First Imagine It And Then Build It

One of the most famous and political of modern paintings, Picasso’s Guernica, powerfully expresses the horror of modern war. On the occasion of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address to the Security Council in February to persuade them of the need for war on Iraq, the tapestry reproduction of the painting that hangs outside the United Nations was covered over with a blue curtain.

Why would the most powerful nation in history be afraid of a painting?

Feminist activist and scientist Ursula Franklin told this story to an audience of 850 at Toronto’s Music Hall on the first night of the first ever full Toronto Social Forum weekend. It was an event unlike any the city has seen.

On this first night it’s a variety show on the theme “artists against empire.” and the hall is filled with laughter, bitter and sweet. Artists, from dub poets to novelists to Afro-Caribbean music ensembles, deploy weapons of ridicule and rhythm, beauty and poignancy. The Turtle Gals, a Native performance ensemble, perform numbers like the “Genocide Waltz,” using the music of musical comedy but with First Nations content, morphing tunes like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” into a First Nations chant.

Another highlight was comedian Shoshana Sperling, appearing as satirical teen pop queen “Shasti the Nasty,” juxtaposing the U.S. rhetoric of freedom with the reality of its imperialism and vapid consumer culture, all rolled up in an exposé of the hypocrisy of American sexual puritanism.

After the night of music, recitation and revolution, almost everyone in the audience knows why the United States feared Guernica – because art has power. It can speak truth to our hearts and, in a moment, cut through the most elaborate and careful deceptions. It can move us to new worlds of understanding. Colin Powell’s power was of deception, and the sanitization of war; Picasso’s art exposed the brutal violence of war in a way no PowerPoint presentation could deflect.

The Toronto Social Forum was inspired by the World Social Forums held for the last three years in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Sharmini Peries, a TSF organizer, calls it “the most amazing political event I have ever experienced in Canada.” Iranian author Reza Baraheni calls the “artists against empire” event his first happy night in Canada. The weekend, billed as “one space, many movements”, drew more than 1500 paying participants. Organizers conceived of it as a space where social movements have weight and can be seen together in a way they never have been before. The forum was also a chance to see what other kinds of activism are going on and to re-imagine our home and the world as we would like them to be.

A spirit of fun and creation was always at work throughout the three-day forum, like lungs quietly pumping vital breath into a complex organism. There was a cultural production area where people spend rapt hours making phoenixes and painting signs for the next day’s anti-war demo. A crowd packed the “Culture Cauldron,” an activist cabaret “from the front lines of Deaf Culture and Disability-inspired art.”

At a Saturday soirée, people mixed and mingled while local activists performed. At the Sunday demo, marchers carry the phoenixes and giant puppets, and participate in a demonstration of “chalk and awe,” dropping to the ground as though killed by a bomb, while someone draws a chalk outline around them. For once, as organizer Janet Conway says, a lot of people are actually excited to carry a protest sign.

Without being explicitly critical of old left habits, this emphasis on art has challenged the traditionally dour culture of the left and asserted that joy and celebration are at the heart of the revolution. “We learned a lesson from Brazil,” organizer Judy Rebick says, “politics also has to feed the soul.”

Perhaps that’s why the event seems to glow with a new confidence. The pluralism of participation is striking. Anyone can put on a workshop as long as it fits within the social forum mandate of opposition to neoliberalism and envisioning alternatives. The usual suspects are here, but they’re not alone. The busiest workshop of all is the Culture Cauldron. There are also more workshops organized by First Nations activists and by newcomer communities than I would have expected. Though Peries and other TSF organizers “would have liked to have much broader representation of newcomer communities, both in organizing events and participating in them,” it’s good that participating groups also felt free to parachute in, put on their event and leave.

Mercifully, there was no ersatz consensus or manifesto to be churned out at the end of the affair. On the other hand, at the end of the social forum it feels like there hasn’t been an opportunity to look down from the mountain to see how far we’ve come. What’s missing, Janet Conway says, is “a space to bring everyone together and make visible to everyone the whole of who was there.” Pluralism is only part of the social forum mission: cross-fertilization and the linking of strategies is another part. Here, the Social Forum showed more promise than results.

The next stage of the process in Canada is the potentially epoch-making initiation of the Canada-Quebec-First Nations Social Forum. On the Monday after the TSF, a group of about fifty people, evenly divided between Canada and Quebec, with sparse First Nations representation, met to discuss the launch of a tri-national Social Forum. While there was division in the room on the timetable to adopt, this division never broke along the old linguistic lines. Says Rebick, “It’s hard for anyone under forty to appreciate what a profound change this represents.”

A decision was made to strike a coordinating committee and a secretariat that will organize a series of events beginning in November of this year, culminating in the spring of next. Built into these events must be a more explicit attempt to facilitate a collective (but still pluralist) political vision. The social forums must continue to showcase existing local and international alternatives to neoliberalism, colonialism, patriarchy and war.

Sharing this knowledge and experience is enriching and inspiring, but if the social forum process is to be about building the movements’ strategic capacity, about building a movement bigger than any one issue, then at some point it is not enough to say another world is possible or to imagine what it would look like, you’ve got to make the possible world actual.

Corvin Russell is an activist, translator and writer who lives in Toronto. This article first appeared in

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