J.Davis: Giving Voice

The world is in crisis, or so it seems from the incessant flow of news we hear from the Greek economic crisis to the civil war in Ukraine, earthquakes in Nepal and war in Syria. And this summer, as in pervious summers, the images and stories of migrants attempting to flee conflict and oppression has become ever more present in our lives, a daily immediacy brought to us via the newspapers we pick up on the tube and the posts on our Facebook walls. But with their proliferation it has become increasingly hard to understand this mixture of image and text which we see in our revolving news cycles. The barrel bombs, the tents, the fences, the children, the sea and the migrant boats. These images have become so codified that it seems we are only able to respond in a binary fashion – either ‘oh dear’ or ‘how dare they’. It is a problem which is clearly laid out in Susan Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ when she questions the enduring power of horrific images by stating that due to their proliferation they have become a ‘nightly banality’.
What routes are there then, if even momentarily, to escape the political rhetoric wedded to governmental policies or mass media’s hierarchical channels and alarmist headlines? For the past two years I have been exploring this question and it has become clear to me that artists are able to create a space and dialogue, to carve out a space greater than space assigned them, which enables us to respond to this issue in a fresh and genuine way. Art has the potential to shift our perspective and render representation in a new light. As Sontag asserts, for images to be affective they must lead to action – but this action needn’t be a physical action like donating money to the charity, but perhaps this action can simply be a mental movement. A process where we become momentarily lost, driven off the path, before finding our way back to familiar ground once again.

This is at the heart this is what ‘Parallel Crossings’ aims to achieve. Through a genuine collaborative dialogue between Moez Mrabat (a Tunisian), Abdullah Al Kafri (a Syrian), Jonathan May and myself (both British) we hope to explore the issue of migration from different angles – what are the commonalities and differences we’re all facing in our different contexts and how can we create an artistic response which draws out these complexities, obscuring and recasting the images we see into something of real meaning.

To achieve this we laid out the following methodology:
A) Through three research Labs to work collectively to understand causes, effects and the context surrounding issues of economic migration and plight of refugees in each of our homes – Tunisia, Lebanon and the UK
B) To meet with artists creating work on this topic, in particular exploring how ‘refugee artists’/ artists in exile and those in diaspora are trying to explore the issue
C) To create an artistic project to be presented in Tunisia, Lebanon and the UK.
Having undertaken two Labs in Tunis and Beirut it feels pertinent to reflect upon a few of the challenges and concerns which have already arisen in relation to our first objective. Broadly these challenges stem from the desire to ‘give a voice’ to the individuals we’ve met, whether they are economic migrants, refugees or artists. We’ve been driven by our instinct that we need to hear the first-hand accounts of those affected by migration, to hear in their own words their experiences so that we can really understand the context we are hoping to work within. Fundamentally it is founded on the belief that through meeting those affected we will have access to the ‘truth’, the facts which are unmediated by media hierarchies, political agendas, and activist campaigns. And perhaps more importantly we hoped that giving a voice to these individuals would be empowering, a method of bypassing the complex web of representation, allowing them to take ownership of their own story.
Yet on closer inspection this notion of ‘giving a voice’ or just simply listening to these voices has becomes far more problematic than we original conceived. I recently had the pleasure to hear James Thompson from In Place of War talk on this very topic. He carefully explored the idea that artistic projects of this sort, rather than doing good, can actually do harm. He presented this in a simple but helpful graph, depicting a methodology on how, where and when artists should seek to give a voice to victims of trauma and conflict:

X ————————————– TIME
I  A
I                  B
I                                    C

In this graph point ‘X’ is the beginning of a particular trauma or conflict, the point at which the action starts occurring. Across the parallel axis is time (time moving away from the point of initial action) and across the horizontal axis is space (a movement away of the location of the initial action). If we take the Syrian refugee crisis as an example then point ‘A’ presents a Syrian family who have bombs falling on their home in Damascus. At point ‘B’ they are in a refugee camp in Jordan six months later. At point ‘C’ they are in Middlesbrough two years later waiting to hear about their UK asylum claim.
James’s point is that we need to be aware and sensitive to where people are on this graph. We should not blindly believe that enabling people to voice their trauma and tell their stories is always a good thing. And of course it is always important to respect an individual’s right to silence, a silence which is not necessarily passive, a silence which can in fact be very noisy.
During our visits to Tunis and Beirut we meet and listened to a broad range of people affected by migration in various guises. We spoke with young Tunisians looking to travel to Europe to work and travel, young Salafists lured to Syria for jihad, human traffickers, students, artists and refugees. Their stories are in many ways familiar, broadly matching the well documented narratives which we see on the television, in the newspaper, via social media and the radio. This is not to say they are not deeply tragic, difficult to hear stories which cannot help illicit sympathy, anger, confusion and guilt. Rather that these stories lose their individuality, their idiosyncrasies, and become loose narratives with the same familiar plot beats. In their number these stories are still heart-breaking but with their accumulative weight they begin to resemble the images we see daily which lead to stultification rather than action.
Furthermore James’s graph has also helped us reflect on how asking people to tell their ‘story’ imposes a particular narrative, freezing them in a particular role within a particular time and space. Often it does not allow for the complexity of their situation and identity to be revealed. They become simply a label, a migrant, a refugee, a victim, creating a short-circuited narrative which always leads back on itself. Rather than empowering these individuals this process of storytelling seemed to create a passive monologue rather than an active dialogue. Once again these stories fall into the trap of binary representation.
And yet confronting these challenges, asking these questions and discerning their naivety and limitations is a key part of ‘Parallel Crossings’. At the heart of this process is the aim to explore the complexity inherent in any artistic attempt to tackle such a difficult and important issue. Although we instinctively believe that art is best placed to shed light on the topic, revealing something new to audiences, we also need to acknowledge and draw out the inherent challenges of representation and the appropriation of images and narratives. We must look to tackle these challenges straight on if we’re to create a piece of art of any real depth and value which can provoke a form of ‘action’ within its audience.

J. Davis
Sept 01, 2015

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