New forms of cultural activism in the Maghreb since 2011
Place: Institute of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Munich
Date: July 5th to 7th
The “Arab street” has evolved since 2011 not only as a stage of violent clashes between those who enact their role as proxies of the sovereign state and those who oppose it, but also as an arena in which inverse visions of good governance, discordant voices on social justice, and contrapuntal readings of a life in dignity (karāma) collide. This workshop aims at knowing and comprehending the existing forms of cultural activism in the Maghreb in wake of the Arab uprisings, exploring the multiple ways in which people’s creative and disruptive practices challenge and wean the authoritarian state’s control over the “urban theatre“ (Bayat 2017: 184) in subtle and (at times) scandalous manners.
The workshop takes its departure from a preliminary understanding of cultural activism as invoking acts geared towards doing resistance through culture. It aims at studying how polymorphic forms of power and resistance in the postcolonial state manifest not only in the guise of brute force and violent repression, but also in more subtle and microphysical struggles over the inoculation of bodies, the governance of the senses, and the cultivation of (embodied) sensibilities through an ongoing iconoclastic spectacle of ephemeral images, transitory sounds and the solid surface of the urban space.
It should be noted that acts of resistance always hope to end up in the other “theatre of immediacy” (LeVine and Reynold 2016) we call the street. The street is the embodiment of state control, which is why protest is anti-dwelling (you can’t protest from your bedroom). The threat to linger in the street, blocking the city roads, is evocative of a crisis at the conceptual meaning, functionality and rationale of accommodation. Demonstrations, sit-ins-festivals, street art, graffiti, urban memes, cross-dressing parades and shows, doppelganger situations, carnival defecations happen, when they happen, in the street. It is vital to link cultural activism with the city and its squares, knowing that the transgressive performances of cultural activists post-2011, be they iconographic, prosaic or auditory, are more often than not city-centered, intrinsically attached to the street as the site where things happen. Truth has it that some cultural projects also gain life and experience death outside the physical landscapes of the street (i.e. perhaps in World Wide Web arenas, social media platforms, hesitant artistic sketchbooks, and abstract mental cell rooms). Nevertheless, these projects all seem to be haunted by and shot through with specters of the city as the ultimate opera house of disruptive practices.
The emergence of new forms and figures in urban theatres of immediacy has raised (anew) the question on the social and political role of art and artists after 2011. Artistic production in a particular society is the result, among other things, of the emotional involvement of artists. Such involvedness informs a shift in the domain of art beyond aesthetics. Bearing witness to the rise of social plights, the discontentedness of the artist mixes with what they produce (music, paint, theatrical/filmic texts, photographs and poetry). Through art, they mobilize the masses and engage in „revolutions“, artistic and beyond. The driving force that hovers above and emanates from within artistic situations is extremely powerful, bringing the components of the artistic situation in direct confrontation with risk. Artists can easily jeopardize their freedom (i.e. Al Hoceïma’s artist Silya Ziani) as well as that of their supporters (i.e. lawyers, masses) in the course of such realizations. LeVine points out that “it is impossible to move large masses of people into the streets and convince them to risk everything for the slim chance of changing their future for the better without having a powerful cultural and artistic component to convey the messages in the most affective—that is, emotionally effective—manner possible” (LeVine, 2005: 1278).
The workshop intends to approach these new forms of art and cultural activism from a number of intertwined angles and perspectives:
On the one hand, it reflects the conditions of how cultural agency works, including the notions of euphoria, imagination, and secularism. Indeed, far from only upsetting fluid dynamics in the city, cultural activism generates three conditions: 1) a unique sensation of urban euphoria (augmented by literal and symbolic drunkenness, laughter, trance, etc.), 2) a time stream that connects urban imaginaries of the performers and their audiences with the nation’s social and political collective memory (linking the past to present/future visions), and 3) a powerful moment of worldliness that enjoys a flair of poignant secularism.
Second, it asks about the genealogy of cultural activists’ disruptive practices that seek to decentre and dis-orient the regime’s hegemony over the senses and challenge its sovereign vision of society ‘from below’. It argues that these practices’ (non-)aesthetic vocabularies are not only rooted in historical and, at times, pre-secular traditions of movement (ḥirāk) and assembly (jamʿ); of dissimulation (ikhfāʾ), revelation (waḥy), and self-disclosure (al-kashf ʿan al-dhāt); of listening (samʿ) or speaking truth to power (kalimat al-ḥaqq), but also in other territorial sites to and from which they travel in order to be re-enacted in new arenas of power and resistance, thereby establishing transnational networks of hegemony, rebellion and (counter-)contestation.
Third, it asks: what are the limits of cultural and artistic engagement in politics? What are the types of artistic dis(engagement) in times of uprising and social turmoil? And in as much have these limites and types been subject to change since 2011?
“The Maghreb in Transition” is a multilateral and interdisciplinary research partnership between the Universities of Sousse, Carthage and La Manouba in Tunisia, the Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah (Fez), Hassan II. (Casablanca), Al Akhawayn University (Ifrane) and the Institut National de Statistique et d’Economie Appliquée (Rabat) in Morocco, and the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Germany. The partnership is sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German Federal Foreign Office.
For further information, contact:
Dr Moulay Driss El Maarouf (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr Ramzi Ben Amara (email@example.com)
Dr des. Amir Hamid (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Bayat, Asef. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Second Edition. Stanford University Press, 2013
Kraidy, Marwan M. The Naked Blogger of Cairo. Harvard University Press, 2016
LeVine, Mark and Brian Reynolds. Theater of Immediacy: Performance Activism and Art in the Arab Uprisings, in: Mark LeVine, Karin van Nieuwkerk, and Martin Stokes (eds.). Islam and Popular Culture. University of Texas Press, 2016