ART & ACTIVISM, ISSUE 2

Part 1 : The overlap of art and activism

VD: I call myself a teaching artist because I consider teaching to sort of be a form of activism, especially because at the moment — and going forward — I’m teaching art education. So for me the question ends up being more about, “How does teaching overlap with activism?” or, “How does teaching overlap with art?” versus, “How does my activism overlap with art?” 

CW: In my mind, the overlap between art and activism might actually be quite small because art can do consciousness-raising but activism can be the change. Activism can mobilize votes, put pressure on political systems and change policy. But where’s the overlap? Because once someone raises [another’s] consciousness they have to actually go do something. 

VD: I don’t think that the overlap is small. I agree [that somebody needs] to actually put their thoughts and feelings into action in order to actually achieve any sort of change.  But for activism and movements that are successful, creative production is so integral! Creative production is the way that you communicate the fact that there’s a need that’s not being met. It’s the way that you communicate all of the things that the movement is for. The way that you envision a different reality is creative production. In that sense, there’s a lot of overlap. [But] there’s a chasm sometimes when there’s a really restricted view of an art practice. I think that even just saying where I am on a spectrum [from artist to activist]… my thoughts on it are changing all the time. If you’re not constantly questioning what it is that you’re doing, constantly in some state of doubt or questioning about, “Is this the right thing?” you’re probably doing something really bad.

CW: But at the same time there’s a certain paralysis that happens in the art world right now. I’m a painter, and I know that a painting can’t vote. I don’t think there’s any way a painting can be political the way a person can be political. Maybe my painting can shame someone into voting, or change someone’s emotions and then the person votes, but my painting will never be able to vote, so in that sense my paintings can’t possibly be political. But I think what you’re talking about — this doubt — I don’t think you’re talking about paralysis.

VD: Doubt isn’t even the right word, but a constant self-reflective process of questioning your motives and the efficacy of what you’re doing.

CW: But I’ve seen the painters who are crippled by [this]. I’ve seen the artists who are questioning: “Oh my gosh. Should this be purple or should this be red?” That’s not the doubt that you’re talking about. People have sat in their studios and have thought “I’m going to paint my doubt.” But it’s not doubt about any sort of political or any sort of political stance. They’re doubting some sort of historical narrative — art has a historical narrative that is in my opinion kind of pointless.

VD: Yeah, I don’t even think about that.

CW: [Laughs]

VD: It’s almost bringing up something. It’s been so long that I’ve even thought about that. I’m so grateful to be out of grad school.

CW: So you were disconnected in grad school?

VD: Not like I felt really disconnected and it was out of my hands, but I chose to be disconnected. I knew that I didn’t have the capacity to be helpful to an organization that was actually doing real stuff. But then I got connected with [YJC] by working with their media team and helping them out with graphics work for quite a long time, just doing graphics work to support the work they were already doing.

CW: Which I think is really really important. If we approach these movements, like the racial justice movement, and we say, “Racial justice movement, what can you do for my art?” That’s totally fucked up, right? Whereas if we go to the racial justice movement and we say, “What can I do? Oh, you need a website? OK, I’ll make the website. Oh, you need graphics? I’ll help do the graphics. Oh, you need facilitation? I’ll do that.” I would rather do that. I would rather give the LA No More Jails Coalition one hour of time that they really need as opposed to 10 hours of art time that they don’t need.

VD:  I approached YJC as a human that happens to have those skills and capacity. That’s the thing I’m bringing to it in terms of what I can offer. It’s art skills and capacity. I think what you’re describing is approaching it with an agenda, and it doesn’t matter if that agenda is an artistic agenda or if that agenda is a business-oriented agenda. I think that that would be a fucked-up way to approach any sort of social justice movement or nonprofit in general. 

Part 2 : The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Grant

CW: Are we approaching the Rauschenberg grant like we have an agenda to get one huuuundred thouuuusand dollars? Or are we approaching the Rauschenberg grant like it’s actually going to help our movement-building? That’s the question that I’m asking myself.

VD: So, in terms of that self-reflection, that self-interrogation that I was talking about, that’s the question. 

CW: Yeah. It’s the self-doubt and interrogation and vigilance. But it’s also the agenda. It might be where our agendas are more visible, or could be more visible.

VD: OK, so we’re both in a similar situation, where we both work with larger organizations that have a long and strong history of doing work around incarceration. In your case, the abolition of incarceration. And [in] YJC’s case... I don’t know how to describe their relationship to incarceration, but I could guess advocacy around policy change.

CW: I think that Kim McGill, [YJC’s lead organizer], identifies as an abolitionist.

VD: I’m describing the orientation of the organization, but I just mean that both of the organizations we work with have a long history of doing this work, and yet they couldn’t access this grant because they’re 501(c)3, they’re nonprofits. The position of the YJC, and way that I hold it, is that the grant can’t be just a way to funnel money to artists that care about incarceration or abolition. It needs to actually work towards changing policies around incarceration. It needs to support those policy changes.

CW: I totally agree.

VD: That’s the difference, and that’s where I start to get really critical around social practice, and all of these different art movements. I guess “social practice” specifically, because I consider that term a way to give activism art market value. I don’t think that the Rauschenberg grant is meant for that type of work.

