Art Activism & Political Violence

Professor Ruth Kinna
Loughborough University
Dr Gillian Whiteley
Loughborough University
SMALL GROUP PROJECT: APRIL 2016 – AUGUST 2016

The Research Idea

This project explores the intersections of art activism and political theory to examine conceptions of political violence. We are seeking to organise an interdisciplinary workshop to ask the question: What can art activism do to shape public debates on the ethics of political violence and how does that public debate shape art activism? Working from art activist perspectives and drawing on conceptions of political violence from political theory literatures we aim to explore (i) how art activism is defined or described; (ii) how political violence can be understood or interpreted through art activism; (iii) how publics are understood or identified and (iv) how art interventions are designed to shift, challenge or respond to public perceptions of political violence and/or are constrained by them. The intuition informing this workshop is that art activists not only contest prevailing norms about political violence but also engage consciously and overtly with publics in debates through their activism. Art activism thus opens up questions of responsibility, legitimacy and the ethics of violence, which political theorists also examine, but which are typically probed within the academy.

Our intention is to use the workshop to plan an event at Nottingham Contemporary as a first step towards taking the discussion of these issues to new publics and to construct an interdisciplinary scholarly/practitioner community of interest for future research.

Background

The project has emerged from an interdisciplinary collaboration (the Critical Citizenship and Art Activism research group) which began at Loughborough in 2014-15 . Working with Nottingham Contemporary we have examined diverse forms of art activism, exploring practices of protest and resistance; the political economy of art production and public participation in the production of art in public space. These collaborations chime with Stevphen Shukaitis’s art of management and organisation project and, the Dublin-based EVA International workshop ‘On Violence’ (http://eva.ie/2014-on-violence). Whereas ‘On Violence’ reflected on issues of emergence and manifestation, we aim to consider the interaction of art activists in public debates and extend understandings of what non-state violence is or entails and how art mediates public conceptions. It is inspired by a rich set of historical and contemporary art practices which represent violence using imagery or installation and do violence in performance or action. Examples include Gavin Grindon’s The Museum of Cruel Designs (2015) Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave (2001); Tom Bresolin’s Blind Leading the Blind and Militant Camp (2012); Wafaa Bilal’s performance Shoot an Iraqi (2008) and The Ashes Series (2003-13). The scope of this work raises questions both about the ways in which political violence is framed in art practice and how activism is defined. The workshop will use the fluidity of current practice to probe these questions with our invitees.

The Focus

Following Foucault, political violence is often analysed as a permanent condition of modern life, yet it is also typically represented as an extraordinary disruption of civility, particularly in liberal democratic regimes. The use of special measures to monitor ecological activists, resulting in psychological harms, and the judicial killings of Black citizens in America and the UK have consequently prompted extensive debate about the misuse of the state’s repressive powers. Similarly, headline events – notably 9/11 and the violence that has followed in its wake – have given rise to sustained analysis of the threats posed by religiously-motivated actors. In recent years, discussion of violence has ranged widely, from examining the limits of accountability in government agencies and the problem of balancing liberty and security to the defence of free speech, the value of toleration and the role of provocation in sustaining vibrant democracy. The role of art practices in these debates has been demonstrated by the performative power of Don’t Shoot actions in Black Lives Matter campaigns and the violent response to the publication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. However, the potential for art activism to offer an accessible, albeit challenging platform to open up complex, abstract concepts of legitimacy, provocation, domination and social responsibility have not been explored. By looking at the ways that art activism constructs, re-constructs and iterates concepts of violence the workshop will move towards filling this gap.

Theoretical Novelty

The theoretical innovation stems from the focus on art activism as a lens to analyse/re-examine concepts in political theory which seek to explain violence. Rather than concentrate on the organisational practices or symbolic acts of notable movements – which fail to capture the pervasive incidence of violence in political life (racism, the repression of mass pro-democracy protests, gendered violence and the systematic use of torture for example) – political, legal and moral philosophers have attempted to explore issues of political violence by the application of just war theory and/or by developing concepts of terror and fear (C.A.J. Coady, Gearty, Frey & Morris, Chomsky, Goodin, Fabre, Robin, Sunstein). Not only is much of this literature written at a high level of abstraction, it is also intended to resolve the ethical questions that violence prompts and fix the boundaries of legitimate violence. In contrast, we are seeking to develop a theoretically-informed but non-philosophical approach and to explore the fluidity of political violence. Rather than seeking to define or determine the ethics of violence we will be asking how art activists situate and depict violence, how (if at all) they attempt to communicate to wider publics, how the contexts in which art activism operates influence the types of action artists take and how questions about the use of violence are addressed through their interventions.

