The Bay Area Society for Art & Activism is a small but mighty work-in-progress and I hope it retains this contemplative, nimble attitude throughout its development. While giving feels great, asking for money is difficult. As the founder and executive staff person responsible for bringing this vision to light, I’ve found the last few weeks especially challenging. Local and national conversations about racism and police brutality are painfully evolving out of the anguish and protests prompted by the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Asking for money in the midst of overwhelming grief and righteous anger feels awkward if not inappropriate. So I skipped out on #GivingTuesday and postponed sending email reminders about our current fundraising campaign.
Days after the verdict in the Eric Garner case, I taught my last class of the semester at the San Francisco Art Institute. My students are a diverse and talented group, mostly in their early-twenties and relieved to be knocking out the last hours of their mathematics requirement so they could go back to painting, printmaking, and new genres.
“They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable. Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination.”
I went to class that afternoon wanting to offer a neatly packaged academic take-away, a math gift to inspire their future art practice. But I could not ignore the troubled historical moment nor my own sorrow. I spoke to them about mathematics as an architecture for imagination, the Three-Fifths Compromise, the applied mathematics of white political vision, and then the absolute failure of imagination represented by centuries of persistent, violent American racism. I suggested that making our way past the inheritance of white supremacy required new, undiscovered forms of collective imagination. As artists, I reminded them, the realm of the imagination is our purview. We make this realm visible and sensible to others. As young artists, they see what no one else can see. I looked up at them with hope, then despair. Then I burst into tears.
The following day, I went to Green Apple Books and bought all ten pounds of Jeff Chang’s new book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America and inhaled it over a weekend. For a movement struggling to breathe, Who We Be was the air I needed. Three hundred and forty eight pages of CPR for my soul. Chang beautifully presents a dynamic relationship between visual culture, race, and social change. He traces threads of art, popular culture, and politics from the emergence of 1960s multiculturalism through to the unlikely election of Barack Obama and the killing of Trayvon Martin. Chang makes the argument that artists cultivate the cultural conditions that make political change possible: “They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable. Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination.”
Last weekend, my family and I joined thousands upon thousands of protesters across the country to uphold the banner BLACK LIVES MATTER. Today, art critic Ben Davis released an article “After Ferguson, A New Protest Culture’s Challenge to Art” and asked the question turning in my own mind: “How should art relate to this moment? Can it even?” Art and activism are complex sibling forces, one is sublime, vast and constantly at play while the other is direct and immediate, bringing the full weight of history to bear in a single moment. Between them, worlds of possibility hang in the balance.
We at the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism have plans:
- Starting in January 2015, Who We Be is the next book up for our Art & Activism Discussion Club. We’ll be facilitating online and in-person chapter by chapter conversations about art, race, and social change. Even for those of us raised in the cozy embrace of multiculturalism, it’s clear that we need to step up our game when it comes to talking about racism.
- In February 2015, we’ll be working with The Present Group to build data for the Bay Area Artist Report, “an online survey and set of visualization tools aimed at shedding light on how visual artists are compensated for their work.”
- In May 2015, we’ll open The Dissidents, the Displaced and the Outliers, a visual arts exhibition curated by Dorothy Santos in collaboration with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Random Parts Gallery in Oakland. The exhibition will explore the twisted connections between privacy and housing security, gentrification and the Bay Area tech economy.
- In July 2015, the Collective Memory: Art & Activism Archive will be looking back at forty years of alternative Bay Area spaces in collaboration with Melorra Green and SOMArts Cultural Center for their exhibition Making a Scene.
“How should art relate to this moment? Can it even?” Art and activism are complex sibling forces, one sublime, vast and constantly at play while the other is direct and immediate, bringing the full weight of history to bear in a single moment. Between them, worlds of possibility hang in the balance.
With all this in mind, I’m proud to announce that–with just over $1000 left to raise–the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism is more than halfway to reaching its inaugural membership goal. If you are interested in supporting this small but mighty grassroots organization dedicated to cultivating art and activism and providing opportunities and resources to Bay Area artists and activists to engage with issues of social justice, I invite you to join me and over sixty passionate and principled individuals. Become a member by clicking here.