It didn’t take long for the trolls to come out of hiding.
The Creative Change Laboratory (CCoLAB) – a “school for creative resistance” – had barely started posting about their work on their Facebook page in April 2019 when the racists scuttled out from under the floorboards to swarm all over a decidedly anodyne post in which someone stated their interest, as an activist, in inequality as it expresses itself in educational resources and cultural capital.
It was, somewhat perversely, not a bad thing. It gave Gabriel Khan and John Marnell, CCoLAB’s founders and facilitators, and their select group of collaborators an unexpectedly early lesson in nurturing resilience.
Without turning it into one of those social media pile-ons in which everyone comes out feeling tarnished, murderous or despairing – or any combination of the three – Khan and Marnell pushed participants in the venture to develop a collective strategy for responding to bullies.
“There’s a misconception sometimes,” says Marnell, “that what we’re doing is kind of an art project. Actually, it’s a facilitated learning project, one that harnesses creative expression to unpack and reflect on our experiences and to help us think about how we can take that learning into the outside world. It’s a guided process of thinking, doing, sharing and refining and then rethinking, redoing, resharing and re-refining.”
A capacity to recover quickly from setbacks – resilience, in other words – is something Khan and Marnell’s group of young people will have to learn and relearn if their aim is to continue being activists or artists once CCoLAB wraps up with an exhibition at Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education at the end of October. Dealing with intellectual disdain, hurtful personal comments and threats of violence are part of what they signed up for. It goes with the territory: pressing for social change has always been a thankless task.
The 16 participants in CCoLAB, aged between 16 and 28, were selected from a large pile of applications Khan and Marnell received after putting out word that they were looking for young people interested in using art in their activism. The model for their work is the Creative Resistance toolkit Khan and Marnell have been refining over years of working all over Africa with various groups to help them respond to particular challenges in their communities.
“We’ve been using this method with groups like migrants, sex workers and LGBTQI folk, but young people as activists are really on the rise worldwide and we wanted to give them extra tools for the important work they do,” Khan said.
Khan and Marnell had also wanted to extend their creative projects from flash interventions that lasted only a few days to a longer programme, one that stretched over months, in order to see whether longer interventions had different outcomes. They already had a solid sense of what could be achieved within a few days – one of their interventions contributed to the first-ever LGBTQI march to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Lesotho – so what could be achieved in a few months, they wondered.
Migrant, landless, feminist and LGBTQI youth from Cape Town were encouraged to apply and those who were selected had to commit to several weeks of intense learning, spread out across half a year. During this time, they would be exposed to various art forms: photography, videography, sound, performing arts, creative writing and ’zine making. They then had to work on a prototype creative intervention, something that could be presented at a final exhibition, something that communicated a social issue faced in their own marginalised community.
“We’ve seen some really wonderful prototypes emerge from the process,” says Marnell, “but there have also been many bumps along the way.”
One of these was that this was the first time Khan and Marnell had to work with a group that had only one thing in common: their youth.
Vusumzi Nkomo, previously a student activist in Port Elizabeth and currently an arts journalist, is, at 26, one of the “elders” of the CCoLAB group.
“I was interested to see what happens when you use art methods for creative radical change, but I was also really drawn to the composition of this racially diverse programme. You hardly ever see collaboration of this kind happening across racial lines which, for the purposes of building a more inclusive country, is something I would like to experiment with more in the future.”
What he found particularly instructive was working in a group in which not everyone had the same concerns as he did.
“Being a cis-het man, I never have to think of how sexual orientation or gender informs my practice, or how – because of heteronormativity – things that seem ‘normal’ to me have an enormous impact on other people’s lives.”
Throwing together a bunch of people with varying ideological groundings, class backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations and races created its own set of problems.
Khan says: “One of the things John and I have learnt is how much time it takes to negotiate differences in a group with such vastly different political analyses and such vastly different issues that they’re passionate about. The flip side is that we think the richness of the artworks coming out of this is because of that diversity.”
