190 Activisms: Imagining Otherwise
A Student Exhibition and Blog
Feminist Studies 190 was a course taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara by Carly Thomsen in the spring of 2013. Through a ten-week series of seminar sessions, students in this course were able to collectively examine activism, justice, and “the political” in order to develop strategies and methods for imagining and creating alternatives, or radical imaginings. Students actively worked throughout the quarter to imagine and execute a variety of projects in their communities, working together and branching out, consistently engaging with issues surrounding feminist and queer theory in our projects. As a student in this course, I realized the need for a public space in which to narrate and critically engage with each of my peer’s activist projects, and in this way, discovered my own activism through imagining, planning, and organizing an exhibition event and student blog.
One of the main goals of this project was to create an inclusive activist space in which to share and think critically about the projects we had set out to accomplish in ten weeks. The purpose of the exhibition was to bring together the multiple and varying projects done in the course as means of community and coalition building. The visibility and discussion of activist projects was an integral part of our development as activists in the university setting, and I believed it to be crucial to our reflective process and development. The exhibition space served as a public venue for discussing, sharing and evaluating the many projects students worked on during the quarter. It was able to function as a coalitional gathering for faculty, students, activists, and community members who may or may not have been involved, influenced, or affected by the projects that took place.
The digital preservation of this activist work was also crucial in my project, and functioned as another means of visibility and discussion. Had students reflected critically and created written documentation of the process, happening, and development of their projects, the accessibility of these deep reflections would have been limited to the immediate group and instructor. I believed it to be essential that the voices and reflections of my peers be accessible and open for further development and critique, an aspect of activism Nancy Ehrenreich discusses in her own critique of reproductive rights movements (2008). From Ehrenreich’s critique of pro-choice activism, I have considered the notion that activism can never be beyond the realm of criticism, and that it is essential to constantly reimagine and change our activism to resist cooptation by mainstream culture. In this way, I hope that the student blog may serve as a working document, one that continues to be reimagined and changed as these projects develop or are analyzed in the future.
The primary step in creating these activist spaces for sharing student projects began through a proposal to my peers and subsequent discussion about the style, presence, and feasibility of such an event. I was greatly encouraged to begin the project, and immediately began the approval process for a potential venue in which to hold the exhibition. I met with representatives at the Student Resource Building on campus and submitted a space request form for the Multipurpose Room. I was also required to submit another form for approval through a separate board because our event was scheduled to occur in the tenth week of classes, which is usually blacked out for events. I received news that the event was approved within a week. From this point, I met again with a representative and arranged the basic layout and spatial requests for the room, which included an estimated guest count, table and chair count, as well as any technical support we may have needed.
In the seminar sessions with my fellow activists, I held multiple workshops in order to finalize titles, subtitles and themes for the exhibition. Through a democratic process, we as a group decided to title our exhibition 190 Activisms: Imagining Otherwise. This title and subtitle were used later in the development of the advertising campaign, as well as the blog site. The same democratic process would occur when deciding on the event flyer and online advertisements. I provided a guide for my classmates as a step-by-step manual for accessing, editing, and posting their blog submissions to specified project tabs. Tabs on the blog feature individual projects, descriptions, photographs, and video/audio clips.
Utilizing my knowledge and skills in graphic design, I also created an event flyer and an online advertisement campaign. The flyer was sent out to be approved by the Associated Students at the university, and the advertisements were used in an online Facebook campaign that I started through an event page. The Facebook page served as a secondary form of invitation to the event, as the flyers were posted around campus and also sent out to various departments on campus to be forwarded to students and faculty via the campus listserv.
As the exhibition approached, I dedicated much of my time to publicizing and preparing specific details of the event. I worked on attaining funds for the food that I hoped to provide for guests, assembled a slideshow featuring graphics from each project, and created a playlist of songs that my classmates and I felt had connections to activism, feminism, queer theory, and those that reimagined worlds. I distributed the event flyers, made sure that the listserv emails were sent out, and maintained the Facebook event page with updates and photographs to remind community members that the event was approaching. At this time, I was also working on finalizing the blog page and made sure that each project was properly featured and accessible online.
On the day of the event, I worked diligently to prepare all of the accommodations for the exhibition, which included purchasing food, continuing to distribute flyers, and arriving at the Student Resource Building beforehand to set up the room. As my classmates arrived to set up their presentation areas, I was able to assist with each while I managed the set-up of the food table, slideshow, and music. Throughout the exhibition, I photographed the happenings and made sure to be present where I was needed, while discussing my own project with students, faculty, and other community members. After the exhibition, I worked to efficiently break down and clean up the food area and presentation tables.
One of the challenges I faced in this project was a lack of knowledge about planning and holding events at the university. Often, I struggled to know what steps were required in attaining the correct permissions for venues, flyers, and budgets. I was able to navigate these issues by utilizing the connections and coalitions I had access to in the course itself, as well as those I had already established in the campus community. I was able to confer with peers and my instructor, Carly, to discuss what steps were needed and where I might be required to go on campus in order to accomplish much of the public aspects of the exhibition.
