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Cultures of the Left in the Age of the Right-Wing Populism: Venice Report (s)

Around this time last year, we all congregated in Venice for our conference Cultures of the Left in the Age of Right-Wing Populism. While at the moment Venice is harder to reach than ever in the recent history, we bring you two reports by Mallarika Sinha Roy and Trina Nileena Banerjee from our conference that demonstrate why Cultures of the Left are important and urgent in our times.

Postcards from Cultures of the Left in venice


Cultures of the Left in the Age of Right Wing Populism

International Conference held at Palazzo Pesaro Papafava, Venice

Between Monday 15th - Wednesday 17th April 2019

Report by Trina Nileena Banerjee

This conference held at the Warwick University’s premises in Venice in April 2019 was the product of a long collaboration between scholars of Warwick University (United Kingdom) and those of Jawaharlal Nehru University (India). The conference was made possible by support from the British Academy’s Partnership and Mobility Grant awarded to the institutions for a period of three years (2016-2019). The project has also seen the participation of artistes, academics and researchers across disciplines from various institutions in Europe and overseas. The foundational question that drove the collaborative project and the conference it culminated in was the need to understand the survivals and current forms of international cultures of the left as well as how they might contribute to formulating an aesthetics of resistance and a vision of an inclusive, egalitarian society invested in the care of the commons and the values of the collective. Both the politics and aesthetics of these forms of resistance were critically important for us to study especially in view of the alarming ascension to power of the forces of the right the world over. In bringing together participants from several countries and continents, the conference sought to interrogate how artistes and researchers were encountering these questions in their work, while grappling with the realities of resurgent right-wing populism in their respective contexts. The conference began with a keynote by perhaps the best person to speak on some of these subjects – Professor Chantal Mouffe, who, in her recent book For a Left Populism (2018) had argued that the rise of the right the world over in populist forms should motivate the left to search for its own forms of populism, both aesthetic and political. While right-wing populism thrives on the fanning of religious hatred, xenophobia and fear of the other, left wing populism could address political dissatisfactions and unsatisfied desires of the population through popular championing of social justice, through aesthetic and affective modes. Mouffe sees art as absolutely crucial for this project of construction of a new left populism. The Venice conference took a cue from Professor Mouffe, in order to explore the languages and gestures through which a reformulated left populism could shape itself in the current global scenario. We sought to understand how such a language could resonate across diverse contexts internationally where the rise of authoritarian governments and populist movements of the right had all but stifled dissent and the desire for an egalitarian, just world. The preponderance of Performance Studies scholars both in the collaborative project and in this conference has meant that there was a lot of emphasis in understanding the performative dimensions of protest movements and the ways in which the left resistance has shaped itself the world over through modes of performative dissent, or, at the very least, public actions that could be read through the lens of performance. To understand the aesthetic modes and affective content of such a resistance means being able to envision them as reactive dissent, but also as building blocks of a new form of politics, one that is invested in a egalitarian public sphere, through an investment in collective care-work and the commons. The conference invited contributions from Latin America, African and Asian countries as well as from India, Europe and the US on themes of social justice, migration, gender, sexuality, forms and sites of protest, aesthetics and political theory.

On the first day Monday the 15th of April 2019, after Professor Bishnupriya Dutt (Department of Performance Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University) and Professor Silvija Jestrovic (Reader in Performance Studies, University of Warwick) briefly introduced the project and the conference theme to the assembled audience, Professor Chantal Mouffe begun her keynote. Mouffe, as the conference programme describes her, is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster and one of the most influential political theorists of our time. Her keynote on this day was titled “The Role of Affect in Agonistic Politics”. In her speech, Mouffe reflected on many of the themes of her earlier work, including the role of affects and passions in political life. She pondered especially on the contemporary political moment and the rise of right-wing populism, while ruminating on how artistic practices might help to organise affect towards a democratic and egalitarian political horizon. She also argued that the left’s refusal to engage with affect and its political force fully, as well as its reservations about a populist mode of politics, might have led towards the usurpation of its former strongholds by the right globally.

