On a Just Recovery: An interview with Jan Burger of Paperhand Puppet Intervention

May 15, 2020

Jan Burger is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of Paperhand Puppet Intervention in Saxapahaw, NC.

I have a few questions I thought we could use as starting points in a conversation around art and activism and initiating a just recovery from COVID-19.

I want to start by engaging the changing definition of community. The art of Paperhand Puppet Intervention looks to environmental and social justice issues by calling on the community for support and recognition. There is an emphasis on asking “What can we do to protect the future, what can we do to save the earth?” So, I am wondering how you’ve adapted your definition of community involvement and community aid in our current context of distance?

In all honesty, I’m really flummoxed right now so I don’t know if I have a true answer. All the actions and projects and plans I’d been working on were all just canceled. So, in terms of how to involve the community… I think for me personally I’ve just been a little more sucked into, what’s the word for it, ruminating and gestating – thinking about things. I have often struggled with computers and technology as a part of my life and have intentionally created a job in which I don’t have to use them very much. So, the prospect of trying to engage folks with computers, with the internet, with social media has not been one that I’ve jumped into wholeheartedly because I just don’t – want – to do it.

What I do normally for my job is create big spectacles that people can participate it, that they can witness and help build. They can experience it first hand, whatever they’re doing whatever they’re participating in, and that’s a very big aspect of what we do – create something that’s a live experience. So, all that said, I haven’t really figured it out. I’ve personally been doing work that I know can reach people and getting help from other organizations. Recently, I did a bunch of drawings for the Just Recovery Campaign that I made into paper-cuts and I just finished a paper-cut for our local river organization that wanted to start a climate action campaign, The Haw River Assembly. And that feels good as a way I can help participate and fulfill a need to use imagery to inspire people and get the word out about what they’re doing. But in terms of my own personal work in trying to get things seen by people I don’t know how to do it. I’m confused.

I appreciate your honesty. In truth. I was asking because I was curious. With that, I saw your paper-cuts for the Just Recovery project and they were extremely beautiful and so well put together. Would you mind speaking to those images and their messages?

Sure. So I’ve been helping my friend, David Solnit, who is a full time activist that I met when I lived in San Francisco when he was working with a group then called Art&Revolution. And they would make puppets and do spoken word poetry and murals and graffiti and dance and use all these different art forms to help with different activist campaigns. So I did that with him when I was in San Francisco and he’s been doing it all over the place since then.

I went and helped him in Seattle in 1999 and made giant puppets there, then down at the School of the Americas in Georgia and over at the free trade area of the Americas meeting in Miami and up in Washington, DC for the World Bank IMF protest – that was largely the beginning of the 2000’s. And I kind of wanted to see if there were other things we could do together even though we lived on opposite coasts. I’ve done a number of illustrations for the Keep-It-In-The-Ground Campaign at 350.org and a few others (i.e. Stop the Money Pipeline.) And he got a job, like a regular job, because usually as an activist you don’t get paid so you have to make money to survive in other ways. So he would do carpentry jobs for a little while, then do some activist work, then do a little carpentry work, then do some activist work until he got a job, a gig, with 350.org and became their arts organizer for the US and so he took the job with the stipulation he could keep on making art. So he just goes around the country organizing art builds. He came to NC a couple of years ago and made a couple puppets for a big March in DC.

So, most recently, I reached out to him and he said they needed pictures for Just Recovery and People’s Bailout Campaign which are kind of the same thing, Just Recovery is the more international version and People’s Bailout is more of the US version. He asked for 5 images by the next week, and I said okkkk because they take me a long time. I usually do a dozen to twenty illustrations before I cut one out of paper, so I decided to pull in some backup and I asked my brother who lives up in Boston. So we did the illustrations together. We talked about them a lot. It was challenging to try and figure out how to tell a story with just an image and have it make sense to people.  

One of the main things I learned in art school was how to tell a story with an image in the sense that images are basically like words because like words they can tell stories. Little details, like what people are wearing can have a lot of significance.

