A few months ago we sat down with the amazing Beth Ferguson to discuss her involvement in various projects around the world including Bikes Across Borders, Green Map, Bread and Puppet Theater, More Gardens, the Beehive Collective, and many more . We discussed the power of using art and performance as a way to educate, raise awareness, and make connections between issues like globalization and the environment, using mediums ranging from puppetry, bikes, block prints, murals, recycled objects, and maps.
Our apologies to Beth for posting this so late!
How did you get started making political art?
I was really lucky growing up in New Hampshire because Bread and Puppet was nearby and I had friends with hippie parents who would bring us to Vermont, to Glover to see Bread and Puppet. Not only was I excited to see the puppets but it was my first chance to see political art and it was like being hit with the real news, that wasn’t getting out on the stations and it was having my mind blown, like learning what was going on in Central America. It really blew me away that puppeteers were coming together from all over the world to put on these shows in the woods all throughout this circus field and up on stilts and dancing and making paper mache puppets and burning them, bringing a lot of people together and eating bread and having a lot of volunteers make this whole thing happen. So that’s what got me started in seeing connections between art and politics and ways of bringing people together.
I went to college and started being interested in environmental studies and saw that there could be a link between environmental studies and art. I got involved in a project called Green Mapping which is using symbols to represent different ecological sites. The first project was started here in NYC 10 years ago by Wendy Bauer the director, was out a preparation conference for UN delegates coming to NY and they wanted to figure out how to show these delegates more about NY’s environment so she started thinking she would make a map and show interesting sites in NY for people to come and see. She came up with symbols like solar energy site, compost site, farmers market, kids places, parks, pollution, places with noice problems, places where communities have been targeted for environmental racism. She had a lot of diverse issues represented in 120 icons. I started volunteering with her as well as doing puppetry work in NY about 4 or 5 years ago and I wanted to have my own work reflect issues about the environment as well.
Since then I’ve worked with puppeteers from Bread and Puppet, after going as a highschool student I spent a summer there in ‘98 during their last big circus. I got to perform with a hundred puppeteers from all over the world which was just amazing. We put on a circus and I learned how to stilt walk, and make paper mache, and volunteered in the print shop. I learned how to do block printing and got introduced to this idea of cheap art and how art shouldn’t just be in museums, it should be out and available in people’s kitchens, living rooms, and schools, and it should be a few bucks or free. And I learned about cheap ways of making art on cardboard and recycled paper with house paints.
I got really into doing that and started working with my friends from college and with other artists in political circles. I started running with puppeteers starting Puppet Uprising in Philadelphia after a lot of puppeteers were arrested. One of the things that drew me to New York was Reclaim the Streets parties that started about 4 years ago. Friends and I came to reclaim the streets and brought some puppets from Bread and Puppet that were Afghani women, a simple mask with a black cloak and we walked through the streets watching people respond to us. What really excited me was how puppets can be up in people’s faces and change a protest like instead of people saying, “Uh, they’re just there because they’re upset,” they say, “Wow that’s a beautiful puppet, or that’s an angry puppet,” or just having the media respond differently. Street performance gets people to sit down and actually hear messages or interact, or start thinking that theater isn’t just for a $20 ticket in a theater, but that they can actually have theater in the streets.
What about the different mediums you’ve used?
While I was working for Green Map here in NY there was a circus called the End of the World Circus in town and I walked by the community garden that was on the green map and saw a circus performer building these double tall bikes. He had to peddle backwards to go forwards. It blew my mind, and we started talking and welding bikes together in a community garden after Adam Purple’s squat had been evicted. My friend Juan had gotten all these bike parts together and some one loaned us a welder, and Aresh from the More Gardens Coalition who I was living with got us a garden space and we started to build these double tall bikes that were really big in the Time’s Up, critical mass bike scene. We built a pirate ship for Halloween which was 4 double tall bikes in the middle and 2 on the side and it was a huge ship and had a steering connection. It seemed dangerous but it survived 2 critical masses and it blew people’s minds to see people riding up there with little pirate hats. So that was the was the medium I got really excited about and having people see bicycles as art, not just as transportation, not just as a luxury sports vehicle but actually something that could have social change, and think about bikes in a different way.
