The role of art in political change


We live in a democracy, but the scope for people to represent themselves is constrained.  It is in the cultural sphere, says Dr. Louise Purbrick, lecturer in art history at University of Brighton that we can perhaps, “produce a space where people can create change, make change or at the very least be heard”

Ishan Cader talks to Louise about the role of art in political change and the projects she has been involved in….

Louise Purbrick:  I’ve developed a number of different projects which use my skills as an art historian in a variety of political contexts. I’ve worked with former [Irish] Republican prisoners, on an idea that they had at the time, to create a museum at Long Kesh Maze prison, which will shortly be opened. I was part of that project of thinking about ‘who controls history?’ and ‘how can the work of representation, collecting objects, or even museum-making,’ can develop a political agenda, including issues about equality rather than conflict.

I’ve been involved in a few projects like that, conflict resolution using art in Northern Ireland. More recently in Brighton I put together an exhibition called ‘Rattling the Cage,’ which marked how people in Brighton – some artists with training, but mostly local people who just wanted to get stuck in – created a series of objects that helped bring Guantanamo detainee Omar Deghayes back home. So most of my work is what might be called ‘Creative,’ though I think everybody is creative in their own way. It is do with trying to use art for productive political change.

Ishan Cader:  It speaks to the ability to ask who is controlling history and who controls the spaces of art as well?

LP: Definitely, and what I think is important is the recognition of the lack of access to people’s own stories, and inability to represent themselves, and partly that is where ‘prior’ struggles actually occur. Representation is quite an interesting word because representation is one that we would use formally in democracy- we say that we have a ‘representative democracy’- where in fact we don’t have anything close to the ability of people to be able to represent themselves. And actually if they’ve got a good idea, to be able to put that into affect. And really that is what a real politics would be like- if you want to see change, you have the means of making that happen. Under ‘normal circumstances,’ under ‘normal’ liberal democracy, we have no power whatsoever to produce real change.

Which is partly why, in the cultural sphere, if we can produce a space where people can create change, make change or at the very least be heard, then I think that is quite an important thing to do. It might not be necessarily revolutionary, but it is a way of creating a greater equality around a politics of representation, which includes being heard, and that might mean telling your own story or telling your own history, or it might mean producing a work of art that actually represents an idea that you have or a problem that you see needs addressing

IC: Could you tell us a little bit about your most recent project, the Remaking of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica?

LP: It’s not just my project! My projects are always projects with other people, and always I’ve learned an awful lot about myself, so there’s almost nothing I’ve ever done on my own, ever, in this sphere. I write, but that is an individual pursuit.

It’s a project that I helped put together with artists and activists, firstly the University of Brighton, but in Brighton we are quite an unusual place in the sense that we are quite embedded in our community. So it involved 3 or 4 artists who teach and produce work in Brighton. And also, representatives of groups who ranged from Brighton Anti-Fascists to Gatwick detainees and visitors there like Amnesty International, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. We got together to develop a project- we didn’t really know where it was going first of all- to see if we could make a piece of work that used Picasso’s Guernica to reflect on current issues.

In 2012 there had just been a very big and vibrant community response to an EDL march, and out of that a number of us wanted to produce something permanent and engage in permanent community work following a big demonstration, and what it means to be an anti-fascist in a time of permanent war. And so Picasso’s Guernica is really important- it’s probably one of the most famous 20th century paintings in the world- an image of an aerial bombardment of a small Basque village at the opening of the Spanish Civil War. It speaks to both an anti-fascist politics and a politics that is opposed to aerial bombardment, as a matter of human rights. Bombing people from above will always mean killing people who are not in uniform. So there was a gathering of anti-war activists and anti-fascist activists around the making of the banner.

We talked about how we should do it, what we should do and how we might collectively produce one piece of work. So what we decided upon was the making of the individual shapes by people and a coming together about what those shapes should be like. Should they be contemporary, should we adapt Picasso’s Guernica, should we keep the very famous shapes and forms in tact? At the same time as discussing those shapes, just the act of a group- for example someone from Migrant English Project said that she wanted to take on the powerful image of a peasant woman running along the bottom of the image, and she said she wanted to take that image because it was an image of strength. She wanted to reflect on the resilience of people who migrate, for whatever reasons- maybe they are completely impoverished, maybe to escape war. So different people took on the shapes and those shapes had political significance for them and the group that they represented.

Sewing Guernica

Sewing Guernica

That was quite interesting. For example, the shape I made is the bull’s head, and I did so on behalf of the Brighton Anti-Fascists, a group I work really closely with. What is interesting about that head is that is the image of resistance is very tough- it’s an image of Spain. I work with a lot of animal rights activists, and it was important in a way to take an animal form as an image of strength..and most of humanity as well.

But actually my decisions to make it out of a particular kind of material didn’t work, as I wanted to make it out of a T-Shirt material to sew on, and I’ve ended up making it in a material that is usually used for corsetry- very feminine, but very tough material. So the Bull, which is rather masculine, in the way in which I have made it, has become something else. So people have transformed those shapes and given them a new politics.

IC: How did other project participants go about adapting the canvas?

LP: Two artists are working on the very important horse shape in the middle. In the image, part of it is made up of newsprint. Picasso was in Paris when Guernica was bombed, and he read about it in the newsprint- and the colour-coding of grey represents in part that [experience] in terms of his own making. The newsprint has been transformed into embroidery of small tiny crosses that represent the loss of life, and a number of names are going to be embroidered with the Echo, the old newsprint, names of people who have been killed by drones. It won’t be anywhere near all those people killed by drone attacks; but what’s important about it is that it will have a range of Middle Eastern names, a range of names that represent mainly Muslim children. There has been a re-thinking in the contemporary context of who are the victims of war. It’s not to take the image out of context or forget the loss of life in Guernica and the Spanish Civil War- in which 300,000 people died. So the Spanish Civil War is not a side issues for us at all- we just wanted the image to be able to speak to a series of important and quite urgent concerns.

