Fostering intrinsic values through immersive and participatory campaigning
On Thursday the 6th December 2012, as part of Oxfam’s weekend of action on the land campaign, I co organised a well attended auction in Bristol city centre. The auction wasn’t selling antiques, vehicles or even animals, but Bristol’s very own landscapes, neighbourhoods and monuments.Staff from Grab Grab & Profit auction house went to town, selling off Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol Temple Meads Train Staion, Easton, St Pauls, nearby trees and even people. Grab Grab & Profit wanted to incubate the private investment of Bristol by selling to competitive corporate bidders, so sold off lotts at exceptionally attractive rates. Members of the public were compelled, with some attempting to take part in the land rush, while many others objected to the blatant injustice taking place, and put their name to supporting the land campaign, calling for the world bank to enforce a 6 month freeze on all large scale land investments, and then review the process by which large scale land purchases are conducted. More information on the land campaign, calling for an end to unjust land grabs here.
So, was the auction for real? No, it was a piece of pop up participatory theatre, devised and enacted by a motley crew of local actors and activists interested in using theatre as a medium to engage public interest in social and environmental justice. Using the arts to spotlight political and social ills is not a new approach. Throughout contemporary art history, the arts have explored the socio-political sphere, and at times challenged it directly. Artists such as Hans Hacke, Mona Hatoum, Jenny Holzer and Barbar Kruger encompass the political into their mediums of expression. Movements such as the Situationists, relational aesthetics and radical art groups such as Guerilla Girls and more recently Pussy Riot exemplify the power art has to engage many with a new frame through which it is possible to view the world.
Now, how does using theatre, performance and the arts relate to Common Cause, and in particular frames and values? The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan asserted. Using the arts to convey information, primes values that a petition or campaign stall would not. This is because the vehicle used to convey the message is itself a signifier, it reinforces the meanings associated with the the action. Roland Barthes argued that specific connotations helped reinforce specific social values, through the associations of the use of certain signs. If our campaign medium is considered to be a series of signs in itself, then we must choose methods of communication that signify and embody the values that we want to reinforce. By using a medium such as participatory street theatre to engage the public with the issue of land grabs, we invite individuals to participate, to improvise, to create. All these efforts are part of the process of engaging with positive political action against an injustice and in this case, land grabs. When we refer back to the Common Cause definition of intrinsic and extrinsic values, we can see the intrinsic values that we are keen to nourish through various mediums of communication. Choosing communication methods that prime values that are inherently rewarding to pursue, such as social justice, concern for others and creativity, mean that there is the primary effect of information transfer. The secondary effect is the cultivation of values that make it more likely to relate to, and act on the message we are communicating.
Here’s to the continued exploration of participatory theatre in public political engagement strategy.