Public Spaces, Digital Spaces Act as Important Sites for Artistic Forms of Actvism


Photo courtesy of For Freedoms

For Freedoms installed art on billboards for their project, “The 50 State Initiative.”

Art has held a specific role in protest, activism, and resistance throughout history. At times, just the act of artmaking itself has been a form of political resistance. Art has also been a unifying force, building spaces of solidarity around marginalized groups and fostering conversations about political reform and social justice. Today, visual culture has seeped into media outlets and re-defined the way we communicate the political and social issues that we care about. Reflecting this change, larger-scale media about political and social issues now has different needs, as it must appeal to an audience with a contemporary attention span and aesthetic.

In 2021, 48 percent of U.S. adults said they “sometimes” or “often” learn about news from social media, according to Pew Research Center. In order for news to be attention-grabbing on social media, the visual component is most important. Infographics, photos, and visual art are often utilized not only to share actual news but also to discuss systemic issues and promote causes. Infographics have a particularly bad reputation, with some popular social media accounts being viewed as corny and ineffective and as capitalizing off of the issues that they have reduced to a three-slide graphic. Additionally, Instagram activism, which many claim to be “performative activism,” provides an excuse for social media users to simply repost a snappy tweet on their story, wipe their hands, and forget all about the issue at hand, failing to follow up and enact real change. However, the reality is that internet spaces are becoming just as big a part of individual lives as physical spaces, and people are still figuring out how to bring their personal and political values onto these platforms.

In recent political movements, many visual artists have adapted their practice to exist in and collaborate with the digital space. Shirien Damra is a Palestinian-American artist and organizer whose portraits memorializing George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery became visuals most associated with the fight for Black lives in 2020. At the same time that people were taking to the streets to protest police brutality and demand systemic reform, artists were using the tools and language that theyʼd acquired to spread awareness and memorialize the lives lost, as well as spreading awareness about the movement itself. This form of artistic activism involves community organizing, with the internet serving as a resource rather than a platform for virtue signaling. Internet art as activism is certainly not a one-off solution for systemic political issues, but if we care about social and political reform, we cannot exclude digital spaces from the sites of our activism. For many users, this feels unnatural, but many artists are familiar with designing digital spaces as networks for sharing political sentiments and information.

Our issue with what we call “performative activism” makes sense: it seems to reflect a lack of personal responsibility for political and social issues, allowing people to praise themselves for virtue signaling instead of taking direct action. Performative activism often reflects a desire to increase social capital rather than actual concern for the issue at hand. Additionally, many people have concerns that aestheticizing digital movements has changed the landscape of political activism, making it so people will not take part in social reform unless it is “pretty” or can be made into a performance. Although this is a very real threat, as it can prevent actual change, the problem with generalizing in this way is that all forms of social media activism are viewed as equally ineffective. In reality, the artistry behind informative illustrations like Damra’s has a different purpose than the hashtags and black squares that Instagram users posted in 2020, which many people promptly for- got about. Art-making and performance have a longstanding relationship with activism and protest. One of the forms that performance and activism have taken and continue to take is that of political or experimental theater. At times, like the period after World War I, the theater was used as a platform to express anti-propaganda sentiments. Today, experimental theater and larger-scale media often introduce political and social issues through creative development and the art of performing.

Visual artists also use their practices and their methods of performing as stages for sharing political sentiments. During a time in which so many people from various communities are under attack simply for their identity, art has proven to be an effective tool for expressing fears and concerns. Installation design and public art are popular mediums through which many conceptual artists create work motivated by intentional activism. Artists like Ai Weiwei and Jenny Holzer have developed artistic practices that make political statements, bringing conversations about systemic issues into gallery spaces and museum settings.

Contemporary artists and art organizations have been increasingly connecting performance, visual art, and public spaces with activism. For Freedoms is an artist collective that brings the visual aesthetics of Instagram activism into physical spaces, confronting the public with political statements and starting conversations through visual art.

One of For Freedoms’ recent projects was the 50 State Initiative, through which the organization installed artwork along roads in every U.S. state, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. The art behind this activism was the jumping point for the organization, which also facilitated town halls and other community events in partnership with local art institutions to facilitate conversations about regional and national issues in each state. These artworks feature catchy political sayings and minimalistic imagery comparable to the aesthetics of internet activism; however, the work of For Freedoms did not stop with these public installations or even their popular Instagram presence, on which their aesthetic finds its target audience. The digital world has created a demand for striking visual components and aesthetics in activism. This comes with many downfalls, including an increase in performative activism and virtue signaling. Still, many artists and organizations use these changes to continue the long history of activist art. The visual identity of activism and social reform cannot be seen as an easy substitute for “real” political action, but rather as a language through which artists can express political theories, share information, build community, and enact change.