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Artivism: Injecting Imagination into Degrowth

By: John Jordan


From our project “Degrowth in Movement(s)

Artivism is not really a movement. It’s more an attitude, a practice which exists on the fertile edges between art and activism. It comes into being when creativity and resistance collapse into each other. It’s what happens when our political actions become as beautiful as poems and as effective as a perfectly designed tool. Artivism is the Clown Army kissing riot shields to push the police away; it’s the Yes Men secretly infiltrating the world’s media pretending to be corporate mouthpieces; it’s when the Brandalism collective hacks hundreds of bus shelters in the midst of a state of emergency and replaces the adverts with radical messages. What it’s definitely not about is making political art, art about an issue. It is not about showing new perceptions of the world, but about changing it. Refusing representation, artivism chooses direct action.

Proponents of direct action believe that to change things, it is best to act directly on the matter instead of asking others to do things for us. It is the opposite of lobbying and protest marches. Direct action is about transforming the world in the here and now, together. The most beautiful thing, however, —the aesthetic goal— is winning: enabling the survival and continued abundance of the living forest and its ecosystems. With artivism, the beautiful and the useful overlap.

Artivism treats social movements as a material. Their forms of action and alternatives are forms that our collective imagination can change and reinvent. In the same way that an artist might work with wood or paint, artivism might look at plans for direct action to shut down an open-cast coal mine and imagine how it could be made more powerful and theatrical.

A rich, diverse and colourful movement, which can bring down empires in the most unexpected ways

The strategies employed by artivists depend on the political context of their work and are too numerous to fit here, but one brilliant handbook and website of tactics, theories and principles is Beautiful Trouble. One example from the book is how to create protests that do not look like protests as a key strategy for those working in repressive regimes or during states of emergency where public dissent is banned. The Orange Alternative did this wonderfully during martial law in Poland in the late 1980s. Despite protest bans, they called for a ‘Gnome’ gathering, to demand better ‘Gnomes’ rights’. When faced with thousands of young people wearing orange gnome hats, the regime’s soldiers did not know what to do, and the generals did not call the tanks in. For the first time since martial law was declared, a mass of people had taken public space back, had a great time doing it, and managed to spread a sense of confidence far and wide. Within a few years the whole of Eastern Europe was out in the streets. Some historians claim that the movements that brought down the Soviet Empire began with artists, guerrilla theatre and musicians opening up space for dissent.

Another common tactic is reverse-engineering, which asks the hacker question: ‘What can this thing do?’. This involves hacking a daily object and turning it into a machine of resistance. Creativity and crafting new forms needs time and attention, but given the urgency and speed of activism this is never easy. The spirit of art thus also brings a different rhythm to activism, one that is much more in keeping with the aims of degrowth; a de-accelerated, slower, more considered approach, but no less passionate.

Opening up the space to dream: nurturing collective creative thinking and the spirit of play within the degrowth movement

At the moment, it feels as though artivists have made fewer connections with the degrowth movement than with other movements such as refugee support, climate breakdown, anti-austerity, alter-globalisation, etc. Why this is the case is hard to fathom.

Climate and the concept of the Anthropocene are huge themes in the art world at the moment. However, much of it is sadly part of a corporate elite using culture as a cheap research and development tool and an effective public relations exercise to promote green capitalism. At last year´s COP21 in Paris, many big name artists played the role of ‘artwashers’ by creating work for a corporate greenwash event, Solutions COP21, which brought together some of the world’s biggest polluters, from fossil fuel corporations to car manufacturers, from industrial agriculture giants to builders of airports and motorways, for a fair to demonstrate that they had the real solutions to the crisis.

Business-as-usual events like this love to use art as a mask to hide their corporate crimes and give themselves an air of contemporary sophistication. ‘Artwashing’ cleans their logos, and makes us forget that they are destroying living communities of people and ecosystems for profit. An important strategy of artivism is to critique artists and institutions who collaborate with ‘artwashing’. Since 2010, the Liberate Tate collective has been doing this with stunning interventions in the art museum against BP funding. If more artists were involved in movements such as degrowth that strive towards coherence between ideas and ways of living, fewer artists would be busy feeding the suicide machines of capitalism with one hand and claiming progressiveness with the other, and maybe more would be encouraged to apply their creativity to social movement forms.

Participatory pedagogy

The fact that the degrowth conferences of 2014 included an art thread together with scientific, economic and social threads is encouraging. More of these initiatives should be developed so as to break the ‘academic’ conference mould and include more creative forms of knowledge sharing as well as a more holistic approach. Artivists’ teaching practices tend to be more horizontal and based on participatory popular education models that seek to develop the shared critical knowledge already present, rather than a ‘top down’ knowledge from the knower to the students. Artivists tend to go beyond mere talking and listening - working and playing with the body and materials; engaging head, heart and hand equally.

The process of making things together can be a good mobilising tool for developing strong affinity groups and bringing people into movements for the first time. After all, it may be a lot less frightening for first-time activists to attend a workshop to learn —as in the case of Tools For Action — how to make giant inflatable silver cobblestones for an action, rather than taking part in a big assembly discussing a campaign against a new fracking license.

Setting up transdisciplinary solutions workshops/laboratories around particular topics, where artists/designers would be brought in not as the ‘aesthetic communicators’ of the ideas, but as creative participants trying to find solutions in collaboration with other disciplines, would be an important step towards merging the degrowth movement with the spirit of artivism.

Creating spaces that nurture such creative thinking and playing as part and parcel of a movement process is key. The degrowth movement, despite its at times overly academic tone, could have the capacity and sensibility to embody this spirit, because at its heart are notions of a change in our culture towards qualitative rather than quantitative ways of being. Degrowth has been called ‘an example of an activist-led science‘. Perhaps one day we will be able to say that it was an activist-led art as well.

