(In a Forest of Signs)

5.2: The Rights Room

 The Rights Room[i], was a collaboration with visual/performance artist Layla Tully and Brighton Youth Centre, centred around the recently publicised abolishment of the Human Rights Act.[ii]  Incorporating workshops, open debates, text, performances and sound-making, the installation sought to provide multiple access points to its political theme, while its facilitators remained politically neutral.  Upon entering the shop, visitors were faced with a board detailing the 15 articles of the current Bill of Rights, beneath which lay 15 objects,[iii] each representing one of the articles. To their right sat a large empty blackboard, some chalk, and a microphone. Visitors were able to re-write the Bill of Rights, make additions, and to record sounds or statements with the microphone.  As they explored the space, they were encouraged to bang, rub, snap and otherwise sonify the objects, the hope being that by treating such materials abstractly - exploring how they might sound rather than what they ‘do’ - it would become easier to engage with the Rights themselves in a more open, abstract fashion.  The sounds produced were added to an ongoing, evolving loop that played back from speakers hidden around the shop.[iv]

Despite presenting ourselves as being political neutral, it was interesting to observe that the vast majority of participants automatically assumed the work to be a critique of the government's ambitions to abolish the Human Rights Act.  

This, in tandem with the fact that those involved had chosen to enter a designated art space - as opposed to stumbling upon a street performance - led to a somewhat constrained dialogue, since those present already felt themselves to be part of the same homogenous community.

Anthropologist Victor Turner suggests describes the formation of community – what he calls ‘communitas’ – by way of three related terms: breach, crisis, and redress (Turner, 1988).  The first indicates a breach from existing normative social conditions or relationships within the community, the second a crisis that follows,[v] and the last how that crisis is redressed by the adaptation of the old, or creation of a new, community.  If my previous interventions sought to explore such communitas, they did so by enlivening a momentary breach in socio-normative behavior – such as by handing out coins or dragging a harmonium - entering their participants into a period of (moral, perceptual, cultural) crisis.[vi]  The community of the Rights Room, however, differed in so far as it, certainly at first, lacked any form of crisis - its members were in broad agreement, and their initial involvement in the work did little to change that.  The work was seen as somehow benevolent by its participants - visitors often felt the need to thank us, or highlight what a ‘good’ thing we were doing, something that rarely occurred in any of my other interventions.  The over-riding assumption was that the work demonstrated our own opinion on the subject, even though we did not actively contribute to the opinions on display.  Surprisingly, it was this assumption that created what crisis the work offered.  As the amended Bill of Rights grew - and developed an increasing diversity in doing so - its participants would directly challenge us as to the content.  Two camps soon emerged - those who welcomed the diversity of responses, and those who were loudly critical of any ambiguities, simplifications, jokes, the macabre, or spelling mistakes. 

Crisis came about due to the nature of the work’s temporal disjunction.  Its participants, though initially acting as members of the same homogeneous community, lacked the immediate social feedback[vii] that would normally validate and curtail their actions.  Though the work evolved in a linear, temporal fashion, its participants were able to move back and forth along its timeline, not only recalling earlier versions, but restoring elements that had been erased, adapting their earlier additions in response to changes in tone and new ideas, and adapting/erasing the additions of others.  As participants returned to see the evolution of the work, the initially homogenous community experienced crisis as its membership’s opinions were challenged by an Other with whom they had no direct contact.  By allowing people to participate in the construction of the same object, but days apart from one another, its members were unable to know one another directly and reliant instead on the third term – Rancière’s mediatory concept/object that occupies the distance between parties - that was the short additions to the Bill of Rights/soundscape each had provided.  In this way, the work critiqued the very freedom its participants wished to protect – any individual's right to expression could be overwritten by the community at any time.
Participatory art is fundamentally political since it necessarily pertains to public life – the being together of its community.  At the same time, art must retain its relationship to potential, and thus point to something beyond any specific political outcome.  It is at this nexus that Rancière places the term “dissensus”, in which both art and politics offer a “dissensual reconfiguration of the common experience of the sensible” (Rancière, p.140, 2013).  Dissensus does not, however, suggest any “cause-effect relationship being determinable between the intention that is realised in an art performance and a capacity for political subjectivation” (Rancière, p.141, 2013).

 An artwork is itself not politically effective, even as it engenders an embodied reconfiguring of experience and space.  It allows the self to practise reconfiguring its relationship to Other and yet, crucially, it can only do this because it operates beyond the normal parameters of the everyday.  Art can create the conditions for political effect, but it is not political change in and of itself.

