Every day we are witnesses of some kind. We witness the impact of political decisions or the results of political actions, to name just a few examples. With social media and an ever growing interconnectedness of the world it is no longer solely journalists, human rights organisations and other official bodies that bear testimony of the things happening in the world. AcademiaNet spoke with Professor Kia Lindroos about arts as a political witness, her new book and about witnessing in general.
Professor Lindroos, you research arts as political witness. How can arts function as a witness?
There are many ways in which arts can function as witness, always depending on the type of witnessing the artist does. Take the example of documentarists such as filmmakers, for instance French Film-Maker Chris Marker whose work I have studied. These people are witnesses through their arts and in their arts. They are also witnesses of their own time, and the possibilities of their own artistic expression. They don't have to be consciously witnessing the events in time, but in the moment of looking, reading or experiencing the specific work of art, the spectator - the reader or listener - becomes a witness, too.
Or let’s take a different example: last summer I gave a talk at a conference on domestic violence. It is a somewhat different topic and slightly difficult because domestic violence seldom gets witnessed by somebody else but the victim and the abuser. In the presentation I used the work of Donna Ferrato, a photographer, who happened to be visiting her friends and family when the violent activity occurred. In a certain way she became an important witness as participant and spectator of the event. But it was through her photography that brought something from the silent and hidden private sphere into the open and to the public discussion and awareness. A very important aspect: bringing something from the hidden to the open through arts is also a part of the political aspect of Ferrato’s photography. Even though we have a lot of discourse about domestic violence only few things can make it so apparent as arts can, apparent to the society and the victim. The witnessing by an ‘outsider’ also empowers the victim.
Is it mainly professionals that function as political witnesses through their arts?
The photographer and the domestic violence case is only one example. Nowadays many political witnesses aren't professional artists. They can be people making clips with their smartphones at events they are at as spectators. For example people witness and record expressions of racism or problems of migration or social problems such as confronting outbursts of violence on the streets. The digital technology and social media has in general brought a whole new context to the topic because the first time in history we can see what happens on the level of individual conflicts with our own eyes in the pictures and clips people produce in real time.
So, basically everyone can be a political witness? Including you and me?
Exactly. We don't have to be political witnesses but we are more or less always witnesses of things happening around us.
You speak a lot about pictures. Is it the easiest or most abundant type of witnessing?
Visuals is what I am into. That's why (laughs). But it also has a practicable reason: photography, images or film are easier to talk about because one may always bring the original document in front of people’s eyes. I find it harder to talk about written witnessing. Written experiences, such as novels or poems are certainly very significant, and the author represents the experiences through language. Visual art and its experience in contrast do not always have to be shared by language. The actual witnessing itself has indeed many different levels. But one should also make a difference between testimony and witness. Both of them have different relations to the question of truth. An author or a poet, to pick up this example again, witnesses one particular moment and this is represented by his or her artistic creativity. Authors write about their experiences and thus present their own interpretation of the moment. However, they also interpret the experience in their own writing.
Another type of arts that can sometimes work very well as witness, too, is performance arts. But that is difficult to capture because it is – obviously – mainly temporal and seldom repeatable.
Earlier you spoke about a migrating people being witnesses? They are not only witnesses but participants. Can someone be a good witness and participate in an event? Or does that reduce their trustworthiness?
Obviously, the question of truth is very present in all of that, in everything that concerns witnessing. Witnessing can always happen in different ways and using different approaches. It can be a subjective approach such as an artistic creation with a personal view or a personal experience. In the book “Arts a political Witness”, that I published together with Frank Möller, we refer to Avishai Margalit’s work ‘The Ethics of Memory' that discusses the difference between truth of feeling - telling things on the basis of how they feel - and factual truth - telling things how they were. I think this is an important distinction in discussing political and artistic witnessing and also, the connection to memory. Particularly when we as researchers interpret a witness' account of something. We always need to remind ourselves that it is not the whole story of what happened, not even the whole story that is remembered.
Speaking of research, how do you research arts as a political witness?
It all started with a conference in Bordeaux a few years ago. I ran a panel on “Artist as a Political Witness”. It turned out there were quite a few people interested in this question. So, I assumed that this type of witnessing must have sparked interest among political scientists. Look at my recent book “Art as Political Witness”. In the introductory chapter we looked at our general understanding of witnessing in politics, for instance by looking at the Holocaust. Thinking about the era of the 1970s and early 1980s, Annette Wieviorka wrote about “the era of the witness characterized by the audiovisual testimonies” in regards to the Holocaust experiences and memories of these experiences. People at the different trials, victims of certain violence actions – all that became political later but the explicit connection between political and witness was not necessarily made before the Eichmann trial.
In our book we explored how people can witness politics or political experience in the different artistic genres. But I think neither our book nor the current research can be seen as conclusion of thinking. This is more of a starting point and an opening for the issue for further research and reflection also.
But you asked about how we do research in this field. Well, we are an international network entitled “Politics and the Arts” that consists of researchers of political science, philosophy, professional artists or art historians that look at different art genres from specific point of view. Previously, we have also worked on artistic representations on ‘Terror’. Our book “Art as a Political Witness” is one result of this network that has actually already existed since the 1990s. The intention is to work on these kind of cross-disciplinary subjects, and here one needs different people with different expertise, background and discipline.
A somewhat provocative thought: In earlier centuries arts such as drama was needed for example as societal criticism. But nowadays we have a wide set of media, blogger, videologger, social media etc. that took over the role. Do we still need arts as a political witness?
We need a lot of multiple narratives in the current era of technological possibilities. Public political narrative is often very one-dimensional about what is happening. It is impossible to reflect the whole truth with a few outlets, no matter how hard you try. Not even a filmmaker is always eager to present the whole truth of an event but only a perspective that would add up to the communication of the i.e. historical event, its political narratives and ideological effects. Take the Holocaust again: We have been confronted with this tragedy in many films and documentaries. It has been thoroughly discussed by academics, artists and individual survivors. It has been witnessed by the witnesses. I don't know if it is ever possible to represent the whole truth about it, but we might be able to see better now what happens around us in the world and its conflicts. At least, the events are possibly witnessed by victims of global politics in real-time media-clips. However, what have we learned form the past?
All the different aspects, including the witnesses and the arts, bring in different corners of what happened and what is happening in the public political, yet also private spheres. That enables us to have a background and more knowledge when we look at current happenings such as current political conflicts, all the terrorism and terroristic attacks, effects of neocolonialism etc. It gives us many pieces of the puzzle. But in some ways I doubt that we will ever have the whole picture. Maybe that's a philosophical criticism. (laughs)
One last question: Arts, is it in some ways always political?
That is a question I hear a lot. Sometimes I think I speak in a way that people think I'm kind of considering arts as always political. Being put correctly it is probably more a “potentially political” that experiments with borderers of both, arts and politics. That is something we as researchers will have to concern ourselves with in one of the next projects – among the many new things that still need to be researched until we will be able to put the topic “Arts as a Political Witness” into concepts, ideas and rigid theories.
Questions were asked by Sonja Klein for AcademiaNet and Spektrum.de.(© Sonja Klein / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)