How can one produce social good through art? Steve Lambert is one artist who feels activism should be a primary focus for any work and something that artists should strive for. As a co-founder of the Center for Artistic Activism and and Associate Professor at SUNY Purchase, he provides workshops and continues to make artworks which focuses the role advertising has on our society.
He is also conducting workshops and taking part in events as part of Vivid Ideas happening in Sydney happening as part of the wider Vivid Sydney showcase of talent. We got him to answer a few questions for us about his work and what he is to present at his talks and workshops.
Your work expands itself into different places, from making artwork to be displayed at a physical space like a museum to making an online works that can be utilised practically (like Self-Control). What goes into deciding a medium for an artwork for you?
There’s artists that define themselves in terms of media; I’m a painter, or a ceramicist. That’s not me: I’m pragmatic. I’m trying to get something done, and I’ll use (and sometimes learn) a media in order to make that happen. It’s more useful for me to find a goal to achieve, then work backwards from there. The media is a means.
You are one of the founders of the Center of Artistic Activism, which has — as part of it’s mission — a goal to “make more creative activists and more effective artists.” Through your time time working for the center, what do you think has been the most effective way of reaching that goal?
Well, the most effective is also not very efficient. What we’ve done is gathered groups of 15–20 people, take them out of town for about five days, and do an intensive course with them. We cover theory and history, and then we put it into practice. It ends with a collective action back in the city centre. It’s great and people leave re-invigorated, with a load of new ideas and methods they can put to use.
The inefficient part is that it takes days and we can only do it with a small number at a time. Over the past few years we’ve reached over 500 participants in 25 workshops on 4 continents, in 8 countries. Not bad, but we want to reach many more. Right now we’re working on a book that can communicate the underlying philosophy and practice and more online resources so we can offer the research to more people.
In your opinion, how much activism has grown through the art movement?
I don’t know if I’d phrase it that way. It implies art and activism are separate fields and I don’t agree. All art has inherent political messages, whether the artist intends it or not. And all activism has creative elements, sometimes it’s in its vision or public performance – and honestly, sometimes it suffers from not enough creativity. I see them as branches from the same tree.
You as an artist love to collaborate not only with art organisations, but political groups like Greenpeace. What is the reaction like from such political groups when you approach them with ideas?
Usually they’re big organisations with many layers of bureaucracy. This can bring conservatism and I usually begin anticipating that I’ll be laughed out of the room. However, that’s never happened. Big organisations think on a longer time scale. They think about big goals and work with short term objectives. I also think in terms of big utopian goals and how to achieve short term objectives with various projects. I just have more unusual ways of reaching the objectives. But the other thing about big organisations is that they can afford to employ a diversity of tactics and take some risks on new ways. Not always, but more often than you’d expect.
Why is conveying a political message important for you? Why should it be important for other artists to include it in future works?
It’s not important to me to convey a political message – that’s just a method. What’s important is why: that humanity, civilisation, and culture moves as far forward as possible and I do my part to help. No one has to take this on, of course. When we don’t contribute to culture and politics, it still continues. We just leave more agency over our culture in the hands of corporations, who work full time on influencing society for their benefit with some of the most skilled and talented people on the planet.
As an artist, I can’t tell you what’s important to include in your work. That is something that comes from you. But if you think the world can be a better place, and you want to act on that, your skills and practice as an artist are not a separate matter. Artists and creativity are critical in both contributing to culture, imagining the world in new ways, and in helping us take steps in that direction.
Do you see lost opportunities for artists to make statements in their work today? In you opinion, what ways can artists improve the social impact of their art?
The lost opportunity happens when we imagine art and activism as discrete fields. Politics is often taught as if it’s separate from art and culture. Art is too often taught as if it were an isolated practice for a niche audience. Those who cross the boundary feel out of place, like: “I’m not creative enough” or “I’m not political.” When approaching it this way, many don’t even consider the possibilities, much less developing a practice around it.
What should participants expect in your Vivid Ideas Masterclass that you will conduct at the festival?
I’ll do my best to respond to the needs of the people in the room, and there’s a lot of resources I can pull from. I try to dismantle some of the myths and misconceptions that can get in the way of doing this work while keeping it engaging and fun. For those choosing to affect change with your work, to use creativity in the process, I can help make those efforts as enjoyable and effective as possible.
Steve Lambert is taking part of Vivid Ideas by conducting a masterclass on utilising creative platforms in art, as well as taking part in the Do Good Be Good Conference looking at art and social change.
Vivid Ideas runs as part of the Vivid Sydney from May 27 – June 18. More information here.