The post-lunch session on the first day saw the beginning of parallel panels held simultaneously in two rooms at the main venue. On 15th afternoon, there were two parallel panels titled “Assemblies” and “Collective Memory, Community and New Formations of ‘We’”. Adrian Kear’s paper in the first panel dealt with presentation vs. representation in the work ‘staging the people’ in performance in relation to two 2016 productions from the United Kingdom: Quarantine’s Quartet and Rimini Protokoll’s 100% Salford, in Manchester and Salford respectively. Igor Stiks’ paper in the same panel looked at the idea of the workers’ self management in former Yugoslavia of the 1950s and the surprising resurrection of this idea in the plenary citizen’s assemblies in the post-socialist Balkans. By tracing this journey and return, Stiks attempted to explore what he called the growing interest in self-management in both political and artistic practices over the last ten years. In the same session, Lily Maeve Climenhaga explored a 2017 political action project called General Assembly. The second panel held at the same time on the 15th afternoon, Adriana Diaconu and Grégory Busquet’s paper looked at the question of the right to the city through a comparative study of subaltern groups in Brixton, United Kingdom and Cluj, Romania. The different registers within which claims for the disenfranchised Roma and the black community are made in these two divergent contexts was put to question by Diaconu and Busquet. Marianne Drugeon’s paper looked at the experience of community theatre amongst different communities in Dorchester, United Kingdom, while Anika Marschall’s paper critically examined and juxtaposed Jonas Staal's New World Summit and Hamja Ahsan's Shy Radicals as artistic-political interventions that reimagine leftist propaganda in the backdrop of statelessness as a political problem and question extroverted vanguardism as the mode of doing progressive politics. In the last two panels of the day, titled “Agonistic Tactics” and “Strategies of Left-wing Populism”, several neoliberalism, protest, the futures of the left and party politics were presented. In the first panel, Andy Lavender’s paper looked at popular protests in terms of performance, looking at possible similarities of registers across right and left-wing expressions of popular dissent. Natasha Lushetich looked at the past and futures of ‘hactivism’ as dissent, while Dragan Todorovic looked at the history of protest walks as political pilgrimages, as well as what happens when movements that occupy public space must be negotiated online or through hyperspace. In the second panel, Rebecca Hillman and Sarah Weston looked at the possibility of creating sustainable cultures of resistance outside party politics through locally-embedded cultural work among activists in Salford. Theo Aiolfi explored the problem of charismatic leadership within left movements that privilege horizontal organisation and egalitarianism, while Lone Sorensen examined populism through the lens of political performance in the context of South Africa.

The sessions on Day Two began with two parallel panels on “Political Performance and Activism” and “Aesthetics of Resistance”. Aparna Mahiyaria examined the participation of right wing student groups in the Delhi University’s street theatre festival ‘Udaan’, while Steve Wilmer looked at how ideas of right-wing nationalism move from one national context to the other, calling this process, in a somewhat oxymoronic way – ‘transnational nationalism’. In the second panel of the first session, Vicky Angelaki spoke about the performance of citizenship and theatre as a mode of political reflection in the Austrian context. Amanda Stuart Fisher explored Foucault’s idea of ‘parrhesia’ in relation to performances that respond to real situations of racism through tribunal theatre. Yana Meerzon looked at Peter Weiss’ concept of aesthetic of resistance through the outreach project titled ‘Refugee Tales’ initiated by Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent University. In the following two panels “Performing Otherness” and “Leftist Politics by Other Means: Making Resistance”, there were several riveting papers. Amongst these were Jelena Vasiljević’s paper on the progressive and reactionary uses of political solidarity in neoliberal regimes where she looked at the possibilities of community political organisation in modern-day Serbia, and Nicholas Ridout’s exploration of the production “Quite the Best News in Some Considerable Time” (by Nicholas Ridout and Lindsay Goss) on the question of the role of intellectuals in the revolutionary struggle. Paul Clarke’s paper looked at the aesthetics of Uninvited Guests Make Better Please, which allowed multiple voices to retain their singularity in an attempt to radicalize social democracy. Ulfet Sevdi and Nicolas Royer-Artuso, as artistes, explored the problems of creating committed leftist performance art in America. In the next session, there were two parallel interventions: “Battle of Stories: A Provocation” by Susan Haedicke and Tim White, and a performance presentation titled “Last Pioneer: Childhood Happiness and Midlife Utopia” by the performance artist Snezana Golubovic. White and Haedicke’s intervention introduced David Solnit’s strategies of direct action/art-based social change campaigns to the audience, followed by a provocation to the audience which asked ‘whether a dominant narrative of right-wing populist movements can be identified and, if so, how the left should compose and tell an alternative narrative or, if not, how can public discourse be revitalized’. Snezana’s performance, which I attended, was an incredible exercise in political nostalgia, both satirical and intensely poignant. Snezana writes of her own performance art piece: “’Last Pioneer – Between Childhood-Happiness and Midlife-Utopia’ is a performative / visual presentation of my “Last Pioneer” (life-long) project – in seven scenes – a journey through four continents, with very personal (maybe sentimental) stories but also with a critical view of how and where do we as “children of the revolution” and 21st century adults.”

