February 01, 2012

There is no movement for justice without the arts: Interview with Jeff Chang and Favianna Rodriguez

Jeff Chang and Favianna Rodriguez are artist-organizers and the initiators of Culture Strike, an ongoing project that began in 2010 as a protest of Arizona’s SB 1070 law. Culture Strike aims to raise consciousness about immigration issues among artists. For the past two years, delegations of artists traveled to the US/Mexico border to learn first-hand about the struggles for migrant justice through witnessing legal procedures, meeting with grassroots organizers and visiting physical sites along the border. The hope is that the artists will then incorporate these lessons into their practice.

Jeff and Favianna are long-time collaborators with powerful practices of their own. Jeff is the author of “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” and a founding editor of the journal, Colorlines. Favianna is a prolific print-maker and new media artist. I am a long-time admirer of both their work and spoke with Jeff and Favianna at Southern Exposure on January 14th before they participated in the event, “Strategies for Artists in Social Justice Movements” organized by Artists of the 99%. We spoke about about Culture Strike, the Occupy Movement, and how artists and organizers desperately need each other.

Jeff Chang and Favianna Rodriguez presenting Culture Strike on January 14, 2012. (David Solnit is on the right).

Adrienne Skye Roberts:  Can you describe the roots of Culture Strike and the political context that it emerged from?

Jeff Chang:  When Arizona passed SB 1070, friends of mine in New York City organized Word Strike, which was a protest of the law by a group of writers. Word Strike was inspired by Sound Strike started by Zach De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. So, people reacted to this law first through culture. They said, “As artists we can show that this is not the kind of future we want to have.” It was exactly the right move to make because it was clear that resistance to anti-immigration sentiment was not going to be political movement. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 completely collapsed, the Obama administration said they would file an injunction against SB 1070 and then proceeded to be the biggest deporters in history.

Favianna Rodriguez:  Anti-immigrant legislation in the past years has shifted public sentiment more and more to the right and towards criminalization. As a result, there had been a need to look at how culture could challenge and transform these messages. Around that time some cultural workers, printmakers and visual artists were questioning the role of culture after the Obama election; why were artists not getting the resources we needed?

I went to Arizona with Alto Arizona and later Sound Strike because there wasn’t a formal program for visual artists. As visual artists in Arizona, we experienced the same things that we are constantly fighting against in our own practices; we were being indirectly exploited, our art was used non-strategically and even though the organizations really valued our work they didn’t have the infrastructure to support it. And so, Culture Strike was born within this context and from a need to intersect these two issues: to educate artists about immigration and to inspire them to get engaged in movement work while also valuing artists as an integral part of society and resistance.

ASR:  How did your backgrounds as artists and organizers lead you to organizing Culture Strike?

JC:  I didn’t start out thinking I was an artist just in the same way that hip-hop didn’t start out thinking of itself as an art. I was a graffiti writer and a DJ. I got involved in anti-apartheid and anti-racist organizing as a student at UC Berkeley. The lines between art and organizing really started to blur for me in the late 1990s when a new breed of young organizers began calling themselves “hip-hop activists.” We were DJs or rappers or visual artists or poets—we all had an artistic practice. We’d all go out to a political rally and then we’d end up at a club afterward. Whereas, for the generation before us, you were either political or you were a cultural worker. It was hard for us to actually explain what was going on to older folks, to older activists, to older funders or supporters. It was a generational thing.

FR:  As an artist I have always been involved with political organizing and have observed the best and worst parts of collaboration with grassroots organizations. Specifically, how artists are brought on at the end part of a campaign strategy or how we’re looked at as being somebody who is going to implement talking points. I felt that what artists could contribute in terms of vision, new ideas and experimentation, was not being fully maximized in movement work. It was very frustrating. Also, we were not viewed as fellow workers and our labor was often exploited. Overall, the contexts for engagement were limited.

 At the same time, I am excited about movement work overall. My interest in founding Culture Strike, was to look at what were the best set of conditions and infrastructure that could exist so that artists could have a great and transformative experience in working with social justice groups in the movement; and visa versa.
ASR:  What are the political context that your work emerged from? Jeff, you became active through hip-hop. Can you describe how this hybrid practice emerged?

JC:  Out of hip-hop we did a lot of electoral organizing. We made inroads to the popular culture through hip-hop but it was time for us to take political power. You literally had this whole generation of folks whose main issues were youth violence, gun violence, environmental justice or media justice asking, how do we organize our peers using culture? How do we help get them over their cynicism about the political process? From 2004 through 2008, there were huge leaps of voter registration amongst young voters of color—the folks who are most alienated from the process. When Barak Obama was elected, pretty much the entirety in the increase of youth voting happened amongst youth of color, which is a fact that no one recognized. That was the result of 4 or 5 years of dedicated organizing and that was what we were trying to rep—the infrastructure we built. The next steps were how do we theorize this in a big sense? Everybody was tired of being reactionary, everyone was tired of more propositions and laws to fight against. The question was what are we going to do now? As people started figuring out that art and organizing could be used together to educate people and bring them into a process that didn’t end but continued, we started asking the question, what does it look like if we actually win?

