Environmentalist and Activist Art On Campus

What is happening not just in New York City but at Columbia University itself to advance environmentalist and/or art activism? As it turns out, more than I was expecting—and they are new initiatives, too. The Barnard/Columbia Design for America chapter (which launched only two weeks ago) seeks to design creative solutions to environmental and other problems. The Columbia University Activist Art Collective, only a semester old and still working toward official recognition, brings together artists on campus to empower people on different issues.

When Lulu Mickelson first heard about Design for America (DFA), a new national organization that plans to create a nation-wide network of fifty studios in the next five years and started with studios in six schools this fall, she started to brainstorm how to bring this to Barnard and Columbia.

Her application to DFA was accepted, and on October 10th, she and her team hosted a launch event that drew 110 people. She explained to me that DFA is all about creative problem solving. Design is where science meets art, which is why the methodology of creative design is ideal for solving small-scale environmental problems. “It is the science that defines how we need to change the world,” as the first student in DFA’s video (below) explains, “but it is the art that is going to implement it and cause people to want to use that change.”


Mickelson takes a similar approach. She sees design as applied art, much in the same way as physics is applied calculus or chemistry is applied physics. She said:

“Art itself can inspire social change, but it is rarely social change in itself. Design can be the actual, tangible agent for change in a very real and immediate way.”

DFA is currently in the process of setting up a design studio to work on solving problems on campus. They have recently discovered that only 14% of the material in the recycling bins in Lerner, Columbia’s student center, are actually recycled—the rest is contaminated by garbage or unclean containers. DFA plans to address this problem. I look forward to seeing their solution.

The Columbia University Activist Art Collective (CUAAC) is a group of students who collaborate on projects dedicated to inspiring positive change on campus and in our community through art. From their mission statement:

We believe in the transformative power of all forms of art to reinvigorate communities, to function as a tool of self- and community- empowerment, to inspire cross-cultural dialogue, and to provide a common language through which people can meaningfully engage in issues that affect their lives. Our goal is to make art that does not merely reflect the issues of our time, but that is rather in constant conversation with them.

CUAAC’s current project was inspired by the work of Emi Koyama, an activist/author/academic working on intersex, sex workers’ rights, (queer) domestic violence, genderqueer, anti-racism, and other issues. She has created a number of activist posters (warning: explicit language) and images to shape people’s perceptions of gender and able bodiedness. CUAAC is currently working on a series of images illustrating the “Strong, Beautiful Barnard Women” motto that represents Barnard students of a variety of bodies, styles, and expressions. As Liza Roisman, one of the founders of CUAAC, told me:

“Activist art has the potential to change what you think is important. The power of making art is the power of controlling images—what people see carries over to so much more than the art itself.”

CUAAC functions under those principles; they allow anyone to join the organization and they value everyone’s contribution. While so far CUAAC has focused on issues related to feminism, queerness, and ableism, they are committed to environmentalism in theory and look forward to finding ways to implement that in practice.