Act: Inspiration

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution

September 20, 2017

Beautiful Trouble lays out the core tactics, principles and theoretical concepts that drive creative activism, providing analytical tools for changemakers to learn from their own successes and failures. In the modules that follow, we map the DNA of these hybrid art/action methods, tease out the design principles that make them tick and the theoretical concepts that inform them, and then show how all of these work together in a series of instructive case studies.

Creative activism offers no one-size-fits-all solutions, and neither do we. Beautiful Trouble is less a cookbook than a pattern language[1], seeking not to dictate strict courses of action but instead offer a matrix of flexible, interlinked modules that practitioners can pick and choose among, applying them in unique ways varying with each situation they may face.

The material is organized into five different categories of content:

Specific forms of creative action, such as a flash mob or an occupation.

Hard-won insights that can guide or inform creative action design.

Big-picture concepts and ideas that help us understand how the world works and how we might go about changing it.

Case studies
Capsule stories of successful and instructive creative actions, useful for illustrating how principles, tactics and theories can be successfully applied in practice.

Brief write-ups of some of the people and groups that inspire us to be better changemakers.

Each of these modules is linked to related modules, creating a nexus of key concepts that could, theoretically, expand endlessly. As the form took hold and the number of participating organizations and contributing writers grew, what began as a how-to book of prankster activism gradually expanded into a Greenpeace-esque direct action manual and from there grew further to address issues of mass organizing and emancipatory pedagogy and practice.

While we’ve sought to cast as wide a net as possible, drawing in over seventy experienced artist-activists and ten grassroots organizations to distill their wisdom, we are painfully aware of the geographical, thematic and cultural limitations of the collection of modules as it currently stands. We’ve included in the book blank templates for each content type, and the capacity to submit or suggest modules on the website, in the hopes that readers will be inspired to identify, and fill in, some of these gaps.

We encourage readers to explore our website,, which is more than simply an appendage to the book, but in fact stands as perhaps the fullest expression of the project. In an easily navigable form, the website includes all the book’s content as well as material that, due to constraints of both space and time, we were unable to include in this print edition.

With the participation of readers, the body of patterns that constitute Beautiful Trouble could continue to evolve and expand, attracting new contributors and keeping abreast of emerging social movements and their tactical innovations.

Millions around the world have awoken not just to the need to take action to reverse deepening inequality and ecological devastation, but to our own creative power to do so. You have in your hands a distillation of ideas gleaned from those on the front lines of creative activism. But these ideas are nothing until they’re acted upon. We look forward to seeing what you do with them.


The Beautiful Trouble Manifesto

By Andrew Boyd & Dave Oswald Mitchell

“The clowns are organizing. They are organizing. Over and out.”
Overheard on UK police radio during action by Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, July 2004

“Human salvation,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued, “lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted,” and recent historical events are proving him as prescient as ever. As the recent wave of global revolt has swept through Iceland, Bahrain, Egypt, Spain, Greece, Chile, the United States and elsewhere, the tools at activists’ disposal, the terrain of struggle and the victories that suddenly seem possible are quickly evolving. The realization is rippling through the ranks that, if deployed thoughtfully, our pranks, stunts, flash mobs and encampments can bring about real shifts in the balance of power. In short, large numbers of people have seen that creative action gets the goods — and have begun to act accordingly. Art, it turns out, really does enrich activism, making it more compelling and sustainable.

This blending of art and politics is nothing new. Tactical pranks go back at least as far as the Trojan Horse. Jesus of Nazareth, overturning the tables of the money changers, mastered the craft of political theater 2,000 years before Greenpeace. Fools, clowns and carnivals have always played a subversive role, while art, culture and creative protest tactics have for centuries served as fuel and foundation for successful social movements. It’s hard to imagine the labor movements of the 1930s without murals and creative street actions, the U.S. civil rights movement without song, or the youth upheavals of the late 1960s without guerrilla theater, Situationist slogans or giant puppets floating above a rally.

Today’s culture jammers and political pranksters, however, shaped by the politics and technologies of the new millennium, have taken activist artistry to a whole new level. The current political moment of looming ecological catastrophe, deepening inequality, austerity and unemployment, and growing corporate control of government and media offers no choice but to fight back. At the same time, the explosion of social media and many-to-many communication technologies has put powerful new tools at our disposal. We’re building rhizomatic movements marked by creativity, humor, networked intelligence, technological sophistication, a profoundly participatory ethic and the courage to risk it all for a livable future.

