Opinion: The Dangers of Performative Activism in the Arts
By Raz Mesinai
On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, it is a timely and important matter to distinguish between what is and what is not in fact activism, and what is simply performance.
After the 2020 resurgence of human rights activism due to the killing of George Floyd, the notion that actions speak louder than words seem to be a long-lost concept for some in the music industry.
Without a doubt, there were many effective activist approaches to the demand for justice and accountability. Yet another far less action-based approach also took hold, which in some cases took away from the functional activist approaches by leaders, organizers and well-equipped protestors.
In the following months, as someone who has worked in the audio forensics field sparingly and has taught others, I decided to assist pro bono lawyers with audio forensics analysis and enhancement in cases where protestors were met with police brutality. I fell into this field in the late 90’s, although there was no such name for it at that time.
The idea was not a publicity stunt, but was intended first to be an offline conversation between the lawyers of the victims, the victims themselves, myself and my colleague unrelated to the UPA. However, once the cat was out of the bag the idea resonated across the field of music production and sound engineering and became the fuel for social media performative activism by those who were not in fact knowledgeable of audio forensics.
I purposefully left out colleagues in the field of professional audio forensics here in the United States as they work with law enforcement—their bread and butter—and their relationship to law enforcement is essential to the world as well. While I myself have only worked in this field primarily for journalists in the Middle East and elsewhere, I had to take full responsibility for the action with another colleague abroad, and not involve even my own students in fear of tainting their careers if they choose to pursue audio forensics because of my own social activism – a choice I make and do not place upon others unless there is a real will to participate.
Once the action went public on its own, I determined how to make the best use of the situation to gain more traction with actual protestors and those in need. Instead we received hundreds of emails from producers, engineers and artists who asked to be involved – only two of them were in fact equipped to commit. Although many were capable engineers in terms of music production and sound design, they were not aware of the field and needed to have a clear understanding of the protocols of audio forensics to avoid important evidence becoming inadmissible in court.
Instead of getting help, as these well-intentioned individuals most definitely were here to do, it created more work that distracted from the issue itself. As a result, I was forced to give free consultations to try to keep well intentioned individuals from corrupting important evidence, which then wasted more time as it is a field that must be studied and practiced for years in order to be useful and effective.
We are led to believe that due to the arts being intertwined with performance, activism should also be a part of that artistic practice. If so, an artist who has developed their craft in performance can do much for the state of affairs that we live in.
But then there is another side which kicks in, especially with people who are not involved on a deep and personal level in the actual struggle. The statement “art imitates life” becomes a truly unhelpful form of activism.
Things are only made worse (or better depending on strategy and organization) when the main stage becomes social media, especially during a pandemic. It becomes far too easy to drop a meme and feel good about one’s level of activism, but, just as the word ‘producer’ refers to being productive, so does the word ‘activism, which refers to actual action. Whether it be simple or elaborate, without strategy it becomes only a reaction to a need to participate, inevitably leaving both the performer with good intentions and their audience feeling hopeless.
Perhaps the most overlooked dangers in performative activism are a lack of organization that only makes the problem itself seem unorganized, which is furthest from the truth when it comes to systematic racism in America and across the globe. The history of racism and why it continues has everything to do with organization, which the saying “systematic racism” most definitely brings home.
Although it makes sense in a field like the arts where attention is needed for survival without any funding as we see in our country, these aspects of our desires for the stage prevent artists from remaining relevant in the long run. It affects the originality of their work and deprives their art of integrity and truth.
Towards a brighter future – Raz Mesinai
On audio forensics