Nearness between art and activism

Taeyoon Choi
3 min readJun 25, 2017


Recently, I had an invigorating conversation with friends about the distinction between art and activism. Some friends were adamant that art and activism needs to be separate, and their argument had agreeable reasons. I had a counter argument that art and activism, vis-à-vis organizing and education, can be meaningful together. Our conversation felt unresolved. Perhaps, we’ve been asking the wrong question? Before we discuss the utility of art and activism, can we take a moment to contemplate on the nature of each practice? What are some principles we can explore, before categorization and judgement of efficacies?

“Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic.” — Francis Alys

I agree that artistic practice and political praxis are different and they are best not to be conflated. When they are done well, they each achieve uniquely meaningful goals. However, we can also note the powerful feedback that can be created between the practice and praxis. Poetic gestures can outlive the urgency of activism. Political projects and vision can bring poetics into full potential, affective transmission of feelings and consciousness in common. In this feedback loop, we can bring language and action, representation and intention, the act of living and the idea of life, nearer to one another. In this movement towards nearness, we may find the true power of art.

Our real enemy is the “I-don’t-give-a-fuckism.”Cynicism is a symptom of oppression. White flag of passiveness. This sense of detachment creates distance between the idea of life and the act of living. There, the furies populate the space with misinformation. Cynicism takes many shape, apathy, over-stimulation and most importantly as a flow of distraction. The lack of care creates distance, between representation and embodiment, between image and form, between value and currency, and between you and me,

There’s a difference between symbolic practice and poetic practice. Symbolism deals with formal aesthetics and simulation. Poetic deals with execution (mechanics of words at play execution: ways of delivering the poem through speech) and imagination (mechanics of thinking and dreaming: ways of working beyond the given constraints). Poetics have a power to transform, because the combination of execution and imagination, forms tangible change within us. It’s no surprise the poems, chants in protests, the graffiti on a wall, the stories we tell each other, become a blueprint for the reality we want to live in. They become the archive and the counter narrative to the mainstream history. The help us realize, we are not just an abstraction. We are concrete reality.

If role of artist amounts to anything in a society, it is our job to challenge and change the very meaning of art. My projects are in search of nearness between art and activism. It’s not about the progression or intervention — suspension of disbelief and make believe. It is about moments of encounter.

When I encounter a work of art that touches me, a tiny tornado enters my heart.

What I thought I know,

I did not know.

So I go know.

In the future,

I remember, I did not know.

Accepting my ignorance opens a door for new experience. The power of art is not on the transfer of information, but on the transmission of affect, the movement in consciousness, pre-thought, pre-feeling. Making art is navigating the unknown and working with the ungovernable .Art and activism, are different, but art can show the way for activism. As an artist, I go know near.

(from a draft for Eyeo festival, 2017. 6.31)



Taeyoon Choi

immigrant. art. tech. learning. accessibility. inclusion. Co-founder @sfpc. fellow @datasociety. artist