In 2018 Cambridge University Press published a three-volume series, Rethinking Society for the 21st Century, consisting of chapters submitted to the International Panel for Social Progress (IPSP) chaired by the Noble Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. Chapter 13, ‘Media and Communications’ (Couldry et al, 2018) is a multi-authored text on the status of contemporary communications. It highlights key contemporary communication deficits – from the skewed ownership of media and information infrastructures to the various disparities in access to and the efficient distribution of media and information resources. Its recommendations relate to: the need to have effective access to communication infrastructures; the transparency and accountability of media and digital platforms;
the need for communication rights; participatory governance of media infrastructures and digital platforms; participation of civil society in the design of media infrastructures and platforms; protection from surveillance and data extraction; media infrastructures and platforms free from censorship; media and information literacy; linguistic diversity and human knowledge as commons instead of commodities. (Couldry et al, 2018: 555–7)
We live in an era imprinted by the digital as the common language of productivity and reproductivity across multiple sectors, as central to our everyday lives as it is to advances in science, technology, humanities and the social sciences. The digital, however, is a conflicted entity.
As the Stanford lawyer Lawrence Lessig (1999) has argued, the digital is essentially about the ‘copy’, meaning that potentially any digital text, application, format and product can be replicated often at zero cost. From economics, we learn that there are ‘rivalrous’ and ‘non-rivalrous’ resources, meaning that there are tangible products such as a packet of biscuits that are finite, the consumption of which exhausts the packet and the desire for more that can be satisfied by additional purchases, and intangible products such as the digital whose consumption does not in any way degrade their quality or exhaust their availability potentially to everybody who is connected.
It is mid-September 2020. As we gather our thoughts to give final expression to the monumental changes which have occurred since this book project began, it is difficult to overstate their significance for life across the planet. Many of us are reeling from the impact of the pandemic on our sense of self, of place, our frameworks of understanding, our plans, hopes and fears for the future. It’s clear that nobody is unaffected by the coronavirus moment, though clearly not all in the same way. As an Italian correspondent put it in a letter to The Guardian newspaper: COVID-19 exposes:
the enormity of the world’s suffering – the decimated Amazon rainforest tribes, the jobless Indian labourer who walked for hundreds of miles from his ancestral village, the homeless man who slept in the entrance of an office building until metal spikes were placed on the floor – and the understanding that we are all connected. (Francesca Melandri, 2020: np)
The sense of existential connectedness expressed here, and across the chapters in this book, may be a source of both comfort and critique in the times to come, in spite of those systems of power which seek to differentiate and divide. As Arundhati Roy (2020: np) puts it, ‘For all the suffering, finally, we have all been compelled to interrogate “normal”’.
This unparalleled context has precipitated degrees of paralysis, panic or chaos worldwide as powerful interests rush to shore up economic models which have informed and infused all aspects of social, political and cultural life, the mounting and visible contradictions of which have previously been denied or quietly and crudely mitigated.
How and why are arts and cultural practices meaningful to communities?
Highlighting examples from Lebanon, Latin America, China, Ireland, India, Sri Lanka and beyond, this exciting book explores the relationship between the arts, culture and community development.
Academics and practitioners from six continents discuss how diverse communities understand, re-imagine or seek to change personal, cultural, social, economic or political conditions while using the arts as their means and spaces of engagement.
Investigating the theory and practice of ‘cultural democracy’, this book explores a range of aesthetic forms including song, music, muralism, theatre, dance, and circus arts.
In line with the aims of the Rethinking Community Development series, and in common with the other volumes published to date, this book reflects a commitment to theorising ‘issues and practices in a way that will encourage diverse audiences to rethink the potential of community development’. For us, the editors, this volume extends our longstanding interest in the potentially rich dialectical relationship between the arts, culture and community development (Meade and Shaw, 2007; 2011; Shaw and Meade, 2013; Meade, 2018a). Taking it as axiomatic that community development’s theory and practice are continuously reconstituted for different purposes and different contexts, this book draws attention to some of the diverse ways that groups of people collectively make sense of, re-imagine or seek to change the personal, cultural, social, economic, political, or territorial conditions of their lives, while using the arts as their means and spaces of engagement. Across its chapters, the book explores the following broad themes and questions:
How can we conceptualise the relationship between community development and arts/cultural practice? What diverse forms does this relationship take in contemporary contexts? How might democratic strategies and commitments overlap and nurture each other within this relationship?
