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

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

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

  • What challenges have you faced in your cultural resistance efforts?  How did you overcome those challenges?
  • What are the risks that practitioners need to be aware of before they decide to implement cultural resistance tactics? What advice can you share?
  • What are the new opportunities that you see for cultural resistance in protecting and promoting human rights?
  • How has new technology and social media changed the way creative cultural resistance is implemented and promoted?  What new challenges, risks and opportunities have come from the use of these technologies?

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

Questions on a socially-engaged art practice

Since 2005 I have been working with a local and national anti-nuclear movement on issues of uranium mining, nuclear waste and education around the ongoing impacts of the British-Australian nuclear tests that happened here in the 1950s and 60s. I have always worked with photography, text and sound to 'tell stories' around these issues; from the beginning at age 19 I realised that there was no simple way to 'tell a story' and I realised the need for people to be able to have an agency in telling their own story. Originally my idea was the have life-size photographs with audio stories attached, so that those photographed could literally tell their own story. The contradictions here are, as with most documentary practices, that I am always doing some form of editing, which image do I choose? Which part of the story is/isn't used? A main issue here is why do I feel like I have the privilege to tell these stories, or to relay these stories? They are not my stories to tell. I believe the integrity of my practice lies in the closeness to the issues and people that I am 'representing'. If I am not close to the people or issue I would make sure that is known, through text, diary style words, or in another way. 

By working closely with those photographed, in a kind of pseudo collaboration, to ensure people will be comfortable, even happy with how they are being 'represented', I believe the imagery has been true to the person or issue presented, though I know it has flaws. I think the main way I have 'overcome' these challenges is to make known my own position within the imagery I am presenting, my own story amongst those around me, to not ignore my place as an image maker/photographer, and to not pretend like I don't exist within the images being made, that there hasn't been an intervention on part of the image-maker. 

Though I feel like this is still a process in my work to 'overcome' - which is why I am undertaking my MFA to develop/continue a truly socially engaged art-practice, one that truly challenges forms of documentary that have inherant contradictions with notions of 'truth'. 

feedback received?

Hi Jessie

that's great, thanks for sharing. It's so important to understand the role the artist plays in relation to the agency of the communities we work with. It's so important to understand the community we work with - including their sensitivities - and to ensure the communities feel there is a collaboration and interaction, in which their voices are truly heard and listened to. 

I would be interested to learn more on the responses of the ones you photograph; how do they experience your ways of working with them? What kind of feedback do you receive on your participatory way of working?

Thanks again,



Puppets Can Be Dangerous


My doctoral dissertation includes a section on puppetistas. I finished writing it during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Authorities at this and other recent political events have drastically limited the voices of citizens and the expression of artists and activists. The 2008 RNC was separated from the citizenry by a perimeter of security fences and hundreds of armored riot police. The designated "free speech zone" was nearly inaccessible and a giant Fox News tent blocked it from view of the convention hall. Yet puppets held power there too. Riot police deployed to secure this political venue were mobilized in part by the threat of puppets.

Days before the event, local and federal authorities raided an anarchist convergence center. The search warrant and affidavit from the raid were posted on the internet. The list of items that the authorities were searching for included:

  • Lockboxes, PVC or metal piping
  • Razorwire
  • Hollowed out puppets
  • Urine and feces
  • Caltrops

The rest of the items sound threatening - or disgusting - but puppets? The accompanying affidavit explained the concern of authorities about "hollowed out puppets". It described efforts by investigators to infiltrate anarchist training camps and the threats posed by puppets:

"During this camp, according to law enforcement agencies, an individual discussed the use of large puppets to conceal and transport materials such as Molotov cocktails, bricks, caltrops, shields and lockboxes. This individual also stated that long bamboo poles used for puppets could be used as spears and utilized to drive back police."

When I finished reading the warrant and affidavit, I went in search of puppet-wielding groups - through security check-points and riot police - to alert unsuspecting puppetistas. The tension was so high that I worried security personnel would automatically associate puppets with violent action and arrest nonviolent artists and activists.  Puppets were not in fact weaponized at this particular event and police infiltrators who wrote the affidavits were accused of being agent provocateurs. But puppetistas did succeed in amplifying the voices of demonstrators, showing that puppets can be politically dangerous.

conventions and puppets...

Yep, I lost a lot of tools, materials and puppets to the RNC Raid-- same as earlier that year in Washington,DC during the April 17 Spring Meeting protests of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund... and, unfortunately, the authorities have now tried to be more pro-active about their dislike of puppets and puppetistas-- here's a brief blog about the conventions this year, and there is a link to a wonderful David Graeber piece detailing the police's antipathy for puppets, too...