I made friends with some people who broke off from the circus and stayed in NY. We started to build not only bikes but created puppet shows. We made insects who reclaimed NYC after industrialization. We used shadow puppets and performed that at different parties. And we made them into stencils that got sprayed in different places. We made another show after relocating to Austin, TX. Some people there bought a warehouse space that is now called the Rhizome Collective. They called all bike nomads and artists and people who wanted to come create this warehouse into a center for community organizing, political art, and ecological design, which is what it’s become in the last 4 years. I left NY about 5 years ago with Lon and Bracken and started to fix up bikes that could be used for people who need them along the border. A woman in the group went on a delegation to Mexico and visited the machiadores in the sweatshops and found out what was going on down there.
She came back to the collective, who was planning on doing a bike tour into Mexico, “Let’s bring a trailor of bikes and do puppet shows, and touring equipment to do shows for Committee of Border Workers.” They were having an event for mothers day and said that they would really like bikes for community organizing. So when we got to the border with a trailor of a hundred bikes and about 15 bike circus performers we found that the taxes were too high to cross with a trailor filled. Sweat shop organizors told us to cross the bikes one by one like a local elementary school had done with desks for their school. So it became this crazy pageant of crossing these bikes over one by one. There were about 10 different trips with 20 people going by. It got us thinking a lot about NAFTA and trade, privelage of being from the north and working in solidarity with people from the south. We got all the bikes across and helped the community start a bike shop. People who were doing labor organizing were excited to have a bike circus performance, we had a lot of fun with local kids and then biked back to Austin.
We realized that we can travel by bike and bring puppet shows with us, and that just got the bike circus going in a lot of different directions. Half the people from that trip went on to Europe and have been there with the bike circus for the past 4 years. Juan, Bracken, Ed, and I made a puppet show about that experience of Bikes Across Borders, of bringing bikes to labor organizers in Mexico. We did a lot of research on NAFTA and border struggles. That’s one of the things I really like about puppetry, is that it gives you a chance to really be a journalist. I feel that puppetry is a form of media because you have to do a lot of research and image making, text writing and finding audiences to perform the show. I like to take it a step further and make comics about the shows so that it can live beyond the puppeteers. Puppetry can be exhausting and you can only be on tour for so much of your life. Comics are a way for the show to be preserved and translated into different languages, put on websites, put in newspapers and magazines.
That’s like, “ The Story of an Orange”?
Yeah, we have a piece called, “The Story of an Orange” which I could sing right now! It actually brings up Radical Cheerleading. One of the orginal members of our Cycle Circus crew was Bracken Firecracker who was a radical cheerleader. Working with a collective it’s important for people to have all different skills. She was a great performer and could put all different rhymes to radical cheers. I was really interested in pulling everyone together to help me write the text and put all different images with the text and keeping things flowing. Juan is amazing with the bikes, puppetry, and getting the imagery really together, and connecting them to the text. Ed was good at putting solar panels on our bike trailors. When you are working in a collective it is really important to have diverse skills, everyone has something to offer, and cover all aspects of what it takes to get images and get work out into the universe and have different people get to see it.
Are you working with other people now, or just on your own projects?
After we did the Bikes Across Borders show for the first time, we traveled with a bunch of puppetistas- folks that had been doing a lot of political puppetry at huge anti-globalization mobilizations. We did a tour through the midwest, landing at the Radical Cheese which was a political puppet convergence at bread and puppet theater about four years ago where puppeteers from all over the country were invited to come and bring shows and do workshops and spend a week together presenting their shows, working on a big pageant eating together, collaborating. Then we had a weekend where an audience from all over came and watched puppet shows that were in the woods, we did a circus with the Bread and Puppet Theater Company, and it was a time where a lot of puppeteers got to connect and now, years later still working together.
