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Art in Response to Oppression

Stages of Resistance
Elizabeth Hess wears a black shirt and stands with her arms crossed, smiling, against a gray background.

This piece is part of a new Lark blog salon curated by Caridad Svich called “Stages of Resistance.” This salon welcomes reflections and articles on issues and themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor and/or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this blog series hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through art-works. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and early April 2017.

‘Resistance’ feels like such a provocative and misunderstood word to me, so I looked it up in the Macmillan dictionary and discovered, not surprisingly, that it has multiple meanings, including:

  • The ability not to be affected or harmed by something;
  • Refusal to accept something new such as a plan, idea, or change;
  • Opposition to someone or something, especially a political or military opponent;
  • A force that makes a moving object move more slowly;
  • The ability of something to stop the flow of electricity

Embedded in all but the first definition is the notion of refusal, opposition, force and stopping.

In my book, ACTING & BEING: Explorations in Embodied Performance, I include a psychological investigation into the theme of communication in which “actors each generate a “message” that is a conscious object of provocation. It is prompted by some affront or injury to their character in which their rights are violated.”  The “message” doesn’t need to mirror the actor’s own beliefs and they may actually find greater freedom in choosing something that feels taboo or politically incorrect - providing some much-needed personal distance.

The actors then engage each other in the simulation of a protest gathering, and within a short time, the characters with similar “messages” join forces to confront or combat those whom they now clearly identify as the opposition. They shout or chant their messages, often arriving at a reductive statement that cements their grievances, while becoming increasingly agitated or alienating as their ‘tribe’ devolves into verbal and physical bombast or morphs into a silent but unmovable force.  

After the exploration the actors discuss their experience and are often shocked to discover that they actually adopted the point of view of their character due to heightened emotions, and that not one of them was ever persuaded to change their position, but if anything, held on to it with increasing voracity.

I have taken part in many protests over many years, and am aware that I am part of a collective response that may be necessary and important to create awareness and action, solidarity and support in addressing issues of repression. But Art has the ability to move us – hopefully ethically as well as emotionally - through metaphor and allegory and indirection. I was once in conversation with several playwrights from the former Soviet bloc who said they initially struggled with their new-found freedom because they had learned to question the system by creating work that slipped under the radar – by writing in a kind of verbal, visual and/or physical code, which also fed their imaginations. One thinks of the uncompromising and compelling work that is being created by Belarus Free Theater today. Or, that was generated centuries ago by Commedia Del Arte with their invention of gromalot - a form of gibberish that they employed in their earliest works to get around the censorship of Church and State. And so, repression can act as a tremendous incentive for artists to create work that is as transformative as it is truth-telling.

This takes me back to that first definition of resistance in which one is not affected or harmed by something. Rather than allow toxicity to erode our power, or undermine our shared humanity, we can heal community through collaborative creativity that employs Art to address wrongs in a wily and wondrous way.