Political unrest as creative fuel

Takeaways from the 10th edition of Dynamic/MTL

The most recent edition of Dynamic/MTL took a turn for the political. With the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the uncertainty and fear surrounding Trump’s presidency, we felt it was timely to examine our role in times of political change. Where do personal beliefs and values intersect with work? Or should we check our beliefs at the proverbial office door, and simply focus on making design great again?

Our panel on January 23rd featured the Montreal-based artist MissMe, VICE Political News Correspondent Justin Ling, and Jennifer Daniel, currently Creative Director at Google, but most well known for her outspoken critiques of the design / tech bubble. Rather than break down their talks one by one, I thought it would be more interesting to present the core issues as discussed last Monday.

Personal accountability

In all three talks, the speakers addressed the notion of personal involvement in political movements, whether directly or indirectly. Is it possible to keep your steady 9 to 5 startup job funded by millions in venture capital while doing all you can to fight racism, misogyny or fascism? Or, even better, is it possible to do this through your work, as suggested recently by renown designer Mike Monteiro? Our speakers’ opinions diverged on this one.

On one end of the spectrum, as a journalist, Justin Ling is not allowed to show political bias or get involved in protests or political movements. He joked that he’s gotten so good at it that he’s perfected the stone-wall poker face, refraining from clapping at most events. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t hold politicians accountable, however, but that he does it through a lens of thoughtfully researched stories. He emphasised this notion of balance in news coverage, which unfortunately is interpreted by many news outlets as five minutes for to cover the left and five minutes to cover the right, rather than taking the time to consider what’s newsworthy (e.g. the Clinton email debacle). In terms of personal accountability, he stressed that journalists need to take more time to consider what’s important before pitching a story, rather than churning out what will get the most clicks. He also put the onus on the public to take responsibility for the media they consume, stating:

“The public is voting with their eyeballs, their likes, and shares. Viewership doesn’t always dictate news, but it’s a big driver.”

MissMe, as an artist, naturally took a more personal stance on the issue of civic accountability. While on the one hand, she explained that her reasons for creating art were entirely personal, she does see a larger mission in her work:

“I see what I do as a positive building action, not a destructive one, even though it’s labelled vandalism.”
MissMe at Dynamic/MTL

She explained that after experiencing a personal trauma, she began to create art in the streets as a way to make her soul breathe again. She saw it as the most freeing thing she could do — free of clients, of selling, of canvases, or of societal expectations of her as a woman. While she felt stifled in her former advertising job, she admits that quitting your day job is not something she would recommend to everyone, that you need to find your own path. Through her outdoor paintings, she is able to tackle issues of patriarchy, the objectification of women, or native rights, amongst others. In her “Lady Liberty” pieces, for example, featuring the statue of Liberty in native headdress and the year of America’s “discovery” in 1492, she demonstrates a layered interpretation of history, where one vision of America’s roots doesn’t negate another. At the end of the day, with our current generation’s penchant for soul searching and striving for meaning through our work, she stated that you need to find your own way to express your views and creativity. For her right now, this means taking her bold art to the streets of cities around the world, but it is likely something entirely different for you.

Jennifer Daniel at Dynamic/MTL

Jennifer Daniel, on the other hand, began her talk by stating that speaking at Dynamic/MTL had forced her to take the time to confront what it’s like to be a white woman in America, acknowledging the immense privilege she was born into. She refutes the notion that all it takes is dedication and hustle to succeed, or that the best designers are “self-made”. She described her innate sense of security in taking risks and critiquing her industry, of being able to speak without fear of consequences, largely due to her comfortable social class.

“I might feel like an outsider in my community, but I am privileged.”

The primary sense of personal accountability that she hit home was to “check your privilege” — be honest with yourself and your circumstances. While many Liberal Americans are freaking out right now about losses of freedoms a more dictatorial style president, the refrain from minorities and people in less developed countries seems to be “welcome to my life”.

What does post-truth really mean?