I was planning the hospital one and originally I did these sketches with lots of ambulances and lots of doctors, people without masks on, people with masks on. And each of the things kind of changes the story somewhat.

I think about the way we all need to change our lives and how those changes not only are necessary but can become the new normal.

In the image with the workers it was hard to get the characters all lined up, and to do it in perspective was tricky. With papercuts, it’s a lot about balancing the light and the dark shapes, because all the pieces are cut out of paper. So for things like the birds flying in the sky I would cheat a little bit and I would take it into Photoshop and as I was cleaning it up I would take away the pieces of paper that are holding the birds together together, little strings of paper. Do you know the artist Nikki McClure? So, I’m influenced by her a lot and I always have her calendar sitting in my kitchen. But for the most part I don’t think she every cheats, she always has something holding it together.

For my brother it was a little bit harder because he hasn’t done paper-cuts a lot. My brother worked mostly on the people going up the stairs and the one with the person voting. It was just a bit of a steep learning curve for him. Even though he’s a great artist in his own regard, he’s not familiar with paper-cutting. His birds in the voting scene were particularly rough so I did have to import some birds from another picture.

When we’re making it we’re thinking about our audience. What are people going to think about this? Are they going to feel recognized or are they going to feel excluded? Are they going to feel misrepresented? When we work in puppets we often work in metaphor, through animals and monsters and creatures and gods of nature and the elements and stuff like that so that people can see themselves reflected in more abstract shapes.

So, my next question is – in the Just Recovery paper-cuts, specifically in reference to the young girl planting the tree, would you say that this specific image speaks at all to the concept of regenerative culture? And could you speak a little to the way Environmental Justice is related to Social Justice in the process of a Just Recovery? Have you seen these issues overlapping?

That’s a lot to think about, but yes – for sure. I think about the way we all need to change our lives and how those changes not only are necessary but can also become the new normal. I was talking to folks when we were painting our mural, and what kept coming up was how we can see this as a type of test-run for how and why we should all change and start making significant alterations in our society. That was significant to us, I think we were all a little shocked and also appreciating how people could go from basically not doing anything or consciously ignoring any warnings or suggestions about what we could do to everyone shifting their lives around over the course of a couple of weeks. To see that this was possible was heartening to us. I don’t know exactly where to go with it. There’s a dream people have that if we could make the significant changes in our society that we need to it’s possible that we can come through to the other side of this. And it’s never felt to me that people will jump into changing their own lives very significantly of their own initiative, they need something to push them into getting used to living differently.

I guess my other strategy for pushing pre-pandemic was just to force people to look at, and get people talking about, the kind of crazy situation we’re in so that people feel like this is a crisis, we need to address it we need to deal with it. But that is a tough hoe to row, to get people’s attention.

So I think now, focusing on what we can do in the moment, how we can take care of each other, how we can adapt, how we can find our strength, how we can change – all of these things are significant.

So, art has the capacity for a particular reach, for a particular language of connection and I think that is especially true when the art has a familiarity and a humanity. I think you spoke to this already when you mentioned the importance of making sure people are reflected in the art that’s meant to reach them. And I think this is particularly significant in periods of fear and confusion. I often think of Keith Haring, and how his figures weren’t strictly accusatory but acted as something familiar in calling for education and community. So I’ve been thinking about the way art can serve to set the tone of a crisis or a period or a movement. So I wonder what you see as the present role of art in the midst of Corona Virus. What tone should be set, what should be prioritized, what is the language of this moment?

One direction that I came to, was to focus on what we’re capable of and what we can do. When the pandemic really settled in the US we were talking about what we could say and I think a lot of our regular slogans might come across or may be read as insensitive, understandably. As people need to stay home but we’re asking them to do things.

I’ve always focused more on trying to inspire people, definitely not wanting to put anybody down particularly as it doesn’t seem to help much of anybody. So I think, now, focusing on what we can do in the moment, how we can take care of each other, how we can adapt how we can find our strength, how we can change – all of these things are significant. And I think a lot of us are dealing with emotional stress and depression and stuff like that, kind of struggling to feel… what are we doing how can we do anything at this point and I think giving people words of encouragement and inspiration are good. Even if it’s just to let folks know that other people are, I don’t want to say optimistic, but that other people are trying and feeling like it’s worthwhile to keep at it.

Yes. To send a message of unity and community, helping people know they’re not alone – that’s critical.

So, what do you think is the most significant thing about art specifically as a social justice medium? Considering the creative mindset and the concept of engaging in activism through active creation. To use art as a platform for change is to be willing to say here’s where we are and here are my resources, but beyond this, here is what I can imagine, here is what I hope to create. What does it mean to create as a mode of action?

I think, for whatever reason, that the creative act is disarming to people. It has a kind of a hopeful vibe to it, if that makes sense. Just the basic image of people working together to create something is kind of a stereotypical or iconic way of representing people’s intentions, people’s hopes, people’s work, people’s feelings about something, to show them building something. And the actual art build itself can build community. It can also even in itself be a media event, just to say look at these people they’re making stuff! Then the image of people being in the streets with the stuff that they made, the image of people putting paint onto cloth or sculpting something, there’s something hopeful about that. Everybody, or I shouldn’t say everybody but most people, on some level or another see art making as a benevolent act. Maybe this is because they can relate it to childhood, because a lot of people don’t make art as adults but they did when they were kids. I don’t know why that is. But when we were talking about doing the street mural for Earth Day we were thinking about overtaking an intersection and painting, which is a tactic that is significant because it takes up the space people are occupying. But I was thinking about doing one for Raleigh and I asked David to just give some pointers and he said it really works to de-arm a situation. If the cops come around they always want to know what you’re doing,  what are you doing – cops always what to know what you’re doing and if they see a bunch of people hunched over, painting, focusing hard on making a beautiful image… Cops have to make decisions about  what they’re going to do and whether they decide something is illegal or not, a threat. And that kind of art making can be disarming. One thing that is neat about that particular action is you’re taking the art making and bringing it somewhere public. You’re out in the world, making art in the street and then the fact that you’re doing it in a place where you’re not really supposed to be doing it adds some defiance as well.

Unity in defiance.

It rides a bunch of edges like that. We had a Northeast Regional Extinction Rebellion Art Coordinators chitchat the other night on Zoom and people were talking about and asking “What are some of the more significant things you’ve seen other groups do that you’ve liked and gotten inspired by,” and my brother and a couple other folks mentioned the fake blood. And I never liked it very much, but I was listening to them, and I could kind of appreciate it as my brother was saying how they got this old firetruck and how they tried to hose down this building with blood and what he said was significant was just the audacity of it – we’re just going to hose you down with blood until, at that point, it is just impossible to ignore. Whether you think it’s good or bad, you can’t just let it go, you have to put it on the news or make a comment about it. And I appreciate that from art in general. I guess in some ways, when you look at that aspect of art, the part that you’re doing something different, that you’re doing  something that stands out, there is a certain novelty. You want to do something people haven’t seen before, you want to surprise people.

Photograph by Tomm Morton rebellion.earth

And then like you were saying, wanting to always make new images to keep on telling the story. It’s a real challenge to try and find what images and what story is being told that really works and really affects people. Being a performer I recognize too that sometimes the strongest messages lie with not just art that’s been created, but more with the art of the moment and the art of the situation. In the civil rights movement a lot of it was the image of seeing people who were calm and composed being beaten and jailed that made it something people had to responded to.

                  You see that defining visual of a period, the image that is tied to a movement. I often want to speak to artists about that translation of an intention to a visual to a public response to an action to art again, and the dialogue that forms as these move back and forth between us. Thank you so much for your time today.

Learn more about the Just Recovery Campaign

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