distinctions in proximity: Zachary Rawe and Angela Vogel
distinctions in proximity: co-interviews between artists and activists was a printed companion to Artist In Solidarity, a People’s Movement Assembly co-hosted by Amber Art & Design, People’s Climate Arts and the Arts & Culture Working Group as part of the US Social Forum held in Philadelphia, PA on June 27th, 2015. The Arts and Culture Working Group of the USSF called for (self-identified) artists and activists to engage in dialogue via email. The published interviews were gathered by Phoebe Bachman and Maggie Ginestra with the hope of creating a document of shared ways of working and thinking.
Zachary Rawe is an artist, writer, and curator based in Philadelphia, PA. Rawe creates anxious objects and texts invested in affective responses generated from the dissolved relationship between work and leisure. Recently, he began to track his interests on a tumblr runonsentencereview.
Angela Vogel came to activism through feminism and volunteering with organizations such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL. In the last decade she has applied her background in marketing and public relations to a wide variety of causes including health care industry union organizing and more. She gained the most notoriety during the ballot initiative campaign for I-103 in Seattle when she was issued a legal marriage license for herself and a corporation the campaign called Corp Person. Her current focuses are fighting fossil fuel exploitation with grassroots group EDGE Philly, supporting actions led by the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, and developing a hybrid worker/community owned domestic services co-op called Harmony Home Cooperative. She is available for hire for direct action trainings with a focus on creative tactics and artful activism.
- an intro I’m also a little unclear about how to proceed. I know that this is meant to be a set of questions between ‘activists’ and ‘artists.’ That is about all I know. I think one of the reasons I’m a bit hung up on this process, as well, is because I actually don’t make any real distinctions between activists and artists. I think we can broaden the definition of both ‘activist’ and ‘artist’ to basically be the same thing. Essentially, I think we are dealing with people who utilize creativity to affect a public into behaving in a way that is different (better, more engaged, more emotive, worse, less engaged, less emotive, etc.) ‘Activists’ and ‘artists’, I think, may not be a distinction I’m interested in.
- Do you make any meaningful distinctions between the terms ‘activist’ and ‘artist’ ?
- I understand you are a labor activist? Can you describe to me a strategy you use to get people more invested in your passions?
- What is a book that you would consider is a must read and that illuminates your set of concerns? If you want to list more than one, please do!
I hope this gets the ball rolling a bit, and that I didn’t sound too terribly annoying about disliking the distinction between art and activism! I’m think I’m just really invested in locating confluences between people, and when definitions arise I get really paranoid.
Looking forward to your thoughts.
- Yes, I definitely make the distinction. There are artists whose work supports, promotes, reflects, and even celebrates systems of oppression, though their art may still be creative and beautiful in its way. Fashion photographers would be an obvious example. On the other hand, skilled activism, well, there is a bit of an art form to it. Even for an activist like myself who focuses more on boring sounding things like strategy and tactics, it requires creativity to think up new ways to build power and capitalize on the opposition’s weaknesses. Activists that lack this creativity and do things just because that’s how it’s always been done are ineffective and often not reflecting the needs of the communities they claim to serve.
- (I gotta be honest, labor is not the cause that I put the most time or passion into; it’s just the one for which I’ve managed to find paying gigs.) I think it’s really important to make the distinction between strategy and tactics, and I make that point because too often, especially as grassroots activists, we make the mistake of employing tactics without connecting them to a strategic campaign plan. Sorry for that slight tangent, but I think your question might be more about tactics than strategy.I’m a big believer in the power of the militant minority, but there are times when broader support is necessary. My favorite tactic, both because it makes protest fun and because it can be very effective, is street theater. The issues we deal with are heavy and a lot of the public ignores our causes not because they don’t care but because of the emotional strain that facing our current problems creates. People are more receptive when we can describe the issues through satire and give them a way to participate that encourages expression and laughter.
- I wouldn’t consider any book a ‘must read’ as some of the most effective social justice warriors in history couldn’t read or write. I think too much importance is put on the academics of activism to the great detriment of any movement building. I could say a lot about that, and some would cringe at the criticisms I have that challenge current power dynamics within leftist activism. However, my copy of Beautiful Trouble is always close at hand. It’s basically a direct action encyclopedia, and when I need to spark my creativity or help organize my ideas it’s really helpful to flip through.
Has your art always been influenced by/connected to your activism? How does it influence your art and vice versa?
What do you think can be done to get more artists involved in activism?
What are some ways that art can be blended into activism that you have used in the past?