I think big mobilizations have been really crucial to political art collective movements in the last few years that I’ve seen. We left the Radical Cheese as the bike circus with twenty bikers and then we did another tour around for a month so that was another 600 mile tour stopping in different villages and small towns. It was when the anti-war movement was starting to grow with Afghanistan being bombed so we went to Burlington and collaborated with bread and puppet to do a big pageant with the population puppets and drums and then onto Washington DC. The cycle circus and political art movements have kind of collided with a lot of different groups when there’s mobilizations. I guess the bee hive collective at the same time were making political banners around the FTAA with images of animals to depict flip tape Bread and Puppet.
When you do puppet shows it’s not only a chance to do research and present a show, it’s also a chance to sell cheap art and that’s a way we’ve been able to support ourselves on the road. Having things like block prints that are either about the puppet show, or about other, either beautiful or dreadful or inspiring things going on, creating those kind of images to sell after a puppet show or during a mobilization and distribute as something that not only helps feed you but also helps the cheap art movement, things like that.
How about disseminating information — what has been your most successful outlet for distributing your artwork and getting it out?
When I’m organizing tours I’ll often find out if there’s harvest festivals going on, if there’s anti-war mobilizations, if there’s an action going on, because that’s where your audience already is. You can save time from having to put up posters, and getting people there can be really laborious, but if you go where the people are it saves a lot of time and you have an audience that’s interested. But if you don’t want to go where the audience has already converted then that’s a whole other angle on how to get your work out. Talking to teachers I find, like after I do a puppet show a teacher might come up to me and say wow I’d love to have you guys come in and do your show at my high school. We often jump at the opportunity even if there’s no money cause to be able to get young people to be like,”wow you have hairy legs” and,” that puppet’s really cool” and just get them to start thinking about, like, what a radical cheer is or other ways to express themselves, and often they’re pretty energized. When Bee Hive Collective has done tours to universities they’ll often stop at high schools to get kids who often don’t get exposed to political ideas thinking about them, which is really crucial.
Do you have any memorable experiences of kids coming up to you after shows?
Yeah, we’ve done workshops in tons of different summer camps or high schools, where we’ll do activities. There was a project called Video Machete in Chicago where we did our puppet show about Bikes Across Borders for their students who were learning video work, and then we made puppets with them after. They’d had a lot of fun making like simple cardboard masks and one student had made a show about kind of, talking about women and harassment. They did a video they showed us of a real plucked chicken that’s sitting on a bench and a guy, like a young teenager comes up to the chicken, and says like, “hey chick how’s it going” and it was hilarious, and then in the puppet workshop we made them a fake chicken out of cardboard so they don’t have to use a real chicken, and then they acted out the little show of like harassing the chicken but calling them chick (laughs)
Kids just come up with wild ideas and are often underestimated of like how much their paying attention to, and like if you give them a chance to express themselves they come up with some really cool stuff and they really like the cheer we do about the story of the orange often has the audience does like a background beat to it and can even read along, we’ve made comics of the story of the orange since and had it printed on banners. The Bee Hive Collective prints their work on a recycled plastic bottle banner, and after you spend a ton of time doing graphic layout for comics. Printing it on a banner is a huge time saver, through the tradition of conte estoria a singing song that Bread and Puppet has kind of coined and a lot of puppeteers have learned with, of taking bed sheets and painting them white and then just using house paint or acrylic paints to sketch out your images. I think is also a really valuable form and fun activity for kids to teach them conte esoria workshops. We’ve done that in the past too, where kids have come up with some great story boards, we’ll have kids sketch out an idea with different blockings and then put it together and add maybe music or songs and color.
Most recently what’s the work that you’ve been working on and what you intend to do? Could talk about the murals and the design you’ve been doing?
