ART & ACTIVISM
Peoples Climate Arts with Nato Thompson
Last month, Nato Thompson, Chief Curator of Creative Time, sat down with three members of the activist art collective People’s Climate Arts to discuss their work.
Nato Thompson (Rail): I’m here with People’s Climate Arts, a network of artists and activists born from the climate justice movement, operating a mobilization center/art space at the Mayday community space in Bushwick. Could you talk about how the group started?
Rachel Schragis: I first started to hear about the People’s Climate March, both from local organizers that I was involved with and from people in 350.org, for whom I had done some work as an illustrator. I thought, this is not a moment where the art that I’m going to make is big enough. This is a moment when we need many, many artists and this big, beautiful, inclusive march is a moment when we can build the network of artists that doesn’t exist yet that I want to be a part of.
The first thing that I did, about a year ago, was to talk with a couple of artists and then organize a picnic with people we knew who make art for different social movements. I had not met Raquel or Raul yet, but Gan Golan was there and Andy Bichlbaum from the Yes Men, and Katherine Ball and Beka Economopoulos . We asked, “What would it take for you guys to be able to participate in this moment?” And the answer that everyone had was, “A space and a time to congregate and get information. We’re also going to need support to make stuff happen.” And so we said, “Okay, let’s do that.”
Katherine Ball had just been travelling in Greece and she said, “There’s this thing in small Greek towns called the Sporio which is a public greenhouse where everyone goes to spread their seeds.” And then Gan said, “Well, ‘SPORE’ could stand for Special Project Organizing and Research Exchange.” We hesitated: “spores,” everyone’s going to think “mushroom,” it’s so crunchy. But it was really beautiful that mushrooms and fungus are this system that keeps stuff together—spores make things grow, and artists play that role too. Artists keep stuff together, artists keep social movements alive, but also grow them—you know, do the visionary work. And so we started the Sporatorium.
Rail: Did that initial organizing group stay together? Or was it a loose affiliation?
Schragis: It became a loose affiliation but what we knew was that we would get more and more formalized through this open-sourced process of Sporatoriums. We were thinking about how we can do this in a way that gives people agency. At the same time, because I had institutional relationships with people already organizing for the march, I started going to all these different meetings, representing the artists that were organizing themselves for this moment.
Rail: Each one of the people you’ve mentioned, many of whom I’m familiar with, has a long history of activism in the city and institutional relationships. So in many ways you were pulling from your extant networks to bring them into a kind of Sporatorium—
Schragis: And that’s what we mean by organizing, we’re not starting from the ground up, we’re building on the histories of past moments and other movements that exist and figuring out how we take that into the future.
Raquel de Anda: I came to the second Sporatorium, which was a gathering of about 70 people at Judson Memorial Church, which itself has a long history of activism and organizing—
Rail: It has a long history of being the place where that initial meeting happens.
de Anda: At that meeting I had a conversation with Rachel about what I felt was missing from the conversation about climate: diversity. So we talked about how I could align to connect my individual organizations and connections to different organizations with the group.
Rail: What organizations?
de Anda: For about seven years I worked at a Latino art space called Galería La Raza in San Francisco, which was one of the first spaces that represented Latinos in the country, and has a long radical political history. There I was able to make a lot of connections with individuals working on immigrant rights-based projects across the country. As we know, immigration and climate change are very much connected, though this is not really seen or heard in the media. When I first saw Rachel at this meeting at the Sporatorium, I wasn’t sure if there was a way that we could connect these conversations. At the next meeting, the thread throughout the meeting was “We need a space to organize.” And Beka had had conversations with some people from the Mayday Collective, who had access to a space in Bushwick. They are very much involved in housing and in developing spaces for immigrant rights justice within the neighborhood. So it was actually a really great pairing because here we were, wanting to organize in a space that was rooted in a place.
Rail: Walk me through being in the space during that period, moving toward the event.
