Peace-Building and the Arts - Day One - Time/Space Continuum

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Apr 07, 2014
by Louise Hallman
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Peace-Building and the Arts - Day One - Time/Space Continuum

"Not all art is positive" warns theater and conflict academic James Thompson at opening of Salzburg Global Seminar session on peace-building and the arts Professor James Thompson opens the Salzburg Global Seminar session on Conflict Transformation through Culture: Peace-Building and the Arts

There are two key questions that face James Thompson, lead researcher of InPlaceofWar.net and professor of applied and social theater at the University of Manchester in the UK, in his research: why do people continue to practice and engage in theater during times of war and conflict? And, conversely, why do people assume that they do not?

Speaking at the opening of the Salzburg Global Seminar session “Conflict Transformation through Culture: Peace-Building and the Arts”, Thompson introduced the 63 Salzburg Global Fellows gathered in the Great Hall to his time/space matrix.

At the nexus of these two axes – time in one direction, space perpendicular – is the ongoing war or conflict (“the bombs are landing on your head”). 

The space axis reaches to the next town away from the fighting, to refugee camps, to countries over the border offering asylum, eventually reaching diaspora communities. Time reaches from the current situation to months, years and eventually generations later.

Within this matrix lie many time and space combinations: the diaspora or refugee community at the time of war, or the next generation now living in the original place of conflict are just two examples. For these different groups, in different spaces and times, there are different reasons why they engage in theater or indeed any other artistic or cultural pursuit; as either outsiders assisting this artistic expression or insiders in the communities we need to recognize and respect these different motivations and interests.

If the assumption isn’t just simply that art doesn’t happen in times of war (a false conception Thompson discovered in his research ahead of a trip to northern Sri Lanka in 2000 when another academic posited in her book that theater doesn’t happen in the Tamil areas because of the war despite the dynamic and diverse theater scene that existed in the conflict-riddled towns and villages), then the often, equally misinformed, assumption is that the art that should exist in this particular space and time is that which directly addresses the ongoing conflict.

Thompson’s 14 years of research have found that this is often not the case – the closer people are to the conflict, in both their space and time, the less likely they are to center that art around the conflict. In fact, in this space and time the vast majority of the art created, be that theater, music, dance, or any other medium, is focused on anything but the conflict, with the purpose of forgetting about the war around them. They are not creating art because of the conflict, but in spite of it. 

It is also in this space that one often finds a lot of art aimed at children, enabling them to distance themselves from the conflict that engulfs their daily lives (or in the case of northern Sri Lanka, providing theater directors with an audience and outlet before the nightly curfew was imposed).Donors and artists seeking to help these communities in the thralls of war should take this need to distance themselves from war into consideration when they formulate their programs, advised Thompson.

Moving away from the center of this matrix, however, allows for differing needs and perspectives, but some of the typical arts and peace-building projects found in these other times and spaces also encounter difficulties.

Many arts projects in the same space but at a later time as the original conflict focus on justice and reconciliation, often as if the two terms were totally complimentary or even synonymous. But in truth, these two themes are not always naturally aligned. To achieve a sense of justice for one community can be at the expense of establishing reconciliation with another. And to seek reconciliation can sometimes leave some victims without a sense of justice for past grievances. Sometimes we have to suspend one to achieve the other, and we have to realize that sometimes we fail the communities we’re trying to serve by either foisting one or the other upon them or hindering the development of both.

Further along the time and often also the space axes is art that focuses on remembrance and commemoration. These are often focused on the predominant narrative of available testimony, which can be problematic for those who feel excluded from that narrative. Focus on remembrance and commemoration also leads to the dismissal of projects that aim to help communities forget the conflict. Communities are frequently told they must remember, they must commemorate past conflicts – and they must have a right to this – but equally they must have the right to not do so; they must have the right to silence. But that is not to say that non-remembrance must be a passive silence – it can be loud and joyous. Much like the art at the nexus of the time and space and war – it can be a celebration of life, rather than a commemoration of the dead.

In communities that have faced long divisions, there exists in peace-building art the “disease” of “Romeo and Julietism” or “Romeo and Julietitis,” warned Thompson. There have been a multitude of theater productions that center around the idea of a Palestinian girl falling in love with an Israeli boy, or a Hutu with a Tutsi, or a Northern Irish Catholic with a Protestant, and so on. Whilst these productions have the noble idea that they are exemplifying the overcoming of division, they are also reaffirming that division and helping to maintain the very narrative the art is trying to change. There are in fact many other divisions within communities, such as generational, that are overlooked in these stereotypical narratives. Addressing these divisions can offer the possibility of overcoming the main division. Also, there is nothing wrong with focusing on helping one community to heal, before expecting it to address its issues with the other.

Ultimately, many of these issues surrounding what art is appropriate at what point stems two problematic core teachings, argued Thompson.

One is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which places creativity at the top of the pyramid, meaning this should only be satisfied once the basic physiological and safety (as well as love and belonging and esteem) needs have been met; needs that the most under threat in times of war and conflict.

The second stems from Theodor Adorno’s saying “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. Adorno implied that to create art about suffering was to denigrate that suffering. Both these teachings deny the importance of arts during and after conflict. But time and again it is proven that even when their basic needs are not being met, people still crave outlets that allow them to escape the misery they live in and to remember the experiences they have endured.

Thompson closed with a quote from Pablo Picasso, who famously depicted the horrors of the Spanish Civil War with his painting Guernica: “Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”

Just as art can help communities and individuals distract themselves or heal the scars of war, it too can be a weapon. “Not all art is positive,” warned Thompson.