It’s been six months since the People’s Climate March took over the streets of Manhattan, but the group behind some of the rally’s most iconic artworks is busier than ever. People’s Climate Arts, a collective of artists, activists, and organizers based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, formed in the lead-up to September’s mass demonstration. Since then the group has been organizing a vast network of activists to rally around and respond to issues related to climate change as well as social justice, from Black Lives Matter to Fight for $15.
Last month, People’s Climate Arts was named one of the recipients of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation‘s new Artist as Activist grant. Hyperallergic spoke to three core members of the collective — Crystal Clarity, Fernanda Espinosa, and Kate McNeely — about how they came together, how the group decides which actions to take part in, and plans for future events and demonstrations.
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Benjamin Sutton: At what point did members of the collective realize that it could have a life beyond the People’s Climate March, or was that always part of the plan?
Kate McNeely: This has been the plan and the dream of a number of individuals in our core collective who have known each other for quite a while and those of us who met through the Climate March. There are these big upswells of participation, what we call “movement moments,” and these moments have the potential to build movements for the long haul. People get involved and inspired, learn more about the problem, they get activated and affirm their beliefs and their dedication to their movement. We knew that the summit in New York City was an important moment for that, that there were artists from around the world who had worked in this space for a very long time, that it was an opportunity to meet other artists in the planning of the Climate March, and that it was an opportunity to meet other artists and believers in creative action around the city. Right after the march a number of us who were in the organizing space for the Climate March, the Mayday Space, sat down and said, ‘OK, how do we keep this going together? This was wonderful, this is exactly what we’ve been dreaming of, let’s take this time to build the systems and support structure for this dream and vision.’
BS: How has the group expanded or changed its mission and goals since the march?
KM: By really focusing on the intersectionality of these various movements. We’re working for economic justice movements, we’re doing work with the Fight for $15 organizers, we’ve done work with Black Lives Matter marches, and recognizing where those movements are connected — where our art can help raise the voice of intersectionality and bring it into the climate movement.
Fernanda Espinosa: I think the main transformation I have seen since the beginning of the conversation is that we all initially started from climate justice and we came together for this one event. I actually came to the Mayday Space and People’s Climate Arts because I am part of a collective of immigrant workers who do arts, and many of our members, including myself, are people that haven’t really had a chance to be creative on their own terms before. So we built a float for the march, and it was very beautiful and successful, and I’ve tried to incorporate that conversation into the group that we’ve now formed, People’s Climate Arts. So, a lot of the conversations that have been brought in are around immigration, gentrification, racial justice, and a lot of the conversations are now trying to link all these intersections. We started at climate justice, but we are now trying to bring all these other things together and trying to articulate it in a way that makes sense.
Crystal Clarity: A big part of what’s different about this experience for me is that I’ve worked with lots of different community groups, organizers, and organizations. My practice is as a muralist, and I facilitate public art projects across the city with youth; right now I’m working with an adult women’s group in a rehab and recovery center. But those issues are always kind of isolated. Those projects always seem to stand by themselves in this very isolating way. This network is really important for me to grow my understanding of the intersectionality of all of this work that I’ve been doing over the years and how to build with people from different parts of the world and how to see where our common goals are, what our common struggles are, and how to be allies to each other. That whole “strength in unity” thing is for real, but the network needs to be created. This collective is unique for me in that it prioritizes that networking first, and then the artwork.
BS: How as a collective do you decide what intersections of climate justice with other issues, demonstrations, and movements you act upon? What’s the collective decision-making process like?
KM: We work by consensus. Most of us are activists and organizers who live and breathe this 24/7 in our work, in our artistic practice, in our families, and in our friendships, and organize with each other in other space as well. So there’s a lot of natural congruency. It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t think we’ve had an issue yet of someone bringing something to the table and other people saying, ‘No, I’m not feeling that.’
For me personally, one of the values we’ve spent many months [cultivating] since we all came together is providing space so that each member of the collective can feel that their own work is part of a larger movement — that work I do, even in spaces that may be not completely People’s Climate Arts, is part of People’s Climate Arts because I am a member of People’s Climate Arts. I also have the support of not just the core collective members, but also a massive network of artists and activists, who the core collective and others work very hard to bring together and connect and grow with. So I know that when I start a project, even if I’m not bringing it to the table for the People’s Climate Arts, I have a family of artists and activists to support me in that work.
CC: Like you were saying, we’re doing this work anyway, so the fact that we’re part of this collective brings more to the work that we’re already doing. It brings more support, more perspective, perhaps generating more resources to do that work. But one thing it isn’t is a hindrance to anything that we would want to do individually. If anything, it’s having a supportive network of people who you can kind of use as a sounding board or run ideas by, or it might put somebody in contact with a group we might work with later. So I think our individual avenues are leading to the same place. We’re all doing the same work all the time.
