Isabelle Frémeaux, John Jordan and the rise of the insurrectionary imagination.
By rob hopkins 2nd April 2015
Isabelle Frémeaux (IF) and John Jordan (JJ) are the co-founders of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination. It’s a collective which , according to Isabelle, “aims at opening spaces, real or virtual, and bringing artists and activists together to work on and co-create more creative forms of resistance and civil disobedience”. Both have a long history in campaigns and movements, as well as the arts. I started by asking them to give us an overview of the kind of work they are involved in.
IF: The work we do has several dimensions. We do a lot of experiments. We like to call what we do experimental projects or pieces. We like the idea of experimenting collectively and accepting that sometimes things might fail, and that by embracing that capacity for failure we can be more creative. I’m by training an academic and a trainer, so I tend to be more into the training dimension of what we do.
We do quite a lot of workshops and trainings, from a day to 2 weeks with artists and activists to really see the synergies between arts and activism and often permaculture, and to see how when these three domains merge, we can create synergies for more creative, more efficient, more productive, more resilient projects that we aim to be projects that are geared towards forms of resistance and civil disobedience.
JJ: What we don’t do is ‘political art’. We’re quite critical of the notion of political art, which for us is art which is about political issues. Occasionally we make films and books but we call those “holidays in representation”. The majority of our work is not making films and books, it’s actually making these experiments which are really critiquing representation; the idea that most artists will make a performance about climate change or a sculptural installation about the loss of biodiversity or a film about climate justice.
What we are very clear about is that actually what we like to do, and what we think is vitally important, is to bring artists and activists together not to show the world but to transform it directly. Not to make images of politics, but to make politics artistic. The reason we work with these two worlds is we think that artists have a lot of creativity, a lot of capacity to think outside the box, a lot of capacity to transform things into poetics, yet often have big egos and not much social engagement.
We think activists – and of course these are generalisations – often have a lot of social critique, capacity to work collectively, but often a failure of imagination. Often the same rituals, the same kinds of demonstrations, the same kinds of tools for transforming society. By bringing these two worlds together, we think we can actually create something different.
We are always embedded in social movements. We spent 5 years as organisers within the Climate Camp and at the same time as organising the camp we were also organising workshops and actions that brought artists and activists together. For example one project was the creation of a thing called the Great Rebel Raft Regatta where we buried a whole load of boats in a forest a week before the Climate Camp happened in Kingsnorth.
The Climate Camp was a self-managed camp developed to create education and alternatives to the climate catastrophe, but it also always had an action at the end of it. This camp at Kingsnorth was actually to stop the building of a new coal fired power station that was taking place next to a power station that already existed. The project that we did, the Great Rebel Raft Regatta basically brought people together into affinity groups. We buried boats a week beforehand in the forest and with the boat was a bottle of rum. We also gave them a treasure map.
We sent people off in their affinity groups to find the buried boat with the treasure map. They would dig up the boat, sleep in the forest overnight, then at 7 o’clock run out of the forest, take their boat onto the river and go and find and block the power station. We got about 150 people, and one boat managed to block a third of the power station and shut a third of it down. For us, it’s really using forms of action that are effective in terms of having an effect on the real world, but also are fun and adventurous. The whole aesthetic of the treasure map and the bottle of rum and the people dressed up as pirates brings a playful element to activism which we think is absolutely fundamental.
You use this term ‘insurrectionary imagination’. Could you just say a little bit more about what you mean by that?
IF: The imagination has the potential and is a fundamental ingredient for insurrection. We wanted to reclaim the offensive and the defiance that is often lacking in art. By calling it a ‘laboratory’ would call on the idea of imagination without having what we feel can be quite a bland understanding and bland connotation of the word ‘imagination’ which is very often seen as something lovely and creative and child-like by actually reclaiming the existence of the defiance of what we wanted to do. This is why we put the word ‘insurrectionary’ in the name of our collective.
JJ: Here’s how we describe it on our website:
The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Lab of ii) merges art and life, creativity and resistance, proposition and opposition. Infamous for touring the UK recruiting a rebel clown army, running courses in postcapitalist culture, throwing snowballs at bankers, turning hundreds of abandoned bikes into machines of disobedience and launching a rebel raft regatta to shut down a coal fired power station; we treat insurrection as an art and art as a means of preparing for the coming insurrection. The Lab of ii is now in the process of setting up an international utopian art/life school on a Permaculture farm in Brittany.
We don’t actually believe in the separation between artists and activists, and we don’t actually believe in those two terms. We think the notion of art as a separate action in everyday life is a very recent phenomenon within the Western tradition. In most cultures there isn’t a separation of art and everyday life.
