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Yearly Archives: 2013

Activist Art: Does it Work? | open!

Stephen Duncombe and I published a column called “Activist Art: Does it Work?” for Open! Magazine.

It begins like this:

Activist Art: Does it Work?

The first rule of guer­illa war­fare is to know the ter­rain and use it to your ad­vant­age. The to­po­graphy on which the act­iv­ist fights may no longer be the moun­tains of the Si­erra Maes­tra or the jungles of Vi­et­nam, but the les­son still ap­plies. Today, the polit­ical land­scape is one of signs and sym­bols, story and spec­tacle. Re­spond­ing to this new ter­rain, there has been an up­surge in the use of cre­at­ive, artistic, and cul­tural strategies as a tool for so­cial change. This prac­tice goes by many names: polit­ical art, act­iv­ist art, in­ter­ven­tion­ist art, so­cially en­gaged art, and so­cial prac­tice art. No mat­ter the de­scrip­tion, artists are using their aes­thetic train­ing and skill to wage battles for so­cial change. Yet as prac­ti­tion­ers and train­ers in these forms of artistic act­iv­ism, we are haunted by the ques­tion: Does it work?

Read the rest: Activist Art: Does it Work? | open!.

For Pakistani Artists, an Exercise in Creative Activism

For Pakistani Artists, an Exercise in Creative Activism

Midway through a workshop on creative activism the morning of November 22, a group of Pakistani visual artists visiting NYU got some surprising news: Jay-Z had heard they were in the States, and had requested that they perform with him in a music video, as backup singers.

Stephen Duncombe, the Gallatin associate professor who was leading the workshop with conceptual artist Steve Lambert, produced a blank sheet of paper. “You’ll all need to write down your shirt sizes,” he deadpanned, “so you can be fitted for costumes.”

Lambert squinted at a message on his cell phone as he rattled off some logistics. The shoot was to take place that afternoon. In Maryland. On a boat.

read the rest: For Pakistani Artists, an Exercise in Creative Activism.

SUNY Purchase Faculty Colloquium

On October 30, 2013 Professor Stephen Flusburg and I presented at the SUNY Purchase faculty colloquium. Flusburg is a cognitive psychologist and I knew I would be presenting after him, so I tried to build on some of those ideas. If you’re up for it, you can rewind back to see his presentation.

Stephen Flusberg, Assistant Professor of Psychology “Thinking about Thinking about Thinking”

Steve Lambert, Assistant Professor of New Media “Creative Disruption for the Common Good”

I start at about 41 minutes in.

Keynote at HOMEWORK II: LONG FORMS / SHORT UTOPIAS Conference November 8-10, 2013

Announcing HOMEWORK II: LONG FORMS / SHORT UTOPIAS Conference November 8-10, 2013 : Broken City Lab

I’ll be giving a keynote at the Broken City Festival this weekend. Here’s some info from their site:

We’re very pleased to announce Homework II: Long Forms / Short Utopias, a three-day conference and collaboratively-written publication that will aim to unfold the ways in which we construct, articulate, and practice ideas of micro-utopias, pop-up ideals, collaboration, and long-term social engagement in Ontario, across Canada, and abroad.

The conference will build on our previous conference, Homework: Infrastructures & Collaboration in Social Practices, in bringing together multidisciplinary artists and creative practitioners enacting and articulating the complexities of working in practices driven by curiosities about utopian collaboration, community, infrastructures, locality, and long-form social practice. With support from the Ontario Arts Council and Ontario Trillium Foundation, we’re looking to build an event that can frame a discussion on socially-engaged practices that span disciplines, with a particular focus on emerging practitioners.

Homework II will run November 8-10, 2013 in Windsor, Ontario at Art Gallery of Windsor and CIVIC Space.

Our featured keynote speakers this year will be Jeanne van Heeswijk (Rotterdam), Darren O’Donnell (Toronto), and Steve Lambert (New York). In addition to our keynotes, we’ve also invited a series of curatorial partners to develop panels that tackle the conference themes. And, to top it all off, everyone who attends will be co-authors of a book that captures the ideas and conversations from this year’s conference through a series of interviews with presenters, attendees, and organizers alongside collected materials from our 2011 conference.

For more information, please email

via Announcing HOMEWORK II: LONG FORMS / SHORT UTOPIAS Conference November 8-10, 2013 : Broken City Lab.

We’ll Make Out Better Than Okay in Kansas City, MO

We’ll Make Out Better Than Okay
opening Oct. 25
The Charlotte Street Foundation’s la Esquina Gallery
Kansas City, MO.

Featured artists: David O. Alekhuogie (New Haven, CT), Jennifer Boe (Kansas City, MO), Andrea Bowers (Los Angeles, CA), Candy Chang (New Orleans, LA), Blake Fall-Conroy (Ithaca, NY), Theaster Gates (Chicago, IL), Honey Pot Performance (Chicago, IL), Steve Lambert (New York, NY), Persia ft. Daddies Plastik (San Francisco, CA), William Powhida (New York, NY), Public Media Institute (Chicago, IL), Alex Schaefer (Los Angeles, CA), Mike Simi (Chicago, IL), Brittany Southworth-LaFlamme (Chicago, IL), Stephanie Syjuco (San Francisco, CA), Cassie Thornton (San Francisco, CA), and Daniel Tucker (Chicago, IL).

