New Tactics in Human Rights and freeDimensional (fD) partnered for this online dialogue featuring 'Art Spaces Hosting Activism & Strengthening Community Engagement'. The online dialogue featured freeDimensional network members sharing the creative ways in which art spaces can and do provide safe havens for activists, share technical tools and training, support and guidance, and engage in social justice issues in their communities and through fD’s social justice network.
freeDimensional (fD) is an international network that advances social justice by hosting activists in distress in art spaces and using cultural resources to strengthen their work. The network is made up of over 100 community art spaces around the world with regional hubs in São Paulo, Cairo, New York City, Berlin, and Pondicherry. freeDimensional provides resources and safe haven for oppressed activists and culture workers; facilitates knowledge-sharing among art spaces who actively participate in local community organizing; and engages the art world and mainstream media to heighten public awareness and influence policy change on critical issues.
This New Tactics Dialogue titled Art spaces hosting activism & strengthening community engagement focused on various mechanisms by which art spaces are used in order to support activists in distress (See the section Providing Safe Haven: Expectations of Art Spaces and Activists below), engage human rights ideas in our theoretical understanding of activism (See the section Defining Activism & Issues of Vulnerability below) and practical engagement with communities (see the section Art Spaces and Community Engagement below). The dialogue began with a discussion of what constitutes activism. Participants then identified the challenges and benefits of using a politically-charged term like activism, and the impact of engaging activism in art spaces. Participants delved into some specific topics highlighting the relationship between art and activism: migration, community engagement, safe haven for activists in distress, maintaining a diverse network, and language barriers in art spaces and global networks. The dialogue included a discussion of how to effectively measure one's impact.
Defining Activism & Issues of Vulnerability
One of the first themes discussed was the question of how to define activism. If an art space identifies itself as being involved in political activism, they may put themselves in danger, or create barriers in reaching out to communities. Two points were raised concerning the need to evaluate the context of situations: Having a high-profile activist that needs a safe haven may act as a source of safety for the activist . On the other hand, too much publicity may put the distressed activist in danger. In addition, Todd Lester from fD shared a useful piece of advice when working on acquiring legal permissions/visas for activists in distress, it is important to tactically think about the artist/activist's CV and frame it in ways that are less controversial to the authorities.
Art Spaces and Community Engagement
The dialogue addressed an important challenge between human rights NGOs and art spaces. Traditionally, the organizational cultures are very different NGOs tend to have larger staff and more formalized decision-making structures, whereas art spaces tend to have just a few staff members. Furthermore, the two sectors are likely to choose very different strategies for pursuing the same goals. freeDimensional acts as a bridge between the two sectors.
The participants of the dialogue shared a couple examples of how to engage local community:
- Addressing issues of human mobility through artistic projects:
- Art as witness/Art in public spaces
- Creating a digital archive of stories
- Creating partnerships between lawyers, community organizers, artists, and families, in order to document and publicize their situation
- Putting up projects and art installations in public spaces
- Building partnerships with local schools
- Using artistic tools such as videos to report on the human rights situation and the elections
- Art as Cultural Link
- Providing long-term support of local languages through writing
- Using food as a way of creating connections with communities
Providing Safe Haven: Expectations of Art Spaces and Activists
One concrete way in which art spaces host activism is by providing safe haven for activists in distress. This has been a key tactic used by freeDimensional through its work of residential art spaces. When fD hears of an activist in distress from one of its human rights partners, it can filter this request into its network to secure suitable placement. freeDimensional has been working with new art spaces worldwide through its Emerging Art Space Support Initiative so they too will be equipped to support activists in distress.
For the art space, it is essential to map one's local resources, to make sure that they can provide what the activist needs. freeDimensional's Brazil hub shared a useful breakdown of all the different resources that an organization needs to map in preparation for providing Creative Safe Haven: legal assistance, mental health therapy, health care, and financial support. The entire post detailing the resources in Sao Paulo can be found here. Furthermore, clarifying expectations of the art space itself is also very important: Caravansarai shared their expectations of wanting the activist to engage with the art space and produce work.
Language and Accessibility
The dialogue identified a major struggle in efforts for international networking and activism in general: issues of language barriers and accessibility. Participants then shared strategies that can help overcome this barrier in their work. First, several online resources for translation were shared:
Some art residencies require the artists to have at least a basic knowledge of the language of the host country. However, art spaces in countries where a "big language" is not spoken cannot do that as it would drastically limit the pool of artists that would have access to their residencies. Caravansarai suggested that one good way of overcoming that barrier is being engaged in the immediate surroundings, e.g. buying food and supplies from local vendors or sharing your work, can help foster a connection.
Another powerful recommendation was to overcome language barriers by using social networks and local partnerships, expanding one's website to have a webpage for the local community to post in their language, and continue translating from one language to another.
Sharing Resources and Networking
- freeDimensional's ning - creating groups, archiving resources
- freeDimensional - Emerging Art Space Support Initiative
- New Tactics - continuing the discussion on art spaces hosting activism and sharing resources; tactical notebooks