Raul Ayala: This space was where everything got together. I’m here just three years, in this city and in this country. As an artist from Ecuador, I had been doing a lot of work in my country, as well as political organizing, but I was lost here, I was not part of anything. I am a muralist. And I can say why I make murals, but I also need to live, so one of the jobs that I have is to make murals for gentrifiers, and that was really a moral dilemma for me. I decided to organize with construction workers—so that was kind of the base. And I began to have this idea of a collective of construction workers that uses the leftovers from buildings to make public art pieces. Because I applied to several places with this project, Raquel contacted me. I had no idea about the march, but I began to see connections with other organizations that were working through all these issues, especially immigration. I was not thinking about climate, but about the idea of making a statement clear in a piece of art that, first of all, needed to be modular, because it needed to go through a small door.
Rail: Did the piece you made actually move with the protest?
Ayala: Yeah, it was a bike float—an allegory of all the companies that affect Latin America and how they are taking our homes and how we, as immigrants, are searching for the place that we can call home.
de Anda: It was a beautiful tree on wheels, with all of these bird kites designed by Heather Henson, the daughter of Jim Henson.
Rail: That’s pretty cool. Everyone knows the Muppets. I have a question for you: Was the space itself, meeting people in it, important to you—the personal relationships as well as the arts-collaborative spirit and the political spirit?
Ayala: Yeah, working together with other people who can organize and can cross-pollinate all the work made the space vibrant.
Rail: Roughly how many people do you think were involved?
Schragis: I would like to say that we had at least 1,000 people actively working there for the march.
de Anda: We had scientists, we had beekeepers, we had so many—it was crazy. And as we got close to the march, a sea of people started coming through. There were people working around the clock. In the Mayday space we had two floors—7,000 square feet—and the rooftop.
Schragis: And two decks. And then, we didn’t have enough space, so we rented another warehouse around the corner—
de Anda: One that had a pull-up garage, because the issue with Mayday was that there wasn’t a big entrance. We painted the 300-foot “Flood Wall Street” banner there.
Rail: So here, you guys have got art, it’s like a big factory, people are coming, everyone’s excited, the day arrives—what happens on the day?
Schragis: This is a story that I tell a lot because I think it’s beautiful. We were providing infrastructure to make it possible for people to make art. Space was a big piece of that, but so was transportation. In the end, we had seven 20-foot-long trucks filled with art. And this was only the stuff that was too big to carry; a lot of people brought stuff home and then brought it with them. We had a person who had spent 10 years packing the Bread and Puppet Theater Company trucks working on this task for a whole week—what goes in which truck, because the march was 30 blocks long. So, what art goes on 60th street? What goes on 66th? What goes on 70th? At six in the morning I was in the first truck to pull up—there was no one on Central Park West, the police hadn’t arrived yet, it was dark—and then out of the mist, artists start arriving and unload the truck. Everyone puts their art out on the street and then I start walking up and down the avenue and the sun comes up, and the police put barricades up, and there are artists for 30 blocks with their work on the street. And then around 10:30 in the morning, you see the art get lifted up. It was this moment of the artist leaders setting the tone for the day, for the 400,000 people that showed up, by communicating to them about the art.
Rail: I don’t mean to fast-forward, but we have to—the day after, packing the trucks, pulling it all back home, amazing day, lots of energy, go back to the space—now what?
Schragis: At night we all came back to the space and got beers and went upstairs and the marching bands came and played music, and we were all like, “We love each other.” This is one of the strengths of doing arts-based work—that we were doing this hands-on emotional and meaningful work together, and I look around the room and I didn’t know any of these people six months ago and I’m going to be working with these people for years to come. That’s the reason to have moments like the People’s Climate March, because it builds these relationships, and that’s what People’s Climate Art is. We wrote an email to about 40 people who we’d come to really know and trust, like Raul, who were artists involved in the march, and said, “The march is over—who was a coordinator, who was an artist, that doesn’t matter—let’s figure out how to do this together.” About 20 people showed up to that first meeting and that became 12 of us that now call ourselves the People’s Climate Art Stewardship Committee.
Rail: Now, you know, there was a massive organizing effort to prepare for the 2004 demonstrations against the Republican National Committee. And then after that there was an organization to maintain the momentum, and that dissipated.