KM: Beyond the core collective that has been doing a lot of the legwork, we’re trying to build a decentralized network that allows us to be inclusive, scale up rapidly, and adapt to changing events. Most of the members and friends and partners in this network form collaborations based on what issues matter most to them. We try to support those efforts with resources, training, facilitation, connecting them to artists that may be already doing that work, and provide the space for connections not yet realized to be made. I think that was one of the most beautiful parts of the Climate March: we were in this physical space with groups from all different movements and all different focuses. If you have individuals building art from labor issues working next to individuals who are working on displacement issues down the hall from people who are dealing with mass climate catastrophe, next to queer women collectives, the conversations you have in the hallway, while you’re washing your paint brushes, just grabbing a snack, or actually painting and checking out each other’s work help alleviate that need to make choices about what matters and what we work on. We recognize it’s not one single fight. Social justice right now is a fight on multiple fronts, and the strength that we have is fighting together because a lot of the root causes of injustice, whether it’s not economic or racial or climate, are the same.
BS: What are some examples of the short-term projects the collective is currently working on?
KM: Our short-term work is our Art Fleet, which is our rapid response to “movement moments” and requests from activists and organizers in front-line communities to work with them to provide the visuals and art for their movement moments. This is a specific part of what we do and not unrelated to the long-term projects that we do at our core.
In the month of April alone, the People’s Climate Arts collective is building large-scale visuals for the Fight for $15 campaign that’s having actions on April 15. We already did a banner for their press conference on April 1. We are building and making large art pieces for a very specific police brutality action in Long Island on April 12. We are working with other art groups, including the People’s Puppets, to provide rapid response art for Rising Tide NYC‘s three days of action in conjunction with a number environmental groups, including Sane Energy and the People’s Climate Movement New York, around the five-year anniversary of the BP oil spill and liquified natural gas terminals here in New York that are being proposed. And we’re working with ALIGN NY, a network of labor and community organizations, for their possible actions this month around just transition and climate jobs, as well as working to do what we call our Sporatorium, which is an event in which all of the artists in these actions and fights and movements and activists come together — as well as people in spaces we don’t even know about or don’t have relations with yet — to make art, conspire, and exchange information, make those connections and activate each other. That is going to be on April 9 at Judson Memorial Church at 6:30pm. It is an open event and anyone can come.
FE: With a lot of these actions we’re being very intentional about being a part of those conversations from the beginning. We don’t want to be decoration, coming at the end of a conversation to do a banner. We actually build relationships with all of these movements and campaigns, and as much as possible we try to sit down at the table from the moment people are strategizing and brainstorming, so that art is not just something that came in at the end but rather part of the conversation that is actually projecting the message. Everyone can understand that because it’s beautiful and it’s art.
BS: You’ve mentioned this idea of art as labor, the artist as a worker, and how the group really values and recognizes that. I think that’s something most people don’t really think about specifically when they’re thinking of activist art, the actual doing of and paying for work. I think it just doesn’t occur to people, or they don’t want to think about it because it does bring up all these other issues. How do you acknowledge and quantify that?
CC: I think what’s unique in this relationship for me, as an artist, from the very beginning — I came in through a connection I made through Rachel Schragis, and she was organizing artists to do some posters to just start generating conversations, and it was a paid project, you know? There are big organizations that are funding and prioritizing the arts as a major component for the success of this march. That’s in our DNA; we come from that space of it being part of the organizing strategy and being no less important than the organizing work itself. If you’re gonna pay an organizer or administrator, or somebody who’s gonna be sending lots of emails, or a graphic designer, or somebody to put the website up, all of that work is going to get paid for, then why wouldn’t you pay the artists who are creating the posters for the work? It was a unique moment in my experience in that the arts were prioritized. I personally wouldn’t have been able to contribute as much as I did had I not been given some stipends so that I could be in that space 15 hours a day.
So, the idea that we need to recognize that artists are people and that people need housing, and that housing costs rent, and that they need to eat, and they need to buy food, and not just treating us like these magical entities that somehow bestow upon the world visual content and that doesn’t take time and energy and thought and labor. I’m in deep appreciation for that shifting moment in movement history. I don’t know if its been done in the past; I’m not sure if the artists who were working in the Civil Rights movement were getting paid for the banners they made or the songs that they wrote. As far as I know, this was a very unique moment coming out of the march, where these big green organizations decided to put up a lot of money to hold space and pay people and make sure we can survive the moment. I think that’s revolutionary. As far as our group is concerned, I think they carry those values.