Activism through art

By LauraNalin

Columbia students, faculty and staff gathered April 7-9 with community news organizations, media activists, bloggers and independent journalists for “Art, Access & Action: The Moral Imperative,” an arts and media summit proposed

last November.

The summit was held in the 1104 Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave. It addressed social justice issues and how activists have used traditional and new media as a tool to bring about social change.

Artwork and photographs from Film and Video faculty member Laurie Little’s course Documenting Social Injustice lined the 8th-floor walls along with tables  of pamphlets from various organizations.

The meeting was organized by senior Film and Video major Kevin Gosztola in partnership with the college’s Critical Encounters program.

Part of Critical Encounters’ mission is to create an ongoing dialogue among students, staff and faculty regarding what the college community can do as future artists and media makers of our culture.

The event kicked off on April 7 with a discussion entitled “When Should I Throw Myself on a Hand-Grenade? The Nature of Morality,” which brought together art, philosophy, neuroscience and social theory to study the nature of morality. The discussion was led by humanities, history and social sciences faculty member Tom Greif, cultural studies faculty member Stephen Asma and University of Illinois at Chicago philosophy professor Colin Klein.

Following the April 7 discussion was the summit kickstart, held 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., in which faculty members, journalists, historians and filmmakers gathered to discuss the importance of artists and how human experiences affect the choices we make.

Pan Papacosta, science and math faculty member, presented “The Artist as an Architect for Social Justice.” In the panel, he discussed how each artist has potential to impact society in a great way. His presentation included a slideshow of 80 art pieces including paintings, photographs, films, novels, poetry and sculptures he felt conveyed powerful messages regarding civil rights and anti-war movements, moral values and attainment of peace.

“If we need to change the world, we need to change images in it,” Papacosta said. “The artist today has important things to do. They are not little peripheral figures entertaining rich people anymore—artists are needed to change the world. I also believe strongly in the mission of the college. It claims that we educate students to become authors of their culture. Hopefully students will not only author their culture, but change history for the better and improve society through their art work.”

Papacosta also referred to the international peace symbol designed in 1958 by artist Gerald Holtom in a campaign for nuclear disarmament.

“This is a symbol which is very powerful and recognized against war,” Papacosta said. “And this is the contribution of a single artist. As an artist he authored his culture with a simple design.”

The following faculty members and activists contributed to the summit: journalism faculty member Norma Green; distinguished professor of humanities, history and social sciences Louis Silverstein; journalism faculty member Dan Sinker; Kartemquin Film founder Gordon Quinn and filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein; dance faculty member Peter Carpenter; Patrick Lichty of activist group the Yes Men; journalist and political commentator Salim Muwakkil; independent policy researcher, journalist and historian Paul Street; and journalist, activist, author and English faculty member Stan West.

Silverstein spoke with adjunct economics faculty member Arvis Averette and Columbia cinematography student Anthony Wagner in a panel called “Good vs. Evil.” They explored the creative and destructive aspects of humanity through studying media portrayals of good versus evil, lessons learned on the Iraq War battlefield and philosophical insights into the nature of good and evil with humankind.

Wagner, an Iraqi War veteran, discussed the violence he was taught after enlisting in the Army, and the challenges he faced after realizing he felt the war he was participating in was unjust. He said he felt supported and was viewed as doing a “good” thing while he was in Iraq. However, when he decided to protest the war, he felt as if his refusal to fight was seen as unpatriotic.

Silverstein discussed the good and evil that exist in each human being and how the choices they make affect everyone around them. One of the examples Silverstein used was domestic violence.

Silverstein said individuals who commit domestic violence might be doing it to suppress feelings they haven’t dealt with yet.

“I try to get people to realize that in each one of us there are these feelings, and unless you process them, no matter how wonderful of a person you think you are, given these situations, you also are, in all likelihood, [going] to commit evil,” Silverstein said. “I tend to bring it to the person to realize the choices we make in our homes as opposed to larger society, and that affects everybody.”

Silverstein added that these discussions are important to have on campus because it causes people to reflect on who they are and the possibilities contained within them to do both good and evil.

“By counting panelists who had to deal with those issues in their lives, they’re giving real life examples of choices that we as human beings need to make,” Silverstein said. “I think it’s absolutely essential to have these discussions at a college that wants people to ‘author the culture of their times.’ Authoring is not just documenting—authoring is, by virtue, one’s actions and also participating in culture making.”

An opening panel for the conference was moderated by Jeanette Forman, Atlanta attorney and social justice policy activists for Atlanta’s WRFG-FM 89.3. The panel members were Jeff Spitz, an Emmy award-winning documentarian and faculty coordinator of the Michael Rabiger Center for Documentary Film at Columbia; Tracy Van Slyke, project director for The Media Consortium, a network of the country’s leading, progressive, independent media outlets including Mother Jones, New America Media and Democracy Now.

