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An Activism of Affirmation
On Artists, the Internet, and Social Movements

By An Xiao Mina

When Hong Kong police announced this past December that they would be clearing the occupation in the Central District, conservators swooped in to gather the art and creative artifacts from the movement scattered across the area. Though initially conceived as a long-term action in the spirit of #OccupyWallStreet, the movement for preserving democratic rights in Hong Kong adopted a more local hashtag: #UmbrellaMovement.

The umbrella—a ubiquitous object in this subtropical city state—had been used by protesters to defend themselves against pepper spray. The image stuck, and countless remixes formed, eventually settling on a yellow umbrella symbol. Paper origami-style umbrellas. Umbrella stickers. Actual physical umbrellas with drawings on them. Chalk umbrellas. Digital umbrellas distributed as memes online. It was not the only art piece, of course. Hong Kong’s own version of a Lennon Wall featured countless sticky notes with drawings and sketches. There were video pieces and ephemeral performances.

An ocean away, in the United States, participants in the racial justice movement broadly organized under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter have been gathering in the name of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others who have died at the hands of police. The latest wave of protests was sparked with an image distributed online—a photo of Brown’s body on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri—and they have continued with portraits by artists that memorialize these young black men and women.

These portraits circulate online, where they are remixed and redistributed. In the physical world, they are placed on posters on storefronts and car windows. In one dramatic gesture, they were raised up on a flagpole outside the Oakland Police Department with images of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, and Renisha McBride. The names of even more people were hand drawn and unfurled like a carpet in Oakland’s Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. Images of all these physical world actions were captured and circulated online, where they saw a second life.

Why do art and creative expression seem to arise in so many movements today? With last week’s US Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, we saw a flowering of rainbows across social networks. Some of these rainbows were driven by a Facebook tool used to modify one’s profile picture, but so many others were created by illustrators, comic artists, Photoshop wizards, and others armed with creative tools. The creativity channeled much of the energy from 2013’s marriage equality meme, which featured numerous remixes of the Human Rights Campaign’s red logo as queer people and allies showed support for a still-contentious issue.

We can take a similar deep dive and look at people working in Uganda for LGBT rights, in the United States for improved representation of Native Americans, in Turkey for democratic rights, in Nigeria for the safe return of kidnapped girls, in the Philippines for better governance. In each of these movements, the now-familiar activist repertoire of blog posts, sit-ins, tweets, television interviews, etc. enjoys the addition of the Internet’s co-creative vernacular—memes, selfies, performative gestures, clever hashtags, YouTube karaoke songs, and others. Artistic expression is not limited to either the physical or digital space; these spaces are deeply intertwined, and these actions are often spurred on with the help of digitally savvy artists and media thinkers.

Social movement observers talk often about the role of the Internet in helping people organize each other and disseminate information more readily. Anyone who’s thrown a party using Facebook or looked up information on Wikipedia knows that digital tools are indeed great for this sort of work. But the Internet is also full of “the feels,” amplified by creative media and the act of sharing that media. Art distributed through networks can play a powerful role in affirming the community’s beliefs and feelings, whether that’s spreading joy and humor or providing an outlet for collective grief.

To be sure, art and participatory art have long been critical to social movements. Symbols and symbolic gestures, like the rainbow flag or the raised fist, help show scale to the broader community and foster a sense of unity and pride amongst participants. But as today’s artist-activists leverage their networks, they are also tapping into the Internet’s culture of image-making, -sharing, and -remix. Networked images act as a form of creative discourse, made more powerful because anyone can join the process with, for instance, a #HandsUp selfie or yellow umbrella meme.

The risk, of course, is creating an echo chamber. But in the context of censorship or lack of media attention, echo chambers play a critical role in amplifying stories that might not otherwise see the light of day. Like any echo chamber, the conversations online start with small communities with a common belief or goal, and they then extend to those standing just outside the community, waiting and ready to participate with a little encouragement.

The past few years have seen the revival of microaggressions—small, unconscious gestures of inequality—as a concept in our discourse around social justice. As we talk about the impact of art and the Internet, I think we should also remember their converse. In her study of women in the workplace, Mary Rowe noted that microaffirmations—small, often unconscious gestures of good will—have a powerful effect at improving people’s performance. Like microaggressions, microaffirmations seem small and meaningless in isolation, but their effect is best felt in their accumulation. I think we can learn from the language of microinequities theory to construct a new vocabulary for how we act online, a vocabulary situated in the more deliberate (rather than subconscious) work of fostering an equitable society.

Art can raise important questions about society, art can challenge our philosophical beliefs, art can divide, art can heal. When it comes to social movements, I often think of the latter. Emotions and aesthetics are so often overlooked in today’s conversation around networked movements, but many artistic actions can help us feel better and help us feel less alone in the face of injustice. Artist-activists have a key role to play in affirming the fear, frustration, and hope that inevitably accompany difficult and sustained movements. These micro forms of liberation online can be passing and fleeting, but they are not meaningless, especially if felt in aggregate.

We must be careful of narratives claiming that building voice will automatically lead to the change we advocate for. No amount of creative selfies can by themselves put a stop to homophobia, systemic racism, or the erosion of democratic rights, and in many contexts, reinforcing feelings can lead to an inflated sense of self worth or a hardened set of views against already marginalized communities. As well, in a surveillance context, the act of creative expression can be dangerous in and of itself. These tools and practices are neither neutral nor deterministic; how we as individuals and we as a broader society leverage the web’s unique affordances can help foster justice or increase suffering in the world.

But we must be equally as careful not to fall into the trap of cynically arguing that free expression around issues of human rights and dignity has no meaning without long term change. Binary thinking about what constitutes positive change misses the fact that social movements require multiple factors to succeed, and change more often happens in increments rather than in wholesale, monumental shifts. We see so much art in movements today because art, creative expression, and emotional microaffirmations are necessary components of justice. They help us create, imagine, and live a better world in tiny bits, made powerful in their accumulation and broadcast to broader and more extensive networks than was previously possible.

The Internet helps us organize and inform, but art and creative expression in particular can help transform the Internet into a space for affirmation, self-worth, and emotional healing as well. And that, too, is a powerful form of activism.

An Xiao Mina researches the global internetz and co-founded The Civic Beat, a magazine and research collective looking at the creative side of civic technology. She has presented at the Personal Democracy Forum, Aspen Institute, Microsoft Social Computing Symposium and in dimly lit, smoke-filled bars.

Presented as part of

Hong Kong’s impromptu Lennon Wall

Photo: Jimmy Lau, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

Portraits of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, and Renisha McBride on a banner, Oakland Police headquarters, December 14, 2014

Remixes of the Human Right Campaign’s equality logo

Image: Elena Agapie via The Atlantic

Protest against the Washington NFL team name, November 2, 2104

Photo: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

Tatyana Faizalizadeh, Portrait of Michael Brown, 2014

A demonstrator at Minneapolis’s Millions March rally, December 13, 2014

Photo: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

An installation as part of Hong Kong’s #UmbrellaMovement, October 18, 2014

Photo: Pasu Au Yeung, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license