Pedagogy and Propaganda: New and Recent Work by Brooks Turner

Research-driven tapestries from Brooks Turner mythologize the history of the Minnesota Teamsters’ strike of 1934 in this exhibition for Carleton’s Perlman Teaching Museum.

Mileana Borowski ’25 25 March 2024 Posted In:
Upclose of hanging tapestries.
Hanging tapestries. Photo by Luke Drake ’25Photo: Luke Drake

Work by Brooks Turner was displayed at the Perlman Teaching Museum during fall term from September 21 to November 15 in a show titled, Pedagogy and Propaganda: New and Recent Work by Brooks Turner. Highlighting the term “educate” from the socialist slogan “agitate, educate, organize,” Turner built upon the idea of education as an integral aspect of social movements in his exhibition. Turner defines “pedagogy” as the process of “shaping information in order for it to be taught or received by somebody.” Through his show, Turner wielded the power of teaching as a “valuable tool for preventing or countering the return of the past, or the return of the violence of fascism.”

Student viewing wall tapestry
Student viewing wall tapestry. Photo by Luke Drake ’25.

Not only an educator through his artwork, Turner is also the chair of the visual art department at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists as well as adjunct faculty at St. Cloud State University. Turner aims to offer a counter-narrative to the traditionally authoritarian and hierarchical educational system where, as he described it, “you sit down and shut up and you listen to your teacher.” Rather than a lecture, Turner believes education should be a dialogue where the role of the educator is to show “the moments where the past has illustrated the potential for a future reemergence or present reimaginings.” 

Turner’s educational philosophy closely aligns with the Perlman Teaching Museum’s mission as an educational facility that “emphasizes the role that art plays in posing questions about life.”

“We really just want students to know that [the Perlman is] a resource, that we have a collection and they can come and visit it,” said Sara Cluggish, director and curator in the Perlman Teaching Museum. “We want the museum to be a place where students can come, learn new things, and get excited.” Cluggish also shared that every artist adds to the broader educational goals of the Perlman, saying, “That’s the thing I like about working with artists: I always learn new things through their work.”

Choosing Turner

Tapestry depicting pivotal figures in the anti-fascist movement
Tapestry depicting pivotal figures in the anti-fascist movement. Photo by Luke Drake ’25.

When considering Turner’s work for an exhibition at the Perlman, Cluggish valued not only Turner’s educational philosophy, but his research-driven approach to art as well. When reflecting on Turner’s creative process, Cluggish pointed to “the fact that the first step of [Turner’s] work is to go to a library or an archive to look at texts. There is so much research [behind] it… It seemed like [Turner’s] research-based practice was designed for the context of a college.” 

Familiar with Turner as a local artist in Minnesota, Cluggish saw one of his tapestries at the College of Art and Design and visited his studio to learn more. Upon selecting Turner as a partner for the Perlman museum, Cluggish facilitated a “contract of trust” between the Perlman and Turner. Cluggish described this process as talking with the artist about the ideas that the curator wants to come forward in the work, but ultimately leaving the artist responsible for making the work. This trust in the artist extended to the planning of the show by Perlman curatorial staff, who only worked with jpegs of Turner’s tapestries in their planning process. This kind of contract also meant that Turner’s work for the Perlman was almost all completely new; only two works in the main gallery were completed prior to the agreement.

While Cluggish began to plan for this show in 2023, Turner’s idea behind Pedagogy and Propaganda developed even before that, when a different curator visiting his studio asked him the simple question: “Do you know of histories of fascism in Minnesota?” 

Until that question, Turner’s work had explored fascism more broadly. This focus was prompted by earlier research and honed by experiences around the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Even before Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, though, Turner was grappling with how the writings of Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher, could inspire all kinds of humanists to speak out against injustice while Heidegger was also a member of the Nazi Party. When Trump was elected, Turner “couldn’t see his election as anything other than a symptom of broader fascism across American politics.” Turner viewed Trump’s rise to power as symptomatic of a broader fascist political system: “a structure that enables a fascist to come to power is also potentially guilty of being a fascist structure.” This conclusion sparked an intense desire within Turner to understand what fascism was more deeply, leading to an exhibition of artwork on this theme. The earlier question about fascism in Minnesota was based on this exhibition, and to answer, Turner began his six-year journey to the present investigating how fascism arose in Minnesota.

Research-driven art

Turner spent about two years “tracing and looking at how the legacy of fascism was embedded in Minnesota.” While focusing on Minnesota in particular, Turner viewed Minnesota as “a microcosm for the entirety of all of America at the time.” His work evolved to focus on strategies of resistance in response to the “aggressive fascist strategies” he saw ramping up throughout 2020 and 2021. Turner eventually shifted toward looking at antifascist history as a way of “offering new strategies for thinking about resistance in the present moment.” Stanford University’s Hoover Institute in California, as well as multiple resources located in Minnesota, served as a historical treasure trove from which Turner sourced material for his Perlman exhibition artwork.

Student viewing hanging tapestries.
Student viewing hanging tapestries. Photo by Luke Drake ’25.

The Hoover Institute contains archives pertaining to Leon Trotsky, the Socialist Workers Party, and various other people associated with them. In looking at the strategies of the antifascist resistance, Turner focused on the 1934 Teamster strike (to learn more about the strike, check out the resources on the Perlman Museum website). 

Many of the organizers who were part of the Teamster strike were also foundational in forming the Socialist Workers Party. Turner uncovered a connection between these individuals and Leon Trotsky through records of Minnesota-based labor organizers facilitating Trotsky’s exile as well as visiting him in Mexico as both guards and students throughout Trotsky’s entire time living there. In the summer of 1932, a number of the Teamster organizers went to Mexico to visit Trotsky and study organizing tactics for countering the rise of the Silver Shirts in Minnesota; Turner got the chance to see transcripts of these visits. 

“It was very much like reading the transcript of a seminar,” Turner said. “There would be times when Trotsky would give way to the knowledge that the organizers had about Minnesota or about their experience in the 1934 strike.” 

These “beautiful collaborative conversations” resulted in the creation of the Union Defense Guard in Minnesota, which led to the ousting of Silver Shirt organizing in the state in 1938. Reading through these accounts, Turner was struck by a “really incredible display of democratic organization against fascism, of people banding together in a nonviolent but militant way to dissuade and deter fascist organizing.” Those two moments—the 1934 Teamster strike and the 1938 ousting of the Silver Shirts—are the core narratives of Turner’s work in the Perlman.

Amidst all the potential avenues he could have gone down, Turner decided to focus on the Teamster strike as a moment encapsulating what democracy is all about. During the present time, which Turner considers a dark point for democracy, he looks to the past to “offer an alternative history and an alternative path forward.” For Turner, the 1934 Teamster strike shows what it looks like to disrupt the status quo of imperialism, violence, and exploitation.

“I believe inherently in democracy. I just think that we’ve lost touch with what democracy is in America—if we ever were in touch with it,” he said. “But to me, [the Teamster strike] was a moment of ‘this could be what real democracy looks like.’”  

Turner also drew upon the Minnesota Historical Society for Minnesota-specific information. The Minnesota Historical Society contains archives from the Jewish Anti-Defamation Council, later renamed the Jewish Community Relations Council, formed in 1938 in direct response to the rise of the Silver Shirts in Minnesota with the explicit intention of countering their rise. Turner shared how their records gave him “a really strong understanding of how it was not just labor unions fighting fascists, it was also the Jewish population in Minneapolis, banding together to democratically organize.”

“That’s how this show started to take shape,” Turner said. “It was through that research, through archival documents, and through understanding these narratives and asking questions about antifascism, resistance, democracy, and anti-imperialist engagement.”

Hanging tapestries
Multiple hanging tapestries. Photo by Luke Drake ’25.

Mythologizing history through the creative process

Turner draws parallels between his creative process of making physical art pieces and the process of mythologizing history. 

To make his tapestries for the Perlman, Turner took photos of select documents from historical archives and then digitally cut, cropped, and collaged them together, sometimes also adding digitally painted elements. Once that file is completed, he sends it to a textile mill to manufacture the tapestry. All of these steps enhance the feelings Turner aims to conjure through his work: “Everything that’s happening digitally is centered around that idea of trying to conjure the feeling of the mythology that runs through it.”

Turner considers the five hanging tapestries for the Perlman exhibition, collectively called A Pedagogical Task, to exemplify this process of mythologizing history through his creative process. For these works, Turner began with photographs of documents from the Hoover Institute. The first question he asked himself when starting off was, “Do I need to do anything to this document, or is it ready?” Sometimes the answer to this question was no. For the hanging tapestry depicting Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky standing together, Brooks began with a negative of a photograph from a newspaper article about Leon Trotsky moving to Mexico and simply cropped it before having it manufactured. It was through the manufacturing of the tapestry that Turner’s artistic vision for the mythologizing of this moment was realized. 

“I used the process of the manufacturing of the tapestry to turn it into a positive,” Turner said. “The front side is the negative and the back side is the inverse of it because of how weaving works. It’s almost like the weaving process is developing the photograph. And all of the abstraction that occurs in how the image degrades and how the faces are lost becomes a metaphor for the distance between us and history… There’s this cyclical degradation, which is what time is. Through cyclical degradation, what remains is the myth behind it. And to me, that’s what feeling history is about. It’s not putting yourself in the moment. It’s feeling the myth that weaves moments together.”

