An Introduction to Respublika!
Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy
The Rationale of Democratisation
Respublika! has contributed to the discussions and reflections about participation and democracy, and how they are performed in contemporary Western societies. Respublika!s engagement has not been neutral, because it was driven by the idea of the necessity of deepening the democratic revolution, labelled by Chantal Mouffe (1988), or to democratise democracy, to use the words of Anthony Giddens (1994). It was also driven by the need to protect democracy from the incessant attempts to reduce its span and undermine its strength. In order to better understand this position, it is important to realise that democracy is always incomplete and unfinished, which implies that it can be improved, but also that it needs to be protected, as it is always under threat.
Respublika!s imaginary of intensifying democracy is intimately connected to the decentralisation and equalisation of power relations. This explains why participation plays a crucial role in Respublika!, as this is the concept that allows capturing these mechanics of power-sharing. As a concept, participation is crucial in furthering our understanding and conceptualisation of social change, keeping in mind that participation (and democracy for that matter) are not only located in the realm of politics, but transgress the borders of institutional politics, and can become activated in the many different fieldsincluding the artsthat together make up the social.
There are, of course, many different ways that participatory processes can be, and are, organised. In some cases, participation is only used in signifying practices about processes that are allegedly participatory, with hardly any redistribution of power taking place. A long time ago, in a 1969 article, Sherry Arnstein labelled these practices non- participatory or forms of token participation. In other cases, the redistribution of power remains limited, and privileged actors remain in control, even though there is a certain degree of power sharing with unprivileged actors. These minimalist forms of participation occur quite often, while maximalist forms of participation are much rarer, as the equalisation of the power relations between privileged and unprivileged actors is hard to reach and even harder to maintain. In this respect, maximalist participation is a utopia, important to strive for, and a significant motivator for social change, but impossible to establish on a permanent basis.
Even if maximalist participation is hard to reach, some social settings are more prone to facilitating these more intense forms of participation. In particular, civil society organisations, distinct from state and market, are often seen as prime locations of democratisation and maximalist participation. Civil society is the site of voluntary association of citizens, which almost automatically produces the need for collaboration and coordination amongst equals. Of course, civil society does not always live up to these democratic expectations. Informal power imbalances, that disturb maximalist forms of participation, are rife in civil society. Also the objectives of some civil society organisations are not necessarily democratic, as the existence of civil society organisations geared towards the installation of authoritarian cultures and regimes demonstrate. Still, many civil society organisations are committed to democratic values, and practice and perform democracy on an everyday basis, also, in some cases, supporting these more maximalist participatory practices.
Respublika! has been particularly inspired by the democratic ideologies and practices of one type of civil society organisation, namely community media organisations. This is why Respublika!s subtitle was A Cypriot Community Media Arts Festival. Community media aim to serve the communicative needs of particular communities, allowing them to exert their right to communicate. Different from mainstream media organisations, community media focus on alternative (sometimes counter-hegemonic) content, alternative formats and alternative (and more horizontal) organisational structures. They remain firmly embedded in civil society, connecting other (non-media) civil society organisations and acting as hybrid crossroads for them, also translating the more maximalist versions of participation into organisational practice.
Especially their alternativity provides a bridge to the more artistic practices, as community media are not only reservoirs of participatory knowledge, but also provide shelters for a wide range of creative practices, as diverse as, for instance, sound art, experimental television, performance and installation art, and caricature. Moreover, exactly this combination of expertiseparticipatory and creativerenders community media organisations also key actors in the field of participatory arts, even though they are rarely acknowledged for this capacity. Respublika! remedied this neglect and tapped into both reservoirs.
Respublika!s commitment to the intensification of democracy has resulted in a combination of two strategies: A reflexive strategy and a participatory strategy. Respublika!s reflexive strategy has led to the inclusion of art projects that reflect on issues about democracy and its participatory component, analysing the (de)centralisation of power in contemporary societies. These art projects were not necessarily participatory in their own right, as non-participatory art projects from individual artists who analysed democratic and participatory practices were included. Behind this strategy is the idea that individual critical reflection about democracy and participation remains valuable and should not be sacrificed by an exclusive focus on participatory arts. Instead, participatory arts and non-participatory arts addressing democracy should be combined and integrated, placed a dialogical setting, also towards each other.
