Artist activist Sarah Lewison. (photo: Angela Watters/Reader Supported News)
30 October 14
wenty years ago Sarah Lewison and four female collaborators  took off on the first of its kind, but heretofore hard-to-find, bio-diesel road trip documentary, “Fat of the Land.” In the film, the women dressed as waitresses and embarked on an experimental, environmentalist journey, driving from New York to San Francisco in a Chevy van run on bio-diesel fuel made from kitchen grease collected at diners and fast food restaurants they passed along the way.
They financed the film using a nascent version of crowdfunding. Since no Kickstarter or Indiegogo existed at the time, the artists paid for their project the old-fashioned way by asking people for support over the phone, by mail, and over the radio. The women appeared on NPR several times and even once on the old Paul Harvey Show. As donations rolled in, the artists painted the names of their donors on the van in a show of appreciation.
A limited run on PBS followed the release of the film, and environmentally conscious viewers – hungry for a solution to America’s perpetual energy problems – learned to make bio-diesel from the film, and some even started their own grease-fueled journeys. Hailed at the time as a grand, wacky environmentalist experiment, “Fat of the Land” illustrated the possibilities of a D.I.Y. worldview before that was a household phrase or a hipster credo.
Sarah Lewison being interviewed by News 2 in Detroit from ‘Fat of the Land.’
When asked what she would do differently today, Lewison said, “I’d walk.” The damage created by large-scale soybean farms, which produce the majority of bio-diesel, has somewhat dampened the infectious optimism expressed in the documentary.
“Fat of the Land” and Lewison’s subsequent projects reveal her fascination with political ecology, or how communities negotiate the ways in which we live together and alongside nature, while sharing limited resources. For Lewison, political activism and art-making go hand-in-hand. Sound artist and media scholar Jay Needham says that Lewison “skillfully blends historical research, street theatre and documentary film into multivalent events that inspire debate and sustain dialogs about some of the most pressing issue of our time.” This statement rings true particularly with her most recent project, “The People’s Monsanto Hearings.” In this series of public events – created under the umbrella of the Compass  collaborative – Lewison and her collaborators take the Monsanto Corporation to task for damages they believe the company has inflicted on people, communities and ecosystems. I recently sat down with her to discuss the Monsanto Hearings, activism and art.
What are The People’s Monsanto Hearings?
The Monsanto Hearings are public tribunals in which people and communities present testimony regarding the harmful impact that the Monsanto Corporation, broadly, has wreaked on food, farms, communities, and ecosystems. In these events we examine damages that extend from the work of this corporation, and ask what kinds of laws would protect people and the biosphere from their disregard for the Precautionary Principle. The court becomes a theater to build public understanding and proactive face-to-face communication between people who are concerned with the future of agriculture and the privatization of life.
The Monsanto Hearings take place in a courtroom. Why is this setting important?
They’re not always in a courtroom. The St. Louis hearing was held at a public library because organizers could not find a teaching courtroom or any other space that wasn’t obligated in some way by Monsanto’s donations. In Greene County Ohio the event happened in a county park building with a history of use by social justice activists. But a legal proceeding is like a theatrical event, and the courtroom can be a symbolic stage where people can bring claims to the state.
We wished to provoke discussion about who is served by the court and how the rules of the law conceal biases about who deserves justice and even what constitutes harm. The point is that all do not have access to that courtroom, and the process that occurs in there is not necessarily truly serving those who suffer.
Your group Compass chose to make the hearings non-adversarial (there was nobody representing Monsanto). Why did you choose this method?
When you have a trial, the evidence is weighed and a judge or jury makes a decision, and that is the end of the matter. You could have an appeal, but we can project from our real life experience how that might transpire. Our justice and political systems are contaminated by corporate money, and Monsanto in particular has a gigantic platform to express and defend its own opinion of its doings. If we turn the theater into an adversarial one, with someone representing Monsanto, and a judgment finds Monsanto guilty, what are we going to do next? It creates an unsatisfying story that leaves us bereft of the ability to actually get restitution. As artists we are able to create a narrative, however, that in this case suggests a popular will to continue gathering evidence, that keeps the door open for people to contribute and listen to testimonies.