Making degrowth irresistible: the role of desire and fantasy in creating a new culture

I write as someone living in a wood-heated yurt in a small commune on an organic farm in France, where degrowth is at the centre of our collective’s values. For us, degrowth is coupled with good living. As the French slogan goes: Moins De Biens, Plus de Liens —Fewer Things, More Relationships. But in popular mainstream culture degrowth is often misperceived as an activity that involves self-control (stop shopping, stop driving, stop flying, etc.) and privation (don’t want or buy new things, etc.), that calls for a return to the past (stop using fossil fuels/new technologies, etc.) where life was hard (grow your own vegetables, make your own bread, stay local, etc.) and happiness rare. In addition, degrowth is usually framed within an apocalyptic timeline of a planetary life support system collapse —not exactly making it the most desirable of movement imaginaries. Such caricatures of degrowth are a far cry from notions of abundance, pleasure and play that are often present in artistic processes and that are concepts that capitalism has taken away from us.

As with most traditional progressive politics, degrowth has a tendency to work in a scientific, ‘reality’-based manner. It often feels overly academic and heady and ignores emotions —Where is the dreaming and fantasy? While there have been spaces for other forms of intuitive learning, celebrating, etc. at the recent degrowth conferences, this is often seen as merely an addition to the ‘rational’ lectures and workshops.

Stealing fantasy back from capitalism

Capitalism has captured our fantasies with the spectacle of consumerism; its celebrities have become our mythological heroes, its video games our wild adventures. It promises us the fantasy of a better life that can always be even better. Fantasy itself is the fuel of the entertainment business, popular culture and most religions, and yet we fear it as a tool of politics. We distrust anything that might seem irrational and relegate it to the ‘arts programme’.

Artivism, however, recognises that politics has always been about fantasy, because at its heart is imagining what kind of future world we want. We have been able to use such tools, steal them back from popular culture and create what Stephen Duncombe, author and founder of the Centre for Artistic Activism, calls ‘ethical spectacles‘. There, we collectively perform our dreams via imaginative participatory actions, creating new realities via symbols and stories that construct a truth together rather than waiting for it to set us free. The degrowth movement could learn from this and acknowledge that successful politics are as much an affair of desire and fantasy as of reason and rationality. To leave all these powerful tools in the hands of capitalism is a mistake. As long as capitalism’s lures are perceived to be more fun and more able to speak to our desires than degrowth, we will fail to make the radical cultural changes that are so necessary, and buying an iPad will still be way cooler than riding a donkey.

Instead of artists flocking to apply their creativity to the movement, they continue to work in the advertising industries and other machines that reproduce capitalism’s desire traps. Without their creativity degrowth will remain a beautiful set of ideas rather than a new culture. The questions we must ask are: How do we learn to educate each other to desire differently? How can degrowth become as sexy as capitalism? And how can small really become beautiful? And, last but not least, how can we begin to sense the inherent violence of industrial civilisation, to really, deeply feel the crimes against life that it perpetuates, to shake off the anaesthesia, the numbness, and return to aesthesia, the senses?

The drive for coherence between thinking and living

What degrowth can bring to artivism and especially to the art world is the drive for coherence between thinking and living. Separating what we believe in from how we act in the world inevitably leads to suffering, and confusing role models. With many in the cultural field there is a chasm between their politics, aesthetics, ethics and everyday life. Many artists and cultural producers fly from conference to biennale, to carry out work about climate change, while others exhibit anti-systemic work in museums sponsored by banks. Not considering their life as a material to work on, they reproduce separations of capitalism. Instead of applying their creativity to questions of how we could travel without causing climate breakdown, how we could organise without domination, how we could grow our food without destroying our soil systems, how we might build new communes, they continue to live in constant contradiction between what they believe in and how they behave. Degrowth’s focus on holistic practices could change this.

Building a culture of resistance where art and activism are no longer separate from everyday life

One of the most urgent tasks is to build a culture of resistance. I don’t believe that we will be able to put in place solutions to the ongoing social and ecological catastrophe without acts of resistance. Those who profit from the present economic system will not relinquish their power. We need movements that are able to show desirable alternatives while being prepared to resist the current system. Without a shared set of values and behaviours, without a culture where acts of resistance are supported by a wider population than that which is actually ready to take part in them, we will not have the systemic change necessary to achieve justice and avoid the collapse of our life support systems on this planet.

I don’t believe the current culture culture will somehow undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane, equitable and sustainable way of living. I think we have to undo much of this culture and rebuild entirely different ways of being and sharing our worlds and that this is what resistance is: confronting and dismantling unjust structures of power to make way for other cultures to flourish.

Breaking down the separations

In the end I think that in the new culture that will come after the culture of capitalism and domination, the role of art and activism will change radically. Art as a thing separate from everyday life, a thing for the rich to collect and profit from, a thing to watch or to own, done by others, will be over. It will be seen as a verb rather than a noun; a way of doing, a certain quality of paying attention that anyone can practice in everyday life, not just the ‘artists’.

Perhaps the notion of the activist as someone who is a specialist in transforming society, will disappear too, as in a society of the commons, run with local assemblies and a confederation of commons rather than the hierarchical state, everyone will feel part of a process of social transformation, part of a practice of politics. In this society, politics will not be separate from ethics anymore. Aristotle saw the pursuit of the good of the political community as a branch of ethics, the pursuit of human good as a whole. This pursuit he called Eudaimonia, meaning ‘the good life’, and he believed it was the ultimate goal of all human beings. 2300 years later, perhaps the degrowth movement will bring us closer to this dream than ever before. ---------------

This article is a shortened version of the piece on artivism and degrowth in  our Degrowth in Movement(s) project. Read the full article here!

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