What Does Protest Art Look Like?

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What Does Protest Art Look Like?

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

  • Provide examples of protest art in past and current movements.
    • Who organized the project in what places in reaction to what event?
  • How do the artists adapt to the different audiences they speak to?
  • How can protest art be preserved and remembered?
  • Share stories of success.
Thinking about Rosa Parks as Protest Art

 An epic moment in the Civil Rights struggle: It’s 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama and Rosa Parks, a tired seamstress, refuses to give up her seat to a white person to sit in the back of a segregated bus. This was the act that launched the Civil Rights Movement into the public eye.

We all know this story. But what some of us don't know is the story behind the story: it was a planned performance by an accomplished political actor.
Parks was an experienced activist and political organizer. Parks trained at the Highlander Center, a progressive politics and cultural training center in Tennessee, and was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP. She refused to move from her seat knowing full well what she was doing and what the ramifications would be. And that iconic picture of Parks seated on the bus? It wasn’t a spontaneous moment, miraculously capturing the instant she became a heroine. It was a staged photo, shot on an empty bus o​ne year later. ​The white man sitting behind her in the wide shot is not the racist who demanded her seat, but a United Press reporter asked to take a seat behind Parks to emphasize the racial contrast for the photograph. This is the real Rosa Parks story.

It was a staged performance -- an act of protest "art," if you will.  But none of this means that Parks’ act of civil disobedience wasn’t “real” --  ­­ it was. When she refused to give up her seat that momentous day she was, no doubt, tired from her long day of work as a seamstress, and she, indeed, could not sit in the front of the bus in the segregated South. But her act that day was also a well thought out performance to dramatize the reality of racial inequality to a larger world that either didn’t know or didn’t care. And it worked.

The art that tthe Civil Rights movement mastered, again and again, from Rosa Parks and the bus boycott in 1955 to the campaign to desgregate Birmingham Alabama in 1963, and beyond wat the Performance of Reality. W​e often think of performance as something that manifests a fiction. It can be this, and performance in this way is useful in allowing us to visualize and act out our dreams – to “demonstrate” our convictions or prefigure our ideals. But performance is also useful in dramatizing what already exists: making the invisible visible. Sometimes reality needs help.

It's interesting to consider

It's interesting to consider Rosa Parks a performance artist. While I knew her protest was planned, I never once considered it art as much as I considered it protest and defiance in the face of oppression. While I'm no stranger to protest performances her's was undeniably more effective than any of the work that I have done. I may have changed the hearts and minds of the few people I interacted with when I spent all of October 2014 in prison jumpsuits speaking to strangers about mass incarceration, but hers challenged the hearts and minds of Americans across the country. 

I'm curious as to your opinion about why it was so effective. I've always attributed it to community organizing around the bus boycott and her ability to create sympathy in the viewer. I know there was a lot of different people who did this before her but their stories were not pushed to the forefront because they did not have a personal story that would survive mainstream media scrutiny. As if one must be entirely innocent to have permission to challenge authority effectively. 

Thoughts on effectiveness?



