As an individual and through my organization Blum Media International, I have always challenged old ideals and helped to foster new realities through whatever program or project I am working on. I like to think that when people talk about change makers, they are referring to individuals such as myself, that have a connection with the past and present keeping me engaged in a host of issues all at once. With this in mind, what I am trying to accomplish in this piece and the others to follow, is a different way of looking at the world we live in, finding patterns of engagement, and social and cultural memes that reflect diverse ways of thinking.
My hope is that with this type of exploration, we can further a broader discussion of both simple and complex issues while also delving into deep and difficult ideas. My goal is to give you as the reader access to creative influencers and a inside look at the mechanisms and ideas they employ – captured through first person interviews. I thought I would start with one of my singular passions – individuals working at the intersection of art and social activism.
Creative Activism and Shifts in Cultural Patterns — An Interview with Deborah Fisher, Director — A Blade of Grass
We are living in a time in which it feels so important for just about all of us to re-imagine the world we live in.”- Deborah Fisher, Director A Blade of Grass.
The last few years, I have been following the work of an organization I feel passionate about. A Blade of Grass (ABOG) is an non-profit that has as its founding mission to provide resources to artists who demonstrate creative excellence and serve as innovative conduits for social change. I chose them to discuss the state of the presidential election cycle, how it has influenced the art we see and hear, the shifts in art activism and the need for conscious understanding of a strange and highly polarized cultural shift that has occurred which has such great divisiveness and anger.
Artistic movements have long played a role in major social change, highlighting hard to grasp cultural or social shifts and often unveiling complex realities. I think of the 1960s and 70s and how art, music and dance formed such an important part of that era. The 1980’s followed where larger than life personalities with boundless egos captured the “greed is good” generation. But what is perhaps most promising about the role of the creative process in deciphering and communicating change is that art, as a movement and expression, is far from limited to presentation. It is a shifting, moving evolving organism and even a philosophy. And at the root of this movement is creativity, where imagination sometime plays a role in envisioning and building alternatives.
Creativity is not limited to the sphere of art, but is an essential basis of innovative engagement, a motivation to cross lines, cross pollinate ideas from distant starting points, and bring varied impressions and perspectives of human life together in the form of something that has never existed before.
As Deborah Fisher, director of A Blade of Grass, stated during our recent interview. “This is imperative cultural work right now because the problems we face, such as climate change, structural racism, or income inequality have no one clear enemy that we can rally against. Rather, we are all creating these problems together every day, with each decision, and in all our systems. We have to re-imagine a new world together.”
This new world or framework that she references is the beginning of the dialogue that she hopes will occur through art and the many shapes and levels of engagement it takes. Ms. Fisher highlights this, and how the dynamics have changed around recent movements, citing the influence of the 2016 election as a key example. “The Occupy movement articulated the economic anxiety of the 99%, and spawned working groups like Strike Debt and The Alternative Banking Group that are still actively and creatively addressing predatory banking and debt through books and creative actions that have impressive scale and reach. Black Lives Matter is offering a clear and achievable platform that proposes a new America in which we have dismantled racism and value black men and women’s lives.” These show the influence of social activism, but also provide an understanding of the platform the we as art activists are reacting to.
The importance and significance of artists as social activists, doers and facilitators has been captured by the spirit of ABOG and implemented with a variety of programs that embody this. When we discussed this, Ms. Fisher stated: “A Blade of Grass is particularly interested in artists who are acting as cultural organizers who share the creative process with other people. Our Fellowships support artists working in leadership roles, doing collaborative projects with communities, in ways that enact a specific social change. This is imperative cultural work right now because the problems we face, such as climate change, structural racism, or income inequality have no one clear enemy that we can rally against.”
The work also has an international presence. “A Blade of Grass supports projects that impact at a meaningful scale, but are also rooted in a specific and localized effort, such as the project executed by Suzanne Lacy, A Blade of Grass fellow, in her performative démonstration “de tu puño y letra”. Based in Quito, Ecuador, the piece entailed a group of hundreds of men that came together in a bull-fighting ring to read stories written by women who had endured sexual abuse. As a public presentation, this generated a new intimacy between the broader local community and the issue of sexual violence, in addition to contributing to the spirit of grassroots direct action within the community.
By having men as the key performers in this creative display on violence against women, the artist sought to integrate men, on the most intimate and fundamental of levels into the dialogue on fixing the problem. Men, otherwise identified as aggregators of violence against women, are actively engaging as healers, and by playing healers in the bullring, they became healers in real life.”
I asked Ms. Fisher about Donald Trump’s candidacy which she sees as a metaphor for a possible creative farce, a la Stephen Colbert and his SuperPAC. It seems it doesn’t matter whether or not that’s possibly true, because it serves the same purpose when it comes down to the campaign’s actual message.
As she put it; “In either case, the form of the cultural production is a “real” form of everyday life, and the art is symbolic, but it’s certainly not representational. It’s enacting something in the world. Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC was real and symbolic. And it had consequences for me — I gave them $25. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is, unfortunately, real… and consequential. Hopefully, it will be rendered symbolic in November.”
