‘Local instances, global claims: acts of writing and social movements’ was the theme of the third workshop in the Oecumene Symposium – Citizenship after Orientalism. The aim of the workshop was to explore how writing can be used as a tool for engaging and mobilizing people and in turn enhance social and political struggles across the globe. The discussion that followed the three paper presentations that were given took an exciting turn and set off a discussion questioning the transformative potential of art at large.
Professor Jane Chapman (University of Lincoln) opened the workshop with her presentation on the role of the printed press in social movements. By using examples from the British Suffragette movement and anti-colonial protest in India, she explored how both these protest movements were achieved and sustained with the help of printed media. Using both texts and images, Professor Lidia Curti (University of Naples L’Orientale) went on to talk about literally citizenship and migrating belonging. Through the imaginary leaps found in the writing of migrant women in Italy she highlighted how new possibilities of citizenship take form and question our desire for universalism; their writings hence show other ways of being political. The final presentation was given by Alessandra Marino (Open University) and explored acts of writing as acts of citizenship by drawing attention to the writings and active engagement of Arundhati Roy in the Narmada valley mega-dam project.
The three presentations were followed by three short interventions and a vivid discussion set off by the question on how art can offer some real leverage to critique the state and neoliberalism - is it possible for real critique and change to materialize through art? Several responses to this question circulated simultaneously. One such response emphasized the importance of visual arts and the way it can condense a very complex and stratified reality. For instance, how the very materiality of the images of a shipwreck on the Italian coast in Isaac Julien’s Small Boats or Zineb Sedira’s Floating Coffins intersect with reality, beyond the metaphor as we are challenged to ask what is real and what is not.
Another response focused in on how art changes the political climate gradually and allows for awareness to grow in the long run. There are of course singular iconic images that change the course of history and these can have an instant disruptive effect, but this can only sustained when there is a build up around these images. The most common way change appears is thus gradually through a range of interventions by artists, movements and activists. One of many examples brought to light was how the current Occupy movement is constantly resignifying the metaphor ‘We are the 99%’. In their sustained protest efforts, political action and art are blurred and the solution has become a vertical and horizontal mobilization. Instead of giving the media more of what they ask for; sensational drama and violence, the aim is to constantly create something new that the media can pick up and report on - tents on giant sticks rather than on the ground being one such example.
In conclusion it was suggested that a productive way out of mainstream debates on writing and art is to shift the theoretical focus away from representation to ask what we are creating, and what we are intervening in as researchers. The main task ahead is to do something different with our research; neither speaking of nor speaking nearby our subjects - instead we need to formulate new sets of questions around the categories, forms and languages of political subjectivity and citizenship. Acts of writing and other forms of art can here be of crucial help.
Jane Chapman, Lidia Curti, Eirini Avramopoulou, Anita Bressan, Shinya Ishizaka, Humaira Saeed, Mariangela Orabona, Gabrielle Hosein, Ted Ziter, Iain Chambers, Ioana Vrabiescu.