Mayworks wants to return art to its political roots

BY EDWARD KEENAN

The theme of this year’s Mayworks festival, “art to action to art to action to art to action,” calls to mind the street theatre and relentless puppetry that has been both the great success and the glaring sore thumb of anti-war and anti-globalization protests of the past few years.

While the activist clowning attracts media attention to protests, it has also attracted an increasing torrent of scorn from would-be allies (including The Daily Show, Shift magazine before its demise and, just last month, Marc Herman in the inaugural issue of The Believer) for obscuring the protesters’ message and making leftists look a little silly.

Norman Nawrocki, a Montreal-based artist with 17 years of activism under his belt, says those protesters need education in the art of protest. In pursuit of his politics, Nawrocki has written books, performed music and starred in sex shows dressed as giant genitalia. He will lead a workshop in “Creative Resistance 101” on April 26 as part of Mayworks, as well as perform at the opening event on April 25. His workshop will provide instruction on how to effectively blend imagination and politics.

“The concept isn’t limited to dressing up and attending a demonstration and wearing a mask,” Nawrocki says. “It goes beyond that: it’s how do you incorporate it into everyday life and not just a demonstration? Because obviously a demonstration alone isn’t enough to change things. Getting two minutes on TV isn’t enough to change anything. But if you incorporate this into your workplace, into wherever you live, in your neighbourhood, into your schools, it’s a way of thinking about how to address issues on an ongoing basis so that people around you go, ‘OK, I can get into that. That looks interesting, that looks exciting.'”

The idea that both politics and art need to be part of everyday life is one of the founding principles of the festival. Mayworks coordinator Anna Camilleri says that while other festivals, such as Hot Docs or the Inside Out Film Festival, are politically motivated in ways that often go unacknowledged, Mayworks, sponsored by labour and social justice organizations in memory of the 1886 Chicago strike for an eight-hour workday, wears its politics on its sleeve. “Art is intrinsically connected to the politics of life, and the thing with Mayworks is that’s articulated and I think that’s a good thing,” she says.

That vision will be articulated through 10 days of performances, including hip-hop, folk music and spoken word, film programs, visual art, forums and workshops at various venues around the city. The social-
justice focus is obvious from the program titles, such as “Take this Job and Funk It,” “Songs for Working Stiffs” and “From Chicago to Baghdad — the meaning of May Day.”

“Some people might think it’s propaganda,” says Camilleri. “I just think, ‘God, how refreshing that there’s a festival that’s very focused and clear about its mandate.’ We’re not trying to bury the political ideology and the foundation of the festival, or spice that up as something else.”

But as much as the festival embraces political activism, Camilleri, who is also an author and performer, insists it is, at heart, a celebration of the arts, not a marketing forum for unions. “I think the artists who are engaged by the festival really deserve an audience. and I also think that we as audience members deserve to experience art that makes us feel and think. That’s what it’s all about.”

The festival, like the labour unions that sponsor it, attempts to address the working class, a tricky thing to do these days. The composition of North America’s working class has shifted dramatically with technological advances and trade agreements that have driven some smokestack industries to other countries. That change is depicted in this year’s program cover, a painting by Karen Bell depicting an office worker sitting at a keyboard wearing a gas mask.

Nawrocki says recognizing the changing workforce is essential to the social justice movement’s continuing relevance. “Today we’re in an IT age, when the biggest jobs are phone work, sales work, data processing. It’s a huge market and that’s where the jobs are. And [those workers are] just as exploited as a factory worker,” he says. “I think it’s actually more insidious because, given the shift to the right, people have lost sight of their identities, the identification with the working class has blurred. But people know when they go to work and they have to punch a clock and sit there for eight hours, they know they’re wage slaves. In fact, even more so today than before.”

Yet perhaps because administrators and IT professionals are hesitant to identify themselves as working class, they remain relatively unorganized and unprotected by labour unions. Nawrocki says that’s largely a failure on the part of the unions themselves.

“The labour movement, in general, has become very comfortable. To ignore people who are the most exploited and the most underpaid and the least represented — organizing those people is hard work…. It’s necessary for unions to adjust their way of thinking to this new reality, and it requires a new approach and a new language,” he says. The Mayworks festival, with its emphasis on art, much of it by younger performers in “younger” art forms such as hip-hop, is a step in that direction.

“The labour movement has to work much more closely with bands, musicians, video artists, with people who are cutting edge in theatre and writing,” says Nawrocki. “They must try to build those bridges to people who aren’t organized. People who need the movement as much as the movement needs them.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on April 24, 2003.

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