Decorate Your Neighborhood

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Street Art may not seem like a political act. But public art has historically been a part of planting the seeds for actions and gathering interest from a community. This episode includes tips for trying your hand at street art and interviews with artists on their own political art.

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Wheat Pasting

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Rebel Steps, Episode 002, Decorate Your Neighborhood

Welcome to Rebel Steps. I’m your host Liz.

Street Art may not seem like a political act. But public art has historically been a part of planting the seeds for actions and gathering interest from a community. The CrimethInc collective, an anarchist thinktank, describes street art as “a direct action technique for communicating with your neighbors and redecorating your environment.”

One notable example of street art being used this way is the Serbian group Otpor. Otpor worked to oust Slobodan Milošević in the last 1990’s. They used simple stencils to cover their cities with the symbol of their movement, an iconic fist. They also promoted short slogans such as “It’s time” and “He’s finished”

The Spanish Anarchists of the 1930’s also used art extensively. One of my favorite posters read “Los libros anarquistas son armas contra el fascismo” Translated, “Anarchistic books are weapons against fascism”

In present day New York, there’s a variety of political street art. A project by Alexandra Bell uses a New York Times article about the death of Michael Brown. Bell blocks out huge chunks of text to highlight the bias in the coverage of Brown’s murder at the hands of the police. Bell calls these works “counternarratives.” Tatyana Fazlalizadeh (faz la leeza deh) has put up two beautiful series entitled “Stop Telling Women to Smile” and “When Women Disrupt.” She uses street art as powerful reminder that street harassment is never okay.

For Columbus Day last year, the Revolutionary Abolistionist Movement called for street art to go up around the city and around the world. An organizer wrote, “For the occasion of Columbus Day, October 9th, one of the most vile ‘holidays’ of the year, the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement is calling for collectives all over the country to take action against this day and in support of indigenous people in the US and abroad who have been victims of colonialism and genocide. We are calling for groups to “decorate” their neighborhoods as they see fit: put up murals, wheatpaste posters, drop a banner, etc.”

Now it’s your turn to take to the street, armed with some creative media and messages. As you prepare for your own art adventure, think about some causes you’re passionate about. Look for slogans or images associated with organizations you support. Anything that goes on a protest sign is fair game.

Once you have message, here are two options for spreading the word.

The first method is a sticker campaign. All you need are some cool stickers, either from a website or organization or printed yourself, and a little bit of courage. Go out in the world and put your political message on stop signs, bus stops, telephone poles, and anything else that feels right.

Liz: The second option is wheatpasting. It’s a little more involved but it’s also a little more fun.

Elektra: Hello my name is Elektra KB .

Jack: I’m Jack Hogan.

Liz: We’ll be hearing from jack and Elektra later in this episode about their art. I chatted with them about their wheatpasting experiences.

Elektra: I’ve done wheat pasting when I was a teenager living in Bogota. It was mostly on animal rights oriented. I think wheatpasting it can be a very romantic activity. I mean I used to go wheat pasting with people that I liked. We walked the streets of Bogota promoting punk shows or wheatpasting announcements for demos or stuff about like fundraisers.

Jack: My favorite thing about wheatpasting is the social aspect I guess. Like rolling around a neighborhood with friends on bikes and it’s really good for delivering clear information. Like for example your rights with ICE.

Liz: To get started, you’ll need some art, water, flour, a spray bottle, and a paint brush or roller. To make your glue, Use two parts flour to three parts water. First bring the water to a boil, next add flour, and continue stirring until it’s glue-like and smooth. Folks have different recipes, some call for a little more water, some call for a tiny bit of sugar for stickiness. Feel free to experiment. You don’t want to keep your glue to long, so use the day you make it or within the next couple days. Store it in the refrigerator until use.

Now it’s time to hit the street. Bring a buddy or two serve as lookouts and grab your art and glue, and paint brush. Find a nice, flat wall. Put some glue up there. You can either paint it on or use a bottle to squirt it. The poster goes on top, sticking to the glue, then seal it off with another layer of glue. And voila! You’ve installed some street art. Congrats.

CrimethInc highlights the strength of wheatpasting, writing “Because it’s easy to mass-produce posters, wheatpasting enables you to deploy a nuanced, complex message at a large number of locations with minimal effort and risk. Repetition makes your message familiar to everyone and increases the chances that others will think it over.” So now that you’ve put one poster, it’s time to keep going!

