Protest Art in Past and Current Human Rights Movements

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Protest Art in Past and Current Human Rights Movements

Below is a list of questions to serve as a starting framework for the discussion in this thread:

What is the scope and impact of protest art?

What defines success when using protest art?

What distinguishes protest art from political art, or subversive art?

What are the obstacles faced by artists in protest using art?

What role do/should non-profit organizations play in supporting artist’s efforts?

What is the role of minority, subaltern, or oppressed protest art in activism?

Puppetistas at the Annual School of the Americas Vigil

Puppestistas are the ritualizing performance artists at the School of Americas Vigil and Conference that took place outside the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, USA and recently moved to the US/Mexico border ( This annual protest against human rights violations, militarism, and neoliberal hegemony includes a participatory pageant of giant puppets that symbolizes and articulates the values and goals of the movement.

The visual language of the Puppetista’s at SOA protests rely on color, myth, and hegemonic images appropriated and transformed. Good and evil are rarely portrayed as black and white. Rather, forces of oppression are typically rendered in grayscale - colorless – whereas forces of life and freedom are painted in vivid colors. Violent individuals and institutions are portrayed as stiff and architectural. People, animals and goddesses are portrayed with organic forms with hands or wings that move and connect with flowing fabric to expressive cardboard visages.

Orthodox puppet forms structure the repertoire of Puppetista resistance. “Big Head” puppets - large sculptural goddesses, heroes and martyrs - are usually backpack puppets; the central form of head and torso supported by a puppeteer wearing a backpack frame. Large cardboard hands are attached to the end of bamboo poles, held by additional puppeteers and to the central form connected by curving fabric “arms”. More numerous crowds of people, animals or symbols (i.e.: clenched fist) are typically flat cardboard cut-outs, brightly painted and attached to a host pole or stick. Sometimes large props such as buildings, oceans or gardens will be constructed of large bamboo or wooden frames, tied at the corners with bicycle tubes, and held by several volunteers.

In the 2011 SOA pageant, a building (Golden Calf Inc) was made of five, eight foot square frames covered in cardboard and raised two above two and one at a third height to represent a corporate edifice. Flame shaped picket puppets emerged from crowds of fish (Occupy Oceans) birds (Occupy Air) and animals (Occupy Earth) to burn down the edifice and allow a phoenix backpack puppet to emerge from the ashes, leading the others to a transformed community.

Puppetistas create a participatory space for action during an event that is otherwise passive and unidirectional, from stage to audience, from leaders to followers. The pageant frames action that is coordinated, nonviolent, yet emotionally expressive and embodied in movement too. Unlike the marches popular in many street protests, these coordinated actions are non-linear marches with a script; an opportunity to particpate actively, express emotion, and do so in concert with others.

Where have you seen examples of puppets in protest?

On making sense of puppets

This is a great example of the use of puppets Mike. Quite beautiful, and very spectacular. One thing I worry about with puppets, however,  is that they've become such a common trope of protests. I was at a creative planning meeting yesterday afternoon for a protest about the illegalization of abortion, and sure enough, someone suggested we build a puppet. It was a good idea: it would make a striking image that could convey our message in a visual form that could then be communicated by news media, made sense of by viewers or passersby. Bit it's the "made sense of" that worries me. When puppets -- or any other protest art -- becomes commonplace I fear that people will see a puppet and immediately "make sense" of it as a protest. They might agree with us or disagree or, more commonly, be so suspicious of protests that they avoid it. That is: they have already made up their mind and the protest art we are using is confirming what they already believe. One of the powers of art is its ability to surprise: to create that moment when we don't know what is happening and our usual sense-making mechanisms are disrupted and. in that opening, there's a chance to reach new people with new ideas.  Maybe puppets still have that power (and probably  I've just been to too many protests) but it's something to think about.

object, message, impact

Stephen, I appreciate your concern about the role of giant puppets in protest. If they’ve become a common trope because of their communicative power, it might be because we forget to identify our audience. As you mentioned, puppets may be used to communicate a message to media, providing a striking visual image on a seven-second television report, or as a photograph paired with a caption or headline. I agree that this commonplace sense-making can reduce their power to a simple, propagandistic message.

Puppets can provide a process in addition to a communicating a message. I’m interested in this art form for its ritual and participatory work, where the primary audience is internal to a protest. When thousands of people gather to demonstrate, many different causes and agenda can swirl in the mix. Puppetistas at the School of Americas protests create a focal point for participants while integrating diverse causes into a common narrative. Indigenous peoples, environmentalists, migrant workers, human rights activists, survivors of violence, educators, and most participants could see themselves as part of a larger story.

