On Thursday the 6th December 2012, as part of Oxfam’s weekend of action on the land campaign, we 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 Station, Easton, St Pauls, nearby trees and even people. Grab, Grab & Profit wanted to promote private investment by selling off parts of Bristol to competitive corporate bidders at exceptionally attractive rates.
While some members of the public attempted to take part in the land rush, many others objected to the blatant injustice taking place, and put their name to supporting the land campaign. The Land Campaign calls for the world bank to enforce a 6 month freeze on all large scale land investments, and then review the process by which these 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 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. 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: self-direction values such as creativity and empowerment, as well as universalism values such as equality and social justice. Creativity values are emphasised by the playfulness of satire, while equality values are strengthened by the play being in a public space, with the divide between performers and audience broken down. The injustice of land-grabs is highlighted by parody: people’s neighbourhoods and public treasures like College Green being sold off without consultation strikes people as ridiculous, yet it reflects a reality that is taking place around the world.
All these efforts are part of the process of engaging with positive political action against an injustice and in this case, land grabs. Choosing communication methods that engage a range of intrinsic values mean that the campaign goes beyond information transfer to cultivate values that make it more likely that people will relate to, and act on the message we are communicating.