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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 their organizing.

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 the issues.

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.

Never boring.

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 most people.

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 differently.

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, 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.

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