“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
In a hyper-mediated world, often the audience you care about is not the one in the room with you, but the one you’ll reach through mass and social media. Design your action with them in mind.
When you’re pulling off a prank or staging some kind of media spectacle, it’s important to keep in mind that those you’re directly confronting are often not your main audience. When Occupy Wall Street activists swarm Manhattan’s financial district or Bhopal activists camp out on the lawn of the CEO of Union Carbide, there’s no reason to think that the immediate audience will change their minds based on what they’re observing. Rather, the idea is to use the immediate audience as unwitting actors in a theater piece that is being performed for a secondary audience. That secondary audience is comprised of filmgoers or YouTube viewers or TV watchers or press-release readers — and they’re the ones you care most about. Design your intervention with them in mind.
If reporters are going to be present, consider how things will look through their eyes. Regardless, however, make sure to document your own action see PRINCIPLE: Do the media’s work for them. Choreograph the action so you create and capture the moments you need to tell the story you want to tell. When Agit-Pop pulled off their Public Option Annie guerrilla musical see CASE, they snuck more videographers into the conference than singers.
Obviously, the secondary audience is not always your focus. At a rally, say, the key audience might actually be the participants themselves. With most strikes or sit-ins, the key audience is the actual target — a CEO or public official — and your aim is to disrupt business as usual and exact a cost that will pressure your target to accede to your demands.
But even with some of these more disruptive actions, the key audience is not in the room. When Tim DeChristopher disrupted a Utah oil and gas auction in 2008 see CASE: Bidder 70, he was not tempted to address the other bidders directly. His action was for a much larger audience — as well as for the land itself that he helped to save.
Sometimes activists think they’re out to change the minds of the bankers, CEOs, or others they’re ostensibly targeting. It’s one thing to pretend you’re out to change their minds — in order to stage a theatrically effective action, that is often necessary — but it’s another thing to believe it yourself. The idea that you can change evildoers’ minds by gathering en masse outside their stronghold is not exactly supported by the historical record. Instead, think of your target and your immediate audience as unwitting actors in the theater piece you’re concocting for another audience they’re not even aware of.
HOW THE OPPOSITE IS EQUALLY TRUE: Sometimes this principle is absolutely wrong. Sometimes the media and the public will see right through an action that is too heavy-handedly crafted for TV. Sometimes the best way to connect with the indirect audience is just to be your unvarnished, authentic self, warts and all see CASE: Occupy Wall Street.