ARTS ACTIVISM RESEARCH
25-26 January 2018
King's Manor, YORK
There is a lot of pressure on activists to show that they are brave; many find it really difficult to talk about their feelings and emotions. Human rights interventions often limit discussions of emotion to discrete psycho-social interventions. But emotions –fear, passion, sadness, joy –are what make change possible and living worthwhile. The arts can allow the expression of emotion and help us know in a more experiential way,understanding that we are all part of and affected by the world around us. Using the arts in research can help expose the sensory, emotional and kinaesthetic aspects of lived experience.
Sometimes activists are so caught up with the everyday, with tactics for resisting injustice, that they forget to talk about what they are campaigning for -what they want the world to look like. But without imagining different possible worlds, we are left with the dreams of the powerful. For the vast majority, they are experienced not as dreams but as nightmares of insecurity, precarity and powerlessness. "Change starts in the mind. If you can imagine it, if you can really see it, then you can walk towards its fruition." (Patience Nitumwesiga)
The idea of the hero and its contingent characters –the villain and the victim –is central to dominant ways of understanding human rights and humanitarianism. But a focus on rescuing so-called victims from specific injustices masks the inequalities in global society that turned them into "victims" in the first place. Few human rights activists regard themselves as heroes, but as part of a movement, and many are campaigning for fundamental changes in how society is structured. The arts can help uncover or inform an alternative understanding of human rights that better responds to this reality.
There is a long tradition of activists using the arts to make political statements that would otherwise be forbidden; the more arbitrary the political environment, the more those with less power will need to fall back on allusive forms of communication. Becoming better at reading art can help us access insights communicated in philosophies and approaches that we are unfamiliar with. And the arts can help us tap into aspects of experience which are difficult to articulate in words, whether because they are too sensitive or because we don’t usually pay attention to them.