How do cultural resistance tactics fit into the larger strategy?

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How do cultural resistance tactics fit into the larger strategy?

To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider the following questions:

  • How have these cultural resistance tactics contributed to a larger strategy?  How have these tactics helped in advancing your goal?
  • What is the functionality of creative cultural resistance tactics?  In the context of our strategy, when do we use creative cultural resistance tactics?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

some ideas from advertizing

Tactical creativity is central to organizing and delivering actions.
The strategic use of arts and cultural resistance is harder to use for campaigns or movements.

I would point to advertizing in the business world for some answers.

Branding: Businesses desperately try to brand to have themselves standout from the competitors. Examples in social change might include: Pink Triangle/Black Background-Silence = Death for Act-Up.  Otpor and Black Panthers fists. War Resisters International- broken rifle.  Color revolutions. The National League for Democracy farmer's hat in Burma.

Recapitulation/Repetition- Businesses use repetition in TV advertizing to get changes in behavior.  Examples from Social Change movements: Otpor-symbol with "enough" endlessly repeated. Particular songs sung repeatedly in Syria against Assad, or Estonia against russians.

Narrative: commercials often try to tell short stories in 30 seconds so as to be memorable.  Some commercials over time get sequenced together into stories.   Bud Light: Wassup? or GEICO and the caveman.   Social change movements try to tell stories that can inspire people over time.  The most influential US social change book: Uncle Tom's cabin, Roots-book and film,  stories of heroes like gandhi, King, Mandela, Kyi, X, and many others.

Undoubtedly their are other strategic uses of art. PLease add to the list.


Movement's cultural strategy

Strategy is more than just a sequence of tactics, so when we are talking about creative cultural resistance, we are not just talking about using various tactics as part of a strategy. On a strategic level we are talking about movement design and culture relates to movement design in two ways:

  1. movement defines itself by refering to maintstream culture (where movement appropriates the mainstream culture or develops counter-culture as a negation of or resistamce to mainstream culture; sometimes it is a combination of both)
  2. movement defines itself by developing its own culture (there is more emphasis on own identity, values and desired behavior of movement followers, the movement is more "branded" and brings something new to the culture of the society on the conceptual level).

Of course these would be two ideal models and movements are usualy somewhere in the middle, although more movements and campaigns are positioning themselves within cultural boundaries which are already established, rather than trying to redraw these boundaries by developing their own culture.

For instance, if I compare 1996-97 Student protest in Serbia with Otpor resistance movement which emerged two years later (and I participated in both) I could easily say that the former was defining itself in relation to existing cultural models (as a protest of urban, well educated middle class youths who listen to such and such music and read such and such literature), while Otpor attempted (and to a large extent succeeded) in creating a unique cultural model which could then penetrate cultural barriers raised by the regime and raching even regime supporters.

How can we apply these ideas on culture + movement design?

Thanks, Ivan, for sharing these thoughts on how culture relates to movement design!  Are there contexts in which it is better for a movement to define itself by refering to mainstream culture versus developing its own culture?  Did Otpor purposefully create a unique cultural model or did it happen more organically?  How can a movement create a culture?  Eager to learn more...Thanks!

Was it on purpose?

From this perspective I would say yes, we did it on purpose, but it was more organic and intuitive, we did what we liked to do and since we were sick and tired of being stuck in the existing cultural models, we were searching for something new. We were also recombining different cultural symbols, putting together things that usually don't go together, for instance attaching ourselves with symbols which were traditionally seen as symbols of the state (that was cool thing to do). This we learned from NSK polit-art group which operated in Slovenia in 1980s , when we were kids and which used to say that politics is the ultimate form of art.

On a more specific level, we had a lot of young artists and they were trying to express themselves within Otpor and use the movement as a venue for their artistic work. The movement on its end used this art to convey the political message, so the art wasn-t for the sake of art, but for the sake of the revolution, so to say.

Strategic Functions of Creative CUltural Work/Resistance

We have all done some strategic planning in our lives, our activist work, right? ( I hope so!) We do it to be more effective, to sequence our actions, to build energy in our campaigns, to vary the targets and amounts of pressure we apply, to do things in a useful format ( outreach before an event, debrief after, not the other way around!) and more...

