How Effective is Art as a Conduit of Change?

Writers and curators Osei Bonsu, Okwui Enwezor, L.A. Kauffman, Rob Sharp, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Zheng Bo respond 

How To Sustain Outrage?
by Okwui Enwezor

We are in a situation of emergency. The actions of the governments in the UK, US and political parties in Europe leave me in no mood – especially as an African who is constantly demeaned and depersonalized by this politics – to take seriously the idea of art alone as a tool of protest. We have to widen the locus of art if its contribution can be counted. As Antonio Gramsci reminds us: ‘I am a pessimist because of intelligence and a optimist because of Will.’ Art and art magazines should stop hiding behind the bushes. The issue is not about art or what art can do. It is about our outrage and how to sustain it in this long interregnum. 

Okwui Enwezor is director of Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany.

Expression of Radical Love
by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

In Notes for a Hypothetical Novel (1960), James Baldwin wrote that freedom cannot be given – it must be taken. Protest in our time is a reaction to seeds of hatred planted five centuries ago, when profit became the order of the day. Humans became resources and goods to be dehumanized, shipped off and placed in bondage. On the plantations of the New World, people produced the capital from which ‘great’ nations were built. What we experience today as Trumpism and Zumaism are ripples of that drastic failure of love.

I’m on a flight from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal. It is the night before Donald Trump’s election, and I’m listening to Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s 1960 album We Insist! (Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite). In the cathartic ‘Triptych: Prater, Protest, Peace’, Lincoln leads a cry of the oppressed, driving us through an uncontrollable outpouring of rage, and purging of hatred and bitterness. An epitome of art as protest, it is an experience of freedom taken – as Baldwin says – using the weapons and tools at our disposal. Listening to ‘Triptych’ on repeat, I consider the failure of love that led to Trump. The ‘we’ as a collective of loveless, neoliberal individuals won’t work. We need to rebuild that ‘we’. Art – in the largest sense of that word – can heal this rupture.

Arriving in Dakar, my interest shifts. I sympathize with the destiny of the people in the US – but in Dakar we ain’t thinking about Trump. Here, we have our own battles to fight. In fact, we have a reason to celebrate: only two days before I arrived, Adama Barrow was sworn in as president of Gambia. Senegalese troops arrived at the border of Senegal and Gambia, which were then on the brink of warfare. On that blessed day, as the world turned towards America, daily demonstrations in Gambia forced dictator Yahya Jammeh to step down, aided by interventions from Alpha Condé of Guinea and Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania. As I write this, the people of Southern Cameroon are enacting a month-long ‘ghost town’ strike calling on citizens to stay at home, in peaceful protest against the segregation of Anglophone Cameroonians in this state formerly colonized by the British and the French.

In 2016, the Cameroonian performance artist, activist and sculptor André Blaise Essama installed a sculpture in Douala commemorating the Anglophone Cameroonian politician and former Southern Cameroon Prime Minister John Ngu Foncha. A few hours later, the sculpture was demolished by the police. Essama, who had just been released from prison for tearing down a monument of French colonialist General Philippe Leclerc, then tore down the sculpture of Charles de Gaulle, and placed himself in De Gaulle’s position.

As Baldwin put it: ‘Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.’ Protesting is an expression of radical love: whether through art, boycott, civil disobedience, marching, rioting or bearing witness. Even at the cost of one’s self, protest for the right goals – for art – is a conquest of love.

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung is founder and artistic director of SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, Germany, and editor-in-chief of SAVVY, a journal of critical texts on contemporary African art. He is curator-at-large for documenta 14.

Read The Signs
by L.A. Kauffman

You can divine a lot about a protest, and a movement, by looking closely at the signs that people are carrying. Are they professionally printed and all more-or-less alike? If so, you’re probably looking at an event called by one or more well-resourced organizations, such as labour unions or big nonprofits, which are looking to demonstrate their political might. The sea of similar signs brings a great clarity of message, but also a certain sense of passive masses being mobilized, to support an agenda defined by someone else. Protests that look like this may be large, but they are almost always carefully controlled and predictable, in their unfolding and their impact.

