The art of serious play
Yana Buhrer Tavanier on the Fine Acts inspiring change
Fine Acts is a global creative studio that collaborates with artists, activists and technologists to inspire social change – and everyone can use their work for free
Play is the serious work. Play is an act of resistance.
Ever heard the word ‘playtivism’? Sounds more fun than activism, right? Yana Buhrer Tavanier coined the term in 2018 when writing her TED talk, ‘How to recover from activism burnout’ (a powerful watch, which has now been viewed nearly two million times) to explain in one memorable term how we need art and whimsy to encourage solutions for social change.
Born in Communist Bulgaria, the former investigative reporter was driven from using “mere words” to confront injustice towards incorporating art. This was thanks in part to the influence and inspiration of her artist aunt, who resisted the regime through creativity and humour but was tortured and then imprisoned in a mental institution – under a fraudulent schizophrenia diagnosis. She took her own life at the age of 37.
Where words, facts and statistics can fail in creating a visceral response, Yana believes that art can succeed. That’s why, today, the human rights activist argues that we need creativity, play and experimentation in activism to create hope – and we need hope to win.
This interview is part of a TOPIA series in partnership with Fine Acts, a global creative studio for social impact. Read all the interviews.
In 2014 she founded Fine Acts as a platform to bridge the work of activists, artists and technologists. The global nonprofit creative studio encourages collaboration to produce compelling, social change-inspiring art. Works are aligned with specific human rights campaigns. Whether furthering conversations on gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, war or mental health, the aim is to spark new ideas, propel action and melt fear.
“At Fine Arts, our work – from public art interventions, through videos, installations, books, board games and illustrations, to experimental formats – is rooted in hope, joy and openness,” she says. “Our campaigns and art actions aim to foster public understanding and engagement on a vast range of social and environmental issues; we also work to support and empower organisations across the globe through tailored creative work.”
Much of Fine Acts works are published under Creative Commons. All their visuals live on TheGreats.co for anyone to use and adapt for free, especially nonprofits and activists who, they say, often lack easy access to the visual materials needed for an impactful campaign. Empowering people in the nonprofit community is another important part of Fine Acts’ mission.
Yana is also a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and TED Senior Fellow. Today, more than anything, humanity needs hope. As art and storytelling create action more than dry or fear-inducing campaigns, we asked Yana to play with us – by introducing artists to inspire us.
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Q&A: Yana Buhrer Tavanier
Collage picture of Yana by Jon Lowenstein
Hi Yana, could you start by sharing a little about how Fine Acts came into being?
Fine Acts was born out of my frustration – first as an investigative journalist, and later activist – for not having enough impact. For a while, I had this idea of starting an organisation that bridges human rights and art, and is dedicated to creative experimentation. In 2014, two friends believed in and joined me in founding this wild idea – my fellow TED Senior Fellow, artist Julie Freeman, and my partner and Obama Foundation Scholar Pavel Kounchev. Later, 40 other TED Fellows artists, featuring some of the most brilliant young contemporary artists in the world today, joined our inaugural artist collective.
Since then, Fine Acts has produced hundreds of works – on racial justice, climate change and climate justice, disability rights, women’s rights, LGBT+ rights, freedom of expression, and shrinking civic space, amongst others. In 2021 alone, we commissioned 160 artists from 46 countries, produced a total of 215 artworks, and had 34 art interventions in 20 countries.
What impact are you hoping for with your various collaborations and collections?
To understand the value and impact of our type of work, we need to look at key conclusions of cognitive, behavioural and neuroscience on what makes people care. Like – opinions change not through more information but through compelling, empathy-inducing experiences. Visual language works much better than dry facts and abstract concepts; and art and storytelling are indeed some of the most powerful tools to create an emotional response. However, triggering emotions should be done very carefully, as people will shut down or not respond if one simply evokes sadness, guilt or fear. In the context of general desensitisation to social issues, campaigns that bring awe and inspire hope are most effective.
Visual language works much better than dry facts and abstract concepts.
How can playtivism help us create a creative resistance to build a better world?
Some years ago, I was hit by burnout. This is no surprise for this line of work – many studies show that burnout and depression are widespread amongst activists.
Around that time, I discovered the work of Dr. Stuart Brown. Dr. Brown is a psychiatrist who actually came to research play through research on murderers – after he found a common thread in killers’ stories: lack of play in childhood. So in his TED talk, he quotes evidence from neuroscience, that nothing lights up the brain like play, and that the opposite of play is not work, but depression.
Fine Acts believes that creative play and collaboration across disciplines
is essential to human rights work, as play sparks better ideas, and could be an antidote to the high levels of burnout and depression amongst activists.