Puppets, CuR, and anonymity

It's interesting (and unfortunate?) that the use of puppets can be such a risky approach.  One way to go about this, in high risk contexts, is to take the approach of MasasitMati - video tape the skits performed by finger puppets, share via YouTube, and stay anonmous (not easy).  There are a number of different ways to use puppets and obviously you wouldn't be able to stay anonymous at the RNC convention with your puppet...but I'm curious to read your thoughts on puppets (or more broadly, CuR) and anonymity. How does anonymity impact (if at all) the use of creative cultural resistance?

the humor in cultural resistance

This thread on puppets made me think of the many cartoonists worldwide who are facing persecution as a result of their work. In particular, it brings to mind a Malaysian political cartoonist, Zunar, who I met in Bilbao while he was in a 4-month Creative Safe Haven residency. He said something that resonated with me, 'If a simple cartoon can make a government respond this way, it only shows how very weak and scared this goverment must truly be." Which brings me to images of Tahrir Square and a conversation fD hosted with a Egyptian blogger some months back. When she was asked what she thought made the revolution in Egypt stand out the most, she stated "the humor of the revolution". She went on to notice that there was a carnivalesque nature to the gatherings in Tahrir,  art, music, dancing, costumes, and caricatures, ripe with farce and sarcasm, and pointing a mocking finger at the regime. I think these indicate that humor as a far reach, that in both good and bad times, our wit can be a form of personal reslience, and when honed and sharpened can be a rather effective spear.

More resources on the power of humor

sidd joag wrote:

I think these indicate that humor as a far reach, that in both good and bad times, our wit can be a form of personal reslience, and when honed and sharpened can be a rather effective spear.

I like how you put this, Sidd!  I completely agree.  New Tactics hosted a dialogue a few years ago on the power of humor in human rights work: Tactics That Tickle: Laughing All the Way to the Win (you can read the summary on that dialogue page).  In 2013, we'll be launching our Arabic online conversations and we're hoping to feature this topic so that we can collect and explore and humorous tactics used in the Middle East and North Africa region.  I think there is a lot to learn from the creative work that has been done in the region (and continues to be used).  Stay tuned!

policing of puppets

Yeah, the police are more and more trying to portray puppets as dangerous, in an effort to stiffle creative protest. But I think puppets have been used really effectively at demonstrations to bring lightness and a feeling of being unthreatening to protest situations that may be tense or where the media might otherwise portray protestors as confrontational, etc. They're very disarming, and can be effective at diffusing tense situations on the street. 

I recently worked with riders on the Undocubus (nopapersnofear.org), making a bunch of big monarch butterfly puppets for their contingent at the March on Wall Street South in Charlotte, and butterfly flags to be used at a direct action they did at the DNC. Even though the city had implemented a new law basically banning puppets from the protests, they didn't say anything about the butterflies, I think, in part, because they created such a visible spectacle, and the sight of police confiscating something as beautiful and harmless as a butterfly isn't comething they were gonna let get into the press. I think we should also be thinking about ways to creatively challenge these prohibitions, using this kind of spectacle to expose how absurd they are.

The drama of breaking the beautiful and sacred

I appreciate the idea of producing art for protest that is beautiful to inhibit destruction by authorities, like the Puppet Underground example of butterflies. When art portrays vision and ideals – rather than just a critique of the status quo – the scene of authority crushing beauty adds another dimension to cultural resistance. Security forces become part of the drama, actors in the scene that reinforce their identity as protectors of entrenched powers rather than the citizenry.


In addition to beauty, the sacred also adds dimension to cultural resistance. And sometimes the destruction of the beautiful or sacred takes ironic twists. Over the last decade, I participated in the School of Americas vigil in front of the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia USA. The SOA trains Latin American soldiers; many have been implicated in human rights abuses. Many who protest carry crosses for a liturgical ritual on the Sunday morning of the vigil. On the crosses are written the names of victims tied to graduates of the school. However in 2001, after the events of September 11, security tightened significantly at the annual SOA vigil. At an entry checkpoint a municipal police officer told me my cross was too long. Only crosses 18 inches or shorter were allowed. I said I did not want to abandon this sacred object. The officer said my only choice was to break the end of the cross with my boot so that it would conform to regulations. So under the direction of the security officer, I smashed a sacred object rather than discard it, creating a jagged end far more dangerous than the original object. Sometimes the drama of cultural resistance writes itself.

Artists in Dangerous Areas

I want to riff a bit about the condition of artists living in dangerous areas (be they geographic or otherwise defined).  I've never quite understood how the art world (for all its largesse) has not reacted to the regular affronts /attacks on its members due to censorship, individual courage and the blowback of speaking truth to power... especially in that artists have been a part of changing society throughout history and rarely benefit from the safety mechanisms available to vocational activists.  In part, my frustration is that the art world suffers from the perception that it does not have the tools to keep its artists safe... that that is rather the work of the human rights or legal sectors. 

En brev, the art world will likely never receive adequate support and publicized legitimacy from the outside toward taking concrete steps that could help keep artists safe.  Currently, there is a lot of movement on the topic of artist safety, free expression, social practice, and related mobility; however much of that movement - and discussion - still somehow remains oblivious to the distinction b/w professional activism and the much more organic, replenishable framework of artists dependably (throughout history) deploying their creativity in exponential ways that cannot be presupposed.  So, for sure, we'll arrive at a new moment whereby artists 'could' access x,y,z resources, yet to the extent that doing so is dependent on the artist self-instrumentalizing her/his work before it has had its full impact, those resources will miss their mark.

