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Art & activism

Victoria Zerbst on the overlap of art, activism and the SCA campaign

In 1975 artist Carolee Schneemann extracted a scroll of feminist discourse from her vagina and read it to an audience while she stood naked on a table naked. This work is called Interior Scroll.

I rocked up to the Sydney College of the Arts Hub the day before the informal meeting with the SCA Dean, Colin Rhodes and the Provost Stephen Garton. Large canvases leaned against the wall; students gathered at working spaces like they were watering holes, and artists in overalls dabbed with paint held brushes in hands, hair, and teeth. This hub was a life force. I watched these artists quench their thirst for action, painting their voices onto paper.

One poster used Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, and I couldn’t help but see the relevance. After talking to so many SCA students it is clear they feel the University of Sydney is chewing them up and spitting them out. James Thompson, a masters student at SCA, made the poster on a whim. Creations like these form the backbone of the Let SCA Stay movement, the combination of students, staff, activists and artists, fighting the proposed closure of the art school.

Among the newspapers, cloths and canvases I saw a familiar face. Cecilija Rubenis was a band member for a show I directed in 2015. She is now a Bachelor of Visual Arts honours student at the SCA, working with a focus on painting and sculpture. I asked her how this hub kicked off.

“At the beginning it was everyone in the cafe showing up and just doing. It wasn’t even a ‘rallying of the troops’. Everyone just turned up knowing we had to fight this,” she said. The SCA has hosted working-bees, banner painting days, and strategy meetings every week during the break. “We are not just making angry campaigns, we are making really smart campaigns and that’s really important,” she told me.

Cecilija is a first time ‘activist’ but believes visual art students “have the ability to think differently about how things could work or what they might look like, rather than just the norm”. Her honours thesis is about second wave feminism employing art to create uncomfortable discourse through aesthetics. “I have always been interested in art that is intensely political. I think we do have a duty to engage and be a mirror for the society we are living in.”

In 2012 Pussy Riot performed their Punk Prayer at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ The Saviour, staging a series of shouts, dances, and guitar riffs in response to the Church leader’s support for Putin during his election.

“As artists we are all activists,” Second year print media student Jemima Wilson tells me. “We use our artistic sensibility and creative aesthetic to evoke meaning.”

This is true of the SCA protest vigil held at the Art Gallery of NSW, an impactful action performed against a backdrop of the country’s most important portrait prize. Adorned in red capes, protesters stretched across the gallery steps. Coordinated percussion mirrored the vigil’s striking visual solidarity, as protesters clapped “S-O-S” in Morse code over the pulse of a snare drum.

The vigil was, in part, theorised by Danica Knezevic as a “meditation on what the closure means to the art community”. The SCA PhD student curated this action by infusing her own studies of performance art and the passion and anger that came from news of the closure. “The words SOS SCA were everything. Save our souls. Artists are the souls of a community… a lot of my work is about is about finding a voice and giving a voice to the voiceless.”

The vigil was covered by every major news outlet in Sydney. SRC Education Officer Dylan Griffiths believes this was largely due to the use of visual and audio motifs. “The vigil at the Archibald really showed how you can have a creative action and the media will be up on it.”

From 1995 to 2003 Ai Wei Wei took photos as part of a series Study of Perspective, which shows him flipping the bird to different political monuments like the White House and Tiananmen Square.

The Senate meeting protest was loud and vibrant. Students made it to the fourth floor of the Abercrombie building and protested the meeting where university management make all their top dog decisions. Griffiths had the idea of harnessing the SCA creative flair with a spur of the moment creation. “There is nothing like making art on the spot.” Students had brought some materials to the rally at The Abercrombie Business School and James was ready. “I thought ‘here we go, let’s make an work that can transcend this situation and get the message across’.” Using black and white paint on a bare canvas, he created a haunting replica of the horse from Picasso’s Guernica.

“I was looking at the history of painting using that as reference points for the campaign. The art works I chose were painted by artists as a political message for their times.” The image of Picasso’s horse was lifted and shared amongst protesting hands. “There are a lot of ways to express how we feel. Art has that power. Guernica was painted after general Franco bombed the city in Spain. It is symbolic of the pain caused by the Franco Regime. It also symbolises how the SCA has been treated by our own system, the University of Sydney.”

By the time James got back to the protest, the painting was missing. It’s an amusing mystery but James’ biggest fear is that “Garton secretly has it up on his wall.” This fear is somewhat ironic, considering the fake Picasso outside the Vice-Chancellor’s office.

In 2005, street artist Banksy painted nine satirical installations on the Palestinian side of Israel’s West Bank barrier.

The SCA closure is not occurring in a vacuum. It is part of a wider narrative of university corporatisation and profit first KPIs. When the Australian Government cuts arts funding, when University management starves an art school then proposes to close it, when educational institutions put income before students and teachers, it is time to resist and respond.

Protest art, by its very nature, crosses boundaries, media, and disciplines. These students have come with their skills as painters, ceramic makers, performance artists, sculptors, filmmakers, jewellery makers and photographers to make this campaign as effective and affective as it has been.

Art goes hand-in-hand with activism. It is a form of resistance. It is a challenge to traditional ways of thinking. It puts power in the hands of the powerless.

Photo: Cecilija Rubenis adding final touches to a communal painting.