Beautiful Trouble: A How-to Book for Creative Resistance

Occupy Los Angeles, October 2011 (Jim Friedrich)

Revolutionaries practice without safety nets. Our laboratory is the world around us––the streets, the Internet, the airwaves, our own hearts, as well as the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens. We experiment, we fail, we change things up, we try again, maybe this time a little less disastrously, a little more beautifully––until we win. Always we learn. Case studies are where we learn what we’ve learned.[i]

– Andrew Boyd & Dave Oswald Mitchell

The Empire is striking back––fueled by hate, greed and stupendous unreason, it careens toward authoritarianism, war and perhaps even planetary suicide. This is no time to stand idly by, muttering “It can’t happen here” as a consoling charm against apocalypse. It is happening here, and we need to resist with all our hearts and mind and strength.

There are countless ways to resist evil and promote the common good, but if you want to do it with some creativity and imagination, get a copy of Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (New York & London: OR Books, 2016). “Assembled” by Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell, it is a 460-page handbook packed with smart tactics, hard-won ideas, and fascinating case studies to illumine and inspire every inventive activist. Along with other recent documentations, Artists Reclaim the Commons (2013)[ii] and Truth Is Concrete (2014),[iii] it is an invaluable primer in creative activism.

“We’re building rhizomatic [non-hierarchical] movements,” write the authors, “marked by creativity, humor, networked intelligence, technological sophistication, a profoundly participatory ethic and the courage to risk it all for a livable future.”[iv] Some of the tactics are indeed high risk, like hanging a banner from a construction crane at the WTO “Battle in Seattle” in 1999, or disrupting an illegal auction of public lands to oil interests by outbidding everyone with no intention of paying (the “bidder” got two years in prison, but the lands were saved).

Seattle (Advent 1999)

But there are plenty of actions which risk neither body nor freedom yet still make a vivid point. During the Iraq war, a woman arranged a row of shoes outside her New York senator’s office with names of Iraqi civilians killed. She invited passersby to “walk in their shoes.” Meanwhile, veterans on the West Coast set up a field of white crosses on Santa Monica beach every Sunday–– one for every soldier killed.

Somewhat edgier was a guerilla theater interruption of a UC Berkeley lecture by UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, during the 1980s when the U.S. was training and supporting Central American death squads. Masked men shouting in Spanish came down the aisles, dragging students (also actors) screaming from their seats, and taking them away to meet their fate. The stunned audience was then showered with leaflets explaining the educational purpose of this disturbing dramatization of American foreign policy.

Making the invisible visible is one of the key principles of art activism. Bring an issue home, tell its story, put a face on it. When Occidental Petroleum threatened to displace indigenous people in the Peruvian jungle, some of those people were brought to the U.S. to speak out. The issue quickly turned from generic opposition to Big Oil to a very personal story of people defending their homes. When Kodak was secretly dumping toxic waste into a river, Greenpeace rigged a public fountain where the disgusting waste bubbled up where all could see. To heighten awareness of climate change, environmentalists staged a mock-drowning of a “polar bear” in the fountain at the Department of the Interior.

Humor is a key weapon of resistance. Power loses authority when it is laughed at, and humor wins more allies than anger. On the 20th anniversary of Dow Chemical’s deadly toxic spill in Bhopal, India, a group called The Yes Men, posing as Dow executives, made a fictitious announcement that the corporation would pay financial reparations to the victims. When actual Dow executives had to publicly reassure stockholders that it would not in fact be doing what was right and just, the laugh was not on their side (though, sadly, their stock went back up––but that only made a salient point about our economic system!)

In 2003, 70 clowns from the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army advanced on a police line at a British antiwar demonstration. The police were laughing too hard to stop them. When some arrests were finally made, news footage of clowns being crammed into a police van begged the question, “What did the clowns do wrong?” The “powers” lost ground that day. As the Psalm says, “The Lord has them in derision.”

