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Art as catalyst: the butterfly project

By Lee Lee and Susanne Mitchell

This is the third in a series of articles about the Moving Beyond Capitalismconference sponsored by the Center for Global Justice. The conference opens at 5pm on Tuesday July 29 with an exhibition of the work of eleven artists who aim to promote a critical consciousness. Here, two of the artists talk about their interactive exhibit.

Artnauts is an artist collective that uses the visual arts as a tool for addressing global issues while connecting with artists from around the world. The name derives from combining the words “art” and “astronaut” as a way to describe the process of exploring uncharted territory in the world at large. The name also denotes the practice that is “not” art as usual, going beyond the confines of the traditional or conventional art world and blurring the boundaries between art, activism and social practice. The Artnauts have worked at the intersection of critical consciousness and contemporary artistic practice to impact change for almost two decades with over 150 exhibitions on four continents. For the exhibition, “Art as Catalyst,” the Artnauts created a collaborative work that centers on completing the statement “We can move beyond capitalism by…” Each artist completed the statement and the text, combined with a portrait of the artist, into a series of posters. This work utilizes visual art as a strategy to address global issues related to the current condition of capitalism.

Growing out of the Artnaut piece, we developed an interactive artwork, which compliments our statement by allowing conference attendants to voice their own opinions. The Monarch butterfly connects Mexico and the United States through one of the most spectacular migrations in the wild. Through presenting this interactive installation, participants engage in a solution-based dialogue from regions north and south of a border that is evident to us but invisible to the graceful Monarchs. The butterfly represents hope. It symbolizes transformation; in moving from one state to another, a change in perspective or a new lifestyle. In this way, the butterfly may teach awareness of other ways of being.

As a manifestation of the environmental catastrophe wrought by capitalism, the Monarch butterfly population is on the verge of collapse. Huge swaths of industrialized monoculture have all but decimated the milkweed, which is necessary to nourish the generations of butterflies that complete a migration cycle. Chemical inputs, especially pesticides, are fatal to butterflies. Visually, the butterfly is fragile. We chose to print the foundation of this installation with cold white ink on black paper which gives the butterflies a ghostly appearance. Starting with a form of an imposing grid that echoes the monoculture that sprawls across the Midwest, the piece breaks apart to give the impression of ashen fragments carried off by the wind.

Under the broken part of this framework, participants express their hopes on cards made of repurposed manila folders printed in the warm blacks and oranges of the Monarchs. Prompts are offered to encourage the sharing of written ideas. As we enter the Anthropocene, it is vital that we recognize that in the era that has been named after humans, it is up to us to ensure our future survival. The practice of citizen science was founded on a widespread collaboration in mapping out the migration route of butterflies. In the 1960s, residents from across the United States and Canada, then ultimately Mexico, helped tag the wings of Monarchs and reported back with the numbers and locations of where they were found. Inspired by this action, we have built a foundation for a “citizen art project” that will act as a way for the population to come together in expressions of hope that we can help save this elegant creature. The shifts necessary to prevent the collapse of the Monarch contribute to an overall balance between humans and the natural world on which we depend.

Lee Lee focuses on the environmental impact of industrialization. Susanne Mitchell is a member of the Artnauts artist collective. For more information go to

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