The Politics of Art in Radical Anti-Fascist and Indigenous Movements, An Interview with Gord Hill
Gord Hill, also known by the pseudonym Zig Zag, is an activist and artist from the Kwakwaka’wakw nation on Northern Vancouver Island. He has been involved in Indigenous peoples’ and anti-globalization movements since the 1990s and took part in organizing efforts to resist the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. As a comic artist, Gord’s work documents resistance movements of oppressed peoples around the world, including in his graphic novels The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book (2010), The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic Book (2012), and most recently The Antifa Comic Book (2018).
Devin Clancy spoke with Gord Hill in February 2019 to discuss his work, the role of art and graphic design in social movements, and his thoughts on current Indigenous and anti-capitalist organizing. For more on Gord’s anti-Olympics organizing in 2010 and his thoughts on anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements within First Nations, check out our first interview with Gord in Issue 5 of Upping the Anti.
Your work is artistic and deeply political; have these two aspects of your life always been intertwined? How did you first come to make political art and comics?
I’ve always been attracted to the power of imagery, symbols, and logos. I have been doing art since I was a child, but there weren’t always political themes in what I made. When I was a teenager, I was in the army cadets, and then the army reserve, so all of my artwork was of military gear and stuff like that. But I eventually left the military. I had been going to punk shows and listening to punk music, and that’s what really politicized me to the point where, when I was going to training once or twice a week, I couldn’t help but see the military culture that the punk bands were writing about. That’s when I started to have a change of heart. I just stopped going to training and I started going to more punk shows, hanging out with punks, and getting into more political activities.
It was a whole cultural shift for me, and that’s when I started incorporating political messaging into my artwork; I started to reflect the lyrics I was hearing. Around then, I got involved in an El Salvador solidarity group and they saw some of my artwork, so I started doing poster graphics for different events and leaflets and whatnot. I found art to be an effective means of communicating ideas and reaching out to people, a kind of public education tool, and I found it to be really effective.
What was it about the punk and anarchist scenes that attracted you? And how do you think that influenced your aesthetic?
I was interested in zines because they reflected the culture and the politics that I was involved in. That’s what I wanted to learn about and embrace. Some of the anarchist journals, like the Fifth Estate and Anarchy, weren’t really punk, but I was reading all types of zines and journals, punk and anarchist. The punk aesthetic appealed to me more because I was culturally a punk. The anarchist journals were more professionally produced, and I valued them more for the ideas, the news, and the analysis, which was deeper than the punk zines. But the punk zines were fun to read. They were inspiring, and the rebelliousness of the punk aesthetic attracted me. Eventually I started situating myself between these scenes with my own zine, Endless Struggle.
What was it like to be politicized through the punk and anarchist scenes, considering how white those spaces can be? What was it like being in these scenes as an Indigenous person?
Well, I know that’s often said, but from my perspective, when I went to punk shows there was a fair amount of people of colour. I think they were just invisibilized. There was actually a lot of Native kids involved in the punk scene in Vancouver, and it was like this for years. From my experience, though, I wasn’t really thinking about race or what my Indigenous ancestry was because I wasn’t interested in it at the time.
When you were producing your zines and comics, was it a departure from the anarchist or punk scenes? Were you pushing the bounds of those scenes with your perspective?
When I first started making zines it was more for self-expression, to share my artwork, and to develop my writing. I wasn’t a big writer; I’d never written anything when I was in high school; I had no interest in English or writing essays or anything like that. But once I was politicized through the punk scene I started doing a lot of research on politics and history for my zines. I was involved in a solidarity group and I started researching Central America, El Salvador, and US foreign policy in that region. I became a kind of propagandist at that point.
The group was the Vancouver El Salvador Action Committee (VESAC); one of the main VESAC organizers was also really involved in the punk scene and they did a weekly radio show, which was a hub of information. That’s how I got involved. VESAC was a solidarity group working with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador. That was the first political group I was ever involved in. They started out as anarchist punks, but became more of a Marxist group, influenced by the FMLN in El Salvador, which was a Marxist revolutionary group.
Do you remember some of the first political artwork and graphics you produced during this time?
One of the first political images I made was a poster for VESAC. It featured a fighter plane dropping bombs that turned into American dollar bills. It was to draw attention to US support for the far-right Duerte regime in El Salvador. That was one of the first graphics I really remember. Beyond this, my personal artwork was influenced by the punk scene and was trying to grapple with urban society and its problems. I was really influenced by the work of Pushead, who was in a band called Septic Death. He did a lot of artwork for Metallica, which featured a lot of skulls and other punk and metal images. At the time I was doing a lot of artwork that mixed socially conscious messages with horror elements like skulls and monsters.
