Krísis Conversations: Prof. Duncan Higgins, Dr Roy Smith and Dr Anna Ball 21 October 2016

On Friday 28 October, as part of the Krísis public programme, there will be a one-day symposium titled Krísis: critical interventions organised by Prof Duncan Higgins, Dr Roy Smith and Dr Anna Ball (Nottingham Trent University) in collaboration with Something Human. The symposium brings the international network of artistic practices and narratives from the Krísis exhibition and public programme into a day of talks, presentations and performative lectures.

Something Human: The state of ‘crisis’ and its corresponding terminologies have certainly entered our common vocabulary in the last decade. With your research interests in the diverse fields of visual arts and the social sciences, how have you been thinking about this contemporary state?

Duncan Higgins: For me ‘crisis’ is always going to be a very relative question, ‘crisis’ in relation to what? Where? When? Who? And how? My own motivation is to try and avoid any generalisation of such issues; this question feels too big without more context. In respect to research, education, visual arts and social science I suspect each generation has always indicated or described ‘crisis’ as a condition of practice. For example, in my experience the art school has always described itself to be in a state of ‘crisis’ for one reason or another and not always out of necessity.

Roy Smith: ‘Crisis – what crisis?’ highlights both the widespread use of the term, plus the fact that what may be perceived as a crisis scenario for some may be barely noticeable to others. Media reports of numerous humanitarian crises, environmental crises, refugee crises et cetera run the risk of producing what has been described as ‘compassion fatigue’. With the huge expansion of media outlets, including increased use of social media and citizen reporting, audiences are at risk of feeling overwhelmed and disempowered by the enormity of these issues. Whilst not underestimating the situation for those directly impacted by crises, for example in Aleppo or Haiti, for many observers these are issues that are happening in faraway places and with little or no immediately apparent consequence for their daily lives. Such an attitude appears, for some, to be reinforced by a retreat from internationalism and a global outlook to more inward-looking attitudes of ‘taking back control’, as demonstrated in the recent EU referendum debates and the current rhetoric of the Donald Trump campaign.

Anna Ball: My current research is concerned with creative representations of refugee experience, particularly in the context of the contemporary Middle Eastern refugee crisis in Europe. Today, refugees from Afghanistan and Syria comprise some of the largest populations of those fleeing violence and terror, but their encounter with Europe is itself a site of crisis: a point of contact at which the forms of biopower and necropolitics exerted by the State, and by more illicit sources of power – human traffickers, for example – render those subjects supremely vulnerable. In turn, the encounter with European subjects – one which is often mediated (and reduced) by visual representation in the media – becomes a site of disjunctive and often alienating exchange, whereby the humanity of those seeking refuge is racialized and politicised in ways that are dehumanising and unjust.

Within my current research, I’m particularly interested in mobilising a materialist, corporeal and haptic critical lens that pays attention to the suffering, feeling, tangible, beating body – particularly the bodies of women and children, which are often reduced (visually and in other representational terms) to figures of the radical subaltern, though they in fact experience very particular modes of biopower and bodily suffering. (Women’s ‘flights’ may, for example, have been prompted by forms of sexual violence or indeed maternal vulnerability that may drive them to seek refuge.)

I’m interested, therefore, in how intimate, personal crises, experienced in tangible, material terms, can be represented and felt against the vast backdrop of dehumanising political crisis that currently marks the contemporary Middle Eastern refugee crisis in Europe. My project is a drive towards recovering the presence of the human, and humanity, in terms that are necessarily attentive to smallness and individuality.

From an Arts and Humanities / Social Sciences perspective it is clear that the impacts of crises are felt and experienced very differently by various groups and individuals. In part this can be determined by the randomness of being born in a particular part of the planet, into differing socio-economic and cultural contexts where attitudes towards race, class, gender, sexuality, age or numerous other factors may be relevant to how likely you are to be involved in a crisis situation. This also relates to what support mechanisms are available to you and how resilient you and those around you are to manage and survive a crisis. Increasingly the factors that will determine how a crisis is addressed and, hopefully, resolved are often beyond the control and agency of those at most risk from such crises. The nature of many processes of globalisation means that they bypass local and even national authorities. Trans-boundary pollution and the free-flowing of capital around the world is now more representative of contemporary life than the ongoing state-centrism being focused on by most mainstream media outlets and, understandably, national politicians. At one level the ‘taking back control’ agenda mentioned above can be seen as a direct reaction to certain aspects of globalisation and the sense that they are the cause of many locally experienced problems. However, the risk of reverting to such narrow-minded worldviews is that this emphasizes difference rather than commonality.

The challenge for Humanities / Social Science disciplines, and related fields of the visual arts, is to acknowledge and celebrate what makes individuals and communities different while at the same time showing that difference does not mean opposition. It has been said that crises can bring out the best in people and communities. Maybe so, but this is more likely to be the case when they can see commonalities between them. Taking back control to meet the many crises that are evident around the world is something to be welcomed. The danger is that by thinking and acting only at the local level this will overlook, and probably exacerbate, the international and global processes that are leading to the very crises that these locally-determined policies and actions are trying to address.