Turner also values how the substrate of his work adds an additional layer of mythology. “The tapestry appealed to me because it already is the language of history, so it does some of that capturing of the myth of history,” he said.

Yet Turner also creates tension between the historical use of tapestries and his own work through the subjects he chooses to spotlight. Turner subverts the historical use of tapestries, which was typically by the ruling class to reinforce the hierarchy and mythology of their rule.

“I wanted to subvert the tradition of the tapestry and reappropriate it within narratives of people’s movements,” he said.

Two-paneled blue tapestry depicting Battle of Deputies Run
The Battle for Deputies Run. Photo by Luke Drake ’25.

The massive size of Turner’s works further mythologize the historical moments depicted by them. The Battle for Deputies Run, for example, is a huge, two-paneled tapestry of photographs of the titular battle, which occurred as part of the 1934 Teamster strike. When creating that work, Turner “wanted the figures to be as big as me, if not bigger” in order to create “a scale relationship between my body and the bodies I’m depicting.” By doing so, Turner aimed to “make it easier to feel swept up into that, to feel like you’re walking into a scene or a diorama. It’s theatrical in that way.” 

By hanging his tapestries in the middle of the gallery, rather than against a wall, Turner wanted his audience to experience the tapestries as “pieces of paper pulled from the archive.” Even the works hung on walls were intentionally hung so they stick out about half a foot off the wall. With less support from the wall, the gravity weighs more heavily on the tapestries. Within this physical relationship between wall, tapestry, and gravity, Turner finds “a literal metaphor for the weight of history and the weight of justice and violence.” 

Turner wasn’t the only one paying attention to the minute details that went into arranging these tapestries in the Perlman. Teresa Lenzen, technical director for the Perlman, takes a lot of care considering everything from the lighting in the room to how high off the floor to hang the works. Cluggish, who works closely with Lenzen, shared how they “spent time in the galleries trying to figure out how far off the floor every single work should be, because Teresa was looking at how the shadows fell on the wall and how the works reflected in the concrete floors… There’s a real craft and skill set there.”

Turner’s favorite 

Tapestry by Brooks Turner titled Voters in Revolt
Voters in Revolt. Photo by Luke Drake ’25

The tapestry that most illustrates the central issues of the show for Turner is Voters in Revolt. The flower border was inspired by the fifteenth century Unicorn Tapestries, which depict unicorns being hunted and murdered. The flowers have a dual purpose, as they at once “gesture toward histories of settler colonialism that originated in Europe and how those histories continue to play out and feed into fascism” as well as serve as a “kind of funerary offering.” The central image of the work is a photograph of the funeral procession for Henry Ness, the first of 67 strikers shot by police during the Teamster strike. Ness’ death was a pivotal moment for the strike as his peers responded with a powerful, nonviolent protest made up of 40,000 strikers marching in his funeral procession and 100,000 people lining the streets in support of it. 

Another important element of the tapestry is the red line drawing showing a violent confrontation between a striker and police superimposed upon the funeral procession and flowers. For Turner, this detail acknowledges that “defensive violence from the oppressed is sometimes a necessary form of resistance.” 

“I don’t want to advocate for violence or for nonviolence directly,” Turner explained. “Every situation has a different application, and that’s what I wanted to present.” 

Turner also noted the headline, “Voters in Revolt,” across the top, sourced from the Minneapolis Labor Review. The labeling of these protestors as “voters” was impactful to Turner because “ultimately, in a democracy, voters rule. If voters are in revolt, that says something about the government they live under. Maybe it’s not a democracy.”

An exhibition that takes time

Throughout his entire creative process, Turner continues to ask himself a question inspired by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: “What does it mean to embody the language of the strike as an artist who needs to make money, wants to have work shown, and wants to bring this history and these ideas to people to generate conversation?” Turner answers this question first by defining a strike as “denying.”

“It’s someone denying capitalism, particularly authorities, from exploiting labor,” he said. “It’s denying someone the ability to profit off your labor.”

Multiple tapestries hanging in the Perlman Museum.
Multiple hanging tapestries. Photo by Luke Drake ’25.

While art can so often be centered around sales, Turner also tries to combat this by recognizing that “consumerism requires speed” and introducing in response a “heavy exhibition, an exhibition that takes time.” With this method, Turner hopes to lessen the control of consumerism. 

“If I can slow you down, then maybe I’m denying the ability for consumerism to exploit an image, to exploit history, to exploit ideas and democracy,” he said.

The unique processes of research and artistry were intertwined in Pedagogy and Propaganda to create a rich show encompassing the multi-faceted artist Turner is.

“Really my first artistic love was writing. Sometimes I describe myself as a failed writer who makes art to cope with the failure of writing,” said Turner. “Now I’ve started to see that my role as an artist, as a writer and as an educator are all tangled together. And I think all of that is practically on display in the exhibition.”