Long story short, through researching and diving into some serious play, I pulled myself out of my own burnout, and came up with the concept of playtivism – making space for multidisciplinary play and experimentation in activism. As play across disciplines sparks better ideas; when we play, others want to join; play gives us the much needed feeling that ‘we got this’; and it can bring the levity we need to be able to breathe.
At Fine Acts, we build our own playgrounds – with artists, technologists, and scientists – where activism equals joy, delight and fun. For example, in our format ACTLabs we pair artists and technologists to prototype joint projects that target specific human rights issues. After just two days, the teams present their ideas and we decide which one we’ll produce.
Some winning concepts from our Labs series include Beat. – our viral social experiment on domestic violence; Fakery – our fake pop-up bakery fighting disinformation; and Decktators – our board game that puts you in the shoes of dictators, so you get to really grasp the tools and tactics of oppression.
To understand playtivism properly, I need to say that our outcomes are not necessarily joyful and fun, but our process is. To us, it’s important to be free, and find delight in playing and experimenting with others. Another thing about play – it is not a rehearsal. It’s not about – let me play for a bit, to get the creative juices flowing, and then do the serious work. Play is the serious work. Play is an act of resistance.
TOPIA is also fed up of negative messages, why do we need more hopeful imagery?
We humans need more hope, in general. In my work I often get to ask activists – why is hope important to you? Some of my favourite answers include – as hope is infinite; as it stretches the heart; as hope is air.
But hope is even more than that. Hope is also a pragmatic strategy, informed by history, communications experts, organisers, neuroscience and cognitive linguistics. My brilliant friend Thomas Coombes, the founder of hope-based comms, has come up with several key shifts we need to make when we talk about human rights issues. These include – focus on the solutions, not the problems, as the danger of focusing all our attention on the crisis is that people become immune to it, or we reinforce it in the mind of our audience. Also – celebrate what you stand for, as successful movements are propelled forward by enthusiasm and passion. And, show that “you got this” – as frames of crisis and peril can inadvertently harm perceptions of a movement’s effectiveness; and, people want to be part of something successful.
To put it short, we need hope to live – but we also need hope to win.
What is the ‘Creative Commons’ and why do you publish things under an open license?
One of our key values is openness – tons of what we produce is open-license and free to use by others. We see openness as a great impact amplifier, and that’s why it is really important to us.
Our flagship endeavour in this regard is TheGreats.co, our unique global platform for open-licensed social impact art, free for activists and nonprofits from all across the world to use and adapt non-commercially. The Greats, honoured as Finalist in Fast Company‘s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards, already features 1,300+ free illustrations from more than 1,000 global artists, on a number of human rights topics. With over 2,000 activists and non-profits registered on the platform, the works have already been used tens of thousands of times.
The Greats provides a solution to a key issue for the civic sector – powerful, hopeful visual content is of grave importance for engaging support, however, many activists and groups lack the capacity and resources to create it. Our platform is without analogue – as all illustrations are published under a Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0), allowing free use AND adaptation. For all works, we publish the work files, in addition to the print files, so that nonprofits, grassroots organisations, social movements and activists globally can use and adapt them according to their needs – eg. translating or changing the copy, etc.
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Our leading premise is that art is a powerful tool to translate complex issues in a language that provokes empathy and understanding. By opening these works to the world, and by allowing adaptation and implementation in local contexts, we multiply their impact exponentially.
We see openness as a great impact amplifier.
I’m an artist – how can I submit my work and how will it benefit me?
Most of the content on The Greats is commissioned by us at Fine Acts, through our various creative challenges. On top of that, many artists have opened up some works from their archive, to support the efforts of educators, activists, movements and nonprofits around the world.
Submitting is easy! Just go to the relevant section on The Greats. It is important to point out that if selected, your work will be published under an open license, but you keep the ownership of your work, and can still sell it and use it to make profit – you merely license it for strictly non-commercial use by others.
The Greats is a carefully curated platform. If your work is selected, you will join a special creative community, including some of the top artists and designers in the world today. Furthermore, many of the artists on The Greats are commissioned for paid gigs by us and our partners each year.
Tell us about one joyous, mind-blowing or totally unexpected outcome in your own journey in 2022.
Much of our work last year was dedicated to Ukraine. In the first days of the war, we started working on Being Ukraine – a series of creative collaborations with Ukrainian artists.
Together with Kyiv-based artist duo WE BAD (Maxim Pavlyuk and Lera Sxemka), we produced Nothing Will Tear Us Apart – a mural project that sends a message of strength and hope. Separated by the ongoing conflict, Maxim created his mural on the walls of a bombed kindergarten in the Kyiv region; and Lera – on a local government building in the centre of Košice, Slovakia – where support services were offered to Ukrainian refugees.