Protest as Performance Art
I’m glad that “performance” has surfaced as a key term here, as I find it very rich analytically.  While a common definition of performance is a staged event, involving acting/pretending, and set apart from Reality, there is also a long dramaturgical tradition of reading everyday life as performance—most famously in Erving Goffman’s work.  The US Civil Rights movement contains many powerful Reality Performances (to borrow Stephen’s term from above), and the activists in the movement refined their tactics through trial and error.  They considered both the immediate audiences on site (the bus driver and riders, police and other onlookers) as well as the newspaper and television cameras, which gave access to broader audiences across the US and around the world.
Take, for instance, the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960.  Just like Ann explains regarding Rosa Parks’ case, the “first” sit-ins—the four North Carolina A&T students who asked to be serve at the Greensboro Woolworth’s counter—were not, in fact, the first.  Activists in several cities had conducted trial sit-ins in the 1950s, and some communities (most notably Nashville) had been preparing for many months for a sustained sit-in campaign.  It just so happened that the Greensboro sit-in ignited a fire that quickly spread across the south, involving thousands of sit-inners in more than seventy communities.  It’s interesting that in our public memory of Civil Rights, we tend to highlight the seemingly spontaneous, brave acts of a few iconic people, like Parks, while ignoring or forgetting the sustained community organizing work that provided the preparation and support structures enabling those protest performances to succeed.
Ann, it occurs to me that perhaps one difference between your prison awareness performance and the Civil Rights performances (on segregated buses and at bus terminals, at lunch counters) is that the Civil Rights protests enacted exactly what they demanded—peaceful, respectful integration—in the very public spaces under consideration.  This is qualitatively different from marching in the streets, or even picketing outside of a drugstore or bus terminal.  The sit-inners were performing themselves, not dressed in costume pretending to be someone else.  (Many of them did, however, rehearse in advance, through training and role-playing exercises that allowed them to practice remaining non-violent in the face of insults, taunts, and physical aggression.)
I’ve written an essay exploring embodied performance and memory at the ICRCM (International Civil Rights Center and Museum) in Greensboro, NC; there are beautiful photos of the museum (taken by Jeremy Lange) embedded in the essay.  Also, the online journal in which it appears, Liminalities, might be a useful resource for activists interested in performance.
Finally, regarding prison performance: here is a link to an interview with my colleague, choreographer Amie Dowling, and a video of her work “Well Contested Sites,” featuring 12 formerly incarcerated dancers at Alcatraz.
What are other examples of Reality Performances?  Or what are some spaces where such performances might be effective today?
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The story behind the story

Thanks, Srephen, for sharing this story behind the Rosa Parks' story! As a visual artist myself, it has never occured to me that this photo (above) was stage-managed! Now it's all cleared and perfectly understood. Even without knowing the Rosa Parks' story, this image alone is a powerful communication device not only on racial issues, but gender disparity as well. Again, this image is a proof of a million word in a single image, The power of visual art!

Rehearsing for or sit-in harassment, Petersburg, Va., 1960.

Here's a series of photos that came out in Time magazine in 1960 of students training for lunch counter sit-ins and the  inevitable harassment they would face. I like this series because it strips away the myth that these were acts of spontaneous outrage and shows them for what they were: disciplined, rehearsed performances.


You can see the whole series here:

Making the Invisible Visible

I make the invisible visible too. My medium is discarded clothing. Clothing meant to conceal, reveals the suffering and psychological trauma experienced by people who have been "discarded," ignored, considered disposable.  I shred clothes that cover up to expose pain and sadness that lies underneath, give new life to the used, downtrodden, forgotten, and unwanted. I unmake a traumatic past by deconstructing the clothes to create a new whole. I depict non-high art subjects and feelings to demonstrate that all people matter, that we have our humanity in common. My emotional textile portraits  bear witness to the lives of ordinary human beings who are suffering and go unnoticed. I bring the viewer face to face with their invisible stories. I reveal how it feels to be affected by hatred, discrimination, oppression, genocide, and displacement.

Making Visible, Facing

What beautiful, powerful art, Linda.

It reminded me of one part of Ai Weiwei's installation on Alcatraz a few years ago, featuring portraits of dissidents and political prisoners around the world, constructed from Legos.  It was not the materials/medium that was so significant in this work, but the location ...


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Art as protest and memorial

Thank you Linda (for sharing your beautiful art) and Marilyn (for the installation art example). It made me think of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Initially started from a protest march where people named and remembered their loved ones who had died of AIDS. The quilt took on greater community meaning and has served  as a tremendous symbol around the world. The quilt galvanized people to action in many ways.

Do others see this as an example of what Stephen was sharing in his post regarding Art that Works Politically?

AIDS quilt

Yes, I agree that the AIDS quilt was (and still is) powerful protest art.  I like that it was collectively constructed (participatory creative process, discussed in another thread), and that it employed longstanding craft traditions that symbolize loving care, protection, and family.  The quilt was also powerful as a traveling memorial ... usually memorials are rooted in place and hence immovable.

