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Laura Zabel: Art as Activism

A look at creative humanitarian projects happening around the world

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image taken from Flickr user Laura Downey

By Laura Zabel

Filling sandbags is community ritual in North Dakota. Almost every Spring, the rain and melting snow that attempt to flood the banks of the river threaten the economy, safety and, in some years, the very existence of the towns like Fargo along the Red River Valley. In an exhausting race against time, neighbors come together and shovel sand into thousands of bags to keep the disaster at bay. They wonder about the failures of policy and infrastructure to protect their homes, they wonder about the relationship of humans and nature, but mostly they fill and stack and pray.

The climate conditions that affect flooding and other disasters have been front and center in the news over the past weeks, as world leaders and negotiators have gathered in Paris for the COP21 climate talks. Despite the dire warnings and grave consequences of inaction on climate change, many of us were watching Paris from the outside of the negotiations, like those in Fargo who aren’t physically able to help, an elder or a child or relative who lives far away though your heart is in the Red River Valley. Many of us feel helpless in the face of natural or human disaster and crisis. But work is being done around the world to create opportunities for everyone to provide some relief to our worldly neighbors.

Artist Michael Strand’s Fargo Sandbag project invited people to decorate over 9,000 empty sandbags, with art, encouraging words, jokes and inspiration. These 9,000 bags were randomly slipped into the stacks of empty bags that volunteers were tasked with filling. The project lifted the spirits of the exhausted, cold and wet volunteers and created a sense of community across generations, abilities, and geographies. It didn’t solve the failures of infrastructure or diminish the power of nature, but it connected people to their humanity and reminded them of the value of community.

These are things all communities need, particularly communities marked by disaster and disruption.

Projects like this open up new ways for people to see their communities and connect to their neighbors. I’m sure it’s part of why, in my own work at Springboard for the Arts, when we had the opportunity to engage artists in trying to address the challenges of a major construction disruption, we chose to support 150 small projects rather than one grand gesture. Our project, called Irrigate, was a way for artists to contribute their creative skills to their own neighborhoods, to help their neighbors come together during a difficult time, to mark space and build ownership and agency of place. These are things all communities need, particularly communities marked by disaster and disruption, whether planned disruptions like light rail construction or by natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.

According to artist and social justice activist, Amelia Brown, founder of Emergency Arts, a resource dedicated to advancing arts as integral to emergency management, “When communities have been impacted by an emergency, there is often chaos, disruption, and systems are cracked open. The opportunity to examine and rebuild ideas and systems are vast as there have been many shifts in these communities. This can be a greater opportunity for creativity than if systems remain intact and unexamined.”

Around the world, as cities and towns face both natural and man-made disasters that threaten the very existence of homes and lives, we need creative ideas. Cities are increasingly looking to artists—to help design projects that connect and bind communities and that also address systemic failures in very practical ways.

In New Orleans, photographer Robert Fogarty founded Evacuteer, a project that recruits, trains, and manages volunteers who help move 35,000 to 40,000 city residents without a safe or alternative option to evacuate. Now run by David W. Morris, its flagship program is Evacuspots: 800 pound and fourteen foot high stainless steel sculptures at neighborhood evacuation pick up points ensure every New Orleanian knows the way to evacuate from future storms.

“Art is universal. Art is something that can be appreciated by people of every race, religion, creed, people that speak every language, it crosses all barriers, all boundaries. So it only makes sense that in a time of emergency, we would want something so universal,” says Morris.

Morris also believes there is great potential for other cities to replicate the model of Evacuspots, “We want this symbol that we have in New Orleans to become a nationally and internationally recognizable icon of refuge and resilience.”

The Photovoice model was used to share both the progress and unmet needs of the community.

Originally developed by Mary Ann Burris and Caroline Wang, Photovoice is a process of community storytelling, documentation and assessment that has been adapted to assist communities facing diverse challenges. In Minneapolis, following the 2011 tornado, which left an estimated eighty million dollars of damage across 3,700 properties, there was an initial surge of volunteers on hand, but as time passed the initial support dwindled while rebuilding challenges persisted. The Photovoice model was used to share both the progress and unmet needs of the community. Minneapolis youth took and edited photos of destroyed houses, fallen trees, and damaged sidewalks. They also interviewed community members, volunteers, and workers about what they were witnessing and what needs they saw in the community.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, following the September 2010 earthquake, the Gap Filler project collaborated with creative stakeholders across the city to make and place temporary projects that bring people together and experiment with space. Highlights included a coin-operated public dance floor, a community pizza oven and the Commons, a new public gathering area.

This new media narrative gave people inside and outside of the neighborhood a new sense of the community’s value and possibility.

In my own work at Springboard for the Arts, we have shared our Irrigate model with communities across the US. Irrigate mobilizes artists to help cities turn disruptions caused by natural disaster, public construction, and other challenges, into unexpected opportunities for art. Modeled after our three year initiative in Saint Paul, Minnesota in response to a major light rail construction project, 600 local artists participated and generated over 150 projects in partnerships with small businesses and neighborhood groups, turning disrupted neighborhoods into destinations. These projects had a very practical and tangible impact, generating over 50 million positive media impressions of the neighborhoods which otherwise would have received predominantly negative attention. This new media narrative gave people inside and outside of the neighborhood a new sense of the community’s value and possibility.

These projects are all different in scale and scope, but they share a common set of values, particularly when it comes to supporting local community members’ agency to make change. This commitment to local ownership and investment is crucial to the authentic success of these projects. To be effective, artists have to be one part of a whole set of interventions and supports and they need to be rooted deeply in the communities in which they are working.

As Mary Ann Burris of Photovoice says, “You don’t want to be voyeur on somebody’s pain; that doesn’t help them. It’s a very dangerous tool if it’s not used sensitively. You have to understand the power of that kind of expression so you hold it tenderly and you make sure it’s in a safe environment.”

The scale of policy and system failure is overwhelming, it’s hard to imagine how simple human connection and creativity can be part of the solution. But artists around the world have been working to find the opportunity in crisis moments to reveal the strength and resilience in the human community. Right now, in Paris and around the world artists have gathered their projects under the banner of ArtCOP21 to make sure the creative voice is present in the climate talk negotiations. Artists might not be able to solve the larger system failures alone, but they are part of what moves us all towards the answers.

This handful of examples represents a tiny sliver of the existing ways that artists are addressing crisis, inequity, and disaster in their communities. Across the globe, in ways simple and complex, artists are providing moments of joy and surprise, tightening the fabric of their communities, and applying creative thinking to urgent challenges. As a global family of artists, we have a strong record of contributions and our creative thinking can and should be called to address the issues facing our communities and our world. This is, in a sense, a call to action to keep going and to find new, creative ways that we can help, as a way to cross boundaries, build tolerance, and bring about change. Cities and towns need sandbags to survive the flood, humans need connection, possibility, and creativity, to thrive after the flood of recent crisis.

Laura Zabel is Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts, an economic and community development agency run by and for artists. Dedicated to helping communities connect to the creative power of artists, Springboard’s programs link artists to patrons, healthcare, entrepreneurial development, fiscal sponsorship, and more. Springboard operates Creative Exchange, a platform for sharing stories and helping artists and communities replicate successful development projects. Zabel speaks frequently on the power of creativity and artist-led community development at events like the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Urban Land Institute, while her insights have been featured in outlets from The Guardian to the New York Times. Laura is also a writer and performer focused on the ways that theater, in particular comedy, can connect disparate communities. She has written and performed with numerous groups, including Comedy Suitcase, the Brave New Workshop, and Theater in the Round.

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