Art, Activism, and Permaculture

Source: Foreign Policy in Focus

Infamous for fomenting mass disobedience on bicycles during the Copenhagen climate Summit, touring the UK recruiting a rebel clown army, running courses in post-capitalist culture and falling in love with utopias, the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination exists somewhere between art and activism, poetry and politics. The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination is not an institution or a group, not a network nor an NGO, but an affinity of friends who recognize the beauty of collective creative disobedience. It treats insurrection as an art, and art as a means of preparing for the coming insurrection.

Creation and resistance are the entwined DNA strands of the Lab’s practice. It sees art and activism as inseparable from everyday life. Its experiments aim not to make art but to shape reality, not to show you the world but to change it together. The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination brings artists who have escaped the prisons of the art world together with activists who want to revolutionize forms of political action. Together they apply their creativity to the engineering of social movements. Working without hierarchy, taking direct action, practicing self-management and living ecologically, they refuse to wait for the end of capitalism, but attempt to live in spite of it.

In this interview from the new book Art & Activism in the Age of Globalization, the Laboratory’s co-founders Isa Fremeaux and John Jordan talk about their inspirations and aspirations.

You are both co-founders of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination. Can you give a brief overview of the history of it?

Isa Fremeaux (IF): The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination was co-founded by us two and another activist artist, who is known as the Vacuum Cleaner. We co-founded it in 2004 for the European Social Forum that was taking place in London. The Social Forum was a coming together of tens of thousands of alter-globalization movement activists to talk and debate for a week, it was something we felt inspired by and we believed in. But by the time it came to London, it was taken over and monopolized by the traditional left movements. The way they were going about it was against everything we believed in. It was done in an extremely hierarchical and manipulative way, it was not transparent or democratic, and their take on culture was traditional and, as we felt it, quite boring. They just wanted to show films, a couple of exhibitions… it was political art as representation, something we hate, for us art is about changing the world not showing people how bad the world is. During the European Social Forum, a few non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian groups started what they called the Autonomous Spaces. Being part of the Autonomous Spaces, we created the lab based in a squat in London and put a call up to our networks, wanting to create spaces between culture and politics, between creativity and resistance. A space where artists and activists could meet, so that it wouldn’t be the artists working for the activists or vice versa, but trying to have a synergy between the artist’s creativity and the commitment and audacity of the activist. For a week, we had over a hundred people sharing their interventions and creative resistance tactics, and then going out and doing things in the streets. It was so successful that we just carried on. We are not like a troop though, we’re a very loose collective that kind of crystallizes around projects, and then disperses again. It all depends on which opportunities there are.

John Jordan (JJ): What happens when you bring artists and activists together? Artists have an incredible imagination and creativity, and an ability to think out of the box, they create form and craft and beauty and poetry and all that, but they are often totally egocentric as well, wrapped up in their own practices, their own world and inflicted with the disease of representation: thinking that one can’t change the world, only show it to people. We want to sabotage representation. Among activists there is an incredible audacity as Isa was saying, courage, radicality, critical thinking, desire for collective practices, knowledge about how to work collectively and a real desire to transform the world. The forms they are using though are often boring, unpoetic, and propagandist. By bringing art and activism together, however, you can create incredible moments. We don’t learn at art academy how much of this coming together is part of the history of the last two centuries. You don’t learn that Courbet stopped painting during the Paris Commune to bring down the Vendôme column, having decided to apply his creativity to organizing the popular uprising… you don’t learn that artists have always merged creativity and activism, working to make radical change irresistible. This is our role at the Lab.

IF: Activists tend to think that mere facts and figures will bring people into action. It is not only that people don’t act because they do not know how bad things are. Facts and figures alone don’t necessarily bring people into action though. What makes people want to change themselves, their own everyday life, but also the world around them, is a sense of hope, a fantasy of what things ‘could be like’. Dreams and desires are what make you get off your bum and do things.

