Creative Development | Art and Knowledge Production: Sense, The Senses and the Struggle for Control by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú and Cathy Wilcock

What is the relationship between art and knowledge production? Does art only contribute to the aesthetics or does it have any role to play in production and even in control of knowledge? This article explores these questions through an example of ‘immigration’. It is a version of the presentation given by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú at the recent ISS workshop ‘Moving Methods’, funded jointly by the CI and D&I groups.   

Across the social sciences, the study of ‘art’ is being understood broadly as the study of ‘creative endeavour’ (Danchev and Lisle 2009: 776).  Here, art is understood not only as finished products such as paintings or novels, but as ‘activities that produce aesthetic responses, critiques and affirmations’ Rosario-Ramos et al (2017: 221). This moves our focus beyond ‘high art’ and towards a variety of cultural processes such as graffiti, rap music, cartoons, and film.  Furthermore, it moves us beyond the intentions of the artist as the source of meaning, and it opens up the idea that art’s relationship to knowledge production is rooted in its activation of responses, critiques and affirmations.

Much work has already shown how popular culture can provide frames of reference about cultures and people which influence how they are ‘known’. For example, by orientalizing the colonized as victims, exotic and/or to be feared (Semmerling 2006).

In relation to the topic of immigration, there has been rich discussion around representations of the ‘good verses the bad immigrant’. In the dystopian video game ‘Papers Please’, the player is asked to assess the claims of immigrants as ‘dubious or genuine’ based on their collection of paperwork. An archetypal ‘immigrant’ identity has been shaped by such artistic products, which are themselves emergent responses to the same cultural milieu to which they contribute.

What has also been explored is how popular culture can challenge dominant ways of knowing the world (Magallanes-Blanco 2015). For example, on immigration, art works such as the murals along the USA-Mexico border by Mexican artist Lalo Cota have been praised for directly challenging the harmful dominant narrative of the ‘good/bad migrant dichotomy’. In a darkly humorous tone, his surrealist and satirical works play with the notion of ‘illegal alien’ by depicting sombreros in the shape of UFOs.

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Image by Lynn Trimble

Therefore, art is about power relations: it raises questions about dominance and resistance and, is linked to struggles over control of knowledge between the margins and the centres.

Linking art to struggles over knowledge is a useful but broad endeavor. Ranciére helps narrow this down by theorizing this struggle by way of the senses. Ranciére associates art with a process of struggle over knowledge through ‘determin[ing] the relationship between seeing, hearing, doing, making and thinking’ (Ranciére 2013). Ranciére points to the role of art in engaging the senses to invoke visibility, audibility, saying ability, thinkability, do-ability of certain ideas/possibilities over and in contrast to others. The result is that art is posited as political, rather than something which can merely comment on politics.

To explain: the political nature of, for example, F.Lotus – Ai Weiwei’s installation of 1,005 life jackets floating in the pond of the Belevedere museum in Vienna – can be understood not only for its commentary on the migration crisis, but for the ideas and identities that are made visible and audible when they act on the senses of the audience.

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As such, we need to situate such arguments within post and de/colonial literature. This has a long history of exploring how knowledge ‘has been grounded in the suppression of sensing and the body’ (Mignolo 2011b: 275; hooks 1989). In doing so, it allows us to think about the active suppression of ways of being linked to the senses under modernity (which is seen as the other side of coloniality rather than its opposite).

To go back to our example of ‘Papers Please’, a post/decolonial angle propels us to delve deeper and to ask how and in whose interests was the knowledge of the ‘good/bad immigrant’ produced in the first place?

Such literature helps us to look beyond art as a struggle over senses which can merely ‘add to’ our existing knowledge of social sciences. Instead, it draws attention to harder epistemological questions about the nature of the ‘academy’ and ‘reality’ itself. For example, it points to how a focus on the senses (re)shapes what is known as ‘creativity’ by linking this to vulnerability and the margins (Ní Mhurchú, 2016).  Additionally, it forces us to (re)evaluate as a colonial move (Mignolo 2003) the separating out of art as interpretive knowledge (grounded necessarily in the humanities) from questions about practical societal knowledge (grounded necessarily in the social sciences).

The ideas sketched here gesture towards a conceptual framework to approach the analysis of art for knowledge-production in the social sciences. Situating Ranciere’s sensory approach within the post/decoloniality literature, allows us to recognize art as a struggle for control over knowledge through the senses. While doing so, we are urged to recognize that knowledge-producing institutions are part of, and not above or outside of, those struggles.

On 22 May 2019, ISS Associate Professor of Childhood & Youth Studies Roy Huijsmans along side Assistant Professor Katarzyna Grabska and Academic Researcher Cathy Wilcock will hold a seminar regarding their joint research on ‘Migration and Musical Mobilities’. Find more information here

This article is part of a series on Creative Development.

About the authors:

Aioleann Ni MuruchuAoileann Ní Mhurchú is a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester. Her research interests lie in the areas of critical citizenship studies, international migration, sovereignty and subjectivity, and theories of time and space. She recognises the limits of existing frameworks for understanding experiences of political resistance and participation from positions of marginality or ambiguity. And therefore engages with aesthetic forms of meaning and representation in literature and vernacular music and language.

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Cathy Wilcock is a postdoctoral researcher at the ISS, with a background in critical development studies. In her role at ISS, she is continuing her work on political belonging in the context of forced migration. 












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