Methodology

The workshop has been conceived as a dialogue between art activists and scholars working in radical art practice and radical politics and political theory to discuss the questions identified in the research idea. Our collaborations in the Critical Citizenship and Art Activism group have highlighted the extent to which inter-disciplinary projects can be impeded by the specialist languages and reference points we adopt as a result of immersion in our respective specialisms. To overcome these problems of translation, we plan to invite art activists to speak to practices – images, performances – and use these presentations as a springboard for discussion. The target list of potential invitees includes political theorists, feminist specialists in political aesthetics and visual cultures, creative writers, cartoonists and art activists experimenting with installation, performative and intervention practices. Our hope is that this approach will focus discussion without narrowing its scope. Our target list (not yet contacted) includes Wafaa Bilal, Bernadette Buckley, Rod Dickinson, James Graham, Gavin Grindon, Martin Lang, Bice Maiguashca, Saul Newman and Jeremy Varon. The range of specialisms should stimulate interdisciplinary exchange, bringing a wide spectrum of ideas and diverse perspectives to bear on questions of political violence.

Work Plan

We are planning a two-day workshop for 15 participants, in addition to the 4 members of the Critical Citizenship and Art Activism group (Uri Gordon, Ruth Kinna, Jane Tormey, Gillian Whiteley) and curatorial representative from Nottingham Contemporary (Janna Graham). Of these, we plan to invite 10 participants and issue an open call for the remainder of the places. We are planning up to 8 presentations; all participants will act as discussants.
The group will work in plenary session. The work of the group will focus on the presentations and information about these will be circulated in advance, to enable discussants to prepare.

Two outputs are planned: (i) with the permission of the participants, we will post pod-casts of the presentations online (ii) in negotiation with Nottingham Contemporary we will use the workshop discussions to plan an event at the gallery to explore issues surrounding the reception of art activism and violence through public engagement.

Members of the Critical Citizenship and Art Activism Group are extremely well-placed to support the publication of work that emerges from the workshops: Gordon is a series editor of Contemporary Anarchist Studies (Manchester), Kinna is series editor of Radical Subjects in International Politics (Rowman and Littlefield) and Tormey and Whiteley are series editors of Radical Aesthetics-Radical Art (Bloomsbury). Because we are concerned to ensure that the workshops are fully discursive, we are treating the potential for publication as a possible additional benefit of the workshops rather than planned outcome.

Outcome

We hope that workshop participants and publics attending the Nottingham Contemporary event will help us to identify other places and spaces to disseminate results of the workshops and/or organise related activities, and help us take the issues of art and political violence outside the confines of the University and gallery space. We will invite local contacts – archivists, independent booksellers, cultural cafes – to develop this programme.

The development of a community of interest will also support a future programme of research activities planned by the Critical Citizenship and Art Activism Group. These include examining the ways in which art activism has been stimulated by and/or contributed to the development of transnational and trans-historical cultural legacies of political violence and analysing the art production of outlawed sub-cultural groups active in the 1970s and 1980s. These materials are archived in Canada, the US and the UK. We have strong working relationships with activist and scholarly partners in the US and across Europe – including the People’s History Museum in Manchester – and we see this project as a preliminary step towards the development of a larger funding bid which will enable us to exploit these research links. We anticipate that the creation of a UK-based network and the successful public dissemination of the workshop findings will help us demonstrate the potential value of this more ambitious research programme.

Art, Activism and Political Violence | 20-21 September 2016

This workshop is the result of a collaboration between colleagues in the Anarchism Research Group and the Politicised Practice Research Group at Loughborough University and is designed to build new relationships between artists and political theorists and to explore questions of political violence and art activism.

The intuition informing this workshop is that art activists not only contest prevailing norms about political violence but also engage consciously and overtly with publics in debates through their activism. By looking at the ways that violence is constructed, reconstructed and iterated through art we invite participants to explore the potential of art activism to offer an accessible, albeit challenging platform to open up complex, abstract concepts of legitimacy, provocation, domination and social responsibility in the public realm.

The workshop has been conceived as a dialogue between art activists and scholars working in radical art practice and political theory. The aim is to employ art activism as a lens to analyse/re-examine concepts in political theory which seek to explain violence. We are seeking to develop a theoretically-informed but non-philosophical approach to political violence and to explore its fluidity. We want to consider how art activists situate and depict violence, how (if at all) they attempt to communicate to wider publics, how the contexts in which art activism operates influence the types of action artists take and how questions about the use of violence are addressed through interventions.

Call For Papers