Art as ‘Slow Activism’

Do you remember the last time you were truly moved by a piece of art? It may have been a photograph, a painting, a song, an installation, or even a theatrical production. Chances are you tried to describe the art to someone else, yet attempting to convey that experience proved futile—like describing a dream. After unsuccessfully raving about the piece, you finally ended with, “You’ll just have to see it for yourself.”

Art is no singular thing, and most of us know this. It is complex, ambiguous, and often endlessly analyzed. Using art for social commentary is no new phenomenon, and many artists seek to utilize its ambiguity to provoke thought surrounding environmentalism.

I spoke with three artists who focus on environmental issues—two visual or multi-media artists and one playwright/director. In these conversations, it was clear that they viewed their artwork as something fundamentally different from the consumption of other kinds of information that might be associated with environmentalism. In their view, art causes something that no headline can do: it causes participants to spend time slowing down and forming ambivalent, open-ended opinions. Rather than following a linear narrative in, say, a publication (such as this one) or a research paper, consumers of artwork are led to no one conclusion. Which begs the question: what is the conclusion of environmentalism?

Susannah Sayler runs an organization called The Canary Project, which uses visual art to discuss environmental issues. When I first met her she had been working on a project surrounding climate change in the Rockaways, which engaged directly with community members to speak to the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

“We thought, ‘We don’t know how good it would be for the people in the Rockaways to see the impact of climate change,’” Sayler said with a laugh. She explained that the project quickly became much more personal than originally anticipated. “The interview ended up being a conversation focusing on an object. People were asked to pick an object that might represent something that was lost in the storm, that represents rebuilding, that symbolized coming through the storm.”

Since then Sayler has been working on other projects focused on the Anthropocene, including a project on water issues in California. A previous project, called “Green Patriot Posters,” used the tone taken by World War II posters to make citizens feel patriotic and strong about sustainability. When asked what was so special about conveying a message through visual artwork, she emphasized ambiguity.

“Art has this… openness that words don’t necessarily have,” she said. “It can be about ideas or a certain history, and yet, I think good art manages to stay open and be a place that people can enter and, in a way, participate in.”

She went on to say how art, while it can send a message, is less directed than activism. “[Activism] is, by necessity, very singular and specific in what it’s asking of people. If you aren’t specific you aren’t going to get a lot done,” she said. “The total opposite is true with art… It’s not directly related to why people came, it can be a slow form of activism.”

Leila Nadir uses her background in photography and literature to spark a conversation about industrially produced food (what she calls “cultural amnesia”). EcoArtTech, the organization she founded with her partner, Carrie Peppermint, produces projects that make “endangered food and environmental practices” visible through a variety of forms, according to the organization’s website.

Nadir and Peppermint study the role of microbiology and intestinal cultures in promoting health, ecology, and the environment, and do so through a variety of media. One project, called “Microbial Selfies,” uses technology to enable microbes to captures images of themselves at different phases of development. They also run community fermentation workshops that teach participants about microbial health through practice.

“We wanted to turn the ferments into this moment where people could sit down together, share their microbes, create a cultural communion,” said Nadir. She emphasized the importance of eating, of engaging in a sensory experience that allowed for a deeper understanding of fermentation’s implications. “It’s this multi-nodal, two-month experience. Fermentation is the slowest food ever.”

Nadir, who teaches at the University of Rochester, underscored the importance of taking a more holistic approach to education. “I taught my students about factory farms and preservation methods… and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to make them ferment some things,’” she said. “I remember one of them saying, ‘This is the best class!’ They’re so ecstatic about the process. I just realized, ‘Maybe this is more powerful than me writing an article.’”

Jeremy Pickard started Superhero Clubhouse ten years ago, when he was trying to figure out, as he explained, “What my aesthetic was.” After initially writing a play about waste, he launched into a series of planet plays that each explored a different topic of environmentalism. While “eco theater” did not exist ten years ago, the project has now evolved into many kinds of plays, forms of engagement that all come back to the human experience on earth. But, Pickard said, there was a moment when he doubted the value of using a less popular medium like theater.

“Only 2% of the country attends theater. You can just look at those statistics and examine how relatively few people attend theater and it feels futile to say ‘This is how I’m going to change the world,’” said Pickard. “But I believe theater is more crucial than that. It’s intimate. You can’t look it up on the Internet… It’s a pure, fictional representation of humanity, of society.”

Pickard also went on to talk about the necessity of storytelling to bring science to life.

“There’s drama present in science,” he said. “It’s this constant series of asking questions, shifting stories. But what they do isn’t telling stories—it’s almost like the scientists are saying, ‘I found three pigs and a wolf and some bricks and some straw and some wood’ and then [I] as an artist was like, ‘Don’t you see what you found? You found the three little pigs!’ But scientists weren’t thinking in that way… It opened my eyes to the endlessness of the pursuit of an impossible goal. Because that is an impossible goal: For the world to stabilize and be in balance.”

Most art never goes viral. Most art never ends up in a museum. Yet that doesn’t detract from its importance. All three artists spoke of leaving the participant with lingering questions that might lead us to conclusions more profound than other forms of engagement. Pickard shared a few of these questions.

“How do we respond to a changing world? What is the new dream, what’s the new status quo, the way that we live? This larger philosophical question of, who are we as human now? There’s no more assuming anything.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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