We think that activism, this idea that activists have this monopoly on social change, is exactly the same as art having a monopoly on creativity. Actually everyone can and has the capacity and does change the world in some way, all the time. So in a way it’s a kind of dialectical relationship, because we wanted to get rid of both those notions. For us, creating an insurrection or some kind of revolutionary change (which we think is absolutely necessary), we have to provide the alternatives to capitalism and the climate catastrophe and resist the problems that are happening that we can’t divide.
We see the DNA of social transformation as being two strands. Being the creation of alternatives such as Transition Towns etc, and a resistance, a resistance against the fossil fuel industries, the banks that fund them and so on. One without the other is absolutely pointless, because if we don’t resist then we forget who the enemy is and there’s a massive danger that our projects become simply experiments in laboratories for new forms of green capitalism. If we don’t create the alternatives, then of course we simply have a culture of resistance and a culture that’s simply saying ‘no’ all the time and that isn’t sustainable in terms of mental health and personal sustainability because people just burn out.
Historically we see the division of these two movements being absolutely a problem, and I think the 1970s is a classic example. For us in all our projects, we try to make models of alternative forms of living. So we haven’t flown on a plane for 10 years, despite the fact that we have this international art world career, where most of the people in that world spend their life on aeroplanes. We live ecologically, we live in a yurt in a community where we set up an organic farm, where we put the land into production. For us that’s not necessarily political but that’s what we do normally anyway, and resistance work is always done without hierarchy. We teach consensus at the beginning of all our projects and we try and use permaculture principles to make them happen.
As one example, and this is relevant because our latest project is geared towards the COP 21 in Paris, the UN Climate Summit which is aiming to find a universal agreement on CO2 emissions and adaptation and so on in December this year. In 2009, we were invited by 2 museums to do projects around COP15 in Denmark, in Copenhagen. We were invited by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Copenhagen.
We had already spent some time in Copenhagen. We published a book on alternatives called Paths Through Utopias, unfortunately only available in French, Korean and German. And we spent some time in Christiania in Copenhagen, a self-managed community in Copenhagen. We noticed then, during that time, that there were thousands of abandoned bikes all over Copenhagen. So we thought: there’s the material. There’s a permaculture principle, “create no waste”. We thought let’s see what we can do with the waste of Copenhagen with these abandoned bikes. Let’s transform them into tools of civil disobedience.
Traditionally, civil disobedience in the Gandhian, Thoreau tradition is through the body and we thought what can we do with the body and a bicycle? We proposed this to the two museums, they both agreed. In the project we worked with the Climate Camp as the movement we were working with and the idea was that we would produce prototypes in the Arnolfini Gallery where we would put 50 people together in an open free workshop, we would teach them the basics of permaculture principles and so on, and we would then go – ok, what can we do with these bikes, and design a prototype that we’d then take to Copenhagen to then scale up.
Then we had an interesting moment when both museums said “you can’t do any welding in the museum”. So we thought ok, fine, we’ll get a container outside and we can put an image in it and it’ll be a more public space anyway, so the problem was the solution. Then they had a phone call from the Copenhagen curator and she said “we’ve got a container, but there’s just one little thing. We just talked to the Police in Denmark, and there are certain rules about what is a bicycle.
A bicycle can’t have more than three wheels, it can’t be more than 3 metres long etc etc. If your objects are outside of those rules then you have to write to the police, you have to show them the design and it will take 3 weeks before they come back to you and say you’ve got the right to go on the road. So we said “well that’s very interesting, but we’re doing civil disobedience. We don’t really care whether the bikes are legal or not”. At which point there was this pause, and she was like “so you’re really going to do it…”
We’ve had this experience in the art world a lot. Basically, a lot of the art world pretends to do politics. They have these very radical texts and radical propositions. Maybe she imagined we were going to build these objects and stay in the museum, but for us that’s not the point. The point is actually to take action. Unfortunately the museum then pulled out, but we did find an ex-squat in Copenhagen which is a sort of art and cultural centre called the Candy Factory and produced a project there. About 200 people ended up being involved and took part in the demonstration against the corporate domination of the UN climate talks.
In a way this is a good example of how we think a lot of so-called political art at the moment, which is very trendy. There are endless biennials, museum exhibitions, theatre festivals which use the word ‘political’, ‘radical’, ‘socially engaged’ and so on. Actually, as far as we’re concerned, a lot of it is what we’d call “pictures of politics”.
