This essay is about art and activism in the context of my participation on February 16, 2022 in a panel titled “Art Uprising: Creative Dissent in the 21st Century” presented at Arts Ahead 2022 – Reawakenings: Art as a Catalyst, an annual student-run symposium that addresses the “biggest disruption of our lifetime,” organized by the Arts Management post-graduate cohort at Centennial College in Toronto.
“Reawakening through art” is a timely topic and I warmly applaud the organizers for their efforts and courage.
My participation on this panel is pursuant to having been a guest at Centennial College’s Art Policy, Equity and Activism class taught by Robin Sokoloski and Janis Monture in November 2021. The class was published as e86 of my podcast conscient. I am grateful for both opportunities to share and learn.
The biggest disruption of our lifetime
The organizers of Reawakenings are about to graduate from an arts management program. Some of them are already working in the cultural sector, while others are looking for their first job. I wish them well, but I must admit that I am terrified about the world we have left for them. I think that an awakening (or reawakening) through art is a critical first step. However, being woke will not be enough, and nor will activism if it is framed as the incremental greening of our current way of life. What we need is radical, unprecedented, and transformative change at a massive scale.
Climate science tells us that in the coming years, this cohort will be leading an arts sector in constant emergency mode due to rapid and uncontrollable environmental degradation. Their challenge will be to ensure that the arts remain relevant and resilient in relation to addressing societal needs and crises, such as threats to shelter, food, and security, and to regeneration efforts. The upside is that the arts sector has the capacity to shift people’s hearts and minds, and will be central to a transformation agenda. We need to rise up, dissent, and disassemble.
An uprising is an “act of resistance or rebellion.”
For me, an artistic uprising is an urgent but peaceful mobilization of the arts sector to address an imminent threat. For example, in March 2021, with other colleagues in Canada I co-founded SCALE – LeSAUT, a “national hub to develop strategy, align activities, and activate the leadership of Canada’s arts and culture sector in the climate emergency.” SCALE – LeSAUT hopes to see an uprising of the arts sector that is
driven by the conviction that inclusive, comprehensive, and far-reaching collaboration, both within and beyond the arts sector, will elevate artistic work towards the crucial transformational tipping points needed to fundamentally shift societal cultural norms from consumerism to stewardship, and from extraction to regeneration, in this critical decade of action.
A catalyst like SCALE – LeSAUT will help, but is not enough. We also need to learn how to decolonize and engage in reconcili-action, as proposed by Elwood Jimmy and Vanessa Andreotti in Towards Braiding. The book puts forward several modes of relational engagement with Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, scholars, and communities, including visits, gatherings, and consultations, with the goal of addressing the following compass questions:
- What are the conditions that make possible ethical and rigorous engagement across communities in historical dissonance that can help us move together towards improved relationships and yet-unimaginable wiser futures, as we face unprecedented global challenges?
- What are the guidelines and practices for ethical and respectful engagement with Indigenous senses and sensibilities (being, knowing, relationships, trauma, place, space, and time) that can help us to work together in holding space for the possibility of “braiding” work?
- How do we learn together to enliven these guidelines with (self-)compassion, generosity, humility, flexibility, and rigor, and without turning our back to (or burning out with) the complexities, paradoxes, difficulties, and pain of this process of healing?
- What kind of socially engaged and community anchored Indigenous-led arts-based program can support this process in the long term?
- What are the expectations in terms of responsibilities of the organization to the place/land and her traditional ancestral custodians from the perspective of the local Indigenous communities?
This type of fundamental rethink of our assumptions is the only form of artistic uprising that has the potential to be transformational. With all due respect, anything less is a waste of precious time and an assault to future generations.
Dissent is the “holding of opinions at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially held.”
To me, creative dissent is about finding aesthetically provocative ways of conveying new perspectives and potential solutions to complex issues, using imagination and invention. There are certainly many precedents in the history of art of works that present strong dissenting views with provocative aesthetics. The work of the great Indigenous performance artist Rebecca Belmore comes to mind.
Another great example of creative dissent is the British Columbia-based theatre company The Only Animal and their Artist Brigade, a “leaderless, national movement whose goal is to bring imagination, vision, and the heart of artists into the telling of the climate story in order to mobilize a society paralyzed by climate anxiety and grief.” I admire the work of artistic director Kendra Fanconi (also see e76) and the Artist Brigade because it engages in cross-sector partnerships with environmental organizations, activists, scientists, journalists, and scholars, and includes voices of dissent on a range of issues, framed by strong ethical and moral values that ensure lasting impact and credibility with the public.