The second (participatory) strategy did explicitly focus on the integration of participatory practice in art production, welcoming art projects that use participatory mechanisms to produce art works, collaborating with, and empowering members of one, or more, communities. In these art projects, we saw artists and non-artists join forces in the production of art works, sharing power within this production process, and thus rendering the arts field itself more democratic. This does not imply, however, that the artist, and his/her knowledge and expertise is removed from the equation. What it does mean is that also the knowledges and expertises of non-artists are respected and allowed into the artistic production process, leading to more balanced power relations and collaborative processes. Of course, in a number of cases, the selected art works combine both reflexive and participatory strategies, allowing to reflect about democracy and participation through the organisation of participation.
This position unavoidably implied that Respublika!s remit has been translated into an openness in relation to the artists exhibiting their work, as it aimed to tap into the creative reservoirs of community media, civil society organisations, and social collectives (and their members); but also artists committed to the basic principles of participatory community communication. In doing so, Respublika! very much welcomed contributions by established artists, and also included art projects from individuals and groups that do not explicitly define themselves as artists, but still use an arts language in order to reflect and communicate about themes that are part of the Respublika!s remit.
In order to facilitate this inclusion, care was taken to communicate the launch of Respublika! and the possibilities to take part in the project as broad as possible. Two open calls were distributed on a large scale, through a variety of channels. In collaboration with the Cyprus Community Media Centre (CCMC), and in particular Orestis Tringides and Hazal Yolga, who took on the role as conference secretariat, several preparatory workshops were organised, allowing interested artists to meet with the Respublika! project team, be briefed on the projects remit and to test the waters with initial ideas for art projects. The eventual selection was decided by a committee consisting of the curator, a representative of CCMC and a representative from NeMe. The diverse set of communicational strategies was combined with a dialogical curatorial style, where submitted art projects (and their narratives) were extensively discussed. These discussions resulted in a better integration of the selected arts projects into Respublika!s remit and generated more overall coherence.
Another way that Respublika! generated more diversity was through the choice of multiple locations and multiple artistic genres. Respublika!s openness and inclusiveness translated into its spatial politics, as Respublika! combined multiple platforms, with the NeMe Arts Centre as the main project hub and the first platform. The second platform moved away from settings associated with the more traditional arts world, situating a number of the art projects outside the confinements of the arts gallery (without depreciating it), moving, for instance, into the squares of Nicosia and Limassol, into the Nicosia Buffer Zone, and into a hospice, By combining arts exhibitions with a festival outside the more traditional exhibitions spaces, Respublika! opened up a diversity of spaces for artistic intervention, bringing the Respublika! projects closer to its audiences.
Finally, Respublika!s openness implied that non-Cypriot artists were also welcome. Respublika! has been enriched by a dialogue that transgressed the Cypriot borders and moved beyond the shores of the island. Cypruss internal frontiers were overcome, by organising festival activities in both north and south Nicosia, by featuring multi-communal art projects, grounded in collaborations between members of the different Cypriot communities, and by thematising some of the issues that divide these communities.
What Has Been Done
The two main Respublika! exhibitions illustrate the combination of the above-mentioned reflexive and participatory strategies. The first Respublika! exhibition, entitled Open Community - Open Networks, featured the work of Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud, and ran from 4 November until 2 December 2017. Wachter and Jud, who won the Golden Nica award at the Prix Ars Electronica 2016, exhibited work which reflected on how digital technologies can be used for the purpose of surveillance and control, but also how these technologies can be used to overcome state domination, and empower social groups with weakened power positions.
The second Respublika! exhibition, Participation Matters, ran from 8 December 2017 to 19 January 2018, containing 14 arts projects, authored by, amongst others, a photography collective, a community radio station, activist groups and NGOs, academics and students, terminally ill people, migrants and refugees. As a group exhibition, Participation Matters, combined art projects produced by individual artists, with participatory arts projects that originated from collaborations between artists and non-artists.