The post-lunch session was marked by the incisive and brilliant keynote by Professor Nivedita Menon titled “Performing the Constitution as an Insurgent Document”. Professor Menon writes in the abstract: “Insurgency means to ‘rise up against established authority’, but not necessarily with arms. To be insurgent is to resist an established order. How then, can a Constitution be insurgent? Does a Constitution not establish an order?” Starting from this almost contradictory premise, Professor Menon went on to describe three instances of performative resistance and dissent against the present right-wing government in India, and the deployment of the constitution as image, symbol and index of radical equality in all three of them. She, also, in passing, made a comment about how left politics in the Indian subcontinent has always been affective and charged with emotion, and that to suggest that the left world-over has shunned popular emotive and ritual content is to display a certain Eurocentric myopia. This led to a rather heated response from Professor Mouffe and this exchange took up most of the time for discussion following the second keynote. In the last session, there were two parallel panels titled “Indian Cultures of the Left” and “Nationalism and Counter-Nationalism”. In the first, the papers by Shirin Rai, Shayoni Mitra and Komita Dhanda resonated intensely with each other. While Shirin’s paper was an evocative and personal piece, Shayoni’s paper discussed the history of the Delhi IPTA and Komita’s drew on her own insightful research on the Praja Natya Mandali in rural Andhra. In the parallel panel, Malcolm James and Sivamohan Valluvan’s paper looked at the question of whiteness and the working class, especially racial nationalism in relation to the current crisis in United Kingdom, while Goran Petrovic-Lotina’s paper drew ‘inspiration from the left-leaning vertical social movement performances that practice engagement with dominant institutions as a strategy for contesting hegemonic politics’.

The third day began with three papers on “Feminist Lefts” by Naaz Rashid, Elaine Aston and Anuradha Kapur, respectively. Naaz Rashid’s paper looked at the representations of Muslim women in populist debates, which tend to be heavily couched in the language of women’s rights and gender equality. The interconnectedness of several battles against racism, class hierarchies and gender are ignored in much of this public discourse. Rashid analysed how and why this was so. Professor Aston’s paper looked at three recent theatrical productions to examine ‘the re-radicalization of feminism’: “Laura Wade’s satirical portrait of the middle-class housewife-by-choice in Home, I’m Darling (2018), […] David Greig’s version of The Suppliant Women (2016-17); and the socialist-feminist image/imagining of the seventies Grunwick Strike in Townsend Theatre Productions’ We Are the Lions Mr. Manager (2017-2018).” Professor Kapur’s responded to both of these papers while speaking of some of her own path-breaking work as a director as well as the work of some of her feminist contemporaries in India. In the last panel of the conference, Professor Janelle Reinelt, Tony Fisher and Liz Tomlin presented their papers. Professor Reinelt’s paper sought to explore how theatre can find “sources of renewal in such old Left values as equality, collectivity, and economic justice, alongside more recent values of diversity, global planning and environmental justice”, while Fisher’s work explored ideas of political efficacy in the work of art. Liz Tomlin’s paper reconsidered the political implications of ‘interpellation’ in a ‘climate in which spectator-subjects are being so expertly interpellated by the seductive myths of identity and agency propagated by the far right.’ The conference with a summing up and vote of thanks, preceded by comments and interventions by all the participants in general on the themes discussed.