While I had this support, it was still challenging to attain funding for the event, and I was met with both institutional and personal barriers. My lack of fundraising knowledge coincided with a complicated set of institutional formalities at the university organization level as I worked to gather funds to purchase food and supplies for the exhibition. I attended various meetings with on-campus organizations and filled out the requisite paperwork, gave presentations, and shared the budget I had prepared to cover the costs of the exhibition. Due to the large number of events already occurring on campus, funds were not always available or widely distributed. I found it challenging to request funds in these organizations’ meetings, but I was able to obtain sufficient funds to provide food for the event.
Another challenge in this project arose in my attempt to address storytelling through the blog format. In Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory, Clare Hemmings (2011) emphasizes the importance of “telling stories differently rather than telling different stories” in order to “acknowledge feminist theory’s multiplicity”, and to steer away from homogenized stories of feminism and activism. Following Hemmings, I tried to imagine how this storytelling might look and what it could mean for the projects it narrated. It was challenging to reimagine storytelling, but I gave this opportunity and challenge to my fellow activists to share. I believe that the activists featured in 190 Activisms have also considered their own storytelling, and have consciously worked to reimagine telling stories in order to avoid narratives of progress, loss, or return. Through my own exploration of telling stories through the blog format, I have considered what the implications of such digital space means for telling stories and histories. If feminist and queer analysis has been primarily published through academic journals, what can it mean, then, that we have created an academically critical body of stories and histories that is available online, without publishing?
In addressing the challenges I faced throughout the process of organizing 190 Activisms: Imagining Otherwise, I feel that I achieved much of what I had set out to accomplish when imagining the project. The primary goal of this project was to create an inclusive activist space in which to share and think critically about activism in the local community and also in the university setting. As students we had had exposure to and had dealt critically with academic research and theory, but had also desired to begin or further our own work as activists. The Feminist Studies course designed by Carly Thomsen allowed us to work through and engage with activism while also critically engaging with academic writings about feminist theory and practice. As a result of my own activism, the work accomplished in this course has been able to reach multiple audiences, in and outside of academic spaces.
Additionally, I believe that the project succeeded in its attempt to build a coalition of activists that, while we worked on independent issues in our own projects, came together in a way that allowed us to develop composite identities. George Lipsitz (2008) theorized the composite nature of coalitional work, emphasizing the opportunities for successful activism through the acknowledgement that identities have multiple components. Through 190 Activisms I have achieved the desires and skills necessary for coalition-building through the collective struggle with members of various activist groups. Through the exhibition and blog, each of the projects done throughout the spring of 2013 were presented, documented, and shared in a manner that demonstrates a collective effort to work toward reimagining the spaces and issues with which we have critically dealt with.
Through the process of imagining, organizing, and creating the 190 Activisms: Imagining Otherwise blog and exhibition I have learned much about the work of activism and my own involvement in activist projects in my community. I have also reconsidered, and possibly reimagined, what community means and how this may affect my conceptions of community involvement or activism. Through the research process that assisted in the development of my project, I have been able to think critically about the conscious choices I make as an activist and what particular choices may mean in a larger context of activist discourse. Simultaneously, the work I did as an activist motivated and guided my understanding of particular concepts and choices because it allowed me to apply them in a physically tangible manner.
The set of skills I acquired through my activism could not have been learned through research alone. Through the process of organizing the exhibition and managing the blog, I was able to attain the interpersonal skills necessary for coalitional work and fundraising efforts. Prior to this experience, I had never dealt with the formalities of organizing events nor had I worked with a larger group of activists to create a single blog site that could effectively document and share a wide variety of activist projects. I had also never considered my work as a graphic artist to be very much connected to my activist work, but have discovered the need for my own skills in activist spaces. The media and print campaign that I launched in order to publicize the exhibition were essential to the success of the event itself. My knowledge of digital media and interest in community arts and activism had placed me in an interesting position where I was able to draw from various facets of feminist theory and artistic practice to realize an inclusive space for fellow activists.
The growth in my knowledge of self and the application of knowledge that occurred through my activism did not work without the simultaneous research process I engaged throughout the spring quarter. The tools I gained as an activist were combined with the theoretical approaches and analyses I was able to research and learn from in the seminar with Carly Thomsen. The ability to see the importance of both activist work and academic conceptions of that work is something that I have been able to achieve throughout this process. I have been critically engaged with my activism this quarter and have gained a set of tools that I will apply to further activist projects in the future as I continue to reimagine the spaces and issues in my community.
Ehrenreich, Nancy. “Introduction.” The Reproductive Rights Reader. Pp.1-11, 2008. Print.
Hemmings, Clare. “Introduction.” Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory. Pp. 1-27 , 2011. Print.
Lipsitz, George. “Walleye Warriors and White Identities: Native Americans’ Treaty Rights, Composite Identities, and Social Movements.” Ethnic and Racial Studies,Vol. 31 No. 1 (January 2008). Pp. 101-122. Print.