I’m also a fan of Dr. Danielle Boutet’s thought about art. Here is an excerpt from my conversation with her in é60 (in French, translation below):
I hear a lot of people calling for artists to intervene and artists also saying that something must be done, etc. I think that art is not a good vehicle for activism. I’m really sorry for all the people who are interested in this. I don’t want to shock anyone, but sometimes it can risk falling into propaganda or ideology or a kind of facility that I am sorry about, in the sense that I think art can do so much more than that and go so much deeper than that. Art can help humans to evolve. It is at this level that I think that we can really have action, but I think that we have always had this action, and it is a question of doing it over and over and over again.
Disassembly of Oppressive Structures
An oppressive structure is one that “maintains a hierarchy that allows the privileges associated with the dominant group and the disadvantages associated with the oppressed, targeted, or marginalized group to endure and adapt over time.”
Does art have the capacity to address structural or systemic oppression, and how would we know if it did? One challenge for the arts sector is the lack of tools to measure the impact of artistic practice on social policy and systematic inequities. Fortunately, this is beginning to change as various standards and methodologies are being developed to evaluate how art affects public policy (such as the Green Resilience project below).
Here is an example of how an artwork affected an environmental issue from e05 of my podcast with arts researcher Beth Carruthers, who speaks about the impact of Witness Project (condensed from our interview) :
The Uts’am Witness Project was a collaboration with the Squamish nation. It centered around aggressive, clear-cut logging of an intact old-growth forest in unceded Squamish territory in British Columbia, some of it sacred land. This was a 10-year socially engaged art project with many activities and workshops where people were invited to camp for a weekend in the area where the logging was taking place. At this location, they would experience Squamish tradition and ceremony and become part of the process. Over 10 years, 5,000 to 10,000 people participated. They were invited to be formally involved by becoming witnesses through ceremony. It was the strength of these witnesses that, in the end, stopped the forest company from logging. Much of the area has now been set aside as a wild spirit place. The Squamish nation is sustainably logging a section of it and using the land as part of a revival of their cultural traditions.
Another example is from episode e82 washable paint, an unedited, 20-minute soundscape recording of a climate emergency rally on Friday, November 12, 2021, in Vancouver.
My wife Sabrina and I decided to attend a protest in solidarity with the Fridays for Future movement. My intention was to record the soundscape of the protest for my podcast (singing, chanting, speeches, marching, etc). However, what we witnessed was the Vancouver Police arresting a group of young people who were doing an artwork with washable red paint onto the windows of the federal Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change building to protest climate change. The protest leaders requested the release of the arrested persons and decided to remain with them in solidarity instead of continuing with the march towards the banking sector of downtown Vancouver and CBC Vancouver. The protest was then redirected towards the municipal courthouse where detained persons were being held.
Beth Carruther’s Witness is a slow-moving form of art activism and decolonization thorough a process of solidarity. Washable Paint is a fast-moving form of art activism that emphasizes the urgency of the climate crisis through civil disobedience. Both are actively engaged in social change. Both address “hierarchies of privileges associated with the domination of one group over another,” which brings me to…
The Elephant in the Room
I would like to end with another story. A personal one, in the spirit of “walking one’s talk.”
I participated in an arts sector consultation hosted by the Green Resilience project on January 30, 2022, about linkages between climate change, income security, and community resilience. This is important cross-sectoral research. I was impressed by a statement (used with permission) by consultant Chesline Pierre-Paul, one of the guest speakers at the event, made during a chat exchange about some of the underlying causes of social inequities:
Asking who within the art sector gets to opt out of this conversation is telling of the economy of privileges that keep us socialized within white supremacy even as we present ourselves as part of the solution.
Chesline’s statement reminded me that one of the challenges in art practice in Canada today is acknowledging that one of the root causes of exploitation and oppression is the culture of white supremacy. This topic tends to be uncomfortable for the white majority to address but its recognition is key to moving forward with a new vision.
I was shaken, but also uplifted by Chesline’s statement, and I came to the following answers to her questions:
- Have I opted out of the conversation? No. I’m gradually re-educating and decolonizing myself. However, I am aware of the risk of complacency and the force of habit.
- Am I part of an economy of privileges? Yes. I was born into privilege and bear the responsibility of countering the effects of white socialization. I need to check my assumptions at every moment and be willing to give things up, as suggested in the “Wanna be an Ally” poem.
- Do I present myself as part of the solution? Yes. But I’m aware of the dangers of falling into white savior mode and unconsciously causing more harm than good.
(Top image: From conscient podcast e82 washable paint, November 12, 2021, Vancouver)
Claude Schryer is a franco-ontarian sound and media artist, arts administrator, and facilitator who holds a MM in composition from McGill University. From 2000 to 2020, he worked in management at Canada Council for the Arts. He produces the bilingual conscient podcast and was a founding member of the coordination circle of the Sectoral Climate Art Leadership for the Emergency (SCALE-LeSAUT) from March 2021 to March 2022. He is currently working through the exercises in Hospicing Modernity.