This last year the More Gardens Coalition asked Juan and I to do illustration for a book project they’re working on that will be kind of the future, past and present of the More Gardens Coalition and kind of the struggle for community gardens in New York City. My work with Green Map has given me a lot of background in sustainable technologies and urban gardening and greening and community initiatives. I’m working with Juan, who has been one of the illustrators with Bee Hive Collective. We’ve brainstormed with Aresh and came up with all different things for an image of the future of new york city’s community gardens. So we made a list of like, solar panels, green houses, parades, puppets, slow foods, people eating together, bread ovens, solar hot water heaters. We used traditional kind of brown stone architecture of New York, but then cut into it, adding gray water recycling systems using gravity of the building to have waste water from apartments go through water pools and the plants in the pools would recycle and clean the water so at the end it could be used to water the gardens when there’s water shortages.
We created an image that’s just filled with all this information and really positive with all the things that would make a safe, healthy beautiful community and things that exist, nothing that doesn’t exist. That’s a motto I’ve been kind of excited about, and it sounds better in Spanish, but it’s alternative technologies exist and they’re here, we just need to work together to implement them. Something I’ve been interested in is creating images that are positive to inspire people to actually work together and make some of the changes that we often talk about or maybe forget when we get overwhelmed with how many gray clouds there are right now in our communities, and greater global community.
So we made that image with pen and ink it’s about four feet by five feet, the original, and then water colored it. That’s something I really like doing is adding color to graphic images to give them, kind of a fun look, especially when they’re about green cities. It’s like, how can you not put in the green? So that poster’s been finished and now is on big banners and has gone to different festivals and a lot of people have been excited about it and bought posters to bring to their community organizations or put in other books that are working on community garden issues.
I’ve been really inspired by muralists and that’s something I”d like to do more in the future. I’d like to find a spot in NYC to put the More Gardens mural. Something that excites me about murals is it’s almost like a website where you’re saving paper, and you’re not looking for people to give your paper product to. It’s putting it up on a wall and people can take it in or not, they have the option. But I find especially in urban degraded environments, murals can bring a lot of peace and happiness and inspiration to people.
The Green Map Project has been using the image too for a new green map in New York which is gonna focus on energy. They’re using a portion of the image that shows solar panels and wind generators and composting for a new campaign they’re doing to get ideas of how to make New York City save energy and not be so wasteful. I think often big cities, even when they have power outages, it don’t even occur to them to think of ways to save energy. A scary thing I heard is before the Trade Towers fell, New York City was at a real loss of energy and was trying to figure out how to get more energy. When we lost the Towers they didn’t have to worry about energy as much anymore because the Towers used so much energy, but we’re just in a crazy time with creating so much waste, using so much energy, and just being this oozing country gobbling as much at the fastest rate possible.
But I think a lot of young and old people are so overwhelmed with that, as artists it’s a real challenge to figure out how to inspire people to face facts and not be a part of it and inspire each other to pull out of that system and ride our bikes and buy local food, and waste less. Another fun movement I’ve been a part of is the trash worship movement where one of my favorite inspirers, an Italian artist here in the Lower East Side named Orlando, who’s done trash worship ceremonies where he’ll bring people together at big parties and go through trash transformation process where he’ll get people to cut up cans and make tea lights and take toy boxes from after Christmas and make masks. He inspires people to go through this spiritual experience of transforming trash and thinking about the waste that they’re creating and where it’s going. He’s covered the Ninth Street Community Garden with gorgeous flowers made out of metal cans, olive oil cans, pinwheels.
How do you hook up with these various people, collectives, and organizations- do you seek them out?