A critical piece of our strategic planning is usually an assessment time-- taking stock of what resources we have, what the internal and external issues our that our group is dealing with, etc. I  advocate that we should also be doing a CULTURAL STRATEGIC assesment-- what pieces of our culture, and/or our artistic skills, could be of use to us-- what do we have, what are we missing-- and what about our opponents culture-- what do they have that we could use ( a story about Christmas, a popular song, a taboo!) or what are they missing that we could provide? 

As artists and cultural workers, there is a way to look at these functions in 5 Broad Strategic categories.

1.Motivation : Connect to Meaning

  • Artists (writers, painters, graphic designers,musicians, messaging experts ) are often on the vanguard of change, visualizing an alternative future, putting ideas into concrete forms of expression. Campaigns/movements need a vision , as well as a container for the work at hand. This vision also can provide psychological support, and a meaningful if not compelling context for sacrifice.

  • Artistic endeavors can serve to translate information across boundaries of age, class, gender, language and in this way connect individuals and harmonize between constituencies.

  • Arts and culture make room for expression-- from passion to pleasure, anger and grief. In this way, cultural traditions can serve as a life line to community and emotional support , functioning as a survival mechanism, promoting endurance.

2. Identity Formation

  • Use of culture and arts can serve effectively to reinforce or establish the identity of a group or individual. Given that nonviolent action relies on “people power” and increasing- or often critical-- numbers of involved participants, using cultural and artistic expression can not only help the group coalesce, but also can encourage self -recognition among potential participants while establishing an appropriate operative culture. This supports two of the key identified elements of successful campaigns, that of unity and commitment to nonviolence.

3. Cause Consciousness

  • Use of creative cultural resistance serves the campaign through increasing effectiveness of both internal education and external outreach and public relations (communication.) in order for the organization to grow, it is necessary for the campaign/movement to have a contextual or rational discourse about the system/injustice/vision of change that is the work of the activists ( “the cause”). The arts, broadly, not only can do the work ( “Education is the highest form of propaganda” Mark Twain) but can do it most compellingly.

  • Creative forms can expand political discourse, and push the proverbial envelope of what is acceptable dialogue on an issue or around a vision or values set.

4. Create Space: to self organize, and to push the boundaries of political discourse

  • Use of the arts, arts workshops, opening of creative spaces/ places for creative work requires organization, structure, acquisition of materials, managing resources... a good practice ground for organizational capacity building and effective management.

  • Creative resistance expands the envelope, minimizes risks of oppression, deligitimizes the opponent, provides innovative and accessible tactics,-- including a fundraising platform.

5. As Constructive Programs: to Enact movement goals ( through direct actions)

  • The cultural work, itself often the direct action, can serve to put in practice the vision and values of the cause in the form of constructive programs and models for the future. Creative cultural resistance can also serve the 3rd essential element of successful campaigns, tactical innovation, by transforming the affect or actual tactics themselves. 


Using mock-passport stamps to strengthen nonviolent culture

Great list, Nadine - thanks for sharing this!  I have been thinking about how these categories related to an article written by Noam on the use of mock-passport stamps representing the State of Palestine...

In the article, Noam describes the work of an artist in Berlin:

In an unassuming corner of one of Berlin Biennale’s exhibition spaces, the artist Khaled Jarrar set up a desk and invited visitors to stamp their passports with a specially-designed ‘visa’ to the State of Palestine. The stamp he created features a Palestine Sunbird surrounded by flowers and encircled with the words State of Palestine in English and Arabic.

Noam goes on to explain the purpose and impact of this tactic:

Obviously, the stamp has no legal validity. It is purely a symbolic gesture. That is clearly part of its appeal: Jarrar freely issues his mock-visas and accompanies the stamping with a warm “Welcome to Palestine!” in English and Arabic. In the hand of the artist, visa-stamping becomes an open act of inclusion and invitation, rather than a state-controlled instrument of policing boundaries. Compare that to border controls in Israel’s international airport, which have become the emblem of the country’s national siege mentality...By designing visa stamps, Jarrar stakes a claim to the process of defining the symbols and meaning of contemporary Palestinian nationalism.

