Silly Dreams to Fight the Absurd - Utopia, Artistic Activism and The C4AA

My talk for Utopia, Now! The sixth symposium of the Imaginaries of the Future Leverhulme International Research Network, Chelsea College of Arts, 29th- 31st August 2017


'The liar and the truth-teller, both play on opposite sides of the same game'. But 'The Bullshitter doesn't care about the truth. He makes up his own reality'. 

Trump's dream of a wall along the Mexican border was and is a ridiculous idea. But there is no denying that this dream did help him (as he would probably call it: bigly) to get elected. 

Many have laid out in detail all the reasons that proof that his wall is not only ridiculous but also an impossible project. So, why couldn't all these people be convinced or even be bothered by facts? And how could Trump's display of naked disregard for reality and his unbound faith in fantasy' did not make him appear insane and unelectable? Are the people who voted for him really stupid?

Progressives believe that facts are more powerful than fantasies. 
We believe in reason and rationality, because Empiricism freed us from the Church's interpretation of the world. And the Enlightenment did the same for us with divine right and feudalism. 

Yet, today as we live in an age of Bullshit, we might have unparalleled access to information and even instant fact checking is possible, but facts don't seem to matter much. Revealing lies and outing the truth seems to have lost much of its power.

The game has changed. 


I want to talk to you about Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert, founders of the Center for Artistic Activism. They argue that in an age of bullshit, if we want to win, we need to learn to create ethical spectacles to compete with all those bullshit dreams.
And the best tool they found to use and to accomplish that, is Utopia.

The Steves started their journey together a decade ago. Duncombe was frustrated with the standard march, chant, repeat model of most activism. While Lambert was frustrated with political art, which never seemed to reach outside a small, already politically aligned art scene, trapped in commercial galleries. Could both be merged to make activism more creative and art more effective?

They wanted to find out and their first task was researching artistic activism around the world, and they soon realized that people already had been merging arts and activism creatively and effectively for millennia. And during the next years, teaching their findings and learning from artists and activists trying to implement these ideas, they saw proof that approaching activism creatively was indeed a very powerful idea.


'Imagining Winning' is the exercise they start all of their workshops with. The idea is, that you think of the problem you've been struggling with, and then imagine winning. What would you do if you have unlimited funding and all the help you need? How does the best case scenario look like? What is winning? What do you want?
And after that they make it even harder, telling you: Great, that's done. What's next? What else do you want? What does total success look like? They force the participants of their workshops to really dig deep and actually imagine their Utopia. No restraints.

And what they encounter is tremendous resistance. 'Over and over, participants find themselves struggling to imagine a world where they have succeeded. It is as if they are afraid to allow these thoughts , because acknowledging them might make it too hard and too painful to return to reality.'

But helping these activists and artists to push beyond their resistance and sometimes for the first time, to illustrate the ideal world they are fighting for, they discovered, that from Kenya to Connecticut, regardless of group or issue, these ideal worlds are remarkably similar. They found out that we share common dreams. 
But the way to uncover them may lie in freeing those personal fantasies.

In their forth coming book, 'How To Win: The Art of Activism ' they propose 5 'Lessons from Utopia'. Number one:


'Thatcher understood that the job of the powers to be is not only, or even primarily, to keep people down. Instead, it is to deny us the possibility of looking up.' So, why do so many people on the left demand with urgency that only the hard realities shall be discussed?Is the biggest problem really getting people to understand that there is something wrong with this world? Don't we all know that?


'Spectacle is our way of making sense in the world. Truth and power belong to those who tell the better story.' (dream p.8) As long as we are unable to imagine alternatives there will be none. And getting rid of a problem won't guarantee a better outcome. Imagine waking up tomorrow and Trump is finally history. Would the bullshit end? Would the spectacle be over?