Many times, I am asked to provide a formula for how or why an artist gets into life-risking danger.  Of course there are stylistic forms of censorship and suppression that are different from one region to another and when levied across diverse demographics, but I suppose there is a sort of countdown or sequence of events that is discernible:  When the rule of law erodes (or has never formed) and the protective layers of civil society are stripped away due to contested elections, civil war, cross-border conflict, etc; when we know that journalists are fearful to give literal accounts of the impunity faced by their communities, then we also know that artists who bear witness to the societal condition will face danger. 

at the interfaces...

I have a theory about life in general that relates to the question at hand-- the risks of cultural resistance, or the risks that cultural workers or artists face. I think it is all about interfaces-- in the natural world, the most active and kinetic places-- and therefore most volatile-- places exist at the boundaries of different types of biomes or matter-- where the shore meets the sea, where the sea ( or land) meets the air, where forests meet desert... and the same can be argued for people who somehow straddle intersections of worlds, genders, cultures-- these interfaces can be dangerous so they engender fear ( often of the unknown, or sometimes of harm.) People who are dreamers/visionaries/ not completely grounded ( artists?) embody this; i know from my time living in Ghana that the priests and priestesses that were keepers of the spirits of the land were often stradling the natural and the spiritual worlds, often had complicated gender or sexual identities, and were seen as living between the worlds in a place of strange power. All this is to say, some of the power that arts and cultural work brings to a struggle is  rooted in the essence of what makes it so threatening to the authorities-- kinetic, unpredictble,compelling, emotive, other worldly!

Imbuing meaning to social practice

When I get to present the work of freeDimensional at conferences, I like to make the claim that ours is a social practice ... albeit an organizational social practice.  What I mean is that freeDimensional is socially-practicing and so are the constituent members (artist residencies) that make up the freeDimensional network.  The reason I frame it this way is because I think (and hope) that it helps to elucidate the reality that many art spaces and residencies are run by artists, and that there are two sides to socially engaging and practicing through the arts - process and aesthetic output.  Sure, the distinction may not be necessary for those of us on the inside of such dialogues because many artists work with/on/through processes that may not have a discernible / commodifiable output.  Basically, my argument is that it can be interesting to think about administrative duties of artists as a part of their social practice and that by doing so we may be able to make stronger claims to available resources when those administrative duties are fulfilling vital social services. Looking at it from another direction, it could be argued that some artists tactically 'administer' in order to have broader social impact, or even that artists always administer and therefore critical social practices should not be wholly dependent on resources endogenous to the art world.

Obviously, I have one foot up on the soapbox here:)  Some of these ideas come from my attempt to argue that artists who find themselves in danger must have been engaged in 'social practice' whether they identified it as such or not; that it is possible to retrospectively categorize work that results in dangerous conditions for the artist ... and by extension that artists and organizations that help them during that period of distress are engaging in social practice.  In another thread, I mention a future opportunity to discuss this issue.

negative consequences to consider...

Just was thinking a bit about times i have had issues with using arts or creative resistance-- not many times, but there have definitely been moments when the potential negative consequences outweighed the benefits...

here's a couple to start the list--

1.inappropriate use of puppet-- In my community an incredibly fabulous, smart, beautiful, powerful african american woman was running for a state political seat. As a puppetista, her support committee approached me about building a giant ( 15' or so) puppet of her to take to events she would not be able to attend --she was popular and the requests were many.  I told them no, and suggested they abandon the idea -- given the racism and sexism in our culture, it just did not make sense to me that this would be a good idea-- better to develop an icon or send another staffer than to court ridicule and nasty comments.

2. improper materials-- to me, as an environmentalist, the means have to be on track with the ends. Many people will watch what I do ( or you do!) and copy our work--and so i won't use toxic oil based paints, just water based acrylics and latex ; i won't use toxic PVC plastic pipe, just wood or locally harvestable bamboo-- an invasive species people are really happy to have me cut down! Recycled or re-purposed materials whenever humanly possible as well...This is because I hope i am in the business of creating a more healthy and peaceful planet, so i try to have my materials reflect that and open up dialogue about what is appropriate, what will lessen the burden on communities that are on the front line of manufacturing ( usually low income, communities of color)  or the earth ( devastation and consumption issues.)

3. irresponsible messaging-- Just this summer i was part of a theater company putting on their annual show of circus skits and acts. Local residents were in a fight with a corporate wind company who was putting windmills up on the surrounding hills, in a move deemed an affront to the communities.   Audiences look up to this theater group, and the take home message of the skits was purely anti -wind power! I had to intervene and point out that i could not responsibly participate, as the options of solar, wind, hydro- energy harnessing are far preferable to dependence on fossil or nuclear fuels. More appropriate messaging would be against  corporate control  and for community control-- which would potentially result in more appropriate use of local resources and therefore be resposible messaging! Luckily, some of the skits were adapted to more responsible messaging.

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