Conference explores creative potential of trauma 

By Wendy Smith

Art can be a powerful tool to raise awareness of atrocities like genocide, displacement and war, but there are also risks and pitfalls.

"Trauma is an issue of public concern these days," said Josée Leclerc (Creative Art Therapies, see Journal Oct. 11, 2007, ), chair of the first international Art as Witness Conference. "One of the positive aspects of globalization is that it has made us more immediately aware of what is going on in the world. Individuals are sensitized to suffering. 9-11 has made terrorism and trauma quite real on this side of the ocean."

The Art as Witness conference brought together over 250 distinguished artists, scholars and art therapists from across North America. The three-day program opened with a lecture by Armand Volkas and covered a vast theoretical terrain, from intercultural conflict resolution and genocide, to ageing and loss, to violence against women. It also offered discussions and workshops on everything from neuroscience to doll making.

One of the panels featured a Concordia effort to address the relationship of art and trauma through performance. “We’re trying to connect artists to difficult stories,” said Edward Little, chair of the Theatre department.

Little heads the Oral History as Cultural Performance Group, one of several working groups under the umbrella of the CURA project “Life Stories of Montréalers Displaced by War, Genocide and Other Human Rights Violations” (see Journal Oct. 25, 2007, )

Led by Steven High of the Department of History, this five-year oral history research project aims to document, and publicly represent, cases of human rights abuse.

Little’s group is experimenting with ways in which the personal recollections of mass violence might become the basis for creative performance art that respects the integrity of the participants and their stories.

“We are trying to come to a better understanding of the way artistic engagement can lead to global awareness. Our working group looks at the relation between public performance and war, displacement, and genocide, and how these experiences can be acknowledged as stories of struggle but also as stories of survival, love and trust.”

But, Little says, there are risks – like the unintentional exclusion of some groups that could benefit from projects like the CURA initiative.

“Our project is predicated on a notion of sharing authority; everyone has a mutual say in the stories we collect. But the SSHRC doesn’t give money to community groups, they give to universities – so right away, that indicates there is a hierarchy in place,” he said. “There is the potential for the exclusion of groups. First Nations, for example, have traditionally been suspect of universities who have appropriated their stories in the past.”

The way we tell stories also has an impact, he said. “No story can be told without mediation. People impose narrative structures on their stories in both the telling and retelling.”

In theatre, Little explains, characters are conventionally represented in roles as either victims, villains or helpers. “To cast an actual person in the role of the victim can actually remove their agency. We are interested in working with individuals in community groups so that we can take these concerns into account and create narrative structures that are appropriate.”

Leclerc wanted to highlight the importance of artistic creation in the resolution of trauma. "When someone experiences a traumatic event, it's difficult to express precisely because it is beyond words." Traumatic events can evoke responses ranging from dissociation and numbness to fear and avoidance, she says. "It's so painful for them that the person leaves their own mind."

By engaging in the artistic process, whether on a canvas or through a dramatic re-enactment of lived experience, "the person is able to move from this state of victimization to a state of subjectification," said Leclerc.


Concordia University