Andrew Boyd describes himself as an “author, activist, and prankster for social change”, involved in campaigns such as Billionaires for Bush or The other 98%. Together with Dave Oswald Mitchell, he recently edited Beautiful Trouble. A toolbox for revolution, a kind of instruction manual for creative activism. We had the chance to ask him some questions, and were particularly interested in his reflections on the role of social imagination and the practical effectiveness of symbolic actions.
Julia Ramírez Blanco: In the kind of actions portrayed in the book, what do you think is the role of utopia?
Andrew Boyd: In Beautiful Trouble, utopia is most reflected in the tactic of “prefigurative intervention”. I am speaking of these sort of moments, whether it is a TAZ or an extraordinary epiphany moment, a carnival moment; whether it is in the streets of Seattle or in Occupy Wall Street, with its utopian longings. Or maybe it can be some of these lovely Critical Mass transitory moments. Bringing utopia into history, to make that happen – even if it´s just for a moment and on a localized place and experiencing it – affects you on a very visceral level, at the level of your nervous system, of your whole being and body and soul, as opposed to just an intellectual argument. If you experience direct democracy, or an intimate community, or just an otherwise impoverished urban space suddenly made beautiful, it alters everything.
Art can do it in a very powerful way, and pranks can do this as well: to change things in a way that gets you to think that a whole other set of things are possible because you feel it and smell it and commune with it. That´s where I think utopia – when it lands for just a moment and then goes away – is still an extremely powerful presence.
JRB: So what do you think are the limits of creative intervention?
AB: It depends how you define it. – if you define it in a narrow sense or in a larger sense. In the narrow sense, I’m talking about a prank or street theatre or a flash mob or a culture jamming-type thing or banner hangs – all these creative little tactics. I think people that are into them and get turned on by them think that such interventions can do a lot more of the work than they actually can. So they lose the sense that those interventions are great but they are complementary to a lot of ways of organizing that are maybe less flashy.
JRB: Such as?
AB: You have to make email lists and stay in touch with the community. You have to figure out what is your relationship with elections and maybe have an outside strategy where you are doing some of the boring, painful compromising work of running an election. You also have to think about how to build power over the long term and build organizations and NGO infrastructures. You have to do all this stuff. You have to have powerful charismatic leaders who are maybe not “creative”, fancy, artsy or humorous. I just emphasize this again and again with people with whom I do workshops and talk to – creative actions, creative interventions can draw attention to an issue; they can push a corporate target which is stealing from the people or getting away with an ecological crime, and you can put a spotlight on them and it can be extremely useful. But then there has to be a larger movement that keeps holding their feet to the fire. There are people involved in a 20-year legal case (oil, toxics, Ecuador), and it´s fine if the Yes Men come along and do a prank that highlights that, but you´ve got to have the people and the lawyers and the environmental organizations and a paid staff to keep pursuing that for 20 years. Creative interventions are not going to do that, but they can help. It´s important to understand that a lot of things have to happen to create social change, and that creative activism has a certain set of things and another set of tactics, but in no way it is sufficient in itself. So that is my answer if you define creative action in a more narrow sense.
JRB: And if you define creative interventionism in a wider sense? What would that be?
AB: In the broad sense, I think you can define creative intervention also as a real move. You can say that the revolution in Egypt was just one huge big revolutionary creative action. There was a lot of creativity there, a lot of tactical innovation. There was a core of people organizing, but then the people were making things up as they went along. In the broader sense, the do-it-yourself sense of a mobilized population figuring out what they need to do as they come into their power – that is definitely something creative. In the broader sense, it is almost one and the same with revolution, and one and the same with a successful social movement, so in that sense there are no limits because you conflate your creative piece with your revolutionary piece.
There is a quote by Paul Virilio, who was involved as a young man in Paris 1968. He tells this lovely little story where he is chanting. There’s a lot of tension between the anarchists and the communists, but they are in the streets side by side. Virilio shouts “Power to the Imagination”, and a communist says, “no, comrade, all power to the working class”, so then he replies “are you saying the working class has no imagination”. The point is in those revolutionary moments the people at large are taking things into their own hands.