Creative Response / Ability

This is the twelfth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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What is Creative-Response?

“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit (originally published as Bitter Fruit in 1937) was a poem written by Abel Meeropol in protest at the lynching of African Americans. Over the course of seventy years, from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, 4,733 people were recorded as killed by lynch mob. The mob’s preferred method of execution was by hanging from the branches of a tree: strange fruit indeed.

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Why am I telling you this? Because, as Antonino D’Ambrosio explains, the song is a great example of creative-response, this afternoon’s topic for discussion. Billie sings of the poplar trees, beautiful and vital in nature, now transformed into an instrument of death. “To use that as a metaphor, the strange fruit of people that are hanging and then rotting on the branch,” Antonino says, “is a creative-response.”

Antonino is a passionate advocate of the concept of creative-response, a term he coined to capture the impulse that makes an artist create art. Abel Meeropol read about the lynchings and was moved to write Bitter Fruit. In 1939, Billie Holiday heard Bitter Fruit and was moved to share those lyrics on a recording that, sixties years later, Time magazine named the song of the century.

For Antonino, the song is so successful as creative-response because Billie sings the song from her the bottom of her soul. “Creative-response is an embracing of our emotions and our passions and linking them with thoughts and ideas,” he says. “This resistance that we feel from the dominant culture is that you cannot express your emotions and that is somehow considered weakness – and, being Italian, I’m emotional first.”

Antonino sees all creative work as an integral part of the politics of society, whether the artist realises it or not. Creative-response is the conceptual framework that enables this realisation and allows artists “to think about what they’re doing, to frame their work in the context of a greater good and the community of solidarity”. Some art is more obviously a part of this community of solidarity than others, a protest song like Strange Fruit for example, but all art is, at root, a response to something and can therefore be placed in a wider political context.

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Indeed, creative-response sits at the very core of Elevate. “The festival is a combination of music and critical political discourse and art,” Elevate co-founder Daniel Erlacher says. “Not necessarily having the artists being politically outspoken on stage,” he explains, “but rather bringing topics and content together in a certain framework.”

Swivelling gently in his chair, Antonino agrees. “The Elevate Festival truly is a creative-response,” he says. That creative-response is even embodied in the history of Dom Im Berg, the mountain-heart of the festival. “A cave that was built by slaves to protect an occupying powerful military force, transformed into a place that brought all of us together from all around the world to engage in art, culture and connection is itself a creative-response,” Antonino says. “So that’s a very tangible example that many of you have already participated in.” I look around at the audience; we’re all doing creative-response without even knowing it.

Antonino D’Ambrosio grew up in Philadelphia during the Reagan years; not a politically auspicious start for the son of a immigrant bricklayer, you might think. “It was a great time of despair,” he says. “For people like my family, there just seemed to be no future, no place for us.” He pauses, drifting back to memories. “Then I discovered, all at the same time, punk rock, rap, graffiti and skateboarding.” As he transformed his city walls into canvasses and his side walks into skate parks, he realised that another world was indeed possible, where obstacles were opportunities.

These art forms, which operate in the free space between public and private, permitted and prohibited, embody what Antonino calls creative-response. “We transform our world by asking the questions that we’re told not to ask: What if? Why not?” Antonino says. “Creative-response is about not asking permission; it’s about embracing our imagination to see us connected as one people, that allows us to make everything possible.”

In times that are overtly political, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the turmoil of 1970s and 1980s Reaganomics and Thatcherism, art seems to become more overtly political, with We Shall Overcome protest songs, Fight the Power rap and London Calling punk. Yet creative-response is nothing new, it has been “alive in us throughout history” according to Antonino. “Creative-response,” he says, “is embedded with compassion, our greatest human talent.” Public Enemy couldn’t have written Fight the Power without compassion for the suffering of others.

For Antonino, creative-response, embedded with compassion, is the opposite force to cynicism. “Over the last thirty years, cynicism has become a dominant force in our lives,” he says. “The United States has been a great proponent of cynicism, it has exported that as one of its cultural products.” For a country traditionally more famous for the wild optimism of “The American Dream”, this is a strange export indeed. So what changed in that thirty years?