I think this tactic could fit into a few of Nadine's categories above, but in my perspective it fits in well with the second category:

nadine99 wrote:

2. Identity Formation

  • Use of culture and arts can serve effectively to reinforce or establish the identity of a group or individual. Given that nonviolent action relies on “people power” and increasing- or often critical-- numbers of involved participants, using cultural and artistic expression can not only help the group coalesce, but also can encourage self -recognition among potential participants while establishing an appropriate operative culture. This supports two of the key identified elements of successful campaigns, that of unity and commitment to nonviolence.

Noam, it would be great to hear from you on how you see this mock-passport stamp fitting into Nadin'e list of strategic objectives/functionality categories!  Are there other categories that we can add to this list?

Are there other examples of how creative resistance tactics are being used to move forward the strategic goal of identify formation?  Share your examples here!

ACT UP, and harnessing your own sub-culture

oh, i love the idea, and the execution of this Stamp! Bravo...i think it fits into  several categories...

it seems appropriate to mention ACT UP here ( AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power).. ACT UP is the movement  i think of that has had the most impact on how 'modern' campaigns are carried out in the recent past... ACT UP, and its close predecessors of the Feminist Art Movement in NY and CA,  harnessed their own ( internal) cultural interest and high quality capacity in the 'arts'-- graphics, painting, sculpture, theater, you name it-- to move protest front and center into mainstream media coverage in a very classy way. You might know there is a self identified part of gay men's culture that pays attention to design, dress/clothing, and is very comfortable with flamboyant and out there expression. Gran Fury, the design collective that gave us SILENCE= DEATH (image to the left), and many other iconic images, helped  to start ACT Up and propel the issue of HIV AIDS into mainstream view. It also allowed for great moments of mirth, as I can remember a fabulous action on the steps of the Supreme Court in WDC ( late 1980's sometime?), when the Police all put on plastic gloves before hand cuffing the people risking arrest-- and of course the gloves were yellow rubber, and their  shoes regulation cop black, and the crowd started chanting " Your gloves don't match your shoes"... ! tension went' down several notches...though everyone was still arrested.

An ability to match current PR-public relations -- and advertising standards with their protest graphics along with fearless interruption of the status quo to make a disease crisis visibile has led to some amazing wins in the 30 years of the AIDS crisis * yes, there's more to do, but the issue is now mainstream and the conversation about LGTBQ  and our collective issues on gender and sexuality have changed dramatically in this time.

should note that ACT UP also harnessed the power of cultural ritual in its work-- holding funerals at the White HOuse and other prominent locations to make present the high price of the crisis. (You may remember that funerals for fallen activists in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa were also used politically to both show continued resistance against the regime, growing movement support with huge turnout, and honor for those in the struggle..) And, of course, ACT UP challenged common cultural stereotypes and prejudices, fighting not only with facts and figures but compelling images-- the "kissing kills" images of same sex and mixed groups kissing on buses and billboards, were both provacative and a call to action. The work of the ACT UP and related communities raised the artistic bar for all of us activists that follow.

Identity-based activism and protest

For freeDimensional, we are focused on strategies that keep cultural resisters (artists and activists) safe, as well as ones that can ensure their livelihoods.  In order to do that we have to look for trends, patterns and gaps in coverage.  When the conditions for impunity exist, the outcome is the same for an artist in Guatemala or an LGBT activist in Uganda (see blogpost on Precarity & Intersectionality[1]).  Conversely, I would argue that to improve conditions for culture workers in areas of unrest would make it safer for grassroots activists (and vice versa).  It’s also important to consider how sexual orientation can be used as grounds to economically marginalize a person regardless of whether his/her work is related through personal activism. For example I recently asked an artist grantee of the Creative Resistance Fund (a program of freeDimensional) if sexual orientation had anything to do with the eminent danger faced.  The answer was yes, but with the caveat that there is no way to know for sure until it is too late.  Unfortunately, I have heard this on several occasions.  When I think about all these overlapping vulnerable groups – grassroots activists, LGBT community, artists in conflict (or unsafe) areas – the concepts of precarity and intersectionality come to mind.  According to Wikipedia, precarity means “existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.” And, ”intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.”