In the middle of 2019, the group spent its longest time together: five weeks in Seed Space in central Cape Town. Experienced artists led method-specific workshops with the group and collaborators then started refining their ideas and producing work for a mock exhibition. It was then that nerves started fraying. The combination of the intensity of the actual work – how to communicate difficult subjects to audiences who may not be interested in your issues – along with with the different speeds at which people work, the background differences that needed mediating, the fact that collaborators were giving up their mid-year break, made for some tense moments.
But, like dealing with social media bullies, the stress also nudged participants towards discoveries. Sydney Adams, a 22-year-old “art school dropout”, says one of the things she uncovered was “where my limits are”.
Activists are at high risk for burnout.
“I think I thought I could do a lot more,” Adams says, “but I learnt it’s good to be advocating for others, but you also need to advocate for yourself.”
Others have learnt other things. Shiraz Soeker, 28: “I’ve learnt that actually I am an artist. I don’t need a degree to make my art. People have been so affirming and my confidence has grown.”
Zintle Olayi, also 28: “I feel I have to organise, mobilise, facilitate conversations, make marches happen. This was a lesson in finding other ways to do what I do. I am the most unartistic person on this programme, but I’ve been shown how I can combine art with my activism so I can be better. Do better. Do more.”
Mamello Modutle, 19: “I’ve learnt how to accommodate people who work differently. I work well under pressure. I’ve had to learn to be patient with people who don’t, and to remain focused anyway. And learning about activism has taught me to bring meaning into my art.”
Khan and Marnell have always chosen art as the focus of their work. Khan’s interest in this field was stimulated years ago by attending a workshop by the artist Judy Seidman, a key proponent of using art as a tool for liberation during apartheid and author of Red on Black: The story of the South African Poster Movement.
Khan says art “pushes people beyond what they are already doing and allows them to process their own feelings and emotions”. However, its well-documented efficacy as a tool for personal transformation, self-understanding and self-acceptance is not the only reason he and Marnell use art to train activists.
“When it comes to changing the world outside ourselves, we know three things about art,” says Khan. “It is malleable enough to be understood by a range of different audiences. Secondly, it’s affective. In other words, it makes us feel something,” he says, emphasising the word “feel”.
“As important as statistics are, for instance, people are more often changed when their emotions have been engaged.
“And, finally, art moves people towards change in a world where there are certain trends that govern the way we respond to each other based on our genders, races, sexualities and so on. Art allows us to move beyond the trends expected of us and our bodies.”
Olayi says: “I’m really hoping that the work we did here is going to makes a difference. If it doesn’t affect people, if they don’t find it valuable, then I’m going to have to ask myself, ‘Why did I do this?’”
But early indications are that work produced during CCoLAB will have a life beyond its exhibition at the end of this month. Various organisations, platforms and media have shown an interest in exhibiting or using the videos, portraits, installations, sculptures and processes that have been developed so far.
Nkomo said one of the most unexpected things he’d learnt from the CCoLAB process was that the younger participants – two of them are only 16 – were less self-critical than the older ones.
“They just poured themselves into it. I overthink everything. They just bleed into it.”
This young/old division – between the activist newbies and the “elders” – was a diversity perspective that surprised Nkomo. But despite all the differences between the collaborators, the experiment held together extremely well.
“Love and justice,” says Nkomo. “We were all reacting from various ideological groundings, class backgrounds, ages, and so on and so on. But the facilitators have kept stressing our commonalities, our common vision.
“There have been emotionally intense moments, but for someone to wake up and come back again the next morning in spite of that, showed that that common vision was strong.
“And what I saw was that each and every one of us puts love and justice at the centre of our work.”
In the run up to the CCoLAB exhibition, there is also a CCoLAB mixtape. The mixtape is a soundscape of experimental/sonic/art created by collaborators during the sound sessions as part of the Co-Create Learning Block of the Creative Change Laboratory. The sessions were facilitated by Warrick Sony and over just 2 days participants were able to create these amazing sound and music clips. In South Africa, sound and music have been powerful tools for articulating resistance – these sound clips attempt to capture the spirit of resistance intrinsic to youth.
Have a listen: https://ccolab.bandcamp.com/
Tea was used as a currency in Siberia up until the 1940s.