Artivism is a fierce and reflexive response to the election of Donald Trump: Will it make change?

For some, activism in the face of the Trump presidency is not enough: Only intense and passionate artivism will do

By Max Cea

Published December 20, 2016 11:57PM (EST)

A naked statue of Donald Trump at Julien's Auctions Gallery on October 17, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.   (Getty/Alberto E. Rodriguez)
A naked statue of Donald Trump at Julien's Auctions Gallery on October 17, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Getty/Alberto E. Rodriguez)

“It was just the most insane thing that anyone could've possibly imagined,” Alexandra Lukens said on a dark, frigid evening in early December, referring to Donald Trump’s having been elected president of the United States. She looked down, eyes wide and unmoving. We were speaking weeks after the election, but the shock hadn’t worn off.

Lukens, 28, co-runs the venue Sunnyvale in New York City's borough of Brooklyn. Sunnyvale is spacious and sparsely decorated; it has all its licenses but retains a DIY feel. The stage is small and its plywood foundation is visible to audiences. On this evening, Lukens and company were hosting a punk show to benefit Standing Rock. We were sitting in Sunnyvale’s asphalt backyard before the show. Though the temperature was near freezing, Lukens, in only a white T-shirt and jeans, didn’t shiver. She was still, sullen, her voice low, remembering.

“When it came down to that pivotal moment — that terrifying moment — where Trump became the president-elect, it jarred people enough, almost that they didn't know what to do,” she said. “Myself included. Just no concept of — I sit here stumbling over my words because I don't have words for it.”

The scene might have felt melodramatic if Lukens’ experience was not so common among liberal-minded people. Because the polls were so universally in Hillary Clinton’s favor and because Donald Trump is Donald Trump, when he beat the odds and won, it evoked a feeling similar to unexpectedly losing a loved one. What do you do when you’re powerless to affect an irreversible outcome?

The obvious initial answers were to deny — to protest and sing “Not my president” and to petition in the hopes that the electors might buck their populaces’ mandates (they didn’t). But in New York, at least, another response emerged: artivism.

Artivism is a relatively new term (and one not officially recognized) that describes a civilization-old phenomenon: the coordinated workings of art and activism. The playwright and performer Eve Ensler (best known as the author of “The Vagina Monologues”) gives the term more definitional depth. She told The New York Times, “In these perilous times, a third way is emerging, a kind of escalated passion — a creative energy that comes from giving one’s heart and soul and imagination to the struggle. Not aggression but fierceness. Not hurting but confronting. Not violating but disrupting. This passion has all the ingredients of activism, but is charged with the wild creations of art." She added, "Artivism [is] where edges are pushed, imagination is freed, and a new language emerges altogether.”

Despite the eloquence and specificity of Ensler’s description, the lines between art, activism and artivism can be a bit nebulous. I suppose as is the case with obscenity, you know artivism when you see it. Also just like what's true about obscenity, if you’re looking right now, artivism is seemingly everywhere: the subway, television segments, movie posters, posters, benefit concerts, Instagram accounts and candlelight vigils, music videos, playlists and even in the window display of a flower shop in my hometown.     

The reason for artivism’s current pervasiveness should be clear: If artivism stems from escalated passions, well, the form has found its beacon. Donald Trump represents not supply-side economics and hawkishness (like a platonic conservative who might inspire a few clever oppositional T-shirts and bumper stickers( but bigotry and fascism. The latter forces are more galvanizing, for liberals and the apolitical alike.

There is a recurrent genesis to these various artivist projects: the felt need to do something — anything, just to respond in some way.“The positive aspect of [Trump’s winning] is that when you encounter such a terrifying reality, it actually wakes you back up,” Lukens said.

After the election, many of the shows at Sunnyvale flipped from being standard shows (in which the admittance proceeds go to the artists) to benefit shows. “Every headlining band called up and said, ‘We're switching this to a benefit’ — Planned Parenthood, ACLU and so forth.”

Though the music at the show was not explicitly about Standing Rock — or maybe it was; it can be hard to decipher a band like Warthog’s lyrics through their mad snarling — the North Dakota protest against the Dakota Access pipeline got shouted out and talked up by a few of the bands. And partially because the show was written up in The New Yorker's “Goings on About Town,” the cause attracted more people than the venue could admit.

The energy was amplified, but the point was not just to rile and rouse; it was to financially contribute. “We've got a guest list and every single person on the guest list paid] more than the $15 ticket cost,” Lukens said, later specifying that a good benefit show might raise $3,000. John Weingarten, one of her partners, added, “And hopefully it encourages other venues to do the same thing. We don't want to corner the market. We want everyone" to host benefit shows and contribute.

In Manhattan, just a week or so prior, a separate group of artists and art world figures found a different way to make an anti-Trump statement. They formed Halt Action Group. The group’s main course of action has been posting on an Instagram account Dear Ivanka, where members typically put glamorous photos of Donald Trump’s eldest daughter with accompanying heartfelt letters, pleading with Ivanka to steer her father in a progressive direction. “Dear Ivanka, I'm black and I'm afraid of Jeff Sessions,” reads the caption of a photo in which Ivanka is smiling in a black dress, for instance.

