Wise fools for love? Arts activism and social transformation

The arts can inspire and equip people to use their power and creativity to stand against injustice.

Veena Vasista
14 November 2014

Cardboard cut-out guns delivered to Española City Council in New Mexico. Credit: Dinah Vargas. All rights reserved.

Victor Villalpando was 16 years old when he was shot and killed by police officer Jeremy Apodaca in Española, New Mexico, on June 8th 2014. Four months later, I attended an ‘art intervention’ outside the District Court building in Santa Fe, held in conjunction with a National Day of Protest to “Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.”  

The intervention was a direct response to a grand jury decision of “justifiable homicide” in favor of Officer Apodaca. Yet it was more than a protest. Artists of many different ages created expressions of grief, rage, fear, opposition and hope through theatre, dance, poetry, spoken word, art and puppetry.

Organized by an ad-hoc group called Concerned Citizens for Public Safety, the protest also named over a hundred other victims of lethal police violence under the age of 30. Those present were invited to write messages on the back of cardboard cut-out guns, with the idea that they would eventually be delivered to police officers in Española via the City Council.    

A number of people who were involved in organizing and attending the event were students or teachers with the Peñasco Theatre Collective, which grew out of Wise Fool New Mexico (NM). Based in Santa Fe, Wise Fool NM aims “to ignite imagination, build community, and promote social justice through performances and hands-on experiences in the arts of circus, puppetry, and theatre.” The Collective is “a group of performers and visual artists that call Peñasco home and continue the tradition of utilizing the arts to bring people together in a mutually respectful, culturally diverse environment.”

These organizations have expanded my understanding of the role of the performing arts in transformative social action. This role can be expressed through plays and art installations with explicit political content, storytelling that moves people to action emotionally, or the participation of artists in costume and with puppets in street demonstrations. The arts can invite people to reflect on challenging issues by using play, beauty and humor. The process of making art is itself a space for building social movements.

In July of 2013, I volunteered for a two-week children’s circus arts workshop in Peñasco. The workshop teaches children a range of artistic skills using socially-minded themes.  We worked with stilt-walking, partner acrobatics, trapeze, aerial fabrics, dance, clowning, set-building and storytelling. I watched children and teachers practice the arts of building trust, being mutually supportive, taking risks, and experimenting with imagination.  It’s an approach that links together equality, love and power as the foundation of social justice.

I recently interviewed Amy Christian and Amy Bertucci-Nieto, Wise Fool NM Artistic Director and teacher/performer respectively. They described social justice as rooted in equality, by creating “a space for each person’s humanity to thrive….a space that allows people to feel their own empowerment.”

Previously, I’d had a vague sense that social justice referred to righting wrongs, but this perspective led me to delve much deeper.  I began to see that the roots of many injustices lie in the act of constraining other people’s humanity, rendering it invisible, or denying it completely. 

At one end of the spectrum, we decimate humanity in overt ways, including mass incarceration, human trafficking, slavery and genocide. At the other end, this process is more covert—expressed through habits and relationships that subtly manifest beliefs like “You are worthless,” “I am better than you,” and “Your voice doesn’t matter.”  We do this when we talk over other people, for example, when we stereotype them, and when we say that we are listening and then proceed to act in ways that ignore their views completely.

In this context, the road to social justice steers us through processes that restore humanity to everyone. These processes call us to support each other in opening our hearts, expanding our minds, finding our voices, and embodying the conviction that all of us matter equally—that we each have intrinsic value.

Love is essential to these restorative processes. In another interview, Wise Fool NM teacher/performer Sarah-Jane Moody identified the art of love as essential to social justice, saying: “the more we love our selves, the better people we are.” Strengthening the love we have in relation to ourselves expands our capacity to manifest the same love in everything we do with others.

This love is relational, but it is not simply about how we feel towards ourselves and others. “Love requires discipline,” writes Erich Fromm, “concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn't a feeling, it is a practice…Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an ordination of character which determines the relatedness of the person to the whole world as a whole, not toward one object of love.”

The circus, theatre and puppetry artists I’ve been talking with in New Mexico link power - the capacity to act - with creativity in order to practice this kind of love on a daily basis. They do this by giving life to values such as kindness, acceptance, authenticity, beauty, play, trust, mutuality and equality. This is pre-figurative activism, in the sense that teachers and performers try to create what Rebekah Tarín (Peñasco Theatre Collective’s co-founder) described to me in an interview as an “alternative reality” in their camps, courses and performances.  

In contrast to the cultural norms that dominate in the USA, these artists reject the necessity of competitiveness, individualism and an emphasis on weaknesses or constraints, in favor of authenticity, freedom and inter-dependence.

For example, some organizations teach stilt walking by having students lean up against a wall or a fence and keep trying until they can walk on their own. Both the Collective and Wise Fool NM insist that students learn in triads. Children are asked to hold one another’s hands during training, providing physical and emotional encouragement. Alessandra Ogren (a co-founder of both groups) outlined their thinking to me like this:

“Let’s say children are making a giant puppet of a dragon fly and can’t figure out what color to paint its head. “Instead of glossing over it,” she told me, “we take the time to discuss it with them in their group—how are you going to help these people make a decision? We realize that is what we are teaching right now. We aren’t going to rush towards the moment of getting them to paint the face…how do these children learn how to decide how they want to make their decision?

Are they going to vote? Split the face into three? Take turns? Later in life, when they are confronted with a situation where someone wants something different and they want something else, these are tools to get to a solution that isn’t based on who is the biggest, or who is the strongest, or who is going to win…The teaching of problem-solving is the social justice part - you are imparting skills that you hope will translate to other situations.”

The hope is that students, teachers and performers alike will take these experiences with them wherever they go. It’s a training that’s intended to inspire and equip people to use their power and creativity to stand against injustice and cultivate communities that are rooted in love, beauty and play.

“Power without love is reckless and abusive,” said Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in his speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta in 1967, “and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

This is a quote that describes the vision of the artists who work with the Peñsaco Theater Collective and Wise Fool NM. They may be ‘fools for love,’ but their love isn’t ‘sentimental or anemic.’ A huge amount of hard graft goes into building relationships that can act as a container for creating an alternative reality - a  “Beloved Community” - where people can experience the feeling of being nourished, liberated and empowered. This work matters because in experiencing a different kind of reality in one context, we develop the love, power and creativity to nurture it in others. 

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