Excerpted from the upcoming book How To Win: The Art of Activism by Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert
To get where we want to go we need a map. And because artistic activism combines both arts and activism that map is a multifaceted one, with different paths leading to our eventual outcome. This exercise will help you charts some of those paths and, in the process, help us think imaginatively about the tactics we’ll use and objectives we’ll meet while making our journey.
Time: 2-3 hours
For this exercise you will need:
- Large sheets of paper, at least 2 by 3 feet, or a whiteboard or chalkboard
- Multi-colored pens, pencils or chalk. Nothing fancy — use what you have. We use large children’s markers.
- Space to spread out. A large table will work, or even the floor.
Although it’s not required, we recommend doing this work with another person or a group you’re working with.
Step 1. Pick a Topic
Identify an issue you are working on or want to work on.
For example, environmentally sustainable transportation in your city, sexual equality in your workplace, or racially unbiased policing.
Step 2. Draw Where We Are Now
Start in the lower left hand corner of your medium and draw a picture that illustrates the issue as it stands now.
If your issue was policing, for instance, you might draw a picture of black and brown kids getting stopped on the street and frisked by the police, someone shot by a cop and lying on the ground, and politicians looking away.
The quality of the drawings is not important, it’s about capturing the vision and ideas. Using stick figures and symbols is fine, but make sure to use a lot of color and include the setting and context.
Most importantly, draw as you think. Avoid staring at the page, considering how to represent problems, just start making marks on the page and trust it will come together – it will.
Step 3. Draw Where We Want to Be
Move to the opposite corner, on the upper right hand side of your medium, and draw a picture that illustrates the world you are working toward: your ultimate goal. Think big. Think Utopia.
In our example it might be pictures of prisons that have been turned into schools and community centers, scenes of older white cops and young black and brown kids walking arm in arm, or maybe a world where there is no crime, no criminals and no police. And, of course, it is always sunny.
In this vision of your ultimate goal, make sure you’ve addressed all the problems you laid out in your first sketch. If cops aren’t frisking kids, then what are the cops and kids doing now? If politicians were looking away, where are they looking now?
When your drawings are done, read on.
Now that you have two ends of your map complete we can fill in the space between. Looking at where we are and where we want to go, we can chart out our paths to get from here to there. We are going to make three paths, so plan ahead and leave room for each step.
Step 4. Chart a “Practical” Path
It should include tried-and-true tactics, steps that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow of any “serious person”; be that an advocacy organization’s Executive Director, or the funders of an art grant. This is your non-risky, uncontroversial, conventional, totally sober way of getting from here to there.
For example, the first step we might take as either an artist or an activist would be to research the problem. Our second step might be to set up an information table and start educating others, or to work on an info-graphic. Then we might circulate a petition, make a public presentation, or build a group online so we can show how many people support us. After this we might organize a rally, demonstration, or exhibition to get onto the news. And so on. These are real steps working toward real objectives.
Draw pictures of at least three “Practical” tactics you could use to get closer to your ultimate goal, and string them along a path that traces the right side of the paper from where we are now all the way to where we want to end up.
This is only the first of three paths you’ll eventually draw so be sure to leave plenty or room for the other two.
Step 5. Draw Your Utopian Path
Now the fun begins. It’s time to chart your “Utopian” path. Like with the path before you’ll come up with at least three different tactical steps that will help you get from where we are now to your ideal world. But here’s the difference: all these steps can — and should be — impossible. Remember, in Utopia, money is not an object, time is not a concern, and the physical laws of the universe do not apply. Anything you can dream up you can do.
Once we were working with a group of activists in Austin, Texas on a campaign to bring about a more equitable state budget. It was a hard fight: the Texas State legislature was full of deeply conservative politicians who wrapped their business friendly policies in their born-again Christian faith. We got to the point in our workshop where we do this exercise, and the group was stuck on what to do. As seasoned activists, they had blazed through the previous state, coming up with a string of “practical” tactics – petitions, legal challenges, electoral strategies, public actions – that would lead them to their ultimate goal of a society that look care of its least fortunate rather than helping out the already wealthy, but when asked to think of Utopian tactics, they came up blank.
Two older, radical nuns were part of the group. After a few minutes, they asked us: “You mean we can do anything?” ” Yes,” we assured them, “anything!” “Well,” they replied, “we’re nuns, and if we can do anything then we’d want to bring back Jesus Christ. He could show all these right-wing Christian’ politicians what a State Budget based in the first shall be last and the last shall be first’ would really look like. He could explain to the public what he really meant by his teachings.”
