Welcome readers! We’re excited to share interviews with artists who are creating work that calls us to stand up to injustice and to envision a more equitable, just and peaceful world. This work is often called “socially engaged art” or by others, “activist art” or “social practice.” It goes by many labels and nuances, or none at all, and can be found in the streets, coffee shops, our own sketchbooks, and sometimes even in museums and galleries. It includes a rich, vibrant mix of visual art, music, dance, spoken word, writing, and inspiring mixtures of disciplines. Sharing the work of artists that encourage our creative making is our goal in this blog. A better world is possible, we’ll meet you on the journey!
I decided to start this interview series with UW Tacoma “Arts for Social Change” professor, Beverly Naidus. Her work, and her generous contributions to conversations about the place of art in a struggle for justice, have inspired and informed many of us in Cascadia.
For more from Beverly Naidus, look for her clear, insightful book titled: Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame.
Beverly also curates a Facebook community page also called “Arts for Change: teaching outside the frame” in which a vibrant online community of practitioners share art being done internationally. When days are tough you will find me refueling my spirit by looking at the beautiful, courageous, graceful work of artists standing up to oppressive structures of power and daring to call them out, daring to imagine positive change.
I hope this inspires you to make something today.
Here’s a quote from Beverly’s book, Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame in which she describes some nuances of socially engaged and/or activist art:
At the roots of its meaning, engagement means connection, so we can first understand this kind of art as one that is about connecting the pieces, connecting people with their feeling, their pasts, their dreams, and each other. One of my standard definitions has been that such art talks about social issues that affect the lives of individuals and communities…
Socially engaged art can be made with many intentions, including:
to process or document something that the artist has experienced or witnessed
to offer questions about – or solutions to – particular problems
to foster dialogue between polarized groups
to awaken those who are numb or in denial
to compensate for social amnesia
to heal the maker
to make the invisible visible
to express outrage, alert and alarm
to stretch the mind
to develop positive images of the future and to envision a different reality
to find others of like minds
to make what is most compelling and beautiful in image, object, work, motion and sound.
Arts for Change, pg 5
This description is a good introduction to the collaborative, healing, inclusive emphases in Beverly’s work. I met up with Beverly Naidus the other day and asked her to tell us a little bit about her artwork.
In the beginning, I started making work to heal myself. I was traumatized by growing up in a world with nuclear weapons. Because of the work I made about nuclear nightmares, I was suddenly called a political artist. That label concerned me because I didn’t feel that I had yet developed clear political opinions. I knew that I was anti-war and pro-civil rights, but I had little understanding of all the complex forces at work at the time, so I felt a bit nervous about being elevated to the “political” artist realm prematurely. At the same time, I was called a feminist – and while I was sympathetic to feminism, I had met some pretty dogmatic practitioners of feminist art (fearsome essentialists who had narrow views about what was feminist and what wasn’t) and I didn’t want to be associated with such reactionaries. At some point, I realized that I can’t control what labels get slapped on my art, and that it was more important to make the work and see what unfolds. I hope I can help people imagine themselves as creative activists, and get them to ponder what its mean to make art that is about healing the world and to make some of their own.
My art practice at the moment is complex and multilayered, sometimes it is about working alone with my intuition to heal a trauma, explore a vision, or make sense of some version of cognitive dissonance; sometimes it’s about collaborating with others to make interactive projects addressing social injustices; and sometimes it’s about facilitating workshops and classes where students get to tell their stories about a social concern and develop community-based art. Much of my work has a utopic intention, what social ecologists call “a reconstructive vision.” My recent installation for CoCA (Seattle) was inspired by my collaborations with the collective, ARTifACTs. “We Almost Didn’t Make It” invited viewers to imagine themselves as ancestors. After walking through many layers of hand-sewn plastic curtains representing the traumatic assaults we are experiencing now (ONE PAYCHECK AWAY FROM THE STREET, EVERYTHING EXTRACTED AND CONSUMED, GUN MASSACRES, AGAIN, AND AGAIN), visitors were invited to turn their grief & despair about the present and future into fuel for creative activism. They were given junk and other materials with which to make artifact that represented something precious that may or may not exist in the future, 150 years from now. Into each artifact, the visitor inserted a commitment to an action that may help future generations not just exist but thrive.
