Reclaiming the Artist: Organizing through Art, Part 2

by Jessica Lawless

Part 1

I started with the first step to any campaign and put together an organizing committee. The OC consisted of Stephanie Young and David Buuck from Mills College, Lauren Elder from CCA, Christian Nagler from SFAI, Cassie Thornton, a CCA alum, and Jessica Tully, an SFAI alum. We were a mix of poets,  artists, and organizers. Adam passed on his notes and materials from the LA event. Local 721’s communications team gave us strategic advice, saying it drew more people than any other public event the local had ever done and they would lend support any way they could. That was the key to greenlighting the project within the chain of command at 1021.

The OC met almost weekly for six months, no small feat since a key struggle with adjunct organizing is, unsurprisingly, attendance at meetings and longevity of OC and bargaining team members. Faculty may not be at the same school during the semester following a union election or the entirety of a first contract campaign. And obviously contingent faculty are not working regular daily shifts at one worksite. Finding a time people can meet for another unpaid commitment is a very real organizing challenge.  The consistent attendance at the art event planning meetings impressed my supervisors as they learned that collectively producing a public event was familiar territory for the adjunct professors who are artists and poets. This was positive for our purposes but it was also a reflection on the double whammy that artists who teach face. We sell ourselves short in two systems that do not provide adequate compensation for our labor. For a variety of reasons, artists have a troubled relationship with the art market while the art market has a troubled relationship compensating the labor of those who create the work the system profits from. Lise Soskolne, in her essay On Merit, does an excellent job of laying out this contradiction. Our planning sessions included how to address this double whammy as an aspect of what we were doing.

The Great Tortilla Conspiracy. Photo by Jennie Smith-Camejo

The Great Tortilla Conspiracy. Photo by Jennie Smith-Camejo

What we were doing became No Justice No Service: Bay Area Art, Education & Justice Festival. It was held on March 8th 2015 at The Lab, a gallery in the Mission district of San Francisco housed in an old labor hall. We brought together installation, performance, and spoken word artists alongside writers, printmakers, Bay Area educators and professors, students, unions, and social justice activists. Our focus was to make evident the interconnectedness between artists, contingent professors, student debt, labor, the Fight for Fifteen, and Black Lives Matter. Jennie Smith-Camejo, the 1021 communications lead for the project, met with us over and over trying to find the right public messaging to attract attendees. These meetings would end with her saying, “I think I get it.” On the night of the festival she said, “OK, I finally got it just now.” Her final revelation mimicked the process of making activist art.

Below are the reactions of other people who were involved with the festival:

As an artist, the work of co-creating No Justice, No Service was to engage in community cross-overs that were fresh, surprising, rewarding and enduring: artists and organizers sharing space, ideas, respect and appreciation. I have not felt part of a broad and vital social movement for decades and this has been a thrilling re-entry.”
–Lauren Elder, Artist, CCA Adjunct Faculty, No Justice No Service organizer

No Justice No Service festival impacted me tremendously. I learned about different movements I was unaware of, such as the Adjunct movement. I couldn’t believe people with Ph.D.’s were getting paid poverty wages. These are professors that teach the future of our country for crying out loud! It enlightened me that our issues with big companies/colleges in America are deeper than it seems from the naked eye. This festival also gave me the chance to perform my poetry for the first time. It was an amazing experience. Since No Justice No Service festival I have been more involved with helping different movements and using my poetry to broadcast different injustices around America.”
–Chris Higginbotham, Fast Food Worker/Organizer, Poet, Photographer, and Middle School Teacher, No Justice No Service artist

No Justice No Service took several forms as part demonstration, performance, teach-in, and even yoga studio to highlight the fight for adjunct unionization. The event brought people from various struggles together in an effort to continue engagement and foster connection between labor unions, Fight for 15, #blm/black.seed, income inequality, student debt and more. The connections fostered have continued between the various groups and constituencies via relationship building and exploring how these struggles are interconnected. ”
–Irina Contreras, Artist, School and Community Programs Manager, Museum of the African Diaspora, No Justice No Service MC

Lauren, Chris, and Irina do an excellent job describing the success of the day-long festival and its lasting reach. For me personally, No Justice No Service began to answer a question I was chewing on since I began working for the union: “What are the aesthetics of labor in the 21st century?” The visual and artistic aspects of labor have been defined by Soviet Era propaganda,  WPA murals, and Woody Guthrie. For some of us it was Ani Difranco and Billy Bragg a generation later. All of this is fantastic, but if we are trying to revive the labor movement I believe we should be looking forward rather than back. As an artist who has always worked at the intersections of social justice and visual culture, I’m now interested in art operating as an organizing tool rather than a separate sphere that occasionally crosses paths with grounded activism.


Reflecting on No Justice No Service, Cassie Thornton and I identified our artistic production during the festival as “live curation.”  Similar to live video mixing or DJ sets, our material was the event itself. We were making program changes for six hours solid, mixing everything from the artists, performers and speakers, to the organizations tabling, the installation artists, the slow food cafe, the print-in and the stenciling happening outside the gallery. Our actions were a performance in their own right. Through live curation we were able to explore how performativity is an aspect of concrete social change rather than art performing political ideologies without affecting change. In No Justice No Service we created a liminal space that interwove artistic labor, social relations, and the precarity of living under neoliberal capitalism. I am beginning to understand 21st century labor union aesthetics as a mergence of social practice and art thinking (See Thinking about Art Thinking by Luis Camnitzer in e-flux journal #65).

Ok, but back to grounded organizing.


Part 3

 

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