Contending for Dreamspace
by Terry Marshall & Aisha Shillingford
The United States is in the advanced stages of neoliberal capitalism. Within the construct of neoliberal economics nothing is safe, nothing is not commoditized, even culture. Capitalism is so desperate for land to conquer it has reached our mental space. It then becomes about the manufacture of consent. The struggle for social justice has become about the very meaning of things, framing, understanding, and feeling. This is the last space that is sovereign, our bodies, and our minds. Culture is at the CORE of the struggle especially because we are over saturated with corporate media. We have to fight on that battle-field. It has reached a crisis point.
Given that reality, the Left is shockingly deficient in arms and armor. This has not always been true. The Left was once far more advanced in this area. We once offered dreams, imagination and utopias. We have to regain that. We must update our tools, culture, cultural understanding and design compelling alternatives. Popular Culture is the the most democratic arena because it taps into everyday people’s desires, where they create and live their dreams. We must contend for dream space. We must usher in a cultural renaissance, that will in turn accelerate the economic and political renaissance that we are so desperately in need of.
“To dismantle and reinvent institutions or systems we have to start at the roots, with the culture that supports them. Culture is the material substratum of politics, the muddy foundations upon which it is built, but these foundations can’t be changed in the same way that you can undo a law — they are transformed by infiltrating them at the molecular level, through the fault lines, pores and gaps, burrowing away like an old mole opening up millions of potential north west passages. Luckily for you, that’s where you are already.” The user’s guide to demanding the impossible
At present we are experiencing a rift, a tear in the veil of neoliberal cultural hegemony, as a result of the current iteration of the movement for Black Liberation. The memes and messages created by this movement have the power to shift the very assumptions of the viability of our current political economy. We therefore need a Black Cultural Renaissance that offers a counter-hegemonic strategy that allows us to imagine and taste a new political economy that centers and empowers Black, Indigenous, and Immigrant communities of color in the United States and their diasporas. In particular a black/indigenous/immigrant cultural renaissance must involve imagining a future grounded in a past that evolves without the rupturing of our trajectories via colonialism, slavery, genocide and capitalism.
At several junctures in the struggle for Black Liberation, from emancipation, to decolonization, to reconstruction, to desegregation, to black power, etc. there have been formal and informal cultural institutions that have taken on the role of developing cultural strategies: creating new narrative, cultivating new black imaginaries, and positing irresistible alternatives.
During the Civil Rights era these institutions included Black Churches, Black colleges, Southern NAACP chapters, the Nation of Islam, the Black creative class (writers, musicians, dancers), the Black Panthers and more. Each and all creating cultural memology around identity, way of life and what freedom looked like. Beyond just marches and rallies, the power and use of food, clothing, fashion, rhetoric, language, song was integral during this movement. These institutions facilitated the aesthetics of hope and freedom before it was fully realized. They served to create the affect and atmospheres of liberation that fueled the movement’s political and legislative strategies. The tactic of nonviolence was created to intentionally interplay with the role of media in the lives of the average American citizen and toyed with that enormous cultural institution vis a vis a debate about the fundamental cultural values of the country.
Today we must strengthen and cultivate equally relevant cultural institutions able to:
“Boost imagination and invention, realign action logic, and experiment with new forms of civil society to create the atmospheres of change needed for the next leg of black liberation.” — Intelligent Mischief, mission statement.
“A March from A to B with placards, repetitive slogans chanted with hoarse voices, protesters kettled in the cold for hours, crowds listening to a man with a beard giving a speech, boring banners hung from buildings, flyers filled with statistics of doom … Do these acts resemble the future we want? How else could our demands and desires be manifested? How else could our actions look and feel?” The user’s guide to demanding the impossible
“Propagator of Happenings, performances which eradicated the divisions between audience and creator in the 1960’s, he understood that art holds within it the potential to create images of the future that can be rehearsed in the here and now. The most successful political actions do the same. They don’t just demand or block something, they put our dreams on display, they don’t just say NO, but they show how else we could live. Reclaim the Streets parties in the 1990’s did not simply free the streets from polluting traffic, more importantly they filled them with dancing bodies, music and a vision of the world where politics was about pleasure not sacrifice. It was about embodying change, not waiting for a revolution to bring it along. When students across the country occupy rooms in their universities and hold alternative forms of education in them, they are refusing and building at the same time. Some students from Goldsmith’s have recently even taken this “yes and no” spirit into unlikely spaces. They started their own institution, the University of Strategic Optimism, and rather than accepting the marketisation of education, they began to educate the market, holding lectures which occupied and redefined spaces of consumption — the foyer of a bank, the aisles of a supermarket — as a place to convivially learn and discuss.” The user’s guide to demanding the impossible
“There are more than a few things hindering us. I won’t list them all, but one is imperative. We haven’t envisioned winning.” Ferrari Shepard https://twitter.com/stopbeingfamous/status/669003572114272256
“One of the sparks that lit the powder keg of movements that brought down the Berlin Wall began with a gaggle of Polish artists, The Orange Alternative. One night under the influence of several mind altering substances, they decided to call for a “Gnome” gathering, to demand “Gnomes” rights. Protests were banned in Poland under the military regime, but when faced with thousands of young people wearing orange gnome hats, the soldiers did not know what to do, and the generals did not call the tanks in. For the first time since martial law was declared, a mass of people had taken public space back, had a great time doing it, and managed to spread a sense of confidence far and wide. Within a few years the whole of Eastern Europe was out in the streets. Art Activists are good at finding the acupuncture points, those cracks in a system that can be wrenched open. As systems theorist Donella Meadows illustrates in her essay ‘Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System’, linear chains of cause and effect exist rarely in complex systems, but there are numerous levers where “small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything”. Of the twelve points listed she states that the three with of most leverage are the goal of a system, the paradigm used to design it and most importantly our power to transcend that paradigm. What she means is think utopian, present new sets of values and empower people with hope and confidence! Three things that are the stock strategies of art activism.” The user’s guide to demanding the impossible
We are facing a unique, peak moment in the trajectory of neoliberal capitalism. It has evolved to create an extremely complex system that is a confluence of politics, finance, the economy, and culture. The fabric of our societies and deeply held fundamental values are being threatened and are at this time being pushed to their very edge. At the same time our ability to push back has been weakened. We’ve been overwhelmed by the corporate control of culture via the production of cultural products. We’ve been oversaturated with media, with images, and symbols that make it difficult to discern what is really happening.