In earlier projects, my goal was to find like-minded souls so I wouldn’t feel so alone with my pain or fear. I was making the work“is anyone else out there?” Now my intention is to help people step more fully into their activism, whatever form that might take.
A lot of your work your work is deeply personal, connecting, drawing out stories – it comes from this “is anyone else out there?” impulse we artists often experience. Can you give us more examples?
One of my early drawings was called “the wrong day to wear white pants.” It was a little drawing of white pants with a red dot on the crotch. It was very simple piece but the response back then was huge – I was amazed by how many people, all of them overflowing with stories arrived in my studio, wanting to see the drawing and have their story heard. I was working on as a series that addressed suburban bourgeois propriety as it played out for women. I wanted to look at how various taboos about our bodies had affected people. This work was created in grad school, back in 1976 when feminist art was beginning to emerge all over the world. I was the teaching assistant for Mira Schor who was part of the Feminist Art Program at CalArts, studying with Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in the early 70s. She saw my work and implied that this had been done already. I thought, “not by me” and realized that these kinds of stories need to be told again and again, with different audiences and in different contexts. Later as a teacher, I encountered that “been there, done that” attitude again, but I was able to deconstruct that attitude and say to students, “no one has told this story in your unique way, with your particular intention.”
Later in grad school, I created, THIS IS NOT A TEST, an audio installation about my nuclear nightmares. It featured the last survivor of a nuclear holocaust’s bed and shack. The bed was made out of sheets, wood, and plaster, all painted off white. In the middle of the bed was a minature screen that showed slides of beautiful landscapes on earth, before it was destroyed. Each image alternated with a blast of white light. The audio tape loop had a dialog between a despairing person speaking in the past tense and a cynical person speaking in the present tense. Examples are: “We didn’t read the news.”, “Who believes the news anyway?” “We had enough to think about struggling to pay the bills every day.”, “What’s the point of getting more depressed?” That 6-minute dialog was interrupted by a news announcer who said, “we interrupt this program to bring you a special announcement, this is not a test…” And then a school teacher asked students to line up, face the wall, and sit on the floor.
The piece was exhibited in a dirt floor basement, and then years later was exhibited in the NY Colosium (in a feminist art retrospective), and later at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in NYC, as well as multiple university galleries and alternative spaces in the Midwest and California. One thing that I learned after the first exhibition was that people needed to talk with me about their own experiences during the Cuban Missile Crisis (when so many in the States thought the jig was up). I was truly astounded by how much fear and anxiety people had bottled up for over a decade. So in subsequent exhibitions, I created ways for people visiting the piece to connect, talk and share their thoughts. In 1983, I discovered Joanna Macy’s Despair and Empowerment work; it really influenced me then and she continues to be an important mentor in relation to my current projects about climate change.
Most of my early work was an effort to wake up others, to pierce through their numbness and help them step into their power, but my intentions have evolved over the years. Now I want audiences to imagine a future where the ecosystem is healing from our exploitation and communities are healing from oppression and injustice. At one point, I began to feel strongly that we can’t just talk about what’s fucked up. We need to name the problems, yes, but we need also need to model the world we want to see so that when the current system collapses, and it will, we will have new structures and systems accessible to everyone. We need dream these up now, experiment with ways to make those visions manifest. My current collaborative project, EXTREME MAKEOVER: The Creative Remediation of a Superfund Site, was inspired by this impulse.
I am always impressed by the collaborative edge of your work, you build networks and encourage cooperative communities of artists. Can you talk about that a little?
Because I’ve moved so much for economic and health reasons, in recent years I’ve had to be more resourceful in order to find my cohort. When I was younger, living in NYC, I found a community of activist artists easily, through shows and networks of various kinds. I was part of PAD/D (Political Art Documentation/Distribution) that developed many anti-gentrification and anti-war projects. It was my first experience of a dynamic discussion group that was addressing the spectrum of activist art practices. I also participated in projects organized by Colab and Group Material. All of these groups created socially engaged work that intervened in public spaces not traditionally used for art. A few of us women artists who combined humor with social justice issues formed a support group called “not funny enough.” One of our members went on to co-found Guerilla Girls, and then we developed GG’s sister organization in LA, Mothers of Medusa (MOM). Carnival Knowledge was a wonderful collaborative group who created interactive art projects and performances to educate people about reproductive rights and sexual positivity. I cofacilitated a project with another artist for the Carnival that illustrated the oppressiveness of patriarchal marriage.
