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Creative Activism Research, Pedagogy and Practice
Why Should we Care (and Read) about Creative Activism?
By Elspeth Tilley
As the world heats and societies polarise, responses that deploy artistic creativity—from the eye-catching, blood-red costumes of Extinction Rebellion to international participatory arts programmes such as Climate Change Theatre Action to the ever-increasing numbers of creative writers producing eco-fiction or environmental poetry—are proliferating. Enthusiasm for the power of creativity as a change agent is high, and much of the popular attention being paid to creative activism is celebratory, highlighting successes and positioning artistic methodologies as influential solutions to our most pressing societal challenges.
There is certainly much to celebrate, as the 29 chapters in Creative Activism Research, Pedagogy and Practice (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2022) make clear. Creative activism helps make the distant intimate. It personalises political and social justice issues, offering or amplifying human stories, as April-Rose Geers and Rosa Cisnero discuss in their respective chapters on creative writing for human rights and confronting stereotypes of the Roma people with poignant digital scrapbooks. Through art and creativity, we develop extrospection, which is the opposite of introspection. Older citizens can come to appreciate the views of younger ones, and vice versa, as Nela Milić narrates in her essay on the restorative effects of an intergenerational art project in war-scarred Belgrade. Through collaborative aural sculpture, people locked down during a pandemic can hear the voices of their neighbours or those of people on the other side of the world, as Leslie Carol Roberts, Adam Marcus, and Christopher Falliers describe in their chapter. Through art and creativity, we may even come to forgive, and therefore begin to heal, as Paula Guzzanti demonstrates in her essay on her dance improvisation work with Nicaraguan refugees.
Art ignites our imagination to consider of the plight of entities outside ourselves. In her chapter in the volume, Jenny Haycocks discusses her work with Extinction Rebellion, revealing how, through playful acts of animal costumery, both performers and audiences may be prompted to experience trans-species empathy or recognise humanity’s faults and foibles by imagining how we appear to other living and more-than-human entities. Through art, we may, as Ali East and Heike Kuhlmann describe in their essays on eco-somatic dance, be physically persuaded to remember through our senses—especially touch—that we are part of the natural world, not separate from it. This recognition of interconnectedness is also theorised through an Indigenous knowledge lens by Simone Gabriel in her chapter.
Creative artworks and stories can help us access and process issues that seem too big to grasp, such as climate change, poverty, or war, by showing the personal, detailed impact on groups or cultures from which we may not otherwise hear first-hand. Documentary theatre, as Colette F. Keen writes in her chapter, has been exemplary for this, allowing the actual words of individuals impacted by current events to be shared by actors so that audiences can start to experience embodied stories of impact
beyond their own usual frame of reference while those who speak out are protected. Deniz Başar shows how even capitalism—that uber-discourse within which we all swim—can be cut down to a size that we can contemplate and begin to dissect, when its key proponents are presented to us as disruptive puppets who model “the inherent absurdity of the entire ideological set-up”.
Creative activism can also help us negotiate crises by offering alternatives to partisan ranting. An artwork might include a tirade, such as in a fabulously strong monologue that an actor will love to get their teeth into delivering, but most often creative activism is about exploring the clash of different perspectives, rather than presenting simplistic single views. Art can hold complex multiple views simultaneously in creative tension, as Karen Berger documents in her analysis of the boundary-crossing work of Indigenous Australian artist Tracey Moffatt which blurs fiction and history to unsettle both. Art can help us see how people can be human and flawed and worthy of our empathy and right and wrong all at the same time, as Cia Sautter explores in her chapter on narrative theory, community, ethics, and performance techniques. Characters in the theatre, cinema, or novels, for example, often hold strong views, but these same characters change and grow and develop their views or have their prejudices challenged and undercut or ironized, over the course of the artwork. In this way, creative works can model to us that we too can change and grow and develop, and that sometimes we can stand strong for a cause in which we believe, while, at other times, we can see complexities and allow the needs of others to shift our thinking.
