Creative Activism: Interview with Beehive Design Collective
What happened to all those WTO protestors in Seattle? Where did the Occupy people go? Did they all just give up, conform, cocoon? The truth is many decided to take on the challenge of how to create a more just society by examining and adjusting every aspect of their lives. To my mind it’s hard to find a better example of the good results of that kind of dedication than the Beehive Design Collective.
Everything about Beehive addresses what’s wrong with today’s corporate society where all culture has been hollowed out for marketing and all undergrounds depleted by the constant creativity suck and mind fuck of free digital content.
If you’re an artist you’re probably sick of self-promoting and fighting for the credit let alone the pay your work deserves. The Beehive bypasses all that. They don’t care about credit, let alone copyrights. They don’t personally sign their work. The work stands on it’s own.
How do they get paid? First, they try to be self sufficient and part of the local community apart from their art. But donations and crowd sourcing pay for supplies and copies and when the Beehive asks for money they usually get way more than they asked for, and they put it to good use.
Artists these days are famously disengaged from their local communities, but the Beehive is a hub for the rural town in Maine that is their headquarters. Not only did they renovate a populist shrine there that would otherwise have been demolished, they found other ways to become a vital part of local culture for people of all ages. And of course they are as self sufficient as possible, growing food, and otherwise minimizing their ecological impact.
Their contribution on a local level isn’t strictly local, either. Thanks to their travels bees impact communities everywhere. High schools middle schools, book stores, universities, elementary schools, community centers, book fairs, grass roots community events of all kinds have benefited from visits by the bees.
We’re always hearing about how the web has made us all citizens of the planet but most artists have little contact with the communities that need them most. Barriers of language and money separate the storytellers from the stories that most need to be told. But the Beehive solved that problem, too. Communities anywhere in the world can invite Beehive artists to stay with them. Over years this first contact will develop into a masterpiece of art and story telling that will allow the world to understand that a complex local problem across the globe impacts us all in ways we seldom understand.
Recently when looking for a new member to join the collective Beehive revealed something about the qualities they prize.
“OVERALL SKILLS DESIRED, BUT NOT REQUIRED:
*Ability to elicit goose bumps by writing, storytelling, visuals or communicating ideas in other mediums
*Love for old things of all types: buildings, stories, people, values
*Humility, Respect and Self-Respect”
I’m really delighted to be interviewing Mandy of the Beehive Design Collective, artists I’m sure the future will point to as the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Do you use the beehive as a symbol of collective common sense?
We definitely talk about beehives as a metaphor for collective work and collective living… though there are lots of solitary bee species too, with a different social structure than the busy beehives we’re used to thinking about. We have a physical Hive, our home base in eastern Maine, and we are also a decentralized network of many autonomous bees buzzing around, carrying a piece of the Beehive’s work with them. The Beehive name always gives us a platform to talk about the extreme importance of native bee populations, and all pollinator species. And we use the metaphor of bees a lot in our work! We say our mission is to “cross-pollinate the grassroots.” Our graphics campaigns are made through a very collaborative research and design process that always begins with listening trips, to meet with people who are directly connected to or affected by the issues we’re illustrating… and the main way we share our graphics is through going on tour. So we’re constantly moving around, learning from the people we meet, and sharing stories — and our graphics take on a life of their own as well. Like many other educators and artists, we don’t always know where our work ends up or what ultimately will come of people interacting with it — we are just spreading the pollen around.
BDC formed in spring 2000 not long before 9/11. How did that event influence the collective?