According to Antonino, Reagan and Thatcher “transformed compassion into cynicism”, telling us that society doesn’t exist and that the individual is paramount. Their rhetoric of cynicism bled into our minds and changed the way we think about our roles in society; from “citizen” to “consumer”. “If you’re cynical, then you don’t participate,” Antonino says, “and, without participation, you don’t have society or democracy.” In this way, the rhetoric of cynicism becomes self-fulfilling.

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What does Creative-Response mean to You?

Ursula Rucker, a US spoken word artist, is the daughter of an Italian mother and a black father from the south. This “revolutionary union” made her political from birth. “Creative-response is really everything I do,” she says. “It’s why I’m sitting here, it’s why I don’t give up, it’s why I started in the first place.”

In her poetry, her music and her life, raising four black boys in America, she fights back against the apathetic belief that one person can’t do anything. “What can one person do?” she queries incredulously. “One person can do a lot!” For Ursula, we must always speak out, we must always give a creative-response. “If you never say anything,” she says, “then you’ll certainly never find out what one person can do, and you also won’t find out what one person in cooperation with other individuals can do.”

By making a creative-response, we break open a crack in the conversation and give others the opportunity to speak out for themselves. Fight the Power, a mere song, gave African Americans (and others) a voice and a coherent way of resisting the discrimination they face in the US (and beyond).

Ursula’s chosen track, Sound of da Police by KRS One, although twenty-one years old, reminds us of the very current events in Ferguson, Missouri, where African American Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer. Despite the tragedy, Ursula sees hope in the mass demonstrations since. “I am so excited about the response, the human response, from people about Ferguson,” she says. “I hope everybody is paying attention for how far we can take this if you’re brave and courageous and compassionate enough.”

For Deanna Rodger, a British spoken word artist, creative-response is “saying aloud the things that are on my mind, the things that frustrate me, that don’t make sense to me, that make me feel small, that quite frankly just piss me off”. She figures those things out on a piece of paper, constantly asking herself, Why am I feeling like this? How have I been conditioned? How can I challenge myself to recondition myself? For Deanna, creative-response is an exploration of the self and of society. “Laws, norms and values should constantly be scrutinised to see whether they still fit,” she says.

For Austrian electronic musician Chris Hessle, the response part of creative-response is not so obvious. “For me,” he explains, “it’s not always such a conscious response to an issue or something I read in the newspaper – but I guess it’s somehow in there. It takes some detours or takes some time until it becomes visible in maybe a completely different place.” Daniel Erlacher speculates that electronic and noise music is “working on a different level”: it’s not as explicit as other art forms, like hip hop or writing, where you can speak directly to your audience.

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Ksenia Ermoshina, a musician and activist from Russia, sees her homeland distancing itself from the international community of creative-responders. “What I’m seeing now is the Iron Curtain is closing again,” she says. “It’s closing Russia from other cultures, from respecting and seeing others as others, with their right to be other.” This brings back memories of the Soviet Russia that her parents knew. “My dad was engaged with the radio amateur community,” she remembers, “building radios, so he could get to Radio America and record Pink Floyd, Doors, Deep Purple and all this sixties music that was important for the generation of my parents.” This kind of cultural resistance was almost criminal in Soviet Russia, but it opened up the wider world of music to Ksenia and to her father’s friends.

But Ksenia became disappointed with the commodification of that world. “Even rock and jazz harmony became mainstream, incorporated into capitalism,” she says. “Jazz was a form of resistance, but now it is a product.” So she asks: “How can we create something that will not be an object of desire?” The answer is noise music.

By definition, “noise” is something that we don’t want to hear. “Noise is somehow a metaphor for all these marginal people,” Ksenia says with a smile. “We, here, who are not very pleasant guests in this society, we are kind of noise for global corporations.” She gesticulates at us with her pencil. “Let’s be noise, let’s become noisy and break into the frequencies of this culture – SZSH!” She’s replied with the static SZSH of applause.

At this point, Daniel Erlacher reminds Ksenia that, in Russia, the SZSH is being repressed, citing the infamous imprisonment of Pussy Riot. “It depends when, where and how you make the SZSH,” Ksenia admits. “Pussy Riot made SZSH like a BOOM!” Laughter. “They are not only about creating sound, but about creating sense. When you do this, you become enemy.”

Art as Activism?

