“They key is to combine affect and effect.”

Interview with Stephen Duncombe

What do you care about? What drives you?

What do you aim to express with your art? Which causes do you fight for?

Take a moment and imagine that the change you hoped for has come to life.

Is this all you ever wanted? Is there not more? Have bigger visions. Have braver dreams.

Go further, step by step, until you reach Utopia.

What do you see in this ideal society?

Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe founded the “Center for Artistic Activism” in 2009. The work they do allows people to envision a utopian world by joining together art and activism.

The center provides training and support to artists and social activist groups so they can work together and create change. Activism can have the reputation of being dull and overly serious work, something with which Stephen himself struggled. In contrast, art can be seen as a beautiful distraction from the more important matters in life.

Art may seem to serve no practical function, but humankind will always need this sort of expression. Why else have humans felt the need to create beauty for centuries? Art helps to make sense of the world around us, it helps us to understand ourselves and other viewpoints. It moves us.

Activism tends to be more straightforward when telling a story. It has a defined goal and a message that is easy to understand. It aims for an observable result.

“The key is to combine affect and effect,” Stephen said during the interview we did several weeks ago. This sentence stuck with me.

The following interview is about the subtle but powerful difference between affect and effect and how they define the way artistic activists act. It is also about the beginning of the “Center for Artistic Activism”, its worldwide influence and the idea of Utopia.

What do you see when you imagine Utopia? While reading the interview, try to picture your personal Utopia. It might be surprisingly similar to a group of women in Texas.

The Beginning

Tell us about the beginning and development of the Center for Artistic Activism.

Stephen: It came about as a partnership between Steve Lambert and me about 10 years ago. I came from an activist background. I had been a community organizer and a general street activist since I was 18 years old. I came from an activist family and I was getting frustrated with conventional activist forms as I didn’t think they were as effective as they might have once been. It felt to me more like a chore, or ritual played out over and over. They weren´t very enjoyable and I also don´t think they were very effective. I used to have to drag myself to the protest that I myself organized. I think they were very conventional. We march, we chant, we hold up signs. This was all happening in New York City.

At the same time, Steve Lambert was from San Francisco and he was trained as an artist and he was going to all of these art shows where people were doing all this exciting cutting-edge work to illuminate social problems and articulate different futures and different visions, expanding political horizons and yet the same 25 people would show up at every gallery show. All of this excitement was locked into these small sterile and elite spaces.

We both were dissatisfied with the world we were coming from. Him- political art. Me- political activism. We found each other and started talking and we realized maybe there is something that I could teach him and maybe there is something he could teach me. But the first thing we realized was that we could learn from other people. So the first thing we did with the Centre of Artistic Activism is something that I have been continuing to do up till today. We would find people we thought would combine art and activism in very effective and affective ways and we interviewed them.

We asked simple questions such as, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How do you know if it works?” Of course, you get very complicated answers and from these answers, we decided to build a curriculum and start teaching it, because both of us are teachers. It targeted those two audiences. One was activists who tried to tap into their inner creativity so they could create more like-minded artists. And then there were artists who we would try to help create and strategize more like activists. Sometimes we teach both of them together. That was the core of the Centre of Artistic Activism. We have done a lot more. A lot of research from my side and a lot of more project-based work, on Steve´s side. We brought a third member, Rebecca Bray, a few years ago who was the head of Experience Design at the Smithsonian Museum, which really helps us to think about the audience and what you want them to feel, think and do.

The Method

Let´s say an artist comes to you and she has this idea of using her art to bring change. How do you begin to explore her ideas and possibilities and help her to become an artistic activist?

Stephen: These are such great questions. That´s essentially what we try to do.

So the first thing I would do, is to ask her what does she want to have happen? In other words, if her art is a success what sort of change would it bring? Will it change people´s minds, will it affect their hearts, and will it change their behavior? What do you want people to think and what do you feel and what do you want people to do?

What´s interesting about the question is that it seems natural but it´s not something artists usually ask themselves. They´re often moved to become artists because they like to express themselves creatively because they have talent. They´re moved to become political because they are angry about something or were very inspired by something. But they often don´t think about what impact they actually want their art to have.