Other protests are organized so hastily that there are hardly any signs at all. When thousands of New Yorkers dropped everything and rushed out to John F. Kennedy Airport on the morning after the 45th US President instituted his Muslim travel ban, we mostly just brought our bodies and our voices; there was no time for anything else. One organizer wisely brought a few packages of markers, and before long salvaged pieces of cardboard and paper were being transformed into makeshift placards. The signs were neither well-crafted nor easy to read, but there was a special power in this scruffiness, with the raggedness of the protest’s appearance conveying something important about the rawness and urgency of the moment.

The signs at the massive women’s marches that flooded cities across the US and the world one week earlier, on the day after the new president’s inauguration, were something else altogether. Sure, there were people with pre-printed posters, representing an array of organizations, and people with cardboard and markers creating their impromptu signs over the course of the day.
But most of the placards had been handcrafted in advance, often with great care, much like the knitted pink pussy hats that became the central symbol of the event. Surveying the vast seas of people in Washington, D.C. that day, I was struck that it was not only the largest crowd I’d ever been in – and I’d been in many huge protests before – but also had the highest percentage of handmade signs I’ve ever seen people carrying. There were cats and uteri and Statue of Liberty torches and political caricatures, and hand-lettered slogans without end: everyone, it seemed, had gotten a memo to get crafty.

Except there was no memo: it was a shared, spontaneous impulse. And it meant that before millions marched in the streets, hundreds of thousands gathered in living rooms and community spaces to think about why they were protesting, what messages they wanted to send, and how they would represent those sentiments visually. Few of the ensuing creations would qualify as ‘art’ by a critic’s reckoning, but the point – to invoke the oldest chestnut of art education – was the process, not the product. In those littlegatherings, as people sketched and drew and coloured and painted, they were also facing down fears of standingup against the ominous new regime and giving concrete form to the hope for something different and better.  Savvy grassroots organizers have long known that there’s a certain political magic in the act of creative collaboration, and for decades now, many large mobilizations have been preceded by weeks of art builds. At their best, these gatherings produce much more than bold protest props: they build relationships, political understandings, and commitment. For the massive international People’s Climate March of 2014, for instance, the process of art-making was also a process of movement-shaping, pivoting away from a narrow vision of environmental advocacy often associated with big green groups with mostly white leadership to one centred on the issues and perspectives of indigenous people and other communities of colour who have been the most impacted by climate change. To sustain themselves for long and hard fights, movements need a special kind of resilience. It’s too soon of course to gauge the strength or impact of the extraordinary upsurge of activism that followed the inauguration of the new US administration, but any movement that gets off to such a DIY start is already leading from the heart.

L.A. Kauffman is a longtime organizer and the author of Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism (2017).

The Speed of it All
by Osei Bonsu

In times of turmoil, the impetus to protest often goes hand in hand with an impulse to create. While it may be the assumed role of the artist to reflect an image of our shifting political reality, we are beginning to see a turn towards new forms of image-making that needn’t be designated to professional art practice alone. This impulse rests in an otherwise suppressed desire we all share: to record our reality through the filtered lens of our immediate present. Moments of protest have always given rise to perhaps the most profound expressions of our common humanity, in gestures, actions and movements captured by historical images. Protest has always had the capacity to confuse distinctions between the artist and the non-artist, the witness and the activist, the actor and the spectator, but what could be said about the role of the protest in a world of technological acceleration and hyper-connectivity?

For the majority of the 21st century, anyone with access to a smart phone or a social media account has partaken in an unregulated livestream of world political events. The perpetuation of digital media as a witness of the live event has seen millions use their phones as everything from speaker-boxes and torches of solidarity to devises of surveillance and artificial intelligence in recent protests. A 24-hour flow of counter-narratives competes with a 24-hour news cycle of both legitimate and unworthy stories that leak into our collective social consciousness. The emergence of the live-streamed feed is having a transformative impact on the continued fight against the rising visibility of fascism, nationalism and protectionism that have emerged as a result of recent geopolitical conflicts.