It seems that artists (when they take a stand) share some similarities with other orientation- or identity-based activists, e.g. LGBT, environmental, indigenous, disability, youth, etc... and that such ‘orientation-based’ activists may be left out or remain on the periphery of the swiftly professionalizing activist vocation (narrower legal-leaning designations such as human rights defender that always assume intentionality and leave very little room for ‘accidental’ activism); being on the outside of the vocation also impinges on the likelihood of said artists being able to make a living (getting paid) from the creative social change work they do.



Using police in a strategy

I'm gonna switch back to tactical strategy for a moment. I was just reading a thread discussing police reaction to puppets, and want to highlight the usefulness of building the police into the design of an action spectacle.  A couple of my favorite examples of this are:

1)  As part of the foreclosure resistance efforts in NYC, activists would try to block the entry of martials when they would show up to evict residents. Artists made big shields with life-size pictures of the families being evicted and activists would surround the house. The spectacle was enacted when police would force their way through the shields, attacking the images of these families... making for great press photos.

2)  In Baltimore, as part of an effort to fight the closure of community rec centers, artists built a big cardboard rec center for a direct action challenging the city's politicians. The police would not allow the rec center to fully join the action and the artists refused to remove it, forcing the police to call a dump truck. The images of the rec center being placed in the dumpster by the police perfectly exemplifed the city's policies toward the real centers and were photographed and used as a rallying cry to support later organizing.

3) This was described in a book I have, Theater & Social Change: “[Reclaim the Streets (RTS)] called the police to notify them that [RTS] would be having a large demonstration. Seventy riot police show up in full gear only to find eight or nine people in tuxedos and gowns having an outdoor tea party....These actions point to a ‘vision of heavy police presence for benign behavior’ as a means of motivation the public to ask why certain public expressions are prohibited....Another RTS action also played with the police, this time to highlight a New York City ordinance that prohibits more than 20 people from gathering without a permit. This time the police came to Tompkins Square Park to find four group picnics composed of twenty people each. One person would travel from group to group increasing the number to twenty-one, and the police were forced to follow in chase.”

If, in either of the first two examples, the police had decided not to engage with the creative props, then the activists would have succeeded in their primary goals (preventing eviction and joining the action, respectively). But forcing such a photogenic confrontation can offer a secondary win and can be built into the tactical strategy. Creating such a visual narrative frames who the sympathetic characters are and who are the "bad guys". As in the example of Reclaim the Streets, it can even serve as a strategy in itself; to reveal a problem by forcing a reaction that demonstrates it. 


Otpor uses policy in a strategy in Serbia

I'm so glad you pointed out how useful it can be to include police in your creative action strategy!  These are great examples.  Here's another, from our collection of innovative tactics:

In 2000, before the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, a government initiative to support agriculture involved placing boxes in shops and public places asking people to donate one dinar (Serbian currency) for sowing and planting crops. In response, Otpor! arranged its own collection called “Dinar za Smenu” (Dinar for a Change). This initiative was implemented several times and in different places in Serbia. It consisted of a big barrel with a photo of Milosevic. People could donate one dinar, and would then get a stick they could use to hit the barrel. At one point, a sign suggested that if people did not have any money because of Milosevic’s politics, they should hit the barrel twice.

When the police removed the barrel, Otpor! stated in a press release that the police had arrested the barrel. They claimed that the initiative was a huge success as they had collected enough money for Milosevic’s retirement, and that the police would pass the money on to him.

In this way, Otpor! left both Milosevic and his supporters with no space for reaction. If the police did not take away the barrel, they would be seen as weak and ineffectual. And even when they did remove it, Otpor! continued to make jokes. No matter what the regime did, it lost.

Like you pointed out in your comment above, finding ways to include the police in your action can put your adversary in a lose-lose situation:

puppet underground wrote:

If, in either of the first two examples, the police had decided not to engage with the creative props, then the activists would have succeeded in their primary goals (preventing eviction and joining the action, respectively). But forcing such a photogenic confrontation can offer a secondary win and can be built into the tactical strategy. Creating such a visual narrative frames who the sympathetic characters are and who are the "bad guys".

This is a great example of how creative cultural resistance tactics can (and should) be used to support a larger strategy.  What other examples are out there?

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