In one way or another, at some point in our lives, we have engaged in some form of art. From the most privileged folks who get to play with oil paints or computer tablets, to the poorest who find the most creative ways to turn junk into something beautiful. Art can be a form of self-expression, a copying mechanism, a way of challenging power dynamics, an opportunity to make political statements, and a tool to channel cultural values and even change them.

I immediately think of The ArtFabric project, which is an initiative that connects street artists with underprivileged communities. The ArtFabric team engages in conversations with local communities about vital social issues, such as homelessness, displaced and marginalized people, and take their voices to the streets.

I also think of the countless social justice movements which use art as a tool for social change and liberation. According to Benjamin Shepard,
“[…] Play is useful for social movements in countless ways. The following considers four ways play contributes to campaigns:

  1. It offers a generally—but not always—non-violent way of engaging power, playing with power, rather than replicating oppression patterns or power dynamics. Here, play allows social actors to disarm opponents. The results are new forms of social relations.
  2. It serves as a means for community building. For many, the aim of movement organizing is to create not only an external solution to problems, but to create communities of support and resistance. Herein, play takes on a prefigurative community-building dimension.
  3. It effectively supports a coordinated organizing effort. At its most vital, play is at its most useful as part of an effort which includes many traditional components of an organizing campaign. Without such an integration, play is less useful; it becomes a form of repressive de-sublimation (Marcuse).
  4. Yet, at its most vital, play invites people to participate. Between its use of culture and pleasure, it engages and intrigues. Through its low threshold means, it allows new participants into the game of social activism.”

There are many different forms of play: it can be pieces like posters, music, street art, etc., or creative actions with which activists, who are not necessarily artists, express play. Let’s take a look at just a few powerful examples of art done strategically and with a purpose.

  • Julio Salgado is a queer “artivist,” author of the series “I am Undocuqueer,” which addresses LGBTQI+ and immigration struggles.
  • Favianna Rodriguez is an interdisciplinary artist, cultural organizer, and political activist based in Oakland, California. Her art and collaborative projects address migration, economic inequality, gender justice, and ecology.
  • Papel Machete is a theater group which challenges norms and generates social change by coming together and reflecting inequalities in their art.
  • The Rude Mechanical Orchestra (RMO) is a 30-odd-piece New York City radical marching band and dance troupe. Through music and performance, they strive to support people and communities working for social justice.

What practical lessons can we, activists, take from these artists and artist collectives? Do we all have to become Julio’s or Favianna’s, actors, painters, illustrators, musicians and so on? Yes, but not in a professional sense – rather, in a way that can magnify our movement by allowing art and play to enter our toolkit.

To fight issues related to AIDS, ACT UP utilized ZAPS, which included storming offices and distributing fact sheets or sending (lots and lots of) faxes. 38 Degrees members dismantled the National Health Service with a very creative way of delivering their petition. Overpass Light Brigade brought to light issues that wanted to remain in the dark by creating LED messaging. Massive die-ins, like the ones organized by Black Lives Matter, are a powerful visualization of police brutality. Those are all forms of play done by people who are not necessarily artists by profession.

Activists with Collectively Free go from being teachers or managers to art directors, film editors, actors, musicians, performers, illustrators, painters, prop makers, costume designers, technicians and singers. Someone with zero performing experience can learn how to put together a #SwapSpeciesism action, #UnmaskTheTruth, or similar actions, and contribute with creative ideas for actions. Anyone can pick up a bucket and a stick, and lead the rhythm of a march. Everyone can, and should, reclaim art for animals.

Research estimates that vision trumps all of the senses for vision-abled people and plays a key component in information retention and in the learning process. This is most evident in data presentation: a high volume of text or numbers can be complicated and exhausting to go through, but if a graphic designer were to visually organize it into an infographic, it would become much more accessible.

In some cases when visual information collides with that from sound, it can cause what we see to alter what we hear – see the McGurk Effect. Alternatively, when one sense isn’t available, another one can jump in. For instance, people who are blind can train their hearing to be used for multiple purposes.

That being said, all of our senses work together to enable the mind to better understand the world and its surroundings. Why not take advantage of this and think of ways we can create multi-sensorial actions? Currently CF is working on ideas that involve multiple senses. A good way to start turning a campaign’s message into art is to ask the following questions:

  1. Are we using visual elements?
  2. Are they just posters and banners? Is there a way we can make them more interesting? Perhaps a giant cut out can help emphasize a few points.
  3. Are we using additional props?
  4. Are we exploring sound? Are we exploring smell?
  5. Are we inviting the public to participate or are we treating them as a mere audience?
  6. Are we creating an experience, an unexpected way of conveying the message?

NOTE: I’m a huge fan of satire and find humor to be a great way to break walls and call attention to serious issues by ridiculing the power dynamics. Satire does need to be well crafted and thought of, however – and we must always be mindful of that. Here’s a brilliant example of satire done right.

At CF we believe in taking a holistic approach to activism, where we focus on the relationships between oppressions and not so much on them individually. Since we believe that we won’t dismantle individual oppressions, say speciesism, until we start dismantling the relationships between them (speciesism + patriarchy + xenophobia, etc.), it’s very important for us to ensure that our artivism too follows that model.

The process of becoming an artivist is fun, sometimes demanding, frustrating but extremely valuable and important. Exploring ourselves and finding ways to express social and political change without a doubt strengthens the sense of community.

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Artivism is practical and memorable. Mickey Melendez is part of the New York’s Young Lords, which is a Latino liberationist direct action group. He talks about the dancing and performances by Tito Puente at fundraisers to raise money to pay for lawyers to keep activists out of jail and the music during meetings.

Sure, actions that rely on a more elaborate artistic approach can require more time from activists: from rehearsals and research, to hands-on sessions. But it’s all worth it if it means a more impactful and memorable action.