You recently wrote that “the Left is very scared of using desire and the body and capitalism and the Right are brilliant at it”. Can you talk us through what the implications of that are, and for Transition as well?
IF: There is a tendency amongst the Left, and of course these are massive generalisations. A tendency to feel that the problem is what people don’t know and that therefore if we can produce more facts or figures or information or reports and that people know what’s going on; if we can show the maths, if we can have better pictures of the number of species that are going extinct or the number of people that are being affected, the figures of unemployment etc, then people will react. There’s this idea that there is a large number of people who do not act because they don’t know.
Whereas we believe that very often the problem is actually what people do know, that they cling on to things and values that have been the structure of their life for a long time, and that what generally makes people move is not rational thinking but much more often desires and fantasies of what could be.
There’s a beautiful quote by an American author called Stephen Duncan that puts it very beautifully, about “the dreams of what could be”. The dreams of what could be are much more located in the emotions, in the body, rather than in the left brain. It’s really important to combine them. It’s not a question of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and saying “stop all reports, stop all research, stop all science”. But to not overly rely on them.
The numbers should be there as backup, to be used as crutches, but what is going to motivate most of us is to be able to experience emotionally and bodily a life that is more just, that is more healthy, that is more relaxed, that is more enjoyable. That’s not something that is purely rational. That is one of the knots that is very complicated to untie, the great lie of neo-liberalism and capitalism which is that more stuff necessarily means a better life. We know that it’s untrue, and yet this is something that is difficult to untie. We will manage to untie that by talking and calling upon people’s values.
At the same time, one of the notions that can be of new learning for projects like Transition Towns is that these emotions are the positive emotions of what could be, but also the negative emotions of what we know is wrong with what is going on. Actually, it is a matter of finding the balance and finding how one can feed the other and not overcome the other. Sometimes there can be a tendency to want to deny and obscure the anger and frustration at the injustice and the destruction.
Actually these emotions need to be acknowledged, and need to be used as fuel for resistance, while the emotions of what could be can be used as a tool to move forward to the alternative. It’s the combination of these two emotions that can make the social movements irresistible and indestructible, and very often the movements are indestructible when they’re only calling upon one of those. So it comes back to this DNA of the yes and the no, but I think it’s very true in the kind of emotions that we call upon in ourselves and in other people.
Permaculture is a big part of your work. Could you say a bit about that? Why is permaculture important to what you do?
IF: It offers a very inspiring and stable framework; a very stable value framework. To be able to work in the way we want, we thought that the three main pillars of permaculture are a very efficient way of making people understand that actually it’s not so complicated. Because the principles are a really good road map for working towards the system, and designs that are productive and resilient and respectful. Personally we feel very touched by the idea that you take nature as your teacher and the more you do that, the less you see nature as this external thing outside of you.
More and more you take it as a tool so that you can reintegrate yourself in nature which we’ve been taught to see as this thing…the fact that we very often talk about the environment is telling. It’s this thing that surrounds us, that obviously we’re not part of. Permaculture is an excellent tool to be able to reintegrate oneself into what is actually our only consistent. So we try to use the principles as frameworks for our experiments, and generally the spirit of permaculture is our inspiration.
JJ: And we have this 10 day training called ‘Think like a Forest’ which we have done 4 or 5 times over the past years. It’s actually very inspired – it’s a training in art, activism and permaculture and it really looks at what does art bring to activism, what does activism bring to art, what does art bring to permaculture, what does permaculture bring to art and activism and so forth, to look at it as a system of three worlds. That training was actually very inspired by a training by Starhawk, who’s an anarcho-feminist witch, very involved in the peace movement in the 80s and the alt to globalisation movement, who has a course called the Earth Activist Training Course which we both attended and was very much a big inspiration for us many, many years ago.
We modelled our course on that in a sense where there’s a permaculture element, but instead of having the witchcraft element, we replaced witchcraft with art. Her thing is earth-based spirituality, activism and permaculture, ours is art, activism and permaculture. And in a sense, art is magic. It’s a form of magic. We think that’s one of its powers, that actually things become true when enough people believe in them. Art is very good at weaving the magic that we need in these moments.
[This is an edited version of a longer conversation. You can hear our discussion in full in the podcast below:
John and Isabelle are just two of over 60 artists who have written sections for Lucy Neal’s forthcoming book ‘Playing for Time: making art as if the world mattered” (see cover, right). The book is published at the end of this month. TransitionNetwork.org readers can get £5 off Playing for Time. Simply enter this discount code at oberonbooks.com – ONPFT2015. Valid until 31 Dec 2015.