You’ve been involved in social movements since the late ’80s. What was your process like for creating and circulating radical images and comics at that time?
A big part of how we communicated at the time was by self-producing our own zines using a Xerox machine. And there were important publications using this method like the Vancouver-based Open Road, which at one time was one of the largest English-language anarchist periodicals in the world, as well as No Picnic. This was the way we had to produce our graphics because otherwise no one would see them. Zines came out of the anarchist punk scene, and that’s where I made contacts with people and publications across the country. It was a much slower pace than today; with digital media, as soon as you make a graphic you can post it and hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people can see it fairly quickly. But back then, the main way we would reproduce our images or posters was actually on paper, through either Xerox machines or offset printing. We even scrounged up this weird contraption called a Gestetner machine, which produced these rubber plates that fit the machines and held the ink to reproduce multiple copies, but the copies would be really low quality.
A lot of the way things were organized and exchanged was through publications like Maximum RockNRoll, a magazine based in San Francisco, California. They still publish today, but at the time they were a monthly magazine: newsprint, pretty rough production, but packed full of information including reviews, interviews with bands, and interviews with zine makers. It was a huge resource. There were new addresses for zines and distributors, so there was a lot of correspondence that happened. We’d be writing letters to one another, and I would send people a zine, and then they would send me back one of theirs.
Every time I produced an issue of my zine, at first maybe I had five or six other zine people that I exchanged with, but by the end I had close to a hundred or so. So every issue I would have to send a hundred out to all these different zines and distributors around the country and in Europe. And I was printing all this myself. I had a print run of 1,000. There were others that had print runs of like, 5,000. Maximum RockNRoll was at least 10,000. It was pretty extensive, you know, all things considered, for how radical a scene it was.
What effect has social media had on the circulation of anarchist texts and images?
When I was publishing zines, it would cost me hundreds of dollars to print, and then I had to worry about distribution and shipping in order to get my work out into the world. With social media, you have a much wider and more immediate distribution.
Yet, in a lot of places, anarchists are still committed to the production of posters and physical products or artwork meant to go on the street. There’s an understanding that the street is still an effective means of communicating with the public and establishing a territory: you know you’re in a leftist area because of the leftist images on the wall. And this is also a way of reaching people that aren’t part of your social media network. There’s the criticism that social media leads to big, yet insular, social networks where we may be exchanging lots of information, but it’s only circulating among like-minded people. A big part of the visibility of anarchist politics and culture is the use of the street and street art: we still see so much anarchist art and graffiti in public. I don’t think we’ve lost that in the wake of social media, but there has been a decline of zine culture and production. At its best, social media can bring people into radical social movements, but it’s also important to maintain the anarchist commitment to the public, out on the streets, through posters, stickers, and other means of communication.
What role do you think your comics play in the landscape of radical media, and, more generally, what advantages do comics bring to telling radical histories of resistance?
It’s hard to say at this point; maybe years from now it’ll be more clear what effect my comics have. I hope I contribute to maintaining the history of resistance of the social movements I’m covering. I think comics are a really effective means of communication because they’re more accessible to young people and to people who have difficulty reading. Even if they’re adults, they might not have the time or ability to read long historical texts. These big manifestos and textbooks: they’re very useful too, if you have the time and the energy and you’re able to read. But I think the format of the comic is a good alternative to long historical or theoretical texts. It’s really all about diversity of communication, and I think the advantage comics have is that they are very accessible to a broad range of people
When I started making my comics, I would do them in black and white, and they were easily reproducible. Anybody could get access to a photocopier, reproduce my short one-page comics, and distribute them. People were always interested in the comics because they were different than a zine. They wern’t overloaded with text, which is still kind of a problem in the anarchist scene. In some ways I get it: people want to get their ideas out! But it’s really hard to reduce these ideas to a simple, small paragraph. And that’s the other thing about comics: you can take complex ideas or histories and you can make them fairly easy to digest, because you can combine artwork with text. So that’s the value of comics, in terms of communications within a social movement. There’s a public education aspect to it.
