An activist artist’s quest for spectacular failure

Eric Millikin approaches his work with an outlandish, utopian vision. The activist artist begins with questions like, “If I were to make artwork that ended racism, what would that be? How could I do that?”

He knows failure is likely inevitable—but that’s precisely the point. In aiming to change the minds of 6 or 7 billion people, Millikin hopes he’ll convince a hundred to reconsider their ideas, beliefs and actions.

“If you fail at radical, you might end up somewhere incredible, whereas, if you fail at incremental, you’ll end up where you started,” he says. “I embrace that failure and aim as high as possible, so that my failure is as spectacular as possible and if there is any amount of residual success, it’s as big as possible.”

A vision of this magnitude requires Millikin to be both extremely prolific and efficient. Using video projection, artificial intelligence, vegetative tissue culture cloning, and occult experiments, he addresses police brutality, economic injustice and politics.

He was also the art director of Detroit’s three biggest news organizations—the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press and the alternative news source Detroit Metro Times—and he often looked to blur the lines between the two practices. He wanted his journalism work to have an element of activism, while his art needed a journalistic lens and his activism needed to be artistic.

“The best was when I was able to make something extremely artistic,” he says, “but also have it function as journalism and be published in a broadcast media to get out in front of a million people in metro Detroit.”

At any given moment, Millikin is working on dozens of series, striking a balance between work that is both timely and timeless. In one series, he’ll make a portrait of a police shooting victim by drawing a continuous line on a map of the victim’s neighborhood. In another, he’ll address broader concepts of historical racism.

“Self-Portrait While Possessed by the Ghosts of Sylvia Plath and Mike Kelley”

Right now, as the U.S. moves into an election year, Millikin is weighing the activist artwork that will have maximum impact on the coming election, while also being aware that politicians can become historical figures, seemingly overnight.

“I try not to spend too much time making stuff [that doesn’t stand up to time],” he says. “I tend to look for the general issue that we’re talking about that is important, where we’ve been in the past, and where we’ll be moving forward. I want to make something today that is not only important for the next year, but the year after and the year after. It’s not just a historical artifact.”

Over the years, Millikin has shown work in galleries across the globe and won countless awards. His illustrations were part of a Detroit Free Press series that led to the arrest of a former Detroit mayor and won a Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. He even created and popularized an international animal rights holiday.

With more than two decades as a successful artist, activist and journalist, one might wonder why Millikin is now pursuing graduate school; he’s two months into the Kinetic Imaging MFA program at VCUarts. In many ways, the decision parallels his aspirations of grand scale social change. Through 18 months packed full of lectures, critiques, visiting artists, and many, many conversations, Millikin hopes his work will take a dramatic leap forward.

“I woke up this morning with 50 ideas that I want to go do, but instead I’m going to go talk to 10 people about something else,” he says. “And that conversation is more valuable than four hours in the studio—and not only that, I can’t get it once I get out of here.

“I wanted to be part of an environment where I could have two-year-long conversations with people and radically rethink everything I have done and am doing, how I could take it further, and have more impact.”

While Millikin’s days might be seeing a temporary slowdown in his high-volume output, he’s still pursuing plenty of new work, such as a surrealist collage film blending Nosferatu and Birth of a Nation with imagery of blood cells and stars.

“You can see where my interests in history, political activism, superstition, horror, the occult, are in both of those [films],” he says. “I’m trying to think about how deep inward you can look, as well as how far away from yourself you can look, and how our own experiences, our moments in time, will look so much different with the distance of history.”

Find out more about Millikin’s work at or on Instagram @ericmillikin. His film, Birth of a Vampire Nation, is currently on display at The Anderson, and his work will appear in the Department of Kinetic Imaging’s exhibition, “Acid Waste,” at the FAB Gallery, opening Oct. 30. You can also see his work in “For the Love of Money” at Studio 45 in Brighton, UK, from Nov. 10-22, and “Emerging” at ARC Gallery in Chicago, from Oct. 31-Nov. 23.