There is, of course, a reason we are scared to embrace spectacle as a means for social change. 'Theories of the politics of spectacle and fantasy have steered people to extremely dark places'. What Hitler, Goebbles and even public relations pioneer Edward Bernays did, was going beyond rationality and applying, with horrific effects, what Gustav LeBon had found out about the irrational behavior of crowds. But 'the fact that progressives worry about abusing power before we have any is maybe less a sign of our concern for the responsibility of power than it is a symptom of our reluctance to pursue it.' 

What's necessary then is to create a new dream politics. But a dream politics that is honest. And we can.


But in times when reason doesn't have the power anymore to bring about social change, we need to do more than only imagine and tell people about the world we want. We need to demonstrate it. Make it seen and felt, maybe even tasted, smelled, touched and heard.
Instead of alternatives to be rationally considered, successful Creative Utopian projects create affect. They can be experienced.


But that doesn't mean we have to give up our progressive ideals of egalitarianism and politics that values the input of everyone. This is not about media savvy experts of the left handing down dreams to watch, consume and believe.

Instead these ethical spectacles will be participatory:
Dreams that people can mold and shape themselves.

They will be active:
spectacles that only work if people help create them.

They have to be open ended:
setting stages to ask questions and leaving silences to formulate answers.

And they have to be transparent:
dreams that one knows are dreams but which still attract and inspire.

Ethical spectacles will not cover over or replace reality and truth, but perform and amplify it.


My favorite example of such a demonstration is the 'Future Republic of the Former Republic of Macedonia.' In spring 2014 the C4AA traveled to Skopje to work with activists advocating for the rights of LGTB and Roma people. Facing violence and being actively discriminated against, these people felt themselves pushed out of their own country and they wanted to push back. But with a right wing government selling the fantasy that Roma and Queers were threatening Macedonian society, actions that involved confrontational provocation seemed a rather bad idea. Instead the Steves helped them to come up with a lot of wonderfully silly ideas.

One of them was a response to this young country's search for a historical identity. The nationalist government was trying to accomplish that by spending its resources on countless statues and immense monuments to mythologize the heroes of the Macedonian people. Their newest addition was a 30 meter high gold plated statue of Alexander the Great.

Yet, Alexander is famous for having had male lovers.
Wouldn't it be great then, to stage a queer Alexander the Great talk show on local tv?

Sadly they only had 21 hours to plan, prepare and stage the action, so they had to reject this wonderful idea.  But it didn't matter, through these silly ideas, they reached the kernel of a good one: why not create the country we want Macedonia to be? And so they did.

They created the country of love they wanted to see. They printed passports, and instead of a binary choice for gender, there was a spectrum and pencils with erasers so people could change their minds. And since Macedonia was so full of statues, they build an empty statue podium, on which people could climb and declare themselves everyday heroes and heroines of their country. There was music and food, tables to draw on for the kids, a place for conversation, which was hugely popular. And at the entrance, there were border guards, who would welcome the newcomers with cheers. And the other people would join in.

It was a friendly LGTB advocacy event, but it so wasn't overtly.
You just walked in, experienced love and then maybe happened to see two women holding hands, or guys kissing. And people probably just thought, oh, that must be what happens in a country based on love. It just became normal. And a better normal than the outside reality.

What they achieved is to create for a couple hours a place that people wanted to go with them. And it was not because the activists had demonstrated what they are against but what they are for.


It's impossible to travel to other places and cultures and not come back with a shifted perspective. Home suddenly looks different. And what used to be normal can now be questioned.

So, 'If one reason to stage Utopia is to urge people to ask the question: What if? Another function is to ask the question: Why not?'

In the 90s Duncombe together with other artists and activists transformed New York City subways in to rolling parties. They met at certain stations at a certain time, and then entered a train en masse. Setting up a boom box or bringing a band, covering advertisements with decorations, passing out drinks, they danced. And for an hour or so the subway car ceased to be merely a means of transportation.

Part of the purpose of these parties was pure fun, but there was also a political objective:
Changing people's perspective about their everyday urban experience.

What mattered most was not what these common New Yorkers experienced during those nights on the party trains, but what happened to them the next day on their morning commute.

