Cultural Resistance: The arts of protest

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, September 12, 2012 to Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining Nadine Bloch and the New Tactics community for this conversation on Cultural Resistance. Cultural resistance is the broad use of arts, literature, and traditional practices to challenge or fight unjust or oppressive systems and/or power holders within the context of nonviolent actions, campaigns and movements. At its core, cultural resistance is a way of reclaiming our humanity, and celebrating our work as individuals and communities. Cultural resistance tactics are particularly powerful because they serve multiple purposes. They inspire us to own our lives and invest in our communities, while building capacity for local leadership. These creative and artistic tactics provide a fun way for people to get involved!

Tactics shared:

What do we mean by “creative cultural resistance”?

Cultural resistance is an accessible mode of artistic expression that voices -- in a wide range of mediums -- opposition to or criticism of certain political, economic, social, or other concerning circumstances in a community. Cultural resistance focuses on raising awareness of an issue and calls for justice; it does not exist for the sake of pity or sympathy. Creative cultural resistance can include very dramatic and high-risk acts such as painting controversial murals, occupying a privately owned or disputed space, performance art that criticizes the government, or pageants. Lower-risk resistance also exists in smaller scales, including posting stickers, banging pots and pans or flickering lights from inside homes, or even speaking a specific language. Community activists use cultural resistance to collaborate with the diverse population influenced by whatever circumstances being protested and build community. Participants in the dialogue celebrated the power of artistic and cultural expression in human rights work, but also warned of potential problems or reproductions of inequality. Many participants agreed that cultural resistance works should be inclusive and conscious of the power and privilege held by the artist producing such works. To bridge the gap between artists and community members, participants emphasized the value in artists taking the time to communicate with, grow to understand the issues at hand, and facilitate equal participation in the process. That way, the best interests and sentiments of the community will be represented by the works of cultural resistance.

What does cultural resistance look like in practice?

As previously stated, creative cultural resistance can take a variety of forms at both large and small scales. Participants shared successful acts of cultural resistance such as installations, museums, reclamation and occupation of contested sites, puppet shows, and videos of solidarity. Some acts of resistance struggled with government censorship and criticisms that the works were too partisan. One participant described how artists overcame political and ideological differences in order to promote creative resistance. Another participant described a campaign that focuses on deconstructing tensions between populations of different states in order to prevent disastrous effects of war and promote cross-cultural understanding. Also, efforts exist to promote the visibility of human rights violations and also protect and support artists of cultural resistance when they face risks due to the nature of their work. Spaces for discussion, networking, and promotion of cultural resistance works have also been positive experiences among artists and activists.

How have these cultural resistance tactics contributed to a larger strategy?

Many participants described cultural resistance as a way to promote identity formation and contribute to a subversive counterculture that protests and sometimes mocks the constraints of an oppressive mainstream culture.  Messages and strategies of creative resistance can translate across barriers such as race, ethnicity, class, and age to further strengthen and empower people participating in the movement. One participant stressed the ability for this to occur with identity- or orientation-based activism. In some instances, participants cited the strategic application of tactics involving police or other authority figures with creative props to demonstrate the abuses and hypocrisies of the political and social system at large. With respect to the functionality of creative resistance tactics, participants explained that mechanisms can be similar to those of business or marketing models. One participant offered a model for “cultural strategic assessment” that involves motivation, identity formation, causing consciousness, creating new spaces, and enacting movement goals.  

What are the challenges, risks and new opportunities for cultural resistance?  

Participants identified challenges to cultural resistance as both threats against activists for their work and unforeseen problematic implications of their work. Some artists of cultural resistance noted risks associated with utilizing tactics that are considered “politically dangerous.” The presence or height of a threat against cultural resistance depends on the nature of and relationship between the cultural production and the specific values, norms, and identities of authorities or political figures; as Nadine Bloch asserted, the “interfaces” of marginalized groups “can be dangerous so they engender fear (often of the unknown, or sometimes of harm.)” If a production of cultural resistance offends or provokes such authorities, activists can face police involvement, confiscation or destruction of materials, arrest, or even violence. Although these risks may be serious, some participants have shared courageous, creative, and witty means for overcoming attempts to censor or stifle creative resistance. Some artists produce works anonymously, as exhibited by a finger-puppeteer who criticizes the Syrian regime via YouTube videos. Another participant encourages creatively protesting prohibition of certain props or activist tools. Using large, visible, beautiful props creates a statement -- especially when authorities attempt to publicly dismantle such works of art. Activists can take advantage of an inevitable or expected police presence by creating a spectacle that demonstrates the intolerance of the people or institution being protested. One participant shared an inspiring story in which a police officer’s attempt at limitation and censorship of protest tools in fact lead him to create a more dangerous prop. Because creative cultural resistance can provoke opposing forces, it is important that artists/activists are aware of real dangers they face and take action accordingly; such actions can include warning other practitioners of creative resistance about potential restrictions or threats, seeking resources and protection, or reorganizing in a less threatening manner.

In addition to creative mechanisms, practitioners of creative resistance should be aware of and prevent potential negative consequences of their work. When depicting certain issues, places, and people, artist-activists should avoid perpetuating stereotypical, racist, sexist, and classist representations and messages in their works. By communicating and working together, the people for whom artists advocate will more likely approve of and be empowered by the works, and artists can stand behind their productions with confidence. Finally, it is also important to promote sustainable tactics within a movement by using local materials that do not cause environmental harm or social unrest.     

Resources to help practitioners apply cultural resistance tactics to their work:

Conversation Leaders

Jane McPherson's picture
Jane McPherson
One Million Bones
sidd joag's picture
sidd joag
Mike Klein's picture
Mike Klein
University of St. Thomas
Annie Sloman's picture
Annie Sloman
International Development Practitioner
yousef awad's picture
Yousy Awad
nadine99's picture
Nadine Bloch
Nonviolence International
Todd_Lester's picture
Todd Lester
Jasmine Melvin-Koushki's picture
Jasmine Melvin-Koushki
textaqueen's picture
texta queen
jessieboylan's picture
Jessie Boylan
Noam Leshem's picture
Noam Leshem
Royal Holloway University of London
puppet underground's picture
Susanna D and Janelle T
Puppet Underground