Ayala: It’s hard work.
Rail: It’s hard work. And then there was Occupy, and then that dissipated. I’m a big believer in social movements, but I don’t want to underestimate the complexity of this. And just to put my own thoughts out there, for me, one of the great things about art is not just what you see, but the social relationships it produces, which I think is what you’re saying. When I was a kid, I’d go to the parades and I never understood a parade because I thought they were so boring, but then I realized the parade is for the people in the parade. [Laughter.]
So now you have this space and you’ve got these social relationships that are magical and dreamy and then you also have Black Lives Matter, you have gentrification discussions—and I know they’re all related. I’m not saying one’s more important than the other.
Schragis: What we saw about a week after the march, is the artists are meeting with each other and cleaning up and saying, “Gosh, Black Lives Matters is in the street—this is the work we want to do.”
Ayala: There was Ferguson, people went to Ferguson and they were reporting back and then in a space of eight days I met several of the families affected by police brutality, directly affected, and I began a relationship with two of them; we actually did a banner for Families United for Justice and Equality. I kept the relationship with one of the mothers because I did a portrait of her son.
Rail: Let me ask you something about the question of diversity in movement building, because historically, at least in this city, one of the big stories is you get these big moments, and then with time everyone goes back to their racial demographic, or the white movement loses people of color. How do you deal with this?
de Anda: I think diversity is a tricky word because it is really easy to say, “We’re checking boxes, and now we’re diverse.” I like to think of diversity through a cultural equity lens, so it’s really about sharing resources. What we’re doing as a collective is to try to create space where people can represent themselves and tell their own narratives. Their voices have been ignored or silenced in these movements, and for me, what social movements are about is creating space for everyday people, whose voices aren’t typically heard, to be heard in.
Rail: I really believe in what you’re doing. But here’s a question I have, and I mean it as a provocation. Central to protest culture is the idea that if you change people’s minds, things will change. But one thing that’s peculiar about the climate issue is that, in my belief, most people believe in global warming, even people in power.
It’s not a perception problem; everyone knows climate change is happening. But I frankly think capitalism doesn’t care what people think, and government doesn’t really care what people think either, even the people that care in government. So how do we organize? I understand movement building, but the question is structural change. Just where do you think this goes, what’s the game plan?
Schragis: The main thing that you’re thinking about is: how do we build political power to actually counter climate change? We are not going to solve all of these deeply entrenched issues.
de Anda: We know also that social movements work.
Rail: I’m not convinced. I’ve seen, well, 50 years of depending on social movements in this country. And I’m just saying that at some point—
de Anda: I do believe in the power of social movements and I think it’s absolutely essential to continue building on them, no matter how you understand what that history is or how to interpret its benefits. But I also think that there is a need for institutions to pressure the government to create space for public participation. So, I think that social movements do have resonance and importance but I also think that there’s a role to play in educating individuals on their role in using culture to shift policy.
Schragis: If we’re talking about cultural planning in New York, we should also talk about the kind of climate resiliency planning that’s happening. The grassroots coalition that came out of the climate march is now called the Peoples’ Climate Movement New York Committee, and they just had a forum last week, educating community leaders about the PlaNYC, planning all the different community garden resistance, protection plans, and all the different kinds of opportunities for civic engagement. Social movements aren’t everything; there’s also strategic planning.
Rail: I’m trying to pressure you to tease these things out because it’s not enough, I think, to just say, “the arts change the narrative.” I mean, it really is about policy as well. I used to think the artists were the side note to protest movements, but now you go to these demos in New York, and they are central.
Ayala: Art is an organizing strategy to fight against the alienation of everyday life. What I understand about art comes from working towards a means of organizing collectively; maybe that began in Ecuador. I am from a neighborhood that is involved in drugs a lot and I have a lot of people—my family—that have been affected by it, by poverty, by drugs, by all these things that happen in these neighborhoods. Alphabet City is really similar to that. And that’s why I wanted to work in prison because I felt like maybe I’m going to be in prison some day. I was curious about what’s going down inside of there and I found a graffito saying that, “This is the place where they don’t punish evil, they punish poverty.” That’s why I wanted to work inside the walls. And on the walls. Because walls mean a lot—it’s not like a canvas—that’s not the artwork we want to do. We want to be able to transform the city—it’s another organism.