How do communities of people engage with, utilise, make sense of and make sense through particular artforms and media? How can we understand the aesthetic and associated meanings of such engagements?
How are the power dynamics related to authorship, resources, public recognition and expectations of impact negotiated within community-based arts processes?
How do economistic and neoliberal rationalities shape arts processes and programmes in community contexts? To what extent are dominant rationalities being resisted and challenged through arts practices?
State-centric binary understandings of peace and conflict have been critiqued for their inability to satisfactorily consider the range of actors involved, or the complexity of building peaceful communities, at ground level. Rebuilding societies and sustaining peace requires nuanced approaches that focus on people and are embedded in the everyday life of a given community. Practices and processes that can build community at ground level and create solidarity are important here. Thus, we need to explore creative, pluralistic approaches that can work with and through local cultures to successfully challenge ingrained conflict-prone and oppressive identities and ways of relating to each other.2
The purpose of this chapter is to examine how theatre can contribute to building community and peace in different contexts. Theatre has a history of being used for social and political transformation. Specific theatre forms, such as agitprop, bring politics to the ground to rally support for political causes (Brown, 2013) while Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) encourages dialogue and emancipatory action through participation (Boal, 2006). McCarthy (2012) offers theatre-based activities that are specially designed for development professionals and activists. As an approach that can be participatory and flexible (Nicholson, 2014), theatre can work in plural ways. However, there are limited studies on how different theatre forms are used to build community and peace in different settings, and we need further empirical and analytical inquiry into the area.
I examine two theatre groups for the ways in which they build community in their respective contexts: Jana Sanskriti from India and Jana Karaliya from Sri Lanka.
Much scholarship on the arts and its use in protest has been situated in social movement studies. In his interesting analysis of protest as artistic expression, Reed (2016: 77) observes that ‘[t] o engage in protest is to offer public witness’. That the act of protesting is not only about positioning oneself against something or someone, but – ‘as the prefix “pro” suggests’ – it is also about ‘be[ing] presentational, putting forth a positive alternative or creative vision’ (Reed, 2016: 77). There are various forms of protest which position themselves against particular issues and/ or individuals or which present specific visions driven by different aspirations, commitments, motivations and objectives. Protests also draw on a range of instruments, materials, practices and media – including those typically associated with the arts and cultural spheres. Numerous social movements, both in the past and present, have used the arts and culture to express and to achieve their goals. However, while there exist rich academic analyses of both macro and meso levels of protest, not much focus has been placed on the use of the arts and culture – and associated organisational structures and production contexts – at micro levels (Jasper, 1997; Johnston, 2009; Reed, 2016).
James Jasper (1997: 5) noted that because scholars have generally preferred ‘to examine fully fledged, coordinated movements’, their work ‘renders invisible’ those other actors, groups and organisations engaging in protest in local or community contexts. Similarly, and more recently, Reed (2016: 84) has observed that ‘[f] or the most part, the role of art [and culture] as protest has been subsumed under [a] more general concern to define and analyse movement cultures’.
A broad range of literature agrees that, alongside artistic vision, empowerment is a widely shared objective of participatory arts practices in communities; that people are supported towards developing greater awareness of and actions specific to their social situations (Goldbard, 1993; 2006; Dickson, 1995; Lacy, 1995; Kester, 2004; 2011; Krensky and Steffan, 2009; Mulligan and Smith, 2010; Higgins, 2012; Thompson, 2012; Finkelpearl, 2013; Wu, 2015; Cartier and Zebracki, 2016).1 Although increasingly elaborate accountability demands regarding the efficacy of participatory arts practices have emerged, the use of analytical frameworks in conceptualising and communicating objectives remains uncommon. This chapter explores two such frameworks, drawn and adapted from the extant literature, that can guide practitioners to reflect on and assess their practice.