Creative activism can help us express dissent in situations where overt political disagreement is difficult or prohibited. When a government, society, or institution curtails free expression, or participants are subjected to rigorous disciplinary strictures, a flash mob, post-it note, tango dance, or performance of Shakespeare can become a conduit for embedding and sharing alternative views without overt contradiction or confrontation, as chapters on feminist flash mob resistance in Chile (by Moira Fortin, Robin Metcalfe, and Tui Nicola Clery), Lennon Walls in Hong Kong (by Kelly Ka-Lai Chan, Dan Harris, and Jaz Hee-Jeong Choi), dance protests in Turkey (by Piotr Woycicki), and theatre inside a long-stay hospital asylum system (by Julie McNamara) reveal.
Creative activism also helps us make sense of crises through being deeply steeped in metaphor. This is just one of many mechanisms by which art can hold complexity long enough for us to process diverse perspectives. As Berger notes of Moffatt’s work, metaphor pushes issues to one remove, making audiences puzzle them out and work to decipher them, so that it isn’t easy to arrive at a simplistic, ‘right or wrong’ answer. Metaphor also enables creative activism to approach gruelling or painful topics with some distance, so that we can acknowledge that they are issues we need to address but do so in ways that protect us from distress. In their chapter, Paul Kleiman, Imogen Holmes-Roe, Jo Richler, and Lucy Turner write with sensitivity and candour about the pain experienced by bereaved parents and the restorative effect of engaging with both art and artmaking to “remove the wall of silence that surrounds the difficult and challenging subject of baby loss”. In other chapters, Shakespeare’s plays provide fruitful doorways to critique the injustices that our social systems foster and sanction, including racial, class, and socioeconomic prejudice, as contributions by Rob Roznowski and Rowan Mackenzie make clear from their work, respectively, on interracial Romeo and Juliet with college students, and the use of cleverly multi-layered Shakespeare adaptations by people who are incarcerated to “raise awareness of issues faced by those with long custodial sentences”. This kind of creative activism works through the distancing device of a story set in another time and place yet offering us insights into human behaviour in all times and places. The distancing allows space for reflection on the ‘now’.
Creativity is also a powerful political tool because it can help us to dream. In chapters on the importance of creative activism in education, Penny Hay and Gemma París, Theron Schmidt, Gemma Coombs, and Helen Johnson and Liz Cunningham document work right across the spectrum from very young children to older citizens in which art is used to help learners foster hope through strengthening their skills in innovative and unfettered thinking. Tracey Nicholls—a political theorist of improvisation—shows how an “improvisatory attitude” can help us accept our mistakes and remain focussed on building different futures despite our imperfect pasts. Art is not bound by reality. It can help us to imagine, to fantasise about, a better world, an entirely different world, a different future, a different past, or it can construct a world in which our worst decisions are taken to extremes, and we see the end point of the kinds of worlds we don’t want to allow to happen. Art can embody magical thinking—good and bad—and play it out, scenario-testing situations we may never have expected, right in front of our eyes. As Gabrielle Donnelly and Alfonso Montuori explain in their chapter, creative activism methodologies can generate novel and hopeful ideas using collaborative, playful, experiments in provocation that help subvert old paradigms and conceive fresh social and environmental justice solutions. Creative activism is an incredible tool for showing the possible consequences of our political choices.
The current fervour for creative activism is thus understandable, given the scope of problems humanity faces and the genuinely innovative approaches artistic tools offer to support social change. However, creative activism is not a field we should enter unprepared. There are real risks, including the possibility that some forms of creative activism may not drive change at all, and in some cases may even undermine goals of social or environmental transformation, distracting from the real issues, as Nicholas Holm discusses in his critical analysis of climate change comedy in the volume. Another risk is that art can appropriate the experiences of those who are artistically represented—prompting, for instance, the ‘own voices’ and ‘nothing about us without us’ hashtags online, urging writers and filmmakers to stop telling other people’s stories, a problem that Simone Gabriel addresses in her chapter about methodologies for embracing creativity from our own standpoints.