Material and Process As Part of the Narrative

Thank you for the kind words Marilyn and Nancy.  In my work the material and process are paramount. Due to their intimate associations with the body, articles of clothing function as powerful metaphors for the human condition. I peel back the layers of the past (the clothes) to let in the light, making what was previously invisible visible. My deconstruction and transformation of the castoffs reveals what lies underneath, the hidden authentic emotions. These textiles carry the stories of those society overlooks: women, children, black people, old people, immigrants, refugees, the disappeared, the displaced. They are created using a self-taught variation of rug hooking, but I am not making rugs. Metaphorically rugs represent the downtrodden I take off the floor. My “rugs,” rags, and their stories are elevated onto museum and gallery walls; the feelings and subject matter usually swept under the rug are now visible on the surface for all to see. 

The Women's March on Washington

Today when I think of protest art- I immediately think of the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017. As an activist artist I was absolutely blown away by the creativity, humor and power that these 100,000s of women brought to Washington. While there were images printed in mass through amazing groups like The Amplifier Foundation (of which one may find my work to download for free on their site) what really struck me was the individual hand made signs that people poured their heart and souls into. It had the air of Occupy as everyone was there for their own personal reasons but we were united together in that moment in time. 

The signs were created by artists of all kind- most of the women (and men) marching were not professional artists but nurses, waitresses, administrators, small business owners, lawyers, mothers, daughters etc. It was stunning to see so many people united through creativity- posing with complete strangers because one felt an affinity to another’s artwork, or creative style. This created community, filled the wells of resistance, compassion, and solidarity. We found joy in our unity while facing such foreboding times.

What were your experiences at a Women’s March or any other protest recently?

Did you connect with others through creativity? Did seeing other’s artwork inspire you to create new things, or see the world with a different perspective?

Has fashion becomes visual art?

Is fashion becoming visual art? I have been looking at the pink Pussyhats worn by many women during the March on Washington (in the U. S. and around the world) last January. Can one consider these hats as visual arts? 

Pussy hats- fashion as art

Absolutely! Fashion as well as crafting have been considered art for generations. I love that a simple pattern was shared around the country, well world really, and that replicated 1,000s of objects of protest. Almost like the protest pin or patch from the 60s and 70s I could tell who was "with me" when I see a hat. It's also very exciting to see people wearing their political opinions on their sleeves. The amount of protest tees in the last few months is unprecedented in my lifetime. It's important to note that people are using their clothing to represent their ideals and beliefs. I hope the fashion world takes a cue from that and uses this progressive movement to create pieces or items that will help people protest more effectively- proper pockets, RFID proof sleeves for phones, waterproof etc. There's so much the fashion world can do with this movement. I hope they try

Fashion as a Strategic Tool

Textiles have a history of being used for political subversion with women using textiles as an outlet to express feelings of dismay and dislike since the 18th century. Yes, clothes can quash women’s voices, handicap them, act as a distraction from their achievements and substance, but they can also be a strategic communication tool, an embodiment of their voices as we see in the message T shirts, the pussy hats, and the proliferation of women wearing their voices. As a former New York City high fashion retailer, I know the power that comes from clothes. I am still using clothes for image creation and as a communication tool, though in a different way, as a visual artist using discarded clothing to create protest art.

Pussy hats - fashion as art

Thanks to you both - Ann and Linda - for making the connection between these two. Much appreciated!

I love that the pussy hats did several things: 1. They were a visual meme that reclaimed a sexist, offensive term uttered by DJT, turning it into an empowering oppositional statement; 2. They gave aesthetic unity (amidst diversity of peoples, signs, messages, locations) to vast numbers of people; 3. They enabled sewers and knitters unable to march in DC to participate and support the protest via their craft; 4. They facilitated an immediate solidarity among marchers (as Ann mentions above); 5. They remain as visible, wearable traces after the day of the marches, that continue to evoke their spirit.  What else did they do …?
(This thread also reminds me of anti-establishment protest fashion from the second half of the 20th century—hippies, punks—as well as the strategic use of brightly colored balaclavas by Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist protest band.)
The Power of the Pussy Hat

