Activism Through Art: Building Communications around Digital Rights Litigation

Activism Through Art: Building Communications around Digital Rights Litigation

By Caroline Sinders, 16th November 2021

In September, DFF held a three-day workshop exploring how digital rights activists can use different forms of communication as a tool to bolster and complement digital rights litigation. In this new series of blog posts, our trainers revisit some topics and discussions from that workshop and share their recommendations with our readers.

When considering how to communicate the policy issues that arise in the context of strategic litigation, many lawyers and activists tend to gravitate towards “words” as the tool they are most familiar with.

For policymakers, the term “communication” seems to conjure up mostly text-based images: writing a brief, a report, a press release, a blog post or a tweet. Even preparing for an interview will often be done with the expectation that it will be turned into a newspaper article. 

But good communication and advocacy is so much more than that. Good communication does not just target our cognitive functions, it also aims to appeal to our emotions, including your audience. Doing that can be easier when we engage all senses, when we use “more than just words”.  

Art can be helpful to communicate policy and policy research in this way, including in the context of strategic litigation. Research based-art, in particular, can be used to affect policy, uncover algorithmic harms, bias, and even build tools to help further social justice in the world. 

Unpacking research-based art

Research-based art is exactly what it sounds like. It’s art shaped, structured and driven by research – be it qualitative, quantitative, open-source investigations, etc.

My own research-based practice has three parts to it. First, I focus on creating research because it’s practical. I want to produce research, be it through white papers, articles, or workshops, because it creates something that wasn’t there before. Research tests a hypothesis to see if something works or doesn’t. 

Second is activism or advocacy, which builds on that practical research, and is helpful, because activism helps push society forward.

Art is a poetry that is necessary to help the world function and see new futures and new imaginaries

But to make a real impact, we can take activism and research, and distil it into something else which is art. Art is a poetry that is necessary to help the world function and see new futures and new imaginaries. 

What can art do for policy work and strategic litigation?

Research-based art can “activate” or “visualise” a particular subject for legal and non-legal audiences. When you experience or see the artwork, it can make you feel something more, something that goes beyond the reaction you get when simply reading a press release. 

Art can be succinct, and it can explore and show slices of an idea and create a space of interaction and understanding for audience members. An example of this kind of succinct art that poetically visualises and embodies a problem area or harm can be seen in the piece, “Probably Chelsea” by Heather Dewey-Hagborg. This piece is one of the best manifestations that shows the fallibility of algorithms. “Probably Chelsea” displays thirty different possible portraits of Chelsea Manning algorithmically generated by an analysis of her DNA and 3D printed. None of these 3D printed faces are technically wrong, but none of these portraits are quite right, because none look like Chelsea Manning. 

For me, as a researcher who has worked on AI products at IBM Watson, and as a lecturer and artist, Dewy-Hagborg’s piece has provided me with the most succinct images to discuss bias in algorithms with students, with policymakers, with other researchers, with the general public, and with anyone. But what makes it so strong, is that it is also beautiful, compelling, and aesthetically driven, while being incredibly succinct, and powerful in its own concepts and framing. 

It can create a poetic “ah-ha!” moment, sometimes better than any article or paper could

Art can take a complex topic, rife with policy issues, and create a profound space of understanding and exploration for an audience. It can create a poetic “ah-ha!” moment, sometimes better than any article or paper could. 

Figuring out your needs

During DFF’s Communications workshop, participants were encouraged to explore, through exercises and collaboration, how to transform an idea into a potential space of artistic advocacy- but also to identify and define their needs as activists. What’s particularly important in this context is being aware that there is a difference between working with an artist and working with a designer. 

An artist can take an idea and transform it, innovate it, or push it beyond what we, as activists, could imagine. There is a kind of freedom and future foresight within art that unbridled creativity allows. But an artist is not necessarily a designer. So, it’s important for policymakers, researchers, NGOs and CSOs to first figure out what they want and what they need. Do you seek to commission an advocacy campaign or are you interested in new forms of research and expression, revealed by the artistic and creative process?

If you need something specific, what you need is a collaborator, who can work as a fabricator, translator and designer. But as a general rule, that person is not – or does not do – the work of an artist. 

Unlike a designer, who works, at least to some extent, on your instructions, an artist may be inspired by a slice of your idea but will want to take that idea further. This means that when working with an artist, you may not necessarily be able to direct or demand them “do something” specific with the work or subject matter. This is where art differs from design, or from a creative campaign. 

However, some artists can explore a particular directive, or use a specific research directive, to generate a particular piece of art.  For example, the artist Joanna Moll regularly collaborates with NGOs and CSOs on research-based artwork, such as a project on data brokers and dating profiles created with Tactical Tech. But some artists will take an idea or direction or prompt, and move into a place that, while worthwhile and beautiful, may not be the art you need for your campaign or organisation. 

If you need art “to do something”, then what you need is clear guidelines and communication – and a collaboration. Or…you need a fabricator and creative collaborator to help you deliver on an idea. 

Go deep – and then deeper

One of the ways to do this could be by collecting a number of broad ideas and then go a “level deeper” to see where this is taking you, creatively speaking. For example, if you start with the concept of “climate change”, next, ask yourself what particular issue or area related to climate change you want to address. Then go a level deeper still. Outline the particular audience you want to speak to and provide a sentence of context. This could mean “climate change”, “affecting displaced communities”, in “Louisiana”, etc. 

During the workshop, participants put this approach into practice by working through different tech-focused scenarios. An interest in working on issues related to “tech workers” led to an exploration of context: which workers, in what area did we want to focus on? By selecting a location and type of worker, this helped surface the cultural and regulatory dimensions our project would be dealing with – e.g. differences between US and EU approaches – and the type of audience we want to reach. 

That is a much more specific idea, and an actionable idea, than just generally “building empathy” or illustrating problems with technology platforms

By selecting a particular audience, we can then use that regulatory framing, those cultural nuances, to help ground the message more. Going a level deeper, we then discussed what we want the audience to feel. Is it empathy? Is it to learn something? What is the particular issue within “tech workers” we want to focus on?

Suddenly, we were coming up with an idea around video games exploring what it means to be an Amazon worker in a factory within the EU. That is a much more specific idea, and an actionable idea, than just generally “building empathy” or illustrating problems with technology platforms. 

Art and creative practices can help create new ways to understand policy, unpack policy, and research policy. But art does not happen randomly; art happens with work, planning and intention, just like research and policy. But when all three overlap, we can create new imaginaries to see the world, and see the future. We can use art to effect change!

Caroline Sinders is a machine learning design researcher and artist. Her work has been shown at the Tate Modern, the Victoria & Albert Museum, MoMA’s PS 1, and elsewhere.  

Illustration by Blanche Illustrates