Art is defining student activist movements in a world that’s increasingly moving to social media. The visual side of activism has evolved to encompass new forms with students embracing performance and Lennon Walls — but despite the shift online, one medium remains especially striking: the protest sign.
The sense of community was undeniable at a recent UBCC350 sign-making event and I hesitated to pull members Max Hiscox and Mukta Chachra away from the camaraderie for an interview. They were preparing for solidarity action with Wet’suwet’en land defender that was being held at Vancouver- area ports later the same afternoon.
A dozen or so students cut up cardboard and gather markers while sitting on the floor or perched on couches. They passed around a bag of chips, amidst typical student chatter about some concert the week before or the shortcomings of some professor.
“It’s a space for people to build art and at the same time talk to each other about what’s going on and organize,” said Hiscox.
There’s more nuance to activist art than just protest, however, and the simple sign goes beyond protest.
“I don’t even like to call them protest signs,” Chachra said. “I think it’s more like art and it’s the art of resistance.”
Sign slogans assert a certain kind of defiance. Take the worldwide climate strikes led by activists like Autumn Peltier and Greta Thunberg, where photos of protest signs struck the internet with snappy slogans.
Chachra acknowledged the space she occupies with her activism, stressing the need to centre the voices of the communities most impacted.
“With our signs, I think it’s really important to echo the voices of the people at the front lines, and ... for those of us in the more privileged position to support those communities and ... their voices in art,” she said.
Finding space in the impermanent
Although signage will almost certainly continue as a mainstay in activism, campus activist groups — such as UBCC350 — have been exploring the usage of more fluid mediums, like screen printing and chants in their activism.
The Lennon Walls across campus also show how spontaneous mediums of protest can have an impact at UBC, as they provide a space for students to write messages about the recent protest movement in Hong Kong. Walk by the wall and you’ll see a motley patch of coloured
Post-its upon which students have scrawled messages of support for pro-Hong Kong activists.
Of note is the ubiquitous 加 油, literally translated as “add oil,” a common Chinese phrase of encouragement. Beside a photo memorializing the late Dr. Li Wenliang, who was a COVID-19 whistleblower, are pens and pads of blank notes for passersby to write and stick on their own thoughts.
Phoenix Au-Yeung, an executive at UBC The Enlightenment of HK, said the wall in the Nest started in a “half organic” way after a rally on campus in October 2019.
“We just thought this might be a chance for everyone to kind of fill up this Lennon Wall, which is a really common way of expressing opinions ... in Hong Kong,” she said. “So from then on, we’ve seen people putting on Post-it Notes.”
One of the most eye-catching visuals of Hong Kong activism, Lennon Walls in Hong Kong feature Post-its that are typically glued down in public spaces. The notes provide an easily accessible way for anybody to contribute to an installation — “You probably have one in your backpack right now,” Au-Yeung mused — and it’s already spawned an offshoot for Kashmir in the Life Building.
But the transience of the notes is one of the wall’s greatest vulnerabilities. The installation in the Nest has endured several instances of vandalism, despite the AMS’s approval for the wall to remain.
The wall’s resilience symbolizes the people in the movement, said Au-Yeung, even as media attention has waned. “We’re still here,” she said.
“It’s really exciting to see that there are still people caring, especially [since] we’re all the way here in Canada,” she said. “They’re still willing to kind of put themselves out there ... just leaving a message that is letting other people know that they’re caring.”
And it’s neither Au-Yeung nor the rest of Enlightenment’s role to police the messages put up, she said. The wall is open to all, both pro-HK and pro-Chinese government sentiments.
“What we were really upset about [with] the last wall being torn down was that we never stopped you from putting anything on,” she said.
“It could be anything. It could be pro-China. But you didn’t have the right to tear down what other people had to say because those are their thoughts, their property and their rights — and you shouldn’t be able to remove that from the public attention.”
Good press, bad press
By nature, the visual impact of activist art lends itself to being taken up by the media. But Au-Yeung said that media attention is a “side product of the wall.”
“I believe that this should be something that comes together naturally, that exists because people want to present their thoughts and they want to share what’s on their minds.”
Emma Pham, a member of Extinction Rebellion (XR) UBC, holds a different philosophy.
“I think that art is very important in this because this movement is based in the 21st century. There’s nothing better than a good photo.”
XR is more focused on taking up space in media than the other activist organizations I spoke to. For example, events like last month’s road blockades in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en or the hunger strike for divestment in January were both aimed at bringing media attention to XR and its mission. The latter featured chants from the Red Brigade, an activist group tied to XR that brings performance to protests with members clad in signature blood-red livery.
“That’s something that’s kept in mind during disruptive actions,” said Pham, one of the hunger strikers. “Is it going to be enticing for media to be there? Is there going to be a good story or a good photo they can get out of it?”
On the other hand, some have criticized XR for its focus on grabbing attention instead of policy change.
Personally, Chachra said she has issues with media coverage of activism. She said, consider Wet’suwet’en land defenders, whom news outlets and social media users have branded as ‘protesters,’ despite their goal of resisting the RCMP to defend their ancestral lands.
“It’s not a protest because they are Indigenous water and land defenders, and they’re protecting their territory which has never been surrendered.”
Even if the narrative is out of their control, there are still benefits to media attention, said Hiscox. It’s especially important for Wet’suwet’en land defenders, he explained, because spreading awareness about RCMP actions around the Unist’ot’en camp keeps resisters safe.
“I think we’re trying to make it really clear that this genocide and removal of Indigenous people from the land is not something that will be tolerated,” he said. “It’s not something that will just cause a stir for a bit and will blow over. It’s something that absolutely will not go unnoticed.”
And for many student activists at UBC, there will be resistance as long as conflict persists. With tensions in Hong Kong becoming less intense in recent months, I asked Au-Yeung what she saw for the future of the Lennon Wall.
“I hope it could stay up as long as the movement’s going on,” she said. “As long as we’re still fighting in Hong Kong and everywhere else in the world.
“Ultimately [the Lennon Wall] could just be a platform for anyone to say anything they want.”