You know what else I love about the pussy hats? They didn't take themselves so seriously. They're all kind of wonky, funny looking accessories. I went down with a crew of 15 women to DC and one of my marching sisters knitted one for each of us. At first I didn't really want to wear it- thinking it looked sort of foolish. By the end of the weekend I didn't want to take it off. I felt a part of something huge, and powerful, and relaxed about it. They're kind of silly and that lightheartedness was much needed around the inauguration. The inclusiveness as Medelaure mentioned above was what the women's march was all about. It really gave that ethos a visual representation. They were also a creative outlet for so many. Regardless of whether they were participating in the march it gave those with the skills an ability to process their emotions around the election. The importance of that process should not be undervalued.

Fashion as a Strategic Tool

Textiles have a history of being used for political subversion with women using textiles as an outlet to express feelings of dismay and dislike since the 18th century. Yes, clothes can quash women’s voices, handicap them, act as a distraction from their achievements and substance, but they can also be a strategic communication tool, an embodiment of their voices as we see in the message T shirts, the pussy hats, and the proliferation of women wearing their voices. As a former New York City high fashion retailer, I know the power that comes from clothes. I am still using clothes for image creation and as a communication tool, though in a different way, as a visual artist using discarded clothing to create protest art.

Suffragette fashion

Whenever I think of fashion in -- or as -- protest I think of the 1913 Women's Suffrage parade, where women activists -- in order to counter the prevailing stereotypes of suffragettes as "mannish" dressed in white flowing dress, appropriating the (sexist) idea of "true womanhood" in order to further their cause.

50 odd years later their sisters staged a protest at a beauty pageant in Atlantic City and threw garments (bras, girdles, etc ) that signified 'the (sexist) idea of "true womanhood" 'into a "freedom trash can." Reminds me that fashion, like all signs, is always changing its meanings.

Historical symbols carried into the present

The suffragette fashion was on exhibit this week by women congress members who chose to wear white to the President's address to Congress. They invoked the historical symbol of women's rights as a call to action to protect and advance women's rights today.

This reminded me of the "raised fist" symbol that has been used by many movements as a symbol of protest and solidarity. This article was originally generated for the "Battle Emblems" exhibit at San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts February-March 2006.

I wanted to highlight just a couple of artist renderings:

  • 1917 Worker Movement
  • South African anti-apartheid movement
  • 1960's Black Panthers, USA
  • Feminist movement

I found this recent article, The Resistance Will Be Emojified, very interesting to see the present day adoption of this symbol in our social media interactions.

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2017 Fall Fashion Shows Marked by Protest Collections

For her Milan 2017 Fashion Week show designer Angela Missoni created her own high fashion pink pussy hats in the brand’s signature zigzag knits. They were placed on every seat in the house and the models wore them during the finale. There was a more subtle message in the clothing she paraded down the runway: Her knits combined many colors and patterns often heavily layered to demonstrate that different stripes and squares and diamonds can mesh beautifully. The message was unity. At the end of the show she made an impassioned speech: “In a time of uncertainty, there is a bond between us that can keep us strong and safe: the bond that unites those that respect the human rights of all." Some proceeds from the Missoni hat collection are earmarked for the American Civil Liberties Union and the UN Refugee Agency. 

This Missoni collection which combines different colors and patterns to create a harmonious whole reminds me of my own artistic process of combining pieces of fabrics with disparate textures, patterns, and colors to create a unified new whole. My message is the same, unity, peace and tolerance.