This new wave of creative activism first drew mainstream attention in 1999 at Battle in Seattle, but it didn’t start there. In the 1980s and ’90s, groups like ACT-UP, Women’s Action Coalition and the Lesbian Avengers inspired a new style of high-concept shock politics that both empowered participants and shook up public complacency. In 1994, the Zapatistas, often described as the first post-modern revolutionary movement, awakened the political imaginations of activists around the world, replacing the dry manifesto and the sectarian vanguard with fable, poetry, theater and a democratic movement of movements against global capitalism. The U.S. labor movement, hit hard by globalization, began to seek out new allies, including Earth First!, which was pioneering new technologies of radical direct action in the forests of northern California. The Reclaim the Streets model of militant carnivals radiated out from London, and the “organized coincidences” of Critical Mass bicycle rides provided a working model of celebratory, self-organizing, swarm-like protest. Even the legendary Burning Man festival, while not explicitly political, introduced thousands of artists and activists to the lived experience of participatory culture, radical self-organization and a gift economy. The Burning Man slogans “No spectators!” and “You are the entertainment!” were just as evident on the streets of Seattle as they are in the Nevada desert each summer.

Through the last decade, though we’ve lost ground on climate, civil liberties, labor rights and so many other fronts, we’ve also seen an incredible flourishing of creativity and tactical innovation in our movements, both in the streets and online. Whether it was the Yes Men prank-announcing the end of the WTO (and everyone believing it!), or the Billionaires for Bush parading their “Million Billionaire March” past the Republican National Convention, or MoveOn staging a millions-strong virtual march on Washington to protest the Iraq War, our movements were forging new tools and a new sensibility that got us through those dark times. Every year, new terms had to be invented just to track our own evolution: flash mobs, virtual sit-ins, denial-of-service attacks, media pranks, distributed actions, viral campaigns, subvertisements, culture jamming, etc.

As a participant in many of these movements, Andrew Boyd, this project’s instigator and co-editor, had been kicking around the idea for Beautiful Trouble for almost a decade before he teamed up with web maker Phillip Smith and editor Dave Oswald Mitchell to make it happen. Little did we know what kind of a year 2011 would turn out to be.

By the time our expanding team of collaborators was hammering out our first proof-of-concept modules, Egyptian revolutionaries were phoning in pizza orders to the students and workers occupying the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. A few months later, as we were gearing up for our big finishing push, Occupy Wall Street went global. Suddenly, half the people we were trying to wrangle modules out of were working double overtime for the revolution. The excuses for why these writer/activists were missing their deadlines were priceless (and often airtight, since we could simply confirm them by checking the day’s news!): Sorry, I had to shut down Wall Street with a blockade-carnival while distracting the cops with 99,000 donuts. Or: I’ll get that rewrite to you as soon as me and my 12,000 closest friends finish surrounding the White House to save the climate as we know it. Or: Hold on, I have to sneak a virtuoso guitarist into the most heavily guarded spot on earth that day (the APEC summit in Honolulu) to serenade Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao with a battle cry from the 99%. Or: Shit, I know I said I’d write up that guerrilla projection tactic thing you wanted, but I can’t because, get this, I’m DOING ONE RIGHT NOW see: CASE 99% Bat Signal. Somehow, though, we managed to keep moving the project forward through the thick of the American autumn.

January 2012

  1. [1] The originator of the concept of a pattern language, architect Christopher Alexander, introduces the concept thus: “… the elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.” Alexander first introduced the concept of pattern languages in his 1977 book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, in which he sought to develop “a network of patterns that call upon one another” each providing “a perennial solution to a recurring problem within a building context.” Pattern languages have since been developed for other fields as varied as computer science, media and communications, and group process work. Though we do not follow the explicit form of a pattern language here, we were inspired by its modular interlocking format, its organically expandable structure and by the democratic nature of the form, which provides tools for people to adapt to their own unique circumstances. 

Andrew Boyd

Andrew Boyd is a writer, humorist, activist, and CEO (Chief Existential Officer) of the Climate Clock, a global campaign melding art, science, and grassroots organizing to get the world to #ActInTime on climate. Andrew's previous books include Beautiful TroubleDaily Afflictions, and Life's Little Deconstruction Book. Andrew lives in New York City.

Tags: art as social change, changemaking, social movements