Challenging cultural and social norms: Aaron Glasson (US/NZ)

A shorter version of the interview was published in Estonian magazine Vegan (no. 5) in December 2017.


Culture has a quality to raise critical awareness about the society and living in it. Being critically aware means being analytical, and questioning and breaking situations, practises, problems, statements, ideas and theories. Being critical is asking questions (who, where, when, why, what, how), evaluating everything and making reasoned judgements. Being critical is an invitation to meditate, discuss and also act.  

An artist Aaron Glasson invites us to meditate about ecological systems, our relationship to the natural environment, community empowerment and education, indigenous knowledge, the subconscious, and the unseen.

Mural by Aaron Glasson.

Aaron, how do you define yourself?

I make art so I’m an artist. Painting murals is a big part of my practice at present but I do other things too. Much of it is environmentally focused but I don’t think I’ve ever told someone “I’m an environmental activist.” I don’t identify myself as anything in particular or know why I would want to. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to identify as something but it’s not always necessary if that places constraints on oneself. Sometimes I think saying “I’m this” is just ego based and a form of neotribalism. As in a need to belong to unique group. That’s fine but I don’t have that urge. Being an artist means everything to me. I think most artists can relate that choosing art as a day job consumes your whole existence. 

You are a creative director of ocean awareness non-profit PangeaSeed. What does PangeaSeed Foundation do?

Long story short: PangeaSeed is a collective of people who deeply care about our oceans. The “Seed” in “PangeaSeed” is acronym for sustainability, education, ecology, and design which sums it up. Since forming in 2009 we’ve done a lot of different initiatives, many research and education based. Much of what we do utilises art and design as educational tools as a means to empower individuals and communities to make meaningful change for their local marine ecosystems. An example of this would be the SeaWalls: Artists for Oceans project which we started in 2013. Since then we’ve collaborated with hundreds of artists from around the world to create ocean inspired public artworks. To date we’ve painted over 300 murals, each addressing issues relevant to that respective community. In addition to the artworks we often work with local governments and organisations to look at what can be done for their sea. The artworks act as a platform to open a larger discussion that ultimately leads to positive change. Many of us at PangeaSeed have art, design, music and fashion backgrounds so realize the immense power of these mediums to influence and educate. The goal is to make caring about the environment as call as the latest Justin Bieber song. 

Activism can have different forms from boycotting of certain companies to persuading governments to change laws or drawing graffiti. Yet many think that art should not be used for criticizing and art should not be used as an instrument for social change. Art should not contain any social messages as there are better ways to do that. How do you see symbiosis between art and activism?

I think that art can be anything the maker wants it to be. There are no rules and that’s the immense beauty of art. Art can be or aid the greatest instruments for social and political change. I don’t know any recent revolution or social movement devoid of great art. It’s cliché but art can be a universal language. It’s free of the constraints of verbal language, therefore it can be a unifying tool for change. 

I also think art more often has a political, critical or social message whether the artist intends it or not. The reason I say this is because we are all products of our social and physical environments, therefore our art says something about ourselves and our priorities. The opportunity for work to become political is always there I think, it just depends what you see. 

Murals by Aaron Glasson.

Your work takes many forms, i.e. murals, paintings, illustration, films and interactive installations. How did you start making politically loaded work?

Like many people I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world and as a teenager I was also really into punk and hip hop which I think politicised me somewhat. When I was 18 in my first year of art school I started reading Adbusters magazine which had a huge effect on me also. It led to reading authors like Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky which in retrospect was probably heavy stuff for a 18 year old but had a profound effect on my young malleable mind. Most of what I made during my time at art school was politically charged even, though in a cringeworthy often naive way. A couple of years after graduating I joined Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and then PangeaSeed so as well as making art I’ve for a long time been proactive with social and environmental issues. It’s not all I do now as my interest has broadened but I still feel passionate about a lot of issues and address them with my work when I feel it.

Street art, graffiti and other art in the public space re-shapes both physical and ideological city space. How a politically engaged street and/or mural artist can participate through the creativity into local and global social discussions?

The idea and form take form in unison. These days I really strive to make work that engages with the community on a deep and personal level. The best part about painting murals for me is the interaction with those who live there. I want my work to speak to them, to inspire them and for it to feel just as much their work as it is mine. In ideal cases I get to spend time in place, talk to people, learn some of the history and then design the work based on these factors. 

Lately I’ve mostly been painting women, often local women. The reason is that I’m sick of how women are represented in public, in advertising, media and even in a lot of contemporary art. Obviously much of it’s sexualising and reinforces false beauty standards. I’m not a woman but I do think it’s unrealistic and disempowering. I want to portray real women and their achievements in public space. Not models for purely superficial reasons and it bothers me when artist’s do this. I’ve been reading Eduardo Galeano’s “Mirrors” for the second time which deals a lot with the historical and continued oppression of women. I think everyone should read it. He acknowledges that cultures have long played there part in male dominance which continues to this day. As artists I think we have the opportunity to challenge negative cultural and social norms rather than enforcing them through our work.  

Murals by Aaron Glasson.

Mural can be a legal mural or an illegal one. Most of your murals have been commissioned. Why do you choose legal walls?

I choose legal walls because my murals sometimes take weeks complete. Doing them illegally would be very hard and I’d probably be in jail. I love meeting people while I’m painting and they often influence and/or become part of the work. 

Tobias Leenaert, a long-time speaker, trainer and strategist, and the author of How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach (Lantern Press, 2017) has said: “In this world where there is so much suffering, it’s hard to do enough. Doing your best is maybe never really your best, because you can always do better. We can spend more money on good causes, and watch less Netflix, and help more.” Can you say something about that?

I think there is a lot of truth to what he says and I’ve felt that. I used to be very engaged in animal rights and veganism. At that time I never felt like I was doing enough and to be honest was an angry person. Some people can live that life and do amazing things for the cause. For others like myself I need to prioritise my own personal wellbeing before I can be proactive. I still do what I can, when I can, but spend time and money on myself too. I acknowledge I could to do more, and will strive to while still enjoying existence. 

Murals by Aaron Glasson and Celeste Byers. 

What activists and artivists would you say have influenced you the most?

I was really into Rachel Carson (an American marine biologist whose book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement – D.K.) and Edward Abbey (an American author noted for his advocacy of environmental issues – D.K.). They are still classic for me though I haven’t read them in a while. Paul Watson (a Canadian-American environmental activist, who founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society – D.K.) has also been influential on me.  I love the work of Nick Cave right now (the visual artist, not the musician). Also I have friends who are making very important work right now for environmental and native causes – Celeste Byers, Spencer Keeton Cunningham, and Jaque Fragua to name a few.  

You participated Mextonia, the worldwide festival of Transgraffiti Muralism in Estonia in 2017. Where can we see your murals painted in Estonia? 

My mural is in the upper car park of the Kumu Art Museum on the side of the Estonian Maritime Administration.

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