2009 is the Year of Artivism

January 3, 2009

I saw this on Facebook and just HAD to share it with readers.


“The Red Bull Tree” by Natalie Bennett
December 27, 2008

I giggled when I saw it: the willow tree that was adorned by unlikely ornaments – empty Red Bull cans that sparkled and spun around in response to the occasional sea breeze and the steady traffic off the main road. Just my kind of person, whoever it was who thought to do that. Not having a chance to take a picture was ok – the bus was not travelling on my schedule after all – but I knew I would remember it for a long time. Besides, that sight alone made the rest of my trip back to Montego Bay tolerable. Yes, the highway may be lovely to travel on, but it has also destroyed all of my 30-something years of memories and the way I had learned to use geography and landscape to mark time. Over the next few days, I saw a few more trees from a distance: one was a glittery red and white – empty foil-lined snack bags stuffed into clear Chubby plastic bottles; another was quite colorful, adorned only with those snack bags which had been cut into strips; yet another was dripping with empty Fruta cans, no particular flavor preference.

I was returning from a week-long trip to Kingston where I had been doing a bit of recycling of my own. You know those bountiful slick, colourful, smelly (likely toxic!) flyers that Island Grill, C &W, Digicel, Claro, B-Mobile and the like have been using to blanket the island to drum up more business and produce more garbage? Well, after a particular late-night visit to the IG on Knutsford Boulevard and having to wait a little too long for a cup of sorrel – no ice please, for the third time – I took one look at the stack of the flyers spread out on the counter – and which nobody was paying attention to – and decided that they needed a different kind of life. I scooped them all up and stuffed them into my bag, and considered myself doing a public service. Litter really does piss me off, even if it was the highly expensive branded kind (those lada bags and Digicel phone cards are pretty high on my shit-list).

At first, the flyers were made into gift boxes and envelopes. I had a limited amount of time to produce holiday gifts made of other kinds of recyclables – seeds and calendars mostly – and these containers were absolutely perfect. It turns out that the corporate variety of flyers held up better (they were thicker) than the ones available from Susie’s Bakery. Go figure. The latter I used for very small gifts, like earrings.

About two days later, I was making my annual pilgrimage to Barry Street to do a little impromptu street performance, the content of which is never entirely clear until I get there. At that time, the flyers took on a different form. On my way to Barry Street, I had stopped by Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL), and fell into a conversation with the E.D. about the 50,000 calendars that were sitting on the floor and which were sorely in need of a distribution plan. I took a couple off her hands, and suggested that I might be able to move them quite quickly downtown; she looked unconvinced and was downright skeptical that this was possible; she gave me several posters anyway. I said thanks and went on my merry way.

On Barry Street, I set up next to Mother’s patty shop, and kept company with Mr. Typewriter Man for a few hours. During that time, the flyers turned into a few other things: covers for miniature colouring books (children) and notebooks (adults), picture frames. The flyers absolutely sparkled, though, as when they morphed into gift boxes containing condoms and lube. Whenever I travel outside the U.S., I bring as many condoms as I can and give them away, doing impromptu sex ed (the adult variety) wherever it is called for; and no, I feel no shame about doing this. JAS’s posters were particularly useful for this impromptu Santa run: with the red and white theme, the boxes looked appropriately Christmas-y. I handed them out as “presents”; some people even returned to my little stall bringing friends with them. Others – both men and women – took gift boxes with the intention of passing them on to others. Schoolers were an interesting bunch to interact with. My silent nonjudgmental attitude – want one? take one! – along with a certain frankness that I am sure they do not encounter from guidance counsellors – turned a few encounters into both enlightening and difficult conversations. One group of girls – hilariously comprised of a talkative, booksmart but clueless one, a questioning one, a falla-fashin one, a silent and uber-religious one – wanted to know if I was going to be there (ie. in that same spot) all the time. I told them I wish I could; both of us were disappointed about that.

