Midway through a workshop on creative activism the morning of November 22, a group of Pakistani visual artists visiting NYU got some surprising news: Jay-Z had heard they were in the States, and had requested that they perform with him in a music video, as backup singers.
Stephen Duncombe, the Gallatin associate professor who was leading the workshop with conceptual artist Steve Lambert, produced a blank sheet of paper. “You’ll all need to write down your shirt sizes,” he deadpanned, “so you can be fitted for costumes.”
Lambert squinted at a message on his cell phone as he rattled off some logistics. The shoot was to take place that afternoon. In Maryland. On a boat.
With each new detail, the room on the 8th floor of the Gallatin building at 1 Washington Place grew quieter. Could it be true? Nervous glances were exchanged across a long conference table. Duncombe asked whether the artists had questions.
“My voice!” croaked one alarmed woman who’d grown hoarse after days of sightseeing.
“Will we dance?” ventured another, after a beat.
Duncombe and Lambert eyed the group as though expecting whoops and cheers at the thought of meeting an American megastar, but were greeted instead with confused looks and murmured anxieties.
Then, peals of laughter burst forth when Duncombe and Lambert, after another agonizing moment of stunned silence, finally revealed the ruse: Jay-Z hadn’t called. There would be no costumes, no harried trip to Maryland.
“Now tell us what you were really thinking,” Duncombe said.
“I don’t know my measurements!” exclaimed one young man, tugging at his shirt collar. “My mother buys all my clothes!”
“I worried we wouldn’t get back to New York in time to visit the Met this afternoon,” confessed a woman, visibly relieved. “And that’s what I was looking forward to most!”
Together, Duncombe and Lambert founded the Center for Artistic Activism, an organization that aims to “make activists more like artists and artists more like activists”—by challenging the politically inclined to think creatively and asking artists to embrace the potential of their work to effect social change. In addition to offering training in creative activism to groups from places as far flung as Texas, Scotland, and Nairobi, they host Actipedia, an open-access, user-generated database where all can share unique strategies to challenge power and offer visions of a better society.
For the Pakistani artists who’d been selected through the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad’s Art for Social Change two-week exchange program to attend arts conferences and explore cultural institutions in Washington D.C. and New York, this was one of the last stops on a whirlwind tour.
The Jay-Z announcement wasn’t meant as a cruel trick: In addition to giving the travel-weary group a burst of adrenaline, it also served as one of many constructive exercises designed to use quixotic dreams to help sharpen focus on what is achievable in the here-and-now. Improbable though it seemed, the invitation caused the artists to think through—and mentally attempt to overcome—a variety of practical obstacles to their attendance.
Another exercise took inspiration from a poem by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano that Duncombe and Lambert frequently recite in their sessions. Musing on utopia, which he envisions as a physical horizon, Galeano concludes, “As much as I may walk, I'll never reach it. So what's the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.”
With that in mind, the Pakistani artists were asked to fill in the “steps” between a current project (a multimedia installation, perhaps, or a summer camp for young artists) and the utopian goal (universal literacy, an end to poverty, a free and open society) that it could inspire. The point was to “keep walking” toward that imagined horizon by brainstorming ways—whether magical or pragmatic—to move closer to the ideal.
Over the course of the discussion, some ideas initially deemed impossible began to morph into concrete initiatives. An artists colony on Mars became a collective for artisans in one of Pakistan’s rural tribal regions. The same artist who rejected the idea of forming a new political party as too expensive ended up imagining a large-scale public art project that would give voice to an entire community.
Encouraging activists and artists to take inspiration from unlikely sources is a hallmark of the Center for Creative Activism approach. When working with activists armed with facts and statistics, Duncombe and Lambert said, they tend to emphasize the emotional component in political decision-making. And artists, they told the Pakistani group, could stand to take a cue from advertising: If Coca-Cola equates its product with the utopian goal of “happiness,” why should artists set their sights on anything less?
Near the end of the session, one artist described what she’d labeled as an impossible dream: developing a tool that would allow her to communicate with all people, regardless of language, ethnicity, or creed.
Another raised her hand to protest. “We already have that,” she said. “It’s called art.”