A lot of young people today might be first exposed to your work through the compilations published by Arsenal Pulp Press: The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book or The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic Book. But these comics pre-date your relationship with Arsenal Pulp. What was the initial form that these comics took? And what was your intended purpose in creating and sharing these stories of Indigenous resistance?
The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book originally started out as four- or eight-page zines. I made these comics because I thought the history of these acts of resistance was being erased or minimized and the stories weren’t being remembered. The standoff at Gustaffson Lake, the Ipperwash Crisis, and the Oka Crisis: those were the original comics I did. At the time I was part of the Native Youth Movement as well, so we were travelling to a lot of conferences and powwows. This was a means for me to communicate, to learn and remember this history of resistance, and to be able to easily distribute these stories as comics. I started making more of them and after a while I had a little collection of comics and a friend of mine suggested I should do a “500 years of resistance” comic. So I started doing more stories––about the Mapuche for example––comics that I didn’t include originally. After a while, I had this big pile of these little comics, and then a friend of mine who published with Arsenal Pulp Press took a copy down to them and they were interested in publishing it, so that’s how the 500 Years comic came about.
Later, Arsenal Pulp asked me to do The Anti-Capitalist Comic after the Anti-Olympic Resistance Movement and the 2010 Toronto anti-G20 protests. The Antifa Comic was similar: Arsenal Pulp wanted a comic that covered the history of anti-fascist organizing after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville where Heather Heyer was murdered by that fascist who drove his car into the crowd of protestors. For both projects, I had to sit down for months at a time to develop the story and the artwork, so it was quite a different process than the 500 Years comic.
Comics often have to simplify events and ideas, or to distill them into smaller scripts. What is your process when deciding what historical events to draw and how to communicate difficult ideas? What factors do you consider when choosing who and what to represent?
My overall process begins with a lot of research and note-taking. I take those notes and compile them into an essay format, and then I choose the actual blocs of text that I’ll put in the comics. In general though, sometimes I just begin with a very important historical moment, or an action that occurred that had an important influence or legacy. It might be an action that was really inspiring or one that we can learn a lot from. Or I’ll include stories about specific personalities because of their historical importance. I always aim to present a radical history, but I also want to connect it to the more mainstream history that’s taught in the educational system and challenge that history. I want to reference the histories that are typically taught, to connect with what people already know, and to also expand on them to show what is overlooked or suppressed. In terms of developing the narrative story, I’ll often look for interesting events that lend themselves to a more graphic comic panel. This could be a fight, a mass action, or something that makes for a more dynamic graphic. One difficulty with historical comics is that sometimes the story is just about meetings, like union meetings or political meetings, which can be hard to represent in an engaging way. So there are a lot of variables involved in choosing what goes in to a graphic comic book.
In recent years we’ve seen a number of high-profile conflicts between Indigenous nations and extractive industries over so-called critical infrastructure projects, like oil and gas pipelines, dams, mining, et cetera. Some of these conflicts have made national and international headlines like #NoDAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline), Muskrat Falls, and more recently the Gidumt’en and Unist’ot’en clans’ resistance to pipeline expansion into Wet’suwet’en territory. Much of that organizing has built on the profile of Idle No More and the state’s supposed commitment to reconciliation. With this in mind, I wanted to ask you about our current political moment. What are your thoughts on these renewed assaults on Indigenous sovereignty and nationhood on Turtle Island? Specifically, what messages do you feel need to circulate? And what images have struck you in contemporary movements and inspired you to resist?
I don’t think Idle No More solely influenced these other movements; there is a longer history of resistance that they fit into. Idle No More was more a product of the social media environment that we have now. It became a mass movement in Canada because of the way it was endorsed by lots of Band Council chiefs, and in the way it was covered by the corporate mass media; these factors combined to legitimize the movement. And it mobilized thousands of Native people (who weren’t otherwise very active) into the streets, hence the name Idle No More. It marked the entrance of a new generation of organizers. There are some similarities between Idle No More and Occupy, which was also a product of the new terrain of social media. It brought in a lot of inexperienced organizers who ended up sort of reinventing the wheel while claiming to suddenly have the answers on what is to be done and how. Social media has empowered people and amplified their messaging, but in some cases it has also been disconnected from longer histories of radical organizing.