Rail: One of the successful marks of Occupy—and it had many—was social organizing. Certainly you guys are not unrelated to the Occupy movement. One of the things that I think it introduced that is very helpful is just the word “one-percenter.” I just thought, “That is class”—it’s a huge win. And then Black Lives Matter: the demonization of young African American males has been an American political strategy perpetuated across the board, and I think Black Lives Matter confronted that head-on and has really changed people’s perspectives on that issue. Every time there’s a story about a cop killing a kid, it’s a different story than it used to be before the movement. So let me ask you about climate: it’s a different issue, because it’s hard to see it in terms of a narrative that needs a shift. In America, even BP is green. It’s advertising. You know what I mean—the police are not pro-young black men right now, public relations-wise, and the rich are not calling themselves one-percenters in America, so there’s a narrative to fight against. But in the environmental movement, even power considers itself green. How do you work against that?
Schragis: This is exactly what I’m working on in my studio work right now. Let’s not spend our time pretending we can answer that question in this interview, because the very words that we would use to communicate this issue have been stolen from us, have been co-opted, because of the early successes of the environmental movement. In all of our brainstorming sessions, it’s always, “Oh well we can’t say ‘earth’” or “we can’t say ‘world.’”
de Anda: We can’t use the color green! [Laughter.]
Schragis: We can’t use the color green, we can’t say “green,” we can’t say “save,” we can’t say “future,” we can’t say “together.” We can’t show animals that pull at people’s hearts, we can’t show children because all of these things are perceived as sappy, because there are commercials using them to sell you green bleach. And so, as artists, we’re stuck. The visual and poetic language is filled with booby traps. I think it’s a really effective form of social control.
de Anda: They found a way to talk about the environment without talking about power, and as long as we keep talking about the environment without talking about class, without talking about race, then everyone’s going to stay in their place.
Rail: What have you guys got coming up? There’s so much going on—you know sometimes power wins by just hitting you from every angle and it just keeps you so distracted—so what have you guys got coming up, and how’s that working?
Schragis: Between the time that we’re having this conversation and the time it comes out in the Rail, you’re going to see a bunch of really exciting actions on the street in New York that we are part of. Different parts of the climate movement are coming together to plan a week of action in late April leading up to Earth Day. There’s going to be an action addressing Port Ambrose, the fracked-gas port proposed for Long Island; there’s going to be an event in solidarity with the Gulf Coast region for the five-year BP oil anniversary; and then folks are organizing around a “green jobs for all” campaign. So you’re going to see all these climate actions in New York. Also, April 15th is a huge nationwide day of low-wage worker strikes and the fight for $15. We built a lot of relationships through the People’s Climate March and are now working to make art for all of these actions at the same time, so people meet each other again in the studio doing this work in April.
de Anda: April 14th is a national day of action for Black Lives Matter, so we’re hoping to align with that in some way, help build a large art-based work in the space. And there’s also a whole caravan of families protesting the war in Ayotzinapa, Mexico arriving in April, so we’re hoping to create a space for some organizing and strategizing around that.
Schragis: After that, August is the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and we’re already in talks with folks who do cultural organizing on the Gulf Coast about how we can support them. And then in September, UN Week is happening again, there’s going to be a lot of mobilizing in the streets again about the global climate plan—what we’re already talking about.
Ayala: I want to keep working with the families affected by police brutality.
Rail: Angela Davis said—not to always quote Angela Davis—
Schragis: She’s a good one to quote.
Rail: She said that the way you fight oppression—I’m paraphrasing—is to organize with the person most oppressed. A lot of movements have not operated on that principle. For many reasons, organizing with the most oppressed is very difficult—
Ayala: It’s traumatizing.
