Art for Social Change Student Blogger Study USA

Hacking the system: growing roots and cultivating connectivity

Students at Line 3 water protector camp. They are wearing coats and it is snowy.

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Zoe Quinn (she/her/hers) is HECUA’s student blogger for Art for Social Change Spring 2021. She is student at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, majoring in art. Read on for her first post!

Hello readers! My name is Zoe and I will be blogging about the field speakers, trips, ideas, and projects that we engage with in HECUA’s Spring 2021 Art for Social Change Program. I am studying Art and Art History at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, and am looking forward to continuing a semester filled with creativity, collaboration, and rich experiences and discussions. 

It’s mid-February in Minnesota, and everything is lying dormant under a blanket of snow, like a white sheet covering furniture in an empty room. It’s reasonable that many artists may feel unable to cultivate their roots and grow upwards during this time of Winter and COVID, having retreated to virtual spaces and struggling to connect mind, body, and space. However, the essential work of the arts has been especially relevant over the course of the year, especially with the amount of complex and pivotal events that have occurred. Even in isolation and the cold, there is art-making and change-making taking place. These past few weeks in the Art for Social Change program have centered around community building and empowerment, decolonizing our minds and bodies, and the power of art in creating space, all in the context of social change. Guided by behavioral artist and program director, Marcus Young, our cohort of eight has worked to create an enriching, embodied experience in a virtual space. 

After meeting a variety of local artists and activists, two perspectives on community building have become clear. These perspectives will shape our approach to art-making in the context of social change this semester: communities are the experts on what they need, and that hope should always be included in narratives about those who have suffered damage. Our class had the opportunity to talk with HECUA community faculty Julia Dinsmore, who has experienced poverty throughout her life, and uses a variety of different art forms to educate, primarily poetry, song, and storytelling. She spoke about how outsiders frequently make assumptions about her community and their needs without listening to the actual people they were “helping.” How could a person know what people experiencing poverty in a specific place need, having never experienced poverty and coming from elsewhere? Even well-meaning allies can fall into self-serving and tokenizing patterns of thinking about communities often portrayed one-dimensionally as broken and hopeless. 

Part of the process of shifting away from this includes reframing narratives around historically oppressed communities. For instance, with Native American communities it is important to recognize the colonial violence, disenfranchisement, and continued racism they experience, but still hold space for agency, complexity, and survivance. It is imperative that social justice work moves past white saviorism and focuses on community strengths and leadership. 

Another pillar of Art for Social Change has been the decolonization of our minds and bodies in the work of decolonizing our institutions and making change in our communities. Decolonization begins with gathering an awareness of the values and tendencies that are rooted in being socialized in a colonial culture. A common theme that we have discussed in class is separation as a result of Western individualism. This can manifest as separation between mind and body, from our ancestors, and from the earth. Art can play a powerful role in rediscovering the interconnectedness of these things. For instance, our sessions with dance artist Imagine Joy have really helped to ground me and plant the seeds of self growth during a somewhat disembodied and discouraging time. 

Decolonizing our bodies can also give us different approaches to social change. As we practiced with movement artist Laura Levinson, we discovered how embodying interconnectivity and slowness allows us to imagine social change solutions that fall outside of learned responses of the status quo. Western culture demands urgency, hyper-productivity, and immediate results, but these are not always the most impactful tools. We cannot change the system if our bodies and minds are conditioned to perpetuate it. In thinking about the violence that can occur as a result of this separation, the Enbridge pipelines come to mind, the example closest to home being Line 3. Environmental damage for the purpose of the money interest is an example of Western separation from the natural world. Capitalism has no regard for the livelihoods of the Anishinaabe people who use the water for growing rice and for drinking. (Click here to read more about the movement to Stop Line 3.) Going against the values that allow this destruction to take place allows different seeds to be planted. 

Though the spaces are very different, the effect of the art in George Floyd Square and our trip to the Water Protector camp at Palisade was transformative. Art in social justice spaces can change perspectives and guide interactions with the space. Entering the Water Protector camp, I was immediately drawn to the large, colorful banners and installations. Signs read “Check your ego here” and “Honor the treaty,” and fabric strips were woven through tree branches. There is a power and energy in being surrounded by things that people have made. George Floyd Square is filled with offerings, both from artists and ordinary people. Through art, an everyday street corner is transformed into a memorial, a community gathering place, a reminder, and so many other things. There are vibrant murals, a greenhouse, a welded black power fist, and a spiraling snow pathway of offerings. Both sites have fire pits, inviting people to gather, discuss, and reflect, things that I have come to value even more during COVID. Art has a unique ability to inspire change and exist outside of the system, especially through performance and movement mediums that exist in embodied ephemerality.

Contemporary art is boundless and really impactful in spaces of social justice and activism. An integral part of making change is decolonization and collaboration, and art can be powerfully instrumental in this process, especially in embodied forms such as dancing, spoken word, and movement art. So far, Art for Social Change has really stretched my mind in new ways, given me perspective, and expanded my artistic practice. 


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