Published in this is tomorrow
In his short contribution to the closing discussion of the Two Degrees Festival, filmmaker John Jordan offers a neat analysis of the difference between art and activism. Art he says is a form of acupuncture, a way of making individual aesthetic pinpricks into pressure points in the public consciousness. Conversely activism is a prolific mass movement that seeks to reproduce its key messages virally and inclusively, without preciousness. For him this renders activism a superior tool for educating a wider audience about climate change and the negative impact of global capitalism.
Held only a week after government adviser Tim Oates made a public recommendation that climate change should be removed from the national curriculum and replaced with ‘real science’, the Two Degrees Festival offered a timely opportunity to reflect on a diverse range of tools for creating and maintaining a sense of relevance and urgency around radical politics and climate activism. Established in 2009 and held biannually, Two Degrees has expanded its remit after it’s first incarnation, to respond to world events such as the financial crisis alongside its perennial theme of climate change. Produced by Artsadmin, an organisation with a successful track record of supporting artwork that slips between conventional genre definitions of theatre and visual art, the festival is well positioned to galvanise perceived differences between art and activism and imagine new forms of public engagement.
In a conversation with Two Degrees programmers Mark Godber and Sam Trotman they define the festival as a site for the production of human collectives that instigate new forms of participation. Their primary example is The Haircut Before the Party an artwork situated in a local shop that will remain on site for six months and offers to restyle participants hair in exchange for a conversation about the impact of government cuts. In terms of its duration, the project makes a more long-term commitment to its audience than we might expect from a conventional relational artwork or from a flash mob style anti-cuts demonstration. As with most participatory projects, its success will depend upon its ability to create genuine engagement with users from its local community, rather than brief moments of novelty for art audiences on whistle stop visits to the city.
Often programmers and artists are guilty of affording the promise of collaborative experience or mutual exchange a little too liberally, as a result of their need to conform to the Arts Council’s instrumentalist agenda. Activist groups can also tend to idealise their organisational structures, which often contain hidden hierarchies or power imbalances. As an example of a human collective, The Institute for the Art & Practice of Dissent at Home is perhaps the most unique collaborative grouping in the Two Degrees festival programme. In their performance The Family Cut Out, father Gary reads out a summery of recent government cuts to benefits, education and other public services, while mother Lena and her three children hide under a white bed sheet that is gradually torn away by members of the audience as each new cut is announced. While the content of the work is not specifically radical, the extension of contemporary art making to an entire family is more rare. As an artist collective, each member donates ten percent of their earnings to the institute, including all three children who invest a portion of their earnings in child benefit. Borrowed from the historical tradition of the tithe where one tenth of income would have been gifted to the church, the institute invests this money back into the creation of contemporary art. Not specifically an instance of art or activism, but more of a way of life, this unique human collective is a fascinating means of experiential education for the family’s young children. Undoubtedly though, it also incorporates the inherent possibility that these children might undergo a teenage rebellion that ends in adulthood as a corporate banker! The outcome is subject to the project sustaining relationships out with the bounds of this seven-day festival.
At lunchtime on the final day of Two Degrees, a debate focusing on the legacy of the failed 2009 Copenhagen Summit on climate change takes place in the cafe at Toynbee Studios. For activists who attended the summit, its memory appears to trigger recollections of police brutality and the beginning of a slow fragmentation of key figures from climate activism into other political causes and issues of social justice.
At a time when individuals across social groups are preoccupied by the task of negotiating the economic squeeze and parliament appears too embroiled in it’s loyalty to big business to instigate change, it is more important than ever that reductive distinctions between art and activism are abandoned in favor of a collective commitment to new ways of working. As a festival, Two Degrees is uniquely positioned to be a useful part of this process.