Our ability to make sense of the world is dependent on narrative. Through it we build shared language and connect to emotion. Through empathetic design we create intimate connection and construct the feeling that moves us to action. We cannot afford to allow corporations and corrupt politics to control narrative and to control the realm of design.
While we face an extreme threat, it is also a time of extreme opportunity. Although repression, and neoliberalism is at its greatest height combined with an opaque veil of consumerism, individualism etc., for the first time ever movements are becoming extremely aligned. We have passed the phase of intersectionality and are approaching true solidarity, and it is possible that the time of a mass social movement is near. Our strategy therefore needs to rise to the occasion. Masses of disenfranchised are waiting to be invited into the movement. They need and want hope now more than ever. The Left has long been the vanguard of the truth, supported by evidence, data, and information. But we don’t need more information about what is wrong. We need viable alternatives. We need alternative lived realities and Culture is the only thing that can manifest the alternatives to move people into something new. We need alternative experiences, and this is the opportunity that cultural organizing brings.
“More information is not going to motivate us to act, neither are representations or pictures of politics, what makes us move is tasting dreams of what could be, stepping into the cracks where another world is coming into view.” The user’s guide to demanding the impossible
Things are gloomy: we face racism, climate change, oppression, powerlessness. What we need is hope. Something to remind us that all is not lost, that through our creativity we can craft a new reality.
Why us? How are we best equipped to achieve the goal.
The Intelligent Mischief collective is an intentionally black/afro-descendant, immigrant group of thinkers, organizers, strategists, and creatives. We believe these attributes are unharnessed assets that offer unparalleled contributions to the success of the most significant social movements of our time:
Race matters now more than ever
In these movement times the veils have been lifted to expose that white supremacy not only runs deep in our society, but that it is the very life-blood our political economy. Social movements have come to realize that race is not just an issue they must latch onto but that it is at the core of every struggle for social justice. Native American and Afro-descendant people have been and continue to be the most harmed by white supremacy and have developed a long cultural legacy of resistance. Our collective draws on the cultural DNA of our ancestors and of the African diaspora as a whole to create a narrative and practice of resistance that plays an invaluable role in shifting the culture of white supremacy.
Third culture perspective paves a new way
Our movements must be able to shift and pivot quickly as counter-resistance strengthens and gets a strangle hold on the popular narrative. Cultural fluidity is needed to create strategic relationships across identities and cultures. It also provides much needed access to lessons, perspectives, tools, and resources. Our identities as third-culture immigrants gives us a unique vantage point from which to understand global movement trends and allows us to connect with and create diverse and powerful networks and aesthetics that explore the nexus of ideas vis a vis cultures, fusion, amplification as it were.
Renaissance people for the birth of a new political economy
Complex times call for complex people with an understanding of human behavior, organizational dynamics, movement theory and development, and cultural strategy who are able to weave compelling narratives, design new structures, processes and tools, and who can easily integrate popular arts and culture into movement strategy to win hearts and minds. The Left desperately needs new imagination, and new dreams. At Intelligent Mischief we know how to ignite imagination, how to harness culture and creativity to create new ways of doing social movements. We’re thinkers and doers, dreamers and strategists. We’re renaissance people who believe a new world is possible and have the skills and networks to work towards that new world.
Our overarching approach is that of the confluence and coexistence/co-integral role of narrative and design. That is, the ideas and the aesthetics. The word and the action. Praxis. They why and the how. We believe that in cultural organizing/cultural strategy/the creation of atmospheres of change there are two core elements that shift people towards change: the word (narrative/storytelling) and beauty/aesthetics (design). As such we work to ensure that both clear, compelling narrative is at the root of action and that aesthetics and affect are integral to the experiences, process and products we create.
Read more about our work at www.intelligentmischief.com