inplaceof
The Centre for Media & Cultural Research welcomed the University of Manchester’s Professor James Thompson and his colleague Ruth Daniel to present at our regular Research Seminar event on Wednesday 6th February.

James and Ruth came to talk about their recently completed In Place of War (IPOW) research project and the follow on project Humanitarianism 2.0. This project is in partnership with the Centre and I’ll talk more about this a little later.

In Place of War was an AHRC funded research project and was driven by Professor Thompson’s background in theatre and drama performance and studies, and in particular his work in the UK prison service working with violent offenders using drama and theatre practices and methods.

In 2000, James was contacted by the Unicef unit, Children Affected by Armed Conflict, who were working in Northern Sri Lanka, which at that time was a civil war zone. Unicef asked James to provide training for community organisations who were interested in using theatre as a way of engaging with young people affected by the war. Before leaving the UK , James did some research on theatre in Sri Lanka and was astonished to find a) very little literature about this subject, b) that what he did find claimed there was no theatre in the north of Sri Lanka because of the war.

Upon reaching Sri Lanka though, James discovered a rich, vibrant and diverse theatre and arts community who were programming a range of activities across a number of places and spaces in the city of Jaffna. Jaffna was also home to the only university Theatre Studies course on the whole island.

This was to be the seed for the In Place Of War project and the central research questions; Why do people continue to make art in war zones? Why do academics assume they don’t?

Following the September 11th attack of New York, a third question arose that was also to be central to the IPOW project; how should artists respond to events of war and devastation? James explained that historically western based artists tended to look back at the historical reaction of artists in previous wars; what was the artistic response to the Second World War for example?, but the exposure to art in Sri Lanka, in the middle of an ongoing conflict led to the project to seek out what was the response of artists whilst a war was taking place, how did those artists respond to events surrounding them on the ground? How could this knowledge and these practices inform other artist communities across the globe?

These questions were to be the foundation of the IPOW research over the period 2004-2011. The first four years consisted of an extensive mapping and documentation exercise of art in war zones and bringing those artists together in knowledge exchange sessions and seminars. This was followed by an extensive writing period for the project (see http://www.alc.manchester.ac.uk/ourresearch/featuredprojects/inplaceofwar/ for list of publications).

James talked about three examples of research studies and then highlighted some of the problems and dilemmas that arose from the research. I was really struck with his literal demonstration of what he called the plotting of projects by time and place by using the 0x0 axis.

Basically the 0x0 axis equates to 0 (time) x 0 (place). So standing at 0(time) the bombs are falling on you at the moment, as you move along the axis bombs fell on you yesterday, last year, 50 years ago (the example James used was someone recalling the Blitz).

Moving back to 0 (time) on the axis and 0 (place) the bombs are falling on you at this moment and on your house or head and as you move along the axis the bombs fall on the village next to you, then the town, then the next country and so on until at the end of the axis may be a refugee community form Congo but now residing in Manchester.

The research highlighted that where people were on this axis determined the art and content that cultural initiatives or art projects made. As an example of this James explained that on the very 0x0 axis, people didn’t make art about the conflict they found themselves in but art reflected the desire to forget about their circumstances, as they moved down the axis then art started to reflect on the issues of the war they had lived through.

This understanding then becomes of importance for agencies and arts organizations seeking to support art intervention to know where people and communities are on this axis in order to support appropriate art projects rather than assuming what a community may want to take place.

Another research finding was around the relationships between projects of commemoration and projects of forgetting. While there were projects of commemoration there were equally a number of projects that wanted to forget the conflicts communities had been through. The research pointed that some agencies assumed that commemoration projects was what communities wanted and they then proceeded to put a value to these as being of worth. However the research was able to highlight that projects that dealt with forgetting the war was just as important and the art from war zones didn’t have to deal with reconciliation or forgiveness to be of value and that more critical writing needed to reflect this aspect of art interventions in places of war.

The research also highlighted the tensions between art projects of reconciliation and projects of justice and the complex issues faced by communities in having to suspend demands for either in these types of art projects.

Finally, the research spotted a pattern emerging in theatre performances they studied which they named Romeo and Julietism. Here the narrative was repeatedly used of (for example) an Israeli Romeo falling in love with a Palestinian Juliet, which reinforced the assumption that the divisions in or across communities were obvious and that love could conquer all. The research found though that this approach actually entrenched the divisions by stating that this was the core division and that by overcoming this then reconciliation may be achieved when in fact other divisions existed but weren’t addressed and therefore could continue to cause lingering issues within the affected communities.

The In Place Of War web platform was the next stage of the project and this is about to be launched in Egypt in February 2012. The platform allows artists to upload work in online exhibition space but also as a means of encouraging dialogue and collaboration between artists from war zones, many of whom never get to engage with fellow artists.

James then briefly spoke about the follow up project Humanitarianism 2.0. This project, in collaboration with BCU is preparing five case studies around the use of digital tools and social media in wars zones and/or sites of conflict. The case studies are taking place in Medellin, Colombia, a city with progressive social and cultural digital projects, Cairo, Egypt and the use of social media in the Arab Spring, Haiti and the use of real time digital and data tools in mapping natural disasters, the UK and the use of Twitter during the riots of 2011 and the DRCongo and the use of technologies in broadcasting and radio in a technologically poor country.

These case studies will then inform the development of a further bid for substantial research between the partners.

You can listen to the full presentation here.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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