'What once seemed normal: being surrounded by advertisements, harsh neon light, and people who refuse to acknowledge on another, would now seem cold, inhumane and absurd compared to the experience of riding the Utopia train.'


Another of their Art Action Academy projects, was creating an impromptu beach, along one of the unfriendly canals of St. Petersburg .


They had researched what could be a common dream that people in this gentrified neighborhood were sharing, and it was access to the canals. And they proceeded to make this dream come true, but just for a little while. They made sure Utopia was no place. The goal was not a solution delivered by outsiders but to inspire the people to organize and make their own dreams come true. They used Utopia to stimulate the resident's own imagination about what might be possible to do – and then they turned off their music, rolled up their towels and left.


Another tactic to stimulate public imagination is to conjure up Utopias so outlandish and silly, that they can never be realized at all.

Steve Lambert and his collaborator Packard Jennings once asked architects, city planners, and transportation engineers, “what would you do if you didn’t have to worry about budgets, bureaucracy, politics, or even physics?” And then they pushed the ideas, resulting from these conversations, to extremes. Designing big posters that were displayed on kiosks on San Francisco's main commercial street.

From transforming the whole city into a wildlife refuge; public bars, libraries and martial arts studios on BART trains; public transit by elephant back, to commuting over the bay by zip line. Each of these proposals was clearly impossible.

But that was the point. These were dreams that people were aware to be just dreams. The fantasy fooled no one.

But standing in front of one of these posters smiling at the silly idea, maybe talking to someone about it, one might start wondering: why doesn't the public transport system cater to any other public desires? Maybe there is something, maybe not so silly, but still awesome, we should have on trains? What could great public transportation look like? And why does the government so often control instead of facilitate our dreams and desires?


There is a beautiful quote from Eduardo Galeano about Utopia. It goes like this:


“La Utopía está en el horizonte.
Me acerco dos pasos, ella se aleja dos pasos.
Camino diez pasos y el horizonte
se desplaza diez pasos más allá.
¿Entonces, para qué sirve la utopía?
Para eso: sirve para caminar”

We all know, we will never reach Utopia.
But with Utopia on the horizon, at least we have a reference if we are still heading in the right direction.


My emotional state in these times of bullshit might maybe be best described as oscillating between hopelessness and anger. I get lost in the abyss of reading the news and find it often hard to actually do something. I am not an activist, I just happened to have found the Steves somewhere online and loved every bit of it. But I can't really imagine how these times must feel for activists involved in the important task of actually changing things. Their frustration of getting things done, trying to change for example legislation. All these little steps they have to fight for, to get a big one done.

But when one feels like giving up, for them as well as people like me, Utopia can be a way to remind us why to get out of bed in the morning.


Because yes, there is Dystopia. It seems in times of Bullshit, it's more popular than ever. Why then, not use Dystopia for artistic activism? Seems like people are already tuned into that.

Personally, I'd say, because of that getting out of the bed part in the morning.

But it is true, critical Dystopias are very powerful in making visible, looming but still largely invisible horrors. A good example is climate change. But there is a problem to keep in mind.

Dystopias always create a profoundly conservative response. They tell us to move back, back to the present to stop what we were doing. Because if not, it will lead us to that horrible place.
Which in the case of climate change is good thing. We should conserve the environment.
The problem is, Dystopia just tells us to stop, it doesn't tell us where to go instead.

And do people really need to know that there is something wrong with this world? Don't we all know that yet?

I think most people do. We are all drowning in bad news. And many are scared and feeling hopeless. Maybe especially the ones who believe this myth that there is no alternative.

When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous 'I have a dream' speech, he knew that as important as it was to chronicle the horrors Black people faced every day in the United States, what was crucial for winning, winning converts and mobilizing allies, was also creating a vision.
A vision of an alternative, a dream.

And we in our Bullshit age?
Do we still know how dream?

If the answer is no, I hope work on it. Together.

Thank you.