On day two of the war, we also commissioned two amazing Ukrainian photographers. With Mila Teshaieva we worked on A Diary of War & Hope, a visual journal of both Ukraine’s struggle and perseverance. With Julia Kochetova we collaborated on Defenders – a photo series spotlighting the people who stayed to fight. For these portraits Julia used old soviet prism lenses – to visualise how Russia shattered the lives of Ukrainians, but couldn’t break the country’s spirit.
Furthermore, we created a free Anti-War Poster Collection, available for anyone to download and use in a protest, or online. We designed the posters using mainly fonts by Kyiv Type Foundry – who donate all their profits to help the situation on the ground in Ukraine. We also partnered with ArtLink, to create an AR filter allowing the posters to be ‘placed’ anywhere in the world.
What’s next: what are your plans for 2023?
In 2023 we will break new ground by having more creatives embrace ‘serious play’ and openness as tools and amplifiers of their work towards a better future.
In 2022, together with brilliant Egyptian-Lebanese artist Bahia Shehab, we created Heaven & Hell in the Anthropocene – an immersive participatory artwork that launched at COP27, the UN climate change summit, where word-of-mouth generated perpetual lines of people waiting to engage with it. In 2023, the work will be made replicable under an open license – with its key characteristics and aesthetics published online in a DIY manual, so that climate movements and collectives around the world can recreate it in their cities. We are currently working on the blueprint.
This year we are excited to be launching a few more public artworks on climate, and then releasing them under an open license. We will also test a few new experimental playtivism formats, as well as host Labs and SPRINTS on a bunch of social issues all around the world.
Plus, we will be training more orgs from around the world on creative campaigning and visual framing (like our strategic work on visual framing for the International Planned Parenthood Federation); we will produce several more open-licensed collections of illustrations (like this one on Bridging and Belonging in collaboration with the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkley that we launched in 2022); and will work towards the global editions of our open-license illustrated sex-ed book. And so much more!
Now to the first four artists you have selected to speak to TOPIA – Alicia Eggert, Safwat Saleem, Bahia Shehab and Christine Sun Kim. Why these artists in particular?
The four artists I have selected are all brilliant minds, amazing humans and good friends of mine – who, on top of incredible talent, have an immense sensitivity to social issues. We met through the TED fellows program (we are all TED Senior Fellows) – and they all became part of the inaugural Fine Acts Artist Collective.
With Alicia Eggert and Safwat Saleem we collaborated on the very first Fine Acts project – The Future – a series of data-driven sculptures composed of 206 light bulbs (representing the world’s 206 sovereign states) that illuminate critical human rights issues.
Safwat also became part of Fine Acts’ Advisory board, and we’ve collaborated on numerous initiatives – including this series of open-license illustrations. And in 2020, we worked with Alicia on It is Time: a large, flashing neon sign that aims to create a sense of ownership – as well as a sense of urgency – about the issue of climate change.
This last work was part of Artists for Countdown – our collaboration with TED’s global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis, where we produced ten public artworks on the topic of climate change, launching on 10.10.2020, in ten cities around the world.
As part of this initiative, with Bahia Shehab we collaborated on Pyramids of Garbage: Placing an actual pyramid of garbage in Cairo, Egypt, the home of the only surviving wonder of the world, the great pyramids of Giza. The artwork aimed to bring to the attention of the viewer the contrast between majestic eternity and wonder and our current apathetic over-producing, over-consuming existence. By the way, in 2022 this work came back to Egypt, even bigger and bolder – taller than a three-story building, and made using the equivalent of 1 million plastic water bottles, collected from the Nile River.
And, again for Artists for Countdown, with Christine Sun Kim we produced The Sound of Temperature Rising Forever: a billboard in Los Angeles depicting Kim’s drawing, merging the artist’s interest in infographics and musical notations, elongating musical notes into an alarming graph. The work pointed to the reality and urgency of climate disaster, and the need for significant change now.
Inspired by Yana Buhrer Tavanier?
What’s so good about this?
Artopia is an ongoing TOPIA series exploring the power of art when it comes to positive social impact. You can learn more about Yana Buhrer Tavanier and Pavel Kounchev and their organisation Fine Acts by tuning into Creative Commons’ Open Minds Podcast.
Meet the writer
Lisa Goldapple is the brain behind the world of TOPIA, and might not behave as good as gold, but thinks good is golden. The Barcelona-based founder, creative director and editor-in-chief of TOPIA has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. To understand how TOPIA really came about, read Mind Blown, because: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”