The first question I always ask is about intent.

Once we find out what she wants to do, we start to ask another series of questions such as, how will you make what you intend actually happen? Then questions that will get her to think very specifically about the medium she is using, the audience she is presenting for, where she is doing it, what she´s saying, what are the languages the audiences understand, where are the cultural references. And getting her to think very seriously about the impact that her art is going to have. When you really start to think about the intent and impact of your art, clarity about what you want to do really comes. In the end, you are still an artist. In the end, you take all sorts of creative leaps but to start with a set of questions about what you want to do and how you will know if it actually happened is a great way to bring clarity to an artist.

One of the metaphors we use often is that of a prism. When you shine a light on a prism you can´t always control what comes out. That´s how activist art works. You have a very clear intent of what you want to do and you can´t control the outcome. The beautiful thing about activist art is that the outcome is often a surprise. You often get a rainbow that comes out and that rainbow is interpreted in many different ways by many different people. However, if you don´t have a clear beam of light, if the light going in the prism is diffused, there are no rainbows.

Around the World

You worked with and interview people from all around the world. So far which ideas impressed you the most?

Stephen: I could tell you about five different projects and how they impressed me differently. Let´s start with an activist one.

We were hired to work with activists and policy experts who were working on access to medicines from all across Europe. This is really boring stuff because it is all about drug pricing and about technical details and clinical trials. It´s dreadfully boring, but through the process of a workshop, we discovered that these people who can put you to sleep in five seconds flat as they started talking about the specificities about drug pricing and clinical trials also – when pushed – could be incredibly creative in articulating these same issues in creative forms. We had one of the strangest, wildest actions that have ever come out of that training. We always conclude our training with a joint action we do together. This time we created a big pharma carnival outside one of the biggest hospitals in Barcelona. This one guy who only did policy work transformed into a carnival worker and got all these doctors and nurses and patients to engage in games of chance. And all the games were fixed which was to prove the point that the game of pharmaceutical pricing was also fixed. It really unlocked the creative capacity of people who you normally wouldn´t think of as creative at all.

The other example is our work in West Africa around corruption, working with artists. West Africa has a really developed and sophisticated tradition of artistic activism already, so working in West Africa we didn´t have to do much work in order to get the artists who were there to speak in a language people understand or to engage in political issues with their art. They were already doing it. This was a really eye-opening experience of what they could actually teach us because they were doing these sorts of practices over many years since decolonization. Yes, there were still things we could teach them but a lot of the leaning was reversed and we learned from them about the different techniques they had developed for many years.

I assume you learned from all the projects you engaged with.

Stephen: We learned from all of them. The greatest thing about this is that we get to work with incredible activists and artists from around the world.

Affect and Effect

What is the key ingredient to good powerful artistic activism?

Stephen:The key is to combine affect and effect.

What do I mean by that?

I don´t know if this translates well into German. Affect and effect. In the United States and actually the English speaking world – and this drives me crazy – people substitute effect for affect and affect for effect all the time when they are writing. But they mean different things.

Effect is about a material transformation and affect is about an emotional change.

What art brings to the equation is that it works on the level of affect. It can help people feel things even when they can´t identify what that feeling is. That is what a really great piece of art does. You go to a museum or you see a performance and you´re having this feeling and then you try to describe it to a friend but you can´t, because you can´t even put it into words. It´s just that raw emotional state.

Activism, on the other hand, works on the level of effect which is very instrumental. Changing a law, bringing a new policy into being, getting a politician out of power, changing an economic system. It´s something you can touch and feel and measure.

What artistic activism does is both. It makes people feel in such a way that they then go out and act. This is a really hard combination. There is a fair amount of artistic activism that is very affective but it never makes that leap to actually bringing about any social change. There is also artistic activism which is all about effect and it basically ends up being propaganda. There is no emotional charge whatsoever, it´s just using static tools to communicate a political ideology.

The best artistic activism rides that line right down the middle. It mobilizes affect in order to generate effect. I´d like to say that the work we do is always in the right place but it often isn´t and that is what makes this whole work an art. It´s continued practice. You fail over and over again but you keep trying. To balance that affect and effect is really the mark of good artistic activism.