There is also the risk that creative activism can harm participants. Gabrielle Donnelly and Alfonso Montuori describe creative activists working to the point of burnout to block out “the increasing urgency of climate breakdown, a pandemic, the inequities of global capitalism, and intense economic turbulence”. Michael Ruderman reports the distress among theatre performers who are being trained to conform to neoliberal models of subjectivity. We know that some creative activism exposes participants to the very injustices it opposes, including colonialism, racism, patriarchy, neoliberalism, ableism, and heteronormativity, and that, in worst case situations, audiences may also be harmed, facing re-traumatisation or vicarious traumatisation if creative activism pushes them beyond disquiet to anguish. These important issues are acknowledged and investigated right throughout Creative Activism Research, Pedagogy and Practice.
To prevent harm across all these fronts, it is urgent that we build more evidence of how best to achieve impact, monitor processes, and do no harm in creative activism. It is crucial that we critically reflect on creative activism work and connect it to existing bodies of theory and insight. Despite being a current buzzword, creative activism is not, in fact, new. The political power of art and its moral obligations have been discussed repeatedly since (and no doubt before) Plato. As I outline in my own chapter in the book, creative activism has a long tradition as well as often-overlooked origins in, and intersections with, feminist, Indigenous, Global South, and other marginalised epistemologies. There is much we can learn by re-historicising and diversifying the creative activism body of knowledge. At the same time, to preserve what is valuable about creative activism, our analysis of it needs to be situationally aware and culturally responsive, and honour the uniqueness of each programme of work.
The overarching goal of this book was, therefore, to, for the first time, coalesce and define creative activism as an historically situated, transdisciplinary, global, critically informed academic field, while demonstrating its diversity. To achieve this, Creative Activism Research, Pedagogy and Practice offers 29 chapters by 42 contributors. The chapters span Europe, the Americas, Oceania, and Asia. The forms of activism and issues scrutinised are wide-ranging, as are the contributors, including People of Colour, Indigenous authors, trans authors, disabled authors, people writing from within and outside the academy, and more. Together the chapters provide a suite of research-informed, culturally diverse, real-world case studies that can help creative activism scholars, practitioners, and students to recognise potential, learn key methodologies, and develop processes to prevent harm, yet also respect the complexity, diversity, and specificity of the particular creative activism forms that may be needed in their own situation.
The chapters published in this volume have relevance for scholarship not only of art, creativity, and social movements, but of Indigenous knowledges, media studies, education, evaluation studies, performance studies, environmental studies, and more. The book’s five sections all focus on a specific theme—defining and theorising creative activism and key issues in the field; innovative modes and methods for teaching the next generation of creative activists; visual activism examples including art, photography, and digital tools; embodied creative activism through dance, flash mobs, and movement; and performative creative activism via theatre, performance art, and puppetry—but this is truly a transdisciplinary collection which embraces plural approaches while fostering connections that run throughout.
The result is a rich set of evidence-based cases offering broad, deep, theoretically informed, and frontline-tested insights into creative activism. The contributors have been incredibly generous and candid, allowing us to see inside their planning meetings, classrooms, marches, and debriefs. The chapters reconceptualise creative activism in inventive ways, and unpack the affects, aesthetics, promises, and limitations of real-world creative activism examples. Many of the cases demonstrate positive impacts, but this is not a naïve or ‘cheerleading’ collection. Instead, the book offers a knowing take from critical thinkers and creative activists in the field, using scholarly tools to analyse, critique, and acknowledge the multi-layered challenges of driving social, cultural, and political change using creativity and the arts.
It is my hope that Creative Activism Research, Pedagogy and Practice will spark more (and more knowledgeable) deployment of creative activism as we ramp up the struggle to save the world, and that it will support creative activism delivery that is increasingly ethical, robust, effective, and exciting. We know that our old ways of being and thinking are not working: creative activism offers us new ones.
Dr Elspeth Tilley teaches theatre and creative activism at Massey University in New Zealand, and is a multi-award-winning playwright. She has led numerous performative social change projects including on youth incarceration, sexual consent and homelessness. Elspeth produces Climate Change Theatre Action Aotearoa and founded Create1World, a creative activism youth conference.
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