Why take democracy outside?

(Reposted in part from Bright Green Scotland)

“I’m often disillusioned at the current state of democracy. I frequently feel disempowered and angry. Democracy Outside excites me because rather
than putting all my energies into negative things like fighting and criticising, it gives a more positive dimension – one of coming together and developing alternative visions. There’s a place for fighting, but there should also be a place for creating. Democracy Outside is one of these spaces.” (oxguin, supporter of Demo 2012)

It is often at those times when democracy is most under threat that it is most alive. It’s when democracy is in crisis, or appears to have been kidnapped by a ruling elite, that citizens raise their voices louder, take to the streets. The last year and a half has been an amazing time for democracy – uprisings, occupations and huge public general assemblies showing that direct democracy is possible, that we can go beyond the yes / no, black / white of traditional political debate. It’s been inspiring, breathtaking, at times beautiful. Movements like Occupy have enabled people who have put up with the status quo for a long time to imagine something different.

But it’s also been a little bit intimidating, and I know that some people have felt left behind: people who have been disenfranchised by consumerism and apathy, people who have felt that they didn’t have enough (or any) political opinions to take part in the debate. People who felt stuck, and that the shouting wasn’t helping them to move forward. People who felt that they couldn’t get from silence to making enough noise to be heard above the new clamour.

The philosopher Hildegard Kurt points out that ‘debate’ comes from the French ‘debattre’, which contains the word ‘battre’ – to hit, and that all too often, that’s what political discussion is – a battle of back and forth, for and against. We take sides and don’t always listen carefully to each other. And we don’t allow for movement. Participants are expected to take a position, and stick to it. There’s no room for imagination, for creative expression of one’s evolving thoughts; there’s no room to move, to change position as one’s views shift on hearing other’s ideas.

Following the faux election of 2010, these things sat heavy with me. Like many people, I was inspired by the student uprisings of 2010, but also felt that despite the increasing political activity and campaigning, a lot of people remained left out of this upsurge of democracy, unsure of what they felt or thought, or of how to express their views. As an activist and an artist, I wanted to find a way to draw the people who felt disenfranchised in to democratic exchange, and to find a way of ‘doing politics differently’ – more creatively.

And so I developed Democracy Outside.

Democracy Outside creates a space where an embodied movement through ideas is made possible – even actively encouraged, where everyone listens to each other’s words, where taking sides is not the point as much as real exchange in a creative, open, non-judgemental environment. Part street theatre and part political action, and employing the iconography of protest – banner, placards, leaflets, a megaphone – Democracy Outside deliberately blurs the boundaries between ‘art’ and ‘activism’, and challenges apathy by making politics fun.

And because Democracy Outside takes place outdoors (you probably guessed that from the name) it liberates democracy from stuffy institutions and archaic structures, and disrupts the ever-increasing neutralisation and even privatisation of public space.

I’ve loved the reactions I’ve had to it so far: one campaigner confessed that he’d dragged himself along out of a sense of duty, wondering why he was off to yet another political thing on his day off – but afterwards he said he felt “full of joy”, re-energised. A local artist came away excitedly exclaiming, “I thought I didn’t have any political opinions but it turns out I have a lot to say!”

I was most moved, though, by the young people who took part. We had staged the performance by the war memorial in the centre of Oxford, where young people who feel themselves outsiders hang out in groups, smoking and avoiding school. These kids really do feel disenfranchised, but they took part with gusto, slamming a voting system where they felt their votes would never count, expressing their views on the right to protest, the freedom of the media, institutional sexism, and demanding the right to vote at 16, to have a say on wars where their friends were dying.

I also staged Democracy Outside in a field in Devon with activists at EAT 2011. I thought it wouldn’t work, that everyone there was so used to political debate that the performance would fall flat – but again, everyone loved it. I learned that it’s not just about the questions, it’s not just about the props, it’s not just about the location, and it’s not just about the participants. Democracy Outside proves that in an open space, where imagination is encouraged, and mutual respect is supported, and freedom to think and speak is enabled, any group of people will develop and stage a heartfelt exchange that is meaningful. My hope is that through this we will find a new way to ‘do politics’ that goes beyond the battering of stale debate, and activates the activist in all of us.

Democracy Outside is also supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

2 Responses to Why take democracy outside?

  1. Benoit says:

    I didn’t know Hildegard Kurt but the excerpt that Clare quotes makes much sense to me. For me, debate is understood and practiced in a way whereby debaters try to defend and consolidate a fixed position, and where the aim is to win and destroy the other, rather than a space where both can move, learn, cooperate and achieve a better understanding together.

    A few points about terminology, at Clare’s request :) In French, “débattre” has 2 main meanings: (1) to debate and (2) to struggle (such as when you are caught by cops and you try to escape, or when someone is drowning and struggles to keep her head above water). Etymologically, according to “Le Petit Robert” (equivalent of Oxford English Dictionary), it comes from XIIIth century french and means “to beat strongly”!

    Based on my experience of Democracy Outside at EAT 2011, I have the impression that this game/intervention/space (how do you define it Clare?) is more than a space of debate, or at least fosters non-conventional forms of debate. But this is still very vague in my head and I haven’t had any time to think much about it. I encourage you to do this “clarification” (?) work, though, as I think that it has a lot of potential to better understand, facilitate and improve Democracy Outside.

  2. Guy Cruls says:

    RE. Hildegard Kurt’s statement on the meaning of ‘debattre’.
    ‘debattre’ is not about beating full stop. and it is either uninformed or disingenuous to present it as such. ‘debattre’ is about thrashing things out, leaving no stone unturned. in its purest form, ‘debattre’ would take the shape of the dialectic dialogue, as propounded by Socrates. if an egghead must be quoted, let the reason be compelling.

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