Ice caps are shrinking. Fascism is everywhere. Racist rhetoric still prevails. What can we, as creatives, do to make a difference? How can we create as activists? How can we raise our voices effectively, working towards real, concrete change?
If you’ve never considered yourself an activist, now is definitely the time. (I mean… look around.) There may be a certain joy in ‘l’art pour l’art’, however I would hazard that at this point, this is almost the playground of the privileged. Solely creating ‘l’art pour l’art’ signifies that you are able to act and create utterly outside of the influences of politics and environmental collapse - something that is impossible for the majority of our global population. This is the personal opinion of someone who’s idea of a fun time is flyposting environmentalist propaganda, so feel free to disregard me - I realise I’m speaking from a slightly biased position. But, I’d still point you to the words of Albert Camus:
‘To create today is to create dangerously. Any publication is an act’.
Your imagination is a dangerous tool. You could use it to spur revolution: you could do nothing with it, or even use it to adhere to the status quo. What we create can act as an expression of our experiences, the injustices we face, the biases and disparities we see. We can spur social change, highlight inequalities, or uplift the voices of oppressed others. All of this exists within the capabilities of our creative potential.
Think of a piece that's touched you, or inspired you to reevaluate aspects of your life. I can guarantee we all have one. For me, my environmental education began with the picture book ‘Ronnie the Red Eyed Tree Frog’ at three or four years old. My first forages into active anticapitalism blossomed from an El Lissitzky print at fourteen, empowered by the title: ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’. This constructivist art was unlike anything I’d ever seen: it was striking, symbolic, ergonomic. It served a function, and that function was to disrupt the established system. It represented the possibility of revolution in pursuit of equality. It was literally a couple of triangles on a page.
Ever since then, I’ve been a tad obsessed with voicing my intersectional, environmental activism through my creations. I’ve written a lot of angry poetry: I’ve made a lot of propaganda infused art. I won’t lie, it’s heavy at times: this guide is definitely going to be a lot to take on board, so perhaps read it in sections or dip in as you feel is needed. Even if you’re not quite ready to throw yourself headlong into the life of constant activist creation, there are many, much more achievable ways to create with an activist mindset. So, when you’re feeling ready, let’s dive into some key considerations for activist creation.
Work by Meg Watts
1. What are your intentions?
It’s important to establish your intentions when creating with an activist mindset. Ask yourself: what message am I trying to get across? What issue do I want to spotlight and explore? In my experience, focusing on a few aspects (or a niche entrypoint) of a wider issue allows you to explore them in far more detail, making for truly compelling creative work. I find that creative activism is at its most effective when it is based on a well thought out concept and includes concrete details - whatever you’re creating will always be more emotive and impactful when its imagery is consistent (whether that imagery is created lyrically, visually, or as written metaphors). Also, it’s far harder for critics to dismiss a clear, researched message (and there will be critics - get ready for that).
2. Who is your audience?
Think about what you’re making: who are you catering for? Is there already a wealth of content for that audience? Who is being excluded? Whilst it may feel a little alien to consider the intended audience of your work when creating completely freely, it’s important to consider your audience when creating with an activist mindset. How many tv shows have you seen about a group of predominantly male, predominantly white friends? How many romantic subplots have you seen about straight, white couples? Isn't it getting kind of… boring? Whilst this media may be popular or instantly recognisable, there’s already a wealth of content available exploring the lives of white, straight people that have been produced (inadvertently or not) with straight, white audiences in mind. This excludes the vast majority of the world’s population.
3. Have you researched?
Effective, intersectional activism is all about recognising that your experiences are just part of a global whole. That’s why it’s important to listen to as many diverse, informed opinions as possible, particularly when conceptualising and researching your initial ideas. This allows you to finetune your messaging, brainstorm new concepts and consider the optics of your work. Ultimately, it strengthens your activism and ensures that what you are making effectively fulfils your intentions, without inadvertently silencing others, or perpetuating untruths.
It’s the !GWAK mantra, popping up again: collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. It’s also worth questioning whether the narrative you’re exploring is yours to tell; would it be better to instead amplify a different voice using whatever privilege you may have, or co-create together?
4. What kind of representation are you giving?
Does your narrative perpetuate any harmful representations of people, groups or places? Are you relying on potentially harmful stereotypes? Consider stereotypes as a precoded, ready-made amalgamation of social biases; The Deadbeat Dad. The ditzy blonde. The intelligent, upper class, white student versus the mentally ill drop out. Relying on stereotypes in your art perpetuates these prejudices in real life; there’s a level of performativity at play, in the sense that, when the public is continually presented with an image of Mexican immigrants as illegal job stealers, for example, this image becomes ingrained in the public conscience. For the more malleable of our fellows, seeing really is believing. That’s why it’s vitally important to create three dimensional, fully formed characters outside of the realm of stereotypes.
On the other side of the same coin, inadvertently erasing or omitting diverse characters from your narrative/casting/ artistic choices can be an equivalent evil. Just because media doesn’t necessarily portray happy, homosexual relationships, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Visibility for oppressed groups is key in uplifting and emboldening socially disadvantaged members - in creating representation, the creative activist is effectively carving a space for unrecognised groups within their medium. It doesn’t have to be a groundbreaking change, however; Poet Sasha Dononvan-Anns ensures that all of her poetry is written using gender neutral pronouns, as a simple, quiet protest against heteronormativity.
