Civil Disobedience in a Grey Zone

This text is an adaptation of a lecture given on May 26th 2018 in Kunstencentrum Vooruit (Ghent/BE) under the title Grey Zone, which was part of the public program of the exhibition Civil Disobedience in In De Ruimte (Ghent/BE), curated by Adriënne Van der Werf and Robert. I hope to be able to include in this reformulation some of the opinions, questions, critics, suggestions and new propositions that were raised during the final discussion that very same day. From here, and with these words, I would like to thanks everyone that came to listen to us, since the pleasure was all mine while listening to all of you. The questions that were raised that day, and that have been rephrased in this text, remain, as they were, still open. It is up to all of us to theoretically, and practically, experiment with their possible answers.

Civil Disobedience – Grey Zone

I will start this talk discussing the word Civil, which I would like to contrast with a very similar word: Civic. I have chosen to compare these two words mainly inspired by the book The Art of Civil Action, Political Space and Cultural Dissent (2017) edited by Philipp Dietachmair and Pascal Gielen. Moreover, the word Civil will be affected by a second word:  disobedience. By doing so, my intention is to contrast disobedience with its antonym obedience and ask questions such as: who marks the parameters of what being obedient is? Could we argue that whatever falls outside those given parameters is what we would call disobedience? How does space or concrete contexts already determine the norms of what being obedient or disobedient is? And how those hidden norms affect our direct behaviour? From the other side, the title of this talk also contains the word Grey, which I immediately relate to something placed in the middle: between white or black. Grey suggests to me an undefined middle, a space, nonetheless where contradictory nuances, or contrasting shades, can coexists. Last but not least, I will frame the word Zone between the words Site or Area.

Civil Disobedience

Sociologist Pascal Gielen refers to Civic as “the tasks that are essentially determined by state authorities. […] [A] set of objectives that are defined by governments of states and carried out by their authorities and public institutions” (Gielen, 2017:15). On the other hand, Gielen argues how Civil space, initiatives or in this case, consciousness, is a dynamic terrain of dissent and unregulated action. In his own words, “whereas the public space is a space for the free exchange of thoughts, opinions, ideas, and people, the civil domain provides the framework for organizing these thoughts, opinions, ideas and people.” (Gielen 2017: 17). In the English Oxford dictionary, Civic relates or describes a set of objectives (or tasks) that are defined by governments of states and carried out by their institutions. Civil, from the other site, is defined as an object/person relating to citizenship or citizen. It is interesting to notice how the word Citizen acquires quite an important role in the definition of Civil. So lets just stop for a moment here. Citizenship entitles to the basic principles of freedom, justice and political rights. However, in order to have those principles, and thus be recognised as citizen, you need to be registered in a concrete State. If not, you just do not exist. In other words, for example, illegal immigrants cannot register as official citizens of a given country and thus, in law and political eyes, do not have the same status as me. In State’s view, they are not citizens. What this brief reflection allows me to do is to reconsider the relationship between the governments of states and the Civil relation to citizenship. So though in this way, both Civil and Civic is defined under the umbrella of State’s power. I also found disturbing in the definition of Civil the equal use of Subject/Object as indicating a passive relationship to Citizenship. So, what if we challenge precisely that passivity and we think of Civil as a relation to citizenship but based in Action? Sociologist Manuel Castells has brought forward the idea of Civil Action as an action that first and foremost comes from emotion. An emotion that starts in oneself but, which, in order to exist in the civil realm, it needs to be put in common with other subjects, pointing out possible causes. If we start playing with Castells’ definition of Civil Action one can immediately notice how Civil, understood as Action, questions the very idea of what being a citizen is from the discomfort that that label can create. Moreover, it does so by sharing such experience with others. Gielen and philosopher Thijs Lijster introduce the idea of the Civil Chain as a succession of processes: (1) emotion, (2) (self)rationalization, (3) communication, (4) de-privatization and (5) (self)organization (Gielen & Lijster, 2017:42). It could follow then, that it is precisely by questioning what being a citizenship is, or by challenging the relation to such a governements’ definition, when the disobedience starts. Actually, as Castells would point out, we can find many examples of such Civil Action in the form of disobedience in the Arab Spring, Occupy Wallstreet or Indignados Movement.