Witnessing the recent protests across the world, I was struck by the speed of it all. Perhaps the US’s new brand of reactionary politics and quick-fire decision making demands an adequately speedy response from those who oppose the order of things: after all, the digital age has given way to an entirely new set of protest tools. While some feared that the depoliticization of these platforms, both inextricably linked to and galvanized by modern capitalism, would bring about the death of the political body, what has happened in the recent months seems to be an affirmation of the very opposite. We are seeing signs of life.

The outcome of this incessant need to record the present as a live stream has replaced the photographic impulse of past protests. In the world marred by mistrust towards established structures of modern democracy, the emergence of ‘alternative facts’ could perhaps be compounded by the manipulation of the digital image. In another vein, the documentary may be the only lasting visual form of hard evidence bold enough to outlive even the most radical experiments in truth. As artists continue to cultivate an aesthetic argument for the documentary as a container of lived experience the importance of moral vision shouldn’t be underestimated, even when truth itself falls under darkness.

Osei Bonsu lives in London, UK. He is curator of the 10th edition of the commissioning programme ‘Satellites’, titled ‘The Economy of Living Things’, which takes place across France at Jeu de Paume, Paris, CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, and Maison d’Art Bernard Anthonioz. It runs until 4 February 2018.

Communism’s Legacy
by Rob Sharp

Eastern Europe grapples with not just populist politics fueled by anti-migrant sentiment but also Communism’s aftermath. Because of underdeveloped art markets and selective state subsidies, artistic activism often happens in isolation or as part of wider protests.

Last year, Poland’s right-wing ruling Law and Justice Party passed a law allowing it to appoint the heads of public television and radio. In January, a legal ruling backed the merger of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk with a yet-to-be-built museum dedicated to the first Polish battle of the war. The government opposes the Gdansk museum, believing it takes an internationalist, as opposed to Polish, view of the conflict.

According to Waldemar Tatarczuk, an artist and director of Lublin’s Labyrinth Gallery, artistic activism has previously not been popular in Poland because ‘it has been associated with the propaganda art’ of Communism. This is slowly changing. The gallery’s 2016 show ‘De-Mo-Kra-Cja’ (De-Mo-Cra-Cy) featured two days of debate and work including a Mirosław Bałka performance decrying the government’s decision in 2015 to remove the European Union flag from its weekly press conference. ‘We do not agree to be hostages of the dark minds of the politicians who are in power,’ declared Bałka. But such projects face intense opposition: Tatarczuk says the government cut its state grant last year.

Elsewhere, art as direct action is more financially independent, can reach new audiences and performs well online. For a mural in Gdansk, street artist Mariusz Waras has depicted culture minister Piotr Glinski as a po-faced sphinx. Aleksandra Ska’s graphic representation of a woman’s reproductive organs fused with a hand and crucifix was used on placards in protests against a proposed anti-abortion law in October, and featured in international news coverage. The Civic Forum of Contemporary Art lobbies for better working conditions for artists, including payment for exhibitions, and protests with other workers’ groups.

In neighbouring Slovakia, the country is divided by its communist legacy and the far right’s ascendancy. The neo-Nazi People’s Party secured almost a tenth of votes in last year’s parliamentary election and has strong support among the young. In response, last year the Bratislava-based non-governmental organization, Open Society Foundation, mobilized a series of performances, workshops and exhibitions in the city tackling extremism, which coincided with far-right marches. More are planned for this year, both locally and across the region.

Slovakia’s politics also veer towards other nationalistextremes. In 2015, in Krajná Bystrá, activist and artist Peter Kalmus was arrested after spraying red paint over a statue of communist leader Vasil Bil’ak, who encouraged the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of what was then Czechoslovakia. Kalmus says the charges against him have been dropped, though in December he was questioned about a separate incident involving a war memorial in Košice. ‘It is absurd that in a member country of the EU and NATO there are statues installed in public places to real war criminals,’ the artist told me.

In Hungary, the right-wing Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, who has appointed loyalists to cultural institutions, held a referendum on EU migrant quotas in October. Artist-founded activist group Eleven Emlékm holds weekly debates in Budapest’s Szabadság Tér (Liberty Square) and has created alternative information boards outside the Terror Háza Múzeum (House of Terror), after it accused the institution of skewing a recent exhibition on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution towards a nationalist agenda.

Meanwhile in Russia, where activists and dissidents face state surveillance and prison, the stakes are more extreme. Pussy Riot founder Masha Alekhina, who was imprisoned after protesting against the Orthodox church’s support of president Vladimir Putin in 2012, continues to criticise Russia. ‘If you are a political artist now in Russia you can expect everything,’ she said in an interview with Canada’s CBC Television in January. ‘You will be followed.’

Contemporary art faces government apathy or selective backing in Eastern Europe. But the ability of artist activists to harness independent media on behalf of political causes gives protestors a unique communication tool in their fight against demagoguery.

Rob Sharp is a freelance writer based in London, UK. He is former arts correspondent for The Independent and has written for The New York Times, the Guardian and Prospect.

Art and Protest in China
by Zheng Bo

Art saved me. As a child I was into organizing. At the age of six, I set up a book-sharing system among the kids living in our apartment building in a suburb of Beijing. But my entire family – my parents and three older sisters – detested politics. I was not encouraged to turn my childhood passion into a career. Of course, they were right. Practising politics is a high-risk profession in China, both for politicians inside the party-state and activists outside of it. Many end up in prison: the former under corruption charges; the latter for advocating ‘Western notions’ such as democracy and citizenship. Art has given me a safe space to play with politics and, as it constantly nags me about aesthetics, I’ve managed not to lose a sense of reality.

If protest is holding up a banner in front of a government office, I’ve never done it. But I’ve broadcast migrant workers’ music in front of five-star hotels, set up an online archive (seachina.net) to document fellow artists’ socially engaged projects, and brought people together to fantasize a political group called ‘Weed Party’. Protest is not on the menu given to us here in China; thankfully, art still is.

Social practice, or critical art more broadly, has made some impact here, but it is far from becoming a major force of social change. Art as a single thread is tenuous. It needs to be interwoven with the media, NGOs, education and progressive forces in the government and the market. Several younger groups are pursuing this path: Dinghaiqiao Mutual-Aid Society in Shanghai, Art and Social Innovation Lab in Chengdu, and Nanting Research in Guangzhou, for example. None resorts to protest; all crouch under ‘innovation’ and ‘research’.

But how long will even mild forms of activism continue to be tolerated in China? In late December, New Worker Art Troupe (NWAT) in Beijing – to my mind, the best cultural activist group in the country – was harassed. Local officials visited NWAT’s compound and claimed that the heating system did not meet fire safety standards, so they smashed it up – in deep winter. Founded by Sun Heng, Xu Duo and Wang Dezhi in 2002, NWAT has been extremely careful not to appear radical. They started out composing songs for migrant workers and performing on construction sites and gradually built a migrant workers’ museum, a library, a theatre and a school for migrant workers’ children in Picun, a suburb of Beijing where thousands of migrants live. They rallied support from left-leaning intellectuals and justice-minded journalists,stressing that their work is consistent with the party-state’s official policy to protect the rights of migrant workers. They have survived for the past 15 years and gradually expanded, including initiating an annual Chinese New Year Gala for migrant workers and broadcasting it online. But the situation started to deteriorate last year. Their recording of the New Year Gala was seized by district police, so they could not post it online. These recent issues may simply be another episodic fit by local officials or … well, let’s hope it is the former.

We want to continue our work: this is why we crouch. It seems that we will be crouching for a long time.

Zheng Bo is an artist and writer. He grew up in Beijing, China, and now teaches in Hong Kong. 

Issue 186

First published in Issue 186

April 2017

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