Enacting that story can add historical context and future visions to the very poignant, present moment of protest. Participation in a pageant of hundreds amidst a crowd of thousands can also help a person find their voice, and use that voice together with others to explore solidarity across differences; using art as a communal thinking process. Preparation for the performance can highlight differences or contradictions to be resolved, bring participants into deeper engagement with each other, and identify priorities for the protest. And the performance itself can become a collective action that creates a less passive and individualistic experience; a figurative and literal sense of being part of something larger than yourself.

I wonder how this dialogue might address tensions in protest art between object, message, and impact?

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Puppets in protest: helping connect with audience & participants

This is an interesting discussion. I agree that we need to critique the approaches that we use and ideally question how, why, for what and to whom when using arts in protests - we can not just assume that art will automatically do what we desire it to do in these settings. We also need to think about whether there is the potential of doing more harm such as messages conveyed through art being perceived as simplistic propoganda, or being misinterpreted. But overall i think there is still a strong role for using puppets and art in general in protests.

What Mike outlines above regarding the use of arts to support participation and voice in protests rings true for me from my experience.  Additionally what i have found is that the use of puppets has helped onlookers connect to the messages that the protest is trying to convey, as well as engage and make a protest accessable to a broader cross section of community that may not feel comfortable to join otherwise. For example in Indonesia protests are seen as potentially dangerous risky events that are often dominated by Preman (mafia like people) and/or extremists from the left/right of politics or religion.  It is not a place for women, children or those that do not want to put their lives on the line to "rock the boat". Using puppets, costumes and performance turns the protest from one of agression and anger to celebration and voice. It provides a role for people within the action. Symbolism, images and ephagies connect with existing cultural naratives, so that people are able to understand what the protest is about on a different level then what they may hear being yelled through a bull horn or written across a placard or banner (particularly if rates of literacy may be low). Additionally there is the possibility for anonymity that a puppet or mask provides, that in courntries where basic human rights can not be guranteed can be a form of protection. 

Even if there hasn't been strong analysis prior to the development of puppets and art forms used in a protest (Becuase lets be honest conditions do not always  allow this), the colour and entertainment that comes through the use of these things still brings value.

Below is a photo from protests using puppets (drawing from traditional wayang kulit puppets) made and held by Porong community members calling for recognition and compensation from the Lapindo mud flow disaster where over 7 villages and tens of thousands of people have been displaced due to the continuous flow of mud, reaching as high as house roof tops, caused by exploratory mining in Sidoarjo, Jawa, Indonesia. 

photo from protests using puppets made and held by Porong community members calling for recognition and compensation from the Lapindo mud flow disaster where over 7 villages and tens of thousands of people have been displaced due to the continuous flow of mud, reaching as high as house roof tops, caused by exploratory mining in Sidoarjo, Jawa, Indonesia.
Process and participation

Thank you both for reminding me about the importance of process and participation. You are absolutely right: there is a certain politics in the inclusion of other in the creation of the protest that can-- sometimes -- be even more important than the product being produced (though ideally it's not an either/or proposition). One of the great things about the art of protest is it asks us to think about exactly this: creative process. I've been to far too many protests where my "participation" is limited to showing up at a certain time and place to take part in a spectacle created by someone else. While this is efficient (and, to be honest: sometimes I just want to be told what to do) it replicates a model of politics that we should be critical of, namely an elite model where by the politician (or the artist) determines the form of engagement and we become mere bit players in a drama already set up. A sort of consumer or spectatorship model of democracy rather than a participatory one.

My favorite model of a participatory protest is Critical Mass bike rides. Organizers do set a time and a place to begin, but where the ride goes and where we end up is open and fluid -- determined by the whims of those who happen to be at the front of the ride, as well as the police that intervene to block off certain avenues. I'm reminded of Umberto Eco's idea of modern art as an "open work" whose meaning and form are always in play (Calder's mobiles are his example.) This suggests a different role for protest "organizers" -- more as facilitators of other's participation than leaders of action.

Political Art vs Art that Works Politically

A question that might be asked of all political art (of which protest art is a subset) is: Does it work politically? This might seem like some sort of a semantic game, but there is an important distinction to be made here. Walter Benjamin, in his 1934 essay "The Author as Producer" raises this question. He uses the example of "political" art in the form of photographs of poor people. This is a form we are used to seeing today: art which is about injustice, or the struggle for justice. This covers the majority of art called political art as seen in galleries, museums, or biennales. He asks the question of what is impact of such art, and concludes that such art runs the danger of rendering politics anesthetic: making tragedy something to be seen, observed,  and worse: appreciated. "Ah, what a marvelous depiction of human rights violations!" In this way politics, merely takes the place of a landscape or a still life.

Dissatisfied with this, he asks for political art to do something more: work politically. In his case, he is interested in art -- regardless of its subject matter -- that challenges the very notion of the division of labor between the artist and the spectator: art that facilitates the passage of the spectator into the artist, the passive spectator into the active producer. What is so useful about this distinction of Benjamin's is that it allows us to shift the focus of how we understand political art: not as political content, but instead as political impact. This opens the terrain of what we perceive as political art -- an "apolitical" light sculpture of James Turrell, for instance, might have more of an impact in teaching us about perception and context, which then might be applied to differing perceptions of police officers depending upon one's subjectivities, than any photo show depicting police brutality. (James Turrell, btw, was jailed during the Vietnam War for his anti-war activities.)

Where does this fit into protest art? It asks us to shift our focus from the art itself to the political work the art does within the protest movement.

Art that works politically

Stephen, your post got me thinking about "art that works politically". I'm wondering if you would agree that this example, where artists used street art to hold politicians accountable for their public service duties and address severe road quality problems. Is this the direction you were pointing to with your post? Do you have some examples you could link us to?

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I think that's a great

I think that's a great example you provide of what I am thinking of. See also the example of Critical Mass above. In many ways it's a question of intent, as well as effect and affect (or what we've combined in a nifty new word: "æffect") I I don't think there's a defined answer to that question; it's not appropriate to dictate: Art should do...! Rather, it's a prompt top ask ourselves: what do we want our art to do?

And ... to always acknowledge that art is not a science. one of the beauties of art is its surplus of æffect -- it is always doing things we don't expect it to do!

How do we know when protest art has been successful?

Love the pot hole art (I know some pot holes i would love to do this on :-) ) and also like the concept of aeffect.

I think it is (relatively) easy to make political art that supports participation, brings life and colour, is entertaining,  and puts a message across. But one has to be brave and ambitious to make art that does has aeffect. I think it is extremely hard to actually make art that supports change.

I'm interested to know how you have known if your protest art has been successful or not at reaching its aims (or unexpected outcomes)? How have you  measured or assessed success/impact?Do you use any particualar methodologies or tools to do this, to support evidence of its success?

effects and outcomes of political art

Hi Annie, 

This is a very important question and so relevant to our practice of making this work. It is so hard to determine when political art has been successful. In Australia there has been a few exmaples of the specific relationship between an artwork and its effect. The first I am thinking of is the photograph of the Franklin River in Tasmania by Peter Dombrovskis: "Peter’s most iconic image, Rock Island Bend  was the defining symbol of the successful campaign to prevent the damming of the Franklin River for hydro-electric development. The image was used as a full-page advertisement in major Australian newspapers in the lead-up to the pivotal 1983 Federal election with the caption “Could you vote for a party that would destroy this?” The Franklin river runs through the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park in the northern area of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.  In 1980, 10,000 people marched through the streets of Hobart in protest to the construction of the dam. This remains the largest political rally in the history of Tasmania. This [helped lead] to the end of the scheme and the end of the generation of hydroelectric dam building in Australia.

Another project which functioned as both an incredibly powerful piece of theatre, film and dialogue was the Big hArt production 'Ngapartji Ngapartji' (I give you something you give me something), this project "worked on many levels and involved film, dance, music, play, collaboration, travel, campaigning, community development and friendship across the arc of the project’s 6 years." (Alex Kelly) - "The theatre production explored the impact of the Cold War and the British Atomic Tests (1953-1965) on Pitjantjatjara people through prism of the remarkable actor Trevor Jamieson’s family experience in the South Australian desert." 

This project ended up being key to the establishment of a national Indigenous languages policy in 2009 – getting Indigneous languages taught in schools across Australia. More can be read about this here & here. This project is a great example of actual policy shift through creative arts, advocacy and campaigning all part of the same project. 

So while it is not always easy to determine the actual effect of political art, sometime it can be driven with very clearn advocay and campaining intentions, leading to the shift in policy or the blocking of proposed destructive projects (mines, dams, etc.).

I would love to hear others' examples of the results of political art or creative activism. 

Making space for thinking politically

Hi Stepehn, 
Thanks for this thread, for me I feel as if making space for thinking about political issues can be an extremely powerful and political act. Whilst not explicitly making political art, making space, or making work, that allows for contemplation of political issues may indeed be more effective. Rather than a " depoliticized celebration of surface, complicitous with consumer spectacle" (Bishop 2004: 53) this kind of work can function within “the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space” (Bourriaud 1997: 14). I worked on a multi-channel video piece with artist Linda Dement, about the current and pervasive threat of nuclear weapons, however, this issue so large to tackle, we wanted to simply allow the viewer the time to contemplate and give rise to issues presented in the bits of information presented, rather than pretend to have some answer or overal education about the current state-of-play. In a way, perhaps by not showing, as you say, we honour the viewer's own capacity to have imagination, as well as the viewer's own intelligence in deciphering and contemplating the issues. 

Obstacles Faced by Artists Who Create Protest Art
In 2013 the United Nations issued a report on the right to artistic expression and creation because artists all over the world were facing restrictions on their freedom of artistic expression.  Censorship legislations in many countries, “political correctness” in society and the growth of political and religious extremism worldwide has made some types of protest art risky.  Artists have been killed, attacked, imprisoned, threatened, and sued in recent years. 
Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei has been arrested, held in prison for long periods of time, and subjected to psychological torture. His blog was shut down, his studio destroyed, he was prevented from leaving China, and he has remained under heavy surveillance.  Some suggest that Ai should have refrained from creating some of his more provocative art. Many believe that artists must find a balance between respecting and challenging society’s sensibilities.
Fearing the consequences of protest art, artists have begun to self-censor taking precautions to avoid offending anyone.  Do you self censor?
Religious Protest Art is Risky

The publication of Salmon Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" was the beginning of a war on artistic freedom, especially when it comes to religious criticism. After the book was published, the Ayatollah Khomeni of Iran issued a religious edict demanding that death be imposed on the author and all involved with his book. Rushdie, still alive, has had several attempts on his life and lives secluded with heavy bodyguard protection, but others involved with the novel have been murdered or seriously injured. The novel's Japanese translator was stabbed to death, the novel's Italian translator was knifed, and the Norwegian publisher was shot in the back.  You can read more about this in Christopher Hitchen's piece in Vanity Fair "Assasins of the Mind" 

An example of critical religious visual art causing problems is Maurizio Cattelan's La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour). When it was exhibited at the Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw Poland, the curator Anda Rottenberg was forced to resign.

Do you think artists are free to explore religious subjects critically?


Affect and Effect of Art

The difficulty in conceptualizing and articulating art’s activism is understandable, for art and activism do different work in the world. Activism, as the name implies, is the activity of challenging and changing power relations, which the political scientist Harold Lasswell famously defined as "who gets what, when, how" (Lasswell, 1936). There are many ways of doing activism and being an activist. Activism does not necessarily mean going to a protest to condemn the powers that be and demand more resources. It can just as easily be organizing a child care collective among parents in one’s neighborhood, thereby creating new resources by empowering the community. The common element is an activity targeted toward a discernible end: change a policy, create an institution, mobilize a population, overthrow a dictator. Simply, the goal of activism is action to generate an effect.

Art, on the other hand, tends not to have such a clear target. It is difficult to say what art is for or against. Its value often rests in showing us new perspectives and new ways to see our world, its impact 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 cannot quite describe or put our finger on, but which 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 is an expression that generates affect.

Stripped down to its essentials the relationships look like this:

Activism >  Effect

Art > Affect

At first glance these seem at odds with one another. Activism moves the material world, while art moves a person’s heart, body, and soul. The scope of the former is social, while the latter is individual. In fact, however, they are complimentary. The social is not some mere abstraction; society is composed of people, and change does not just happen. It happens because people make change. As such, the individual and the social are intertwined. This is pretty obvious.

Less obvious, perhaps, is why people make change (or prefer stasis). Classical democratic and economic theory would have us believe that people enact change having been “enlightened” to do so through a process of rational choices based on reasoned deliberation with full access to information. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European coffeehouse is the model for this Enlightenment-era ideal. As I have argued elsewhere, this faith in political reason is just that: a faith (Duncombe 2007). As recent developments in cognitive science suggest, we make sense of our world less through reasoned deliberation of facts and more through stories and symbols that frame the information we receive. And, as any seasoned activist can tell you, people do not soberly decide to change their mind and act accordingly. They are moved to do so by emotionally powerful stimuli. As such, when it comes to stimulating social change, affect and effect are not discrete ends but are all up in each other’s business. If there is a causal relationship, it is this:

Affect > Effect

That is to say: before we act in the world, we must be moved to act. We might think of this as: Affective Effect or, if you prefer: Effective Affect. Or, using the grapheme æ, we can encompass both affect and effect by creating a new word: Æffect.

If anyone is interested, I wrote an article a while back where I explored this whole idea of activist art's Æffect (and even include a -- tongue-in-cheek mathematical formula for determining æffect!). I can't seem to attach it here, but if you want a copy send me a note at and I'll get it to you.