This brings us to the concept of art as activism and to the repression or censorship of artists. For Ksenia, whether art is activism depends on the form and how it is shared. She was an adbuster in Russia for three years, rewriting messages and adverts put up by corporations and Putin’s political party. Her group used to stick speech bubbles on billboards selling cosmetics, making the models quote philosophy and criticise Russian politics. “We had a creative-response to every law that we judged unjust,” Ksenia says.

“I take my responsibilities as a citizen of the world very seriously,” Antonino says. “I don’t know if I’d call it activism, but art, by creating, in its very nature is an action.” Creativity is a response to a particular set of circumstances; sometimes that response will be more overtly political than at other times, but it is always in the background. “Have I experienced censorship?” he asks. “Yes, of course, all the time.”

Antonino’s current project is working with Frank Serpico on a film about police corruption called Only Actions Count. After the recent publication of an article on politico.com, Frank, who still carries a bullet in his brain for exposing police corruption in the sixties, received a slew of death threats for being “anti-American”.

For Daniel, these death threats raise the question of how far you should go, as an artist. “That’s what these threats are there for: they want you to withdraw,” Chris says. “I think it’s really important to stand together and speak up together in a way that you and they and everyone else knows that you are not alone.”

Ksenia tells the story of Voina, an activist group in Russia. They started out quite tamely, throwing cats over the counters of McDonalds and holding a wake for an absurdist poet in a metro carriage. They ended up by filming a tutorial on how to flip a police car with four people and throwing Molotov cocktails. They spent three months in prison, with Banksy putting up the bail money
. “Everybody doesn’t have to go that far,” Ursula says, softly. “That’s awesome, but what I always try to tell people is you don’t have to do that. Everyone has different levels and different ways of speaking up and standing up.”

Molotov cocktail-throwing artists are creative-response; a comedy boyband writing about “Pies of Peace” are creative-response. It’s a question of what level of response you’re interested in. “Everybody can do something,” Ursula adds.

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Creative-Response Today

Despite the environmental and social crises facing our generation, Daniel does not see the same mass artistic response that we had in the seventies and eighties with hip hop and punk. “Where are the artists speaking out on climate change?” he asks to a roomful of silence. Chris makes the point that climate change is really hard for people, including artists, to grasp. “As a phenomena, it’s just so huge,” he says. Chris suggests that perhaps you might be able to see a creative-response to the more immediate secondary consequences of climate change, such as the refugee crisis in Europe. Even then, from the Austrian music scene, Chris can only offer us one reggae and one hip hop track about refugees who were killed in police custody. “But I don’t know any more than these two songs in the last fifteen years,” he adds.

Deanna has done some small events on climate change, but nothing on the scale required. “We need to be doing a lot more,” she says, “in terms of making more noise and more visible noise.” Ksenia suggests that creative-response has evolved to take in new media, citing viral YouTube videos of the ice bucket challenge, which raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Okay, so it’s not high art or anything, but it’s a popular response to a real problem. More interestingly, Ksenia describes one such video that went viral in Russia, in which a message floating on an ice cold river changed from “Putin forever” to “Putin is defective”, a difference of only one letter in Russian.

“Creative-response is not just the terrain of musicians and writers and painters and film-makers,” Antonino points out. “Scientists and economists have to mine creative-response.” Chris and Ksenia nod in agreement; you can feel understanding spread through the room. “We all have the talent to creatively respond,” he explains. “Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but as a citizen of the world,” he adds. “That’s very important. We have a chance to make history by our actions or our indifference.”

Ursula puts it even more succinctly: “Say something, do something, let’s continue this work,” she says. “That’s the lesson from tonight. We need more of this, we need more Strange Fruit, we need more Who you callin’ a bitch?, we need more response – I mean positive, palpable, effective response that leads to positive, palpable, effective change.” Applause cracks and breaks out.

This idea brings us back to the purpose of the Elevate festival itself. “We hope to inspire artists also in the next ten years,” Daniel promises. “When you try to inspire someone,” he says, “you can be sure inspiration comes back to you.” He smiles. “That’s the most beautiful thing.”

So we turn the speakers up loud and listen together to Public Enemy, Shut ’em Down.

“I like Nike, but wait a minute
The neighbourhood supports
So put some money in it
Corporations owe
They gotta give up the dough
To the town
Or else we gotta shut ’em down.”
– Chuck D on Shut ’em Down

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Creative Response/Ability >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

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