Cultural activism is a mash up of artistic expression and activism grounded in the need for social justice and political change. These performances and direct actions focus on creating social change by working outside of structured organizing.
It plays directly off of shared cultural beliefs, questioning and spoofing ideas that are taken as “natural”. It reflects the unique culture, creative sensibilities and experiences of the activists involved. Rather than placing an issue at the centre of a campaign, cultural organizing focuses on art and culture. Activists can then use the shared tools of their community like language, tradition and stories to fight oppression.
Cultural organizing is an effective way to create change and gives value back to cultures that have been silenced or made invisible by mainstream culture. By using tools already shared in a culture, this kind of organizing can mobilize a community around issues that directly affect them.
Activists can communicate their message on their own terms, reconceptualising power relations. Just because the dominant white culture speaks in legal jargon doesn’t mean that the response can’t be in the language of the people the law is affecting. How activist choose to organize is based on their lived experiences within their culture. The process of organizing is valued just as highly as the outcome. Even if the outcome isn’t ideal, the artistic experience and community action is still valued.
It’s no wonder that cultural organizing is extremely popular. From creating gifs and memes of politicians online to writing social justice slam poetry to clowning in the street, this kind of art-oriented organizing can be almost anything.
Jennifer Verson of the Rebel Clown Army wrote a chapter about why cultural activism is so important that is worth a read in the book Do It Yourself: A Handbook for Changing Our World.
The term culture jamming originated in the 1980s from the idea of radio jamming, the act of hijacking and subverting radio frequencies. Culture jamming is when activists do the same thing but instead of radio stations, activists target cultural products. Advertising meant to sell sweatshop shoes as fashionable are remixed to highlight the human cost of production. Culture jamming often plays on the emotions of the viewer, disrupting how people view advertising (and capitalism) as “normal”. They aim to shock people and force them to think about their behaviour or buying habits. Culture jamming can be a graffitied billboard, a redesigned ad or a meme.
Adbusters Magazine has an entire section where they show off anti-capitalist culture jamming.