Beyond the “Other”

Seeking Commonality in a Divided World

We are living in a time when world leaders rail against whole groups of people: immigrants and refugees, believers of other faiths, people of non-conforming sexual identities. There are even examples of certain white cis men up for grabs, by champions of democracy no less—recall Hillary Clinton’s 2016 wholesale labeling of President Donald Trump’s supporters as “the deplorables.” It’s a time when everyone has been given permission to do the same: shamelessly air and act on prejudices related to differences in class, race, religion, sexuality, age, and nationality, as well as circumstances, like incarceration, or opinions, like political views. It’s a time that could well drain hope from anyone longing to see humans unite around truly wicked problems facing us all, beginning with the increasing siege upon the very earth we live upon.

Philosopher Charles Taylor’s theory of social imaginaries points out that humans carry around ideas about whole groups of people that are not based on reality or experience but that nonetheless produce concrete impacts, such as making it harder for them to get jobs or housing despite their qualifications. In a time characterized by sweeping generalizations about the “other,” I look for opportunities in the arts to remind us of the possibility of finding common cause amongst people erstwhile distrustful of each other.

I’m interested in how collaborative art-making provides ways to shake up our misconceptions about groups of people with different identities than our own through direct and meaningful contact rather than through symbolic means, like representation in dramatic literature. Two other ways that art-making offers this are by artists facilitating projects with people who are ostensibly “other” but with whom they find commonality, and by bringing together people with significant power disparities, who have few opportunities to relate deeply on a level playing field. While it’s not obvious how to bring such efforts to scale, contact across difference in the context of art-making can be life-changing.

a group of people stand around a piece of artwork on the floor

Inside the Victoria Square Project in Athens, Greece during preparations for a textile exhibition and event featuring Click (center person on the right), a Zimbabwean organizer and craftswoman. Photo courtesy Victoria Square Project.

Why the Current Emphasis on Working with “One’s Own”?

Socially engaged artists in the United States are often encouraged—at least when starting out—to facilitate workshops with groups of people who are part of a community with which they identify—people who are their “own.” Concomitantly, white artists are often discouraged from working with groups of color and men are discouraged from facilitating projects composed of women. People without experience related to police violence or incarceration are assumed to lack the sensitivity to the complexity of these situations and often discouraged from working in such contexts.

Artists facilitating workshops with groups they are obviously part of is important. There is an understandable fear that “outsiders” will objectify, misrepresent, and/or co-opt cultural groups they don’t understand deeply enough. I recently turned down an invitation to evaluate a socially engaged art project about identity and healing with a group of women of color because, as a white person, I could have been an obstacle to trust-building or might have skewed a process that was about and for a group I am not part of. I understand the value for people to experience leadership from someone with whom they can immediately identify: my first female professor—at a time when men dominated those ranks—was an affirmation and an expansion of my own horizon of possibilities.

Humans carry around ideas about whole groups of people that are not based on reality or experience but that nonetheless produce concrete impacts.

Theatre of the Oppressed creator Augusto Boal noted that the people most likely to work for change are the ones most adversely affected by the status quo, who are also quite knowledgeable about the challenges inherent in their situation. Boal cautioned against input from those who do not share the particular struggle, such as people who have never been in abusive relationships intervening in forum theatre on that subject. This is noteworthy since as a white, male, middle-class facilitator, Boal did not share the struggles of many of the groups he worked with.

Boal did articulate, though, the principle that the facilitator’s role was not to tell people what to do but to set up exercises through which they could decide for themselves. He seems to have been delineating the role of facilitator apart from the role of a full-out participant; facilitating opportunities for struggling groups to proactively fight oppressions was a way to be an ally in their struggle without coopting it. And I’m recalling now that he often pointed out his identity first and foremost as simply human, thus modeling what I am writing about here: an impulse to frame identity large enough to align oneself with an erstwhile “other.”

Often, socially engaged art is organized in places where people gather or live, with people who share in the same circumstances. For example, in the mid-1960s, when migrant workers in California picked lettuce and grapes for wages that were not enough to feed themselves, some laborers organized themselves as El Teatro Campesino, creating short, funny, incendiary skits that mocked their bosses, heartened their fellow workers, and drew media attention to the injustice. The actors wore stylized half-masks, partly to be less recognizable to bosses and partly to make a point about how archetypal their situation of exploitation was. It was inspiring that farmworkers played themselves, not dependent on a group of more privileged sympathizers to represent their situation for them.

However, the emphasis on an obvious shared identity between facilitator and workshop participants, or among the participants themselves, leaves out the opportunity to explore together the situation of people in other circumstances. Perhaps counterintuitively, given this polarized time, we need most to seek commonality with those we previously saw as adversaries or, at the very least, “other.” I do not suggest we stop working with the people with whom we identify most, but rather that we expand and activate our notions of “belonging” to include the many communities we are part of.

two people playing dominoes outdoors

Artist Rick Lowe, on right, playing dominoes with a neighbor in front of the Victoria Square Project. Photo courtesy of Victoria Square Project.

Seeking Value for Both Groups Engaging Across Difference

At the age of twenty-one, I co-facilitated a drama workshop in a men’s maximum-security prison, which was among the most meaningful experiences of my life. Participants of that workshop have affirmed how grateful they were, too, to be seen by, and get to know, the “other” that was me. I came to see systemic reasons that some people are stuck in a place, which brings about a kind of desperation, an impulse to cynicism, and a belief that, since the cards are stacked against them anyway, anything goes. Opened to experiences that shook me emotionally, I began to recognize my biases; someone might be in prison, or drop out of school, not because they were “bad” or “lazy” but for more complex reasons. Meeting people I came to care about in that situation challenged what I had unthinkingly accepted.

A number of artists, often combining aesthetic propensities with community organizing skills, have done exemplary work bringing groups together across difference. While the concern is that such projects or workshops are just surface-level, small-scale solutions that do not seriously challenge power arrangements, some artists are finding strategies that may lead to systemic change.

We need most to seek commonality with those we previously saw as adversaries or, at the very least, “other.”

African American social practice artist Rick Lowe was invited to participate in Documenta 14, part of a series of contemporary art exhibitions taking place in Kassel, Germany every four or five years, since 1955, for one hundred days. The fourteenth iteration, in 2017, was held in Kassel and in Athens, Greece. Doing initial research in Athens for possible participation in the event, Lowe was distraught to find Syrian refugees camping out in Victoria Square, in limbo on their move north by border closings. He used the support, visibility, and prestige of the large international art event to launch the Victoria Square Project, with local partners, to bring Athenians and refugees together by providing a venue for them to present diverse cultural activities.

While some of the people Lowe initially approached to collaborate were wary of his American identity, many came to trust his genuine interest in the multiple cultural groups that have lived in the Victoria Square area. A small cohort of people who got involved in the project—artists, refugees, and refugee-artists—now direct it, with Lowe’s input. This exemplifies the notion that a facilitator’s difference from participants need not make them a deficit in a leadership role; that sharing leadership, as Lowe did with Greeks and refugees alike, is a way to mitigate that concern; and that bringing people together around a larger identity—in this case not where they are from but where they live now—can be an enriching experience for all.

Another example of the role of a facilitator unaffiliated with any of the groups in an uneasy relationship is how, from 1997 to 1999, visual and performance artist Suzanne Lacy catalyzed candid conversations in Oakland, California between 150 youth, largely of color, and 100 police—two groups that had been taught to mistrust and fear each other. The three-year project explored ways to reduce police hostility toward youth, provide youth with a set of skills to participate in their communities, and generate a broader understanding of youth’s needs. On top of Oakland’s City Center West Garage, police officers and young people held conversations addressing urgent issues: crime, authority, power, and safety. Teens danced in the spotlight of a police helicopter, and videos of the conversations were projected to spectators on the street.

a group of people sitting in a circle

Code 33: Emergency, Clear the Air. Oakland, California, 1999. Produced by Suzanne Lacy, Unique Holland, and Julio Morales. Photo by Chris Johnson.