Performance Art and Clothing

This line of discussion around performance and clothing reminded me of a few articles that I had come across recently:







In Lebanon, women wear bridal dresses with blood on them while silently protesting a law which allows "rapists to avoid prosecution if they marry their victims." Via http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/12/lebanon-abolish-article-522-rape-marriage-women-rights.html#ixzz4ZzcQqkP8








In Kosovo, an "art installation in [a] football stadium addresses silence surrounding wartime rape, putting a new spin on ‘airing dirty laundry.’" Via https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/11/kosovo-sexual-violence-survivors-art-dresses


Clothing, Gandhi & the Indian independence movement

There's an interesting book on clothing, Gandhi & Indian independence movement

The book is billed as 'a communication analysis of Gandhi’s Swadeshi Revolution'


From an overview of the book:

This is the first analysis of Gandhi's dressing style in terms of communication theory and an exploration of the subliminal messages that were subtly communicated to a large audience. Peter Gonsalves chooses three famous theorists from the field of communication studies and looks at Gandhi through the lens of each one, to give us a fascinating and new insight into one of the most famous men from South Asia.


The author first prepares the ground for the theoretical investigation by exploring the breadth of Gandhi's communication skills. He provides essential information on a wide range of Gandhi's communication skills, with a view to proposing interesting areas of research for communication scholars. 


The book deals with the qualitative and quantitative aspects of Gandhi's verbal output, his linguistic capacity, his journalistic and letter-writing style, his peace communication in an atmosphere of conflict, his organizational ability and the international repercussions of his mass mediated messages. It also elaborates the different types of non-verbal communication he used, such as silence, fasting, clothing, personal presence and charisma. The book closes with, perhaps for the first time, a Gandhian approach to symbolization for socio-political change.


Photographs of Gandhi in different phases of his life have been used to provide a visual chronology of sartorial change and emphasize the arguments in the book.

Wedding dresses

Wow, that project in Lebanon is powerful. It reminds me of Zoe Buckman's show Imprison her Soft Hands currently on view at Project for Empty Space in Newark. "By outfitting bunches of boxing gloves in reconstituted wedding dress fabric, Buckman explores the complex aggressions that women face each day. Her use of seemingly discordant textures- ‘tough’ materials such as rough metal with soft ‘feminine’ fabrics, further speaks to this idea, as well as the idea that not only can women be both ‘feminine’ and ‘ferocious’, but that women must be that way." 
The work is stunning and if you're in the NYC area I highly recommend going to see the show while it's up. 

I'm having an issue uploading images at the moment- but check her site for images: http://www.zoebuckman.com/art/let-her-rave/


Capacity for effective protest art within gallery walls

I just wanted to pose the question about how effective can protest art be within the constrains of gallery walls? It seems a lot of protest art is public - reaching to the masses - or to those who wouldn't ordinarily step inside a gallery, nor have time, impetus to do so. I’m currently part of a national touring exhibition called 'Black Mist Burnt Country' in Australia which showcases over 30 Australian artists (Indigenous and non-Indigenous), in all mediums, who have responded to ‘the bomb’ – nuclear legacies of Hiroshima, but mostly the British atomic testing program at Maralinga in South Australia. This tour began in Sydney, which is where it will be seen by the most people, but also people who may already be aware of what happened at Maralinga. The work shown covers early Australian painters who responded to Hiroshima like Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd who painted about Maralinga, but then goes through the decades depicting and responding to the each political and social climate of the day. Throughout the 80s and 90s a lot of political posters were being made and these were usually displayed publically as a call to action or in protest to what was happening at the time. Today, more contemporary works are made, depicting the ongoing legacy of these nuclear tests on Aboriginal people, servicemen and citizens, using a lot of new media processes. This kind of exhibition has the capacity to shed light on issues that have since been brushed under the carpet, and certainly not taught in schools. It also has the capacity to bring new awareness to lesser known artists, mostly Aborignal artists, who have been making work about what devastation occurred on their homeland and to their people, works that many Australians will have never seen before. This exhibition is a call to action and a warning against future nuclear developments in Australia, such as the proposed nuclear waste dump for South Australia.

I wonder what you think the effectiveness of having this kind of work shown in galleries, rather than out on the streets somehow?


Protest in Gallery Spaces?

Thanks for raising this question Jessie. It's one I've been thinking about a lot -- and have ended up with more questions than answers. Since I tend to approach protest art as an activist, the first question that comes to mind for me is: who are we trying to impact? which then raises a second: are they there in the gallery?  This might seem to lead to the conclusion that protest art in galleries is useless since gallery goers tend to be  the (cultural, at least) elite. But they can be an important audience in that this audience -- for good or ill -- tends to have access to and influence institutions of education, culture and media, which, in turn have access to politicians, policy makers and students. This may not be a grassroots strategy for social change that we often hold up as the ideal, but having an impact on elites -- opening their eyes and changing their perspectives -- can have real impact on laws that are passed and the goals of institutions which, in turn, can have a large impact on the rest of society.

Protest art in galleries also raises another set of questions around how context effects reception: Does the very gallery setting reduce anything within its walls to merely an object of aesthetic appreciation -- and not a stimulus to reflection and action?

Galleries and Museums
The question of location for protest art is a really interesting one.  A gallery, museum, or theater is a privileged space with a predominantly cultural elite audience, as Stephen states above.  They are sanctioned spaces, set apart from everyday life, demarcated for art: “here, this is of aesthetic value.”  That said, I don’t think that an artwork or performance appearing in such a space means it can ONLY elicit aesthetic appreciation.  In some cases, protest art appearing in galleries and museums has the power to disrupt the expected mode of reception (quiet contemplation and appreciation) and prompt political reflection and action.  The first such transgressive work I can remember encountering in an art museum was Dread Scott’s “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?”
On the question of audience: I wonder if protest art in galleries and museums reaches youth in educational contexts (field trips in the US), perhaps to a greater extent than protest art in the streets.  Jessie, do you know if organized school groups have attended and/or studied “Black Mist Burnt Country”?
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Museums and Galleries vs the Internet

As we slip further into a digital age and a majority of the information we receive on a daily basis comes from a screen and not a real like experience how necessary is it that we push for these conversations to live in museum and gallery spaces? 

Is digital protest as effective as real life protest? Do we need the real life power of physical action to create the response on the internet? I would argue that memes do not change the world, and that real life protest does, but I'm curious as to your opinions- specifically Stephen's as I have watched your work happen in real life and take off like wild fire on the internet. Is there an example where artists or hackers have created waves online that perhaps were as effective as real life protest art?

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Online Artistic Activism

Great question Ann -- and more and more pertinent as more and more of our life (and creativity) takes place on-line. Some of the first on-line activism, organized by artists like Ricardo Dominguez around the Zapatista uprising way back in the early 1990s were "Virtual sit-ins" (AKA Denial Of Service attacks). I asked Ricardo the very question you are asking now and his response was interesting. He was pretty realistic about the "real" impact of trying to "occupy: a website when the only witnesses were the IT people trying to stop the attack. His secondary goal, however, was getting the press to write about the attack and using that as a platform to discuss the political issues at hand. In other words: the "symbol" of the action -- properly publicized -- had more effect than the actual action.

The jury is still out about digital organizing and real political impact, Three recent books  deal with this issue pretty well: Paulo Gerbaudo's  Tweets and the Streets,  Lance Bennett and  Alexandra Segerberg's Logic of Collective action, and Zizi Papacharissi's Affective Publics. The most polemical criticism written so far is probably Malcolm Gladwell's article in the NYer "Small change." All of these are more about digital activism, and less about art activism on line but I've found them helpful -- particularly Gerbaudo and Papacharissi's discussions of the importance of affect in on-line communications. Seems like there might be a fruitful spill over into our interests in the arts.

BTW: as far as our work with the Center for Artistic Activism. We tend to look at the digital as just a communications medium that helps amplify -- and connect with others --  the work we do on the ground. We should probably give it more thought though.

the long march through institutions

The role of art institutions with protest art is complicated and fraught with issues of appropriation, divorce from context, commodification, etc. Yet I also appreciate the insights of Chantal Mouffe - a Belgian political philosopher - who claims we cannot give up on institutions:

am convinced that fostering strategy of "engagement with institutions" is absolutely crucial for envisioning
democratic politics today. We must acknowledge that what is called "the social" is the realm of sedimented 
political practices--practices that conceal the originary acts of their contingent political institution--but recognize as well that such moments of political institution can always be reactivated. Every order is
predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities, but as the temporary and precarious articulation of 
contingent practices, each order is always the expression of particular structureof power relations. 
Things could have been otherwise. And so every hegemonic order is susceptible to being challenged.

