One of the more visible and inspired collaborations to emerge after the election, the Portland-based art duo Erin Johnson and Marieke Van Der Steenhoven began collaborating as GET READY WEEKLY with the intention of using art and social practice for advancing racial, social environmental and economic justice for artists and non-artists alike, hosting workshops where participants made protest signs and keeping a public calendar of resistance efforts around city and state.
As we approach Trump’s 100 day mark, they’re still at it and evolving. Still a "platform for and calendar of visual resistance production," GET READY WEEKLY is designed to be participatory, community-driven and -dependent. Their workshops are designed as spaces for the development and synthesis of local resistance thought as much as they are for art production, and they’ve deepened connections with other art and activist coalitions throughout the state.
As artists and thinkers, the two cover a lot of ground — Johnson with her knack for designing work that explores human relationships, connections, and historical narratives using sound, video, and relational practices; and Van Der Steenhoven, a choreographer and educator who works with rare books and archives. (The two also share a connection at Bowdoin College, where Johnson is a visiting Assistant Professor in the Visual Arts department and Van Der Steenhoven works as the education and outreach librarian in the college's George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives.)
With their residency at SPACE Gallery kicked off with an April 10 "Tax March Color Guard" workshop (in preparation of the "Release Your Taxes Rally" in Portland April 15) with the League of Women Doers (LOWD), we asked GET READY WEEKLY about their post-election resistance model, how it jells with Maine's existing network of political artists, and future plans.
How would you describe your political activity since the election?
GRW came out of a desire to get together in a collective atmosphere to make images and objects that actively resist Trump’s agenda. Our first gathering, a banner-making workshop a week before the inauguration, was really about bringing people together to make something — and banners from that event went to Women’s Marches in Portland, Augusta, Brunswick, and D.C. People have come to our workshops from throughout Maine.
These workshops are open to all, those who identify as artists and those who don’t. And bringing people together to make art seems important, for its political and resistance purpose but also as a way to be together in trying times. Our hope is that over sewing a banner, folks are having conversations that get them involved with an organizing effort that they might not have already known about, learning about all of the things that are going on in Maine and getting tapped in.
Are there particular working models of protest art groups elsewhere in the country that you're informed by?
Erin Johnson: When Trump was elected, the first thing that I thought about was ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). In an article titled "Lessons for Fighting a Demagogue, From the People Who Survived a Plague: How the AIDS movement has given birth to the Trump resistance" (published in Slate in December 2016), Michelle Goldberg states, “ACT UP, however, offers lessons for moving forward in the face of powerlessness, grief, and horror. When ACT UP formed in March 1987, the AIDS epidemic was six years old and had killed 40,000 people, yet President Ronald Reagan hadn’t given a single speech about it .... ACT UP was able to change policy because it was relentless, and at once radical and highly pragmatic. It chose its targets carefully and stayed on them consistently.” The artwork, street theater, and design they employed was essential to their organizing, and their strategies give me a lot of hope.
Marieke Van Der Steenhoven: Similarly, ACT UP has always been a powerful protest touchstone for me. In grad school I helped digitize the work of Annette Dragon, a Maine photographer, who was active in the queer community in the '90s. Dragon’s photographs of ACT UP/PORTLAND protests — the people and their posters, banners, and props — illustrate the vibrant activism that has been happening in our community for a long time.
The Beehive Design Collective [in Machias] is another source of inspiration for me in thinking about the ways that creating imagery can actively bring people together and graphics can exist as living, interactive art and protest.
Erin Johnson: Currently, Halt Action Group, We Make America, and 100 Days Action have been important touchstones for GET READY WEEKLY’s work. All of these groups get people together to make things and in doing so make tangible and visible opposition or goals, create space for thinking about what they’re arguing for, and provide tools for folks to be with their beliefs in material ways.
Marieke Van Der Steenhoven: I’d add to that 350.org and their “artivism” arm. I’m also really excited by the work of the W.I.T.C.H. movement. I love the power of anonymity they use, but also I’m really excited by the performative aspect. And am thrilled that the LOWD color guard has introduced, albeit a bit different in aesthetics, a performative element to our workshops and to protests at large!
What criteria do you use in choosing a partnership or alliance?
GRW's partners for our residency at SPACE include: ACLU of Maine, Artist Rapid Response Team, Portland Global Shapers Hub, League of Women Doers, Maine Conservation Voters, 350 Maine, Maine Resists!, Pickwick Independent Press, Suit Up Maine, and we are always looking for more!
We view this residency as an opportunity to bring a myriad of people and organizations together in one physical place. We’ve reached out to a wide variety of activist organizations in the Greater Portland area, inviting them to partner with us in whatever capacity makes the most sense for them.
Our partnerships are based on conversations we’ve had with people, both face-to-face and virtually, and have been evolving continually! Much as we’re using the gallery at SPACE to begin to build a living archive (something that expands and contracts, something that isn’t static), we’re very much hoping to grow our partnerships. We conceive of GRW as a platform for coalition building and we really want to help amplify the voices that are already out there making noise!
It was particularly important for us to work with ARRT! because we admire their long legacy of arts activism and the impact they have had on Maine’s art ecology.
How interested are you in aesthetics or styles of protest art? Does that interest show up in the workshops you're hosting?
We’re definitely interested in the history of protest art and how people who have led workshops as part of GET READY WEEKLY are looking to the past to create for the future. For example, [Portland] artist Christopher Patch has been organizing puppet-making workshops in preparation for two upcoming marches and has been looking at Bread and Puppet, the historic “parade of horribles,” and more. Throughout the workshops, we’re looking to the aesthetics of contemporary political engagement of Tahrir Square, Occupy Oakland, and Reclaim UC.
What are the long-term goals of GRW?
GRW was never intended to last past the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. We will continue the connections and coalitions that have been built through this process in future arts and activism work!
GET READY WEEKLY residency | Through May 1 | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | Workshop times April 17, April 24, & May 1 5:30-7 p.m. | https://getreadyweekly.wordpress.com/
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