In Rhode Island, the local HUD office refused to consider an affordable daycare center for a low-income housing project. The tenants petitioned and picketed to no avail. In a brilliant stroke, they decided to make the HUD office itself into a daycare operation. They brought children, song books, toys, cribs, and a table for changing diapers, and stayed the whole day. The point was made, rather amusingly, and they got their center.

The numerous case studies in Beautiful Trouble will inspire and provoke your political imagination, but the book also provides a wealth of practical wisdom––tactics, principles and theory––to build on what has already been learned.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will” (Frederick Douglass). Choose your target wisely. Make sure it’s someone who actually holds the power to meet your demands. Pick an issue big enough to matter and small enough to win. Put your target into a “decision dilemma,” where they only have a bad choice or a worse one.

Kill them with kindness. Laugh, sing, dance, clown, hug. Disarm with charm. Be the good ones, win the sympathy of your audience (which includes witnesses via the media). Humanize the situation, make unlikely allies, don’t write anyone off, seek common ground. Use the power of attraction. Design your actions to maximize participation and get spectators involved.

“If you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy”(Alvin Toffler). Reframe the narrative, unmask hidden cultural, political and economic assumptions, refute alternative facts, tell a better, truer story. Reappropriate the artifacts of popular media and give them new connotations, as Occupy Wall Street did by projecting a “bat signal” (in Batman, a sign of both distress and promise), shining “99%” in a large circle of light high on a wall above the demonstration.

“Success means going from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm” (Winston Churchill). Nourish group solidarity. Avoid burnout. Maintain nonviolent and non-oppressive discipline. Have fun. Minimize disappointment by knowing the difference between concrete actions with measurable results, and communicative actions which are more symbolic, amplifying a message without necessarily attaining a particular objective.

Show, don’t tell. Be visual. Don’t preach. Create actions which explain themselves. Use powerful metaphors. And keep the rules as simple and open-ended as possible. Occupy Wall Street began with this terse but intriguing instruction: September 17. Wall Street. Bring tent. 

As a person of faith, I especially encourage the communities of God’s friends to dig into this book in a study group setting. Activist art has strong biblical roots in the performance art of Jesus and the prophets, and people of faith distressed by current events would do well to engage with, learn from, and contribute to the beautiful trouble currently being made on the world’s behalf.

The opening epigraph for the book, a manifesto by radical theater visionary Judith Malina, sounds the call to action with compelling clarity. Pass it on:

The role of the artist in the social structure follows the need of the changing times ––
In time of social stasis: to activate.
In time of germination: to invent fertile new forms
In time of revolution: to extend the possibilities of peace and liberty
In time of violence: to make peace
In time of despair: to give hope
In time of silence: to sing out[v]



 Related posts:

Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance

Unsilent Night: An Advent Revelation

[i] Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell, Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (New York & London: OR Books, 2016)

[ii] ed. Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013)

[iii] ed. Steirischer Herbst & Florian Malzacher, Truth Is Concrete (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014)

[iv] Beautiful Trouble, 2

[v] Judith Malina, The Work of an Anarchist Thinker, q. in Beautiful Trouble, vi

Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance

Occupy poster by Brooke McGowen

Occupy poster by Brooke McGowen

It takes little imagination to create a global state of terror and control. That is the basic dream of every dictator and of the dictator inside all of us. It takes much greater imagination to act upon the idea of a world beyond that.

— Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert[i]

An art that engages with self-empowerment, then, is about unleashing a sense of being in common, of being part of something bigger than a discrete human body, and of feeling a sense of saying both “I can” and “we can” at the exact same moment.

— Charles Esche[ii]

Give us grace to heed the prophets’ warnings …

— Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent[iii]


Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel observed that there were three kinds of people in the twentieth century: killers, victims, and bystanders. But there were also resisters, who blended conscience and imagination to subvert the inevitability of controlling ideologies and plant the seeds of new possibility—even in the winter of despair.

