Image: A scene from an ARTillery performance in Perth 2011. Credit: Emiko Wantanabe.
“It is … far more important to resist apathy than anarchy or despotism for apathy can give rise, almost indifferently, to either one” – Alexis De Toqueville, Democracy in America.
In Australia, you’ve probably heard the phrase “you get the government you deserve” before.
If we accept the argument implied in that phrase, what do we need to do to break through the armour some people have encased themselves in?
For a growing number of activists in Australia and abroad, art is part of the arsenal.
Amnesty International Australia has been employing this tactic since 2008, holding festivals, shows and pop-up stalls under the guise ARTillery.
Co-founder and Co-coordinator Lexy Scott said they have had to find creative ways to reach out to the public on issues far removed from the lived experience of most Australians.
Last year’s ARTillery festival in Perth tasked Australian artists to create At Arms Length a work exploring the issue of the global illicit arms trade and the experiences of child soldiers by responding to other artworks on the topic in a ‘chain reaction’ of art creation.
“Most Australians have never experienced armed conflict in their lives, so how can we expect our artists to respond to ideas of the arms trade and the human rights issues that creates, so we asked our artists to look at that from arms length and examine their own reactions to those ideas,” Ms Scott said.
“I think there is a really amazing support base for arts activism in Australia and I think it’s really inspiring to see so many artists – really big artists as well like John Butler – speaking out on human rights issues and really caring about political issues.”
Among those who have embraced this way of talking about political issues there is a feeling that some of the more traditional methods of trying to reach the public such as protests and handing out flyers only serves to alienate sections of society.
Kathleen Cameron, the self-described ‘facilitator’ of Art Action Union (AAU), an online “collective of concerned activists and people who are interested in art”, said activists should put more thought into the way their messages are likely to be received by the public.
“There’s so many different people in the world who interact with information in unique ways and yeah I see people and go ‘it’s really great that they’re doing that, but I wonder how many people they’re disengaging with that process?’,” Mrs Cameron said.
At the same time, Mrs Cameron concedes that activists who use common tropes such as V for Vendetta–style Guy Fawkes masks and placards are necessary to draw those who connect with such imagery.
Mrs Cameron and her art action cadre have helped a diverse array of activists and artists around the world convey their messages from a group in Bangladesh putting on a play about the problem of water pollution to designing T-shirts for a music festival in Vietnam.
The group even has one regular contributor whom Mrs Cameron describes as a “roving reporter” who spends her Christmases going to Honduras and blogging about current affairs over there.
She describes the AAU as a place of collaboration, a bulletin board and a soapbox; while she may work on many projects at a time, she doesn’t recruit people as volunteers.
ARTillery is moving in the opposite direction.
This year, after having held annual events around the county and smaller ones in Perth for several years, ARTillery aims to decamp into smaller Arts Action Groups around Australia, where local artists will work as volunteers to interpret Amnesty International campaigns.
Lexy Scott said they already get a lot of local artists and young people who are “on the cusp” of wanting to look into issues in more detail at their events and hopes the new strategy will help “break down the barriers to those ideas and get people taking action and really caring about human rights”.
Ms Scott said it’s a shame that activists often get a bad reputation and people don’t want to classify themselves as one, although she doesn’t see why people need to label themselves in that way to take action on human rights issues.
For Kathleen Cameron, messaging is still key.
“A picture of flower might just be terribly uncreative and automatic for some people, but others might look at it and go ‘it brings an awareness of the beautiful environment’, so it’s all so subjective. The messaging itself I think comes from the explanation and the concept the artist presents those works in in a lot of cases. A piece of art on its own doesn’t really convey anything unless it has some sort of concept around it in a sense.”
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