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“We Can Be Whatever We Have the Courage to See”: Molly Crabapple’s Art Breathes Life Into Green New Deal

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“We can be whatever we have the courage to see.” That’s the message of a stunning new video released by The Intercept, Naomi Klein and award-winning artist Molly Crabapple Wednesday that imagines a future shaped by the Green New Deal. It’s called “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” The film was co-written by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez herself, along with Avi Lewis, the co-founder of The Leap. We speak with Avi Lewis and award-winning artist Molly Crabapple about the power of art to create social change.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: “We can be whatever we have the courage to see.” That’s the message of a stunning new video released by The Intercept, Naomi Klein and award-winning artist Molly Crabapple Wednesday that imagines a future shaped by the Green New Deal. It’s called A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

AMY GOODMAN: The film was co-written by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez herself, along with Avi Lewis, the co-founder of The Leap. He joins us now from Rutgers University, along with award-winning artist Molly Crabapple, who’s here in our New York studio.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! The film now has been seen, since you released it on The Intercept yesterday, by millions of people, Molly. It’s a magnificent piece. Explain, especially for both our radio audience, who doesn’t see the images, but here’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking in this fantastical piece that’s looking back at when she introduced the Green New Deal decades before.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: We wanted to create something that fought against this tendency towards dystopia, towards this tendency to the apocalypse. Me and Naomi and Avi and Kim and Jim and Alexandria, we wanted to create a vision of a hopeful, beautiful future, of a future that we wanted to live in. So we made this animation with the idea that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was rolling into Washington on the new train at some point in the future and thinking back to how she had gotten there, thinking back to how a series of climate disasters, including Puerto Rico, led to the Green New Deal being adopted, and led to the country being made a better, more beautiful, a more kind and more dignified place.

AMY GOODMAN: Puerto Rico, where your father is from.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Yes, my father is from Puerto Rico. I think one of the reasons that this project was so meaningful to me was because both me and Alexandria, and probably over a million other New Yorkers, we saw what climate change looks like in real life. We saw that it wasn’t just like some theory, something, you know, far off that might happen in 20 years or 100 years. No, we saw climate change tear through Puerto Rico and kill 2,000 Americans. And I think probably my favorite piece, the piece that was most moving to me to draw, was this image of a house, like a pink, you know, very typical like casita in the mountains, that had been decimated by Maria, but the defiant Puerto Rican flag still there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah, and, in fact, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s family is also from Puerto Rico, like your father is. And she refers—in the narration, she refers to what happened in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria, as a “climate bomb.” So, can you talk about the significance, for you, as for her, of making this, as you say, extremely moving visualization of what occurred?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I think a lot of people, when they look at the magnitude of changes that have to be made to properly fight against climate change, they’re like, “Oh my god, that’s too big. That’s too extreme.” But for me, and I think for Alexandria and for many other people who saw what happened in Puerto Rico, the other option is unimaginable. The other option is just submitting to having hurricanes periodically kill grandparents or having wildfires periodically burn down houses forever. I think that it was very, very important to us to communicate the urgency.

But the other thing that Puerto Rico taught me after Maria was the incredible resilience of people, the way that people who had been completely not just neglected, but spat upon, by the federal government and by FEMA, joined together and created mutual aid centers that cleared the roads, that fed their neighbors, that kept old people alive. And so, when me and Kim and Jim and Alexandria and Avi and Naomi were conceiving of this, we didn’t just want to capture, you know, the bad parts, the horrible things; we wanted to capture the idea that, yes, we can do great things. We can be resilient. We can come together.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And talk about how illustrations, your art, can convey what, you know, perhaps script cannot. Because your art is just incredible, and what you’re able to represent, both in terms of what’s occurring now and a possible future, is very different from what people have ever seen.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I often think that we live in this incredibly image-saturated moment, where there’s this almost jadedness to photography. I think more photos are taken each year than they were in the entire first hundred years of the history of photography. But drawing, because it’s so personal, it can short-circuit that jadedness. It can get around that numbness.

What we did with this Message from the Future was, we both showed, in kind of like a symbolic way, what the past of climate change had looked like, what the research had been, what the present was, but we also were able to show, in this very, very concrete way, what the future would look like. One of my favorite things to draw for it was, I did a picture of Grand Army Concourse as it would be in 2028 under the Green New Deal. And it kept all of the beautiful old things. I don’t want our future to look like Dubai; I don’t want our future to mean that we get rid of our history and our culture. But it showed them surrounded with the new things, like solar and with like bullet trains and like rooftops that had been converted into community gardens. So, you have, you know, the abuelos on the block—right?—playing dominoes—low-carbon—but you also have people doing gardening on rooftops.

AMY GOODMAN: Avi Lewis, you’re speaking to us from Rutgers University. You worked with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the script. Talk about that and how this fits into—we just heard Naomi Klein introducing the film and talking about the actual New Deal and the money that was put into artists. In a moment, we’re going to hear Noam Chomsky talk about what the Green New Deal can learn from the New Deal. Your comments?

