This project aims to explore ways we can draw from theories of arts-based peacebuilding to express and address conflict within the Minerva community. We developed a framework for this process through research, generation, and experimentation. We explored this process using a lens of gender dynamics because of the topic’s relevance and the diversity of opinions it invites. Over two weeks, we ran a series of three community artistic interventions that aimed to call attention and invite reflection, followed by an arts-based workshop. The combination of interventions and workshop is analyzed as a case-study, testing for the effectiveness of the arts as a framework for discussion, conflict transformation, and community building at Minerva.
Arts-based peacebuilding is defined as the practice of using the arts to transform conflict at a community, national and global level. Art is used as a tool to address diverse needs in conflict transformation, communication, and healing. In this context, art is defined broadly as an “expressive vehicle for communication” including dance, visual art, and performance art (Schirch & Shank, 2008). Peacebuilding is defined as transformation of conflict “from negative to positive relations, behaviors, attitudes, and structures” in which peace mechanisms are built into societal structures (Schirch & Shank, 2008). Arts-based peacebuilding includes work with “communities that [have] an intentional element of representing, responding to, preventing or transforming conflict as a way to build ‘positive peace’” (Hunter & Page, 2014.)
Traditional peacebuilding frameworks are criticized for lacking expression, healing, and reconciliation, with many practitioners expressing that those processes are “not currently prevalent or available within the peacebuilding field” (Schirch & Shank, 2008). Arts-based peacebuilding can fill this gap since its key outcomes are accountability, expression and conversation, as exemplified in the following cases:
Accountability: Art allows for individuals to see themselves as stakeholders who are responsible to act, and hold groups liable to act. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Indigenous People used art as evidence which demanded government responsibility for the injustices perpetrated including over 100 years of enforced residential schools (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015).
Expression: Art provides a space for individuals and communities to express emotions and narratives. Murals in Ireland expressed the effects of 30 years of political violence, and armed conflict between the state and the insurgency led to over 2000 deaths by the 1970s in the northern counties of Ireland. The murals are viewed as “bearers of painful or ugly memories” yet needed to provide a narrative for both sides of the conflict (Beck et al., 2012).
Conversation: Art sparks dialogue and inspires discussions about challenging issues. Drama therapy is used to heal historical trauma, allowing groups in conflict to converse, explore, and express through theatre (Volkas, 2009).
Arts-based peacebuilding can be applied across multiple scales and at different stages of conflict (Image 4). It is, however, usually applied in situations of ethnic violence and trauma. Since we aim to use it as a framework for conversations specifically within Minerva, we take into account that there is no overt form of conflict in the community. Therefore, the interventions are designed to acknowledge tensions, prevent their escalation, and enable mutual understanding. We focus on promoting accountability, trust, and safety at the community level while facilitating self-expression, healing, and awareness at the individual level.
Where is there space for theories of arts-based peacebuilding at Minerva?
Currently, the most prominent platform to voice controversial opinions at Minerva is an anonymous online forum that appeals to a minority of students who are comfortable participating in such discussions. While providing a means for expression, it curtails the creative and formative potential of an actual conversation due to its unidirectionality. Many students are resistant to virtual discussions due to the format’s lack of empathy, connection, and nuance. Moreover, the growth and trust that could result from engaging in productive conflict are unrealized. We aim to change the situation by providing an arts-based framework that allows for expression and resolution. Thus, our project aims to fill a gap and requires us to prototype on how to bridge the gap of both engagement and understanding.
The arts can be used to avoid exclusively verbal forms of debate that are polarizing. While many Minerva students come from artistic backgrounds these forms of expression are not used as a means of discussion. We aim to expand the role of the arts at Minerva to include supporting conversations about sensitive issues to increase students’ ability to engage and find common ground in their differences. In the sections below we detail our process of developing and testing applications of various tools and strategies of the applied arts.
Case Study: Gender Dynamics at Minerva
In order to develop our framework and test its practical implications at Minerva, we needed a case study of tension or conflict in the community. After much discussion, we identified gender dynamics as a frame for our development process and the interventions we designed.
In late March, Minerva’s Feminist Collective held several panels and discussions about how gender affects perceptions and interactions at Minerva. Concerns that were expressed included tension over expectations of women in the community and unaddressed reports of a sexual assault incident earlier this year. The conversations were solution oriented, however, many students left unresolved since the group did not come to any conclusions, or even find common ground.
