Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Monday, November 20th, graphic artist and novelist Eric Drooker arrived at the Intercultural Center armed with a banjo, harmonic, and slide upon slide of his art mounted on a slide projector.
In his presentation entitled “Art as a Weapon,” Drooker sought to show the power of art as a means of communication and activism. For the next two hours of “comic relied, and tragic relief as well,” Drooker showed Swarthmore students how to make themselves heard without words. His lecture was a mixture of spoken word, music, and his visual art charged with emotion. Between songs and the quiet clicking of the slide projector, Drooker explained his attempt to free himself from written language.
“As a visual artist, I feel like the big challenge is to see how much I can communicate without resorting to words,” said Drooker, “We’ve been led to believe that language means words.”
True to his view on visual art, he often fell silent and let his art speak for himself as he strummed along on his banjo or tapped his feet to a rhythm. Drooker, who works primarily with scratchboard and watercolors, showed slide after slide of his stark artwork. Through the image of a triumphant man hammering down a wall or the slow metamorphosis of a yellow butterfly, Drooker exemplified his wordless story telling. His music, yet another universal language, served to accentuate his art. On one of the few instances Drooker introduced words, he recited the poem “Hum Bom!” by Ginsberg in an increasingly distraught voice accompanied by a disturbing montage of artwork featuring a masked winged creature spewing bombs over a cityscape, grimacing and gesticulating skeletons, and a baby crying out in either rage or despair.
Weaving in and out of his lecture were DrookerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own personal experiences of using art in activism. Drooker, who lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, shared how he first realized the effect of his art when he created a poster for a tenant meeting and a crowd appeared.
“When I saw all the people, I realized the power of art by simply hooking people in by their eyeballs,” said Drooke, “There is so much paper, so much cacophony that we screen most things out. Art is what hooks people in.”
Most notably, Drooker related his experience of traveling to the occupied West Bank of Gaza Strip one summer.
“I had to get out in the world and see whatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s happening with my own eyes. The newspaper wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t tell you the truth and even less truth will be told from the television. So I decided to take a summer vacation in the West Bank,” he explained.
At this point of the lecture, the slides shifted from artwork to the very realistic pictures of the West Bank. The photographs, which ranged from crumbling homes to scrawled defiant graffiti, focused especially on the towering wall currently being erected between Israel and Palestine. Drooker arrived with a smuggled suitcase of paint with the intention of tagging this wall. Art became a sense of empowerment for the young Palestinian children when Drooker suggested they paint on the wall. Photographs of the wall showed a myriad of colors, houses, fruit laden trees with Drooker’s own addition of a fiery phoenix rising above. For Drooker, this was an example of art “giving the children a sense of autonomy, some measure of control in their environment, control the imagery of what they see.” Drooker said of his experience in the West Bank, “I have been attempting to use art as a weapon my entire life. This taught me the power of art as well as the futility of art.”
He also continues to incorporate his art in local day to day activism and as an effective means “to talk about the things you feel most strongly about”. One example of this is shown in his artwork where he symbolized the scale of the homeless with a mammoth homeless man squatting in the city streets. Another showed the figures of men trapped in the gears of a massive machine or tapping away at computers in a hive-like building.
Above all, Drooker stressed the need for art to be accessible in order to be effective. His art relies on recognizable symbols such as buildings, bombs, people, and corporate logos.
“It can be ambiguous art, but you also want it to be concrete. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s about recombining the context, putting them in different environments, subverting the original meaning.”
Drooker ended the presentation with a tribute to a journalist friend who had been killed by the paramilitary while documenting an uprising in Oaxaca three weeks ago. The succession of slides including a woman playing saxophone jubilantly in a stream and people in gray and green with beating red hearts. As the last slide faded on the screen, Drooker ended simply by saying, “Thank you for lending me your eyeballs this evening.”