Drawing Common Ground: An Interview with Lara Bee of the Beehive Design Collective

The Beehive Design Collective uses visual imagery to record and circulate histories of struggle in order to raise awareness about systems of exploitation, build connections between oppressed groups, and inspire new directions for movements. Over the past ten years, the collective’s graphic design work has included posters explaining the effects of biotechnology and promoting action against the Free Trade Area of the Americas. With their Plan Colombia graphics campaign, they illustrated how contemporary US foreign policy is part of a longer history of colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. With their most recent True Cost of Coal campaign, they highlight problems associated with mountaintop removal in Appalachia. Currently on the drawing board, the Mesoamerica Resiste poster connects previous poster themes by bringing together the three major facets of corporate colonialism: militarization, economic policy, and industrial infrastructure. Thein-process drawings and all the other graphics can be downloaded at www.beehivecollective.org. Both the questions and answers in this interview were collaboratively written over a three year period by Lara Bee – a longstanding, part-time member of the Beehive Collective’s efforts in pedagogy, research, and planning – and Ander Reszczynski- Negrazis in order to think through the role of cultural production, art, and pedagogy in strengthening collective struggle.

Can you explain the process by which your posters are created and how your emphasis on process over product affects what ends up being produced?

We try to be strategic about what we illustrate by choosing issues, topics, and subject matter with the potential to link groups and people together. Finding stories that illustrate how a microcosm represents a macrocosm helps us to visualize how local situations are part of a broader whole. Generally, we focus on the colonial roots of the intersections between economy and ecology because it allows us to tell big stories that encompass many specific situations and to bring together groups that would otherwise work separately in their own corners of a common struggle. Making useful, timely, and relevant tools for grassroots campaigns means deciding upon subject matter according to what’s most needed – whether that need arises from a general lack of accessible educational materials around a particular issue or from a group’s request for help with mapping out a problem. It’s rarely just us bees who decide on topics.

Once we have a topic, consultations are carried out with those who are most directly and adversely affected by capitalist and colonialist exploitation and oppression. Getting our information from as close to the source as possible allows us to learn about the real effects of free trade agreements, structural adjustment programs, and foreign policy. Once we have a grasp of the situation on the ground, we can then draw upon policy and corporate media reports and peer-reviewed academic writings for background information. Rejecting the supremacy of “expert” knowledge as a starting point for analysis helps us show the contrast between “official” and “unofficial” accounts. In this way, we can reveal how the historic roots of present conditions are covered up in order to justify the violence of global economic policy.

Once a rough narrative is sketched out such that metaphors, characters, and the relationships between them are pretty much developed, we work with people who help us to filter out the biases of unacknowledged Eurocentrism and subtle racism. It’s crucial for those of us who are not members of the communities whose struggles we are representing to consider how our re-telling of visual histories might be taken up by other radical teachers and learners. And though we do commit the drawings to paper after the consultation process, the feedback process doesn’t end after a poster is sent to print. It often continues after we’ve reflected on the interpretations that people share during our workshops and picture lectures.

By making every aspect of our process collaborative, we decentralize decision-making to the point where new narratives evolve and feed off of each other. Concretely, this means that collaborators can intervene at any point in the production process – including when the poster is a finished product. Even when the images are just sketches, they can be used to solicit more stories. And when they are used pedagogically, finished images can inspire new stories that implant themselves into the graphic. From here, they can be carried into the next community to be shared. Ideally, the multi-phase approach of each “stage” of our process allows us to maintain a level of responsibility to both the producers and to those most directly affected by the work.

The comprehensive multi-phase staging of our process allows us to be flexible enough to adjust to unforeseen circumstances. For example, when we had to extend the timeline for the T rue Cost of Coal poster, we took the opportunity to tour the coalfields and talk to people using the preliminary drawings. Rather than grinding to a halt, we gained momentum by integrating collaboration at an earlier stage. In the end, because more people had in-depth interactions with the pencil work before it became a finalized print, our edits were above and beyond what could have been achieved with the initial timeline for consultation and feedback.

How can attention to the visual affect the ways we think and produce knowledge?

