Monday, July 23, 2012

Between critical times of “not knowing what to do”: (Spontaneous Storytelling) interventions and re-evaluations

One month after the obscure Tuesday morning of 9/11, John Berger writes in, ‘To Try and Understand’, the foreword to novelist, essayist and activist, Arundhati Roy’s, the algebra of infinite justice.I’m tempted to say that the world has never been more confused. Yet this would be untrue. The world has never had to face such a global confusion. Only in facing it can we make sense of what we have to do. And this is precisely what Arundhati Roy does in the pages which follow. She makes sense of what we have to do. Thereby offering an example. An example of what? Of being fully alive in our world, such as it is, and of getting close to listening to those for whom this world has become intolerable.’[1]  

Talking of her native India, Arundhati Roy makes a very strikingly vital and humane observation that seems to escape all realities where opportunist governments aim to keep citizens under hardhearted control. Following the order in 1998 of India’s then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to go ahead with the nuclear tests due to a ‘deteriorating security environment,’[2] Arundhati Roy brings crucial reminders from India to our attention. ‘We are a nation of a billion people… More than 400 million of our people are illiterate and live in absolute poverty, over 600 million lack even basic sanitation and over 200 million have no drinking water’[3], she tells us. Given these inhumane conditions, how can any consumption of destructive nuclear power or exorbitant bombs not amount to a criminal and unethical act committed in an age and world of deep crises, when eating and drinking clean water remains a real struggle for millions of people in only one country. For those of us living in countries where we still have enough food to eat and water to drink, we can wrestle harder to ‘get closer to listening to those for whom this world has become intolerable.’    

Ten years after 9/11, the big question of whether this overall confusion has settled in to our lives and created a deeper gap between ourselves and the systems we vote for, remains life-size. As global confusion and public opinion (c)rises, and, spontaneous narratives and artificial democracies spread out and root themselves, respectively, we search for new ways to collect our actions and connect our narratives with those most pushed out of the humane social conditions which keep us in the only world we have to live. My goal, here, is to show, and push, activist art-making, writing and intervening, which produce provoking and transforming truths that undermine media sources, and form a new field of aesthetic and critical action. Today, more than ever, we wonder what we should be doing to ‘get closer to listening to those for whom this world has become intolerable.’

Working with means, which communicate ideas and issues – whether with art, aesthetics, language and critical writing – holds us open to current challenges of the vast value of producing truths today. In a period of detrimentally high rates of unemployment, a phenomenal concentration of corporate greed, elevated levels of consumption beyond our means, increasingly excluding anti-immigration laws which, at best, keep the vulnerable on the fringes of society, a deeply unequal distribution of wealth and energy, and, high levels of distrust towards democratically elected governments[4], we are, more than ever, perhaps, called as responsible citizens of this world to re-evaluate how we produce truths, and, to keep on creating spaces from which to disseminate stories and transforming messages, capable of reaching large audiences worldwide.
Mitch Epstein, American Power, 2011 ("a five-year long, twenty-five state investigation of energy production and consumption in the American landscape, it questions the power of nature, government, corporations, and mass consumption in the United States."[5])

  Maria Petrides, on wall st., 2011

Maria Petrides, on wall st., 2011 (to watch a video made by Cypriot visual artist, Kakia Catselli and myself, in October 2011, during Occupy Wall St. visit

Writer, curator, editor and artist, Alfredo Cramerotti, in Aesthetic Journalism: How to Inform without Informing, talks about tracing a shift in the production of truth from the domain of the news media to that of art and aestheticism. He writes, ‘we no longer consider artists as specialized craftspeople: to produce sense socially and politically one has to abandon the idea of artisanship in favour of innumerable forms of expression, which include film festivals, newspapers, television, internet, radio and magazines’[6]. If every artist is a journalist, as the title of the Blowup Reader series[7] suggests, then our ongoing belief that ‘journalism is intended to be a service in the interest of the highest number of people possible’[8] can work its way imaginatively through infinite forms of visual and textual articulation, focusing on the importance of what art practice and research transforms, and not what it represents. With a real emphasis insistent on what artistic means can do rather than “be”, they bring us, I believe, ‘closer to listening to those for whom this world has become intolerable.’
Artists as intervening tellers of critical communication, and as reclaimed journalists, in the way that journalism ought to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable[9] was born in the 1960s. As media historian, critic and curator, Deirdre Boyle writes, ‘[This] was an auspicious time for the debut of portable video. The role of the artist as individualist and alienated hero was being eclipsed by a resurgence of interest in the artist’s social responsibility, and as art became politically and socially engaged, the distinctions between art and communication blurred. At first there were few distinctions between video artists and activists, and nearly everyone made documentary tapes.’[10]