I have noticed that you are rarely the sole author of a project. Why have you chosen to work this way?
After high school I did other things before I decided to go to college. I ultimately applied to and was accepted into the San Francisco Art Institute, and started school the same week the Gulf War began. One of my teachers, the extraordinary writer Kathy Acker, was adamant that our class should engage with the anti-war protests. We had to go out and do things. So it has always been like that, and we have been in war nearly constantly since then. But also I think that culture emerges from collective formations. The kinds of questions I had developed from dialogue and grew through relationships with other artists. I also lived in an art squat in Berlin the year before, which was an autonomous collective project, an organic pedagogical experiment. To make art in collaboration with other people was, I felt, inherently more interesting and radical. There is a potential for more provocation.
Finally, I am fascinated by the question of how entities organize, and how people and all life organizes itself socially. Wittgenstein said, “There is no such thing as a private language.” I’m interested in that problem and in the agreement inherent in communication.
Typically, the mainstream media reports on art activism, when someone has been arrested or is wanted by the government as in the case of Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble, Pussy Riot, or Ai Wei Wei, although this media silence also applies to traditional activism. Events tend not to be reported by traditional outlets unless they turn violent, someone is arrested, or the scale is large enough to be news. Do you think that activism by artists has an easier time or a harder time of attracting the attention of the public?
The media’s tendency across the board is to pounce on anything spectacular or emotionally disturbing. Your examples also underscore how the media will amplify the ability of an authoritarian state to punish those who go too far in their creative critical inquiry or calls for dissent. And people have become conditioned to these displays of power that create more fear, and end up being paralyzing. Tactical media interventions turn the media’s proclivity to jump onto sensationalism to advantage by using it to, say, bring back an issue that has disappeared from memory such as with the Yes Men’s Dow Bhopal intervention, or to focus on an idea. At first Ferguson, Missouri, coverage focused on arrests and acts of violence rather but now people in St. Louis are increasingly influencing the message the media uses through their use of props like mirrors and mirrored coffins that reflect the police’s image back to them. Reporters post photos of these, which hopefully draws more people into awareness and resistance.
Protesters carry a mirrored coffin in Ferguson, Missouri.
The online news cycle is so accelerated now that all events, from the trivial to the catastrophic, are treated equally. Activists can’t make interventions that point to social injustices as fast as movie stars get married, wear clothes and reproduce, and all these stories are blended together in an interface that conditions viewers into distraction and anxiety.
How would you situate art activism within traditional activism as a whole?
I recommend Nicholas Lampert’s “A People’s Art History of the United States” to anyone interested in this. I think creative expression is frequently at the heart of any resistance movement. It’s a popular thing. The recent visit of Dolores Huerta reminded us how theFarmworkers Union used art, music, people’s theater, puppets, all kinds of means; reflecting their own cultural liveliness. Art is a kind of language, and what we find aesthetically meaningful can even emerge inadvertently, because our eyes recognize patterns. Think about the Zapatistas masks, which protect their identities, but also are a sign of who they are and of the risks that they take and the dignity of their platform. They stand for autonomy and independence from the authoritarian state and for sovereignty over their own land where they live and where they have been living for centuries. There have been moments where things like attention to language and graphic design have created the image of an entire movement; think of the sanitation workers in Memphis who carried signs which read, “I am a man.” The signs indicated that moment but also a longer history of struggle and creative response. There was artistic labor involved; somebody researched and adapted that phrase and printed that sign. Sometimes beauty emerges out of the amassment and repetition of the sign and dignity of the people in the streets who are carrying it. Silence = Death is another one. Creativity is something everybody has access to in some sense. If you can’t get something you become creative, but corporate lawyers are also creative. There also needs to be an ethical meter – this is the convergence point of activist art that furthers social justice.
1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.
