“I get asked a lot, ‘Why are so many activists also artists?'” said Alice Zinnes, a light, color, and design professor at New York’s Pratt Institute.
“I think it’s because we’re more willing to think outside the box and be creative,” said Zinnes. She pointed to her hat, which was decorated with colorful pins displaying anti-fracking messages. “People can visually tell I’m a nut, but they can also tell that I care about this issue, and they often ask me about it. To me this doesn’t feel overly creative, it just seems obvious, but to most people it comes off as extraordinarily passionate, and they want to know more.”
While Zinnes said that, out of respect, she doesn’t project her own political beliefs and activism onto her students, she’s pleased that over the years she’s noticed more students start to take a stand for things they care about.
“A few years ago, student activists were abnormal. Now, I’m seeing a trend towards more involvement,” she said.
These days, it does seem student activism is on the rise. Through involvement in Occupy Wall Street and subsequent occupations of various college campuses, students have made it known that they want to be involved in the change our country needs. All over America, students are rising to action when they feel something needs to be fixed.
In Sacramento, a proposal to cut grant funding crucial for many California students to attend college was dropped on March 8 when students and faculty rallied at the capitol building. Earlier this month, University of Virginia students held a 13-day hunger strike to bring attention to the need for a living wage at their university. And on March 20, after two months of blockading a campus branch of US Bank, University of California, Davis’ students succeeded in getting the bank to permanently close the branch.
This sort of student involvement is exactly what Zinnes likes to see. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Zinnes remembers being confused at the lack of response to the situation.
“We were so close to the attacks that you could see the smoke from campus, but the only thing that changed on campus was a student painted the canon [one of the school’s statues] camouflage. That was gone within the week.”
Now, Zinnes can be proud of not only the student activist efforts across the country, but those at her own school. Pratt Institute, an art college in Brooklyn, is home to many student activists, as well, and these activists utilize their creative expression to bring about change.
On February 13, Ryan Carson and Michelle Betters, two sophomore students, put together a five-hour pop-up art show outside the cafeteria. The goal of the show was to take over a space and transform it. They pulled together 18 student artists to donate pieces, which they hung on the walls for students and faculty to see on their way to in to eat.
Carson and Betters are two of the more involved Pratt students; they’ve organized student walk-outs in support of Occupy Wall Street, protested for professor health care coverage and organized a group, called the Pratt Collective, for students who want to get more involved.
After spending a semester thoroughly invested in the health care issue – only 29 percent of Pratt’s faculty have health care, and only full-time teachers and a few adjunct teachers are eligible for it – they are pleased that the leader of Pratt’s union, Kye Carbone, has been negotiating for the professors’ benefits. If negotiations go as planned, 300 more faculty members would be offered benefits, upping the percentage of those covered to 65 percent.
With those negations in the works, this semester Carson and Betters have been focusing on the issue of space and occupation. After participating in several protests in conjunction with Occupy Wall Street, Carson and Betters decided to bring what they learned to the school. The pop-up show was put together in one weekend and was designed to start a conversation about space on campus, and about how students can more effectively use it. Retaking public space was an integral part of the OWS movement, and these two students wanted to generate something of that effect in an area that meant something to them: their college campus.
“We didn’t ask permission; we just took over a space,” Betters said. The administration, if it noticed the act, didn’t say anything about it, which prompted Betters pose a question: If there didn’t seem to be repercussions, “Why aren’t people taking over space more often?”
“For an art school, you don’t really see a lot of art,” Carson lamented about the state of his school. “Pratt tries to keep everything looking so neat ,and it’s just so boring. I wish we could have art everywhere.”
The two students are not art majors, but writing majors. However, they still understand the importance of art in activism.
“Making art is way more powerful a statement than anything you can simply say,” Zinnes said in a lecture about using art for activism that Carson and Betters helped to orchestrate alongside Pratt’s chapter of NYPIRG (New York Public Interest Research Group).
Digital artist Yechiam Gal was also in attendance at the lecture, and he agreed: “Art is political. It’s beyond shapes and colors. It’s what you, as a citizen, have to say. My work is always political. The substance of my work is the human condition.”
Gal showcased his most recent work, a video warning of the dangers of fracking. The film, though not complete, was moving, as he interviewed local citizens in affected fracking areas and used an echo effect to play their pleas for clean water over and over again as the screen switched to display images of clear running water mingled with gas explosions and fires.
Betters, Carson and NYPIRG hope these kinds of lectures will encourage more people to start being active through their own art.
“Students have so much power, and they don’t realize it. We just want to get more students speaking out and being aware of the space around them,” Betters said. Carson agreed and added how important collaboration could be.
“Working to create something together as students would just be the dream result of all this,” he said.
Both goals seem to be coming to fruition as a result of the first pop-up show.
“People saw what we were doing and wanted to get involved,” Carson said. “We acquired ten more pieces just from students coming and tacking their pieces on the walls alongside the others.”
“The goal is not to anger or offend,” said Betters, “but first to say, ‘Here is our space,’ and then to ask, ‘What should we do with it?'”
What Betters and Carson plan to do with it is hold more shows.
“I want to literally have them pop up anywhere. I want to have a really small one in an elevator so people are forced to look at the art,” he said. “Our obligation is to reclaim the spaces that we have and to bring new meaning to a space that isn’t being used to its full potential.”
Carson and Betters are encouraging many other students to start participating in activism more, both through their pop-up shows and through the Pratt Collective.
“Students expressed a lot of interest in participating in future shows. We had a sign-up sheet for contributions and we received a lot of signatures,” Carson said.
“This year feels different,” Zinnes said about student activism. “I have some students who really do care.”
“On a scale of importance from one to ten, I think student activism is a 20,” said Zinnes. “It’s cheesy, but students are who inherit the world. That’s what matters. I am going to be gone and irrelevant soon, but there’s still time for students to get involved and make difference.”
Since their February show, Carson and Betters have organized another show for this coming Sunday, March 25, in conjunction with Occupy Town Square. The show is open to the public and runs from 11 AM to 7 PM in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, New York.