Major warning: Laws and penalties for street art vary widely. Unless it’s your own house that you’re wheatpasting, be careful out there, take a lookout buddy. Only take the things you really need, wear clothing that let you blend in, be ready to ditch your glue if something happens.

Minor warning: Wheat pasting in the cold is not recommended. If it’s below freezing, the wheat paste will likely freeze before drying. Some people use spray adhesives in cold weather.

Street art is just one way media and creativity intersect with political action. This intersection has a rich and vast history. I’m going highlight examples of propaganda, fine art, and music. These examples just scratch the surface. You can check the show notes for more ideas.

Liz: In the mainstream, propaganda sometimes has a negative connotation, but it is often used in leftist circles as a neutral term to describe persuasive media and political art. Smokey, who you heard from last episode, likes to talk about organizing as inviting people to get involved. He sees propaganda as a part of that.

Smokey: Propaganda is basically a way to get that invitation out to the people you want it to. All I have to do is get to one person that has an informal network of people. It’s up to them then though to organize their own group of friends or co-workers. I am a propagandist. That’s my main political activity.

Liz: There are some common types of propaganda you might run into like wheatpasting, banner making, and zine writing. Smokey pointed out that there’s a lot of room for creativity when picking the medium.

Smokey: I believe we need a much broader view. Again, for example right now I’m focusing on games. I was a writer I’ve written a number of books I’ve published political magazines. I was one of the editors of The New York City Rat which was a fairly long lived and it was paper here in New York. And all those were mistakes for the most part. The medium itself is wrong. We still go to protests and hand people flyers. We’re kind of like 19th century. We also have to develop different mediums and understand how those mediums actually work and whether we want to use them and how we want to use them or subvert them. And you know so I think like you know games video games things like that are very interesting.

Liz: Fine art may not present itself as explicitly political, but, by its very nature, art is political. It has a place in politics as both a forum for expression as well as a space for challenging the cultural status quo.

Jack: I’m Jack Hogan. I’m an Irish artist and lapsed architect.

Liz: Jack’s art and activism often intersect.

Jack: In terms of subject matter my work largely deals with toxic masculinity and its processes of indoctrination and I’m involved with two groups, Masc-Off and the Feminist Forum for Discussions of Masculinities, that also focus on this issue. Not specifically in terms of indoctrination but more broadly. And they definitely feed into each other through shared research and directly making banners. It sort of leads into my own practice then and that’s something that I wouldn’t have thought about without the more activist sides so they definitely strengthened each other.

Elektra: Hello my name is Elektra KB. I’m a multidisciplinary artist. I am based in Brooklyn and I’m from Colombia originally.

Liz: Elektra also makes art informed by her political awareness, but she doesn’t call herself an activist.

Elektra: I don’t like that word activist. Anything that produces real change is illegal, is frowned upon and is rejected by society and has always been through history. So I prefer the word illegalist.

Liz: Elektra places her art in a personal mythology.

Elektra: The world they created which is called the Theocratic Republic of Gaia and its rebel counterpart which liberated Cathara Autonomous Territory that’s the platform of personal mythology my work functions in.

My most recent project was an immigration checkpoint that was modeled after a second world war immigration checkpoint. But this happened in these alternative universe called Cathara Autonomous Territory.

I chose black and pink and red in these like gamma of colors that speak about gender and politics and queer struggles and anticapitalist struggles. When people came there they had the opportunity of renouncing their citizenship, meaning they had to renounce to the concepts of nationalism, patriotism, fascism, and chauvinism and become de facto global citizens by their own autonomy and their own freedom.

What they received was genderless stateless passport because they were renouncing not only geography called borders but also gender borders. Apart from being a real functional passport it was a performance. I would transform into a stateless official of the Cathara Autonomous Territory. I would perform by reading a contract that people had to sign. This was to make sure that people were really understanding what’s happening with borders and how destructive they are. I wanted to make them think how can they help in society to create their own way of thinking borderless and genderless. It was a way to do participatory work that makes people think it raises awareness about certain issues but it’s also playful. It’s a way of making these serious thing art not them thing didactic ignored a workshop. So for me it’s an artwork that brings all of these together.

Liz: Both of them are very careful when talking about art and politics.

Jack: So I think your art practice has to be whatever you can’t stop doing. And I think there should be space for everything especially since there’s so many artists in New York in particular. I mean for me I don’t think people generally like to be shouted out so I try to do the show rather than tell approach and not underestimate the viewers intelligence sort of treat them with respect. And I also think it’s powerful when people are really specific and speaking from personal experience in detail rather than in a very general way.