I think it’s a small world when you get into it, but I think as a artist it’s really important to get feedback from other organizations and other artists, and that’s a way to find different audiences to bring your work to. If you’re a puppeteer it’s important to know Morgan who organizes the Puppet Uprising so you can go to Philly once a year and bring every new show you have there, and it also gives you a little motivation because it’s overwhelming to be an artist where there’s hardly any grant support and to always be creating new art you have to have outlets and deadlines. Or, like the Earth First Journal has published a lot of our work from the Bee Hive and from comics we’ve done from our puppet shows which has been really nice to have that resource, to have a little motivation to make a comic about work that we’re doing or write a article and get it out there and then have a document of it. And going to mobilizations I think is something that is also a way to network with people.
What big mobilizations have you brought your art to?
Last year the Cycle Circus went to Cancun, Mexico during the World Trade Organization meetings and we got a grant from the Fund for Wild Nature, who’s given grants to different political puppeteers and graphic artist to go. Someone handed us the keys to a van so we loaded the van down with bicycles and made a puppet show about monarch butterflies and used the monarch butterfly who travels from Mexico, the US, and Canada on its migration patterns yearly as a metaphor for NAFTA and for learning more about biotechnology. So it’s kind of an example of how finding metaphors in nature brings people together because they want to find out more about this magical butterfly. But then when you throw in topics like border crossings and trade issues and biotechnology people learn more in, this kind of sneaky way and that’s kind of journalist work, like figuring out the message you want to bring to an audience, but getting kids to just be blown away with seeing a caterpillar transform into a butterfly.
That’s one of the puppets we have is this life size caterpillar that crawls into a cocoon and then a person with butterfly wings jumps out and flies around the audience and all the kids get to chase it. It was really well received when we brought it to Cancun, we knew some of the organizers who told us we could set up the show on a stage in one of the parks, but at the same time our rivalry was the Infernal Noise Brigade, who’s one of my favorite marching bands from Seattle. They had hundreds of people all surrounding them in this park, and everyone had pots and pans, kind of banging pots and pans to give memory to the Argentinean uprisings, and right when we’re about to start our show they took the whole audience and did a huge march through Cancun, and then they stopped our show and had a punk band play before us, and we’re just waiting and bummed that our audience left and then the punk bands finished and we set up again and right when we’re about to start the marching band filled the park again but it wasn’t just a couple hundred people, it was a couple thousand people, and the cops had been following them.
Right before we had a chance to perform, it didn’t even seem possible because the audience was wild because the marching band and people were just dancing and having a great time. They got on the microphone and said that the cops had surrounded the park and unless everyone settles down to watch a puppet show they would probably be arrested so that was like the best opening show we could ever have imagined to have like a thousand people from all over Central America and the world at this WTO mobilization protest all of a sudden just stop and listen to our puppet show, and we had local musicians from Cancun play the music so we had some local support with the show. So there were the drummers and then we started with storytelling.
One thing that’s been really fun to do are puppet shows and the Bee Hive Collective’s technique of doing story telling. People really like stories and like listening and like learning and questioning after so it’s a great way to bring music and peoples attention together and then have people come up to you later and say, “wow I didn’t know that about monarch butterflies” or, “I work with the NGO in Mexico City that does butterfly preservation stuff we’d love to have you guys come up and perform for them. We performed the same show in a small community in Chaipas and someone came up to us after and said I’d like to take you up to one of the Zapatista communities but I’m not gonna tell you where it is, you just have to trust me, and they hopped in the van with us and brought us up to one of the Zapatista communities in Palenque and we got to perform for their training. They have a school there where they’re training young Zapatistas to work in the schools and we got to perform as well in the elementary school there.
Where else have you travelled?
I’ve gotten to travel to Cuba over the last few years with bikes across borders, where we donate bicycles, and also with Greenmap. I’ve worked with the Greenmap collective in Cuba, and have been inspired by murals and political art there. And last year I spent a year there taking printmaking and papermaking classes, working with the stiltwalking theater group that does puppetry in the streets, for kids and does afro Cuban dancing and music, on stilts with a full band and group of dancers. I’ve been able to put my stiltwalking to the big test, that I learned with Bread and Puppet, and working with them.
