ARTIVISM: Ah, think you’ve got a typo there. Let me just fix that for you . . .Hold your horses, kiddo, that ain’t no typo, that’s artivism – art with an activist agenda. It’s political engagement through the medium of art, frequently stencil graffiti and other forms of street art, though encompassing everything from film-making to public performance. Artivism is a broad church, but the common denominator is the expression of a political message.
About time painters put their brushes to good use, the art world has operated for far too long without an obvious moral compass. Well, there’s a long history of politically engaged art, how far back do you want to go?The current crop of artivists can be seen more directly as descendants of the likes of Andy Warhol or Barbara Kruger, whose famous design work from the 1980s used bold fonts, marketing-style branding and message-heavy slogans (“I shop therefore I am”, that was her). Subsequently, subverting advertising and satirising corporate branding has become an industry in itself – Adbustersmagazine, for instance, has found plenty of consumers for their anti-consumerist message. With the explosion of street art this decade, both the message and the approach have been adopted by an army of campaigning street artists.
Who are the big-name artivists I should be looking out for?In an Irish contest, Will St Leger has most enthusiastically embraced artivism. A designer who used to campaign for Greenpeace, he embraced stencil art as a way of spreading campaign messages cheaply and quickly. His work has included a stencil of Michael Collins with Chanel shopping bags; those Famine and Byrne pieces that graced a few prominent Dublin walls earlier this year; and distributing €50,000 of fake banknotes bearing the image of Bertie Ahern at the Molly Malone statue. There’s a pretty clear political message right there. Other artists with a message include the early street artist John Fekner; the anti-corporate pranksters and film-makers the Yes Men; and, inevitably, Banksy, whose big pieces on the West Bank wall were among the highest profile works of artivisim in recent years.
Any other prominent artivists at work here?Well, it’s easy to consider the murals in Northern Ireland to be a form of artivism – painting political messages in prominent locations is a big part of the movement. And not only do the murals depict images from the so-called “two communities”, they also tackle subjects of social concern such as joyriding, women’s rights and even gay rights – You Are Now Entering Free Derry went pink during Pride Week in 2007.
So when is that artivism exhibition opening at the National Gallery, then?Being appropriated by the establishment is the last thing a committed artivist would want – but if you’re lucky you might see some of their work surreptitiously located in galleries. Think of Banksy’s furtively installed pieces in New York’s Moma, or those notorious portraits of Brian Cowen in the buff that were briefly on display in the National Gallery and the RHA. But generally, artivists operate in public spaces, reclaiming our urban surroundings from what they see as the pervasive commodification caused by advertising.
Finally, could you clear something up for me:are these people artists with an agenda, or activists with a spray can? Determining whether they are primarily artist or activist is like trying to separate the dancer from the dance – a futile exercise that misses the point entirely.
But knowing the dancer from the dance is easy! You have so much to learn, grasshopper, so much to learn.
Try at home:“Don’t you think that canvas is a little artivistic for above the fireplace?”
Try at work:“Why won’t those artivists work on our viral advertising campaign – we’re offering them buckets of cash.”