Over time, we’ve learned that art’s multi-disciplinarity is strategically useful for grassroots educators because it provides entry points into many disciplines, including anthropology, environmental studies, political science, geography, social work, and graphic design. By tapping into a common conceptual approach running through many different disciplines, we’ve been able to relate “single issues” to the broader whole. The visual narrative format also helps break down complex situations into smaller, more memorable pieces. When we do our picture lectures, we offer two frames through which participants can engage. One of them is a portable mural printed on fabric, some stretching up to 20 or 30 feet wide. The other is a cloth flipbook or a slide projection composed of enlarged details from the whole. This setup allows us to tell two stories simultaneously, starting with the “big picture” and zooming into the “little picture,” or doing it in reverse – starting with more recognizable experiences of the everyday and locating them in the underlying, broader, and more general picture.

Understanding images as being made up of many different parts helps us to foreground the knowledges of those whose stories have been historically excluded, appropriated, and under-represented. That’s because we can start anywhere and trace the connections inward or outward in order to foster a more critical understanding of how the social world is actually organized. For example, when one of our bees brought the Plan Colombia graphic back to those directly experiencing the US military policies of the War on Drugs, we learned that people had used the visual maps to better locate their own story and elaborate connections just beyond their own horizon. The graphics brought information about foreign policy to those who – though already very familiar with its effects on their lives – hadn’t had many opportunities to share their experiences with others who’d encountered different kinds of oppression resulting from the same global policy.

The analysis of systems is also useful when approaching more privileged audiences. The bottom line is that we’re all directly affected by and implicated in capitalist colonialism. Arguably, it’s those whose perspectives are most shaped by privilege – those who find it difficult to realize the extent of their immersion in consumer culture – who must understand how our vastly different experiences weave together a common reality. It’s impossible to take up one aspect of experience without touching on and affecting others.

How does this relate back to the particulars of the visual medium?

We root ourselves in a medium that enables collective rather than private engagement. Beehive graphics are not meant to be in museums. Art lives in the streets, in classrooms, and through storytelling. Our format is not designed to live on the quiet walls of the gallery. Most of the time, there’s a live component to the presentation of the posters – whether at scheduled Beehive events or in self-replicating, informal conversations. We aspire to create work in a similar vein as the Atelier Populaire who, when producing posters during the May ’68 uprising in France, stated, “our posters are weapons in the service of the struggle and are inseparable from it. Their rightful place is in the center of conflict…To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect.” On the other hand, the aesthetic appeal of Beehive posters is meant to enhance their function as political tools. A significant source of motivation for us Bees is to contribute to the production of easily reproducible clipart. We relate to Rini Templeton, who was instrumental in creating a place for images in organizing by producing vast numbers of high- contrast, easily photocopied graphics.

Without mediums that require us to read in a collaborative- interpretive way, the only proof of significant moments in movement organizing is relegated to the private, individualizing, and isolating – not to mention inaccessible – medium of the written word. Traditional textual forms, especially when written in English, are rooted in a history of colonialist knowledge production that shuts out any forms of communication that threaten its logic of plunder. Activists would do well to pay attention to those things that “cannot be put into words.” As a medium for communication, art can challenge the implicit truth claims of colonialist politics. It allows us to move away from the production of “truths” so that we can begin producing alternatives.

Ultimately, arts-based organizing is part of a larger effort to find other ways to learn and remember, to practice non-linear thinking, and to communicate more effectively. The central guiding principle should be to create representations that spark imagination, inspire hope, and facilitate dialogue and mutual aid rather than taking knowledge from communities or force feeding knowledge to passive observers. Art is but one of the many ways to apply critical analyses, expand the space of dialogue, and build relationships between struggles.

How do you move from cultural production – opening up space for meaningful and productive dialogue – to doing the work of disrupting,organizing, and acting? What is the relationship between art and politics, representation and disruption, theory and action?