Another theme that echoed through the three talks and that seems to be on everyone’s lips these days is this notion of “fake news”, “post-truth”, “alternate facts”, or more blatantly, rampant lies throughout our media landscape. Justin dove headfirst into the issue, detailing the various types of misinformation that we’re bombarded with on a daily basis:

  • Bad news: just because it’s bad, doesn’t mean it’s fake
  • Stories that were later corrected: responsible journalists check their facts, and correct their errors when they screw up
  • Propaganda: fake, unchecked and disingenuous information — e.g. Russian press officers adding things to news ecosystem to confuse people
  • Made-up s#%*t: there are many levels of this, but it includes bored teenagers making up stories for ad revenue, and politicians trying to hammer a message home without any evidence (voter fraud anyone prevented Trump from winning the popular vote? he had the largest audience to witness a presidential inauguration — really?!)
  • Real fake news: And then the icing on the cake, when Trump calls major media outlets like CNN for reporting on real stories that he doesn’t like.

The situation doesn’t seem to be improving with Trump’s first week in office, with Chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon launching yet another attack last Wednesday: “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while…The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.” It seems that the Trump team is still feeling very adversarial, and without Obama or Clinton to attack, they have turned on the media, as they did frequently throughout the campaign. This would be a shocking statement coming from any politician, but for someone so powerful in the White House to attack the first amendment of the Constitution, protecting free speech and the freedom of the press, is a first.

Justin Ling at Dynamic/MTL

The issue of media credibility came up again in the panel discussion — asking ourselves, what can we do about it? Beyond as stated earlier, “voting with your eyeballs” as Justin puts it, the public needs to subscribe to (aka pay for) quality journalism if they want to see it persist. MissMe described her habit of checking three news sources daily, then making up her own mind as to what to ascribe value. Jennifer, on the other hand, disparaged at the divide between the editorial and marketing teams when she was Graphics Editor at the New York Times: “When I worked in a newsroom, there was no talk of money... When your newsroom is strapped for cash, but it’s also so important for democracy, we should acknowledge it.” The upshot seems to be that if we want quality journalism to win over trash news, we have to have a stake in it — we need to confront journalists when they are wrong, and pay for truthful, in-depth reporting, thereby supporting the creation of better stories.

Bridging the divide

While we have some distance from partisan politics in Canada, with fairly centrist major media and a multi-party reality that doesn’t get as nasty as American politics, the discourse amongst our Southern neighbours has become so divisive that there is little common ground for dialogue anymore, whether in media, or at the dinner table. While it’s tempting to stay in our comfortable echo-chambers of newscasts, podcasts, friends and social feeds that share our opinions, this is only making issues worse. (Postscript — if there’s anything we can learn from the recent tragic shooting at a mosque in Quebec city over the weekend, it’s that alt-right political groups and discourse DO influence troubled minds. Words matter.) Jennifer spoke at length about this problem and encouraged the audience to face their fears head on. More explicitly, she recommended not “unfriending” those who have differing political views from you on Facebook, and to surround yourself with people who challenge you.

“White Liberals have separated themselves from their Republican friends... People say they hate Facebook because of all the racism, but all those people are your relatives.”

This statement really rang true for me. I have family across Canada and the States, and am quite certain we don’t all see eye to eye politically. I haven’t unfriended anyone for this reason, but have definitely used the “see fewer posts from…” feature. Jennifer takes things on step further, in writing letters to her Trump supporting relatives. More unexpectedly, I rode a chairlift at a ski resort in Utah last week, with a wealthy Arizona real estate broker, who declared the women's’ marches “ridiculous”, presuming I would agree with him. While it was tempting to end the conversation there, I did try to listen to what he had to say. When he started bringing up Bill Clinton’s infidelities and calling beauty pageants “empowering for young women” we had to agree to disagree, but it was a stark reminder of what many other Trump supporters must also believe. At the end of the day, I guess we all need to listen more, even if we don’t like what we hear. As MissMe eloquently pointed out:

“Labelling people racist is not helpful… I can change my mind, and others should be allowed to as well. We need to be able to evolve our opinions together.”