Speaking of radical change, on the website of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination you can download a small booklet entitled 13 Attitudes. It is about permaculture. This notion seems to be a core issue in everything you do.

JJ: Permaculture is really important to our practice. It is a design philosophy that was developed in the seventies. Its main question is: how do you create sustainable, resilient productive human cultures? Permaculture suggests that the best way of achieving this is by observing natural systems. Let’s look at a meadow or a forest for example, they are incredible in terms of their ability to be resilient, to create no waste, to be energy-efficient, self-supportive and entirely sustainable. The idea behind permaculture is to learn from the book of nature, and to use its knowledge as a way of thinking about how we design human systems and cultures. From building your house, how you design a political action, a festival, choreographing a performance… anything.

IF: Although its origins lie in agriculture, permaculture is applicable to anything that can be designed. Anything that is social, as well. There are 13 design principles, all derived from attentive observation of ecosystems. These range from ‘Stack Functioning’ which means that everything you design should have more than three uses, to ‘The Problem is the Solution’ which encourages us when designing something to just face problems and see that the answers often lie within them. These principles are framed by three key ethics: people care, earth care and fair shares. If we combine these three, we are automatically living within limits. Ecological and energetic ones. Which is what capitalism does not do at all, it has the fantasy of perpetual growth, of infinite resources…

JJ: Permaculture brings together contemporary ecological science and indigenous wisdoms. We’ve got stuff to learn from both of these. There are many other theoretical backgrounds to our work, from anarchism to Situationism, but at the moment this is a strong one. Some people even describe permaculture as ‘revolution disguised as gardening’ or ‘the art of creating beneficial relationships’.

What might a sustainable society look like?

JJ: Fundamental to sustainability is diversity. Why is a forest sustainable? Because there are so many species in it, and even more different beneficial relationships between the species. The moment it becomes a monoculture, it is not sustainable anymore. One bug can wipe it out. The same goes for society: there isn’t one sustainable model. There are many, and all of them are bound by the context of their culture. For us, sustainability is not only about ecological sustainability, but about human sustainability as well. You can’t have one without the other. Permaculture is a holistic view that helps one navigate the present crisis of our culture.

IF: Permaculture is such an inspiring framework because in the end it is about thinking about every aspect of our culture. If you have organic farming with people working 18 hours a day, then that’s not sustainable.

JJ: Or when solar panels are produced by a multinational oil company as greenwash and windmills are built in Chinese sweatshops, or organic health food that only the rich can afford, or carbon rationing that is imposed by an authoritarian government…

IF: In coercion, there is no sustainability. For me, these are totally mutually exclusive. It is not as if we are in search for the single blueprint, and once we have found it, the idea would simply spread. Permaculture illustrates this: you can only have healthy forests if you have healthy meadows and healthy meadows if you have healthy bees and thriving bees if you have blooming flowers and only if the soil is alive, etc. You need the rich diversity. Japanese communities are not going to want or need the same thing as kids growing up in the east end of London or Sudan or Brazil. Trying to imagine that the same model could work for everyone makes no sense to me. It needs to come from the ground up. People have to find their own models.

JJ: What we see in contemporary political movements is a shift away from singular, monocultural ideologies. We are moving towards a kind of DIY-politics, framed around very basic ethics but with many ways of acting. We see ‘direct action’ as key to this. If there is a problem you act directly to solve it, you don’t ask others to do it for you. It is living as if one was already free. It is all about politics based on ways of doing, it’s the art of moulding the world in the way you think it should be now, not waiting for some ideological point of perfection. The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination sees its role as helping political movements be more experimental, more imaginative and creative. In these times of crisis, as artists we need to apply creativity to radical politics, because there could be forms of terrifying authoritarianism around the corner, arising from the economic and ecological meltdowns. Sustainability could be used to call for nationalism, protecting land for the nation, and for xenophobia and the further rise of fear. As artists we have to work against this drift. For us, permaculture is a map to help us in the fog of the future.

My first visit to your website began with listening to ‘Lady in Red’ of Chris de Burgh, while looking at filmed images of red flags. I began to laugh, and got into the irony immediately. Never before has an activist approach seduced me so easily.

JJ: That’s the key, really. We know most activist’s approaches aren’t sexy. That’s again why capitalism wins every time. iPhone or boring activist meeting? What will you choose? The left is very scared of using desire and the body, and capitalism and the right are brilliant at it. Capitalism works because it is constantly manipulating our desires. We think it is important to reclaim such desires, therefore, our work involves pleasure, play and adventure, but not within the frame of art. These adventures are real. They engage in real illegality and real disobedience. For us, it is about giving to people a sense of collective creativity, enabling them to believe that you can be creative in a collective without any hierarchy, using consensus methods. It is also about making them understand that disobedience is not necessarily frightening, and reminding them that everything that we take for granted – whether it is women wearing trousers, contraception, an eight-hour working day, the week-end or gay rights – was gained because people disobeyed. In the art world, people disobey the cultural cannons, but social change happens when you refuse normality, when you disobey in the real world.

In your work you are constantly challenging the position of the spectator. Why?

IF: One of the aims is to dissolve this position. Not the notion, but the act of spectatorship. A lot of what we try to organize is for people to step out of their spectator’s role and passive position. To become actors. Most of what we feel sad and angry about in the world happens because people feel they have no agency. Most recognize that we are at a moment of historical crisis, and yet they don’t think they can affect change and so we simply sit and watch, we become the audience of the apocalypse.

JJ: Our work might begin with a brief moment of spectatorship, but it will never stop there. It might use it as a way of getting people involved at the beginning, because we often create frames within which things happen, improvisation and uncertainty are key.

Can you give an example?

JJ: We call our projects experiments, not pieces or shows. Partly because we want to reclaim the right for experimental politics. It’s okay to have experimental literature, arts, music, science… but not politics. The concept of creating new political forms is less accepted. And experiments are constantly open processes, which is also important for us. One of the most successful recent projects we did, was the Bike Bloc. We began with the question of how do you use bicycles in acts of civil disobedience? It was prepared for the UN climate summit in Copenhagen. Originally we were invited by two art institutions: Arnolfini in Bristol and the Centre of Contemporary Art in Copenhagen. We put the two commissions together and came up with ‘Put the fun between your legs, become the Bike Bloc!’ One of the principles of permaculture is to use your local resources. Don’t wait for the perfect moment, use what you have. And in Copenhagen there are thousands of abandoned bikes, so we decided that that would be our material. After three months of discussion with the Centre of Contemporary Art, having made very clear what we wanted to do, we suddenly had this phone call with the curator: ‘Oh, but you must remember that there are certain laws around what constitutes a bicycle in Denmark.’ I answered: ‘Well, we will be using these bikes in acts of civil disobedience anyway, so it doesn’t really matter whether they are legal or not.’

IF: She had imagined we would stop at the discourse and not leave the museum with the bikes we had built, that they would simply be objects or a symbolic performance. So she pulled out of the commission saying that the city funders would not approve of non-violent civil disobedience. She was used to artists who pretend to do politics. We had to find a new space and ended up in a social centre run by squatters and artists.

Art that is mainly representational doesn’t work for you, but the aesthetics of your work do seem very important. How do these aesthetics work?

IF: The aesthetics of the final outcome is as important to us as the process. We are very aware of not wanting to fall into the trap of community art, where so much attention was put on the process that the aesthetics of the outcome were often terrible. We don’t want to produce work that we don’t feel proud of because it looks shit. If you don’t have strong aesthetics, the only people who can feel pride and ownership, are those who were involved in the project. But the social relations have their own aesthetics that are as important too.

JJ: For me, aesthetics are about the capacity to really feel the world, to sense it with our bodies, to be deeply aware. Which brings us to the question of paying attention, really being ‘in’ the world by observing it, which is one of the keys in permaculture. For me, art is simply paying attention. In Buddhism one might call it mindfulness, neuroscientists call it direct experience, Christians might call it contemplation. It’s about being in the present, a place of absolute freedom, and doing everything in the best way we can. That’s the aesthetic and ethic! Each project is creating a temporary community of creativity and disobedience. It is never the same community though, and the people are never the same either. Actually, we want something a bit more permanent now. In 2007, we went for a seven months journey around twelve utopian communities in Europe, ranging from a free-love community in Germany to occupied factories, squatted villages, self-managed farms. The idea was to study and experience more permanent forms of collective, non-hierarchical living. Our long-term aim is to set the Lab up as a space. It may sound ambitious, but the question is: what would the Bauhaus of the twenty-first century be like? Something in between Black Mountain College, Bauhaus and the Laboratory for Insurrectionary Imagination. A place where we learn to bring art, activism and everyday life together. That’s our long-term aim. The society of the spectacle is a society of separation, audience separated from actors, art objects from processes, the future separated from the past and the present. In the Lab we say: Don’t separate. Especially your ethics from your aesthetics. Don’t separate your everyday life from your art, don’t separate making the world beautiful and changing it. We have to constantly rethink how we can resist separation. Because that is what capitalism is fantastic at doing. Capitalism separates us from everything. From our labour, from our ability to have our own land and create our food. The word art comes from the word fit: to fit, or bring, together. That is its role, to heal this world of chasms.

The examples you give while criticising the art world are mostly examples of institutions that work within the field of the visual arts. What about the world of the performing arts, where people come together in one space?

IF: I don’t come from the art world at all. I am an academic. Founding the Lab is what I believe in, and in that sense the question whether we belong in the art world has little importance. I see myself as an educator. That’s what I am really passionate about. Principles of popular education. How do you give people tools to find their own power and find themselves?

JJ: I studied theatre before I did a fine art degree. Our main goal has always been bringing art and life together, and therefore performance is important for me. In a lot of our work we use ritual structures, and the live presence is fundamental. But for us the best theatre is moments of mass civil disobedience, of protest and resistance. These moments, like at the G8 summits or climate camps, are spectacles that even an opera house could never afford. I mean, for example during our Great Rebel Raft Reggata experiment, we had had 3000 policemen, several helicopters and the world’s media lined up against us. Whilst we had over a hundred people running though the woods with treasure maps, digging up buried boats which had bottles of rum in them and then simultaneously launching onto a river to go and block a coal fired power station. I mean these are great moments of theatre, adventurous, poetic and also pragmatic – one of the boats shut down a third of the power station. We think that the world changes through storytelling and myth-making. The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, which we founded in 2002, was a perfect meme, the cultural analogue to a gene: a simple idea that can be reproduced by lots of people and spread like a virus or a piece of DNA. The question was how do you mix the contemporary acts of civil disobedience and the ancient art of clowning? It was about using the archetype of the clown and bringing it back to the street and real disobedience. Now people are doing Clown Armies all over the world. We hope the same will happen to the Bike Bloc, it’s about the simplicity of the idea and not owning it.

IF: In 2005 we organised a tour of nine cities in the UK, which led to Gleneagles in Scotland, where the G8 was taking place. In each city we set up a show, which did have a stage and was very much based on clowning, because it was organized as part of the Clown Army Recruitment Tour at the time. It was about clowning and civil disobedience. After the show there was a two-day training in rebel clowning, and at the end of each training there was an intervention in the public realm.

JJ: In each city we turned up in a square with our caravan, like a circus and gave away free chips, which is a great way of getting an audience. Anyone could come to these free shows. So we did have a little stage standing in a square, but really it was just a creative form of promotion, literally a recruitment show, to get people inspired to do the trainings. The trainings were just as important to us and the real theatre was weeks later at the G8 in the streets, when we turned up with the 200 new rebel clown recruits picked up on the tour. Disobedience in the streets is the real theatre, everything else is a rehearsal.

But no one is a clown in real life.

JJ: No, and there were situations where this fictionalization of reality worked very well. We had situations where we had seventy clowns walking straight through lines of riot policemen. You saw the cops thinking: ‘Are there really seventy clowns coming towards us?’ But even if they knew it wasn’t a complete fictional thing, the fiction destabilized them to some extent. A very good clown is a powerful thing. It is the hardest performance, because it is just about being. Not doing, not pretending, just being in the here and now, the absolute present moment. It involves years and years of training. But we gave people only two days of training, which is nothing. Nevertheless it was powerful. I believe the space of the clown is a magical space. You do enter a space that is somehow beyond one’s everyday life. People were really touched and moved by it. What happened though is, that when the meme got really popular lots of activists wanted to be in the Clown army but without doing the trainings and they just started dressing up as clowns and going on protests and being silly which was totally not the point. It was meant to be about training a new disobedient body, it was about a new discipline of disobedience. The clown has no armour. He has no skin. It’s a body that is so in the moment and so sensitive to the world that the world pulses through it. Many young activists often create an armour around themselves, and then they start to forget to feel, because when you know how bad the state of the world is, feeling too much can be paralysing. One of the aims of the Clown Army was to break this armour down, and to get activists to feel deeply again. So the technique also had psychological aims.

IF: The real moments of magic with the Clown Army were the ones when it was good clowning. At such moments, the clowns genuinely forgot that they were dealing with dangers, because they were totally in the moment of being a clown. They were not acting. Now I think these moments of magic have gone, because the cops have learned how to deal with the clowns and so we stopped doing it. For me our work is also about going against the machismo of direct action. Activism can be a very macho world. I am interested to defuse that and to turn direct action into something else. Something fun but still radical. The playful techniques of the theatre world help to make our work convivial and warm, and at the same time, we do create a sense of solidarity and belonging I don’t think the art world can give you. Like in the activist world, where people are looking out for each other, we also try hard to give individuals the sense that they are not by themselves. In a society like ours it’s crucial to know that I will be looked after, cared for, and that I will look after other people and care for them myself. That’s one of the things we try to achieve through conviviality.

Final question: can activist art really contribute to fighting climate change?

JJ: To deal with climate change you need a culture change. It is not about ‘Oh, we’re gonna continue our cultural system as normal, but we will just have green theatres and we’ll tour on trains’. That’s not the point, and for us it is really important to reiterate that. Right now the whole system is in an enormous crisis, economic and ecological and there is no doubt that the system will try and use climate change as the next way of regenerating capital after the crash. Green technologies, green economies… still based on growth, still based on coercion, hierarchy and all the things that capitalism does. What we are saying is: let us use climate change to rethink our entire culture and the entire system. Which also means: how do we make art and what is art? We need fundamentally new ways of thinking.

IF: If you look at the history of any revolutionary change, cultural places were often at the forefront, and do have the space and the resources to be open to more radical approaches. The cultural world normally has such a lack of audacity when it comes to politics. A lack of imagination, paradoxically.

JJ: Suppose we were having this conversation in 1987, and I show you a film of the Orange Alternative: happenings, performance artists, punks, hippies… all working together in Poland under martial law and doing big theatrical events in public space. Most famous were the gnome ones, in which they all wore orange gnome hats. They got 4000 people into the streets. Under martial law you are not allowed to do anything in the street, but the military men didn’t shoot them, because they were gnomes. If in 1987 I would have said to you ‘Okay, you watch, this is the seed, little groups like these are opening up the public space for discourse again, in three years time the Berlin wall will come down and the Soviet empire will collapse’, you would have probably gone like, yeah yeah… But it did happen. Often such little small cultural experiments open up space and possibility for the bigger changes to happen. The real seeds for revolutionary changes can grow in artistic practices.

Lars Kwakkenbos is a contributor to the new book Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization, edited by Lieven de Cauter, Rubben de Roo, and Karel Vanhaesebrouck, where this interview appears. More information about the book can be found at the website of the publisher, NAi Publishers.