In addition to these two main exhibitions, three other formats were used, namely the Festival, the Seminar Series and the Online Platform. During the second week of December 2017, when also the Participation Matters exhibition opened its doors, 17 festival events were organised in Limassol and Nicosia, sometimes using the NeMe Arts Centre, but in the majority of cases moving out of the art gallery. One of these events, was presented at the Materia Care and Rehabilitation Unit, where the Life:Moving videos were screened.
Secondly, the seminar series allowed for more extensive reflections on the Respublika! remit. Three seminars were organised, with the first one taking place on 4 November 2017. Entitled an archeology of silence in the digital age, this seminar featured the artists of the first main exhibition, Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud. The second seminar was organised on 24 November 2017, and entitled Community media, Community Art Production and Democratic Knowledge. The third seminar was called Participation, Active Citizenship and Community Media and took place on 13 January 2018.
Finally, the online platform, a curated space in its own right, provided access to many of the art projects (e.g., the videos) and to additional material (e.g., interviews with the artists), providing ample contextualisations for all art projects. This platform, whose structure was designed by Yiannis Colakides, is accessible and can be found on http://respublika.neme.org/.
The Fourth Platform: The Catalogue
This publication, which is the fourth Respublika! platform, provides further contextualisations to, and reflections about, the arts projects and the Respublika! remit. All 18 arts projects have found their place in the catalogue, through photographic documentation, the artist statements, and interviews with the majority of the artists conducted by curatorial assistant Olga Yegorova. In addition, Respublika!s programmatic texts and the contributions of many of the speakers at the Respublika! seminars, have also been included in the catalogue. This combination renders the catalogue a key resource about democracy, participation and the arts.
The catalogue has four main parts, which are very much grounded in the themes of Respublika!, within its larger remit. The first part is entitled Participations and has the core participatory art projects and key reflexive texts about participation, and the ability to share power in (and with) the arts. The second part brings out more of the democratic and the political, grouping arts projects and texts dealing with the political interventions that art can constitute. Thirdly, the part on interactions focusses on those projects that reach out to their publics, without structurally altering power relations, but are still crucial in connecting arts with its publics and opening up the arts. Finally, part four focusses on identity, community, technology and nature and how these, factors connect with participation and democracy.
A Word of Thanks
A surprising number of people were involved in Respublika!, and they all merit my gratitude. Of course, there are the many artists who worked with me and the Respublika! team, whose work, energy, and patience produced the interdisciplinary project that Respublika! became.
But also the organisational team played a vital role in Respublika!s success, with NeMes Helene Black and Yiannis Colakides, CCMCs conference secretariat with Orestis Tringides and Hazal Yolga, and the curatorial assistant, Olga Yegorova. The many volunteers were equally instrumental in Respublika!s success. These volunteers were (in alphabetical order): Maria Alexandrou, Savvas Alexandrou, Efstathios Efstathiou, Hayal Gezer, Davita Günbay and Froso Nikolaou.
There were many photographers at work at Respublika!, whose photographs have been included here, with their kind permission. Several of the artists also contributed, but in particular Sakari Laurila, Olga Yegorova, Orestis Tringides, Hazal Yolga, Vaia Doudaki and Davita Günbay made substantial contributions to the photographic documentation of Respublika!. Also a selection of my own photographs have been included in this publication. Furthermore, the beautiful catalogues design was created by Natalie Demetriou from ndLine.
Respublika! has been supported by the Cultural Services of the Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture, the Cypriot Community Media Research Programme of Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Medochemie, Sheila Pinkel, the Department of Informatics and Media at Uppsala University and the Cyprus Community Media Centre.
Additional support has been provided by (in alphabetical order): CUTradio, Hoi Polloi (Simon Bahceli), Home for Cooperation, IKME Sociopolitical Studies Institute, Join2Media, KEY-Innovation in Culture, Education and Youth, Materia (Sotia Nicolaou and Marina Polycarpou), MYCYradio, Old Nicosia Revealed, Studio 21 (Dervish Zeybek) and the Uppsala Stadsteater.
I thank all of them, and all of those I may have accidentally forgotten.
Arnstein, Sherry R. A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35, no. 4 (1969): 216-224.
Giddens, Anthony. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994.
Mouffe, Chantal. Radical Democracy: Modern or Postmodern. In Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism, edited by Andrew Ross, 31-45. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.