Connected and disconnected futures: investment and divestment in art and activism

This article is a response to Fee Plumley’s article ‘Artists, Technology, Institutions and Social Change’ (Reallybigroadtrip), published April 20, 2016.

Activist thought, irrespective of an artist’s intention, is implicit in many artworks, and certainly in the process of art-making. Creative tech activist Fee Plumley makes this underlying connection explicit in a recent blog post, highlighting that both artists and activists begin with “a concept, an idea they wish to communicate, … (most of the time) a clear idea of who they wish to communicate it with …[and] partners and resources to enable that idea to become real and present.” What ensues is an operation in awareness-raising and marketing to draw audiences to their specific cause, followed by crucial evaluation and reflection on the outcomes of the work. This comparison highlights the inherently activist qualities of the artist and the artistry involved in activist work.

It is understood that both are required to be creative, to adapt, problem-solve, research, speculate, collaborate and communicate. Once considering this formula, forging a distinction between the artist and activist seems unnecessary and unhelpful, yet what I often see is a reluctance to merge and collaborate the two.

For a while, the thought of ‘activist art’ summoned up thoughts of painted slogans, barbed-wire fences and disproportionate doves. I feared that it was trite, for one, but mostly I feared that bringing activism into my art would compromise my Precious Individual Voice and Right To Creativity. I now know that ‘activist art’ is a much broader sphere of interdisciplinary interventions and experiences that are often subversive and intelligent, not heavy-handed. And I now can identify the relationship between these two movements as symbiotic.

When I realized that essentially what I had to say was largely informed by and concerned with social change, I began to notice a culture of artists depoliticizing and presenting issues in a more safe and often distanced way. To make an artwork commenting on the environmental impact of the mining industry is different to locking-on to an earth-moving vehicle. Both actions are important, but the issue of proximity and engagement perpetuated by this disconnect makes the latter seem more so.

A perceived example of this depoliticisation was my impression of the recent Rally Against Arts Funding Cuts on the steps of Parliament House, Adelaide (19th April, 2016.) The crowd and our behaviour struck me as particularly ‘safe’. When I mentioned this to a friend later, they remarked that the protesters might see themselves as too ‘intellectual’ to engage in direct and confrontational ways. I disagree with that, though the atmosphere did seem tame and the passion for our cause was awkwardly expressed. The speakers were rousing and poignant, but the response from the community assembled, aside from patient and silent listening, was disengaged in comparison to other rallies I have attended. 
 
 Independent artists and their institutions have the opportunity to challenge injustice, stigma and bigotry if we are ready to negotiate our cherished individualism enough for it to critically intersect with the lives and experiences of others. It is a dual responsibility of artists and arts organizations to be informed and make ethical, socially responsible decisions that reflect their political attitudes rather than reject them. Plumley points out that while Chinese artist Ai Weiwei closed his exhibition in Denmark to boycott their government’s asylum-seeker policy, he has gone ahead with a hugely significant show at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, where our treatment of asylum seekers is just as inhumane.

Part of what I am talking about is the decision to invest and to divest. To redirect energy, money and focus towards our values, as artists and activists, as businesses and organisations.

So, how does this active assessment of values, this process of connection and disconnection manifest? It might look like arts organizations divesting from problematic sources of sponsorship. It might look like independent artists divesting from organisations which benefit from problematic sources of sponsorship. It would look like accepting criticism and being open to feedback, open to dialogues about the repercussions of our creative decisions.

Fee Plumley’s writing and work addresses technology as a tool for liberation and celebration of what capitalist, heteropatriarchal and colonial forces do not value — our otherness. My present research aims to highlight the unique power users have over the internet, as a platform which is constantly expanding and is open to new content. It aims to situate marginalised people as decision-makers and establishers of truth in a somewhat playful and novel way, but at the heart of this experiment is a serious reality about what the internet is. It is not fixed. The voices of minorities with something to communicate about the state of the world, with ideas for change, can exist online. By implementing change on one level in this malleable sphere that we sometimes feel powerless within, perhaps change from the inside out (online out?) is possible.

The original article I am responding to details the author’s experience as a panelist at an NGV Symposium titled “Art and the Connected Future.” For me, this is conducive to thinking about connection to technology and its possibilities, as well as connection to and engagement with issues of social change. Through these links, we can hope to strengthen relationships to each other. However, the inverse should also be addressed — disconnection and divestment from what we know to be destructive, what we feel to be wrong. If we aspire to a connected future, we also aspire to a disconnected one that not only moves away from but actively challenges systemic issues.

The internet mirrors human behaviour, including that which ‘commodifies our character and homogenises our humanness.’ (Plumley, 2016.) As our online behavior is increasingly integrated (read: granted value) in our lived realities, the values we give the most credence to are reinforced. Herbert Read saw that ‘our society as a viable organic entity is somehow dependent on art as a binding, fusing, energizing force.’ In this connected future, and this present riddled with injustice, what will we as artists and activists bind to, fuse together and put our energy towards?

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Hen Vaughan is a recent high-school graduate, writer and performance-maker. They are currently undergoing independent creative research in Adelaide, South Australia, with some key interests being mythology on the internet, the voices of marginalised people in decision-making, social architecture and psychogeography. Their focus is on community-engaged, interdisciplinary outcomes with access and empathy being key to open creative discussions.

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