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Reflections on art and violence

Reflections on art and violence

The National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA) is part of the Monument Fellowship. Every year the Fellowship produces a themed body of work that relates to criminal justice. This year the Fellowship is asking: How do we create a less violent society?

In June 2018, on behalf of the NCJAA, Odd Arts’ Jo Lane attended a conference at the University of Edinburgh called Art and violence now. Odd Arts deliver transformative theatre and arts workshops with vulnerable and excluded groups on themes such as domestic abuse, exploitation and extremism. This blog reflects on Jo’s key findings and feelings from the conference.


This summer I was lucky enough to attend Art and violence now, a conference at which speakers explored how contemporary art addresses violence and war and looked at violence’s role in culture – the subjects covered were vast, complex and fascinating. I write my reflections not as an academic but as a creative facilitator, and have chosen to reflect on two presentations that resonated with me and my work at Odd Arts the most.

Bernadette Buckley, Goldsmiths, University of London, No one has been injured in the making of this work (perhaps): Revisiting the works of Burden, Clarke and Dickenson

One of the pieces of work Bernadette Buckley explored was Shoot (1971) by Chris Burden, in which the artist asked a friend to shoot him with a .22 rifle from a distance of 15 feet. (The bullet was meant to skim his arm with the bullet, but missed and went straight through his arm.) Created during the Vietnam War and at a time when imagery of violence was everywhere, the piece asks if our senses can translate violence correctly when sat in the comfort of our own home.

The fact that Burden created a performance out of violence and harm has its own ethical questions. In what ways is violence itself a performance played out on life’s stage? What is the ethical role of the audience or viewer/bystander in this type of work? It challenges viewers themselves to do something: act, step in, change the narrative in both the art and life.

This led me to think about a particular case in Manchester, in which 11 people went to jail for one murder. In the community Odd Arts work in this caused much conflict between individuals and authority that ultimately rested on whether this was ‘fair’. In violent acts can someone ever be a true bystander, and how important is the motive to the outcome of violence or art? Perhaps we need more language to describe the varied roles people play within violence in its different forms and stages?

Lucy Weir, University of Edinburgh, Shoot an Iraqi: the work of Wafaa Bilal’s ‘Platforms of Dissent’

Wafaa Bilal’s work questions the normalisation of violence and asks people to re-engage with the reality of conflict. Bilal lost many members of his family in the Iraq War and his grief was exacerbated by his guilt about experiencing the war from America. Bilal says he discovered that his people were being killed by soldiers with “the power to shoot missiles from an armchair in front of a computer somewhere, as if it were all some kind of video game.” (Weir).

Bilal was troubled by how apparently easy it was for people to detach themselves from the violence they were creating, so he created the art piece Domestic Tension (May 2007) as a way to remind him and others of the horrors going on in Iraq. In Domestic Tension he spent a month confined in a small room in a gallery in Chicago. He could be seen 24 hours a day by a live webcam and lived under constant fire from a chatroom–controlled paintball gun that shot loud and powerful bullets with an odorous yellow paint.

The remote operation of violence removed peoples’ responsibility and brought about a strange connection with entertainment. At one point people hacked the gun into a semi-automatic gun and 65,000 shots were fired. Thousands of online viewers determined his fate within this room. Weir’s presentation questioned: once you ask someone to participate, do you hand over control completely?

Final reflections

Buckley suggests there is a dramaturgical element to violence: it is planned and rehearsed and the characters need to consider the message or aesthetic they are leaving the audience with.

To abolish violence one would have to deprive mankind of its ingenuity”
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The conference led me to reflect on the use of violence to create expression and bonds. To reduce violence in society we need to provide alternative opportunities to express ingenuity and ‘belonging’.

If violence has the potential to bring communities together we want to try to do this in other, possibly creative, ways. We need to offer safe spaces where we can explore difficult feelings and emotions, hold difficult conversations and develop critical thinking skills.

For Odd Arts, like Burden and Bilal, theatre is a perfect platform for working through these issues. Forum Theatre, a technique we use regularly in our work, takes the involvement of the audience a step further. We use this as a technique to empower people to respond and interact with the characters, inviting the audience to step in and try to find solutions and alternatives to a ‘problem’ or ‘oppression’ shown in the play. It asks people to explore different ideas in the performance, seeing if they work, and if not, trying again. It is what the founder of Forum Theatre, Augusto Boal, calls “rehearsal for reality”.

Theatre and drama offer “imaginative approaches to life and problem-solving” (Froggett, Kelly & Manley, University of Central Lancaster). If we can offer opportunities for people to be heard, valued and recognized for their creativity and ingenuity, we can bring about a deeper sense of belonging, trust and purpose; and in turn can reduce the risk of harm to selves and others.

Creativity is a prime need of a human being and its denial brings about a pervasive state of dissatisfaction and boredom. This leads to intense frustration that is conducive to a search for exciting ‘outlets’, which can readily involve a degree of force that is destructive. This sort of frustration is indeed a major cause of violence.”
Science, Order and Creativity, David Bohm and F. David Peat


Hear Odd Arts’ Rebecca Friel and others discuss: How can art create a less violent society? at our Anne Peaker debate on 5th October 2018 in London. Book your tickets here


Image courtesy of Odd Arts, (c) Megan Powell