In this way social media has changed the nature of a lot of organizing. When I first got involved in social movements, you would connect with people who were organizing for a long time.They helped you learn the history of the movement and would pass on the knowledge and skills needed to organize effectively. But nowadays you have some really inexperienced people who are suddenly able to call large events or some new movement based in little more than fleeting social media anger. Although they mobilized thousands of people, Idle No More kept a strong legalistic, non-violent, civil disobedience approach and created more of a pacifist movement. That was one of the biggest concerns I had about it because it was such a mass phenomenon and everybody was like, “This is what we gotta do. We gotta do it this way, through the legal system, and appeal to the government to change Bill C-45”
The one movement that really inspired me after Idle No More was the Mi’kmaq resistance in Elsipogtog in the summer of 2013, specifically the involvement of the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society, who shifted things to be more militant. They organized the blockade of the trucks of the company, Southwestern Energy (SWN) Resources. That struggle was genuinely linked to the grassroots: it became very militant and they were ultimately victorious. The fracking and exploratory drilling were stopped before they were completed. The next year there was a provincial election in New Brunswick that was basically a referendum on fracking and the party opposed to fracking won the election and imposed a moratorium on fracking throughout the province. That was a big victory, and it was achieved by the Mi’kmaq and their allies with a diversity of tactics. And I contrast that with the #NoDAPL struggle, because that was also more legalistic and committed to nonviolent civil disobedience. They had 20,000 people involved at their camps at its high point and millions of dollars came in, so they had a lot of resources but ultimately failed to stop the pipeline. I think there’s a lot to be learned by contrasting these two campaigns, recognizing that there are big differences: the Mi’kmaq at Elsipogtog were victorious, and I think it’s one of the more recent histories of struggle that’s underappreciated.
Speaking to the recent attacks at the Gidumt’en and Unist’ot’en camp, it was very hard for them to mobilize to get people out to physically support them after the raid because they’re in a very rural location and it was in the height of winter. There’s really only one way into the territory, and those roads can be very easily controlled by the RCMP. Terrain plays a big role in these types of struggles. They were in a very difficult situation, and that was the best they could do at the time. That’s part of learning from different struggles: sometimes there are victories, sometimes there are defeats, and we’ve got to learn from both.
In the interview you gave to UTA in 2009 you critiqued the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) for being co-opted by the Canadian government and big business. Despite emerging out of the Red Power Movement in the ’70s, many nationally oriented organizations have been integrated into the state. That said, there has been a recent rise in other nationally significant grassroots movements like Idle No More. What are your thoughts on nationwide or pan-Indigenous movements? Is there a need for a broad-based Indigenous organization like we saw in the 1970s?
If you could have a national movement that would be best. Large movements can have even larger effects and influence across the country, but historically there has not been a nationwide Indigenous resistance movement. The Assembly of First Nations is based on band councils who are empowered by the Indian Act. It’s not grassroots; it is all state-funded and therefore integrated with the state. Some examples of pan-Indigenous resistance movements that were fairly widespread across the country were the Red Power Movement, the American Indian Movement, and more recently Idle No More. But the thing about large-scale movements is, in practice, they’re very decentralized, and the vastness of Canada’s geography makes it hard to organize national-level types of organizations. There are a lot of benefits of having large-scale movements, but they also have their drawbacks. One immediate problem is the way they develop a tendency to bureaucratize the movement, with a focus more on maintaining and running the organization rather than developing a mass movement. That said, there is always potential to develop a mass organization with chapters across the country, and Idle No More was really important in doing this work. But they were also limited in the focus to stop Bill C-45. That focus both attracted a lot of interest and mobilized thousands of people, but it also brought in the AFN band council chiefs and the corporate media, which ended up pacifying the movement. Mass movements arise out of necessity. Any long-lasting movement would by necessity have to be deeper than Idle No More, which was in many ways a very superficial internet-based movement connected to social media, rather than on-the-ground activism. The strongest resistance movements of the last three decades have been based in local community struggles or regional struggles. And in many of these cases, it’s not just at the community level, but at the level of a core group of families that are the basis of these movements. An exception to this was Oka, which had broader support from a few different communities, but it was still very locally based in Kanehsatà:ke. So, the nature of Indigenous struggles over the last few decades has been their community-based and local character.
Do you see a lot of international solidarity across Indigenous movements? With Elsipogtog, for instance, they were opposing mining companies and fracking in their community. But Canada’s mining sector is involved in terrorizing Indigenous communities across the globe with all the profits flowing back to Bay Street. Do you see much cross-pollination of struggles between Indigenous peoples in the Global South and North?