I want to begin by responding to your answers before discussing my own work. Although you disagree with me and maintain a distinction between ‘art’ and ‘activism’ I sort of think you proved my point! By which I mean you describe your efforts as ‘requiring creativity’ and being ‘street theatre.’ I think both ‘art’ and ‘activism’ are striving to get people to pay closer attention, to feel investments in different parts of the world (perhaps the parts that are difficult.) The ultimate goal is changing behavior to account for others. I’m not saying all art does this… but I also will say, and as you suggest, neither does all activism.
I also don’t think ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’ are boring! At all! That is the gratifying part, it’s the puzzle of moving ideas around and trying to figure out what can resonate, to whom, and for what.
So to respond to your questions. My art has been influenced more heavily by television than activism. I can trace the aesthetics I’m drawn too very quickly to a 90’s woman with apathetic sarcasm. Darlene Connor (Roseanne) and Daria Morgendorfer (Daria) are my prime examples. I could ramble more examples, but I think these two will suffice. These two characters exhibited what would traditionally be called masculine characteristics and were both deeply disenchanted with the world they inherited. At the same time they were the feminist killjoys in any setting. They were the ones pointing out every injustice, raising sly ruckuses, and maintaining skepticism towards a world that didn’t deserve them. So I can’t say that I was influenced by activism, but I can say that I was highly influenced by moments in pop culture where deeply held political beliefs were placed inside disenchanted feminists.
It’s hard to respond to your question about how to get more artists involved in activism since I don’t like the distinction. One of my favorite people in the entire world, Suzanne Seesman, like you, also makes the distinction. She once brought up in a conversation, “does art have more to gain by activism, or does activism have more to gain from art?” What she was suggesting is, should we try and get artists to be more politically involved, or should activists be encouraged to be more creative? I think it’s a good question, and It resonates with me when thinking about your work with ‘street theatre.’ I’m really excited by the idea of a group of people collaborating on a public display. I’m very interested in this group Feel Tank Chicago which has many organizers, including activists, artists, academics.
As far as my own work is concerned, the closest example to a piece of mine blending the two categories… I would say is a performance piece titled, ‘grant: if a revolution starts i’d rather be sleeping (jersey-t and denim blanket with hinge seam to easily wrap yourself in this blanket of considerable weight to encourage longer rests aided by gravity and pillow case made from towels to dry tears if necessary) a $50 grant offered to an overworked individual in exchange for sleeping during the duration of the opening
jersey-t fabric, denim, towels, kate speidel: This was a project where, essentially, I paid someone to sleep in the gallery. I wanted to pay someone to not work. I hate labor and the state of labor in america… I have an inclination to discuss some facts and figures (the way we stack up against the rest of the ‘developed world’ in terms of vacation days, hours of work, retirement, unemployment, etc) but this email is getting long, and it feels like a potential rabbit hole. Regardless, this piece definitely pulls from aesthetics that look like activism, and would be my closest blurring of the two.
I hope this email isn’t tedious. So back to you,
What would your ideal relationship with an artist be during activism/organizing.
When creating street theatre, how collaborative is that environment?
If labor isn’t your passion, what is?!?
I’m not sure that I’ve proved your point Zachary. I appreciate that art is always something that is ‘striving to get people to pay closer attention’, but the question is paying attention to what and how. To me, art is only activism if it is subversive. Yes it’s true that a lot of so-called activism doesn’t attain subversiveness either, but then I would not call it successful or maybe not even activism. For example, I don’t consider actions like grassroots lobbying or petition signature gathering (on their own) to be activism because they are not subversive acts; that is simply engaging in the system the way (we are told) the system is supposed to work. Those acts don’t subvert the current system but work within it. There are exceptions, for example, when we were working on the I103 initiative in Seattle we called it ‘civilly disobedient legislation’ because it’s passage would have been in direct conflict with SCOTUS rulings on corporate personhood, whereas sitting down with my legislators to try to get them to pass more funding for abortion services was not activism but civil engagement.
To answer your question about collaboration in planning street theater or any tactic, yes, it should always be collaborative. I caution other organizers that I see feeling stressed out because they don’t have enough human support that if the support isn’t there they are probably doing something wrong. It’s harsh, and I have many times not taken my own advice only to realize it in retrospect. That something wrong may mean the wrong cause, the wrong tactic, the wrong messaging, the wrong people leading it, or any manner of things big and small. I wonder if that is true for artists, and I feel like it may not be. Many unsupported artists go on to be much celebrated later. So how do you know that your art is relevant? Or does it matter as long as it is personally relevant? Unfortunately, activism doesn’t work that way. It has to be more than personally relevant, or it’s really not activism.
Thanks for chatting Zachary!