The range of models of participatory arts practices represented in the aforementioned literature means that any attempt at identifying their commonalities is ambitious and challenging. Yet, it is perhaps the right time to attempt such cross-practice discussions because distinctions are becoming less relevant, as practitioners from diverse fields of community arts work or share ideas across boundaries. For example, in at least eight major conferences held in Hong Kong since 2013,2 over a hundred representatives of this broad field have presented their work – with over a dozen presenting at more than one event. They have invoked different conceptualisations to frame and make sense of their practice, such as ‘dialogical arts’ (Kester, 2004), ‘relational aesthetics’ (Bourriaud, 2002), ‘community cultural development’ (Goldbard, 2006) and ‘heritage preservation’, among others.3 This shows that organisations and artists are aware of the multiple ways of conceptualising their work, and that attendees are ready to look beyond familiar concepts and consider new possibilities.
Movement is an inextricable aspect of changing social configurations. As mind-body, nature-nurture binaries are increasingly challenged, not only by shifting intellectual frameworks, but by the very ways in which social and cultural programmes and initiatives are designed, the role of kinaesthetic dynamics and the kinds of social and cultural modes of engagement they encourage or make possible, is increasingly being taken into consideration within community development theory and practice (Breivik and Sudmann, 2018; Morton et al, 2019). Corporeal habits and modes of engaging the world shape both individuals’ subjective experiences and, potentially, collective modes of co-creation, altering how worlds are materially shaped. Moreover, while the movement of bodies occurs at the local and ‘micro’ level – foregrounding questions of touch, physical balance and affectivity – the conditions of movement are shaped by wider institutional structures and policies. This chapter focuses on global practices of ‘social circus’, highlighting some of the ways in which circus arts are currently being used as a community development modality to transform human social experiences and relations through the creation of conditions for experimentation with bodily movement and bodily relations. It further explores the ways in which questions of the personal, the interpersonal, the community and the institutional interrelate within the context of programmes using circus arts in the service of social and community development goals.
Antonio Gramsci (1971: 138) famously argued that each individual ‘participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it’. The work of ‘development’ within community-based arts practices is not then merely a matter of conceiving the world, but also living and navigating it from within.
Fiona Whelan and Jim Lawlor (Figure 11.1), based in Dublin, Ireland, have been working together since 2004; Jim as Manager of Rialto Youth Project (RYP), a community-based youth service in Dublin’s south inner city; and Fiona as artist in residence there. Together, and in collaboration with a range of other partners in youth work, community development, the arts and beyond, their collaborative practice has been committed to a complex critical exploration of power relations at personal, community and societal levels. In this conversation, they exchange and build analyses of prior arts processes that engaged young people and adults in open-ended dialogical enquiries into power and inequality. They also critically interrogate the values and methodologies at the core of those collaborations. As contemporary youth work and community development in Ireland becomes increasingly evidence-based and outcome-driven, Fiona and Jim both debate and argue for an emergent approach to practice that is collaborative, open-ended, dialogical and imaginative.
Fiona first met Jim when she commenced an artists’ residency in Rialto, Dublin in 2004. Over 16 years, the artist and organisation forged a working relationship, creating the conditions for a trans-disciplinary and open-ended collaborative practice to emerge, committed to exploring and reconfiguring power relations. This includes three major projects – Policing Dialogues (2007–11), Natural History of Hope (2012–16) and What Does He Need? (with Brokentalkers 2018+). This chapter transcribes part of a conversation Fiona and Jim had in late 2019, using the theme of power to examine the possibility of maintaining a critical approach to collaborative art and community-based youth work. At stake is the extent to which the field of practice is increasingly subject to neoliberal and managerial imperatives vis-à-vis prescribed ‘outcomes’.