Art as Activism: 10 Ways to Creatively Disrupt

Pay all the adjunctsLike satire, art in its many forms is a powerful tool for both organizing and protesting. One of the tactics that organizers suggested at the 2013 UALE Summer School for Union Women (BTW, that’s a great program) was always making your own signs.   The two women who taught that workshop were members of Pride at Work and always carried signs in their car trunk to be able to join forces with whatever social justice cause they happened upon, to help build solidarity among groups. Thanks to them, I now have a stash of handmade, interchangeable signs bulldog-clipped to one placard on a stick: education, student debt, Fight For 15, women’s rights. But creative signs aren’t the only way to use art in organizing or other actions. Here are some others.

1. Build It and They Will Take Photos…  Credit for these two suggestions goes to New Jersey City University Local 1839 VP for Adjuncts, Debra Jenks, who is an artist herself. For a teach-in on the quad, she suggested building two foamboard structures: one a student “debtors prison” to build solidarity between student government and adjuncts, and a “The Adjunct is In” grade-in booth (modeled on Lucy’s “The Doctor is In” booth in “Peanuts”) to make our unpaid work and lack of office space more visible to students and administration. After the building and the photographing comes …

WalSmart Logo-RCB2. …and Meme It. Just Meme it.  Also known as culture jamming or détournement. Many of  my adjunct activist pals are masters at this. They can make a meme for everything and with anything and have. (You’ve seen some of them on this blog already and can access many more here.) Use them in your anonymous or pseudonymous online posts, on posters, on leaflets, on the door of that office you don’t have. Like a Ronco gadget, the uses are endless. They can also be ideal advertisements for your upcoming direct actions, like…

3. Feed the Hungry. Ralph Benton Wilson of Florida State University’s (FSU) UnKoch My Campus suggests an adjunct-only soupline. Especially effective if your school has a culinary arts program, or a food service union you want to make allies with. And next time there’s a food drive (especially one started by admin), you can practice a little creative vandalism on those signs: just add the words “For Adjuncts” to them. Or start a food drive yourself for those bare-cupboard adjunct seasons of Thanksgiving, Christmas, or summer. That’ll give you an opportunity for both shaming and informing—and maybe net a nice turkey for some poor adjunct’s family. Perhaps, for entertainment at your soupline, you can…

4. Sing, sing, sing! We’re talented people with access to technology; there’s no reason you, too, can’t make a song vid and make that thing go viral, like Brianne Bolin’s song vid of “Hallelujah! I’m a Bum” in honor of Campus Equity Week 2013. For this awareness-raising campaign for the low-wage workers of universities and colleges, the adjuncts took to the streets with a hat tip to Brecht and agitprop theater.

"Hallelujah! I'm a Bum!"

“Hallelujah! I’m a Bum!”

(Cast: Accordion/vocals: Brianne Bolin–Chicago adjunct & activist; Acting/vocals: Frank Ehrmann–Occupy Rogers Park; Acting/vocals: John G. Bolin–Second City). And while we’re talking about theater…

Lakey Play 3

The deaths of Academic Freedom, Shared Governance, Student Power, Hope, and Academic Integrity at FSU.

5. Play For Keeps. This action, says Ralph’s UnKoch My Campus colleague and FSU grad student Lakey (who goes by one name), came after eight-time Koch funded Florida Senator John Thrasher was appointed President by the Florida Board of Governors (over 80% appointed by the Koch funded Governor Rick Scott) at Florida State University against Faculty Senate, Student Senate and Congress of Graduate Students resolutions against the appointment. Before the performance students delivered a list of demands to John Thrasher’s office.

In the action, a three-headed “beast” mimicked the heads of John Thrasher, Charles Koch and Governor Rick Scott. The skit included the marriage of Tenure and Academic Freedom (since 1915). Academic Freedom was bound in chains with Shared Governance, Student Power, Hope, and Academic Integrity. Academic Freedom died in the skit taking all his “chain gang” with him. The audience and Tenure held a wake including singing of “Amazing Grace.”