ABOG serves as one example of how creative communities can enable opportunities for socially impactful expression, under the banner of positive change and in collaboration with change makers. Naturally, it takes work to keep the balance between creativity and making sure the impact is positive. Deborah Fisher highlighted that crucial imperative, in stating “Just as we value the consequential nature of this work, we have to be accountable to it, and invest not just in the beauty of a good idea, but also in asking a lot of questions, doing field research, and developing a rich understanding…”
The idea that art can and will shift our political narrative and that, in this time of uncertainty, we can see the world gravitating towards one side or the other and how the creative process influences this is truly thought provoking. This idea is captured quite accurately in a quote from Steve Lambert and Steve Duncombe from the Center for Artistic Activism.
“Political art is engaging in the world. The world is messy. It has a lot of moving parts. This material is impossible to fully control or master – and shouldn’t be (unless you have fascist ambitions). Whereas compromise for the traditional artist means diluting their vision, compromise for the political artist is the very essence of democratic engagement. Political art has a dauntingly large venue: the street, the marketplace, the mass media. This is an out-of-control space where one competes with the cacophony rather than retreating into silence and solitude.”
The following is the full text of the — Question and Answer session I had with Deborah Fisher, Director, A Blade of Grass
Q.)**In this Presidential election, there are so many issues that have come to the surface social, economic, societal… questions abound as to the influence of art and artistic efforts to depict the very contentiousness of the election and the candidates. There have been installations around the country depicting Donald Trump and there have been videos of Clinton capturing the decades of her career and many supporters of Bernie Sanders took to the art world to push their own agenda of change. The 2000 election spurred an artistic movement around equity and fairness during the election process after Bush/Gore. How do you compare this to the 2016 election? Has the narrative of this election spurred new artistic engagement or is this just business as usual?
A.)**I think the 2016 election is unfolding within a larger context marked by powerful, positive evolutions in how America engages in dissent and enacts social change, and I think artists are playing an important role in this evolution. I am particularly excited about the way artists are acting as leaders to enact social change, rather than depict change. And I don’t think the presidential election is generating artistic engagement as much as it’s responding to remarkable new social and artistic engagement that is playing out at the grassroots.
We are living in a time in which it feels so important for just about all of us to re-imagine the world we live in. Climate change is becoming an economic and cultural reality in people’s lives. The Occupy movement articulated the economic anxiety of the 99%, and spawned working groups like Strike Debt and The Alternative Banking Group that are still actively and creatively addressing predatory banking and debt through books and creative actions that have impressive scale and reach. Black Lives Matter is offering a clear and achievable platform that proposes a new America in which we have dismantled racism and value black men and women’s lives.
Artists are playing a number of important roles in this exciting re-imagining work. A Blade of Grass is particularly interested in artists who are acting as cultural organizers who share the creative process with other people. Our Fellowships support artists working in leadership roles, doing collaborative projects with communities, in ways that enact a specific social change. This is imperative cultural work right now because the problems we face, such as climate change, structural racism, or income inequality have no one clear enemy that we can rally against. Rather, we are all making these problems together every day, with each decision, and in all our systems. We have to re-imagine a new world together.
Artists supported by the ABOG Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art are acting as effective agents of creative change. For example, In Suzanne Lacy’s de tu puño y letra project in Quito Ecuador, hundreds of men gathered in a bullfighting ring to read letters of women who have been victims of rape and domestic violence. This was a powerful performative demonstration of the subject of violence against women that also enabled men to plug into existing efforts to end domestic violence in Quito, challenge and learn more about their own masculine identity, and hold themselves accountable for personal and social change.
My sense is that this increased desire to re-imagine is absolutely informing this presidential election. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have both been advancing very different types of populist reform agendas that are directly responding, again in very different ways, to grass roots social movements. I also think that movements like Black Lives Matter and banking reform efforts that have come out of Occupy are incrementally managing to shape Clinton’s agenda. And I think that’s exciting! That’s how democracy should work. Democracy should respond to the people. There are of course a lot of disincentives for this in American politics, but at least on a cultural level, we are managing to make the voices of the many heard to some degree.
Q.)** Do you see a shift towards greater interest in using art as social/political tool to achieve a desired perspective or creative engagement? Is there a movement that has been created by the seeming absurdity of this election cycle that will stay active and be vibrant in the next years regardless of who becomes president? Is this a lasting trend?
A.)**I do see greater interest in raising the cultural stakes, and generating more significant cultural consequences. And I see that even within the presidential race itself. What if Donald Trump is simply following in the footsteps of Stephen Colbert?
What if, just as Stephen Colbert made a real SuperPAC as a fictional character as part of a TV show in order to make a point about SuperPAC’s, Donald Trump is building on his career as an entertainer, and (intentionally or unintentionally) making a presidential campaign in order to communicate some larger truth about the nature of electoral politics in the United States? In either case, the form of the cultural production is a “real” form of everyday life, and the art is symbolic, but it’s certainly not representational. It’s enacting something in the world. Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC was real, if symbolic. And it had consequences for me—I gave it $25. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is, unfortunately, real… and consequential. Hopefully it will be rendered symbolic in November.