“Recognize the sacrifices being made in the streets”

Los Angeles artist Glenn Kaino won’t be pinned down to one art form — or even just to making art. In his art practice, his works range from sculpture to collaborative performances into which he invites his audiences. He’s even dipped a toe into app design. In collaboration with actor/activist Jesse Williams and his wife Aryn Drakelee-Williams, he co-created the app ebroji — back when emojis were all pink faces — in order to offer curated gifs for people of color (and others!) to use gifs from black culture to express themselves.

Fortunately for Absolut Art, he also creates works on paper. One Crisis at a Time, the new print he is offering in partnership with Absolut Art, draws on the history of protest slogans to create a new kind of poetry. In this interview, Kaino talks with Absolut Art about the intertwined history of art and activism, the incredibly high stakes of street protest today, and what printmaking has meant to him throughout his art-making life.

What draws you to protest art? What’s interesting to you about how art and activism come together today?

I’m interested in how people take their representation into their own hands when democratic representation fails them. Especially now, when mass assembly literally has direct life-threatening consequences, it is important to support and recognize the sacrifices being made in the streets. Systems of representation are not always inclusive, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that ‘A riot is the language of the unheard’ begins with protesting.
Protest art intends to use the space of art as a catalyst for a smaller, poetic consideration of how we can begin to consider to unwind, unravel, and learn from the multitude of issues that we all may feel some connection to. Most often, protests themselves are very directed events, meant to raise awareness of a single issue at a time. This artwork is a look back at the emotional toll that our concerns have had on many of us who find ourselves exhausted after caring and participating in a number of different protests, for a myriad of causes.

What historical periods are you inspired by in terms of the strategies that activists and artists have adopted?

There are several moments in the history of activism and social justice that have incubated important strategies of protest and creative production. The theories and poetics of the Situationists have always been inspiring, as were the wooden guns arming many of the Zapatista rebels when they declared war on the Mexican government, and the digital activism of hackers from around the world are all examples of complicated moments wherein symbolic and practical action has been entangled, and real world change has been provoked.

What do you think are the most effective or interesting forms of protest today?

I think our generation now has the benefit of learning from the history of protest action, and to carry that work forward in new and improved ways as they fight oppression and systemic inequality. It is inspiring to watch the street protesters neutralize tear gas around the world using traffic cones and bottled water, to see the wide range of diverse faces standing together, and mostly though, to witness people risking their lives for a shared moment of visibility during the pandemic as a gesture to the world, and to each other.

You work in many different forms, from sculpture to collaborative performance, as well as multiple other activities, like starting art galleries and even studying magic. What part does printmaking have in your practice?

Printmaking for me has always been an important political and artistic weapon. Early in my career, in Downtown Los Angeles, I was involved in a small group that made several series of posters and agit-prop. I have since met printmakers around the world in both the business of art production but, more interestingly, in the business of making graphics for the streets in order to inspire revolution and change. Any art print for me has a direct relationship to the graphic language of the street and has an embedded sense of urgency and the ephemeral, despite it being created for the archival.

How do you hope this print will be received?

I hope this print resonates with people who feel connected to the world and, like many of us, sometimes struggle with how all of our concerns become legible, without being linear or reductive. There’s a lot to care about if you care, but the title is meant to allude to a mental model of hope. One Crisis at a Time, all together.