How does your ideal future looks like?

Stephen: We are unrepentantly utopian.

We do an exercise with everyone we where we ask what winning looks like.

I´ll give you an example. We were working with a group of women in their middle age whose sons were in jail. They were working to reform the policies in Texas to have more rights for both parents and young people who are in jail. We asked them: “What would winning look like?” The first thing they said was the passage of a bill that would allow more rights for parents and juveniles. Of course, that´s what they answered because that was what they were working on as activists.

Guess what, we said: “You did it” So what´s next?”

They said they wanted to make sure that the right was implemented in every prison in Texas.

Alright, that´s great. We´re here from the future and we´d like to say: “You did it, again. What´s next?”

And then they got quiet and after a few seconds they said, we want the prisons to be much more humane. Where prison guards don´t talk down to prisoners. Prisoners have the right to self-organize.

Good, we said, guess what, you did it. What´s next?

Then they got even quieter but after a couple of minutes they said. We want a world where there are no prisons.

Okay, guess what? There are no prisons. What do you want to do next?

We want a world in which families can stay together and there is no crime.

Then we asked them to describe this world to us. What it smelled like, what it looked like, the sounds they heard. And they described in vivid detail a world in which they lived. They could hear children laughing. What they saw when they stepped out of the door were families sitting outside at big tables eating and laughing and talking with one another. And the sun was warm and the grass was green.

We realized what they were describing was Utopia.

What is bizarre about this is that we have done the exercise in South Africa, West Africa, and East Africa, in Eastern and Northern Europe, in Western Europe and all across the United States with people who were working on all sorts of issues. They are starting at a different place but they all end up in an eerily similar vision of a world of plenty, where people can be carefree and laughing, with the smell of different, delicious foods.

Why we do this exercise is to demonstrate to them that there is a bigger vision behind those simple objectives they are aiming at. But also to suggest to them that if they want to get anybody to follow them they need to paint these utopian pictures. And that´s what art is really good at doing. Not that we literally paint pictures of Utopia but art is a great way to expand the horizon of possibilities. It is a way to envision the world we want to bring into being and not just critique the world we are living in today. A lot of political art is about criticizing the world we live in today and that´s necessary but what is also necessary is to envision the world we want to inhabit. Activists have a hard time doing this and often artistic activists have a hard time doing this but we think it´s essential. Unless people can imagine the world they want to be a part of in the future they never will join with you in the present.

We´d like to say that we invented this but we always end the session with a big picture of Coca Cola. Because this is how advertising works. Advertising never sells you the product – but it sells you the dream. The dream of who you will become if you use the product. The difference is that Coca Cola is lying. Their last slogan was “Open Happiness” but the more Coca Cola you drink the more health problems you´re going to have and you´re not going to be very happy.

But passing this one law that gives families and young prisoners more rights will bring us closer to the Utopia we imagine. So we like to think we engage in an ethical dream-creation.

To come back to your question: Our ideal future doesn´t really matter. We are more interested in getting people to articulate what their dreams are.

While you were talking, I had the same picture of the utopian society in my head.

Stephen: Even the people I completely disagree with politically. Probably some of their Utopia exists in my Utopia and then it´s about finding that common ground while rejecting some parts of their Utopia. Their Utopia might be about White Supremacy. That´s not what I agree with but I agree with their ideal of a society with safety and security, just without White Supremacy.

The rest is just fear. That´s what drives them.

Stephen: Exactly.

Imagine a better World

What is your last message for people who want to change the present?

Stephen: Power works by holding us down but I think it works even more affectively by discouraging us from looking up. I think the role of artists today is to imagine a better world and use their skills to do this. For those of us who seem stuck in that horrible world where everyone who is winning seems to be basically a fascist, we have to imagine a world we want to live in and then trust that other people want to live in that world as well. The mistake is to constantly say no. No to fascism. No to patriarchy. No to racism. What do we want to say yes to? And how can we imagine and articulate that vision so that other people want to join us?

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