There’s a lot to learn from other groups like the Theater of the Oppressed, founded by Augusto Boal, which has created a series of exercises for activists to concretize their activist goals into a performance. Boal has a book called  “Games of Actors and Non-Actors.” Do we have to know every technique? No. But it helps to think like performers, so learning about their creative process will only benefit us.

Here are some of their tools I find most valuable from Boal and the Theater of the Oppressed:

    • Invisible Theater
      You’ve probably watched some of those shows where an actor plays someone who is xenophobic, for example, and starts badmouthing to the public just so that a hidden camera can capture whether or not the public will comply to violence or speak up. That’s the essence of invisible theater. It’s a form of theater that seeks not to be seen as theater but rather as a real representation of reality. That way, the actors can get a raw and true reaction from the public.
    • Forum Theater
      Levana Saxon summarizes Forum Theater as “[…] one of the more commonly used tools from Theater of the Oppressed. It begins with the crafting and performance of a short play that dramatizes real situations faced by the participants and that ends with the protagonist(s) being oppressed. After the first performance, the play or scene is repeated with one crucial difference: the spectators become “spect-actors” and can at any point yell ‘freeze’ and take the place of an actor to attempt to transform the outcome. Forum Theater is an exercise in democracy in which anyone can speak and anyone can act.The point is not to show what we think other people should do — it is not theater of advice. The point is to discover what we can do.One of the first things that spect-actors realize is that, as in life, if they don’t intervene, nothing will change. The next thing spect-actors find is that doing “something” is not enough, it must be a strategic something. The people acting as oppressors on stage will maintain their oppression until they are authentically stopped — and just like in life, stopping them isn’t easy. Forum Theater thus becomes a laboratory to experiment with different courses of action.The protagonists should be characters that all or most of the people in the room can identify with, so that when they intervene, they are rehearsing their own action. The point is not to show what we think other people should do — it is not theater of advice. The point is to discover what we can do.Forum Theater is facilitated by someone called a Joker, who engages the spect-actors both on and off stage in dialogue throughout the process. After an intervention, the Joker may ask, ‘Did this work?’, ‘Was this realistic?’, ‘Can you do this in real life?’”

The main idea behind using artistic activism is to challenge power dynamics and disarm the “opponent” (e.g. the system or the doubter), while creating a more engaging environment for the public. Whether your thing is leafleting or direct action, there are significant ways you can improve your activism through art.

Let’s take leafleting for example. If the only goal is to distribute literature and once in a while engage in a conversation, we might as well just place a robot with a few stock answers. Why not add another level? Let’s not only distribute and engage in a talk but also provide an experience for people to remember.

CF has come up with a way to include such a layer in leafleting with the campaign Are You Part of the Machine? For this scenario we created 4 characters: Capitalism (represented by someone with a sandwich board with the word “capitalism”); Business (money, Starbucks, Whole Foods, Nestle, etc.); Animal Agriculture (represented by someone with a sandwich board with the words “animal agriculture”, “money”, “profit”, etc.); and a Customer (represented by someone with a sandwich board with the word “customer”). The Customer is also holding a poster that says Are You Part of the Machine? And they have folds over their eyes. The play also utilizes props: a head of a farm nonhuman animal (nothing too realistic – you can use a halloween mask) and “sacks” of money (as simple as a burlap bag or pillowcase filled with shirts or paper).

During the action Capitalism, Business and Animal Agriculture throw around the head prop and sacks of money, passing them back and forth between one another. The Customer stays oblivious to the situation. Other activists then engage the public with leaflets and conversations. People are encouraged to invite passersby to take the fold off the actor if they are willing to remove their own.

“It is through cultural forms that the establishment trains everyone’s  values, views, and aspirations from cradle to grave, from toys and video games [and] art to music and theater, from schools to the so called-information media. These are all of the sources and forms of transmitting cultural values – they are the means of cultural influence and expression. And it is not by accident that the wealthy ruling class controls the outlet that produce them.
To counter this we must take control of similar mediums and promote through them a mass culture that emphasizes and cultivates the values of unity, diversity, tolerance, community, love, cooperation, mutual support, environmental sustainability, harmony, and protection, and all those many other ‘people not property’ – based values and practices that will break the mental bonds of oppressive programming.”
- Kevin Rashid Johnson

The title of artist can be very intimidating. I’ve been an art director/graphic designer/basic illustrator for over 6 years by profession (informally since I was a kid when I experimented with art) and I don’t always consider myself an artist. But let’s remind ourselves that being an artivist doesn’t mean being able to design stunning images of liberation or composing songs: it means thinking outside the box, experimenting, creating and not being afraid of making mistakes.

How to event start?

  • Identify. Find people in your team with some sort of artistic background or just an interest for art in general – even the slightest experience can generate something big when done collectively.
  • Empower. Empower both people with experience and those without any.

Have people with artistic backgrounds lead practical workshops. The ideas are endless: how to mount posters, how to make signs, how to paint simple figures, bucket drumming, performing, singing, creating social media memes, etc.

Remember that people with no experience are also leaders and it’s the sum of everyone’s contribution that generates an artistic experience. Inspire team members with exciting ideas and let the thoughts take shape in the hands of a collective.

  • Practice. As previously mentioned, certain projects will require extra time for rehearsal, sometimes multiple times. Spending that time is very important not only to get the performance right but also for community building.

Performing a successful action to the public is always our main goal. But we should also consider networking as another goal.

Imagine what a nonhuman animal rights group could achieve if they partnered with street artists, performers, groups from other social justice movements that also utilize art as a tool for social change? Stop imagining it. And take action.

Take action today and visit our open-source page to download materials and get inspired.