At a certain level you might have some communication or messages of solidarity between Indigenous communities internationally. Often, a well-resourced NGO will pay to host Indigenous organizers facing similar forms of colonialism in their home countries. Overall, this form of internationalism is limited, and there isn’t a lot of active organizing in an internationalist way. Some groups, like the Indigenous Environmental Network, are able to bring in folks from Guatemala to challenge Canadian mining companies. And in the case of Elsipogtog, there were activists involved who were very aware of the international negative effects of resource extraction and positioned themselves in strong solidarity with Indigenous peoples around the world. I think, like most movements of this nature, the majority of people are concerned primarily with what’s going to happen to their area, and they’re not always thinking in terms of their global connection to others facing the same struggle. It exists, but it’s not super strong. But then again, social movements in the Global North aren’t super strong to begin with. Often, social movements in Canada rise up to confront or deal with a situation as it arises, but once it is resolved or reaches an impasse, the momentum dissolves, and people’s connections to social movements die down. In other countries, especially those in the Global South, you have much stronger movements that sustain themselves for much longer periods of time because of the oppression and the repression that they face. Another factor is that because Indigenous people all over the world are facing impoverishment and oppression, we’re all struggling to deal with our own situations. So often the focus is on our own family situations or community struggles, and that’s where the resources go. Given these social conditions, I don’t think a lot of international solidarity can happen other than the exchange of information and techniques.
Considering the contemporary moment we’re in with global capitalist crisis and climate disaster, I think we can both agree that there needs to be a renewed form of internationalism and struggle on a mass scale. Do you have any parting words on how to build towards this kind of resistance?
For me, the community is what’s most important. Strong community is the foundation of any successful struggle. So if you want to resist, you have to build up your local community. With climate change, we’re facing an apocalyptic scenario, so we need to think about resistance and survival in a serious way. The question is not, “Do we resist or do we just get ready to survive?” because both are intertwined. The ability to be self-sufficient and to provide for your community is going to be very important. Especially as the system faces increasing crises, systemic collapse, and environmental catastrophes, the state won’t be able to provide the same level of infrastructure that it currently does. So, we’re going to need to develop strong communities to sustain ourselves through this. As the infrastructure degrades, and as the ability of the state to impose its will across the land degrades, there is also the potential for resistance. The vulnerability of the system opens up space for resistance, but if you’re not prepared to deal with the changing social conditions, your community will be more vulnerable too. The two things that people should think about are survival and resistance because that is the future. With the rise of the far-right around the world and here in North America, it’s a grim future that we’re facing, and there could be a lot of struggle, oppression, repression, and conflict. These are things people should be thinking about. I’m not super hopeful that there’s going to be this mass global movement that changes the course that we’re on. It’s like we’re on a slow-motion train wreck that everybody can see, and some people are trying to get into the engine compartment to try to stop the train. But it’s not a train that we’re talking about; it’s a whole society on a planet, so there is no getting into the engine compartment because it’s all so dispersed. It’s a global structure. I’m not super hopeful that a movement will arise to save everything. I think it’s more likely that we’re heading towards a situation in which bigger, more rebellious social movements will arise out of the changing social conditions, conditions at the level of planetary catastrophe that evolve over many years. But yeah, survival and resistance. I would just leave it with that.
Lastly, what are your thoughts about what’s to come in the next few months and over the next year?
Generally, I think there will be the continuing problem of far-right mobilizing and outright attacks. I think that’s going to be a persistent problem going into the future. We’re also going to see more consequences of environmental stress and destruction, something that has been growing considerably over the last decade or so: bigger, stronger storms; longer, hotter summers; larger, more intense forest fires. Climate change will affect other struggles and deepen the fight over immigration as it intensifies the effects of war and poverty, pushing migrants to flee their homelands. Within the G7 countries, primarily Western Europe and North America, you’re going to see stronger backlash from the far-right which uses anti-immigrant fears and Islamophobia to mobilize. That’s the thing about today: the increased instability also opens up opportunities for the Left. We will hopefully see a rise of new movements out of these chaotic circumstances in order to meet these threats.
Right now I think the Antifa movement is very strong in North America, and I think it will continue to grow. There’s a lot of potential in the future for different types of movements to arise. It’ll be very interesting to see what develops, though it’s hard to predict because we live in such unpredictable times. I mean, who could have predicted Trump four years ago? He makes George W. Bush look like a gentleman. His contribution to the explosion of the far-right has had a big impact. These are the times that we live in where unexpected things can happen. *