Dr Paula Serafini, Research Associate, CAMEo Research Institute for Cultural and Media Economies, University of Leicester
On March 6th 2020 I had the privilege of hosting an interdisciplinary cohort of delegates for a workshop exploring the role of cultural production in movements for environmental justice in Latin America at the University of Leicester. The workshop was supported by the Institute of Latin American Studies (School of Advanced Studies, University of London) and the Leicester Institute for Advanced Studies (University of Leicester), and was part of the research events programme at CAMEo Research Institute for Cultural and Media Economies (University of Leicester).
The idea for this workshop originated from a commitment to promoting interdisciplinarity in research and activism around environmental justice and alternatives to development. Specifically, the aim was to bring together research that is looking at conflicts and mobilisations with cultural and artistic perspectives, given that it is through cultural practices that actors often make sense of environmental conflicts and open up spaces for generating alternative visions and practices.
The workshop offered a particular framing for these discussions to take place, focusing on the following set of concepts and perspectives:
- Environmental justice: Framing the event around environmental justice rather than climate action, ecological crisis or climate change invited participants to examine the ways in which different groups are affected by ecological breakdown, to reflect on the power dynamics in place in environmental movements (and research), and to take into account both global and situated perspectives when considering the meaning of justice.
- Alternatives to development: If we are going to look at the potential transformative role of cultural production in the face of ecological breakdown, this must be done in conversation with frameworks and practices in Latin America that constitute alternatives to development. Otherwise, we run the risk of falling into the path of ‘sustainable development’ and the purely economic perspective on cultural production championed by governments and development agencies.
- Knowledge: It is important to recognise the different kinds of knowledge that need to come together in order to move away from extractive capitalism and travel paths towards alternative modes of being. One of the forms of knowledge production we set out to discuss during the workshop is art, but there are also the many forms of knowledge that emerge from activism, from community organisations, and from indigenous peoples at the frontline of extraction, many of whom continue to enact alternative worlds in the face of the expansion of the extractive frontier. Keeping knowledge in mind also encourages us to think about different epistemologies, and the positions from which we are approaching these issues.
- Narratives: This refers to the importance of how we frame conflicts, and to the role of storytelling in both sustaining struggles and in allowing us to imagine other ways of being.
- Cultural production: We look at creative practice as a space of (re)presentation, of storytelling and of knowledge production. Art can be a powerful vehicle for building those narratives and for allowing us to think beyond the current paradigm. In addition, cultural production can be a space where we can develop prefigurative forms of social organising, and even experiment with different economies.
The workshop began with an introduction to the aforementioned themes of the event, and a short presentation of my work on extractivism and cultural production in Argentina. Here I invited participants to reflect on the emancipatory and constructive potential of cultural production alongside the ways in which cultural production is deployed by states and economic actors as a way of perpetuating and expanding extractive processes. We then moved on to the first session of the day, which began with a paper by David Dumoulin Kervran (CREDA, IHEAL, Paris III) titled “The aesthetics of tropical biology stations: A particular idea of Nature?” Dumoulin reflected on how different actors—from foreign researchers to local communities—interact with biology stations, and the different imaginaries that are built around them. The second paper was by Anna Grimaldi (King’s College London), who revisited the history of Latin Americans in exile from the 1970s to 1990s to explore the ways in which human rights initiatives engaged with environmental issues and indigenous territorial rights, an often neglected issue in accounts of such movements. The third paper, by Jonathan Coope (De Montfort University), offered a thought-provoking challenge to modernity and its imaginaries in the context of an ecological crisis. And finally, Aidan Jolly shared his experience and reflections on popular education and protest performances in collaboration and in solidarity with indigenous peoples in Colombia, addressing issues such as collaboration and positioning in artistic actions.
The second session of the day consisted of four presentations that looked at on-site cultural practices. The first paper was by Olivia Angé (Université de Bruxelles), who presented her plans for a collaborative, subversive seed catalogue of potatoes in the Peruvian Highlands and proposed the use of catalogues as biopolitical tools. The second paper was by Hanne Cottyn, who spoke about agroecological sounds of Sumapaz, Colombia. She shared the ways in which music in this context becomes both a vehicle of representation and a form of collective production, challenging problematic ideas of environmental conservation that exclude local communities. On a similar vein, Adolfo Mejía-Montero (University of Edinburgh) shared four short stories regarding perceptions of wind power in the Mexican town of Unión Hidalgo through the perspectives of local children, women, mural artists and palm workers. Such artistic expressions unveiled local knowledge widely ignored in dominant narratives surrounding the development of wind power in the region. And finally, Fabienne Viala (University of Warwick) presented her work on Caribbean artivism and the relationship between environmental loss and legacies of slavery, focusing on performance as a form of embodied communication.
The workshop ended with a masterclass on environmental conflicts, knowledge production and artistic practice by Gabriela Merlinsky (Instituto de Investigaciones Gino Germani, UBA/CONICET). Merlinsky presented her framework on the productivity of conflicts alongside specific case studies from Argentina. Following the workshop, we switched venues for the UK premier and Q&A of Cuba: Living between Hurricanes, a film by Michael Chanan looking at climate, histories of extraction and colonialism, and the perils and potentials of tourism in the Cuban town of Caibarién.
Discussions throughout the day covered such issues as the epistemological perspectives we are working from, our positionality as researchers and activists living in Europe, the ways in which creative practices allow the building and communicating of narratives, and how we can build bridges between disciplines, practices, spaces and experiences. Without a doubt, bringing together participants from a broad range of fields which covered politics, history, law, literature, cultural studies, sociology, film, Latin American studies, anthropology, environmental sciences and the arts, gave place to stimulating and thought-provoking exchanges, which will surely enrich our work and perspectives in multiple ways.
More information about the event, including the full programme, can be found following this link: