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When art meets activism

When we think of “protest art,” certain images come to mind — hippies singing around an acoustic guitar, posters with fists, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Bed-ins.”

Social justice and art have never been far apart. Before #MeToo, there was Sexual Assault: The Roadshow — a travelling exhibit with art inspired by acts of violence. Earlier this summer, protesters in a Hong Kong airport sang a song from Les Miserables, resulting in the music being banned from China’s QQ Music Streaming service. The Occupy movement of the early 2010s had art created and artists associated with the movement.

A new term has even been coined for this type of work: “Cultural Activism.” This is defined as a type of organizing where “art, activism, performance and politics meet, mingle and interact.” These creative practices, whether it be public art, performance or something less formal all have the same goal: to motivate social and political change.

McMaster University’s Socrates Project has taken note of this trend. On October 23rd, the Project will host Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Psoy Korolenko and historian Anna Shternshis in an all new lecture-concert program. The songs performed during this event were all written during the Soviet Union’s World War II battles against the Nazis and reflect a culture of defiance, revenge, love, hope, and humour. Appropriately titled Singing and Laughing Against Fascism, the music features personal stories, warnings against fascism and dreams for a better future. In an interesting twist (sure to be discussed at the October 23rd event), the songs were thought to be lost to history until the 1990s, and in 2018, eighteen of the songs were recorded with the subsequent album being nominated for a Grammy.

On a more grassroots level, local art activism is alive and well. The Love in the Hammer Choir sprung up earlier this summer following protests at City Hall and has quickly gained momentum. The choir sang together for the first time on August 17th, and now sings every Saturday at 11 am in the City Hall forecourt. They are sometimes accompanied by a guitar, ukulele, or bongo drums, but frequently utilize only their voices to create powerful music to be heard above protests. Members are handed sheet music when they arrive and are encouraged to come and go as they are able so that everyone feels welcome to participate.

According to its founder, Anna Wilson, Love In The Hammer Choir describes itself as “an organic and peaceful movement to raise our collective voices in solidarity with and in defense of all those who feel unsafe, marginalized, and traumatized by the increasing tensions and expressions of hate-motivated intimidation and violence in our city.”

Over the course of a typical Saturday, individual members arrive and leave as they are able; some stay for a song or two, while others stay for hours. The group moves around the City Hall and downtown area to wherever their voices are needed most; on August 17th, they stood and sang at the edge of the Pride crosswalk while a march occurred from Gore Park to City Hall. “It felt good to counter that toxic messaging with songs of love,” says Wilson. “Our voices are stronger together.”

Whether its listening to the songs and stories or creating art in a central place, by bringing people together in shared activities, creative place-making occurs. One of the concerns that has been frequently voiced by the greater Hamilton community is that the presence of hateful protesters makes the City Hall and downtown area an unsafe place to be in the middle of a weekend afternoon. However, by operating on an open and adhoc basis, Love in the Hammer Choir operates similarly to the popular “Reclaim the Streets” movements that have taken over major cities in past years.

In this movement, streets are closed down for pedestrian use and pop-ups emerge that can be dance performances, carnivals, story times or anything that shows the demand for greater public space. Conversely, the Socrates Project’s Singing and Laughing Against Fascism serves as a direct connection between the audience, the musicians, and one of the most horrific events of the twentieth century, with the reaction of individuals in the time.

In either case, art movements that are founded in activist efforts have the ability to exert significant public influence and political effort. Their influence on public space, the community they serve, and the priorities of policymakers can have a reach that lasts far beyond their physical presence. To the greater public, these events force us to ask what the role of artists, neighbourhood activists and policymakers is (and should be) in this process. Music is frequently accepted as a common language, and the presence of both the Love in the Hammer Choir and Singing and Laughing Against Fascism speaks volumes.

Lead photo courtesy of Anna Wilson

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