The dialogues were part of an initiative that Lacy instigated from 1991 to 2001 with police collaboration, called Code 33: Emergency Clear the Air, which aimed to “develop inner-city youth participation in public policy and have a direct and positive impact on mass media images of urban young people.” What proved meaningful was the opportunity for youth to speak directly about their experience to people who had influence on how those experiences would be shaped in the streets. Invaluable for both, the Oakland Police Department integrated contact with inner-city youth into formal training, so they did not only encounter each other in situations of criminal activity, lessening tensions for all. Lacy’s role as facilitator was enhanced by being neither a police officer nor a youth.

It is gratifying that, over the past decade in the United States, a range of municipal government agencies—such as Immigrant Affairs, Children’s Services, and Police—have been hosting artists-in-residence for anywhere from a year to a decade, often because of their creative approaches to ongoing problems. One current example is the New York City Department of Probation, whose research found that “the relationship between a probation officer and client is the key to success.” They selected artist Rachel Barnard to bring innovative ways to strengthen relationships and improve communication and engagement between probation officers and the people under their supervision.

The works created by Lowe, Lacy, and Barnard are hopeful signs that all parties might benefit and that differences can be bridged.

At the Department of Probation, Barnard uses art to invite compassion and generosity on the part of those with discretionary powers in the system. Her first artistic intervention was with probation officers, co-designing fantastical structures to install in several of their bureaucratic, security-focused waiting rooms—each with enough room for Barnard plus one officer or client to converse about the system. One enclosure, for example, was made with three thousand blue pin wheels suspended from the ceiling on strings. The process of imagining the spaces was, for the officers, therapeutic, playful, and a break from dealing with heavy and challenging caseloads.

Barnard’s second artistic intervention is taking place now inside these spaces. Drawing on the power of listening, the artist meets one on one with an officer or a client. The artist asks questions to develop an intimate picture of who makes up the probation community, to re-center the voices of those most impacted by the criminal legal system, to develop insights on the existing culture and structural barriers participants face, and to get data that will be translated into modest “art interventions” in a future part of the project.

Recognizing that no one thrives in a punitive, over-burdened system—neither those with authority nor those without—is a step towards together seeking compassionate solutions to improve the work environment for all. Rather than each group being the other contingent’s “other,” probation officers and clients alike have at least this one experience to unite them.

a person posing for a photo

Artist Rachel Barnard in front of the 2,000 pinwheel installation/listening space for the
New York City Department of Probation. Photo courtesy Shawnti Hayes.

Hope and, Perhaps, a Smidgen of Optimism

Since President Trump’s election, here’s what I’ve realized: What sapped hope from me ostensibly gave it to others. But that’s made me question how I can find optimism without someone else losing it. The works created by Lowe, Lacy, and Barnard are hopeful signs that all parties might benefit and that differences can be bridged—established leadership can open up to people with less power and different experiences, artists can conjure ways of working together across difference that are beneficial to all involved, and people in polarized situations with uneven power relations can come together, evoking our common humanity. However, while these projects garnered buy-in from systems and large institutions, I don’t yet see efforts to scale such initiatives up.

Expanding how people of very different viewpoints, identities, and circumstances can experience hope at the same time involves acknowledging “the complexities and ambiguities of identity”—supporting people in precarious situations while, as Jill Dolan writes in Utopia in Performance, shaping ways for people to share and feel things in common, like the need for “survival and love, compassion and hope.” I put hope in finding our larger commonality in real issues, but such intersections must be activated so that all will gain, and the leadership must be shared between people with access to resources and those who have traditionally lost out. Because though we share common issues, we do not share common histories, resources, or degree of need to overcome them. I call on artists to reveal our nuanced commonality in such a way that no one loses, and I call on us all to reach across to others to generate ideas about how to bring such experiences to scale.

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