The experience of these debates, reflections and ruminations shone as acutely urgent especially in the face of the beauty and fragility of a city like Venice, where everything felt precarious and exquisite at the same time. Many of these questions about the value of the commons, solidarity across continents, the value of care work and social reproduction, along with the possibility of a non-vanguardist political programme of action against rising authoritarianism and populist rhetoric come back to haunt us today as we sit facing this global pandemic that entrenched capitalism exacerbates and makes debilitating for all concerned.

Postcards from Venice

Cultures of the Left in the Age of Right-Wing Populism
Venice, 15th-17th April, 2019
Conference Report
Mallarika Sinha Roy


This conference was conceptualized as a culminating point of the collaborative Research Project on Cultures of the Left. Bishnupriya Dutt and Silvija Jestrovic gave an outline of the principal idea in their inaugural address. The conference was to look for new modes of aesthetic resistance through the lens of history – of left politics, of political theatre, of visuals and performances, and collective mobilisations. The geopolitical diversity of the regions in the presented papers, from the beginning of the conference, confirmed the pluralistic nature of historical legacies of leftist cultural politics. The personal and the political became an equally important theme as many presenters explored their journeys through their proposed research questions not only as members of the academic community but also as practitioners – and such practices ranged from being creative heads of national institutes, to performance artists, to participants in people’s theatre movement, to documentary film makers, to actively merging personal memoirs with historical unfolding of political events.

The question of Right-Wing Populism was discussed from various different angles in diverse spatio-temporal contexts. The keynotes of Chantal Mouffe and Nivedita Menon offered comparative and contrasting frameworks of conceptualizing affect, especially in performing the emotional investment in nationhood within the fundamental structures of democracy and mobilization of passion in political conflict. In terms of finding connections amongst histories and sociologies of neoliberalism, right-wing populism and protest, several scholars focused on urban space, spaces of theatrical performances, architectural aspects of theatres, and the role of spectacle in staging resistance. The nuances of feminist left cultural practices were discussed in the keynotes of Elaine Aston, Naaz Rashid and Anuradha Kapur. The keynote panel on feminism and the left articulated the significance of feminism vis-à-vis religious affiliation, class, caste and race both in terms art and politics. They reflected on the role of women, as producers and consumers of theatre and performance, in forming interconnected networks of resistance to fight inequalities and injustices.

An important theme of the conference, as it emerged through the presentations, followed by the discussions, was the reciprocal flow between focus on individual auteurs and collective performances. It is probably important to mark this dimension of the conference as an expansion on the dynamism between the personal and the political, or, the private and the public. The presentations revealed that along with the private being shaped by the public, the public was equally responding to individual/private articulations of politics and art, especially theatre and performance. Performance artist Snezana Golubović presented “Last Pioneer: Childhood-Happiness and Midlife Utopia” – a performance presentation – that highlighted the transnational character of left cultural practices. Susan Haedicke and Tim White presented “‘Battle of Stories’-- a Provocation”.

The issue of violence also became a significant framework to relate Right-Wing Populism and Left-Wing Resistance, with reference to long histories of their conflicts in different historical contexts. Exploring violence also offered glimpses to the intersecting points between anti-imperialist struggles, postcolonial imaginations, feminist politics and nationalism. The final keynote panel with Janelle Reinelt, Tony Fisher and Liz Tomlin expanded the theme of passionate politics in relation to the aesthetics of effective resistance through the race question, cultures and protocols of orality, and the significance of ‘Speech Act’.