On April 22, 2011, a year after the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, art activist group  Liberate Tate protested against Tate’s sponsorship relationship with BP. Their intervention involved pouring charcoaled sunflower oil from “gas cans painted with the BP logo on them” over a third member’s naked body”. On the same day, 166 artists published a letter in the Guardian calling on Tate to end its sponsorship with BP.[11] To watch the documented video of the protest/performance, visit:

However, unlike the mid to end of the 20th century, this century has abundant means by which to re-tell its histories and stories, and to make its interventions, digital and physical postings, or direct actions. And it’s important that we have access to so many places from which to be inventive and truthful in speaking critically to the social injustices around us. American hacker-ethicist Steven Levy in discussion with British poet and blogger Rick Holland tells us that, ‘the daily forms of communication and storytelling have changed drastically, and I think that affects how we think. I think our brains are hard-wired to respond to narrative and storytelling, so it’s not surprising to me that we construct narratives out of all possible forms of communication and expression, and that’s why platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and instant messaging have become such rich wells of ideas: because they each present different forms of spontaneous narrative.’[12]

Digital narratives and literacy actually stir us from being idle consumers of a technology where information is received without much critique, to becoming cradles of awareness by posting ourselves publicly in the world which we live, both online and off. This publicized process of production and prophetic endorsement potentially transforms public opinion and destabilizes the protocol of traditional media and mainstream platforms of news broadcasting. It is not the question of truths that is in any crisis, I don’t think. It is how we evaluate these truths and the means made available to us so that we can relay them that we ought to be concerned about keeping current, truthful and imaginative. And what these visual and other means share is their effectiveness as tools to enhance critical reflection and provoke action in public and private spaces, consequently, showing us how to ‘get closer to listening to those for whom this world has become intolerable.’

Jane and Louise Wilson, Untitled 1 (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) 2010 - (interior of building in Pripyat) the ghost town situated within proximity to the Chernobyl disaster. The artists travelled to the Ukraine to “shoot a series of large- format photographs in a 30-square km radius known as the Exclusion Zone. This area marks the limits of radioactive territory that is still considered too dangerous to support prolonged exposure (although thousands of people entered the zone each day to work in the three remaining nuclear reactors until December 2000).”[13]

Maria Petrides, Independent Writer
Appeared in The Cyprus Dossier - Issue 3: 'In Crisis - Countdown To Infinite Crisis'


Boyle Deirdre, A Brief History of American Documentary Video’, Subject to Change: Guerilla Television Revisited, Oxford University Press, 1997
Cramerotti Alfredo, Aesthetic Journalism: How to Inform without Informing, Intellect:   
   The University of Chicago Press, 2009
Griffee Susannah L, Ojalvo Holly Epstein, ‘Do You Trust Your Government’, The New            
   York Times, May 8, 2012
Ed. Gordon MacDonald, photoworks, Issue: November-April 2011/12
Ed. Dax Max, Electronic Beats Magazine, Issue: No 29, Spring 2012
Popken Ben, ‘Art Activists Cover Naked Body In Oil In Tate Museum To Protest Censorship And BP Sponsorship’, The Consumerist, April 22, 2011, retrieved May 5, 2012, from 
Roy Arundhati, the algebra of infinite justice, Viking by Penguin Books, 2001

[1] Roy Arundhati. (2001) the algebra of infinite justice, p. xxii
[2] Indian governments have often used the pretext of threat to both India and Kashmir from neighbouring Pakistan in order to enforce extreme nationalist agendas. ‘Text of Vajpayee’s Letter to Bill Clinton’, The Hindu, 14 May 1998
[3] Roy Arundhati. (2001) the algebra of infinite justice, p. 24
[4] In October 2011, a relatively recent poll found that Americans’ distrust of government is at its highest levels in history. Almost half of the public thought that the sentiment at the root of the Occupy movement generally reflects the views of most Americans.
[6] Cramerotti Alfredo. (2009), ‘Why Aesthetic? P. 22. See also Cramerotti’s website.
[7] This particular series collected texts on the subject of art as a form of journalism. Visit
[8] Cramerotti Alfredo. (2009), ‘Why Journalism? P. 22. See also Cramerotti’s website.
[9] Dunne Finley Peter. (1899), Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War. The whole quote of the humorist is as follows: ‘The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead, and roasts them afterward’.
[10] Boyle Deirdre. (1997), A Brief History of American Documentary Video, p. 51
[11] Popken Ben. (2011) Art Activists Cover Naked Body In Oil In Tate Museum To Protest Censorship And BP Sponsorship
[12] Ed. Dax Max (2011) Holland Rick & Levy Steven during a skype discussion, “I thought I was staring into the mystery of life itself”, Electronic Beats Magazine, p. 71

[13] Schuppli Susan. (2011) ‘Material Malfeasance: Trace Evidence of Violence in Three Image-Acts’, photoworks, p. 29