Within this context, disobedience is understood as an action that questions the norms established by either the State, the government or the Market; in other words, the norms of Capital. Thinking around the relation of Civil and the act of disobedience, American theorist Carl Cohen defines Civil disobedience as the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, orders or commands with non-violent resistance (Cohen, 2014). Here, as exemplified in Castells’ cases, civil disobedience, as a non-violent resistance, is actually happening worldwide in our current time.

Grey Zone

After having shortly explored the words Civil and Disobedience, what if we place Civil disobedience in a Grey Zone? The colour grey, in its definition, is presented as a neutral or achromatic colour, meaning literally that it is a colour “without colour.” Moreover, in American English the colour grey can also be written with an A (gray), which, next to word zone (Gray Zone) comes to determine a zone of conflict in which aggressive actions occur. However, this approach would be opposed to the non-violent forms of resistance given by the previous understanding of civil disobedience. So let me concentrate of grey with an -e, which, as argued, it is defined as the colour yet understood as a non-colour. As a philosophical abstraction, and as a wonderful poetic image, this definition brings forward thousands of theoretical, but also practical, possibilities. For instance, lets imagine the action of camouflage in such a non-coloured space. Putting it very short here, camouflage in nature is mainly contingent to colour, trying to make yourself invisible by using the colours around you and prevent to be detected by a predator. However, which would be the techniques in order to camouflage in a non-coloured zone? And, what is a Zone after all? How is a zone defined? And what are the differences between a zone and an area or a site?

On the one hand, an area is the extent or measurement of a surface or piece of land. On the other, a site is an area of ground on which a town, building, or monument is constructed. A zone, therefore, is defined as a restricted area, used for a particular purpose. So, could we argue that the particular purpose of the Grey Zone is Civil Disobedience? Let me however return to the colour grey, proposing this time to understand the extreme white site as the white monumental Museum, and the black site as cities’ public space understood in general terms. Could a grey zone be placed within, between, around, among or beyond these two different scenarios? And reformulating the previous question: could Art be a tool to experiment with camouflage techniques for civil disobedience, that is, the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, orders or commands? Could art be used as a terrain where personal (oneself) discomfort is shared (as with civil action) and forms of collective self-organization are tested (as in the Civil chain)?

Becoming grey in a grey zone

Overall, I would like to propose a possible, and personal, definition of Grey Zone, which tries to include all the information or propositions that have been exposed in this text till now:

A Grey Zone is a restricted area (artistic realm) in which, through camouflage techniques (becoming grey) and helped by the permissiveness granted to art, is used for a particular purpose = Civil disobedience (an active refusal of the status quo with a non-violent form).

Here, I took the freedom to include the “permissiveness granted to art”, because, following art historian Claire Bishop, I do also believe that Art has the power to create momentary spaces of dissensus that cannot occur anywhere else. And I think that this “permissiveness” can be a huge advantage for civil disobedience to occur in the artistic field while experimenting on camouflage techniques. Actually, let me include a couple more things in the definition, as it appears through the arguments exposed that civil disobedience plays a vital role in a democratic society. At the heart of civil disobedience lays the idea of providing a terrain for citizens to see another perspective of dominant politics. It creates the opportunity to challenge power relations, however short that time-creation may be. Ultimately, art as civil disobedience may introduce elements of unpredictability and spontaneity into grey institutionalized democratic zones that may encourage collective civic engagement and commitment. Perhaps, nonetheless, another question to be posed now is whether such disobedient perspectives are able to transcend the symbolism of art to create forms of civil society and resistance, or if whether that is the paper of art, or not at all. Whatever the answer may be, it seems worth trying.