Art Against Empire
Interview by Arthur Stamoulis
How do you draw the intricate, overlapping effects of a proposed
trade agreement? It’s a question that members of the all-volunteer
Beehive Collective think about often. The group’s mission
is to “cross-pollinate the grassroots” by creating
images that are used as organizing tools in the movement against
corporate colonialism. Clamor Economics Editor, Arthur Stamoulis,
spoke with one of the collective’s “bees” during
a multi-stop educational tour mobilizing turnout for the Miami
protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Clamor: What are some of the things the Beehive
Collective is working on right now?
One of the things that our collective does is work on what we
call graphics campaigns. We don’t really call it political
art. We call it a campaign that’s in pictures. The idea is
that we gather lots of information as straight from the source
as possible. We talk to tons of people that are involved in the
issues that we’re focusing on. Then we translate that information
into cartoons that are all choreographed into this big picture
with a narrative circuit that leads you around so that you can
read it as a storyboard. All those images form a big poster. That
poster, as well as all the little pieces of it, are dispersed among
the grassroots, and people replicate them as material to use in
For the past couple years, we’ve been working on a trilogy
about globalization in the Western Hemisphere. The first poster
was about the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The second
poster in the series is about Plan Colombia, which is very much
the same story. The third poster will be about Plan Puebla-Panama,
which is a mega-development project, which goes alongside the FTAA
as the development infrastructure side of it that will drastically
affect southern Mexico and Central America. We’re going to
be working on that poster with people in the region this winter
and, hopefully, it will hatch in the spring.
When we get done with the third one, we’re going to make
a coloring book — a big, fun anti-globalization activity
book thing which goes through all the characters and storyline
of all three of them. It will have activities, and all of that
book will also be a collaboration with different activists working
on the single issues that are discussed in it.
So, we made a poster about the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
We started three months before the big protests that happened in
Quebec City a couple years ago, and we were trying to get it all
finished in time to be at that event. We hoped it would be this
thing that people could take home with them to discuss with people
to help explain what they had just gone to protest. It could be
used as a teaching tool. We didn’t get it done in time. We
were locked in a closet for three months, and we still couldn’t
get it done.
We missed the deadline. What ended up happening is that it went
on to be a long-term tool that people could use when campaigning
around the FTAA, and it didn’t end up just being a souvenir
for one protest.
How exactly have people been using the posters?
Teachers use them as coloring projects in their classes a lot.
The teachers divide them into different sections and kids adopt
a single issue and do the research around that. Then they all come
back together and put their stories together into a play or do
a report on what globalization is, based on the single issues that
they researched. That’s been happening a lot.
People use the posters as a springboard for discussions about
In the past few months, we’ve been resuscitating the FTAA
poster because we had been sucked into Plan Colombia world for
the past year-and-a-half. We went back and did all these revisions
on the FTAA one. Originally, that poster had sort of been snatched
away from us due to a printer deadline. It was really gray. You
couldn’t see it very well from far away. All the jokes were
very North American and cynical. It wasn’t multilingual.
We really hadn’t known what we were getting ourselves into
when we first did it.
So, we just spent all this time drawing tons more ants, which
represent different forms of grassroots resistance. We drew tons
more of the good news and improved the contrast on all of it. It’s
really exciting. For our current FTAA graphics campaign, we sent
out announcements all over the place for groups that wanted to
collaborate on the print run with us. The idea is that the more
groups that go in on the print run, the cheaper it is for everyone.
Then people can use the posters as mobilization tools, to teach
people why it’s important to go to the FTAA protests in Miami
and to also help raise travel money, sort of like Girl Scout cookies
or something. We had a special emphasis that the money that people
raised be used to send Latinos and students to the protest. When
going to print, we had 60 different groups collaborating with us.
Right now, we’re on a tour that we started a couple of months
ago from Maine to Miami. We’re doing talks with the FTAA
poster, mostly at a lot of colleges right now because everyone
is having teach-ins. We’re basically doing talks at high
schools and colleges every day, sometimes two or three times a
day, and we’ll be doing that for a couple more months.
This swarm of people together right now, five of us, have worked
together a lot. We’re actually headed down the bigger East
Coast. We’re going from Maine to Miami, but after the School
of the Americas protest, we’re heading through Texas to Central
America. We’ll be making the Plan Puebla-Panama poster and
bringing it to Ecuador in the spring to the Latin American Social
Forum. Then we’re going to tour Colombia after that. So,
part of the print run collaboration that’s being done right
now is also to raise funds to print 10,000 posters to be shipped
to the south and given away for free at these different conferences
that we’re going to.
This group called Pastors for Peace does a lot of border work,
bringing things to Mexico and Cuba. They’re bringing the
10,000 Beehive posters down to Central America in their buses and
dropping them off at different locations. They’ll be passed
out so that people can use them.
What is it about the format that the Beehive Collective
is using that makes it so effective? It sounds like you are getting
a great response.
We are all big strategy nerds. We like to talk about needs and
strategy a lot. All of what has happened with us and the adventure
we’ve been on is very much a testimony to the desperate need
there is for more visual communication about these things that
nobody wants to fucking think about.
Teachers especially are desperate for anything that will get kids
to pay attention to economics or world history, so that’s
why we’ve had such an amazing response from high school teachers.
There are a couple of other things we’ve done as well. We
bought an old grange hall in eastern Maine. It’s a farmers’ organizing
hall from the legacy of the populist movement. We’ve been
restoring that building to open it up for the community. The hive
is based there in Machias. It’s where our apprenticeships
take place. Mostly in the summer, people come from all over the
place to learn how to make stone mosaic murals. Our big, big project — as
if all these other ones aren’t crazy enough — is a
mural about the political history of agriculture, all in insects
and plants. It’ll be a stone mosaic that will be installed
permanently throughout the floor of the Common Ground Fairgrounds
in Unity, Maine. We think that will take 10 years or more to build.
People ask us a lot what the deal is. Why we’re all so possessed
about this stuff. What a lot of us have in common in our collective
is that we grew up on junk food and television and video games
and are really casualties of the cultural homogenization of the
United States. This is our therapy to do these things that are
way bigger than us. Long-term projects help with our attention
span. It’s healthy to think about things that are 100 years
down the road or 1,000 years down the road. We didn’t grow
up that way, but people totally respond to that a lot.
Why is visual art such a good way for communicating
about these issues?
Who the hell wants to think about the FTAA? Who wants to sit around
and talk about economics in their free time? It’s not fun.
It’s not inspiring. It’s overwhelming and scary for
So, it’s been really interesting to see people get these
FTAA posters and sit around and color them. It’s a really
meditative thing to do. It’s really intimate in the quiet.
I think it’s about people being able to take things in on
a level where they can really digest them. It’s not so jarring.
A lot of the propaganda on the left is really arrogant. It doesn’t
ask questions; it just tells you.
We’ve had amazing success with art or pictures or whatever
you want to call it. It doesn’t incite debate in the same
way. You can open up an issue by pointing to all these different
pictures, and people aren’t armed with automatic, rote rebuttals.
You can come in from the side, instead of from head on. That makes
people open up, or at least listen to the whole thing, instead
of picking it apart.
Describe what these posters are like.
The FTAA poster is five feet wide and two-and-a-half feet tall.
It’s like a little mini-mural. We think it’s funny
that people move stuff off their walls and put them up like alters
and don’t take them down. If you had a book on the subject,
you read it and you’re done. It goes on the shelf where you
don’t necessarily access it again. Because these posters
hang out on people’s walls, people end up staring at them
again and again and again. Each time, people can drink them in
How are the posters made?
They’re created out of conversations with many people — people
plugging in with all sorts of different skills and skill levels.
Some people help us with maps for the perspective. Some people
look up different articles. We have an advisory board of people
that we bug for different types of ideas. Basically, we make people
who are used to dealing with words or campaigning do what comes
down to metaphor push-ups with us. “How do you turn your
issues into a picture so that people understand it?”
When people sit down and draw it, there’s tons of mapping
and planning out. It’s such a sad state of affairs that if
you get an artist to work with one other person it’s called “a
collaboration.” There is so much work that goes into this.
Two people working together is not a breakthrough.
Comic books get made in layers. They look uniform in the way that
they’re designed, but tons of people are working on them.
You mean Stan Lee didn’t do it all by himself?
I guess not. Of course, it’s no coincidence that the names
that float around for a long time are men. Our work is definitely
a reaction to that.
Part of our mission is to take the “who made it?” and “how
much does it cost?” out of being creative. Instead, all the
work that we do is anti-copyright and anonymous. We use the name
Beehive, but beyond that there aren’t any superstars in our
collective. There are no skill hierarchies — at least we
try to make sure that there aren’t.
What are some of the benefits you’ve seen
from not having different people’s names attached to different
pieces of work?
It’s not so personality-driven. We were bringing this up
today at a presentation we were doing at a mural school here in
New Haven. Can you name a single famous muralist that was a woman?
Do you know the names of the underling people that made Diego Rivera’s
thingamajigs? By keeping it anonymous, it honors that there are
all these people that dig the coal and wipe your ass and do all
the administrative work without necessarily holding the pen. We’re
constantly barraged with the question, “Who drew it?” It’s
like, “Who cares?” Why is that so important if the
work is informed by zillions of people?
A lot of political art seems to have an industrial
feel to it, with buildings and skylines and people. The Beehive
Collective’s images typically involve agricultural or living-world
themes, with lots of plants and animals. Why that focus?
Part of the Beehive’s strategy involves not drawing humans
at all. There are a lot of stereotypes involved with how to portray
people from all the different places in the world that we are trying
to represent in our graphics. Instead of plugging into that, we
do our homework and figure out the specific insects, plants, and
animals from each bioregion where the people we’re trying
to represent live. In doing so, people from different areas can
still identify with and see themselves in the posters, but we don’t
have to draw some homogenizing, stereotypical picture of what people
from “wherever” look like. We’re careful not
to be racist in the way that we portray things, because we want
people everywhere to be able to use our work as an organizing tool.
So far, we’ve been really successful. We may draw really
stereotypical pictures of ants, but tough shit.
How can someone see this work and get involved?
All the images are anti-copyright. You can download them for free
and look at them. There are different booklets for each one that
serve as little decoder rings for the posters. All of it is on
the website, www.beehivecollective.org.
If people want to get more involved, they can write us about collaborating
or being a bee. We have a big booklet that explains the history
of the collective and the different stuff that people can get involved
with. We’re pretty organized on the recruiting front. A lot
of people come through the collective and say, “I have three
months and am giving it to the Beehive,” and they participate
in different ways.