Well, the Beehive formed alongside and out of the energy of the anti-globalization protests happening at that time — as a group of activists and artists, educators and indie media makers who were part of many movements for social and environmental justice, who wanted to create some more accessible and creative materials to understand what’s at stake with free trade policies. The historic protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in the fall of 1999, and the big protests in DC the following spring against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, were pivotal moments for many of us. The North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico had gone into effect in 1994, and a free trade agreement for the entire continent was being negotiated. One of the first Beehive posters was essentially an event poster to mobilize people to come to Quebec for the protests against the round of negotiations of the FTAA happening there in 2001… amidst all of this dynamic energy, of organizing and educating for global economic justice and against free trade policies, 9/11 happened. For a while, it seemed like a bucket of cold water on all of that organizing. People were disoriented. Movements against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan quickly sprung up, but in many cases with totally different sets of activists than those who had been mobilizing huge numbers to stand up to the neoliberal policies of those big institutions in Washington. And I think it took years for movements to recover from that, and to integrate the global economic justice analysis into the anti-war movement…
In the midst of this, the Beehive was making a poster about the impacts of the War on Drugs in Colombia. The Plan Colombia poster was printed in 2002. Seeing the disconnect between the anti-war and the global justice movements was something that had a big impact on me, personally, and it was in the fall of 2002 that I first saw the Plan Colombia presentation, at the annual School of the Americas protest in Georgia. I joined the collective in 2004, and started touring a lot with the FTAA and Plan Colombia graphics. And what has always been really powerful for me is the ability of these graphics to hold a bigger narrative, bigger than any one issue or movement. They hold a historical narrative, and offer a big picture context to connect the dots between issues. Beehive graphics continue to do that, and I think the moment that the collective formed definitely influenced the way we make graphics and their content — we saw a need to connect the dots, and create graphics that help people analyze entire systems.
You practice anonymity as artists, signing your pieces only as the collective not as individuals. That reminds me of ancient Egypt where the scribes signed everything Thoth, never using their own names. What gifts do you get from anonymity? Does it create any challenges?
Our graphics are all credited to the collective because they are all truly collective efforts, and they require many different skill sets, not only illustration. Even our smaller posters — some of them crops from larger graphics, others made for specific events or groups — usually involve at least 2 or 3 people in their creation. Our large scale graphics campaigns start with listening trips, involve lots of additional research, and require a whole team (or multiple teams) jamming out together to work on the concepts, design, and finally the illustration. The painstaking work of creating the final drawings can be a really tedious process, not glamorous at all, and takes a really long time! It is the very last step in the process: the illustration of concepts that have been crafted collectively, out of many, many conversations. We want the focus to be on the stories and struggles that were shared with us by so many people, and not on the skills of any one illustrator.
Of course, most often people’s first question when we’re on tour is: “Whoa, who drew that?” and then quickly followed by, “What part did you draw??” We definitely get that people are interested in the process of how our graphics are made, and we love to talk about that, but we try to focus on the bigger process of how they are made, not which person drew which part. In general, the anonymity allows us to focus on the content of the graphics, promote the value of collaborative work, and subvert the art-world-ego.
Your art is “anti-copyright”. As your website states: “We seek to cut out the constant queries of “who made that?” and “how much does it cost?” from our creative process.” How does this change you as artists, or does it rather allow you to remain yourselves?
You would get different answers to this question from different people! But in general, being a part of the Beehive allows us all to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and do collaborative projects. When we are contributing to a Beehive graphic, we are doing something we couldn’t do alone. The Beehive brings opportunities that maybe you wouldn’t have the opportunity to do otherwise. Some of our illustrators are self-taught, others went to school for art or scientific illustration… some in our collective are working artists, and have their own projects going on alongside their work in the Beehive, others consider the Beehive to be their main work .
It’s also important to note that not all of us are artists, or would consider the label of “artist” to be our main identity… it takes a lot of different roles and skills to make the Beehive run! We are a collective of educators, community organizers, farmers, amazing cooks, printmakers, writers, Photoshop wizards, fix-it-uppers… some of our bees are primarily illustrators, but that’s rare — we almost all wear different hats in the collective at different times, and bring different skills to the table.
You practice “cross pollination of the grassroots”, and your public appearances are certainly that: venues from universities and galleries to punk houses and underground festivals. What are you seeing out there? Are the scenes as fragmented as they seem?
We are hosted by incredible people everywhere we go, that show us the best of what humans are doing on this planet right now. We get to see that communities are organizing, everywhere, and we get to create spaces where people can reflect on what they are doing with each other locally, and see their struggles reflected in a bigger picture as well. We are a little spoiled because we do this cross-disciplinary work that encourages different kinds of groups to work together to host us…so we often get to see really cool collaborations happen. I think it always ebbs and flows, how unified or fragmented people feel where they live. There are campaigns and moments that bring everyone together, and sometimes it feels like it’s all falling apart. But I think what we’re seeing in the big picture is more and more intersectionality of movements.
Part of your mission is “Love for old things of all types: buildings, stories, people, values.” What’s the motivation behind this? And what values from the past do you treasure most?