Charlotte Street Foundation is pleased to present We’ll Make Out Better Than Okay, an exhibition of contemporary artworks that address everyday and street-level concerns of the economic recession (unemployment, debt, corporate greed, minimum wage rates, and more) with playfulness, aplomb, and an often bleak sense of humor. Financial lack, foreclosed property, exploitative labor policy, and high-priced healthcare are just a handful of the economic realities producing absurdist dilemmas for individuals and communities across the nation. Curated by 2013-14 Charlotte Street Foundation Curator-in- Residence Danny Orendorff and featuring over 15 internationally exhibiting American artists working in medium non-specific manners, this exhibition confronts such realities and absurdities with headstrong wit and hilarious outrage.

Activist Art: Does it Work?

Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert
Originally published in Open!: Platform for Art, Culture
and the Public Domain, Fall 2013

Download PDF

Activist Art: Does it Work?

The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage. The topography on which the activist fights may no longer be the mountains of the Sierra Maestra or the jungles of Vietnam, but the lesson still applies. Today, the political landscape is one of signs and symbols, story and spectacle. Responding to this new terrain, there has been an upsurge in the use of creative, artistic, and cultural strategies as a tool for social change. This practice goes by many names: political art, activist art, interventionist art, socially engaged art, and social practice art. No matter the description, artists are using their aesthetic training and skill to wage battles for social change. Yet as practitioners and trainers in these forms of artistic activism, we are haunted by the question: Does it work?

So we started asking artists whose work we respect this very question:

SD&SL: As a political artist, how do you know when what you’ve done works?

Hans Haacke: I’ve been asked that question many times, and that question requires one to go around it before one really avoids it.

The above is just one example, and Haacke’s response is meant to be humorous, but in asking scores of talented and sophisticated activist artists this seemingly simple question, and in surveying hundreds of examples of activist art, we were struck by the inadequacy of the conceptualisation of the relationship between arts and demonstrable social change. Unfortunately, much of what passes for activist art seems to be aimed at four hazy targets:

The Whole World is Watching. The artist determines the success of a particular practice by the amount of media coverage it generates. If the work is covered by the mainstream news media, or the art press, or is noticed by the activist and arts communities at all, then the artist can count this as a success. This is not merely self-aggrandisement: the function of the media coverage is often thought of as a means to “raising awareness” and bringing the political or social issue to the attention of a wider audience.

Power of the Public Sphere. In this case, the success of the work is determined by whether it fosters conversation on a particular issue. Here the ideal is not to offer up a message, or even a particular perspective, but to stir the pot and “start a dialogue” around a topic so that audience members can – either individually or collectively – come to their own conclusions.

The Truth Will Set You Free. The aim here is to expose an uncomfortable or inconvenient truth. Art becomes the means for revealing facts about reality – often concerning corporate malfeasance, government corruption, or social injustice – that the artist believes are hidden, censored or otherwise unknown by the public at large. The mere exposure to the truth, it is believed, results in transformation.

Political Expressionism. Art becomes the means by which the artist’s rage, joy, disgust, or hope is communicated to the world. In this case, it is the act of bold self-expression itself that is the goal. Artists see themselves as bravely conveying their feelings about the political moment and judge whether or not their art succeeds in relation to how well that feeling is expressed.

What these artistic activist aims have in common is a faith that awareness can change the world without any specific follow-through. This is magical thinking. Ironically, this sort of magical thinking is deeply rooted in the rationalist Enlightenment tradition, which holds that knowing, expressing and conversing upon the Truth leads to social transformation. Knowledge = Power. There may have been a certain validity to this point of view once upon a time. When Church and State had a monopoly on Truth to entertain opposing points of view was an implicit strike against the powers-that-be, but in the age of the Internet – of information surplus rather than scarcity – this faith in the power of mere awareness strikes us as dangerously naïve.

These aims also share a fear. For an artist, declaring they will solve a social problem makes one vulnerable; it’s difficult, art school doesn’t teach it, and it is obvious to others when you fail. But awareness is safe and comes easily for anyone trained in the arts. In art school, we are taught to use shortcuts like, “make it big, red, and shiny”. Applying this lesson to activist art, we take some controversial imagery, mix it with a hot-button issue, and make it very public. Awareness can also just be a euphemism for attention, and everyone – especially perpetually under-appreciated artists – loves a little attention. But as people who believe that art and artists not only can bring about social change and, given the cultural terrain of today, are necessary to bringing about social change, we are deeply dissatisfied with these ambitions. We support all those artists who are working to bring positive and progressive change to the world; we just insist that they aim higher and shoot further. What is at stake is the efficacy of this practice.

Awareness is important, but it is also not enough. Awareness, and its attendant components: expression, revelation, distribution and dialogue are, to borrow a phrase from the social sciences, “necessary but not sufficient conditions”. Action without awareness results in an unthinking activism with stupid, and sometimes horrific, consequences. But awareness without action is just as bad. It results in the appearance of political engagement without any of its results. It can make an action into a release valve instead of a turning point. It is an activism of bad faith.

If, as artistic activists, we are to take ourselves and our work seriously, we need to trace out the explicit connections between our practice and the change we want to see in the world. This might mean measuring the effects of our work in changing public opinion, working within larger campaigns with clear material goals, or creating art practices that constitute new communities committed to collective action. We wish we had an easy answer but we don’t. In fact, we resist the easy answers because we don’t think a simple response would do justice to the power of art (an aspect of which must always be beyond explanation) and the myriad ways in which social change happens. Nevertheless, understanding the complexities of the process does not absolve us of the responsibility of envisioning and articulating clear outcomes, goals, even dreams for what we want to have happen and the means by which this will occur. We look forward to the day when we can ask the question: Does it work? And receive the answer: Yes, and here’s how…