Je suis nasty

Park City Womens’ March on January 21st

I’m writing this from Park City, Utah, where I’ve been hanging out at the Sundance Film Festival (and skiing!) for the past week with my husband at the premiere of Tokyo Idols, a documentary he produced. It’s been an odd week to be in the States, even more so in this enclave of extreme privilege. That said, I was really excited to participate in Park City’s sister march on January 21st, and encouraged by the sheer number of women’s marches that took place around the world in 673 cities across 70 countries. The Democratic campaign slogan “The Future is Female” feels like it’s really happening, despite not having a first female president in office. In fact, many in the American media last week were saying that it’s taken something this dramatically bad for human rights, aka Trump, to unite various left-leaning causes and organizations advocating for the protection of rights for many marginalized groups, such as feminists and women’s rights , LGBT organization, immigrants’ rights - especially targeted groups such as Mexicans and Muslims, as well as the expansive Black Lives Matter movement, to name a few.

At Dynamic/MTL, this feminist angle was unsurprisingly most prevalent in talks by MissMe and Jennifer Daniel. While there is a feminist overtone to many of MissMe’s pieces, her “Don’t tell me what to wear campaign” is emblematic of a larger societal problem, featuring portraits of strong looking women wearing the hijab. MissMe explained that this is not a series in defence of the hijab, but rather promoting freedom of choice:

“The point is not whether to cover or not to cover, the point is choice.”
“Don’t Tell Me What To Wear. Sincerely, Women Everywhere.” — MissMe

She explained that you can cover or reveal as a form of liberation and that through her work, she has chosen both. With Trump quickly defunding Planned Parenthood and banning funding to non-profits that provide international aid for abortion, let alone his disgusting brags about assaulting women, it feels like we need to protect the safety and sanctity of our bodies now more than ever.

Jennifer Daniel spoke about the more overt sexism of working in media and design, mentioning she has never worked for a woman; and has had to fight harder for same roles and salaries as her male peers. She thought it curious that for a company that claims to be as “pro-women” as Facebook with their “lean in” movement, Mark Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sandberg were strangely silent about the womens’ marches on the 21st, while other major media such as Vogue took an obvious pro-march stance. While it’s one thing to draw a sign and walk in a march for a couple hours, it will be interesting to see how the future of this movement plays out. The march’s founders are trying hard to build on last week’s enthusiasm, publishing a list of “10 Action for 100 days” for marchers to keep the momentum going, with suggestions such as writing your Senator and signing up to their newsletter for future updates. With outspoken supporters such as iconic feminist Gloria Steinem (amongst many other inspiring women) lending her voice to the cause, I’m hopeful that this fight isn’t over.

What next?

While every speaker was quick to denounce any kind of one size fits all solution, there were some interesting ideas that emerged for future action. Beyond staying engaged locally, surrounding yourself with people who challenge you, and supporting good journalism, the most interesting place where I’m feeling hopeful is this confluence of art, design, and media. Let’s face it, we’re not going to get followers of Breitbart News to start tuning in to Democracy Now!, it’s too far a bridge to cross. Where I believe there is more potential for connections to be made is through art. My film festival surroundings are likely influencing me, but it seems that artists, and especially filmmakers, are well-poised to create works that can address serious issues, all the while speaking to a broad audience, perhaps getting people to see issues from a new angle without having angry opinions shoved down their throat.

More specifically during the Dynamic/MTL panel, I thought Justin’s suggestion of the collaboration between designers and journalists was compelling. How do we get people to read a 5,000-word hard-hitting story on a screen? If journalists are going to write the stories that need to be told, rather than quick and easy click-bait, digital designers have a huge role to play in packaging this content in a compelling enough way to get people to read it. And of course, beyond making journalism beautiful, there is an inspiring history of protest art, which is still alive and strong if all the amazing poster art from last weekend is any indication — proving that if you have something to say, you should use your best skills to say it.

Signing off from Park City

Writing this from Sundance feels surreal, where on the one hand, I’ve seen inspiring films exploring human rights issues, attended amazing panels such as “Post-truth and Consequences” with filmmaker Laura Poitras, but have also been skiing and hobnobbing with some of the wealthiest people in America. Next week is back to reality. I hope you enjoyed this last edition of Dynamic/MTL, or at the very least, that it got you thinking about our political climate and your role in challenging the status quo. What are you going to do about it? I’d love to know — hit me up in the comments below, or here.

— Peace