One of the artists, Ricardo Levins Morales, continues this work through his studio, RLM Arts.

On Northland’s “legacy website,” the organization, signing off after 30 years, offers these thoughtful words (more…)