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How Can Artists Use Their Practice to Support Urgent Social Causes?

"NO CAGES, NO JAULAS" written in in the sky, contributed by Beatriz Cortez, over the Immigration Court on Olive Street | Dee Gonzalez, In Plain Sight
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"How to Change" is a limited series for “Southland Sessions” exploring the most critical issues facing Southern California culture makers in this pivotal historical moment. Each column will explore a question posed to a range of artists and culture workers, and include recommendations to address these concerns from a practical, action-oriented perspective.

Art as Activism?

For the first installment of “How to Change,” I asked, “How can I use my art practice to advance urgent social causes?”

The overwhelming response that I heard from artists about using their art for social change is, just because your intentions are good, doesn’t automatically mean that addressing politics directly in your work is a good idea. It all depends on who you are and what you do, says self-described “artist, musician, educator and agitator” Christy Roberts Berkowitz. "First, default to the organizers and see what they need. For example, I help some trans coalitions by making illustrations and graphics for them. If you don't know any organizers, go to a protest and meet some and ask how you can help. The hard truth is that your art practice might not be what's needed right now. But your skills could be useful." She cautions, "the thing is to be mindful of how your art practice might already be working against causes you believe in." If you haven't already been thinking and reading about social injustice, it may not be appropriate for you to try to respond in the form of artwork just yet. Artist Badly Licked Bear recommends asking, "Does this cause need my artistic labor or does it need my labor in a non-creative way more?" Bear has been running regular van trips to the Navajo Nation to deliver PPE and other life-saving supplies as a member of the Auntie Sewing Squad, a relief group started by performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong

Two Auntie Sewing Squad members, Davine and Gayle Isa, pose with their handmade masks. | Courtesy of Auntie Sewing Squad
Two Auntie Sewing Squad members, Davine and Gayle Isa, pose with their handmade masks. | Courtesy of Auntie Sewing Squad

Artist Sholeh Asgary offers another approach. “Perhaps your work is already tied into the causes you believe in, or an important aspect,” she explains. “If it is not, what are those blind spots in your work? This could be an important moment of transformation both inside and outside of your work.” Says educator Marva Holmes, “I know some artists who donate a percentage of the regular art they sell to the organization they want to support. This is a great way to raise awareness. The artists I am thinking of also pop information into their social media about the organizations they are supporting.” Your visibility and social media reach can be a helpful asset to your cause of choice, whether or not your art directly engages with the issues. Asgary strikes an encouraging note: "It's okay if you can't find the right application of your artistic skills to a cause you believe in. Sometimes, it means that the application of yourself to the cause you believe in is going to be in a physically non-artistic form. Rather, it will be the prowess of you as an individual, who is also an artist, that has the most to give, and likewise, the most to learn." In other words, lead by example — but don’t rush to put your mistakes on display, unless you wish to be made an example of.

For many artists, the urgency of this moment has been building for a long time. Performance artist Cassils describes how politics informs their artistic practice: "I love this quote by Bertolt Brecht: 'Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.' As a transmasculine non-binary artist who grew up without any representation and before the Internet, I believe that the creation and visualization of art can provide talismans of freedom and offer up new possibilities." Horror over mass incarceration in public and private prisons and immigration detention centers at the US-Mexico border prompted them to organize a public intervention with rafa esparza, “In Plain Sight.” Over the 4thof July weekend, artists engaged the skies over 80 detention facilities, immigration courts, sites of former internment camps, along the border, and at other carceral landmarks with sky-typed messages that they intend to be seen and read by migrants, detainees and the incarcerated as well as the larger public. Says Cassils, “As artists, a massive part of this project is to use art to uplift the voices of the organizers (on the inside and outside of detention facilities) as an effort to not speak for them but to amplify. A conscious decision was made not to hope this project would enact change, but to try to manifest change via carefully and thoughtfully engaging a whole impact Team. Lina SrivastavaRebecca Litchtenfeld and Set Hernandez Rongkilyo have formed this work alongside us, as has our producer, Cristy Michel, who befriended the pilots who may not have the same stakes or vantage points as our artists.” “In Plain Sight”includes 80 artists in alignment with human rights groups, including ACLU of Southern CaliforniaDetention Watch NetworkFreedom for ImmigrantsThe Haitian Bridge AllianceLa ResistenciaMijente, and Make the Road. “Teamwork became paramount,” explains Cassils, because “we wanted art to amplify the voices of those who have been doing this work for so long.” The artists used methods complementary to grassroots organizing, such as keeping the specific details of the action under wraps until the day of the event. 

"CARE NOT CAGES" written in in the sky, contributed by Patrisse Cullors, over the L.A. County Jail as seen from Griffith Park | Chris Mastro, In Plain Sight
"CARE NOT CAGES" written in in the sky, contributed by Patrisse Cullors, over the L.A. County Jail as seen from Griffith Park | Chris Mastro, In Plain Sight

Each participating artist has selected their messages of hope and solidarity for the project. Says Beatriz Cortez, "I chose the phrase 'NO CAGES NO JAULAS' because our communities have suffered one of the most despicable acts: the separation of children from their families." Challenging the culture of incarceration, she means to remind us that "Our children are being held in refrigerated cages surrounded by chain link, covering their bodies with mylar blankets, growing up alone, feeling abandoned, without being able to satisfy their most basic needs physically and spiritually." Cortez emphasizes the goal of returning the incarcerated to their families. Cassils observes, “Seeing is a way of focusing, and I see art as the creative practice of queering all systems. We have a chance to reinvent and to dream beyond what we currently have.” The scale of “In Plain Sight,” which spans 10 states, speaks to the goal of total social reinvention.

Artist Faith Purvey notes, “Artists are out-of-the-box thinkers. They are often able to observe social and cultural systems and spaces from a holistic, zoomed-out perspective. These skills are applicable to making change by making the issues visible in new ways." This calls for some deep and careful thinking, about which Purvey is hopeful. "Start small, brainstorm with organizations and other artists, and believe in your work." Art historian Mary Jo Aagerstoun recommends seeking out training. "Some organizations that are particularly good at working with artists to amplify their purpose include Backbone Campaign and Beautiful Trouble.” She notes that these groups offer training through Facebook and extensive information on their websites. For Freedoms, founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, is another arts-driven activism platform to explore.

In short, social justice means a lifetime of action, and adapting your art practice to the urgency of our times is something you will work on for a long time to come. It’s okay to take it slow. These problems didn’t appear yesterday, and they won’t go away tomorrow. The most important thing is to check in with yourself to make sure what you’re doing for others isn’t serving yourself first. That’s good advice whether or not you end up making political statements with your art.

Top Image: "NO CAGES, NO JAULAS" written in in the sky, contributed by Beatriz Cortez, over the Immigration Court on Olive Street | Dee Gonzalez, In Plain Sight 

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