(In a Forest of Signs)

The Rights Room

The Rights Room was a collaboration with visual/performance artist Layla Tully and Brighton Youth Centre, centred around the recently publicised abolishment of the Human Rights Act. 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, 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.

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. It was a community that, 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 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 – Jacque 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.

If The Rights Room seems in danger of offering a far too cosy relationship between artistic construct and political effect, 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 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).
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