(Photo by Skyler Jenkins for TEDxPhiladelphia)
Every day, we all engage in behaviors that, consciously or not, align us with messages and movements within our society. These actions and reactions define who we are as individuals and our culture as a people — sometimes without our even realizing it.
TEDxPhiladelphia’s Tuesday evening Salon event Social Justice and the Arts: It Can’t Be Defined brought these behaviors under examination and proposed the power of art to shift our culture.
Philly’s rich history and the strong current presence of art in the community here have driven many intersections of social justice and the arts, but both elude a tidy definition, according to Samantha Byles, who leads TEDxPhiladelphia with Kelsey Guinnup. The TEDxPhiladelphia team sought to create an immersive and participatory experience through the Salon, the first following their May 2019 conference, with hopes that the multidimensionality of the topic would evoke emotion in each attendee and leave all with deep feelings and ideas to act on, much like the impression that art leaves with its viewer, Byles said.
The event kicked off with a screening of a 2008 TED talk by artist Chris Jordan about art as a driver for social change. In his talk, Jordan described a fear that “we aren’t feeling enough.” His art presents everyday items in massive volumes to portray the scale of different epidemics in the United States such as prescription drug abuse, incarceration, and plastic pollution. Jordan believes this will make Americans feel more deeply about national social issues and drive individuals to change one thing we have control over: our own behavior.
Event speaker Jennifer Turnbull, co-director of art and justice advocacy nonprofit Spiral Q, alongside Liza Goodell, built on the idea that art envisions things we cannot see. Importantly, according to Turnbull, we are all “programmed” to understand art because “art is foundational to human existence, it is for everyone, and it is part of all of us.”
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Just as humans created art, we created systems like agriculture, telephones, slavery, capitalism, and justice, Turnbull said. Together these comprise our culture, which we can perpetuate — or shift — with our everyday actions.
As an example, Turnbull and fellow artists presented an excerpt from Spiral Q’s 20th Annual Parade and Pageant that portrayed the interconnectedness of health, housing, self-determination, and freedom as experienced by Philadelphians living with HIV/AIDS. According to Turnbull, this pageantry makes it clear to the viewer what is meant when they are asked to support the prescription housing campaign.
Her hope for the art is that it will encourage support for cultural workers and local grassroots efforts that “have always done ‘the work’ of responding to unjust worlds in new and creative ways with shoestring budgets,” whether through giving, making art, or connecting in real life, and to allow the art to change you.
The evening concluded with conversation about creating actions that reflect our values, facilitated by Laura Deutch, education director of PhillyCAM, the nonprofit that operates Philly’s public access television network. Deutch led the audience through exercises designed to drive consideration of the cultural shifts and small actions we can all take to decrease the dissonance we may experience between what we believe and how we actually live.
Under Deutch’s guidance, attendees discussed having a personal daily practice, which she defined as anything one does “with regularity and intention that moves you toward a life that reflects the meaning that you want it to have,” meditated on their roots and history, and made pledges to take individual actions that will drive change in their communities.
Ultimately, art amplifies these critical messages of the movements we might otherwise not be thinking about every day and reminds us that, as Turnbull said, “we have the power — and the choice — to effect change.”-30-
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