Mouffe, C. (2010). Essay. Artforum International, 48(10), 326.

Protest art in the context of art museums can reach people who might not attend the protest. It might be compared to the "high art" typically collectd my museums. It might also challenge and change the role of museums from a focus on aethestics to a broad inclusion of political content and impact. 

I was moved last summer by the "Agitprop!" show at the Brooklyn Museum that ended at an installation about gentrification and community organizing in the neighborhood of the museum. It gave me sense of the potential for art to "work" on a musuem audience that may not encounter the work otherwise. I agree with Mouffe that we should not concede insitutions as a place for cultural contestation. 

In a bizarre twist on this sentiment, art institutions may be on their way to becoming contested spaces in new and violent ways:

Anti-Fascists Clash With Right-Wing Group Inside the Minneapolis Museum of Art

The culture war becomes very, very real.



Museum and Gallery Group Shows Need Promotion

Jessie from my experience this type of work can effectively be shown in a gallery setting only when the gallery owner/director is a good promoter. I have participated in so many group shows in museums and galleries with few visitors except for family and friends of the artists. These shows got little to no press attention, and made no sales of the art.  After many years of these exhibitions, I was fortunate enough to be selected for a group show curated by a gallery owner who is also an artist, someone who strongly believes in the art she shows and knows how to promote it. In addition to having social and media connections, she hires a publicist, a photographer, and a doorman for gallery events. Her gallery hosts crowded opening receptions (that discourage family visitors), packed closing receptions, artist talks full of attendees. The show I was in was featured in Newsweek as well as in other important national and international print publications as well as in dozens of social media magazines.   

re: promotion

Yes agreed Linda - in regards to BMBC - the aforementioned exhibition - the initial showing of the work was highly publicised and highly reviewed - however the subsequent showings in regional areas have been poorly promoted and poorly attended/reviewed - leading much to the question as what kind of value do we place on regional spaces and places of conversation and dialogue, as well as how much do we respect those not living in the cities - much to the question of who the exhibtion promotes rather than the issues presented. 


What does protest art SOUND like?
Much of the art work highlighted so far in this conversation has been visual arts (paintings, textiles, fashion, photography, puppets).  What about music?  What role does music play in protests and activism?
Singing was a widely used tactic in the US Civil Rights movement.  The song “We Shall Overcome,” for instance, became a sort of anthem for the struggle, and has been adapted and used in many protests since.  I’ve heard Civil Rights veterans describe the incredible power of joining one’s voice with a powerful chorus singing exuberantly in a church before a march.  Singing is physical and participatory, it helps calm fear among protestors, and (depending on the tone of the song) can also quell anger and tension in onlookers.  Singing is a way to exert collective force in threatening contexts: marching in the streets, sitting in jails.  Songs are easy to remember, reach broad audiences, and can be adaptable to new contexts—inventing new lyrics for the verses.
What stories do people have of using music as a protest tactic?
Chant Queen

Here's a link to a great interview we did with Ron Goldberg: the "chat queen" for ACT-UP


Richie Havens Protest Music

Listen to Richie Havens combining “Motherless Child,” a traditional "negro" spiritual sung in the days of slavery with his song "Freedom" at Woodstock in 1969. When he screams "freedom" over and over it makes me cry. 


Educational programs as part of exhibitions

Dear Marilyn, 

Thanks for your comment, I have definitely seen incredibly powerful and political works inside galleries, and certainly not provided only for aesthetics.. For example: Currently on now in Melbourne: https://acca.melbourne/exhibition/sovereignty/ - when I was in the states in 2012 I saw a number of political exhibitions including at the Contemporary art museum in Chicago : https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2012/This-Will-Have-Been-Art-Love-Politics-In-The-1980s - and https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2012/Rashid-Johnson-Message-To-Our-Folks - I think some institutions are more willing to  be 'risky' than others..

