"Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it"

IssueSeptember - November 2002
Feature by Gareth Evans

Cultural resistance is, it seems, in the air at the moment. There's been British novelist Nicholas Blincoe, calling for a cultural boycott of Israel by disrupting Israeli folk-singer Noa's performance at a London music festival; the theatre producer who decapitated a marble statue of Baroness Margaret Thatcher as a protest against global capitalism; and George Michael, challenging US foreign policy in the pop charts, an attitude also adopted by a host of high-level-artistic figures in the US with their “Not in Our Name” statement.

The influential Documenta Art Festival in Germany has noted a significant increase in artists making work about social and political issues - while the agenda-setting Institute of Contemporary Arts in London suggests that the future relevance of art lies in its adopting a more activist, cutting edge approach.

A cushion against reality?

All very well: artists have often been political creatures, and individual acts within the cultural sphere are welcome, but remain cushioned from the harder reality of direct engagement with the authorities criticised. It might even be fashionable currently, to oppose in such a way, but there is a long way from such isolated acts to the position of a committed writer-activist like Arundhati Roy, let alone that of the many individuals, groups and communities examined in this special issue of PN. And anyway, how effective can any so-called “cultural” resistance be? Surely, it's a creative waste of time at best and a deluded avoidance of real political opposition at worst. Well, that's not what Joseph Goebbels appears to have thought. Alleged to have said that “when I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver”, the Nazi propaganda supremo was well-aware of the efficacy of cultural forces. The Nazis themselves tapped into deep wells of cultural memory and iconography to create a climate whereby their ideas could more easily be disseminated and were all too aware how resistance could work in the same way.

Signs, codes and actions

This latter is a position most definitely shared by Stephen Duncombe. A New York history and media lecturer, he's just edited a wide-ranging and inspiring collection, the Cultural Resistance Reader (Verso Books 2002, ISBN 1 85984 3794, 446pp, £14), a timely and relevant assembly of texts from across the world, and the centuries. A long-term activist himself, Duncombe (currently with Reclaim the Streets NYC) explores both how it differs from conventional political protest and what particular qualities it brings to the wider struggle. Definitions are sometimes helpful. In one sense, there is nothing larger than “culture”. The network of signs, codes and actions that mesh groups together, it grows linguistically from the same stem as “cultivation” and is therefore conceived to be a good, nurturing thing. It's the very fabric of the social, with its myriad expressions of being human. Thus the possibilities for resistance in such a realm are equally numerous.

Duncombe's book sets out a lineage for cultural resistance (CR) as a long-term strategy with historical reach, from the Diggers in 1649 to today's online Hacker squatters. The 40+ contributions include key theoreticians like Marx, Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, Baudrillard, CLR James and Stuart Hall, alongside activist declarations from radical lesbians, John Jordan, Abbie Hoffman and the riot grrrls, through to analysis of subcultures, new media campaigning and contextualising debates.

Practice is all

Of course, when it comes to CR, practice is all. Some of the more familiar models of resistance - creative, popular, public occupations of shared space - grew out of the '60s and the international mass-movements around civil and social rights, opposition to militarism and national liberation struggles. The “street carnival” approaches developed then remain influential now. Add to this the importance of events in Paris in May 1968 and the critical writings/actions of groups like the Situationists, who perceived modern consumer society to be a “spectacle” ripe for intervention, and the feeling of being able to create one's own reality became central to oppositional thinking.

In this way, CR can also work beyond and away from the street, building networks for long-term change. Utilising an interdisciplinary methodology that works towards ecological and social justice, the London collective Platform (platform@gn.apc.org) deal head on with corporate structures and responsibilities in a series of social art initiatives across media, sites and groupings.

Keeping one step ahead

Things change however. Yesterday's rebellion is today's mainstream. Culture itself, like society, is constantly in flux, and modern capitalism's ability rapidly to assimilate opposition and “re-brand” or neuter it is notorious. When that resistance is cultural to begin with, the threats are even greater, with the “protest invisibility” of being mistaken for a left-field commercial promotion always a risk. The tools and language of protest have to keep moving ahead of appropriation, always ingenious and path-breaking (for the community in question) if they are to remain applicable. This is where culture has the edge. It can be less reactive and more proposing in its business. Unlike the “oil tanker” of hierarchical structures, slow to respond and change course, culture is a zone where rapid shifts in direction can be made.



Decentralised structures

There are important reasons why CR is growing now as an approach. The disillusion with established political structures is pivotal. At the same time, politics has also moved out of those old-world environments. Real, affecting power is not necessarily wielded in parliaments anymore. The great influence of corporations and the media means that the high street and communication networks are where many struggles are most keenly felt. Even time itself and how it's used needs consideration. Just as power and propaganda have decentralised explicitly into all areas of activity, so resistance must do the same.

These developing fronts can be charged with potential, where the unexpected can be smuggled into the fray. This is clearly the case with new technology: consider Internet social hacking, culture-jamming, subvertising, the rise of the videocam operative and alternative news structures like Indymedia.

Information is crucial because it (or its lack) is so often at the heart of community concerns; thus even newsletters become a vital part of the resistance profile.

Daily acts of resistance

Such initiatives show that, whatever actions are undertaken, they must first and foremost be locally relevant. Resistance is always relative to the environment. In some surroundings, it might be a gesture of CR simply to read a radical newspaper in public.

Walking in North America's kingdom of the car can attract undue attention. Speaking Kurdish in Turkey, or singing in Tibet, can be singular and extreme acts of protest. The body in a certain place is a repository of resistance: think of the Indian women challenging the mega-dam projects by standing, in their own houses, as the waters rise around them. Daily acts can become loaded with meaning. For the Palestinians, continuing with everyday activities, like travelling to work through numerous checkpoints, becomes by default deeply political: to survive really, like the Aborigines or Native Americans. Then all of one's culture becomes resistance.

Locations and behavioural norms are challenged: resistance becomes transgressive. New spaces can also be created: think of the Temporary Autonomous Zones described by Hakim Bey, from Nevada's Burning Man festival to anti-roads occupations and the growing number of social centres. Such acts promote an issue but also empower: they build self and group identities and defend subcultures or minorities. They celebrate difference; and dissent through diversity. They offer versions of experience and reality, becoming part of the stories people tell each other: to console, galvanise and resist. Music is a primary container of such imperatives.

Sowing the seeds

With CR, there are no rules. Writer John Fowles was asked once what a novel was. His answer: “whatever works”. Models across time and place can serve to inspire, but every situation requires its own response. A seed is sown, images and words spread via a steady drip feed or as a torrent of alternatives. When CR works, it operates at a deeper level than politics: playing on symbol and metaphor, it can provide a soft bridge, bringing sceptics in. It is utopian and, like utopias, it starts with an idea. Thinking differently is the first act of CR. And the fruits of such thought can last well beyond the source issue, like the Sandinista murals in Nicaragua, emerging through the cheap American whitewash intended to obliterate them.

We have a right (to choose how to live our lives) and a responsibility (to be active in our own - and the collective - future). CR is inherently beneficial to that process, since the gesture itself is part of the goal. The enaction of such resistance starts the journey towards a better world. It expands the arena of the possible, in both protest and desire.

An email appeal circulated recently which quoted a Brazilian street kid who, despite being illiterate and living in desperate circumstances, was still able to observe that “culture is the only defence against violence”. So, if you need an argument in favour of cultural resistance...

Topics: Culture