And I also got to work on an mural project in Cuba. I worked with a community group called Muraliando, “muralmaking”. They have about 15x 15 blocks plastered with murals by artists from all over the world- Brazilian graffiti artists, Mexican muralists, or local artists. And we made a greenmap mural last year, where we worked with the elderly community and the elementary school, to do research on important cultural and environmental sites.
In the whole network there’s over 41 countries, making Greenmaps throughout the world, totalling over 175 different print maps. Using low technology stuff to have the whole neighborhood know that their neighborhoods been mapped. They can find their house, and they can find places they wanna fix up. If the mural shows a falling apart baseball field, they can do an image of how they wanna fix it up, or plant more gardens and do more revitalization stuff in that community.
I also went with Greenmap 2 years ago to Italy, for an international conference. I was the translator for the Cuban group, that’s how I ended up getting invited to go to Cuba and work with, their team on design projects. I went to Barcelona and was amazed by how organized the squatter communities are. I went to visit a squat called Can Masdeu, which was an former leper colony hospital that a group of squatters from all over Europe discovered as they were trying to organize an environmental conference. They moved in 3 years ago and haven’t left. Their lifestyle is most sustainable, communal way I have ever seen. They have compost toilets, solar energy, and grow their own food. They also invite the local community to do environmental education projects.
So I got to spend a few months with them and do a map, a birds eye view of their building and community gardens. The image focused on the water systems that they have there. There’s a water mine behind the building, which they tapped into. There’s a little trickle that they were able to put a tube in and fill their bolsas, which are big pools. So I looked at a lot of the photos, and walked around the property a lot in order to design the map.
How do you balance making visionary work with oppositional artwork?
The beehive collective helped us come up with a good title for the More Gardens image,“envision greener futures, demand sustainability today” and that’s been a cool motto. It was great to collaborate with a group that is good with “wordsmithing” and coming up with titles for things. But I think it is important to create images that reflect what is going on for people, to have that reality check, finding out what were up against and have those envisioning images available as well to think about what we can work for and what’s possible in the future. Especially with things that we have today, we just need to learn how to harness them in ways that are affordable and accessible for different communities and fun.
Fun I think is a really important component, because things can get so depressing- but having a puppet uprising…that got started with all the puppeteers were put in jail in Philadelphia during the RNC. They had to come back for their court cases, and then they would just bring their new puppet shows, and they call it a puppet uprising, they bring audiences out to see their new shows, and it was some of the best puppeteers of the country that had to keep coming back to these court cases so It just became this awesome fun event and something to look forward to for going back to court.
Sometimes, even though it really sucks to get arrested or the things we’re up against can be really dismal, there can be really good things about it, like you guys were saying, you wanted to make posters around the Republican conventions here in NY and now you have an awesome collective. Seeing the positivity in the darkest times-I think it’s crucial. Almost balances out the negative. Like what Aresh from more gardens will say is, he loves all the developers because they’ve brought so many of the gardeners together!
So what do you want to work on in the near or distant future?
In the future I’d like to do more mural making stuff. I wanna keep doing block printing and maybe make a little book series, with text in Spanish and English, like a comic book version of the puppet show that we took to Mexico last year of the monarch butterflies’ travels through North America . I’m going to be continuing working with the bike circus to do that.
What kinds of support do you receive from the communities you work with?
These projects are sometimes done without any money, and sometimes we get blessed with different bits of support from grants or local donors who will have a fundraiser before we do a project. And my faith is always renewed every time we do something that is totally a stab in the dark to try and pull off a big tour, or try to pull off a project. There is so much support from our local activist communities, environmental groups, and schools. A lot of universitiy tours can be a good way to keep a show on the road and get things printed. When Bush got elected this year I had a sick feeling in my stomach just knowing how much harder we have to work to keep things going and to keep our lives going, so that we can keep sharing political artwork. But I know that I am not alone. I think it only makes us stronger when we have communities that are excited to have things come to them and supportive.