Artistic Activism is a dynamic practice combining the creative power of the arts to move us emotionally with the strategic planning of activism necessary to bring about social change.
Art and activism do different work in the world. Activism, as the name implies, is the activity of challenging and changing power relations. There are many ways of doing activism and being an activist, but the common element is an activity targeted toward a discernible end. Simply put, the goal of activism is action to create an Effect.
Art, on the other hand, tends not to have such a clear target. It’s hard to say what art is for or against; its value often lies in providing us perspective and new ways to envision our world. Its effect is often subtle and hard to measure, and confusing or contradictory messages can be layered into the work. Good art always contains a surplus of meaning: something we can’t quite describe or put our finger on, but moves us nonetheless. Its goal, if we can even use that word, is to stimulate a feeling, move us emotionally, or alter our perception. Art, equally simply stated, is an expression that generates Affect.
At first glance these aims seem at odds with one another. Activism moves the material world, while Art moves the heart, body and soul. In fact, however, they are complimentary. Social change doesn’t just happen, it happens because people decide to make change. As any seasoned activist can tell you, people just don’t decide to change their mind and act accordingly, they are personally moved to do so by emotionally powerful stimuli. We’re moved by affective experiences to do physical actions that result in concrete effects: Affect leads to Effect. We might think of this as Affective Effect, or perhaps, Effective Affect. Or, combined in a new word, Æffect (pronounced Aye-fect).
Artistic Activism is a practice aimed at generating Æffect: emotionally resonant experiences that lead to measurable shifts in power.
The first rule of guerilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage. Today, this doesn’t mean studying maps of the mountains of Cuba or the jungles of Vietnam. Our modern political terrain is a highly mediated landscape of signs and symbols, story and spectacle. To operate successful on this cultural topography we need to observe, analyze and respond creatively. We need to be Artistic Activists.
We may like to think of politics as a purely rational business, where sensible people logically discuss and debate the issues at hand, come to a reasoned decision, and then judiciously act. Certainly this is how politics has been taught to us in our civics classes. But as recent developments in cognitive science suggest, humans don’t think and behave this way: we make sense of our world through stories and symbols that frame the information we receive and then act accordingly. The principles governing civic action are more likely to be found in the worlds of popular culture and entertainment, and artistic expression and reception, than in textbooks of political science.
Acknowledging that the political landscape is also a cultural landscape opens up new terrain to work upon. Whereas art tends to be limited to museums and galleries, and activism to street demonstrations and state houses, artistic activism is at home in town squares and shopping malls, on billboards or through social media…as well as galleries and state houses. This new terrain, neither overtly “arty” or “political” is more familiar and safer to an audience than a museum or a rally, and thus makes artistic activism more attractive, approachable, and friendly than traditional art or activist practices. Artistic activism – as an affective image, performance, or experience – is also well suited for an age of cell phone cameras and social networks. People don’t share policy papers, they share things that move them. Continue reading from The Center for Artistic Activism