Other members of the panel included Amalia Deloney, the Media Action Grassroots Network Coordinator with the Center for Media Justice, a media strategy and action center whose main goal is to build a powerful movement for racial equality, economic justice and human rights, and Sarah Lu, outreach and partnerships assistant for Chicago Public Radio’s

The panel discussed recent shifts in media terrain, such as the strong presence of corporate media ownership, the rise of “new media”—the computerized, networked technologies involved in media—along with the collapse in traditional journalism and how future media makers can endure the changes and converge their media by networking.

One key issue mentioned  was using outlets,  such as Facebook and Twitter, to share important news events with your peers and spark the dialogue needed to create social change, the importance of independent media and how to assemble your own, what Van Slyke called, “progressive choir.”

In addition to the Internet, Deloney said although the importance of new media systems and new ways of connecting is “fantastic,” there’s a parallel reality in America emerging.

“Ninety-eight million people in this country have no access to high-speed broadband,” Deloney said. “It’s not that they can’t afford it, they don’t have infrastructure to get it. If we start to think how broadband is the backbone to communication in our country,  where  else would we tolerate this? Where else would we tolerate 98 million people not able to get water or electricity sent to their homes?”

She added although 63 percent of adults have high-speed broadband, 37 percent of adults do not have access to it. She said of that 37 percent, the majority of the people without Internet are immigrants, refugees, people of color or from low income or rural communities.

“Even as we’re progressing—we are arguably at a time where more information is shared more than before, not just on a local level, but around the globe—there is a separate and parallel  America that’s being built,” Deloney said. “If we learned anything through our struggles as activists and cultural workers, the truth is that separate is never equal.

It never has been and it never will be and that is an issue we need to address.  Everyone should have access to airwaves.”

Other issues raised were Internet surveillance, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit digital rights advocacy and legal organization, and the National Broadband Plan, a plan implemented by The Federal Communications Commission to ensure every American has “access to broadband capability.” Also discussed was the importance of whistle blowing, or reporting injustices, when you suspect misconduct.

Spitz provided information for his award-winning documentary, “The Return of Navajo Boy,” which focuses on a Navajo family struggling with the effects of uranium mining on tribal land in Monument Valley, Utah.

“There’s a power relationship in the room,” Spitz said. “This is really a student driven phenomenon. It’s an honor to be here and hear their work. My own operates in a different sphere.”

Spitz discussed his issues with the 1922 silent documentary “Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic,” which captured the struggle of an Inuk boy and his family in the Canadian arctic.

“The entire thing was reenacted and the purpose was to impress people who look like me,” Spitz said. “A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a single sentence of truth is worth more than an image. I’ve found in my work and what I continue to do is the Navajo nation. I didn’t make a film about uranium mining, so to speak. I met people who had things to say more than their images and pictures could say for them. These are people who have been silenced with something to say.”

He added that as visual artists, there must be a complete breakdown between pictures and truth. He said visual images are not necessarily how students should tell their whole story, and that the images used must be analyzed.

“You need to become critical about what you’re seeing,” Spitz said. “People who feeling strongly about a ‘just cause’ often manipulate things, and they can manipulate them very effectively. Propaganda and documentary always go hand in hand. Students in my classes are always amazed to discover documentaries that encompass creativity and beauty of the triumph of the will.”

A number of sessions followed throughout the day. Discussions focused on using the media to expose the roots of violence,  connecting cultures through art,  mountaintop  removal in Appalachia, the importance of teaching youth, and Vietnam veterans’ portrayal of the war through movies, literature and popular culture.

Discussions also included a bone-making party for the One Million Bones project, an art installation whose goal is to get the world to reflect on the human tragedy of genocide. There was a discussion with guerilla journalist and “muckraker extraordinaire” Greg Palast, award-winning journalist who has investigated the Bush family and Exxon Valdez, and worked as an undercover reporter for The Observer to uncover British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Lobbygate scandal. Palast was interviewed by Chuck Mertz, host of WNUR’s “This Is Hell.”

“The first time Greg was on the air here in America on any station was on “This Is Hell” back in December of 2000,” Mertz said.

Mertz had read some of Palast’s articles in The Guardian regarding the black voter purge in Florida during former

President George W. Bush and Al Gore’s presidential election.

“He brings us news that you can’t get anywhere  else and is still not in the mainstream media even though it affects our daily lives,” Mertz said.

Palast talked about his recent visit to the Amazon rainforest where he was investigating Chevron, a multinational

energy corporation, dumping more than 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into the forest.

He recalled dropping his microphone into a river. “I remember thinking to myself, Anderson Cooper wouldn’t do this,” he joked.

He presented a 2007 BBC Television episode in which he investigated the alleged role that American financier Eric Herman played in the Liberian economy through blackmail and  hedge funds.

Palast visited Herman’s office and house, where Herman refused to speak with him. “I wish I had been smarter and rented a white van or something when I showed up outside of his house,” Palast said. “Here I was outside of his mansion with my 14 year-old Honda in the middle of the snow.”

When Palast and his film crew hounded Herman’s office, Herman took his metal name plates from off of his door and

locked his office.

“I love that I had this multibillionaire just, shaking,” he said.

The summit met its initial goal: to challenge and question what is presented to  interested parties.

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