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Art as a Weapon of Protest

As the 'eco-warriors' in the Glen of the Downs, Ireland, celebrate their first year in occupation of the trees earmarked for road-widening, we publish this refection on the effectiveness of art in protest. In protest culture, the artist, musician and symbol-maker take on the role of priest and shaman. They tap into the collective, into the forces of nature.

By Jay Griffiths
There is mystery in a moonless moon, in a full moon fully eclipsed, as was the recent Harvest moon. Road protesters at Fairmile near Exeter, England, honoured its mystery in a ceremony; an artistic ritual. Drummers and musicians played the moon out to shadow, then at the dark of the moon, fire jugglers lit up, and people howled and sang the moon back into the sky; artists all before the moon.

Direct action protesters are highly visually aware people. Many have had formal or informal artistic training and many of them are professional musicians. But art within the protest movement is far more than mere self expression or decorative pastime. It is an example of art used for common causes; not only to raise emotions but to direct that passion into actions.

One of the oldest definitions of the artist is the "priest of the tribe". In the protest movement there are many examples of art with a spiritual content. There are carved shrines to the "genius loci" near one camp, tree dressing is common, and there are wicker men, and even wicker snails at Newbury, in memory of the rare and threatened Desmoulins snail. Some times the protester-artists, as at the recent full moon, seem quasi Shamanic; creators of ceremony, conjuring the "earth energies" at hill forts, firing earth-mazes, and being touched in turn by the immanent energy of nature, of the earth or of the moon. One of the songs heard at protest sites honours the "Moon mother", and runs: "The rhythm of woman and the rhythm of man. The pulse of life since time began." Not for them the itchy curtsy of urban ceremony but the atavistic stamp of nature's ritual.

Anthony Storr, in his book Solitude, writes: "In societies in which the function of the artist was to serve the community by giving expression to traditional wisdom, his skills were valued, but his individuality was not." Flying in the face of years of Western art history, protest art goes beyond individualism. Art objects are usually unsigned and its themes are often archetypal, public, images of nature love, or equally public images of car denial. The private, idiosyncratic and ego-centred self-expression of modern art seems to have no place here.

Music split off from function, for example mainstream music in a concert hall, raises human emotions but gives them nowhere to go. By contrast, during the evictions at protest camps, musicians have a powerful effect; drums adjust their rhythms according to the urgency of events in the trees. Bagpipers and fiddlers bind people together and focus them to a common purpose. The playing of music reduces the temptationon both "sides" of violence. Music also ceremonializes events, and elevates the individual beyond the merely personal into a group cohesion. According to sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, human music was originally designed to further the ends of human tribes. Singing and dancing served to draw groups together, to direct emotions and to prepare them for joint action. This is the transcendent nature of all the arts: to unite people for the sake of a cause larger than themselves.
In protest culture, it is possible to see the artist also in the role of hte spellcaster, the magician of the tribe. In protest culture, it is possible to see the artist also in the role of the spell-caster, the magician of the tribe. At the anti-M77 at Pollok in Glasgow, there was a sculptured circle of burnt-out cars half-buried in the ground, (with "Rust in Peace" painted down the side). The sculpture works like sympathetic magic; car-culture destroyed in image may be destroyed in fact. Much of the art in the Friends of the Earth sponsored art event "Art Bypass" at Newbury sat snug to this paradigm too; cars were symbolically destroyed, sliced up, and trodden on. The costume-art of some protesters is like an atavistic sympathetic magic; wearing what they value, decorating their bodies with ivy and feathers, body-painting themselves as The Green Man of the Woods and face painting themselves into the animals they wish to protect. Sympathetic magic is a silvery concept, silver with its mirror-quality; life is asked to copy art.

To some degree, the antiquity of role is articulated within the movement "We are the old people, we are the new people, we are the same people stronger than before," as one protest song goes. There are imagessuch as the puckish figures, or the trolls, pixies and Here Be Dragons which are straight from the book of folklore, the scrapbook of the collective unconscious, the oldest book in the world.
The best art is always created at the point of maximum tension between the Formidably Necessary and the Resplendently Useless.

Protest architecture came into being at precisely the same time as mainstream society erected Canary Wharf, and the two types of architecture stand diametrically opposed. One end of society erects its tower. Project massive. Vast in expense. Techno-Teutonic Architectonics. Architecture of the corporation. Built on the square and the straight-line principle. Homage to Patriarchitecture. Meanwhile, in woods not so far away, an ancient architecture is remembered, bendy and circular, human-sized, domestic and dead cosy; in these home-made homes, all tarp and blanket wrapped around wood burning stoves, the twigloo is born.

"Straight" is the protest word for mainstream society. It is telling. The conflict of their philosophies includes the oldest artistic war, the "battle of the shapes"the straight-line principle versus the circle principle. Canary Wharf is straight. The bender is circular. Protesters sit in circles. Roads run straight. Straight architecture is straight lines. Protest architecture builds round, like a nest, round for a bender or a teepee, curving to the influence of the circle principle.

Straight society encloses its art in galleries, segregates its music in concert halls. Protest art grows ivying all over the place, in banners, in outdoor sculpture. Anything which can be decorated, is: a spoon, a twig, a stone. A wheelbarrow is shunted around one site, with painted spiral patterns on the side. The effect illustrates the importance of art to the human being. You can live without mortgages and water rates, without flush toilets and fitted kitchens, without income or pension, but not without art, not without beauty.

The best art is always created at the point of maximum tension between the Formidably Necessary and the Resplendently Useless. A lock-on point at Fairmile has tyres around it, splatter painted with bright acrylics Claremont Road style and the cement is used like a rock'ard sandpit for toy rabbits, fluffy toys and feather dusters. Function and decoration are here combined with a playful glee, as they are at the so-called "Trollheim" site at Fairmile. It is a DIY "fortress" against eviction, with drawbridge, gibbet, turrets, ramparts and a webful of metal-sculpture a nightmare catcher. There is a peephole through one gate and a movement sensor which wails a horrible electronic-toon when someone crosses it. Trollheim together with the Pollok camp in Glasgow, full of teepees and treehouses, and huge wood sculptures of eagles is an eccentric playground; a paradox of childhood. They use art, play and creativity for very unchildlike aims demonstrating a longsighted sense of responsibility to the future.

Artists have always had great power over society; one bagpiper can motivate and choreograph a Highland Army or an army of protesters. The symbol-maker has more power than the king-maker.

To create symbols is to generate power. One cracker of a Kate Evans cartoon is worth fifty fussy full-length faxes. Theo, protester-songwriter, whose lyrics burn with a savage genius and a yearning eloquence, is semtex in song. Power, then, is in the hands of the singer, the piper, the artist and the symbol maker.

The police, now, are coming to see this. At a recent Reclaim The Streets event in Brighton, the police focussed their attention on arresting and removing musicians and drummers and artistsidentifying, correctly, that it is the creative elements they must stamp out, because they are the most vigorously effective.

The difficulty, though, for the police, bailiffs and guards trying to stop this explosion of anarchistic Artarchy is this: the roots of the direct activists' creativity are not in schools of art but in nature's genius loci. Their profit comes not in commercial success but in the success of causes. Their energy is not the energy of artistic individualism but the atavistic energy of priests of the tribe. The source of their power is outside themselves, in the Earth energy itself and the forces of nature; these eco-artists are solar-powered and lunar-powered. These are the artists who have the moon to play for.

  Jay Griffiths writes for The Guardian and other publications including the Artists Newsletter. She has also published fiction.
First published in Resurgence Jan/Feb 1997. Republished with permission. Our thanks - Ed.

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