Artistic Activism Luncheon, Discussing Efficacy

The following video is from a research luncheon hosted by Artistic Activism at NYU (AA@NYU). Below this video you will find selected highlights with time markers so you may navigate each discussion to what might be most relevant to you and your practice. These working research group meetings are a time and place where academics, artists and activists come together to discuss a topic germane to the study and practice of artistic activism. TOPIC: Efficacy

Does it work?
How does it work?
Under what conditions does it work?
Can efficacy be measured?
How do we even define what success is when dealing with aesthetic political practice?

Part 1: Selected Highlights

How do we define work? (18:00) “One of the ways we measure success is how many people see it. It is one of the only ways we can quantifiably measure success. Like whether or not it changes minds or its persuasive or gets people to take radical action. I don’t really have any metrics for that, or that we ever will.” “For me it’s change, its not an intellectual exercise. It’s not an academic pursuit. …but if you want to set that as your goal than yes that’s success, but if you are looking for it to work. You dig ditches because someone looked at it. Real work involves something happening.”

Does Activism Work? (22:00) “It’s the same question for activism in general. Does activism work period? I don’t see any difference between creative activism and activism. You can look at one big activist event and say ‘what did that change?’ Almost all of them….but cumulatively it makes a huge difference!”

Does it work v. Is it working? A drama therapy perspective (23:25) “I’m a drama therapist and we aren’t asking does it work, we’re asking is it working?”

Legibility, Value Systems, and Efficacy Measurement (25:00) “Part of what activist work is doing is it is making the change legible. Rather than saying it happened at some other time, it’s dealing with the problem of scale and somatizing that, making that available through an expressive form that’s a rupture through the other mean of measure.” “If I go out and knock on doors for a political campaign. I have a pretty good idea if its working or not working…but when you engage in aesthetic practice your not quite sure what are we actually trying to do? Are we trying to make change legible to a wider audience? Are we trying to model a way of being in the world–you can do this too! Or is it that if we are affected, the very measure and slide of what we are doing now become illegible?”

Shooting for the Stars: Utopia (28:35-Part 2) “We actually should have double standards for ourselves. And that a double standard in this case could be really good. On the one hand, you want to create this utopia. I’m going to make this piece and everything is going to change and the world is going to be a perfect place….”

Part 2: Selected Highlights

Definitions of Utopia: Why do we do it? (0:00) “Utopia is on the horizon you take two steps towards it, it takes two steps back, if you take five steps towards it, it takes five steps back. So what’s the good of going towards Utopia? It’s the walk.” “You can make things better for people in their everyday, lived, ordinary lives and that’s what we’re fighting for. Not some sort of shift in the universal consciousness, but better wages or more community gardens or whatever it is…and if you’re not working towards that then what are you doing? If you’re an activist and you’re not trying to make people’s lives better than what are you engaged in in the first place?”

Questions about Audience (9:09) “What does it mean to make the audience matter and who is the target audience?…Who is this for? What am I trying to do to that audience?” “What do we want these audiences to do? Do we want them to act in a short-term? Do we want to blow their minds entirely so they recalibrate reality?…How do we know when we’re blowing someone’s mind?….when we are talking about, what perhaps aesthetics is best at, which is rearranging how we are looking at the world, the value itself, how do we know if we’re winning?”

Capacity and Contribution (16:00) “It’s creating curiosity. To me that’s success.” “My best idea, my biggest utopia, is going to be smaller than a collective sensible. So the idea of the word, ‘activate’…changing the horizon and activating something collective.”

Is having and idea of an outcome more limiting than what it is driving? (18:15) “It’s about breaking the binary and the balance between identifying a particular goal in any endeavor and looking at the big, the un-knowable, the big dream. And so how do we function in that space that is between?” “Someone can have a negative reaction, but the result is a positive outcome. So you can’t control. You pick a target. You pick an activity… it may cause a shift in tactics, it may simply stimulate new thought, it may come up with an idea we didn’t even imagine.” “If we think about provocation having inherent value in itself, that’s useful. So for instance sometimes as an artist we go out and we poke at things and you keep poking until you find where it hurts. ‘Oh!’ That created a reaction. I wasn’t completely sure what was going to happen and yet I generated a response. The response I think its inherently of value and out of that response all sorts of interesting things could happen.”

Role/Goals of Art in Activism (25:10) “Distinguishing between effective massive scale public gestures in the support of a specific political movement is an artistic activism every bit as much as putting out a piece that does something crazy that gets people thinking completely outside of whatever the current fight is. Those are two very different projects and you’ve got to fail at one of them on the average day, and maybe win one of the others. But what we are in the business is more about opening up a possibility.” “If you don’t have a critique that is says here’s what I see the problem as being, here’s the mediating links, here’s how the present relates to a past and imaginable future, and here’s organizationally what I hope to be unleashing based on what’s happened before. That is to say of course that action doesn’t stand for itself, but framing it as art treats it with a kind of undue autonomy that I think we have to grapple with when we put the two terms, , together.”

Evaluation: Quality as part of Function (32:19) “One of the things people need from us, by demonstration, to sort of re-legitimate play, and delight, and qualities in even the things we think of as public.” “ is inherently interdisciplinary, which means you can take advantage of all these other ways of working. So we don’t have to be policy makers…we don’t have to be journalists, the one’s that tell the truth…we don’t have to be graphic designers, science fiction writers, but all these parts come into it. We don’t even really have to be activists or artists. It can be a blend of all different kinds of things so to keep going with that we also don’t have to think on those methods of evaluation…” “Ultimately, I think evaluation that comes from the outside is actually criticism or critique, which can be helpful, but the evaluation that is most helpful is what you do internally–this is the goal that we set out to do and did we reach it and what can I learn from it? That’s the purpose of evaluation. We set the terms of that evaluation, of deciding whether or not something works. It’s our terms and there’s an art to that too. Ultimately, the purpose is to make stronger work.”