Environmental protesters, Extinction Rebellion, poured fake blood on the steps of the Trocadero, a Paris tourist landmark, in a stunt to highlight the accelerated loss of biodiversity on Earth.
Artistic Activism is a practice aimed at generating measurable shifts in power. Activist art is about empowering individuals and communities and is generally situated in the public arena with artists working closely with a community to generate the art.
One example is Extinction Rebellion, a socio-political movement which uses nonviolent resistance. It was established in the United Kingdom with about one hundred academics signing a call to action in support in October 2018, and launched at the end of October. The campaign group (abbreviated as XR) has become one of the world’s fastest-growing environmental movements to protest against climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, and the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse. The aim of activist artists is to create art that is a form of political or social currency, actively addressing cultural power structures rather than representing them or simply describing them.
Art and activism do different work in the world. Activism, as the name implies, is the activity of challenging and changing power relations. There are many ways of doing activism and being an activist, but the common element is an activity targeted toward a discernible end. Simply put, the goal of activism is action to create an Effect. Art tends not to have such a clear target. It’s hard to say what art is for or against; its value often lies in providing us perspective and new ways to envision our world. Its effect is often subtle and hard to measure, and confusing or contradictory messages can be layered into the work. Good art always contains a surplus of meaning: something we can’t quite describe or put our finger on, but moves us nonetheless. Its goal, if we can even use that word, is to stimulate a feeling, move us emotionally, or alter our perception. Art, equally simply stated, is an expression that generates Affect.
As sightseers and police looked on, members of the Extinction Rebellion campaign group emptied canisters containing around 300 litres of red liquid on the famous esplanade across from the Eiffel Tower. Brandishing banners with the slogan: “Stop the sixth mass extinction”, the protesters then observed a few minutes’ silence before cleaning the steps.
At first glance these aims seem at odds with one another. Activism moves the material world, while Art moves the heart, body and soul. In fact, however, they are complimentary. Social change doesn’t just happen, it happens because people decide to make change. As any seasoned activist can tell you, people just don’t decide to change their mind and act accordingly, they are personally moved to do so by emotionally powerful stimuli. We’re moved by affective experiences to do physical actions that result in concrete effects: Affect leads to Effect.
“The evidence is crystal clear: Nature is in trouble. Therefore we are in trouble,” said Sandra Díaz, one of the co-chairs of the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. A 40-page “Summary for Policy Makers” of the forthcoming full report (expected to exceed 1,500 pages) released May 6 in Paris.
The United Nations report warned that a million of Earth’s estimated eight million species are at risk of extinction. The bonds that hold nature together may be at risk of unraveling from deforestation, overfishing, development, and other human activities, the landmark United Nations report warned. Thanks to human pressures, one million species may be pushed to extinction in the next few years, with serious consequences for human beings as well as the rest of life on Earth.
Based on a review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources and compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries, the global report is the first comprehensive look in 15 years at the state of the planet’s biodiversity. This report includes, for the first time, indigenous and local knowledge as well as scientific studies. The authors say they found overwhelming evidence that human activities are behind nature’s decline. They ranked the major drivers of species decline as land conversion, including deforestation; overfishing; bush meat hunting and poaching; climate change; pollution; and invasive alien species.
The tremendous variety of living species—at least 8.7 million, but possibly many more—that make up our “life-supporting safety net” provide our food, clean water, air, energy, and more, said Díaz, an ecologist at the National University of Cordoba in Argentina, in an interview. “Not only is our safety net shrinking, it’s becoming more threadbare and holes are appearing.”
Citing inspiration from grassroots movements such as Occupy, Gandhi’s independence movement, the suffragettes, Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement, Extinction Rebellion aims to rally support worldwide around the urgency to tackle climate breakdown. A large number of activists in the movement have pledged to be arrested, and even to go to prison, similar to the mass arrest tactics of the Committee of 100 in 1961.
The Extinction Rebellion protest in Paris on Sunday. © AFP / Francois Guillot