Visual representations allow us to tread the line between reading and writing, between what is specifically meant and what can be interpreted out. It allows us to shift between spontaneous improvisation and methodically prepared storytelling. The visual medium allows us to meet people where they’re at, even in circumstances where it’s impossible to assess the audience’s prior knowledge. And when people have something to bounce ideas off of, they tend to get inspired and want to elaborate, critique, and adjust what they see in front of them. By developing a variety of tools to facilitate storytelling and popular analysis, we’ve witnessed how people absorb information better when they can interact with it; it becomes significant when people can read their own meaning into what’s being presented. And messages tend to travel better when memories and histories are shared, recalled, and re-envisioned collectively and organically. When the one-way flow of information is challenged, tools for movement-building can be forged.

Visual imagery’s interpretive flexibility can be useful when drawing connections between seemingly unrelated struggles. For example, when we have brought the Plan Colombia graphic into environmentalist circles, we’ve been able to facilitate very explicit conversations about white privilege just by describing what is going on in the picture. By depicting old European colonies swarming away from their nest to settle in the “new world” as ravenous WASP larvae curled up in individual, mechanized cubicles (Figure 1), we’ve been able to draw attention to the unacknowledged privilege of those who remain oblivious to the effects that their way of life has on those in the global south. In this way, we can raise issues of colonialism and capitalism with liberals whose environmentalist politics tend not to include this analysis. With The True Cost of Coal we tried to tackle the divide-and-conquer strategy that pits environmental struggles to preserve land against labour struggles to preserve jobs. By putting the strong history of union organizing in the coalfields on the same page as locally-based environmental organizing, we hoped to reveal their common ground in the fight against Mountaintop Removal Mining.

We do this by tackling some unresolved issues in order to help provoke conversation. There are a lot of different histories and strategies that, when put onto one page, don’t exactly make for a “clear picture.” In the scene on strategies of resistance, for example, we don’t only critique liberal environmentalists for being pushovers; we poke fun by illustrating the “Big Greens” as hot-air- filled windbags who are bending over backwards to rubber-stamp legislation. We use humor to critique their privileged position, and as a memorable way of reminding activists to up the pressure on NGOs to be more accountable to frontline communities. In another scene on strategies of resistance, we depict two city activists parachuting into the coalfields. One is a tortoise plodding slowly with a camera and the other is a hare in a graduation hat racing in with a U lock (Figure 2). On the ground, a hare waves air traffic controls to signal to the outsiders where they should land, while receiving instructions from a butterfly – a local pollinator – suggesting that listening and taking direction are ways to be accountable to frontline communities.

A movement’s ability to use visuals impacts how effectively it can communicate. Some important considerations are flexibility and reproducibility: for instance, activist artists should consider whether their image will be legible both as a street-sized banner and when reduced to the size of a button. If so, the image can strategically appear in more venues, contexts, and moments in time. It’s important to pay attention to the formats and communication technologies. Because the visibility of painted murals is site- specific, and web-based information can only reach those with internet access, we chose two-dimensional black and white paper for its accessibility, flexibility, and reproducibility. Similarly, even if it relates to a specific and commonly experienced historical moment, an image’s flexibility at the level of meaning allows it to enter into people’s imaginations in different ways. In this way, it can become iconic, memorable, and filled with significance. Organizers who figure out how to be creative communicators can reach folks who may not be interested in lectures, newsletters, or leftist jargon. Because Beehive posters are eye-catching and meticulously rendered, they get the attention of people outside the usual activist circles and offer an antidote to today’s dumbed-down sound-bite mass media culture. Their complexity reflects the situations we’re trying to depict and understand.

Your posters are so large and detailed that, in order to read them, viewers have to look at each discrete piece before determining how the parts relate to one another. In terms of helping guide the direction of people’s reading, what role does layout play? How has your approach to layout evolved?

When we put together the poster about the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), we didn’t really know the extent to which the narrative would evolve. We started off by drawing animal- characters to symbolize different consequences of free trade. Without an obvious scene-to-scene flow, you can pretty much jump into the graphic at any place and read it in whatever direction you like. We tried to communicate that despite appearing as though each character is separate from the next, despite experiencing corporate greed differently, they are all tangled up together in a constellation woven by three spiders of corporate globalization. The media, military, and machines shape the relationships between the affected characters, the enemies, and the broader structure in which they exist.

