Envisioning New Futures: Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe on Artistic Activism

Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe of The Center For Artistic Activism help artists make political art work. For them artistic activism is more than just a descriptor for certain types of art. It’s more than a tactic. They see it as an “entire approach: a perspective, a practice, a philosophy.” They will be leading a new workshop in Creative Capital’s New York offices on May 4th, where artists will learn how to use their creative practice to organize communities, speak truth to power, and make more engaging and impactful artworks.

We talked to the pair about their work, their critical inspirations, and the artistic activism they see in the world.


Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe in North Carolina.

Ana Cecilia Alvarez: Tell us a bit about your own work. What are both your artistic and activist backgrounds and interests?

Steve Lambert: Ha! Where, do we start? In the years I’ve done this work, the distinction between art and affecting power gets more blurry. Art has always been about shifting perspectives, creating space for new ideas and new ways of being, and presenting visions of other ways the world can work. This has inherent political ramifications. I have dwelled deep in this grey area, and it probably started before I was born.

Stephen Duncombe: I grew up in an activist family (my dad helped organize the famous Selma March) and I have been an activist since my late teens. I am also a terrible artist. Really terrible. But doing Artistic Activism is a way that I could tap into the creativity we all possess.

Steve: Duncombe is selling himself short—he’s published 6 books. He’s a good writer. And he builds great props when we do actions with workshop participants.

Ana Cecilia: How has cultural, cognitive, and behavioral theory contributed to how you conceive art projects with an activist reach?

Stephen: Just because art moves us on a pre-rational, affective level, doesn’t mean that we can’t—or shouldn’t—rationally explore how it works so that we can produce more moving pieces. In addition to being an activist I have a PhD in Sociology; many of the techniques I’ve learned in this field are wholly applicable to creating more affective and effective, that is æffective, artworks.

Steve: I started in film—where you naturally think about affecting the audience throughout the process. As I continued with other media, the audience remained a focus and I sought out ways to better understand how people perceived ideas. Working in public space, and then doing bodies of work on the issues around advertising and marketing, I learned some valuable lessons about effecting not only emotions, but also their belief and behavior. These theories, some rapidly advanced only in the past 10 or 20 years, are critical for artists to understand and use.

Ana Cecilia: What are some creative projects you’ve seen that have embodied “artistic activism”?

Stephen: So much! Artistic Activism may be something that is getting some attention these days, but the practice has been around for millennia. You look at any effective social movement and you’ll find aesthetic practices at the center. Consider ancient religions: Moses parting the seas: spectacle! Jesus sitting down to dinner with lepers and tax collectors: relational aesthetics! Mohammed reciting the Quran in verse: poetry!

Steve: We’ve literally seen thousands. We created an online, open-access, user-generated  database of artistic activism:  http://actipedia.org where people can browse, learn and be inspired by over a thousand examples from all over the world, and then submit their own inspiring examples. As Duncombe mentioned, they go back through history. All effective activism has to be artistic—it needs to innovate, capture the imagination, envision new futures, and present the world in a way people can’t otherwise see. Artists are best equipped for this work.

Ana Cecilia: What do you hope artists will learn in your workshop?

Stephen & Steve: We’ve done years of research and worked with hundreds of practitioners around the world, and we’re planning to distill a few key ideas that participants can put to immediate use. There’s a lot of “folkways” around this practice—most of us are self taught, or we pick up things in conversation with each other. When we’ve come across, say something like, the concept of negativity bias—which is the idea that all human beings have a tendency to envision, anticipate, and plan for failure and disaster better than we can for success—that idea may be something we had a hunch about. It’s definitely something we’ve all experienced. But seeing it laid out before you can really clarify the idea so that you can identify it, and begin to apply it to your practice. Negativity bias is just one of many examples of the things we teach that can have a profound impact on artists hoping to effect change.

We hope that folks will walk away from our workshop with a better understanding of what they want to do with their creative practice to help transform the world, how to do it better and, then, most important of all: inspired to go out and do it.
For more from Steve & Stephen join them in our New York office on Monday, May 4 at 6:30pm ET. 

Register Here 

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