After the wake, they held a resurrection and called four previous FSU Presidents back from the grave to “Occupy” our President’s Office. Each President lived and acted in defense of the mission of FSU to guard academic freedom. They then called on Academic Freedom and his “chain gang.” Each rose and pledged to guard the university. Finally, all the Presidents, Academic Freedom, Tenure and the other “chain gang” members chased down the three-headed Koch-Thrasher-Scott monster who had been harassing onlookers and participants. The three-headed monster fell to the ground and Academic Freedom lived on.

If only it were this easy to get what we need.

If only it were this easy to get what we need.

6. Fly By. They might not be playbills, but they’ve got drama. Lydia Field Snow of Northeastern Illinois University posted these tabbed flyers all over her campus to make the lack of support for adjuncts visible. Creative leafletting can accomplish the same thing, but it won’t make anyone do the doubletake this does. The tabs include “TAs for big classes,” “A New Provost,” “Shared Governance,” “Support,” “Academic Freedom,” “A Living Wage,” “Respect,” “Free Parking,” “Colleagues” (!), “12-Month Contract,” “No Classes Cancelled,” “Professional Development,” “Office Space,” “Mental Health Support,” “Food Bank” (see above), “Clothing Swap,” Paid Prep Time,” “Real Union Representation”  (ouch), and–of course–“Visibility.” If you really want visibility…

7. Flash Dance. Or flash sing, or flash make music, or whatever you do best (but don’t just, yanno, “flash”; we’re not talking about public indecency here). Flash mobs are a (sorry) flashy way to get people’s attention, and you can be there and gone before The Man starts muttering about permits and breaking out the pepper spray (“Permits? We don’t need no stinkin’ permits to exercise our constitutional rights!”). And they don’t have to be big, despite the name. They’ve been used to great effect by a number of different activists, including Walmart workers. The most moving example we’ve seen recently was the Mike Brown requiem that interrupted the St. Louis Symphony and was accompanied by a banner drop–another great technique which calls upon both artistic and organizing skills (and the presence of an available overhang of some sort, of course).

While we’re speaking of church-like activities…

8. Be Vigilant: Light It Up. Hold a vigil for the death of tenure, or cheap access to higher education, or job security, or upward mobility through education, or just about anything adjuncts (or students) are subjected to or lack. But forget the candles. They’re passe and too decorous. Instead, come as the Grim Reaper. All of you. Bat signal the administration building with your message, like The Illuminator. Take it off campus like the Overpass Light Brigade. And do some more singing while you’re at it.

9. Petition Mission Impossible. If you’re stuck on the processional idea, use it here. Got a petition you’d like to deliver? Make a spectacle of it and call the media. At the very least, parade it through campus like a holy relic and collect a cohort of students and instructors as you go, then crowd into the hallway outside the Provost’s or President’s office for an audience. This is where your creative sign making skillz come into play. Asking for better pay? Dress up like the orphans in Oliver Twist and ask for “more, please, sir.” Pull out the agitprop stops.

10. Creative Disruption. This can be just about anything, from a day of solidarity in which all adjuncts wear the same color or same T-shirts (used very effectively to build solidarity by the Chicago Teacher’s Union), glitter bombs to walkouts, to silently reframing the issue of a public speech with signs and banners. What you don’t want to do is shut down free speech (that works both ways, remember), which only gives opponents a hook by which to hang you. But you can focus on making a spectacle and telling all the truth. For example, at your college’s open house, you can meet students and parents at the front door with leaflets on the number of adjuncts teaching there and what that means, along with this great pamphlet (PDF) on student debt. I know one provost made apoplectic by this tactic, but boy do parents appreciate it. I’ve also been tempted to don my academic regalia for convocation or graduation and pin a “tips accepted” sign on my hood. Imagine every adjunct doing that, at a ceremony where we are often not welcome.

If this gets your creative juices flowing, go take a look at the website Beautiful Trouble (which is also a book, available on the site) for even more ideas and tactics. And if you have more suggestions, please leave them here in the comments. If you have pictures of past actions you’d like to share, please submit them and we’ll post them here.

-Lee Kottner


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