Art, expression and dialogue: towards social transformation

In recent months, I’ve neglected the written word dreadfully. Hence the decision to adopt a more personal tone in this post, which is address to those of you who were so supportive of my writing throughout the PhD and who may have been wondering where in the world I’ve gotten to…The answer is, I’m still in Berlin (currently sitting on my balcony listening to the rattle and hum of S-Bahn trains pulling in and out of the nearby station), still engaging with refugee and migration issues at the local level, and still…still…still toying with different ideas about post-doctoral research. Which I promise to write more about in the future. For now, it being September 1st, I thought I’d treat you an old-fashioned essay on What I Did On My Summer Holidays. (It’s a sign of how much time I’ve spent in full-time education that I use the term ‘summer holidays’ interchangeably with ‘July and August’ – to be clear, what follows is about work, not an extended vacation)

For those in need of a reminder/introduction: not long after I arrived in Berlin last October, I became involved in an organisation that serves as an intercultural community and volunteering hub for old and new Berliners. I began working in a voluntary project that uses art, craft and storytelling as a basis for transcultural dialogue and emotional recovery in the context of the refugee crisis. Specifically, we (a group of more and less privileged locals, migrants and refugees) work with people in and from refugee camps to create safe spaces for self-expression and healing. To use more jargon: it’s an art-based form of psychosocial intervention with strong elements of social transformation. To use less jargon: we use art in a way that encourages people tell their stories and formulate their needs and desires, while building a small grassroots community.

One of the main things I’ve come to appreciate is that time is of the utmost value in this line of work. It is with time that you come to see beyond the surface impressions which arise when you first step inside the camps – mostly shock and indignation – and start to recognise the relentless, monolithic, self-serving nature of the system. You start to see the small changes, the subtle and not-so-subtle additions and alterations, the chain of decisions being made all along the line, which all add up into a picture of institutionalisation, punctuated by moments of resistance. (For me, it’s horribly reminiscent of the evolution of Direction Provision in Ireland – a temporary solution which becomes a permanent fixture on the landscape of social injustice.) It is only after a few months of observation, when you’ve realised that this is more than just a contingency plan – this is THE plan – that the real sadness and anger kick in.

Yet it seems to me that only when you reach this point can you appreciate the agency and resourcefulness of those struggling to keep their dignity intact in these living conditions. When you find yourself forced to laugh or cry because the security guards (who seem to have tripled in number) will no longer let you carry craft scissors into the camp, you get a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to live every day in a system that treats you as a securitised object rather than a person. I do not want to overstate the potential for empathy to develop out of these encounters, in a situation that remains so riddled with inequalities. And of course, I do not want to make blanket statements about the experiences of such a large and diverse group of people as those who fall into the category of refugee. But I do believe that with time, small pockets of empathy emerge, and, given the right treatment, can be expanded into meaningful, ongoing encounters.

From empathy and survival we move to transcultural solidarity and resilience. And from there – perhaps to personal agency, perhaps to political activism. Frankly, there is no sense that I can see in trying to instigate the latter without having a firm basis in the former. Here is where feminism really has to prioritise connections between women – empathy and solidarity – over fighting the patriarchy. I would add that this is a point where age and motherhood (as well as class and ethnicity) emerge as important variables on the axes of identity, and where feminism really has to shed the illusion of being a movement composed of young, unmarried/childless, middle class, white, western women (like it or not, the majority of volunteers I’ve worked with the last six months fall into at least 4/5 of these categories, and personally I fit all of them). Despite the difference in context and scope, this resonates clearly with the findings of my thesis. Memories of fieldwork constantly interrupt and interweave with the work I’m doing here, testing and strengthening its ethical foundations.

The author of the aforementioned article on Direct Provision references Wallace Heim’s essay on Slow Activism (Sociological Review 51: 2003), whereby:

“slowness refers not only to the duration of the event and the drift which can be momentary or extend over years, but to its temper. There is a resistance in slowness which responds to the reductive aspects of haste and frenzy. The locus of change is one person at a time, in a process of communication which is dependent on finding enough common meaning between the artist and participant to sustain a dialogue. This mutual adjustment is method.”

Although we who are engaged in this project do not consider ourselves artists, art provides an apt metaphor for the creative and intuitive nature of the work (we have also called ourselves magicians and gardeners on occasion). Undoubtedly, our participants are artists in a similar sense, whether we are painting walls, drawing on pavements, crocheting and embroidering, creating photo albums or hand-writing letters to one another. It is a delicate encounter, but one which has, I think, taken a firm root in the minds of all who have been involved long enough for it to form a habit.

Time is undoubtedly what it takes to create and sustain dialogue, but there are other more fragmentary ways in which we can visualise art in relation to conflict transformation and peacebuilding. For instance, the well-known mediator John Paul Lederach writes about the importance of the “artistic five minutes” in this essay:

“In the larger picture of politics and social change, many would say, “And so what? What difference does something like this artistic five minutes actually make?” I am not sure I can answer that question. On the other side of the coin, I would ask a different but parallel question: How, when, and why did politics and developing responses to needed social change come to be seen as something separate from the whole of human experience? The artistic five minutes, I have found rather consistently, when it is given space and acknowledged as something far beyond entertainment, accomplishes what most of politics has been unable to attain: It helps us return to humanity, a transcendent journey that, like the moral imagination, can build a sense that we are, after all, a human community.”

For me, a large part of the summer has been about coming to terms with the tension that arises between these efforts to create a human community and the frequent comings and goings of volunteers. Naturally enough, summer has been an especially busy time with many beautiful but short bursts of energy and enthusiasm from those passing through Berlin for a brief period. I find it is difficult to keep focused on the different layers: from our core community that has been working together for several months, to the wider community of well-intentioned  and free-spirited individuals who come and go so casually. How do we ensure that the meaning is not lost when the experience can be so fleeting? Then again, I have to admit that the last eight months have felt like a lifetime, and my feet are itching for change. I feel homesick for a different place on every day of the week. And I do wonder, sometimes, how to resolve the contradictions between local and global activism.

Well, as you can see, I’ve begun the slow drift back from observation and experience to reflection and analysis. My feet seem to have found that path of their own accord, after several months of stumbling in the dark. Over the next few weeks (which will probably be my last ones here, for a while anyway) I hope to find time to share more stories and reflections, to address European politics more specifically, and to bring in some comparative insights from my research in the South Caucasus. On a personal note, thank you to everyone, family and friends, who has supported the work I’ve been doing. And to those involved in this or similar efforts who have made the time to read this – thank you for inspiring me and please continue doing so in the future!


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