Activism vs. Organizing and the Politics of Accountability

April 6, 2017

I want to start by making it clear  that I am writing this piece because I am learning, unlearning, reading and educating myself. And in doing that, I have recognized a great deal about the intersection of art and action and that activism is the easiest descriptor for action, but not quite the most explicable action itself.

If you are involved in rallies, protests or marches, consider — are you just showing up? Or are you contributing something more than a tweet, a poster or your presence? It is easy to call yourself an activist, but it is more difficult to be accountable for your actions. When that march ends, are you walking away from the issue entirely? What is the implication of your participation?

Constructing unity is nearly impossible without creating some kind of oppression and power hierarchy. Gallatin professor Amin Husain is an artist and a founding member of several collectives — Global Ultra Luxury Faction, Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy and MTL — that combine organizing and art to effect social change.

“The distinction between activism and organizing is really important,” Husain said. “One is accountable, and the other isn’t. The specialization is where the kind of counterinsurgency is — in the sense that you’re actually creating divisions in the process.”

Tweeting a hashtag for a cause has been typified as slacktivism, but at the core the action is the commitment to raising consciousness. It ultimately avoids confronting power structures, despite the fact that spreading information is obviously necessary for education.

“Once you leave your Women’s March, what’s next?” artist as organizer and one of the key organizers of the exhibit “Decolonize This Place” Marz Saffore said. “And that’s the difference — that’s where the organizer comes in. Organizers work beyond the public performance of unity.”

“Decolonize This Place” aimed to use the politics of “decolonization is not a metaphor” as a framework where the exhibit could fit together five concepts that centered on internal and external colonization. In September 2016, DTP transformed Artists Space, a Tribeca gallery, into a “de-occupied” space that promoted action on issues such as indigenous struggle, black liberation, Free Palestine, global wage workers and de-gentrification.

DTP broke into the gallery schema and works to upend traditional capitalism-driven ideology.

“Capital is power — power fixes ideology in language,” Husain said. “That leads to the exclusion of many different forms of art coming from many different communities.”

DTP aimed to change this by putting the art world in the same conversation as decolonization.

“So, specifically addressing the fact that although we’re artists, and we’re so forgiving and understanding, we’re still a major part of the problem,” Saffore said.

For proof of effective organizing on a smaller scale that hits closer to home, look no further than the Barney Building at 34 Stuyvesant St. A collaborative action in Steinhardt’s Department of Art and Art Professions brought DTP to NYU’s campus in the form of DEPT. Saffore and Steinhardt junior Olivia Chou, two organizers of DEPT., addressed neoliberalism and Eurocentrism within Steinhardt.

“[These] structures promote white masculinity and tokenize or erase the experiences of marginalized students,” Chou said. “DEPT.’s work has been focused on reimagining what these spaces would be if decolonized, and creating spaces where folks of color can exist.”

Politics in the art world can be a politics of guilt — when an artist engages with issues from a distance, their guilt doesn’t challenge anything. Art movements come to fruition in changing sociopolitical climates and can manifest themselves in a number of ways.

“There are specific art practices dedicated to social change such as ‘social practice,’ ‘institutional critique’ and ‘protest art.’” Chou said.

DEPT. consciously avoids falling into one of the first two practices, because those categorizations are oppressive and marginalizing — the former because it tends to fall under slacktivism and the latter because it comes from the traditional colonial hierarchy of power that DEPT. is looking to decolonize.

“Often, the artists who practice in those fields come from a place of privilege that they don’t take into consideration,” Chou said.

Art can mean different things to different people. Think about how art measures up to you, and how you measure up to it.

“In other words, who defines art?” Husain said. “You define it. This is what art ‘is’ — [it is] based on your concerns and issues, right?”

So what is the next step? How do you take activism and turn it into something productive and efficient and conscious?

Start with research. Look at the history of your neighborhood and your street if you’ve recently moved. Consider displacement and gentrification — no matter where in the five boroughs you are. Get to know who lives and works there, look for pre-existing organizing groups in your community, and you’ll be able to figure out who is on the ground and what you can bring to them.

“Your mentality should never be that of ‘I have all this privilege, I can really go help out and make a difference,’” Saffore said. “That kind of actually bursts the non-hierarchical idea at the seams.”

Articulating the antiquated nature of activism makes it easier to identify organizing as a productive means toward what Husain refers to as “a shared horizon of liberation.” The term “art activism” slips from our mouths easily, because it is a vague, simple smushing together of words that puts aesthetics and action in the same breath — but what is missing? Accountability. And accountability is up to the individual in the ways they act and identify themselves.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 6 print edition.

Email Grace Halio at

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