This fall, I attended at Colby College a class meeting that was billed “Propaganda Party.” Undergraduates from an extremely wide range of majors and minors gathered in a classroom in the Colby College Museum of Art reserved for hands-on activities. The students painted a banner, made buttons, and printed silkscreen posters. The energy and excitement was palpable and none of the participants (very few with a studio art background) seemed daunted by the tasks at hand. One of the students I interviewed reported that the event fostered camaraderie amongst them, bringing them closer, and that it didn’t feel like they “were in class” but rather friends, “brought together by a common cause.”
The cause the student was referring to is the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. One of banners the class created read “Fight poverty, not the poor” and was intended for the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington that will be held on June 20, 2020. That message also appeared on posters they printed. The other banner, a design by Métis artist Dylan Miner, declared: “No Bans on Stolen Land.” Students also made buttons (create their own design or choose from a variety of designs addressing socio-political issues) and, while they worked, Elizabeth D. Leonard played the guitar and sang protest songs. Leonard, who recently retired from Colby teaching history (specializing in the Civil War era and American women’s history), is now devoting all her energies as an organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign.
The event was held in the context of a new course on Activist Art, offered through the American Studies program and cross-listed with Art. At Colby, it is not uncommon to have courses that are part of the curriculum of more than one department (or fulfill more than one requirement), and in this case, it made perfect sense: Activist Art focused on the history, theory, and practice of the intersection between art and activism. The course was designed and taught by Amber Hickey, who is spending the year at Colby as a Faculty Fellow in U.S. Visual Culture in the American Studies Program. Hickey specializes in Contemporary Art and Activism in the U.S. and Canada, with a particular focus on Indigenous Visual Culture and Environmental Justice Movements. Besides being a scholar, she is also an activist: before moving to Maine, she was a longtime volunteer worker with the Interference Archive, a volunteer-run archive and gallery that explores the connections between cultural production and social movements. Furthermore, her academic background is at the juncture of scholarship and practice: she holds a PhD in Visual Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz but also an MAS in Curating from the Zurich University of the Arts and a B.A. from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in “Contemporary Performance.” In addition to scholarly articles, she edited A Guidebook of Alternative Nows (2012), a collaboratively-created book with contributions by 34 writers, meant to illuminate “ways of devising more socially, economically, and ecologically just versions of now.” The book, which can be downloaded for free, figured among the readings for the class.
Just as Hickey’s background combines scholarship, activism, and artistic practice, the course itself employed these different praxes: the classroom time was divided between traditional lectures and workshop-style hands-on exercises; readings included both scholarship and news items; and assignments consisted of papers and experiential practice. Scholarly readings were supplemented by films and archival materials (for instance during visits to Colby’s Special Collections). A student told me this variety in the materials provided her with “a well-rounded understanding of the topics” they studied.
The course’s aim was to provide students with “the tools to analyze how the visuality of activism has developed over time.” Historically, it went back to the Paris Commune in 1871 as it looked at “Politics in the Streets” from the time of the Commune to the events in Paris during the May ’68 demonstrations. The course then explored a range of arenas and agendas for activism (such as anti-colonialism, gender, disability, the environment, indigenous people, workers’ and immigrants’ rights, grassroots counter-surveillance, etc.); it also studied different artists and considered the ways in which they use their art as a tool to effect change. The variety in the materials studied was matched by the range of assignments the students produced: critical responses to readings, a podcast interview with an art activist, and a final project, which combined the presentation of the results of scholarly research paper with a hands-on project. Hickey encouraged students to engage with the practices discussed in class, experiencing them first-hand.
Not only was the course hybrid in terms of the materials considered and the approach brought to bear on their study, but in many ways, it was in constant conversation with the world beyond the boundaries of the classroom and campus. Many people were invited to participate in the course. I already mentioned Elizabeth Leonard, who represented the Poor People’s Campaign and sang at the Propaganda Party. That same day, Rachel Kobasa from the Pickwick Independent Press in Portland taught the class how to screen print the posters. The class met via video with Avihai Stollar, former Israeli soldier, human rights researcher, and military specialist who works for Breaking the Silence, a group whose members have “taken it upon themselves to expose the public to the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories” and who work towards bringing an end to occupation. One student said that talking with someone directly involved drove home the fact that “it’s a real world issue” and helped her understand the situation better. If the “real” world came to the class, the course also represented a projection into the public space. To take just one example, the objects made at the Propaganda Party were intended for an important demonstration on the national level and thus proved that an academic class can be part of—and contribute to—the “real” world.
The students came to the course with a personal involvement in the question of activism—whether they considered themselves activists or simply wanted to learn more about it. One of the students I interviewed, born in the Philippines and who came to the U.S. when she was nine, recounted that her father had been an activist against the Marcos’s regime. She wanted to understand why activists like her father, in a country ruled by a dictator, would risk their lives. She added a poignant additional detail: her mother had been a child actress in a film produced by Imelda Marcos! Her questioning was further stimulated when she noticed that at Colby (and also back home in Seattle), activism is a safe activity. That being involved in a political or social cause and speaking out for it would not carry negative consequences in an American liberal arts college is not surprising, given higher education’s dedication to free speech, but her remark was accompanied by a more unexpected observation. She explained that activism at Colby tends to be, in her words, “very regimented,” and she went on to ask if there “can be true activism if it doesn’t disrupt anything?” She also noted the lack of “places to discuss Colby.” Whether her assessment of activism at this small liberal school is true or not, such opinion certainly indicates a critical edge and an understanding of the difference between true grassroots movements and institutionally-sanctioned activism. Remarkably, this distinction (summarized simply as “movement versus institution”) was one a colleague of mine, Debra Campbell, a Religious Studies professor and scholar of social movements, considers one of the fundamental issues at stake when dealing with activism.
In addition to having many opportunities to deploy critical thinking, students understood the many forms activism can take, and the different tactics it can employ. One student told me how speaking your mind or even playing the devil’s advocate to make sure that a range of opinions are present and brought into the conversation, even when difficult, could represent a form of activism. After all, as several students told me, the fundamental goal of activism is to issue a call to action.
The students also learned to reflect upon activism itself in a critical manner—they taught me a new term, “slacktivism”! They explained that although activism can take many forms, with varying degrees of involvement, it can at times be done in a manner that is self-indulgent. They evoked the eminently performative dimension of “slacktivism”: broadcasting one’s convictions in a superficial manner (one may think of the role social media can play here) but not really doing much beyond such displays.
The students concluded the term with a strong awareness of the crucial role art can play in the service of activism. Art can “enhance the message” you want to convey and also “display your movement.” They articulated for me the difference between political art and activist art: although art can be political and make a statement about politics, it doesn’t necessarily carry a call to action—the way activist art does. But since art is about thinking, expressing, and communicating ideas, while also about a personal involvement in what you make, they went as far as declaring that there can be no activism without art.
Image at top: Students at the “Propaganda Party” organized in the context of AM297/AR397 Activist Art, 24 October 2019, Colby College, Waterville, Maine.