Favianna Rodriguez, offset poster from 2001 made for JustAct: Youth Action for Global Justice

FR:  My work emerges from my own experience as a woman of color, as a daughter of immigrants, as a woman who grew up in Oakland, one of the cities that has the highest homicides and violence rates in the country. Growing up I witnessed everything from gentrification, to the rise of the Internet, to the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, to the growing, hate-filled debate on immigration, which started when I was in high school with Prop 187. I also witnessed the expansion of the border and NAFTA. All of these events deeply affected my family and my community. For me, art was a way to speak about that reality. It was also a way for me to transform and critique it. Also, it served to document what was happening to me as a woman of color and to my community. I think that the political context is really that I did not see myself reflected in the art world. I felt that my story wasn’t being told. What was missing was as a pro-migrant, women-centered, people-of-color analysis of how the world was changing.

ASR:  You both rely a lot on storytelling in your individual practices—Favianna, your posters describe movements of resistance through stories of individuals and communities and Jeff, your book is 500 pages of overlapping stories that illustrate the hip-hop generation. How was storytelling used as a strategy for Culture Strike? What other strategies did you use to reach artists in the delegations?

JC:  The pro-immigration protests and rallies that happened in the late 1990s and 2000’s humanize people. They illustrated the stories they were actually going through and at the time, polls showed that the American public was overwhelming supportive of immigration reform. When SB 1070 passed, it completely changed the language of the debate, it made simply an issue of legality and criminality. It was no longer about the kids who lived next door or the people in the community that you knew, it wasn’t about the personal stories. It was about who was “illegal” or “legal.” We believe that we win a debate when we work in culture because culture is where ideas can shift, where empathy gets built, stories get told and where community begins.

The reality is that we build our identities and beliefs from all the different pieces of our cultures. If you go to a golf game on Saturday and then you go to church on Sunday—these are places where you can organize. The Right understands this. Many of us have never made a connection between what our values are and the place that people practice those values.

FR:  I was thinking also about linguistics and messaging and how words set the tone of the debate. The right wing made the word “illegal” a very commonly used phrase. It is also framed as a Latino thing. In advertisements and visuals you would see a Mexican man running across the border into a truck. The other side adopted the slogan, “No Human Being is Illegal.” Everyone was saying it and it became a kind of empty statement. With these messages, the need for artists to get engaged was even greater.

The question then became how to engage the artists, what does it take for artists to get to the point where they say, “Ok, I get it and I’m so touched that I am going to include this in my work”? So, we took them to see 70 immigrants getting deported at the same time, we took them to the coroner’s office, we took then to the wall that runs along the border, we were engaging them in the stories.

ASR:  The delegations of Culture Strike are diverse, some artists do overt political work and others do not. What are some of the challenges of engaging artists in movement work?

FR:  There is an artist culture that sometimes doesn’t celebrate feedback or use research to truly understand your topic. We had to share the stories in an ethical way and not exploitative to the storyteller. At the same time, we didn’t want to bring an artist to Arizona to only teach workshops or to be used as instruments rather than as part of the organizing and bigger strategy of the movement.

Artists don’t fit into the goals of grassroots organizing like getting a good turnout of people to a rally or to vote. However, there is a case to be made for what an artist can produce that will make people feel something. Part of our work is also thinking about the intangible, the moment of inspiration someone really feels the story of four undocumented youth. How do you measure that? What are the metrics that are being used in the social justice world and the art world? In the art world the metrics is all about gallery representation, sales, going to art school…

ASR: …producing objects, producing them by yourself, getting a certain kind of recognition through a narrow idea of success.

FR:  Yes and we want to redefine these metrics and also consider how we take the best practices of both the art world and organizing to create more effective movements.

Culture Strike delegation at the US/Mexico border. Photo credit B+ for Mochilla.

JC:  We had this joke: artists are from Venus and organizers are from Mars. There is a negotiation process that has to occur on a myriad of issues—how far can you pull the artists and how far can you pull the organizers to each other? We’re still thinking our way through it. What’s clear is that in the past there wasn’t even a language for them to speak to each other or if there was, it was, “Hey man, you want to make a poster for my rally? Can you come play a song at my rally?” The organizers would make the big decisions and once they were made, they would call artists to help. We were literally the cultural workers. I don’t like the term cultural worker because I want artists to be allowed into the political decision-making.

There is this notion that artists are floating above society, that they never work in context, that they never work in history—except within the narrow discipline of art history which is never occurring within larger history, for the most part. Culture Strike had issues where we would work with artists and they didn’t want to get down with community folks. They would listen to them and then go back and figure out what to do in isolation. Or folks would be like, “that is that kind of practice and not mine.”