CW: Well then let [me talk about my] project.

VD: So what [are you] proposing?

CW: I’m really trying to work with my fellow members at Critical Resistance and I’m going to work with Matt Weathers. He and I are [saying] that we’re going to try to keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is going to the Board of Supervisors and [doing outreach] in Skid Row. We’d use the money for stipends and projects, to bring people to the Board of Supervisors and activate them on the policy level, and try to put pressure on the LA County Board of Supervisors to stop the $2 billion jail plan and at the same time build our base. We’re going to talk to people who have been directly impacted by the prison industrial complex and try to push forward our messaging that abolition is the only way to go when it comes to the prison industrial complex. 

VD: It’s interesting listening to your proposal because you’re trying to reframe your activism as art, essentially. You’re applying for this art grant. What is the thing that would make that applicable?

CW: It would be outreach in Skid Row in the form of an office space [or] town hall [or] community event [space]. And performances at the Board of Supervisors steps where artists can perform and there’s a crowd. And a way to take that energy and crowd on the outside and funnel it into the public comments on the inside so that the Board of Supervisors can hear that there are people watching and that there are people paying attention to their decisions and there are people who really don’t think that a jail is the best thing to keep Los Angeles safe.

VD: So you’re going to be essentially having a performance that becomes a vehicle for those comments to get into the Board of Supervisors, or is it an event?

CW: It would be an event series which is basically what we’ve been doing just [on] a larger scale. But maybe it’s not a good art project… [laughs].

VD: You know what’s kind of interesting? The idea of applying for a grant for this particular cause — or I guess any cause that we all support — brings this art and nonprofit grant-application-process-Hunger-Games thing into such stark contrast. We all should be happy if someone has a really great project.

CW: That’s what I’m saying! If LAPD, the Los Angeles Poverty Department, gets this grant I would be so, so happy. 

VD: Or, if I’m going to put my faith in the granting institution actually supporting projects that will be effective in making change, then maybe putting this $100,000 toward something that could actually effect that change, causing people to put in the effort to stretch themselves creatively and compete for this thing, maybe that is slightly different than the typical nonprofit Hunger Games. 

Part 3 : Art as activism vs. activism as art

CW: When I first started organizing I looked at [it] as a mental escape from the rat race of grad school and I really liked it. It was emotionally good for me. But now, three years, four years later, I’ve seen enough of organizing and I’ve felt enough jealousy that I think that sometimes that Hunger Games feeling is actually everywhere. And that’s just maybe the condition of late capitalism.

VD: You said something that I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say, which is that you started [your organizing] almost as an antithesis to your experience of the art world.

CW: I think there’s a very big separation in my life between my art and my organizing because of the things I’ve mentioned before, because I don’t think my paintings can be political the way I can be political, and it’s just a philosophical thing. We’re in late capitalism, we’re trying to be super-specialized — everyone has to be really specialized in something, otherwise they don’t make money. We have to stop doing that thing that the scientists did when they discovered how to make an atom bomb. The scientists who discovered how to make an atom bomb were really really good at their jobs, but they may not have been really good at being humans. So we have to stop being so good at our jobs as artists and start being better at what you said, better at being human.

VD: You mean coming together collectively.

CW: Yeah. And I really don’t agree with the premise of the Rauschenberg Grant to a certain extent. Because it says Artist as Activist. Artist as activist is really freakin’ hard. But artist and activist, maybe that’s more exciting to me, maybe there’s more possibilities.

VD: So in terms of your whole life experience, is activism a newer part?

CW: So my art is about my emotions, and my organizing is the only way I can deal with my ego. My ego is constantly under threat. My ego as a “good person,” a “good person of color,” someone who is anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-sexist — that self-identification in my ego is constantly being threatened because I have racial and class privilege. So how can I participate in a system where my parents identified with the white settler colonial system? As immigrants coming to America they did not identify with the indigenous or enslaved population. So how do I deal with that history, that legacy? How do I contain my ego of being a good person with that legacy? Organizing is the only way that I’ve found that. And my art is totally ridden with guilt. 

VD: I was just explaining to somebody how important it feels to me to have my own art practice happening right now at the same time as I’m doing this really emotionally intense thing of traveling with and installing YJC’s memorial that’s been created by hundreds of young people in juvenile halls, schools [and] juvenile camps all across Los Angeles. It feels so important to me to have my own art practice. Not because I’m like, “Oh, my art practice is sooo special,” but because I need to have my ego in something else other than this memorial project.  It’s to avoid the insidious underbelly of socially engaged art projects — or community art projects, or social practice — where your identity as an artist becomes wrapped up in something that’s actually somebody else’s lived experience.

CW: You know what I think is really important? The last piece you did that I experienced, which was that audio piece [that] you presented at Analog Dissident. There was a really good conversation, and out of the conversation I realized that your piece was to a certain extent about how to be a white ally. 

VD: How was it that for you?