Work by Meg Watts
5. Does anything about your creative process feel a little guilty, uneasy or hypocritical?
This may sound like it’s coming a little out of left field, but bear with me. If you’re making art focusing on the environmental crisis, it’s completely counterproductive to use unsustainable materials. Similarly, if you’re writing about the experiences of women, neglecting to include women in your consultations or your writer’s room is a blatant and obvious flaw. Aligning your creative actions with your activist values is a key part of creating consciously. Obviously financial limitations can be frustrating when it comes to materials, however achieving your creative goal “by any means necessary” (abandoning your original message and intentions) almost invalidates the activist aspect of the work you are creating.
There is a solution, however: get creative. You can still create compelling work using fewer materials or make the fact that your craft is sustainably produced a focal point of the work itself.
6. Have you considered the implications of your work?
This is entirely a question of optics. Are there obvious elements that could be negatively misportrayed or misconstrued by media outlets? Are you releasing your work at an insensitive, delicate time? This is another caveat to creating with an activist mindset: you almost need to create with every possible audience reaction in mind, effectively reading the room in advance. That’s not to say you should not create a little disruption... However, there comes a point where creative activism may do more harm than good when released into the wild, whether through exacerbating trauma or presenting an easily manipulated target for critics.
7. Get ready for reception.
Be prepared for criticism. Some of this will perhaps be justified; if you feel caught out in your attempts at intersectional activism, consider why. Was an aspect of your work shortsighted or unintentionally erasive? Is there a lesson to be learnt here? Whilst it’s always best to comprehensively explore the possible implications of your work beforehand, part of being an effective activist is accepting that, even after publication, there’s always more for you to learn.
So, how to move forward? Well, that’s where collaboration comes in. When it comes to improving your efforts at creative activism, there’s no such thing as too many chefs in the kitchen. Draw from past experiences, from critical texts and the commentary of your peers - creative activism is its most successful (and mutually beneficial) when formed through dynamic discussion, mutual honesty and collaboration.
Conversely, there is always going to be someone in a position of power and privilege who does not want you to disrupt the status quo. They will try to find the flaws in your work in order to undermine it - hopefully, you will have prepared comprehensively enough to combat most of their unfounded criticism. There’s an element of creative fragility to this experience: when something you have created is not just a personal effort, but also a commentary on oppression or injustice, it can be very difficult to listen to criticism without it compounding your own frustrations. It’s enough to leave the creative activist in a dejected heap, regretting the toes they’ve accidentally stepped on, cursing the power or the privileged and dreading the impossibility of the task ahead.
How can you possibly make peace with this? In a way, I suggest you don’t - at least, not fully. Passion is a huge part of the drive to create with an activist mindset. It’s the fire that keeps us going, even when the task we’ve set ourselves is so monumental it literally involves altering entire systems of belief with the strength of a pen or a paintbrush.
I know I've thrown a huge amount of do’s, don’ts and ethical considerations at you. I hate to say it, but any kind of activism involves this process of planning and reconsideration, and believe me, it grinds ya down. That’s why I’d like to point the aspiring conscious creative to Millie Norman’s !GWAK Guide to Balancing Creativity and Mental Health. It’s immensely important to take time to create for yourself, if not for the freedom it lends to your craft than for your own mental health. Not everything you make needs to be a groundbreaking analysis of sociopolitical or environmental strife; whilst I strongly advocate for creating this kind of work, making “The Heavy Stuff” 100% of the time is a fast track ride to this little thing I like to call All Consuming Hopelessness and Exhaustion.
There’s a lot to be said for enjoying the ‘process over product’. Taking time to make things for yourself away from your drive-to-save-the-world is honestly a necessary part of being a good activist; it allows you to refuel, and revitalise your efforts without burning out entirely.
I’ve been involved in sociopolitical and environmental activism for many years now, and I still find creating with an activist mindset to be massively overwhelming, tiring, complex and frustrating at times. There’s always more to learn, more aspects to consider, more injustice exposed. That’s why it’s vital to accept you can’t fix everything alone. There are only so many causes we can simultaneously champion before completely burning out. I suggest you focus your efforts on a few issues at a time, and really consider them from every angle. You may only be making changes on a small scale, but there’s comfort in knowing that your individual activism is just one part of a huge, collective effort.
Your words, your thoughts, your imagination and your images have power. Now’s the time to rewrite the system. Now is the time to reimagine the present and instigate it within the future. Question Everything. Accept nothing without due consideration. Voice your experiences. Uplift others. Create Consciously. Create as an Activist.
Work by Meg Watts
PS. A Note on Intersectionality:
If you’ve gotten this far, congrats! You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned this term intersectionality a couple of times in this piece. I wanted to expand a little on what exactly I mean, by first presenting you with some examples of what NOT to do.
There are some right and wrong ways to approach creating with an activist mindset. Consider TERFS (trans exclusionary radical feminists) or “white feminists”, for example. Whilst both groups claim to champion equality, TERF’s actively exclude trans women and non-binary people (enforcing strict gender norms), whilst white feminism erases the importance of issues specifically affecting women of colour.
It’s vital that our activism does not silence or exclude others. At the risk of sounding like your wavy neighbour Trent, remember that everything in our world is connected, and therefore every issue intersects. Revolutionary Black feminist Poet, Audre Lorde, puts it best; ‘there is no such thing as a single issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives’.
The conscious, intersectional activist acknowledges the intersections of different struggles within their art and activism. They aim to explore these connections: how are people’s experiences of the world affected by their social class, their sexuality, their education, their living situation, their wealth, their gender expression, their ability or their race? How can our activism as creatives acknowledge these factors, attempting to portray (and improve) life from multiple angles?