ASR:  To me that sentiment means that you’ve internalized those divisions; that you believe that there is no cross-pollination between artists and organizers. This scares me! It means you are also probably internalizing all these false divisions that are a result of capitalism and systems of oppression that are meant to keep people apart from one another.

FR: In the Occupy Movement, culture is not mentioned as a need. The first need is housing and tents and the infrastructure and not culture. The idea of the 99% is a cultural need and yet, within the bodies of decision-making culture is not a highly regarded thing. A lot of art projects that are emerging from Occupy are being funded through Kickstarter and so, once again, artists are having to resource themselves. This is a contradiction because some of the better known Occupy sites have a lot of money in their bank accounts! And artists still have to scrounge for money.

From the lessons learned from Culture Strike, I teamed up with the visual artist, Gan Golan and we launched Art Is My Occupation. This project looks at economic justice and tries to use some models we developed in Culture Strike by providing direct support to artists of the 99%. As an artist I am always looking out for other artists and I realize you have to push your practice and you have to do things that make organizers really uncomfortable and then you have to make artists really uncomfortable, so there is always an in-between space.

ASR:  Can you describe some of those moments you mentioned where the artists were moved, when they “got it”?

JC:  A number of the artists who came on the Culture Strike delegations said it changed their lives. There was a group of folks who went to the coroner’s office and looked at the remains of bodies found of folks trying to cross the desert. These are folks who are the collateral damage of the border policy because they are forced into the high desert and away from populated areas and are traveling across hundreds of miles of desert with no water. People were really moved by that. We also went to witness the “streamline” in the federal courts in Tucson where the judge literally takes 70 people who were picked up the day before and charges them all at once. We arranged for a question and answer meeting between with the federal magistrate judge who runs the streamline and the artists. The moments of inspiration were really visceral. That is what Culture Strike is all about. We can get back to the deep, emotional heart of what was happening in Arizona and convey that to people and make them feel it, too.

FR:  It was so interesting because the writer’s in Culture Strike approached the meeting with the judge by saying, “This is such a Shakespearan moment, he is such a flawed character.” In their minds, they were in a story. An organizer would have been in there and trying to rally. The artists were enthralled in the moment and in the story. They were doing character development! And thinking of how to apply the experience to their craft. You can’t send them a policy paper and get the same reaction, that is why it was important to take them to the border.

ASR:  When you dream big about a world where culture and politics are not divided, where artists are valued in political decision making, where the divisions between art and resistance dissolve, what does it look like? How is it already happening?

JC: It is already happening and we hope to give it a framework. People need to think about culture organizing and cultural strategizing. Cultural organizing means creating networks like Artists of the 99% and the Occupy Wall Street arts working group. Culture Strike needs to organize folks in the same way that we think about organizing people in neighborhoods. Once these networks are created then we have to be strategic about how we change culture—this is our cultural strategy.

In 10 years we’d love to see these words—cultural organizing and cultural strategy—as mantras for folks and organization, for example, Amnesty International or the California Coalition for Women Prisoners has a cultural organizer doing strategy work. Because here’s the weird thing, corporation have been talking about this stuff for years. They talk about how to change the culture of your company? How can you harness the power of culture in order to sell more stuff? It’s super hot and the corporate sector has been putting literally billions of dollars into this. So, we are playing catch-up in that respect. It’s ironic because we have hundreds and thousands of universities and art spaces that we intimately relate with community. We just never think about how to turn that into something that is strategic and organized. The one place where culture is not recognized or appreciated are the very places that purport to support culture.

Culture Strike delegation at the US/Mexico border. Photo credit B+ for Mochilla.

FR: I imagine a kind of world where we no longer understand the art world as the institution we understand it to be today.  I see art as a very highly decentralized and accessible form of participation to the point where we don’t even call it art anymore because it is such an ingrained part of how we do things. We as artists are very valued and central to movements. Of course I see movements and direct actions and protests and occupations and overall content that comes out of movement work to be much more engaged and creative and speaking to our hearts. I see a cultural transformation, meaning that I see change in how people are thinking about everything from immigration to economic justice. I also imagine a space where musicians and award-winning writers and artists that are in all kinds of shows and galleries and museums and public spaces, are actively speaking about politics. In other words, I don’t see it as something that just a certain kind of artist does. I see it as something that all kinds of artists do. That’s my big vision.

And it has been happening. Historically, artists have always been part of social movements, even if it was at the margins, sometimes we were central to those movements. So I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon, but I think that is not nearly as abundant as it should be. I also wish that in all the fields of the creative sector, from acting to programming to building online applications to performance, I wish there was more of a desire to address politics. I wish it was more normal instead of being the exception. I think it has always been happening, but the ways in which we do it  keep us at a very small scale and we’re not able to touch huge amounts of people. It’s an exceptional case when we do.



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