For the Plan Colombia poster, we planned to organize the story using a scroll-type layout starting from the top and running vertically to the bottom. The nightmare – today’s historical reality – is a superimposed layer covering up the ant world underneath. Working incessantly to peel back the nightmarish surface and reveal living alternatives, the ants swarm up and down the outer margins of the poster, carrying pieces of the dismantled old world to the bottom where they are broken down into useful materials for building another world (Figure 3). Though the readerly flow of this narrative may seem more linear, the story doesn’t really abide by the simplified logic of consecutive ordering. At the bottom or end of the poster, most of the nightmarish surface has been peeled back – not to reveal another beginning, but to uncover enduring possibilities and alternatives existing alongside and underneath. Juxtaposing the linear histories of colonizers and capitalists with the cyclical model of people’s history foregrounds the experiences of the oppressed over those of the oppressor and emphasizes the importance of questioning why and how chronology became the exclusive mode of telling stories in the first place.

In response to critical feedback we received about the Free Trade Area of the Americas and Plan Colombia posters,we decided to approach our third graphic campaign – Mesoamerica Resiste – in a way that would keep exploitation and bad news from taking up the whole page. We wanted to counterweigh the tendency for the bad news to stand out more. For this reason, we made a triptych that provides twice the surface area for images of resistance when it’s opened. When closed, the triptych represents all the institutional, governmental, political, and industrial “bad news” from a top- down perspective – a god’s eye view from nowhere. When open, the triptych is drawn from an on-the-ground ant’s eye perspective. The outside is linear, finite, and one-way, while the inside panels depict cycles and natural rhythms in which beginning and end are hard to pinpoint.

The inside panels foreground a variety of different strategies and tactics to show what people are actually doing. By emphasizing forms of militant resistance holding back the invaders while others work to build alternatives, we hoped to highlight the fact that people are not only working to dismantle but also to build. The two approaches are inseparable and complementary. In the face of such overwhelming imagery, it’s important to emphasize the strength and persistence of social movements. This is especially true for new audiences who are unaware of how their privilege necessitates exploitative systems. We hope to counterbalance feelings of apathy and alienation so that it doesn’t immediately seem as though the only proposed solutions are shame and demobilization.

In order to combat the left’s tendency to “admire the problem,” we try not to raise the alarm about repression without adequately describing what kinds of actions are being repressed, or how such repression arises from people’s strength and tenacity. By shifting the conversation away from categories and character types and toward the impacts of people’s actions, viewers are more likely to orient to the broader picture and get a sense of their own direction. The same applies when we travel to and interview frontline communities. We’re often encouraged to communicate the immediacy of what people are fighting against but, while those stories are urgent and need to be told, they can sometimes overshadow the details of how their struggles have been built and sustained. By prioritizing page space for struggle, we hope our posters can build understanding between movements working against the same trade policies and encourage knowledge-sharing across borders and continents.

With The True Cost of Coal, the Hive’s most recently printed poster, we’ve created a fold-in that works like the back page of Mad magazine. When folded in, a mountain in the middle is bordered by past struggles on the left that connect to present-day scenes and potential futures on the right-hand side of the page. Opening up the page is like ripping open the mountain to reveal the gaping Mountaintop Removal (MTR) mine site. It’s like the lived experience of people in Appalachia; people who used to look up at mountain peaks now look down into gaping mines.

The fold-in aspect also addresses a practical consideration for most homes in Appalachia, which don’t have a large amount of wall space and can’t accommodate the poster when it’s folded out – not to mention that people living next to a mine site don’t need a huge picture of it inside their house. Our initial intention for the Coal poster’s layout was for it to be narrated from left to right, starting in the distant past with stories of the land and working chronologically through colonial invasion and displacement, the Indian Removal Act, and industrialization as it unfolded in the Southern US. But after the drawing was completed, the narrative changed to become a spiral starting in the centre with an explanation of mountaintop removal and then working its way outward to historical roots, local impacts, and how the futures we’re building connect back to the locally-based economies of the past.

