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Old 07-26-2010, 10:16 PM
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Default The art of activism

The art of activism
Political posters help movements build a grassroots base.
By Ambreen Ali
Fed up with rising national debt, Stephen Barnwell decided to bail out America last week.
He sent $1 trillion bills to each member of Congress courtesy of "The Indebted States of America." The dollar replicas, part of the New Yorker's latest art project , carry an image of Mao Zedong and were issued in "Beijington, D.C."
Part tongue in cheek and part sounding bells to alert lawmakers to what Barnwell believes is a perilous amount of debt, the dollars are part of a growing movement of using art for activism.
Technology has revived "artism" by making it easier than ever for artists to collaborate and disseminate their work.
"You can't walk into a picket line with your computer terminal," said Carol Wells, head of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics . "You can't stick your computer terminal on your office wall or the street. You can do it with a piece of paper."
The roots of "art-ivism" can be traced back hundreds of years. Governments and activists alike used posters to round up support or opposition to the wars of the last century.
Wells, who began collecting political posters in the 1980s, said that art has been central to every major grassroots movement. She cited the songs of the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Apartheid posters as examples.
"The best political art won't only convey an experience that's unjust, but it will convey that people are doing something about it," she said.
Today, artists are distorting the BP logo to speak up on the Gulf Coast oil spill. They are commenting on the immigration debate in Arizona from both sides.
Conservatives have depicted the state governor as the iconic Rosie the Riveter , getting the job done on immigration enforcement. Liberals combined the Statue of Liberty with a death skull to symbolize an end to her open-arms immigration policy.
And, in Barnwell's case, they are using the ultimate symbol of power – money – to challenge the government.
"Art lets you bypass the conscious mind. It helps you hear truth in a different way," he said. "Good art can change minds."
It takes him months to create his modified dollars, which he creates digitally by scanning and layering hundreds of elements from bills he has collected over the years. Since 9/11 moved him to artism, Barnwell has used dollars to protest radical Islam, the Iraq War, and the suppression of free speech.
Barnwell, who leans right politically, prefers subtlety to the in-your-face style of tea-party art. People seem more receptive to subtle art, he argued, but added that it sometimes means that they misinterpret it.
During the Muhammad cartoon controversy , Barnwell created a United States of Islam dollar that was blank in the middle to symbolize Muslims' belief that their prophet should not be drawn.
Jyllands-Posten, which sparked the debate with its cartoon contest, hung the protest dollar in its newsroom as a reminder to uphold free speech.
But Barnwell said he received praise from Arab Muslims who bought his dollar online thinking it argued in favor of not depicting the prophet.
"It's one of the flaws in my plan of being too subtle," Barnwell said.
That's why so much political art is flashy or satirical. Bright colors and use of iconography helps artists quickly convey their message to a person walking down the street.
"If a political poster doesn't convey its message to you in two-and-a-half seconds, then it's not working," Wells, the art collector, said. "The message must be clear."
Think of Shepard Fairey's Hope poster , which he created by coloring a news photo of President Obama. The large type and simple image got the point across quickly.
Fairey collaborated with other guerilla artists in the years prior to create anti-President Bush posters, too.
Such collectives often pool resources, use sympathetic print shops for free copies, and offer their art without copyright – a tactic dubbed "copy left" – to create grassroots support for their causes.
In 2004, the Partisan Project waged a poster campaign against former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) by distributing packs of poster images for people to hang up at work or give to neighbors.
"We are not naive enough to think that any of these posters will change a Santorum supporter's mind," the group wrote on its site. "Rather, we see them as rallying cry to the converted…. Think of this poster pack as a gift to anyone who feels Pennsylvania can do better."
Many advocacy groups rely on artists to create buzz.
Parisa Narouzi of Empower D.C. , which recently started paying artists for their work, said art helps her organization achieve its goal of bringing the community together.
"Art is something that is attractive to people," she said. "We as a membership organization depend on people to get involved."
The group asked political artist Cesar Maxit to create a wanted poster for D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty during a campaign to prevent developers from taking over public property. Activists then took the posters to city hall, where they demanded that the mayor be arrested.
"This was all theatrical," she said. "The whole point is to make it something that people want to be part of. If we're always somber and angry, then it's not as attractive to people."
Empower D.C. has also collaborated with performing artists to create puppet shows about housing issues and local rappers to make an album about their policy agenda.
Though Barnwell works alone, he is also hoping to create a movement through his money art.
"My ideal scenario would be having a member of Congress wave my note on the Congressional floor urging fiscal responsibility," he said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen."
Ambreen Ali writes for

This week in activism
Sherrod firing demonstrated the influence advocacy groups have.
By Ambreen Ali
We heard plenty in the news this week about the firing of a USDA official over comments she made on race.
Less reported was the role that activists played in the whole thing.
It all started with a debate that civil-rights group NAACP began last week by accusing the tea parties of racism. Tea-party activists defended themselves against the accusations; some also distanced themselves from a prominent member of the movement and his controversial remarks on the issue.
It was in the midst of that firestorm that a conservative blogger dug up and edited a video of Shirley Sherrod speaking at an NAACP event.
Her bosses at the Agriculture Department and the White House may have reacted too soon to the video, firing her to put an end to the controversy. It was later revealed that Sherrod's comments were actually about why racism is bad.
On Thursday, President Obama apologized to Sherrod for the department's hasty actions.
Activists had a hand in the developments every step of the way, and not just by holding a small but well-covered protest outside the office where Sherrod worked until this week.
Were it not for activists at the NAACP and even the tea partyers who looked further into Sherrod's comments and insisted that her bosses do the same, the president may not have made the apologetic call.
Washington reporters tend to underplay the relationship between activist groups and those who run this town. But part of the reason why Sherrod's firing became big news is that two powerful grassroots groups -- the NAACP and the tea parties -- were using their influence to keep reporters and officials focused on the story.
Climate bill delayed
Activists were also the first to learn this week that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had given up hope of passing a massive climate change and energy bill by November elections.
"The fact is this is a very complicated bill because it requires a lot more moving parts," Kerry told about 200 activists who had come to Capitol Hill Thursday for an environmental forum.
Kerry worked closely with grassroots groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Blue-Green Alliance throughout the process of drafting the bill and negotiating with colleagues.
He upset some advocacy groups by including provisions for nuclear power and offshore drilling but advocated for greenhouse-gas caps on behalf of environmentalists.
In the end, those concessions weren't enough to get moderate Democrats and Republicans on board with the plan. Conservative activists continued to resist the plan they said would increase fuel prices through taxes.
The Senate is moving towards passing an energy-only bill that addresses the Gulf Coast oil spill instead, pushing the climate debate into next year.
Tax cut debate begins
The upcoming town halls during August will give activists another chance to weigh in on what Congress takes after elections, and signs are pointing towards tax cuts .
Conservatives are pushing to keep intact the Bush tax cuts and nix the estate tax. Meanwhile, a group in favor of the estate tax has recruited billionaires to advocate for them.
The unlikely alliance between rich individuals and pro-taxation groups has already earned the group attention in the press and on Capitol Hill.
Budget cuts unite parties
Environmentalists and fiscal hawks also tried to bridge disparate interests this week. They unveiled more than $200 billion in budget cuts that would appease both conservatives concerned about government spending and liberals who want greener policies.
The annual Green Scissors project, which in the past has successfully killed plans to build roads through parks or deposit nuclear waste in precarious areas, is yet another example of how activists regularly influence politics.
Ambreen Ali writes for
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