IC: So the project is much more global in scope than the Anti-Fascist struggle in Britain?

LP: What’s important about it is that everytime we’ve met to talk about fabrics, or how big should the image be, etc, everytime we’ve discussed the practicalities, we’ve also discussed the reason why we are doing this. One the important things around a local anti-fascism is the reason why the EDL, for example, have been able to march in numbers, and the reason why we have a rise in very right-wing racist parties, is the new situation of permanent war post 9/11. There has been an exponential rise in Islamophobia. And that isn’t just a matter of individual hatred (although I think there are some people who haven’t learned how to get along with their neighbours), it’s also to do with a context where so-called enemies have been demonised. So it’s not really possible to separate a local anti-fascist one with a wider, global one, of which unfortunately, aerial bombardment is part of.

IC: Do you think that is something unique to today’s world? In comparison to the world of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s?

LP: There are some similarities in terms of austerity and Greece is a really good example of a regime that has pushed through austerity measures. And one of the direct results of that has been the rise of Golden Dawn. The leader in Greece that they were looking at the Weimar Republic. He was really clear that if there is not more aid to Greece, and if there is not an attempt to produce, through economy, some forms of social bonding, then you are looking at the Weimar Republic.

I think the other similarity is conspiracy theories around a Muslim state, similar to conspiracy theories around a Jewish State in the 1920s. Those bonkers conspiracy theories are on the rise now as they were in the 1920s.

But the world has changed, power relations have changed, and the US is pretty much running the show these days, which wasn’t the case in the 1920s.

IC: Like the Weimar Republic, which produced a very intense and sometimes violent ideologically divisive climate, do you think that is something repeating itself in Britain today, or in any other places?

LP :In Britain, hopefully not yet. But the levels of violence and street confrontation recently is very high. What’s interesting is a comparison between Greece and the Weimar Republic, where is Greece is asking for money to get into debt. The Weimar Republic was saying, under various different pacts, which the US were a key player, we cannot pay our debts. So Greece is asking to get into more debt, whereas the Weimar Republic was saying we wont be able to repay them. So there is a difference in terms of the financial catastrophe we are looking at. I think its probably greater than the 1920s.

I don’t think history really repeats itself in that way. But we should be alert to- unless we are going to repeat a series of mistakes again- the kind of social that can cause extraordinary political division.

IC: In terms of the broader role of art and culture in resistance, to what extent can projects like the Remaking of Picasso’s Guernica creatively engage in struggle to transform people’s consciousness?

LP: Some of that is to do with participation itself, giving people the space to participate. A space for people to talk and discuss, to exchange ideas. Though that is a slow method of change, it is apart of it. And it’s also to give people an alternative idea. There is an alternative to drones, which is to bring them down and not to bomb people with planes. There are alternatives and I think people need a space to say that. And when you listen to the news, and people say that drones have been responsible for this number of deaths, it makes people feel hopeless. But to say that there are alternatives, we need space to discuss them, even if those changes are a long way of being put into place.

IC: Do think the participatory, community-based art project can actually have a lot more poignancy in changing those ideas, rather than say, a ‘normal,’ ‘rational,’ political argument?

LP: It’s interesting where the sphere of normal political rational arguments takes place. It’s so removed from people’s lives, that it’s almost as if it’s completely pointless. If that debate takes place in New York and the UN, about how we might get access to that is relatively limited. To begin a discussion at community level and to look at ways in which you can make a difference is really important. In the anti-Guantanamo campaigns, it was through writing letters to people in positions of power and embarrassing them so much that they felt that could not continue unless they made some kind of political change. What we felt was that there was in that particular campaign, and I think in all campaigns, there were local actions you could take that could incrementally shift political viewpoints. In a wider sense, it means also that people can begin to create alternatives all together, without having to rely on politicians making the right choices under pressure.

The other role that participation in art projects has is that it gives people a chance to communicate with each other which we don’t have often. We really don’t have ways of exchanging ideas unless it is via media routes, or via technology that we don’t control, or events that we are not apart of. It’s a way of creating bonds between us.

IC: In terms of the canvas, will you be displaying it in a gallery?

LP: We’ve had lots of interest from galleries, and it probably will go up. It’s destined for an exhibition of the art of the Spanish Civil War in 2014 in Chichester. In between that time, we want it to occupy all kinds of community and social spaces. The way in which we created it is that it can be carried on demonstrations or it could be displayed on a wall. So we are not going to turn down any offers of spaces to display it or  even try and find places ourselves. We’ve had an interest from art galleries, but it’s not necessarily our sole purpose. The purpose was the making of it and showing of it as a tool for further activism.

It’s great that it is going up in Pallant House, and hopefully it will travel to a working class library in Salford.

IC: So the whole project in some ways is about resisting the control of public art and space?

LP: It’s interesting about galleries and museum spaces, because there is no space in our culture which is properly neutral, but they are public space where people can usually walk in. They’re interesting because they are not always spaces where everyone can feel comfortable. Gallery spaces can be used for public art, and we would be stupid to not use them for those reasons.

They also provide a legitimacy to projects like ours.

The featured image for this podcast is a mural of Guernica on the Falls Road, Belfast