This way, we were able to tell more complicated stories about the past’s relation to the present. Stories about the pre-colonial world aren’t romanticized; animals are eating other animals, as they do, but there’s a balance. And that balance includes the arrival of new species that settled in Appalachia because they were displaced from their own homes. We wanted to present a more nuanced version of colonialism and racialization by differentiating between the settlers who were displaced and the settlers who displaced. Like the memories of the past, the stories about the future that we depict are also related to the present. The large industrial-scale wind turbines advocated by petroleum companies as “green” energy technologies take on a different, anti-corporate, significance when erected on a small scale by farmers working to make their communities more sustainable and less enslaved to banks, bosses, and markets.

The Coal poster’s clearly defined foreground and background allows us to use the larger images in the foreground to reveal how the broader industrial picture affects people’s everyday lives. As with previous posters, every little story is connected to a broader network of issues that make up the whole. The difference here is the way that narrative direction is communicated through the realistic depiction of depth as opposed to layers, which had been used in previous posters. In turn, three-dimensional depth relates to one-dimensional chronological time according to its readerly progression from left to right: non-linear, multi-dimensional time and space – struggles in the present – become legible in relation to the kinds of stories depicted in the past and future panels.

The Beehive Collective has chosen to use animals and plants instead of humans to represent oppression, exploitation, and the struggles against them. You do this in part to address issues without reinforcing racist, classist, heterosexist, or ableist representations. How does this affect your ability to convey people’s experiences with the historical organization of categories and identities?

Representing systems by drawing from the metaphorical field of the natural world is a useful strategy because it discourages the immediate response to identify, to look for the character that looks most like you and to locate yourself solely within that part of the story. When people are relating to images of ants, for instance, they can see themselves in different parts of the story and relate to what the ants are doing. Maybe it’s anthropomorphic, but it forces the viewer to focus on what the ants are doing rather than on their appearance. Ants don’t evoke socially perpetuated baggage about how appearance relates to essence. They don’t because they’re ants. They’re hairy. Their butts are bare. They’re ants.

Some artists or organizers try to avoid the problems of identity, identification, and representation by including “one of everyone.” Their hope is to include all characters so that any and every viewer will be able to identify with the character that looks like them. But this attempt at so-called diversity really just ends up being a checklist of cultural backgrounds. It falls short of interrogating where these categories come from and runs the risk of stereotyping and tokenizing. Furthermore, it constrains how readers can relate to what’s going on in the picture. By using metaphors from nature, we try to avoid creating a dichotomy where the viewer either says, “oh that’s my people protesting my cause” or, “oh that’s just a whole bunch of different people.” By providing an alternate field of references, we encourage creative interpretation and open up a broader range of options for political expression.

We were encouraged countless times to use the metaphor of ants to depict social movements. Ants are the main characters in our posters because people generally understand that they represent the small and the many, the underground movements constantly at work. The saying “la revolución es trabajo de hormigas” 1 is a reminder that change may not come overnight. It takes laborious, meticulous, piece-by-piece work. Ants remind us that, despite how small and inconsequential we may feel in the face of adversity, how weak we may feel beneath the immense weight of the world, we are more than strong enough to bear that weight when we work together. In the Andes, the biomass of ants is actually four times greater than that of all the large animals combined. So it stands to reason that, like ants, the masses can lift the weight of the capitalist few four times over. Ants are vital to our survival on the planet. Scurrying under the earth, they aerate the soil and make it possible for plants to grow.

Representations drawn from nature make our graphics accessible to more people; however, we have to be cautious that our nature-based metaphors don’t become encoded in an overly specialized way. Most of the time, we’ve stuck to widely understood critters. For example, we drew mechanized mosquitoes to depict transnational wealth sucking resources from Indigenous lands because everyone knows mosquitoes suck your blood. When tackling issues that aren’t immediately understood, we include props like hats and tools. But even props have their problems; they aren’t always recognizable to people who haven’t already encountered them. Although the visual medium allows us to scramble the racialized, heterosexist, and biologically determinist boundaries of metaphor, these remain difficult problems to resolve within the confines of a poster.