The Rights Room in particular seems in danger of offering a far too cosy relationship between artistic construct and political effect, leading to the problems of its somewhat homogenised community of participants.  It could likewise be critiqued for merely emulating change - allowing its participants the pretence of political action to compensate for the reality of their political impotence.   Throughout the exhibition week, however, the distance between its participants’ positions became the fundamental quality of the work.  What began with simple chalk additions to the blackboard, or a few tentative explorations of the objects, soon transformed into impromptu discussions upon the scale and wording of the Rights, critical commentary as to others' responses, poetic outbursts, and an hourly reading of the Rights Act to passers-by with a megaphone.  By providing a platform for political discussion, rather than a directed political outcome, participants were able to explore for themselves what it meant to hold and express certain opinions, with some returning numerous times and bringing their own literature to add to the debate.  The work’s potential emerged not from the dissemination of political knowledge, but from the distance and temporality born of the artistic construct - participants were able to conceptually explore alternate positions in a way both embodied and without the threat of long-lasting repercussions.  Whilst it is easy to criticise art for failing to hold any real-world traction, that is precisely what makes it a carrier of potential - not only would a completely transformative art[viii] no longer be art, it would also no longer be politically active, since it is this distance that allows both art and politics to fulfil their remit - the perception of difference that serves to enliven potential ways of being.  The politic of The Rights Room lies in its articulation of a political event in order to enable the unworking of its community, the redrawing of its ethical contours.  Participatory projects that encourage a community to engage with a specific political task risk being at best condensing, and at worst deliberately distracting from the actual political agency of their participants (which is to say, the actual power of communitas).  

By pointing towards an explicit political outcome, such works miss a fundamental aspect of community as defined by Nancy.  The community, like the Other(s) that comprises it, is unknowable,[ix] and cannot be defined.  As such, an artwork that addresses a community must do so without presupposing what that community is, or how it might respond to stimuli.  Rather than fulfilling any pre-ordained outcome born of the existent circumstance of the participants or their site, the community instead engages in a process of flux that amounts to the perpetual death and rebirth of the community.  Within the Rights Room, this flux was enlivened by the fundamental dichotomy of the work’s theme - to engage with the evolving creation of Rights, to add, amend or replace the words and sounds of the community, is literally to transcend the rights of those who came before. The artistic act is not an outcome in and of itself, but rather the potential for change that guides action - the possible that compels the political.

[i] Appendix B: I don’t know where we are going but it sure sounds nice, The Rights Room video (usb).

[ii] The Rights Room can be seen as a fairly direct exploration of the relationship between art and social ethics, since it deals with the law and the reality of its application.  It is a fertile area of artistic study - in creating the piece we initiated an ongoing relationship with the newly formed Sussex Art and Law Network, and similar expositions of the HRA have been conducted in works such as Monica Ross’s Acts of Memory.

[iii] These objects included seeds (the right to have children), scales (the right to a fair trial), a megaphone (the right to expression) and a crucifix (the right to practice religion).

[iv] In a number of ways, The Rights Room constituted the most traditional of the series, and as such served a way of exploring theoretical assumptions made in some of the other more experimental pieces.  In contrast to previous interventions, the work took place inside a gallery, involved clear instructions as to its participatory elements, and promoted a much stronger divide between the artist/facilitator and the audience/participant.
[v] Turner suggests this crisis takes the form of a “contagion”, in which the community is divided and takes sides against itself. This is the violence of communitas, in so far as it is this stage that gives rise to existing antagonisms, “non-rational considerations” (Turner, p.34, 1988) and thus the potential for change.

[vi] An outcome in keeping with Turner's description of crisis as a liminal stage, acting as a threshold “between more or less stable or harmonic phases of the social process” (Turner, p.34, 1988).

[vii] This can be compared to the comments boards of internet news sites. Though provided with the same stimuli, the lack of immediate social feedback creates an atmosphere where people are free to respond in increasingly bizarre and opinionated ways, often resulting in an extreme representation of a community that is far from the actual make up of its members.
[viii] As Rancière suggests, once art had achieved its goal of complete political autonomy, it would no longer have any need or desire for artistic means, since a true community “does not tolerate theatrical mediation… the measure that governs the community is directly incorporated into the living attitudes of its members” (Rancière, p.3, 2009). Rancière is far from the first to take up this position – a similar argument is at the core of Wagner’s Art work of the future manifesto (Wagner, 1993).

[ix]  or ‘inoperative’ (Nancy, 2012) - by which Nancy means not only unknowable but actually lacking stable identity.
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