‘Provocations & interventions’: cultural activism and the UCU strike

At followthethings.com we’re fascinated with ways in which cultural activism can contribute to trade justice campaiging. Over the past month, our work has ground to a halt as our CEO Ian – in his guise as a UK-based academic – has been on strike. He has returned to work today as the Coronavirus crisis in the UK is beginning to bite. This post is primarily for students at the University of Exeter taking the MRes Critical Human Geographies module on the ‘Geographies of culture, creativity and practice’ . It’s posted here as part of the social distancing digital alternative to a seminar that’s scheduled to take place later this week. But we’re making it public rather than putting it on the university’s ELE system. If anyone visiting wants to add thoughts and links, the comments are open. Thanks!

There are three parts to this post: a) a starter reading for everyone, b) an intro to 2020 UCU strike activism with some allocated readings for each person, and c) an outline of our Skype session later this week.

a) Our starter reading

This short piece was written in the wake of the 2018 UCU strikes in the UK about ways in which the kinds of cultural activism that academics tend to research became part of their online and IRL practices of union activism.

It would be good if everyone could read this.

Ian Cook and Jen Bagelman (2019) Enacting public geographies. In Kobayashi A (Ed) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (second edition, volume 11). London: Elsevier pp.79-86 [email i.j.cook@exeter.ac.uk for a copy]

b) Cultural activism & the 2019/20 UCU strikes:

Particularly important in the most recent batch of UCU strike action was the @placardsticks twitter account. Before the most recent month of strike action, it published a ‘Strike handbook for UCU activists’ [available here], edited by James Sumner. During the strike, it curated forms of UCU strike activism in a variety of colourful and hilarious threads.

We will use a selection of these threads, and related readings, as the basis for our discussions this week. You will be allocated one of the following. Please follow the thread and read and note the accompanying academic text(s).

NB if anyone has any reading suggestions to add to the ones we’re recommending, please submit a comment below! Thanks.

Thread 1: digital picketing

How can social media posts contribute to political causes?

Check this thread, and read the following academic paper on ‘slacktivism’:

Stephanie Vie (2014) In defense of “slacktivism”: The Human Rights Campaign Facebook logo as digital activism. First Monday, 19(4), [read here]

Thread 2: dressing up

How can dressing up as an animal, or roping in an animal companion,, contribute to political causes?

Check this thread, and read the following academic paper on performative activism:

Paul Routledge (2011) Sensuous solidarities: emotion, politics and performance in the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. Antipode 44(2), 428-452 [read here]

Thread 3: making placards

How can silly, sometimes offensive, slogans and graphics contribute to political causes?

Check this Placrad Sticks thread – plus the supplementary one below – and read the following academic paper on humour in activism:

Anne Graefer, Alliana Kilby & Inger-Lise Kalviknes Bore (2019) Unruly Women and Carnivalesque Countercontrol: Offensive Humor in Mediated Social Protest. Journal of Communication Inquiry 43(2), 171–193 [read here]

Thread four: dancing up a storm

How can singing and dancing contribute to political causes?

Check this thread, and read the following academic paper on flashmob activism:

Kiran Bhatia (2019) The civic potential of Bollywood based dance flash mobs: on youth participation and digital networks. Asian Journal of Communication 29(6), 483-499 [read here]

c) Our discussion

I’m expecting everyone to have been able to read Cook and Bagelman (2019) and to have browsed one of the threads above. There should be plenty to discuss with these combos, already.

If you get the chance to read the additional reading for your thread, that would be lovely. I realise this is short notice, but we have to do what we can in these difficult times.

When we Skype, I’ll talk for maybe ten minutes, and then leave you to discuss the following questions without me for a while, before reconvening to bring your ideas together.

  • what roles do creative practices play in political campaigning?
  • why & how do activists bringing popular culture into political struggle?
  • what makes the messages in this work ‘click’, for you at least?
  • what results do these ‘provocations’ or ‘interventions’ hope to have?

After you have chosen your issue, please discuss your readings and the Twitter threads and channel the most appropriate ideas through these cards to come up with a prototype provocation/intervention that you could do from home.

Today’s deal from the Beautiful Trouble pack.



PS for an excellent example outlining ways to apply cultural activist principles and techniques to the Coronavirus epidemic, see this:


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