At the People’s Climate March last month in New York, it was cool to see how many people had brilliant handmade signs; this kind of creativity communicates joy and rage, the possibility of an emotional life and a sharing society.
Where do your own techniques for community action overlap with more traditional or conventional activism and where do they diverge?
I think they overlap in organizing. A lot of the work I do involves asking other people to participate, and bring something of their experience to an event that does not exist already in our social milieu.
I think there are different degrees to which a movement is directed out of the intelligence and mutuality of affected people on the ground, or through a disempowering or dysfunctional organizational structure. To me, lobbying is a kind of activism that is unaesthetic and, frankly, unappealing because it is so disempowering. Although I thinkTamms Year 10 contributed good juju to working in that realm. As anti-fracking campaigners, we have observed industry lobbyists fluffing legislators while waiting to speak with them for a rushed minute as they run out the door. I feel like electoral politics leave little room for original policy or authentic social participation; particularly with the Democratic and the Republican Parties.
Just to stake a claim then with an absurd third party becomes a conceptual artwork by telegraphing the ineffectuality of our political bodies. An iconic project in that vein was musician and clown Wavy Gravy‘s 1976 presidential parody, “Nobody for President.” Nobody is running for president again in 2016 . I think that any activism that ventures into a space of speculative imagination has potential to generate resistance to the electoral system.
Artistic activism has the capacity to overturn stifling power structures for popular affect, lending critical attention to an issue, sometimes inciting participation. This is the intersection I prefer to work in, where a new platform is invented, or an existing structure is appropriated or inverted to fill a gap that might stimulate different kinds of social behaviors. This kind of art practice is difficult to represent – it is more a performance of attention, collectivity and democratic possibility.
The idea with the Monsanto Hearings is that they would be reproduced in several places with us as organizers and with others doing it as well. A hearing was organized in St. Louis by a coalition of activists called GMO Free Midwest and they did a good job. I participated in this hearing. We convened a hearing outside of Yellow Springs, Ohio, on the invitation of Antioch College. We are currently working on a kit on how to do a Monsanto Hearing. Soon, people will be able to go to monsantohearings.net for downloadable materials on how to make a Monsanto Hearing in their own communities. There are also two short documentaries.
What do you feel like you have accomplished with the Monsanto Hearings? What do you hope happens as more hearings take place?
We encourage people to write us (at monsanto [dot] hearings [at] gmail [dot] com) if they are interested in convening one.
I think one thing gained is the experience we have had, hearing participants included, bringing consumers, farmers, and people from many different walks of life with different relationships to the problem. The hearing leads us to grapple with the hard fact that the technologies of one company can reach so far back into the past and so far across our cultural and economic spectrum and yet there is still no accountability. We found that people are excited to come and speak, so attending a hearing and listening to the different people, many with direct experiences with Monsanto, is incredibly moving.
The Hearings so far have produced an archive of testimony that highlights problems with corporate agriculture beyond the issue of labeling. Initial goals were to better understand the law’s limitations and to develop pre-figurative legal ideas to overcome the limitations. We have learned that environmental health, for example, is practically preemptively impossible. We have been able to learn from other activists who have used various means to produce environmental safety regulations and we see where they fail. This puts people in a position to reject all of these money-wasting strategies and look for new approaches. In the most recent hearing, we learn about the two-community bill of rights campaign the speaker, Ellen Mavrich, from Ohio had participated in. This is a legal strategy that uses existing law in an experimental way to develop local protections for the places where people live. It becomes an opening to challenge corporate personhood because the corporation does not live here. In Carbondale, Illinois, we are currently campaigning for a Community Bill of Rights, looking to use the law to produce a people’s community sovereignty over place, for real.
1. Nicole Cousino, Julie Konop, Florence Dore and Gina Todus
2. Sarah Lewison, Sarah Kanouse, Claire Pentecost, Rozalinda Borcila, Brian Holmes and Iowa City collaborators: Kristen DeGree, Christopher Pickett, Jason Livingston
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