Professor James Thompson is currently Professor of Applied and Social Theatre and Associate Vice President for Social Responsibility at Manchester University. He is the founder and Co-Director of In Place of War, a project researching and supporting arts programmes in war and disaster zones. He has written widely on theatre in conflict and peace-building situations. His most recent books are Performance Affects (2009) and Humanitarian Performance (2014).
Professor Thompson’s 2013 Cockcroft Rutherford Lecture discusses many of the matters discussed in this interview.
Where do you locate your work within the field of arts and peace-building?
I am a theatre practitioner by training. I worked in prisons and with young people affected by the war in Sri Lanka. When I was doing this practice-based work I felt the interesting work was being done by Sri Lankan artists who were living in the intense war zones of Sri Lanka. I wanted to look at equivalent artists working in other war zones in the world. I secured research funding, leading the AHRC project In Place of War. The main research questions were: what theatre work was happening in war zones and why did those practitioners say they were doing it, what agendas did they pursue in doing that work?
Many artists would not claim their work is about building peace – they would say it was about theatre and human rights, psycho-social support for young people, entertainment, nationalistic theatre. I was originally interested in any art that was happening in war zones. Some times people claimed their work is for peace-building and reconciliation but it wasn’t. Often work, rather than ameliorate the war, was likely to maintain or make the war worse. What is interesting as a researcher is to find out what decisions artists themselves are making in these contexts. I refined the research to focus on artists who were seeking to replace war, to be instead of war, to make things better. Hence the In Place of War name.
How do we start to distinguish between different forms of the arts and the different kinds of arts work and artists working in these settings?
With In Place of War we wanted to focus on the artists who were local to that place and understand the decisions they were making as opposed to the artists who respond to a situation from afar or the artists going in and producing something about war. We wanted to understand what artists living in war were creating. And often artists living with war create work that is nothing to do with war. We wanted to make the distinction between how artists themselves living in sites of conflict respond as opposed to how an artist coming into war or visiting a conflict affected area responds. That was a key differential for us.
I am very interested in trying to dissolve the distinction between who is designated an artist and who is not. And of course war zones do that by suddenly making everything more fluid. We aim to value the work of local artists and value less the work of international artists coming in to a community. It is more interesting to think about the work of artists who are already embedded.
There are a lot of projects underneath the radar, that are massively hidden. That no one has heard of but that are doing much more for youth in their community than any British Council funded artist visit does. One of our principles was trying to find those projects that were off the radar in terms of how funded or how visible they were. We found that the first project we saw was not the best one. It took us a while to find the really interesting projects. We found that the most visible had already had institutional funding or NGO funds and were well established but not necessarily the most effective. Often the most inspiring projects aren’t the most obvious ones.
One of the greatest tensions in discussions around art and reconciliation is the problematic question of the relationship between justice and reconciliation. Many socially and politically engaged artists reject the notion of reconciliation outright as they define their work as being about the pursuit of justice. What sense do you have of how artists do or do not work with the concept of reconciliation and navigate the tension between justice and reconciliation?
Context is everything. There are very different kinds of war and conflict. Reconciliation is one part of the process of building peace – it might happen years down the line, it might be part of a cyclical on-going process, it can go on over years and decades, it might be an impossibility and a society can be at peace but not necessarily reconciled. In some places reconciliation is not an available narrative.
Often justice and reconciliation are subsumed but more often what we have found is that reconciliation projects have to suspend demands for justice. There can be imposed reconciliation agendas, artists might work with this but informally what they are pursuing is justice rather than reconciliation. Many view reconciliation work as denying people’s demands for justice; it can be deeply problematic.
Often the best reconciliation work does not identify itself as such. There are art camp based projects where young people are mixing, coming together, teaching each other. Not under the rubric of reconciliation but just to dance or to sing or whatever. The project I am thinking of, the NGO running it did not use the discourse of reconciliation but at its best that was what is was – kids were sharing cultural traditions, living together and then returning home (this was during the war). There is lots of great work but often reconciliation work is hierarchical, it is funded from above and there is a sense that you must reconcile.
The flip side of the coin with projects that emphasize justice is that the continual demand for justice means that reconciliation is never going to happen. Justice has to be suspended at some point for things to move forward.
There is an arts moment in that relationship between justice and reconciliation. The arts can help negotiate that relationship. There is the memorialisation and justice type arts work and that can sit awkwardly with the kind of arts work that brings people together.
Another one is the relationship between remembering and forgetting and what they mean in terms of reconciliation. People assume that the correct kinds of projects are ones that are about remembrance and commemorating and a sub category of that are projects that are testimonial based, storytelling projects. When we were doing our research work we met loads of people who were saying. “We don’t want to tell stories about what happened. We don’t want to remember. We want to not talk about it – we want to forget and think about something else.” There is a real tendency to impose the demand that people remember and produce projects that deal with themes relating to the war and conflict. Whereas often if you ask communities they say, “No – we want to have a party, we want to do something that helps us to forget, that has nothing to do with the war”. A big part of our work is those moments when people are using the arts not to remember.
Such an important part of arts work is the importance of beautiful things, of joyous things, of fun, of celebration – things that people think you shouldn’t talk about in war zones because people think you are trivialising it but actually in conflict zones one of the key features that comes out is that people are using the arts to forget, to have a good time. Perhaps when a conflict has ceased and further down the line reconciliation becomes important and then projects reflecting on the conflict become relevant. But when conflict is on-going people need to be able to do something different. The arts sector needs to acknowledge that kind of art making is as important as art that deals directly with conflict related issues.
Often there is an assumption that an arts reconciliation project has to be about bringing together the two ‘sides’ to create art. What are your thoughts on what constitutes arts and reconciliation work?
I call it “Romeo and Julietism” – the idea that the only way of doing arts reconciliation work is by bringing two sides of the conflict together using the narrative of Romeo and Juliet. I have seen a lot of money offered to organisations who will deliver a project that literally produces the play of Romeo and Juliet. I have seen an Israeli and Palestinian Romeo and Juliet, a Hutu and Tusi Romeo and Juliet, a Protestant and catholic Romeo and Juliet – I’ve seen loads of them. It does lots of things. It imposes an assumed divide on that community and it also maintains what that divide is. If we take the example of Northern Ireland for example, the important potential of Northern Ireland is to imagine the country not only in terms of the divisions between Catholics and Protestants because if you keep saying that is the division then you reinforce it. If the division is between rural and urban or between young and old suddenly Northern Ireland can be imagined as something else.
Arts should not be about replaying the obvious division. Some of these arts projects in trying to bring people together just replay what the assumed division is. Projects should not be only focused on ‘bringing communities together’ because forcing communities together when it is not the right time can be damaging and communities also need to work by themselves. In Northern Ireland people got fed up with having to do projects that brought Catholics and Protestants together, people were saying we have some Protestant youth who really need a good arts project but they need to work on their own identity rather than work with Catholic youth.
How do we quantify the value of the arts in reconciliation settings?
I am an anti evaluation person, it can be very frustrating. In my field of applied theatre people got so obsessed at looking at the social impact that they lost the ability to talk about the art itself. I think there are loads of different social sciences that can look at the social impact of the arts and in certain circumstances they might be totally relevant. If your goal is around education then you need to work with educationalists to define and measure that impact, if it is about peace-building and reducing political violence work with the political scientists, if you work out where your social objective is then you can work out how to measure the impact of the arts but that needs to be done in partnership with the arts rather than the artists trying to evaluate what they do – others can do that. The artists need to learn to talk about their art. Artists can reveal something new about war and peace-building that they can teach to others.