Elektra: I don’t like to use the word political art. I think art it can’t be political the subject matter can be political. But art itself can’t. I think you can do socially engaged work. It makes me very skeptical when I hear the word political art because that is not the function of art. With that said is in that spectrum the good and the bad. There’s a lot of opportunism in quote unquote political art. There is artist might take advantage of certain contemporary history called junctions to perhaps advance their career within the system and maybe they are not part of the politics they are maybe portraying in their subject matters. There is another side of it, that are artists that are honest.

Liz: Much like the title organizer, the term “artist” sometimes feels like a specialized term. But Jack disagrees.

Jack: I purposefully went to a free art school. I was keen to go to a free art school because art schools have become this huge business. So I am like very interested in artists that choose not to engage with that or maybe go less in formal education routes where a lot of conversations happen in art school that are very helpful. It’s maybe good to realize that you’re not learning anything in any specific way. So I think it’s worth remembering that you can easily achieve that in other ways. And maybe to try as hard as it may seem to not be intimidated by that. It’s also worth seeing what’s come before which is sort of easily accessed through art school but can be done independently or with friends so that you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel so that you sort of know what people have done which has really been a lot of my effort since leaving architecture just like reading up on what happened previously and what people have tried.

Liz: A lot of art is happening online now. It’s easier than ever to make your art and share it quickly. Here’s our producer Amy who makes internet art.

Amy: I noticed that when you searched for gifs on all these social platforms that were around political ideas or even things like feminism a lot of them didn’t come up with things that I wanted to share that like were my view or just nothing came up at all. So I started making political gifs and I started making them and tagging them all with like feminism and anarchism and all these are like resist and the resistance and things like that. So then when you searched for political gifs you found these these ideas that were that I wanted to spread and that started to just be like very effective. So now when you search for feminism on a lot of these gif platforms you’ll find anarchist gifs which I think is really cool. And so then once I started doing this I really wanted to share this idea and this skill with other people so I put together a gif workshop where I taught people how to make their own animated gifs. People have been creating gifs and uploading them and that’s been really fun and cool to have shared that with people and see them making more things than I could have made on my own.

All types of art have had a complicated relationship with the ultra wealthy, whether under the influence of kings, the church, or the one percent. In all these cases, art has been used to control culture, and by extension society. Currently, fine art is being used as a way to store wealth, becoming almost purely a commodity.

Jack: The art market is so easily manipulated. Art is at a certain level now equal to money. I mean people just use it straight up as currency. So taking cash out of precarious economies and putting it into certain art is just a way of keeping money safe. And then if you have enough people who can afford the same work you can easily artificially raise the value of the work. So there’s a lot of art advisers that are advising a lot of different rich people who can tell them or to buy the same artist and then that artists will become much more valuable at auction around the world there is like duty free art ports where there is no tax on the work and they’re currently planning to build one in Harlem. And I think there’s currently one in Geneva but when artists sold at auction most of the time it just moves within these ports to a different rich person’s storage area. So most of that art has never seen in the world it’s just moved around in the same way that gold might be moved around in a vault.

Liz: From writing a song to organizing a benefit show, music is also political. Protest songs have a long lineage including nueva canción in south american, civil rights anthems, union songbooks, and hip hop.

In the US today, a group of women identifying people have picked up the tradition of protests songs. The Resistance Revival Chorus sings old songs, updated songs, and originals about political struggle. The chorus wrote, “We aim to bring together, in community, a group of diverse artists to join in songs of resistance and protest with the foundation that JOY is an act of resistance!” They encourage others to start their own choruses and join the movement. Right now, you’re hearing their song.

Liz: Whatever project you choose, from stickering your local stop sign to putting on a benefit show, you’re contributing to creating the culture you want to see. Here’s a Smokey again:

Smokey: Politics is downstream from culture. It is perfectly fine to create stuff that you like and that is political.

Liz: For recipes, methods, legal issues, and more ideas check out the links on our website, rebelsteps.com. You can find out more about Jack at JackHogan.ie and Elektra at elektrakb.com

I’m your host Liz and you’ve been listening to Rebel Steps. Believe in yourself, trust another, and get organized.

This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Music for the this episode was kindly gifted to us by Morgane Fouse & the Resistance Revival Chorus and also includes a few songs that I created. Special thanks to our interviewees, Smoky, Jack, and Elektra and their organizations.