Rail: And the most oppressed people have no time, are totally under the gun, and it’s not simple work.
de Anda: It’s not easy to hold space for difficult conversations; this is something that we knew moving into this, just thinking about how we were going to build alliances with other people. How do we talk about climate with individuals who aren’t already talking about climate, but who are affected by it? I think we’ve succeeded in that.
Schragis: People are doing that work behind the scenes. You said earlier that movements arise at certain moments and then dissipate, but I think it’s just that the long-term work becomes invisible. I can think of at least three different networks of folks doing that work on the ground in New York right now, post-People’s Climate March, talking with affected communities.
de Anda: We’re a collective of 12 people, the Stewardship Committee; we have an advisory council, we have all sorts of other people coming to the space regularly. So the good thing is that, if there’s something that matters to you, that you’re very motivated to organize around, and if we have the capacity and the skills and the space to help develop a project around it, that’s what the space is for. Raul, for instance, who’s working with families affected by police brutality, is part of our collective, and brings that issue into the space that we’re working in. When we started, we joined a constellation of groups that are doing really fucking incredible work: The Base, IMI, Brotherhood/Sister Sol, Great Small Works, The Laundromat Project—I can list hundreds of them. There is a lack of space in this city—a city that’s quickly gentrifying, that’s expensive to rent in—so what we’re trying to do is create a space to build bridges between artists and social justice organizations.
Rail: It’s important work. We are embodied creatures, we can’t do everything on the Internet; it’s good to see someone physically in person. If someone reads this article and wants to get in touch with you guys, what do they do?
de Anda: They go to our website, peoplesclimatearts.org, and shoot us an email at email@example.com.
Schragis: We’ll have a Sporatorium in June: we’ll book a space for it before this article goes out.
de Anda: We try to have our Sporatoriums off-site so that they can be places that are more accessible for people who might not live right nearby. We’re super thrilled to get the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Artists as Activists Fellowship. That was a big step for us in being able pay for a space for some time, and leverage other donations and grants.
Rail: Mentioning that fellowship reminds me: we didn’t even get into “why is this art?” because I don’t give a shit about that question. I don’t understand the question. But I do think, you can ask it in a different way, like “Why is it important to touch people emotionally as opposed to just politically?” One of the things that’s on my mind, too, is that the strategy of touching people emotionally and not with the facts is the same strategy that advertising uses. It’s effective, but it’s also a dangerous path because facts do matter, and the lives do matter. It’s not just an image war, it’s a human war.
Ayala: Exactly—it needs to be based on facts, but also the emotion needs to be real.
de Anda: People engage in things because there’s meaning in them, and when you bring people together and develop relationally, you develop meaning, even if maybe before, you weren’t already organizing in a specific campaign. We have a limited capacity to take in all of this really heavy stuff, so what better way to actually organize towards some sort of movement than building a relationship, finding meaning in that work, and then using imagination and creativity to produce an image—imagery—to create more excitement or bring more people into your process.
Rail: Do you ever look at freeway traffic, lines of cars, and think to yourself, 200 years from now, some little kid’s going to look at these photos of the world, and it’s the biggest mystery the world’s ever known. Talking to their parents, the kid will say, “I don’t understand, Mom. They knew that if they did this, the world would end?” “Yes.” “All these people?” “Yes.” “Everyone knew it and they didn’t stop it?” “They didn’t stop it.” It’s the world’s greatest mystery. Because isn’t it on everyone’s mind? It’s like the runaway train where everyone’s like, “Stop the train! Stop the train!”
de Anda: And it’s moving so fast.
Schragis: But the question here is about collective action, right, because it’s like, what good will it do if I stop driving my car, everyone else will be able to live their lives and I won’t be able to live mine? I’m confronted by this as a person who often drives carloads of art supplies around to make art about climate change. [Laughter.] It’s also about speaking truth to power. We can’t stop saying that the US military is the number-one emitter of CO2, we can’t stop saying that corporations are causing catastrophic devastation across the world. Or talking about immigration and its connection to climate change. A lot of what we’re doing now is continuing to make sure those stories are heard, while building relationships and mobilizing power.
Rail: Thank you, you guys. I think the world of the work you’re doing. Don’t think I’m a pessimist: I am on your team.