We follow the case-study characterization and terminology of Thomas (2011) in this project. Thus, the student body of our class at Minerva is our subject, whereas arts-based peacebuilding can be seen as the object in terms of its appropriateness of catalyzing conversations about gender dynamics in our community. Moreover, the case is of local knowledge due to our embeddedness in the subject (i.e. we are students and members of this community ourselves). The purpose is instrumental as we aim to assess the effectiveness of the intervention in accomplishing the goals of facilitating expression, accountability, and conversation. While our approach resembles both a theory-testing and a descriptive one, we focus on the latter as our goal is to improve conversations at Minerva rather than validating arts-based peacebuilding. Furthermore, this is a single diachronic case-study as we focus solely on Minerva and analyze how the community responds to the interventions over time.
Intervention I: Accountability
Following an anonymous Facebook post about sexual assault on campus, no organized form of discussion occurred. Beyond micro-conversations, the student community did not take responsibility in facilitating dialogue, healing from the news, or creating measures to prevent further assaults. Our group aimed to inspire self-reflection and a sense of responsibility in our audience by creating malleable statues depicting sexual assault in a public space. This intervention was inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed technique of Invisible Theatre, which claims that if theatre is produced in environments that are not the theatre the audience will be pushed to critically reflect on their participation in the event (Boal, 2008). We developed a theatre installation in the lobby of the residence hall. For ninety minutes, the four of us held poses designed to tell a story of the trauma and violence of assault. In preparing the scene, we paid special attention to how body language could help convey our message (Image 5). Vini played the role of the perpetrator, leaning forward over Izzy with a strong grip on her shirt and hair to show an exertion of power. Izzy pulled back with a hand over Vini’s as if trying to shake off his grip and another trying to push him away, eliciting a sentiment of fear and confusion. Ellie sat on the mattress, curled into herself in a powerless, retreating position. Sara stood to the side, open, vulnerable, and neutral, allowing spectators to project their own interpretations of her body language and role into the scene. As an ensemble, the lack of physical or eye contact among the Ellie, Izzy, and Sara, who were representing different reactions to assault, intensified their respective feelings by hinting at the isolation and alienation of a victim.
We also invited passers-by to shift the positions of the statues to change the dynamics and manipulate the outcomes of the situation. We specifically chose the space in front of the building exit so that community members had to confront the intervention. Thus, in terms of the choice of engaging or not, our architecture in both a physical and psychological sense nudged people away from apathy and toward direct observation and interaction. The social pressure at the prospect of walking by and ignoring a group of peers depicting an intense situation of violence nudged passers-by to choose to engage with the scene.
Although the violence occurred in the audience’s imagination, there were effects on their physical reality since they were called to act, connecting them on an emotional level as can be seen in the patterns of audience interventions. Some people created a support system for the abuse victims by using the blanket to foster emotions of safety and comfort. Others turned the violence into loving gestures, placing Izzy and Vini in an embrace. Some shaped the group to fight against the violence. In contrast, others intervened with humor or walked past the scene. People discussed whether or not they should intervene, and many looked for support and validation from us and other spectators. Unexpectedly, some participants commented that it was hard to get fully engaged in the scene as it was somewhat unrealistic. They reported it was difficult to imagine Vini in the negative role of a perpetrator. This effect is a shortcoming due to our embeddedness in the community and is explained by a subtle perception bias. While the immediacy of the violence in the scene strongly draws attention in a bottom-up manner, contrasting effects take place when the violence is considered in the context of the observer’s prior interactions with Vini. Thus, this bias tended to decrease the potency of the intervention because of his personability and friendship connections at Minerva.
Upon designing the installation, we took into account the ethical consideration of how the scene could be triggering for survivors of sexual assault. We were divided between the positive outcome that it could generate by bringing people’s attention to the issue and the negative effects it might have on a few individuals. The former outlook represents an utilitarian perspective, in which the benefit of awareness is likely to be larger than the side-effects, while the latter is more concerned with individual rights and preservation, questioning our responsibility in consciously running the risk of damaging someone’s mental health. In order to take an informed choice, we consulted with one student that is a survivor. She recommended that with the appropriate use of trigger warnings, we could mutually advise self-care for those approaching the scene while not curtailing its effectiveness (Image 6).
Intervention II: Expression
In our second intervention, we constructed a large paper mural and left it empty with prompts about gender and markers provided for community members to contribute. This created a space for public expression of conflict which used the expressive arts therapy technique of “aesthetic distancing”: providing an opportunity for participants to draw out their experiences, to step back and visualize their stories in order to build collective understanding. Inspired by strategies of creative placemaking, we chose to place this in an unavoidable common space in the residence hall to create encounters with art in public spaces in order to support community engagement and expression.
Due to the anonymity of the art piece, it was taken with varying degrees of seriousness. A small fraction of the community contributed directly to the mural with mostly similar perspectives. While the wall did not spark much observable in-person conversation there was some contributors responding to additions on the mural. A few Minervans we interviewed said even if they did not engage directly, the mural’s prompts and responses sparked self-reflection.
Intervention III: Conversation