Art, Expression and Democracy

Posted on May 9th, 2016 by Holly Ryan

Dr Holly Ryan reflects on last month’s exhibition and workshop Art, Expression and Democracy at Bank Street Arts, part of the ESRC-funded Exploring Civil Society Strategies for Democratic Renewal seminar series

Two weeks ago, my colleagues and I organised a multimedia exhibition and workshop/seminar themed around Art, Expression and Democracy at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield.

The workshop and exhibition formed part of a two-year programme of events, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which call attention to the possibilities and limitations for political activism and democratic renewal in the UK, internationally and online. Our latest events focussed on a particular subset of civic modes or contentious strategies, namely art action and creative practice.

This is an area that I have a strong research interest in and forms the basis for the Politics, Art and Expression research stream at The Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. For this exhibition and workshop, I had the pleasure of coordinating and bringing together an exciting line-up of academic papers, talks and multi-media interventions which variously questioned the relationship between art, design and democratic politics, asking how, when and where art makes for better political practice.

Jane Laurie mural bsa

Jane Laurie at work on her mural at Bank Street Arts.

As a part of the exhibition, which ran from the 27th to 29th April 2016, we featured works by:

Jane Laurie

Jane Laurie at work on her mural at Bank Street Arts.

The workshop/seminar on the 29th unfolded in three parts.

Session 1 featured talks and papers which looked at art as a medium of exchange, communication and power between nations and states. British Library Concordat Scholar, Cherie Prosser kicked off the day with a presentation on poster propaganda from wartime France. In an interactive and engaging talk, she invited the audience to think about the ways that images of womens’ bodies have been used to uphold and foment forms of nationalism. Dr Simon Faulkner from The Manchester School of Art presented his paper on ‘Active Stills’, a photography collective that ambitiously documents and challenges the politics of separation in Israel and Palestine. Meanwhile, gallery owner and Oxford Research Fellow, Myroslava Hartmond, gave a practice-based talk which centred on her experiences managing the Triptych Global Arts gallery in Ukraine and navigating the politics of post-Soviet art spaces.

Session 2 featured a combination of papers and immersive/applied theatre which illuminated and explored the role of performance in political practice. Malaika Cunningham and a troupe of actors from The Bare Project opened the session with an example of Forum Theatre, inspired by Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed”.

The performance piece highlighted the all too common problem of sexual harassment on public transport (as highlighted in The Guardian and The Independent). Using methods pioneered by Boal, the performance turned audience members into ‘spect-actors’. They were invited to directly intervene in the plot, allowing them to change the course of action and/or ending to the story. It was fascinating to observe how the performance – and particularly the process of ‘stepping into another person’s shoes’ – opened up a process of sharing and dialogue about the gendered norms and hierarchies that we encounter and reinforce on a daily basis.

Following on from this, academic papers from Dr Maria Rovisco and PhD candidate Alice Borchi both laid emphasis on the broader role of performance and performativity in politics, taking case studies of migrant artists in the United Kingdom and the Occupy Teatro in Italy respectively. Dr Rovisco’s theoretical piece aimed to illuminate the power and utility of aesthetic knowledge for migrant artists, showing how art can allow individuals to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. Taking an approach grounded in cultural practice and policy, Alice Borchi’s paper honed in on the challenges of replicability and legacy for bottom-up initiatives like the theatre occupations seen in Italy in the wake of the economic crisis.

Session 3 took us from the gallery to the streets, with contributions from a group of street artists engaged with Human Nature, an art movement that seeks to build global awareness around the issues of mass extinction and climate change. Talks by Charlotte Webster, ATM, Jonesy, and Jane Laurie AKA Mutiny, highlighted why the medium of street art makes for an effective pedagogic tool and pointed to the urgency of climate action and conservation of species under threat.

Ending the day on a creative and collaborative note, Dr Anna Feigenbaum and colleagues from Minute Works, Omega and BU Datalabs led a two-hour slot on the Riot ID project. The group first offered a fascinating overview of the history of impact munitions before leading the whole group in a design exercise which will feed into the next phase of their project… watch this space for more from #RiotID.

 Riot iD cropped

The RiotID exhibition at Bank Street Arts

There are a lot of important questions to be explored at the intersections of art and politics. These range from a need to address the very limited existing data on the audience impact and legacy of political art to more nuanced enquiries into the how intent, affect and sensibility intertwine to guide and prompt expression and participation via the medium of art.

To speak to these sorts of issues, greater cross-disciplinary learning and exchange is required. Our exhibition and workshop aimed to provide a forum for this kind of interaction. Moreover, it aimed move the discussion outside of academic confines in recognition that the gendered, classed and raced structures and hierarchies still prevalent in the higher education sector can be a strong deterrent for engagement, expression and dialogue on equal terms.

I’d like to say a huge thanks to all of those who made our ‘alternative’ academic seminar on Art, Expression and Democracy’ possible. If you are interested in participating in our forthcoming seminar on “Confrontational Strategies”, please get in touch.



Dr Holly Eva Ryan is Post-Doctoral Researcher in Politics, Art and Expression at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. She can be found tweeting at @HollyERyan

This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.