I continued the giveaways on two other days in downtown, trading gift boxes for underwear (I had to buy it; the woman selling the polyester drawers done lyrics me off!), for a smile, intervened in at least two potential arguments over foolishness, replaced the boredom and worries of the sleepy, irritable cart-men and the drop-pan man for a minute, and as a gesture of kindness to individuals who rarely ever get anything for nothing. I mean, who doesn’t like to receive gifts?? I even gave a couple to the MOH folks who were set up at the corner of East Queen Street with the wooden dildo (that thing frightened me!) I think I had a lot more fun than they did, but that’s my opinion. Plus, I think I was more creative.

Before the end of day number 1 at Walter Fletcher Beach (I will never call it Aqua Sol) I had acquired a bit of a reputation. Random men of varying ages were coming up to me to interrupt my last push to finish holiday gifts: ” ‘ello miss, mi ear seh yuh a gi wheh someting,” with a shy almost embarrassed smile. It did well sweet some o’ dem fi ask mi dat yuh si? Some also saw this as an opportunity to make their move, not that they needed any special invitation to state their other intentions of course; having condoms meant that I was already open to a certain kind of talk. Others would stand and watch me make the boxes (I did have to work a little harder to keep up with the demand) and ask with more than a touch of curiosity: Why was I doing this? Who did I work for? Was I a nurse? No, I would laugh, I’m just being a good citizen. But by the time I left that beach after seeing the bottle stoppers, snack bags and plastic bottles littering the place and lying around the garbage bins, and noticing the contents of the piles of garbage in the gullies and around the place, I started thinking that we really needed to find a way to turn much of this garbage into beautiful and useful things, however ephemeral they might be.

There was a time when flour bags, empty drums, tyres, glass bottles, zinc, crocus bags etc. seemed entitled to a second life. Even as we are steadily embracing the “throw-away” ethic and lifestyle of North America – with little or no infrastructure to deal with the overwhelming volume of trash that accompanies – I think some of us can and should draw brakes every once in a while. I think we often forget – or maybe never knew? – that beauty does not only reside in galleries, museums and the environs created by the wealthy to display their wares. I did go to the opening of the Biennial and recall a couple of pieces that were based on recyclables; in that space the term is “multimedia.” Curiously, with the exception of the altered Bible, they didn’t spark much response or interest on my part, maybe because the context in which I was viewing them completely changed how I received the artists’ work. Nonetheless, creating beauty does not need to come at the expense of other commitments – individual and otherwise – but it does need to be part of how we live everyday. The Red Bull Tree was such a pause for me (by the way, I googled “red bull tree” and came upon this site: http://flickr.com/photos/7428849@N02/429548281/). At a time when the Jamaican economy is one flush away from tanking, and when BG just gave small business a sorta nod towards sustainability, maybe its a good time to think about how art, aesthetics, environmental activism and economic growth overlap and can provide mutual benefit: why not a crashie program for artists a la the WPA of the 1930s? Meanwhile, we have an abundance of garbage to work with, certainly enough for a few sculptures at KOTE 2009.

You can reach the author Natalie Bennett at gelede@gmail.com.


3 Responses to “2009 is the Year of Artivism”

  1. Annie Paul Says:

    hey, LB you beat me to it. had intended to link it also. but this is great! i thought Natalie gave some really good examples of the innovative forms that art can and perhaps should take. this fills out an earlier conversation on this very blog about art, performance, street art etc.

    This is true creativity at work, not the kind that worries about whether this is ‘indigenous’ to our culture or not, whether Big Art Brother is watching and approving, etc etc.

  2. longbench Says:

    @ Annie – yes, it’s nice to know that other folks are right there as well. But there must be other stuff going on, right? right? Keep looking. More to come, for sure.

    @ Owen – Thanks for the pic! You say crazy, I say creative. The willow tree version presents a much more striking image though, where the leaves don’t compete with the cans.

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