At the beginning of our collective’s history, we fell in love with an old building in eastern Maine and started fixing it up. Over the course of 5 years of restoring the Machias Valley Grange Hall, we got to know more and more people in town, and we learned the building’s history in town. We realized that it couldn’t be studio space or living space for just one group, because the building was full of memories. People who grew up in Machias, for generations, had memories of that place. So we moved our living and workspace across town and re-opened the Grange as a community cultural center. And the decision to be rooted in a small rural town, and take care of buildings with history in that town, has made a big impact on all of us. Cities are growing exponentially all over the globe; urbanization everywhere has been speeding up. And a lot of us humans, especially in the US, are more migratory than ever. It’s too often the case that the more we move around, the less we remember, the less we know about our own history, and the history of the places around us. And if we don’t know the stories of a place, how can we love that place? How can we take care of it? We definitely love the old value of using what you have locally and using it well. Re-using, re-making. The trend is towards platinum certified LEED buildings with all the latest eco-technology, but that is actually way more resource intensive for the planet, then restoring what already exists, and learning from architecture of the past.
You saved The Grange, one of the landmarks of American Populism, from demolition, and you transformed it into a beloved community hub and registered historical landmark. Please tell us a little about the history of the place and why it inspires you?
The Machias Valley Grange Hall as a building is part of a national network of similar community centers, and the National Grange as an organization is a kind of a rural farmers union that grew out of the Populist movement in the late 1800s. There were Grange Halls all over the country at the height of the Grange movement, over 400 in the state of Maine alone! You see old Grange Halls in most every small town you drive through here. They were organizing to keep agriculture local in the age of the railroad coming in. It is also a very structured, formal national organization… the National Grange organization still exists, and we are definitely not the only Grange Hall to be restored and revived, but compared to back in the day very few local Granges are still active. The Machias Grange was still pretty active until relatively recently. When the Beehive bought the Grange Hall, the members of the Grange still met regularly but in the next town over, because they couldn’t afford to keep the building up. So when we reopened the building, we invited them to come home to their building, and many old Grangers were there for the re-opening celebration. It was really beautiful.
We are living in a time of a very globalized economy and industrialized large-scale agriculture, with goods being shipped all over the planet constantly. The extreme impacts of this system are displacement of people and traditional life ways, loss of topsoil and biodiversity, and climate chaos. So even though we may not be politically aligned with all aspects of the National Grange as an organization, the roots of it (keeping agriculture local, celebrating rural living) are inspiring and we appreciate and share many of the values it represents.
Your most recent Kickstarter, for Mesoamerica Resiste! had a goal of 36,000.00 but almost 3000 backers pledged almost 120,000.00. Please tell us about the crisis this masterpiece describes?
Our latest project, the Mesoamérica Resiste graphic, took 9 years to complete! We started with a listening trip at the beginning of 2004 through Mexico and all of Central America, to learn about Plan Puebla Panama, which was the name of a regional development plan that had been announced a few years before. It was a plan that included many components, but most of the funding was flagged to build lots of mega infrastructure projects for transportation and trade, from Puebla (in central Mexico) to Panama, hence the name. The plan immediately drew lots of criticism and protest throughout the region right after it was announced, and there were a series of international forums to organize against the PPP held in different countries. This wasn’t too long after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the Free Trade Area of the Americas were being negotiated. So we learned that the PPP was literally to build the infrastructure needed for these free trade agreements to be fully realized, and to further exploit Mesoamerica’s resources. It’s one of the most biodiverse regions of the planet. It’s also an isthmus, a thin strip of land connecting North and South America, so it’s been strategically important for trade for a long time. And has a long colonial history of exploitation. The PPP met with protest because a lot of these large-scale infrastructure projects displace people from their land, and are part of a general trend of urbanization and privatization, and a continuation of over 500 years of colonialism. All that organizing led to some pieces of the plan getting canceled, and the whole plan underwent a public relations makeover and got renamed Project Mesoamerica, or the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project. It’s essentially the same plan, of megaprojects like highways and high voltage towers, connecting to energy development likes dams, wind farms, and pipelines, and new mining exploration… our poster, Mesoamerica Resiste, explores the clash of worldviews that this plan represents. The top down, outsiders view versus the view from below, from the communities on the ground. It starts with the conquest and historical industries that shaped the region, and then focuses on inspiring stories of community resistance and resilience, and stories of other kinds of economies.
Tamra Lucid is the author of Making the Ordinary Extraordinary.