Now, sixteen years into this new century, when the foundations of American democracy are being shaken and shattered by an authoritarian blitzkrieg, resistance is needed more than ever. It must be our civic duty, moral obligation, and spiritual vocation to question, challenge, mock, outmaneuver, and obstruct the monstrous axis of bigots and billionaires who are about to take power.

Sitting back and “giving Trump a chance” would be fatal. It is already perfectly clear who he is and where he is headed. Like the right-wing populists of Europe, he practices a politics of antagonism, channeling resentment, bigotry and hate into a movement fictionalized as “the people.” Anyone outside his movement, or critical of it, will be scapegoated and denounced. Argentinian philosopher Ernesto Laclau has described such populism as “a form of constructing the political through the division of society into two camps.”[iv]

So with the killers in charge, how do we act like resisters rather than victims or passive bystanders? Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian who has studied the lessons of the Holocaust, has written a 20-Point Guide to Defending Democracy, suggesting practical ways to work within the system before we lose it altogether. And I recently posted a Spiritual Survival Guide for staying grounded on a daily basis in the “time of trial.”

But since this blog’s ongoing theme is transformative imagination, let us also consider another kind of resistance, one which employs art and creativity to awaken people from their passive slumber and empower them with alternative visions. In a 1924 novel, Upton Sinclair made the case for an activist art:

“The artists of our time are like men hypnotized, repeating over and over a dreary formula of futility. And I say: Break this evil spell, young comrade; go out and meet the new dawning life, take your part in the battle, and put it into new art; do this service for a new public, which you yourself will make . . . that your creative gift shall not be content to make artworks, but shall at the same time make a world; shall make new souls, moved by a new ideal of fellowship, a new impulse of love, and faith—and not merely hope, but determination.”[v]

The problem with living within a particular “social imaginary” is that alternative ways of constructing our common life are not just utopian, they are literally inconceivable. As Slavo Zizek noted in a famous speech at Occupy Wall Street: “Look at the movies . . . It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you can’t imagine the end of capitalism.”[vi]

Art activism doesn’t just critique what is wrong, inadequate or incomplete. By enabling us to imagine alternatives, it breaks the spell of inevitability which the dominant hegemony has cast over us. A recent book, Truth Is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, provides many provocative examples. Here are some of my favorites:

  • When mathematician-philosopher Antanas Mockus became mayor of Bogotá in 1995, he borrowed strategies from activist art to help citizens re-imagine their city. He mocked the mythology of leadership by wearing a “super-citizen” costume, and cut a heart shape out of his bulletproof vest to demonstrate his shared vulnerability. He created an exchange of guns for toys in which the city’s children pressured parents to turn in their weapons. And he replaced the notoriously corrupt traffic police with 400 mimes, who used humor instead of fines to manage the flow of vehicles. In one of the world’s most dangerous cities, traffic fatalities were cut in half, and the homicide rate declined 70%.
  • During the oppressive regime of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian “laughtivists” painted the dictator’s face on an oil drum and left it on a crowded shopping street along with a bat. Passersby took the opportunity to bash the drum image until police finally “arrested” the drum and put it in their van, a comic scene widely covered by the media. “Laughtivism derives its power from the ability to melt fear, the lifeblood of dictators . . . and help to cut away at the leaders’ authority, which often stems from intense narcissism.”[vii]
  • In 2013, Enmedio, a “media prankster collective” in Barcelona, made striking posters of individuals whose homes were being foreclosed by a Spanish bank, and pasted them onto the façade of the bank’s central downtown branch. The invisible victims, and their stories, were thus made dramatically visible at the scene of the crime.
  • Large inflatables can create “tactical frivolity,” turning “a grim protest situation into a playful event,” making it “poetic, joyful, and participatory.”[viii] Who can resist a large inflatable? A tense standoff between police and protesters in Berlin became a game when an inflatable was tossed between them, and the two sides began to bat it back and forth.
  • The Yes Men impersonate the powerful with fake press releases and public appearances to create a “what if?” situation. For a brief moment they pranked the media into believing that DuPont was actually going to act justly by compensating the 100,000 victims of the Bhopal chemical spill. “Before the hoax is revealed, we think, ‘Am I dreaming? Could I possibly be living in such a world?”[ix] Such deception is not meant to last, but rather to make us wonder for a moment: Why don’t we live in such a world? And whenever “reality” is restored, it is never quite as absolute or secure as before. Maybe the evil we know does not need to be “the truth” after all.
  • Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping employs an evangelistic preaching style to target the consumerism and greed laying waste to the earth. With choral singing, preaching, masks and dance, his community occupies bank lobbies to proclaim a hectic judgment upon the sins of the system, troubling the sleep of customers and bankers and disturbing the complacency of business as usual.
  • The UK’s laboratory of insurrectionary imagination “merges art and life, creativity and resistance, proposition and opposition.”[x] Believing that collective action is enhanced by a shared sense of identity, they create temporary affinity groups which work together in the course of a protest. Masks and black clothing to create visual unity are one example. Another is “the rebel clown army,” using clowning to subvert any serious regard for the pretensions of the powerful. As was overheard on a police radio at a demonstration in 2003, “The clowns are organizing … the clowns are organizing … over and out.”[xi]
  • The Choir Project was founded in Cairo by Salam Yousry, inspired by Finland’s Complaint Choir. Both professional and amateur singers collectively write and compose songs about daily struggles, political conflict, and human hope. Then they take their voices to the streets, sometimes walking backward as well as forward, penetrating public spaces with vital questions. Unlike spoken or written protest rhetoric, their message is delivered in a medium that charms and allures. The practice has spread to other cities such as Paris, Beirut, London, Berlin, Istanbul and Warsaw. Imagine American cities radiant with the voices of such prophetic singers moving in our midst, making their psalmic laments an urban soundtrack for our desperate time:

I have a question
If I don’t voice it if I suppress it
My head will explode
What’s going on?

Who’s setting us back?
Who’s starving us?
Who’s destroying our joy?
Who’s calling us traitors?
Who’s dividing us?
Who’s repressing us?
What’s going on?[xii]

Art activism is as old as the Bible, from the prophets’ performance art to Jesus’ dramatized subversion of worldly power when he made his “kingly” entry on a donkey. The Book of Revelation, in its radical critique of Empire and its vision of a redeemed and restored creation, is a vivid counternarrative to encourage the faithful in a time of persecution.

In dark times, we can, we must, still live as children of the light—the custodians of hope—enacting rituals and images, as well as daily practices of kindness, solidarity and justice, to express and anticipate the emergent world of divine favor and human flourishing. As for the powers, God laughs them to scorn, and God’s friends, thankfully, are in on the joke.

So let the Resistance begin, in as many forms as we can imagine. May it always be courageous, creative, revelatory, empowering, passionate, constant, artful—and, by all means, alluring.


Related posts

Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now

“Rise Up” poster image by Brooke McGowen under Creative Commons License

[i] “The Art of Activism,” in Truth Is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, ed. Steirischer Herbst & Florian Malzacher (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015), 57 This book, based on a 170 hour 24/7 teach-in, may be hard to find in the United States. I bought my copy this fall at one of my favorite bookshops, The Literary Guillotine in Santa Cruz, California. A more easily available book on the same subject may be Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution by Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell, to be published on St. Lucy’s Day, Dec. 13, 2016.

[ii] “Self-Empowering,” in Truth Is Concrete, 98

[iii] Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 211

[iv] Truth Is Concrete, 151

[v] Mammonart, q. in Truth, 63-65

[vi] Truth, 123

[vii] Srda Popovic, Truth, 120

[viii] Artúr van Balen, Truth, 138-9

[ix] Andrew Boyd, “Reality Bending”, in Truth, 154

[x] Truth, 185

[xi] John Jordan, Truth, 246

[xii] The Choir Project, Truth, 142-3 You can see the choir at work in Budapest on YouTube: