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Can true activism only exist with(out) corporations?

vrijdag 8 juni 2018
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Stefan Damsin from Recyclart doesn’t consider himself, nor the organisation in itself, ‘activism’. Something that flabbergasted me when I first heard it during his Sofa Talk in the WTC I tower on the 9th of march 2018. Then it hit me at the exact moment he said “For years we received subsidies from the people we are now against, we have to answer to so many organisations outside of Recyclart still, that we can’t – truly – be activists”, that maybe he was right. The work Recyclart does, especially in the surrounding communities as well as making a statement about forlorn spaces that could hold so much more if bigger companies would let us do these things, has an intrinsic activistic value, but it isn’t ‘free’. It led me to ask myself: If you have to answer to other companies or corporations, people putting money in your own organisation, does it lower the statement you are trying to make?

Isabelle Doucet argues in her text on ‘Interstitial Activism’ the contrary, by stating that Recyclart “shows how institutional embedding can facilitate rather than hamper, activism”. She continues by mentioning two major positives and their resulting effect: the financial stability (procuring more freedom) and mainstream media attention (which aids the causes of activism tremendously). Recyclart is seen by Isabelle Doucet as an excellent example of 'interstitial activism' or 'activism from within'. Presented amongst others, a case study is discussed where Recyclart played a key role: the Ursulines Skate Park, which is illustrative of the collaborative nature of Recyclart projects. During the design process, Recyclart became the bridge between the local community and the established stakeholders who would pay for the renewed public space. A bridge often needed, but is too many times overlooked during the design of public space, resulting in top-down designs without any link to the local community and its specific needs. So, Recyclart is acting for the benefit of the local community, but doing so by working together with the ‘higher-ups’ to claim better public space. In this way, it is very different from ‘traditional’ activism, that even Stefan Damsin himself doesn’t consider himself to be an activist! (However, maybe only an outsider perspective could see and label their work as being activism.)

Does this mean that the definition of an activist and activism is slowly shifting nowadays? A new wave of activists is taking its place, instead of fighting the bigger corporations, they play alongside them – to achieve what they believe in. Maarten Gielen from ROTOR said the exact same thing during his Sofa Talk on the 4th of May: It is a new way of being an activist. ROTOR is making a statement by re-using these materials and in the process, change people’s mind and educate them about circular economy. They do so by approaching different stakeholders and portray themselves as a beneficial partner: a bold move, and one to be admired. Does that mean they are lesser of an activist, than say, someone who goes out and protests on the streets itself for a more sustainable future who don’t have ANY affiliation to organisations who don’t care about the planet within their capitalistic framework? I now believe it isn't, because after all, it is about the message sent. Maarten Gielen himself admitted that the actual fraction of deconstruction and reconstruction done by ROTOR is very small compared to the bigger picture, BUT their work is inherently more about the new image of sustainability it conveys; so it can act as a ripple in society and create likewise initiatives, inspired by their philosophies.

To quote Isabel Doucet one last time: “in specific circumstances, as shown by some of the Recyclart projects, it can be more effective to operate patiently from within rather than through radical opposition” – a different approach to activism I hadn’t encountered before, but will certainly follow me through my future career. As an architect, if we choose this path, we can form the needed bridge between community and corporations, and finally become activists from within ourselves.

Sigrid Vangeneugden