CW: Because when I experienced it and when we talked about it afterwards, that piece was about amplifying the voices of the people who were directly impacted and putting their thoughts and analysis at the forefront, and stepping back. And using your white privilege to ask the policemen a hard question. Does that make sense? That’s really freakin’ hard! It’s hard to have privilege in a space and not be an asshole.

VD: Yeah it does. I see how my artwork, my sculptural work, has been so much about dysfunctional systems, and the structures that support dysfunctional systems. And suddenly it’s like, I saw this process of recording and producing an album as a system that could actually function as a tool to amplify people’s voices, like [you were] saying, and to collect their stories. The stories I’ve been recording are people’s personal experiences of a truly dysfunctional system and all of those structures.

Part 4 : Who benefits from art? Who benefits from activism?

CW: What’s the audience for organizing and what’s the audience for art? The audience for organizing to me is all of the people who are oppressed under this really crappy system, but then the audience for art is all of the people who are complicit in this system. So my art has a certain level of disgust in it. People have said that it’s really cynical, but it’s not actually cynical — it’s just super angry. I’m just so mad at all these people. The things that are going on are so intense. Just [the] LA County jail system — the largest jail system in the world — holds 15,000 people at any given time, and they want to build more jails in LA and the cost would be $2 billion.

VD: Your position is that the people that you are speaking to with your artwork are the people that are complicit in that.

CW: Yeah that’s totally my assumption. Because if I show my work in LA, it’s people who are in LA, who either don’t know what’s going on or they don’t care. And by not caring, I don’t mean liking a Facebook post or saying, “Oh that’s terrible,” I’m talking about people just aren’t willing to take the time to educate themselves.

VD: I generally think of [my] audience as the people who I’m immediately surrounded by. And in the case of when I was in grad school, that was people I think you’re kinda thinking of, Christine.

CW: You mean art people? People with a master’s degree in the art field?

VD: Yeah, that’s who I was pretty much surrounding myself with. But working on the album, and for the past few years of doing organizing work, I’ve been surrounding myself with a different group of people. 

CW: I guess the inverse of who benefits from art and who benefits from activism is how does art benefit me and how does activism benefit me? If I give the art world something to munch on, then that makes me a better artist, or a more prestigious artist, whereas if I help organize then maybe the movement can be a little bit stronger. 

VD: You mean that working toward being a better artist only helps you as an individual but working as a better organizer helps the movement?

CW: I guess what I’m trying to talk about is labor hours. If I put my labor into making works of art that then get sold — or not sold — or somehow add cultural capital in the art world, that’s my labor hours benefiting the art world, whereas if I put my labor hours into the organizing world, then I think it will ultimately benefit LA County. If LA County doesn’t build the new women’s jail and the new mental health jail, ultimately that will benefit Los Angeles.

VD: I think there are so many different art worlds. I get a little bit uncomfortable, even though I also get swept into doing this as well: the idea of talking about art as though it’s this specialized thing that only people with degrees in art do. The organizing work that happens in LA in general, by organizations like YJC and Critical Resistance and North East Los Angeles Alliance, that is art work. It feels like the “art world” in Los Angeles will occasionally acknowledge art that is happening by those groups, but there’s [a restricted] view of art within the art-market-related art world.

CW: Andrea Fraser complains about the term “art world” all the time. She says the art world isn’t a separate thing; it’s still part of the world we’re living in. And it’s this huge multibillion-dollar industry, and I think that’s where my frustration comes from. It’s not a frustration with the art world, it’s just frustration with super-privileged comfortable people everywhere, including myself. And the worst part of it is that they’re in my world and they’re in the world of oppressed peoples, and they’re making some things worse with apathy. Is that too crazy?

VD: Wait what?

CW: [laughs] I asked is that too crazy? I think a lot of disgust comes across in my work, and [that] disgust happens in my organizing when I’m at the Board of Supervisors, saying they’re just as bad as Nazi sympathizers for locking up mentally ill people. No one’s doing industrial-scale murder in Los Angeles, but [there are] horrible stories of women in California prisons getting sterilized, in-custody deaths, [inmates] being denied medication [and] the overuse of solitary confinement, which California calls security housing units (SHU). The UN said that any sort of solitary confinement beyond 14 days constitutes torture and is going to cause permanent damage. And there are people in California prisons who have been locked up in the SHU for decades. And it’s our taxpayer money! So I really actually don’t think bringing up Nazis is that far [off]. People are going to be so mad at me if this goes to print. As a genocidal project the prison industrial complex is pretty compelling just in the sense that if you’re locking up mostly people of color and they’re gender-separated, then the capacity to form families and reproduce family structures is totally destroyed.

VD: The impact that locking people up has on families is tremendous, in terms of parents being removed from their children, children ending up in foster care. The likelihood that a person who grew up [in foster care] is then gonna become system-involved [is greater]. It becomes a generational trauma that reproduces itself. So actually there is a reproduction that’s happening in terms of a family unit, but the reproduction is devastating to those families.

CW: And so if there’s this stuff going on in California, and there’s the rise of very, very rich venture capitalist firms in the Bay Area, and there’s a thriving art scene in Los Angeles, and now there’s people getting rich off of the legalization of marijuana, it’s really hard for me to not get super angry. Where is the social justice in California right now?