It was absurd, and to our faith impossible. and they nailed it. Their imaginative leap led to an outpouring of other wild and crazy ideas from the rest of the group for Utopian tactics: alien abductions, time travel, Freaky Friday style body-switching, and Jedi mind-control.
So, right now, raise your freak flag high and draw your Utopian path along the left side of the paper. Here anything can happen.
Done? It’s time now for your final path.
Step 6. Draw Your Creative Path
We call this path the “Creative” path, and some of you may have already figured out what we are going to ask you to do. We want you to chart a path in the space between your “Practical” and “Utopian” paths, merging the two. For this “Creative” path sketch out three or more original tactics that draw upon the outlandish ideas you came up with above, and incorporate the practical steps that are sure to move you forward.
By combining the two we make the impossible possible.
It may seem impossible, but trust us on this one: it’s not. To depart from our standard ways of thinking, we have to imagine beyond what’s possible. But to make our dreams happen, we need to bring our dreams back to reality. When we set these two out as points on a spectrum, it creates a vacuum between that draws creative ideas out of our minds. It sounds odd, but we’ve seen it work countless times.
When you imagine something impossible, your mind is likely jump in to tell you, “You can’t have teleportation in your plan!” To those who are new to this process, this thought shuts down the whole idea – teleportation doesn’t exist, therefor the idea won’t work. But the voice telling you something is impossible will usually give you a hint at why: “You can’t have teleportation in your plan because teleportation doesn’t exist.”
This hint is our cue — it gives us something to work with. If teleportation doesn’t exist, then how can we make it exist? How can we make it real? Or at least seem real? These questions have possible answers: through camera work, magic tricks, a comic book, or through a shared fiction with the audience in a performance, to name a few. If we shut down the thought from the start, we’ll never crack that nut. When we allow ourselves to imagine the impossible, we’re in fact creating space to imagine how the impossible can be possible.
We’ve found that as people talk and joke about their impossible ideas, others, with their practical ideas fresh in mind, will interrupt and say things like: “Hey, you know that’s not actually impossible because we could.” This is why we recommend working with a group. Sharing ideas in a non-critical space inspires everyone present, and with many ideas on paper, we’re likely to leave with several good ones we can polish into an impressive artistic activist action.
This is exactly what happened with our Texas nuns. As good and as holy as they were, bringing back Jesus Christ to school the right-wing Christian politicians was still an impossible dream. But their dream stimulated lots of creative ideas from the group, including this one: Recall that we were in Texas, where a good amount of the population, as well as a large number of people in our group, are Latinx. While we couldn’t bring back Jesus of Nazareth, the participants knew plenty of local – and living — activists with the common Spanish surname of Jésus. With this kernel of an idea, new ideas came fast and furious.
We would run a campaign for Jesus for the Governorship of Texas! We’d get one of our activist friends named Jésus to grow out his hair and his beard, and maybe start wearing flowing white shirts, and he’d be our candidate. He’d never claim to be the Jesus, but he would be a Jesus, and this Jesus would participate in candidates’ debates where he could advocate for spending initiatives that would help the poor. He would casually sprinkle his speeches with quotations from the Bible, describing a just society, for instance, as one where “the last shall come first and the first last, ” and he might preface his statements with “As Jesus, I believe” or “As Jesus, I will…” Faced with our candidate, conservative, Christian politicians would be put into the unenviable position of arguing with Jesus why it is better to benefit the rich over the poor. We could even “queer” the born-again question of WWJD: What Would Jesus Do? by printing political bumper stickers for our campaign that read “What Will Jesus Do?” followed by a list of progressive spending priorities. It was a brilliant, if mildly blasphemous, merger of the Utopian with the Practical, and an idea for a campaign the Austin activists could run with
Now it’s your turn. Merge the Practical and the Utopian and draw your creative path.
Step 7. Look at Your Map
Step back and look at your map. You have shown the world as it is, and a better way it could be. You’ve mapped out a range of pathways to get there and generated a multitude of creative, workable, tactics and strategies.
Just to reiterate, the steps in this exercise are:
- Identify an Issue
- Draw your ultimate goal in top right corner
- Draw the reality of the situation in the lower left
- Chart a “Practical” path, with at least 3 tactics
- Chart a “Utopian” pat, with at least 3 tactics
- Chart a “Creative” path that merges the two, with at least 3 hybrid tactics.
Effective artistic activism entails a modulation between the possible and the impossible, between the pragmatic and the Utopian. Sometimes you have to rely on what you know will work, and sometimes you have to dream wild dreams. And sometimes those practical tactics and Utopian visions can be made to work beautifully together.