The group brought the digital to life when on Nov. 28 they led a candlelight vigil outside of the Puck Building in New York City's Nolita, which is owned by the family of Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner. About 150 people showed up to the protest, most in some way connected to the art world. The signs carried by the protesters were predictably crafty. “Ivanka/ Youvanka/ Wevanka/ DO BETTER,” one sign read. Another depicted a goblin-like Steve Bannon sitting on Donald Trump’s shoulders, with the simple message “NO BANNON.”

The writer and curator Ariella Wolens helped organize the event. She told Rolling Stone that she and her collaborators "felt the need for an immediate response to mitigate the disaster of a Trump presidency."

Ostensibly, the group wants Ivanka to denounce her father’s actions and convince him, as the Instagram account says, that “racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia are not acceptable anywhere — least of all in the White House.” The Instagram account, which has more than 15,000 followers, also links to an initiative to bring about a safe evacuation of residents from Aleppo.

But Dear Ivanka, in its current state, is foremost a platform to expose hypocrisy and shame Ivanka within the New York art world and the New York liberal world. Though there’s certainly value in shaming, it’s hard to imagine, even for Halt Action’s organizers, that these efforts will be effective.

“I don’t think we have any real illusions that [Ivanka is] going to become a champion for any of the things we care about, or try to stop the things we fear are going to happen,” said artist Jonathan Horowitz, who helped form Halt Action. “But it’s a way to start something, a first action of what we hope is going to become a much bigger movement.”

What that movement will be is presently unclear — as is whether Dear Ivanka’s methods are productive or counterproductive. There are arguments to be made on both sides. Perhaps Dear Ivanka can effectively act as a conduit for communication, organization and action for like-minded Trump opposers.

Or maybe it will just serve to polarize America’s warring geographic and ideological factions and reinforce the beliefs each has of the other. What Dear Ivanka is a prelude to will determine whether the group is a force for making its members feel better or effecting change.

Just a block and a half away from the Puck Building, another anti-Trump event without a clear sense of direction took place this past Thursday night. The Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, which regularly hosts readings and panel discussions, hosted an event called “Art After Trump.” The Dec. 15 event went from 6:30 p.m. to past midnight; 150 artists, writers and activists were given two minutes of stage time apiece to express themselves however they liked.

Some sang uplifting songs; others read sullen essays or poems. There were also a few eccentric performance pieces and some calls to action. From moment to moment "Art After Trump" had the feeling of an addicts’ meeting, a Tony Robbins seminar, a bad improv class, church and a brilliant MOTH reading. Some performers inspired winces. Others were genuinely inspiring and thought-provoking.

The event was borne out of the same need to react as Sunnyvale’s benefit shows and Dear Ivanka. Molly Quinn, who helped produce the event, described having woke up on Nov. 9 nd emailing “all of the people who I know [from planning events at Housing Works], who I respect and admire for their ability to organize creative people, and [asking] them what they felt like doing, because I felt like doing something.” The resulting idea was to have “just all of us hanging out in one room together,” Quinn said. “There's no agenda. And there's no specific spiel and no specific angle.”

The time limit served to keep the audience engaged and entertained. But the frequency was also empowering. By the second hour it became hard to believe that there was anyone in the country who was not viscerally upset about Trump’s having won the election. Of course, I’d have to remind myself, those people do exist and in great numbers. So the question became, Are we just here as a choir being preached to?

Perhaps. But besides giving voice to the disaffected and providing an opportunity for those feeling small to be heard, the event encouraged coalition building. There was a great diversity of worries — about how Trump will treat minorities, women, LGBTQ people; what impact he will have on the environment, on freedom of the press — and a similarity of sentiment. And so the event gave hope to the notion that together liberals, in the face of a completely conservative-controlled government, can be powerful, too.

Whether they can or not remains to be seen. Part of what each of these separate modes of fighting is banking on is the hope that artivism can find power through contagion. Mikola De Roo, who is the vice president of advocacy communications at Housing Works, told a story that stuck with me. She felt that where art and activism overlap is in their ability to foster empathy. The story she told was about the BRAKING AIDS Ride, an annual three-day, 300-mile-long bike ride, which raises money for Housing Works’ fight against AIDS.

All participants on Day Two of the ride are encouraged to wear red so that from above the cyclists will look like a moving AIDS ribbon. A few years ago, an employee at the bikers’ host hotel, who had been working when they stayed at the hotel the prior year, wore red in solidarity; he hugged one of De Roo’s friends and told her that AIDS affected his family, too.

The act was meaningful to De Roo because it was a reminder that “we affect one another” and that often we affect one other in ways we don’t realize. “I imagine the vastness of all we don't know and all those hidden moments of empathy,” De Roo said, “both the ones I benefit from and the ones in which I affect others. That vast cloud stretches the expanse of the sky, beyond the horizon, beyond the crest of mountains, into realms we cannot see. And I take great comfort in dreaming about its possibility.”

For now before Trump takes office, that is where the core of artivism’s power resides — as a way of retaining some sense of possibility. Whether the punk rockers and the poets and the makers of pretty protest signs will be able to prevent this dream from becoming a nightmare likely depends on what their imaginations can conjure next and if their future creations are able to resonate beyond their New York niches.

By Max Cea


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