For instance, because biological classification is very strictly defined along lines of heterosexuality and genitally-determined gender, attempts to dodge the male-female binary by finding species that don’t fit remain bound by this classification scheme. They’re re-interpreted as “not-male” and “not-female” or, in some cases, as “not binarily gendered.” When designing Mesoamerica Resiste, a few of us who had longed for some explicit queerness designed a love scene. The couple – in this case snails – are rubbing up against each other. They’re getting it on. They have a very specialized way of reproducing that doesn’t coincide with humanistic understandings of copulation. They somehow make darts out of their mucus and throw them at each other, and that’s supposedly where the story of the dart-throwing cupids comes from.2 But even though we were able to find a species that was entirely outside the gender binary, viewers still project their own understandings onto them, so our love scene can easily be misread.

When representing the central place of women in political movement building, we’ve largely drawn upon cultural references to indicate the gender of particular characters. Though we usually think of cultural references in terms of props, clothing, or accessories, in one case, we added babies to signify motherhood.

Some might argue that our decision to illustrate characters carrying babies confronting riot cops (Figure 4) reiterates the heterosexist notion that women – and not men – are caregivers. This position is understandable; however, there’s a lot more going on in the picture than just gender and sexual relations. One might argue that it would be classist, ableist, and racist to not represent the scene in that way, because it would contribute to the erasure of an important reality of struggle. After all, a baby does often just hang out on mom’s back while mom is dealing with a desperate political situation.

What implications do your pedagogical strategies have for popular education and movement building?

We’re bringing content into schools that would not otherwise be in the required curriculum. By using artwork, we’ve been able to sideline, sidestep, and slide past boundaries that keep anti-capitalist analysis out. With the first tour of the Plan Colombia poster,we were able to do presentations in venues that would never have invited us to talk about the War for Oil. Nevertheless, this is exactly what we were able to do. At a time marked by the beginning of the war on Iraq, this was an especially pivotal gain.

Doing workshops at universities and schools has helped us to realize how little people know about international trade agreements and industrial development projects. When high school students who are literally surrounded by miles of genetically modified crops can’t define GMOs, or confuse Fair Trade with Free Trade, it signals to us that such international policy names are intentionally designed to confuse. This is where collaborative visual storytelling comes in: even when people automatically expect presenters to give them “expert” knowledge and tell them “what we are supposed to do,” images help to open up the learning process by encouraging interpretive and cooperative thinking.

The connections we highlight require us to point out how NAFTA – a term kids have no vocabulary for – is synonymous with experiences like “my dad lost his job at the plant” and “my family immigrated from Mexico after the farm couldn’t make enough money.” We try to make information accessible by approaching it on the level of lived experience instead of statistics or meaningless acronyms like FTAA and NAFTA.
We frequently divide classes up so that small groups of people can interact with pieces of the poster and then present their ideas back to the class. This process breaks the isolation that can sometimes arise from being alone or in large groups. It provides an opportunity for inklings to consolidate into stronger-voiced observations. The broader narrative of the poster emerges when people compile together their tentative readings and questions.

We try to meet learners where they’re at and not to overemphasize technical terms and time-sensitive acronyms. For us, learning is about understanding the how rather than the what of broader systems. The point of using posters in the classroom is to create an awareness that cannot be easily forgotten. The posters act as a visual map that helps students continue to unravel the issues while being able to visually refer back to their earlier thought process. At the same time, the global-to-local and local- to-global approach helps to keep the graphics from becoming dated. For example, during the lead up to the meeting of the G20 held in Toronto last year, we were able to draw the connections between trade liberalization and the IMF-driven measures adopted by G20 countries by revisiting metaphors designed to describe the privatization of public services in the FT AA poster.

Even though the FTAA is officially dead, it’s gone the route of other international plans by morphing into something harder to see. It’s devolved from a hemispheric trade agenda to a number of bilateral trade agreements that masquerade under names like “Security and Prosperity Partnership” (recently rebranded “Beyond The Border”), “trade integration,” and “harmonization.” If organizers can grasp the bigger capitalist system, and get to the root of the problem while creating alternatives, then we won’t get left behind when details shift or trade deals change names. The stories told in Beehive posters are more than collected histories or events sequenced in time; by hijacking linear description and colonialist classification through critical intervention, space can be opened up to collectively imagine, demonstrate, and concretely enact alternatives.

Notes

1 Translates as “the revolution is the work of ants.”
2 Further research revealed that the particular subspecies of snail depicted in the poster is not of the dart-throwing kind.