AVI LEWIS: Well, first of all, Amy, it’s so great to be on Democracy Now!, as always, and to share this work of—it took about four months and a huge effort. I checked the numbers this morning, and it’s been seen by more than 4 million people in less than 24 hours. So it’s clearly striking a deep, deep nerve with people. And the number of responses we’ve heard and received about people who are, you know, kind of weeping while watching this visual imagining of a more hopeful future, I think, is really striking.

But, listen, as a storyteller and a film and television maker for almost 30 years, I’ve learned that there’s always a huge community of people making a work, most of whom are unseen. In this case, I feel like we should have had like a producer credit for the movements that produced this political moment that this piece is emerging from, decades of environmental justice work and organizing, particularly in communities that have historically and are currently excluded, organizations and networks like the Climate Justice Alliance, but also the Bernie campaign of 2016, that unleashed Big Organizing and the Justice Democrats and the Brand New Congress and, of course, the extraordinary Sunrise Movement. All of this building of movements on movements created this political moment from which this work of utopian fiction could emerge to strike the imagination of people.

Art accesses a different part of us. And I think, you know, even watching headlines this morning, the fight-or-flight panic that is evidenced in Greta’s unleashing of the climate strike movement among young people, the Extinction Rebellion folks—we are living in terrifying times. And for those of us who are committed to vast and rapid change, we’re living in a state of engagement that is, you know, not fun a lot of the time. And when I see people’s responses to this work, and the amount of emotion that it’s unleashed, I’m really struck by how much we need not just hope—which, as Obama and politicians like Justin Trudeau reveal, can be a shallow and easily leveraged commodity—but an actual vision, and when we have beautiful art like Molly’s, a fully articulated, beautiful vision of the world we’re fighting for. We need it. It orients us. It reminds us what we’re doing all this work for. And it unleashes incredible political potential, as well. I mean, this piece has struck a nerve for a very clear reason.

And, you know, getting to work with AOC was an extraordinary opportunity, you know, having my phone ring at a certain point weeks into the process, when I was waiting and waiting for reaction to the first draft of the script and having the little video call icon flash and then suddenly be talking to her in her office in Congress, and, you know, having a major restructuring of the first draft, and then I go out, in subsequent weeks, two full line edits, where she had sat down with the script and done a very intensive rewrite and then a very collaborative process in recording the narration, where I think we heard a different side of this remarkable, electrifying politician than we’ve heard, a more internal, a more dreamlike state, that she was able to locate in conjunction with the art and the ideas. I think we’re living in an extraordinary moment, full of peril and promise. And we need this promise nerve to be touched.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Molly Crabapple, this work that you’ve done for The Intercept on climate change follows on another remarkable film that you illustrated on the war on drugs with Jay-Z. So, can you talk about how that was received, and how you hope—what you hope audiences will learn from this film?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Well, I’ve been lucky enough to spend about nine years creating films like these with Kim Boekbinder and Jim Batt. They’re stop-motion films that take sometimes 30 hours to film and then a hundred more hours to edit. And in—was it 2015, that—or 2016, that our collaboration with dream hampton and Jay-Z came out, which was about the disparities in the way that black people and white people are treated around drugs. It trended worldwide. It was something that teachers use, that’s used in museums, that I think was part of actually changing how people spoke about these sentencing disparities and how people spoke about creating not just marijuana legalization, but justice for all these people that have been, like, locked up in cages because of racist laws. I think our video did a small part of that.

And the thing that I think that these videos can do that’s very important is that many people, they look at a bunch of graphs, tables, data, long blocks of text, and they’re like, “This is so depressing. This is so overwhelming.” And they just basically stop reading after the headline. Whereas I think what the video does, and when you’re watching my hand draw out this past and future, is it pulls people along, and it makes them listen.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of art in politics, that idea of what you’ve been doing all of this time?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I think that for too long art has been segregated from the rest of the world. It’s been locked up in museums the way that you lock up a butterfly in a glass cage, the way that you lock up a dead thing that’s no longer relevant. And I think that that is terrible that art has been cut off from life. Art needs to be—needs to be in the streets. It needs to be in people’s minds. The art world is too small of a place for art. And for me, doing work that’s, you know, graffitied on walls or that’s held at protests or that chronicles some of the struggles and conflicts of our time, that’s part of breaking art out of the cage of the art world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Molly Crabapple, we thank you for doing just that. Molly Crabapple, award-winning artist and writer. Avi Lewis, thanks for joining us from Rutgers University, co-writer and co-producer of The Intercept’s animated film, A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, presented by The Intercept and Naomi Klein.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we hear Noam Chomsky on both the Green New Deal and lessons from the past, as well as what’s happening today, on the Mueller report. He’ll talk about Russiagate. Stay with us.

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Noam Chomsky: The Green New Deal Is Exactly the Right Idea

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