Can Art Be a Form of Political Activism?

Does art have the power to generate social and political change? It's a question that's been discussed endlessly over the centuries, but it seems especially timely in the past few months.

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Jan 12 2015, 5:00am


LaToya Ruby Frazier speaks at the 2014 ICP-Bard MFA Symposium. © International Center of Photography. Photo by Emma Freeman

Does art have the power to generate social and political change? It's a question that's been discussed endlessly over the centuries, but it seems especially timely in the past few months, with the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the wave of activism-infused art that's followed the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. So it seems fortuitous that a panel at the School of the International Center of Photography last month discussed that very topic.

As part of the all-day symposium— What's Love Got to Do with It: Affect, Interactivity, and the Haptic, organized by the ICP-Bard MFA candidates in conjunction with MA candidates from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College—the panel Affect, Image, and Political Agency investigated photography, video, and performance art's ability to document and transform evocative personal experiences into provocative political statements.

Moderated by art historian, writer, and art critic David Deitcher, the panel featured multidisciplinary artist Patty Chang, who according to Deitcher test "the limits of endurance and, sometimes, polite taste," and photographer, video artist, and performer LaToya Ruby Frazier. The two were chose for the panel due to their dual interests in artistic creation and activism—Chang often explores parental relationships, Asian identity, and global cultural concerns in her work while Frazier delves into the underrepresented realities of her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania.

2014 ICP-Bard MFA Symposium. © International Center of Photography. Photo by Emma Freeman

Deitcher opened the panel with a question posed by equally political artist Lorna Simpson, who asked, "How do we move from pain to power?" Inspired by Simpson's question, the panel examined Chang and Frazier as two artists who exemplify the power derived from unwaveringly documenting painful moments of grief, illness, intergenerational contact and the troubled legacies of capitalism, industrialism, and colonialism. Despite the differences in their subject matter, both Chang and Frazier employ their own lived experiences as a means of social, cultural, and political critique. Describing her approach to her work and, consequently, Chang's as well, Frazier explained, "It might seem personal, but it's not about me at all."

Introducing their own art individually, Chang began with an unexpected account of the wandering womb, a puzzling condition in which the uterus was thought to move freely throughout the body as theorized by, unsurprisingly, a bunch of men (including Hippocrates). Juxtaposing personal and political histories of the past and present, Chang's presentation acted as almost a performance itself with her fascinating and, at times, baffling links between seemingly disparate topics, stories, and artworks. Through her presentation, Chang wove together her own experiences from her physical and emotional symptoms during pregnancy to her travels in Uzbekistan and China, which she visited months after the height of the violent unrest between the Han Chinese majority and Uighur minority. She also included Swedish explorer Sven Hedin's The Wandering Lake, a 1937 book detailing his discovery of a mysteriously moving lake in China that is now completely dried from irrigation.

Still from Untitled (For Abramovic Love Cocteau) via Patty Chang's Vimeo

Layering these diverse topics as "a means of creating consciousness," Chang's art frequently mines the complex intersection between bodies and landscapes as political commentary. For example, Chang introduced a video featuring ephemeral headscarves spelling out the character for "wolf" on the back of a truck in China. In an interview, a Uighur woman details the significance of the wolf as a part of the foundational mythology of the Uighur minority. As the wolf headscarves unravel over each bump in the road, Chang connects the Uighur minority's displaced identity in Western China with the similar instability of the landscape.


Still from Patty Chang's Invocation for a Wandering Lake, Part 1 via Creative Capital

The most striking instance of Chang's merging of the body and landscape in her presentation was the video Invocation for a Wandering Lake in which Chang approaches and gently bathes a beached sperm whale. White from decomposition, the whale recalls Moby Dick as well as Sven Hedin's Ahab-like colonial search for the Wandering Lake. Depicting humans' unique relationship, as Chang expressed, "both in the world and of it," Chang mournfully and caringly caresses the whale. Evoking both love and loss, the video references the detrimental effects and traumatic legacies of colonialism, capitalism, and environmental change.

Likewise, Frazier's artwork similarly portrays the body's relationship with the landscape as a political act, reflecting the manmade problems and the silent victims of capitalism and industry in her hometown of Braddock. Located nine miles outside of Pittsburgh, Braddock is home to Andrew Carnegie's first steel mill, which has operated since 1872. An economically depressed industrial town, the city is full, Frazier said, of unaddressed problems originating from the toxicity of the steel mills, which have contaminated the soil, air, and water. While largely an African-American community, the majority of the mainstream discussion of Braddock focuses on the history of the steel mills or, more recently, their current white mayor John Fetterman and the cultural projects generated by outside artists.

Frazier on her work in the 2012 Whitney Biennial

Perhaps the most obvious and jarring comparison between the media's idealistic representation of Braddock and Frazier's art is Levi's recent advertising campaign, which portrays Braddock as a frontier-like utopia. Titled (apparently unironically) Ready to Work, the campaign reflects a romanticized vision of an emerging post-industrial Rust Belt city including, most inexplicably, horses. Screening the advertisement, Frazier described the ad as "a liberal fantasy" and "an illusion of positive change." Frazier explained the importance of her sitting "between the working class and the creative class"; she frequently challenges these false narratives through representing her own and her family's experiences. The artist even staged a performance, filmed by Art21, in order to directly confront Levi's by scraping and tearing her denim-covered body on the pavement outside of a Levi's pop-up photo workshop in New York.

2014 ICP-Bard MFA Symposium. © International Center of Photography. Photo by Emma Freeman

Working against the "historical erasure" of her community and its concerns through her art, Frazier documents three generations of black women from Braddock—her grandmother, her mother and herself. By capturing frank, beautiful, honest and, sometimes tragic moments through her camera, Frazier presents a family that has seen the rise and fall of the steel industry in Braddock from its boom in the 1920s to white flight in the 1960s to the war on drugs and the devastating effects of Reaganomics in the 1980s. The frequent lack of men in her photographs and videos also signifies the absence of men in their lives who have served in the military or worked in the steel mills.

2014 ICP-Bard MFA Symposium. © International Center of Photography. Photo by Emma Freeman

Evoking Eric Garner's last words "I can't breathe" in her discussion, Frazier not only reveals the emotional and psychological bonds between her grandmother, mother and herself, but she also depicts the realities of the chronic and terminal illnesses suffered by many Braddock residents caused by the mills. From difficult black-and-white photographs of her mother's surgical scars after an operation to remove breast cancer to her own self-portraits after lupus attacks, Frazier's photographs reflect the physical toll of living in Braddock. By presenting private moments of illness, Frazier uses her artworks as a public protest against the recent closure of the UPMC Braddock Hospital, which was, according to Frazier, "like a community center because we all have terminal illnesses." Illustrating the treatment of the community by the healthcare system, Frazier's work represents the duel deterioration of the city and the residents' bodies.

Chang and Frazier emerged through the panel as two significant artists who utilize their own personal artistic practices as tools for larger political and social goals. Placing the artists' works and the panel in conversation with the Millions March, which was held on the same day, an audience member asked Frazier specifically whether she feels optimistic about the protests against the deaths of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and countless other people of color killed by police violence. Responding that these events confirm why she creates art with an urgent cultural meaning, Frazier replied, "I'm hopeful but serious. This is my life. It's not even art, it's my life."

Emily Colucci is a New York–based writer and the co-founder of Filthy Dreams, a blog that analyzes culture through a queer lens. Follow her on Twitter.

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