SH: The Krísis exhibition and public programme, which is a culmination of the MOVE W I T H (OUT) project that took place from 2013-2016, aim to unravel multiple perspectives on the notion of crisis and possible futures. Why did you think this project and its themes were relevant to Nottingham? 

DH: What Something Human have set out for the exhibition and programme is I feel a desire and ambition to listen to others and be heard by others, for me this is an essential route of knowledge exchange and for me defines intercultural dialogue. That this is a ‘doing thing’ rather than an ‘owning thing’, where uncertainty and not knowing become creative principles of discovery. For NTU this is essential and consequently it is the creation of new opportunities to see and listen beyond what is known that has the potential to lead to the creation of new knowledge both personally and culturally. For NTU to be a place for creative knowledge exchange is my firm belief and understanding of the fundamental role of universities and art schools to host, facilitate, frame and enable exchange. So to bring the themes, questions, examples and creative practices to NTU and Nottingham is part of a necessary dialogue we all need.

RS: Nottingham is a vibrant multi-cultural city with a long history of engaging with the wider world, not least in terms of the many international students studying here. Yet at the same time the city of Nottingham voted to exit the European Union, albeit by a very small margin. It would be too simplistic to say that those voting for Brexit did so solely due to immigration issues, although mainstream media portray this as one of the key factors in determining voting preferences. Despite the ‘leave’ vote the city is known to be generally welcoming to migrant communities and whenever groups such as the English Defence League have  attempted to hold demonstrations in the city they have always been met by much larger counter demonstrations. There are multiple support networks among the many communities that share Nottingham as their home, both newer arrivals and longer-term residents. Resistance to austerity measures and related cuts in public sector spending highlights another potential set of crises, but also creates spaces for creative and positive future visions.

AB: One of the reasons that I find the exhibition to be so pertinent is because it operates at the levels of both the international and the local, and seeks to draw connections between, as well as find specificity within, particular places. In my work, I am interested in trying to recover a vocabulary of ‘small’, personalised experience that is local as well as international in nature. To me, that is indicative of Nottingham as a site of cultural crisis and international exchange. In some senses, Nottingham is no different from any other space: it, like most major cities, has a significant population of refugees and asylum seekers, who render the refugee crisis local, as well as international. What makes Nottingham significant, though, is the network of international and inter-organisational connections that create their own maps and structures of support around this community. The work of the Nottingham Refugee Forum, for example, or Nottingham Beyond Borders, along with the annual Refugee Week events, which often enter into dialogue with organisations such as the universities, the New Art Exchange, Nottingham Contemporary, Five Leaves Bookshop, or the Nottingham Festival of Words, construct crucial sites of personalised, local exchange and encounter that are mobile in temporal and spatial terms. They invite people to engage with alternative maps of crisis-ridden experience and community that also exist within the city, and to engage with them in terms that are affirmative and constructive of solidarity. The central motif of the Move With(out) exhibition – the act of dragging a trunk containing a mobile exhibition within it around the city – in some senses therefore serves as a microcosmic metaphor for so many of the activities that already take place within the city.

SH: The symposium offers a mix of perspectives from academics, artists and activists in order to explore the Krísis exhibition’s themes and encourage a rich dialogue on art as a transformational tool for research on contemporary societal matters. What place do you think art can occupy in relation to academic research?

DH: It is fundamental to academic research.

RS: Various forms of art have long been associated with conveying political messages and assertions of identity, either repressed, struggling or liberated. Just as crises are experienced differently by various stakeholder so is art variously presented and interpreted. The Krisis exhibition and related presentations, performances and discussions offer a striking example of how different disciplines can collaborate and produce multifaceted approached to understanding and commenting on aspects of crises and their potential solutions. As a public exhibition this is also likely to draw in people who might not normally engage with some of the themes and issues raised by the artworks and various media linked to the exhibition.

 AB: For me, as a ‘postcolonialist’ who functions in a very interdisciplinary framework, art and visual representation more broadly are powerful tools through which to intervene in dominant modes of ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’. Thinking about the refugee context specifically, visual media is often employed in a way that seems to offer a reductive immediacy in the way that we access human identity. Even when images incite an extreme emotional response (the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, for example, the little boy fleeing Syria whose body was washed up on a beach in Turkey, prompted international political outcry) their isolated and repeated representation has a tendency to conjure a limited spectrum of ‘types’ of refugee (‘innocent’ or ‘deserving’ refugees) that limit the human complexity of identity and experience.

In stark contrast, more reflective artistic practice has the potential to unsettle and complicate these kinds of immediate media snapshot. I would even venture that the time required to reflect on art, in all its forms – the ambiguity that circulates around it, and the necessity for active, engaged interpretation that sometimes might prove impenetrable or inconclusive, but is necessarily so– operates as a powerful alternative mode of apprehending the individual. It is this kind of slow, considered, deep engagement that I think we need to seek in academic research across the forms – textual as well as visual. It offers a vital counter-discourse to immediate and reductive media discourse in particular, and fosters more intimate dialogues and exchanges as we seek to forge meaning through collective interpretation rather than isolated response. This is why I am particularly excited about the interdisciplinary aspect of the Symposium.

Attendance at the symposium is free, but registration is necessary to ensure your place.

More information at

Image credit:
Sama Alshaibi, Al-Tariqah (The path), 2014
Courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery

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