In response to your question about whether school groups are given tours of the exhibitions - Yes - the BMBC exhibition has an extensive schools program and educational resource attached to it - this was made possible by arts funding and I think an incredibly important part of the exhibition and exhibitions generally.  http://blackmistburntcountry.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/BlackMistBurntCountry_Educational_Resource_sm.pdf

On what and who is impacted

Hi Stephen, 

Yes indeed, the who and what is the intended impact is a huge question - I think we can't undermine the impact that art has on individuals - even in their own lives - We may never know, but I think a bit of trust and belief in this process is helpful sometimes - along with the more tangible imapcts that we are talking about. 


Long term impact

Exactly Jessie -- that's what makes activist ART so different than the immediate instrumentality of say, petitions or political campaigns. Because art is about changed perspectives and altered consciousness its impact may not show up for years... and in ways we were not even looking for. I'm thinking of Ranciere's "(re)distribution of the sensible" here. That's why faith in what we do is so important. Thank you for reminding me.

Protest art/theatre & the climate movement- the Pacific Warriors

Here's another example of political theatre and 'acting out what you demand'. In 2014, members of 350 Pacific and their supporters staged a confrontation with coal ships in Newcastle, Australia - the world's largest coal port.

Images from the event can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/350org/sets/72157648810280615

Some of what stood out about the event - 

• it was vivid
• it condensed the complexities of climate change into a dramatic, easily recognisable event 
• it generated strong emotional reactions 
• it had depth - it was grounded in Pacific culture, and symbols such as canoes which had powerful meaning 
• it was also grounded in extensive community-based work ahead of the event itself
• it gained high-level support (e.g. from Hon. Edward Nipake Natapei, twice Prime Minister of Vanuatu as well as its President, and at the time M.P. for Port Vila and President of the Vanuaku Party https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QS193BRhDlY)
• it provided a springboard for ongoing action - e.g. a divestment campaign in the Pacific and Australia, a Pacific Warriors event at the Vatican, subsequent canoe-based protests at the same and other locations
• it generated worldwide media attention
it generated energy - e.g. for participants from the Pacific and within their communities, for supporters in Australia who found the event a transformative and foundational moment for their sense of why climate change matters, for people who went on to participate in follow-up events, for bringing 350 Pacific together as a movement, for people who attended public forums around Australia in the week afterwards
• in the spirit of "showing, not telling" it helped put the issue of coal exports on the climate change agenda when the debate tended to focus more on solar panels and abstract economic policies

A live blog for the event is at http://world.350.org/pacificwarriors/newcastle-flotilla-live-blog/

The following article was released to coincide with the event


Pacific Warriors twitter meme
Imagination, reality, Trump & politics

Thinking about some of the recent comments about Trump and his speech to the US Congress:

Mother Jones' David Corn‏ is concerned that the focus is on the tone and not on the substance of what Trump said, tweeting
"Democracy dies in the darkness. It also dies if journalists pay more attention to tone than substance."

Vox's  Matthew Yglesias argues, "Trump is only ever performing the role of the president; he’s never doing the job." "The Trump Show never stops" "The show is an increasingly meaningless spectacle." and "the Trump Show itself — the series of tweets, speeches, interviews, and provocations undertaken by the president of the United States in lieu of governing — is tedious and irrelevant. It’s time to start learning how to tune it out."

These views seem to miss the way that Trump's "tone" and his "show" / his political theatre is powerful:

With ‘Make America Great Again’, ‘Hillary’s emails’, ‘Mexican rapists’, ‘Build the wall’, the ‘Muslim ban’, ‘low energy Hillary’ and ‘drain the swamp’ Trump was able to energise his base and define Clinton for so many people in the US. 

"Real" politics was taking place here, at the level of images and metaphors,
however some people are suggesting that the focus should shift away from tone and theatre to other aspects of reality. It's just that it seems that it's at least PARTLY in the area of images & metaphors that Trump WINS. Trump himself declared "I play to people’s fantasies." https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2015/06/17/how-donald-...

I think part of the task of progressive groups is to engage people's imagination in a way that is more powerful than people like Trump.