Protest culture is the new vanguard of art and culture, it's time to stand up Michael Williams writes.
'The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.'
~ Richard Powers, The Overstory.
THE PHILOSOPHIES AND STYLES of the punk era are seeing a resurgence under the recent wave of protests throughout the world. Artists are using their powers to help in the fight against poverty, the climate crisis and corruption in government.
In Lebanon, the protests look akin to raves. Dubstep music plays overhead, and protesters dance and play. They have even taken to chanting Baby Shark to a young boy driving past the demonstration in a car.
In Chile, where the conflict is much more violent, the protesters express themselves through body art and graffiti — made a much more visceral movement. Even the art houses and galleries have closed down, and they lend their work and time to the protests.
Memes and pop culture references are the creative force behind the Hong Kong protests. Japanese anime and Tarantino films are great inspiration and the aesthetic goes hand-in-hand with the gas-masks that have become iconic.
In Australian protest culture, we have Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Animal Rebellion. They are worldwide movements and their primary goal is to fight for climate action. They add to the realm of protest art with a variety of posters, banners and merchandise.
PhD student and participant of the XR Art and Families groups, Gabriella Wilson, says the work "is extremely demanding, interpersonally and time wise”.
She commits herself to the arduous task, saying
“... it's fulfilling to participate in a movement which is all about demanding action on climate change. It demands a response from governments for our environment and that’s the key issue.”
Ms Wilson is currently researching art and activism at the Queensland College of Art. She has been a self-employed artist for over ten years.
Extinction Rebellion "Arts" works in collaboration with the other "working groups", such as "Actions" or "Regenerative Culture". All the working groups co-ordinate to maintain the movement. The Arts works with Regenerative Culture to keep the membership base fresh. They support the other working groups by creating flags, banners, t-shirts and posters. It's also their job to spread the message of the movement through visual communication.
The decision-making process for creating the artworks is much more co-operative than what you would find at your typical gallery.
Gabriella described it like this:
“Structure and freedom all at the same time. Like how you can love and despise someone in tandem. Like, I love my daughter and would protect her with my life, but there are times when she is frustrating. So, in that way we have structures, but they allow for more freedom in the movement."
On the 19th of October, Extinction Rebellion held a read-in at the Brisbane Square Library. This came after the Queensland Government introduced laws that would see protest groups banned from holding meetings in libraries. However, they could not stop XR members from reading in libraries near each other.
As Ms Wilson says:
“It was a peaceful way to let the Council know that they cannot be the dictators of free speech. Who has the right to assemble and who doesn’t? It wasn’t even a meeting. This was simply just a way of saying, 'this is us we are Brisbane residents and we are not going away'. Their censorship of XR is being challenged."
Books are an underappreciated form of protest art. The culture itself borrows heavily from the writing of Henry Thoreau. So, it seems fitting that the most recent acts of civil disobedience would be to read. This is not far from the Brisbane State Library, where many people were arrested under the Bjelke-Petersen Government — giving the event an historical gravitas.
Artists around the world are lending their styles to the protest movements. The results are works that are more raw and infectious. The works draw from the worlds of punk and hip-hop. There is an undeniable sense of fun and urgency to the movement.
In his 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Overstory, Richard Powers tells the story of a group of strangers who have been turned into tree-huggers after undergoing tree-induced life-changing events. (It's a bit fruity, but bear with me.) In one of the narrative strings, we follow a young man who is detached emotionally from the outside world. He becomes a prodigal psychology student who takes an interest in people willing to give up their livelihood to help the environment.
His inspiration comes from a moment when he believes his college professor is imitating the bystander effect, who instead dies in front of him – and his class – from a heart attack.
The bystander effect is a social phenomenon wherein, if a person falls ill, the more people there are nearby, the less likely someone will be willing to help.
There are 5 billion people on our planet yet, at the moment, only a handful are willingly to stand up. To fight against oppression and for our climate.
Perhaps art and storytelling are our best bet.
The Overstory by Richard Powers is published by Vinatage Publishing, PB, 640 pages. RRP $14.00.
Extinction Rebellion will be holding a Graduation Climate March on the 11th of December. You can participate here: https://www.facebook.com/events/767281987070381/
“It Aways Fits. Eventually.” - a #HongKong protest art thread— uwu (@uwu_uwu_mo) October 27, 2019
HKer's masks & respirators for braving teargas hv become synonymous with our pro-democracy mvmt. We trace the art to see how the masks hv evolved in use, & w/ them how new heroes hv arisen from an ordinary ppl.