Sites Of Violence: Invisibility, Responsibility and Resonance

Danielle Celemajer, Megan Mackenzie and Damien Ricketson interweave their thoughts on research and the role of the artist in creating space for collective care.

Photo by Thomas Willmott on Unsplash.

Sites of Violence collaborators Danielle Celemajer, Megan Mackenzie and Damien Ricketson meditate on what first drew them to the project, where the edges of their research and thinking resonate with issues of violence and what they hope to explore as artists and researchers during this collective endeavour.

Their individual responses have been interwoven below into a single cohesive voice in a distillation of the collaborative and unbounded essence of the work itself.

I came into consciousness growing round the kernel of the truth of violence. It did not come from the outside; or perhaps more accurately, it came before there was a distinction between outside and inside. The stories of torture that were told to me before there was a me meant I grew around them. This is perhaps why it is so difficult for me to understand how it is that so many others do not resonate with the violence they encounter.

I want to see less violence and I think the only way to achieve this is to face violence, ask new questions about violence, and take violence seriously. In my work I try to walk straight into the hardest and most intense stories and elements of violence, and that’s hard. When I met Michelle, she immediately asked questions about my work that got to the heart of what I am actually doing and trying to do. It felt instantly like we were on the same page, there was no need to overexplain or justify the work or the intentions – we could just get to the ideas and the possibilities, and that’s exciting. I trust Michelle, and I trust the people she’s brought into the project.

I see this project as opening up multiple intersecting dimensions, of music, of story, of argument, of image, of data, of embodiment to explore how we might better create different modalities of resonance. Sound has a fascinating affective power to lay down moods and memories, to inscribe culture, time and place, to encapsulate identity and viscerally express one’s sense of the world. Music holds such capacity to capture sites of violence: a sonic code that may contain echoes or reverberations of distant wrongs or hold an expressive power to speak out where words otherwise fail.

“Sound has a fascinating affective power to lay down moods and memories, to inscribe culture, time and place, to encapsulate identity and viscerally express one’s sense of the world.”

Doing this type of work with others means we can share and support in this unified quest to understand and reduce violence. Why? Because violence stops beings from being, and that is simply wrong. But more than merely documenting violence or articulating norms that declare it wrong, how might we focus on rebuilding pathways from insensibility to sensibility? How do we rebuild the ship at sea? How do we start where we are, in mass numbness, and move to affective aliveness, not only amongst the usual suspects – the permeable and those recruited into care (by their gender or economic need)?

“How do we start where we are, in mass numbness, and move to affective aliveness?”

From a cultural perspective, there are fascinating dynamics of power in creative processes. The ways in which creative voices are silenced can be seen as a form of violence. So how can we, as artists, curators, researchers, carve out space so that voices that are seldom heard can flourish? Specifically, how can we better support artists whom, for whatever reason – gender, race, socio-economic, neurodiversity – struggle to be noticed or heard.

This is a key concern – whose experiences of violence register as violence? Who registers as the noise produced as a matter of course in the business of production? When does violence register as injustice, and who has an experience of being responsible for causing it, preventing it, caring for those who experience it? There is a cruel symmetry between the invisibility of certain violences (against women, against animals) and the expectation that those same beings will take the responsibility to care and provide for others.

For example, the mass murder of donkeys in Australia is funnelled through a series of cultural, economic and ontological filters until it shows up as a rational form of action, if not an ethical contribution to biodiversity. Placing a radio collar around the neck of a jenny so that her love for her tribe facilitates killing becomes efficiency. How do we reverse engineer these cognitive and affective logics?

So much of what we do as humans is try to ignore our pain, concern, questions, empathy in order to maneuverer in the world and appear ‘together,’ ‘professional,’ and ‘expert.’ Instead, how can we connect major international discussions of violence even in regards to war, military suicide, military sexual violence, back to the everyday, the individual. These conversations resonate, trigger and evoke a reaction inside individuals. How can we find ways to show the uncomfortable links and to foster a sense that our deep reactions to, and experiences of, violence are valid and worthy of exploration. Rather than trying to build a border around an issue – so it can be bound and controlled and theorised and mastered – how might we weave connections that show the complex ways all forms of violence are connected.

There is so much to be gained through this kind of collaboration; new insights into forms of violence and, through the use of artistic work as a form of commentary and discourse, creative opportunities to affect change. Spinoza says it well (in the Political Treatise): “The fact is that men’s wits are too obtuse to get straight to the heart of every question, but by discussing, listening to others, and debating, their wits are sharpened, and by exploring every avenue they eventually discover what they are seeking, something that meets with general approval and that no one had previously thought of.”

I really love the conversations that I’ve had with members of the project – many of these have been ‘informal’ and offline. I actually think these conversations are a great achievement of the project and- without muting or stifling them – I hope we can capture the messy working-through that we do along the way.

Artists working with academics from different disciplines can serve to enrich and gain all sorts of new perspectives in practice. I want to have space to listen a lot to the brilliant work of others, to be spontaneous in what the interdisciplinary conversations evoke, but also time to digest these conversations and see what long-term shifts they create in all of our thinking and work. Entering the project with open objectives and an open mind is key so that we can establish authentic collaborations.

This article is part of the Sites of Violence project which merges artistic and academic understandings of human and non-human experiences of violence, and the processes, emotions, and meaning that this violence reveals. This transboundary approach dismantles learned indifference by introducing novel perspectives to old problems, and facilitates productively disruptive collaborations between researchers and artists.

Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research stands at the interface of theories exploring the multi-dimensional nature of injustice and the practice of human rights. She recently completed a European Union funded multi-country project on the prevention of torture, focusing on everyday violence in the security sector. Her publications include Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology (Cambridge, 2009), Power, Judgment and Political Evil: Hannah Arendt’s Promise (Routlege, 2010) A Cultural History of Law in the Modern Age (Bloomsbury, 2018) and The Prevention of Torture; An Ecological Approach (Cambridge, 2018). She is now moving in to work on the relational intra-space between human and non-human animals.

Megan Mackenzie is Professor of Gender and War in the Department of Government and International Relations. Her research bridges feminist international relations, critical security studies and development studies. Her book, Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security, and Post-Conflict Development examines women’s participation in the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone and the challenges and insecurities they faced during the post-conflict reintegration process.

Damien Ricketson is a Sydney-based composer whose music is characterised by colourful sound-worlds, novel forms and is often multi-sensory in nature. His recent research has focused on the physiological relationship between sound and the body in the pursuit of a visceral music to bypass the brain and act directly on the nervous system. Major works have included The Howling Girls (2018), an experimental opera co-created with director Adena Jacobs; The Secret Noise (2014); and Fractured Again (2010).

For media enquiries, contact Vivienne Reiner, University of Sydney Media and Public Relations Adviser, +61 2 9351 2390 or vivienne.reiner@sydney.edu.au.