Art Activism and Political Violence. Post-workshop reflection by Ruth Kinna

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. Our opening position was complicated by a discussion about the nature of art activism, as opposed to activism, which was unresolved; and by the emergence of different conceptions of politics (as an engagement in/for the creation of alternative public spheres, a social relationship structured by power inequalities, a space of appearance) and different understandings of violence [as a system of oppression (macro level), a disciplining power (micro level) an atmosphere described by emergency, the stifling of creativity, habitual performance, subjection to physical harm]. It was also deepened by an appreciation of contexts: sensitivity to the very different situations that artists/activists operate in (more or less freedoms of expression, varying degrees of social conflict and risks of harm to artists and publics they work with). In this connection, we thought about the ways that public debates about violence are structured by reactions to headline ‘terrorist’ events and how representations of political violence are shaped by elite manipulation of publics’ antipathy to physical harm. We also thought about the afterlife of a work of art and the potential for works to assume different meanings in different contexts and to contribute to cultural shifts over time.

By looking at the ways that violence is constructed, reconstructed and iterated through art and politics we explored the moral duties of artists (assumed or expected) to engage in activism, the communication strategies adopted by/available to art activists to create/address new publics (new forms of consciousness, defamiliarisation) and to give expression to alternative ideas or interpretations (revealing or exposing the normalisation of violence in everyday life, robbing political elites of power through exposure of legitimised violence re-creating events from everyday life).

Rather than provide answers to the workshop questions, we altered their framing:

(i) is art activism a form of dissidence; does it provide a space for contemplation (over time); is it the best way to challenge norms and conventions about violence; how does the aesthetic component enable affects?

(ii) how is violence represented in arts (cinema, music, visual & performance art); how readable is art, in the context of art history to different publics?

(iii) how can contemporary art challenge dominant (mis)representions, constructions, reconstructions and iterations of violence?

(iv) how can contemporary art practices stimulate dialogues about political violence?

These questions suggest a number of different lines of inquiry which we felt could be productively followed up further:

  1. how do publics experience/understand violence/political violence through contemporary art practices?
  2. what is/are the target(s) for intervention – violence, state, configuration of states, normalising processes, other people?
  3. how does art activism help us develop new perspectives to analyse violence and re-think issuesof intersectional domination (eg. housing, migration)?
  4. how can contemporary artists assist publics explore the limits of violence by ‘translating’ abstract ideas (in our context: affect, divine violence, defamiliarisation, the construction of spaces of appearance, air/atmosphere)?


A video recording of the research presentations can be watched below



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