After leaving LA, I found it really difficult to find peers close by in rural Massachusetts, but I was lucky. The advent of the internet and the World Wide Web coincided with this move, so I was able to join or initiate online groups. The Ecoart Network (a by-nomination international group) includes artists, writers, curators, and scientists. I formed the Activist Art Ed listserve when I first moved to the Pacific NW, and it was replaced by the FB group, Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame, once my book was published.
In Seattle, it was also not so easy to find my socially engaged artist peers, despite having participated in the Art of Resistance conferences in 2004 & 2005. Thankfully in 2013 I moved into a studio in the MLK Community Center and began to facilitate “art for social change” discussion groups once a month. Through those face to face encounters I found a team of collaborators, ARTifACTs, who wanted to develop some projects that involved imagining ourselves as ancestors. The team included Carol Rashawna Williams, Camella Cooper, Ed Mast and Matt Hamilton. It was a rich experience that lasted three years, during which time we created street interventions (Stop Caging Kids) for protests around the Juvenile Hall that led to a multi-layered project, led by Ed Mast: Letters from the Future: Part Two: Where Once There Were Cages. Carol led a project about racial violence in Seattle for the Design Festival. I led the project, We Almost Didn’t Make It.
Since moving to Tacoma, I’ve opened up the art building at UW Tacoma for “art builds” where people have come to make placards for protests. We have had multiple meetings for projects like, “Extreme Makeover: The Creative Remediation of a Superfund Site.”
Now that I have a studio in the Merlino Art Center in Tacoma, I will be hosting more discussion groups, workshops and hopefully find more collaborators.
One of the challenges facing socially engaged artists who are looking for funding right now is that the size of the pie slices has decreased exponentially. On top of that, social practice as a genre is seen by many of my peers as attempting to replace “activist” and “community-based art.” “Social practice” has been described as a euphemism, a more polite way to frame something which is threatening to both institutions and funders. Social practice is being taught in undergraduate and MFA programs. Many of these programs are training young artists many without a deep discussion about the ethics of working in diverse communities or much of the history of activist and community-based art. I’ve heard from some peers that the grads of these programs seem to be winning these grants and that their projects are watered down and funder-pleasing. The older artists who have been doing community-based art for decades, trying to heal traumas and raise consciousness, are no longer getting the funding, even if the caliber of their work is strong, and well respected in their communities. This is a huge dilemma. One friend said recently, “if you are actually attempting to take apart the master’s house, they aren’t going to pay you to do it.”
In the early 90s, I started teaching young activists how to make activist art in community. I co-taught a course with my partner, Bob Spivey, at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont. Merging our training in conceptual art and Theater of the Oppressed, we wanted these activists to discover that socially engaged art could be strategic, a way of creating dialog in communities and building grass roots movements, going beyond the old model of decorating protests. Art as an intervention and educational project, something more than a sound bite, can actually build long term movements and heal polarized communities.
Another part of my work is about creating images, often with text. These images are really as varied as my training that includes traditional visual art forms, conceptual art, surrealism and abstract expressionism, as well as performance art, dance, poetry, and theater. Somedays I go into the studio and allow myself to play, dancing between text, image, and object. Other times, I’m carrying anger, grief, despair and the voices of those emotions emerge in my marks, colors, shapes, patterns, and imagery. There are also times when my work is a celebration of the erotic in nature, the mystical and my dream world – I don’t control that part of my work, I just let it emerge, and I’m enormously grateful to have a studio to do it in.
I’ll end my talk with Beverly Naidus with another quote from her book:
“There is no one way to transform our society into a non-oppressive, egalitarian place, but there is a multitude of ways to meet our human craving for poetry in a socially engaged way.” (Pg2)