They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a picture conveys what words never could. Images tell stories – sometimes the most challenging and important ones. A snapshot of a Syrian toddler on a beach, a photograph of a revolutionary movement, films of war—these forms of art bring out the humanity connect unaffected individuals to largely inhumane, calculated conflicts. Yale Law School recognizes this connection in Juncture, a new initiative set to explore the relationship between art and human rights movements.
The JUNCTURE initiative addresses this link through several avenues, including a multi-
disciplinary seminar, three projects in which visiting artists will collaborate with current students, five MFA fellowships, and a public lecture series and symposium. In an interview with The Politic, David Kim, Deputy Director and Curator for JUNCTURE, spoke of the connections between art and politics that the initiative will investigate. “Art in some ways is essentially concerned with the same questions of representation and discourse as law. Through art, one focuses on the different techniques of representation and develops a keener analytic ability to participate in politics,” he explained.
JUNCTURE’s graduate seminar, titled “Art and International Human Rights: Theory and Practice,” brings together fifteen students from a variety of schools at Yale, including the School of Art, the Law School, and the Divinity School. “The initiative is about creating a conversation, appealing to lawyers, activists, scholars, and contemporary artists,” Kim said. “That has to do with the openness and heterogeneity of those in the initiative, which creates a meaningful intellectual experience.” The purpose of the seminar is to create “encounter,” a space where students from different graduate programs at Yale, including art, law, divinity, history of art, and religion can draw upon their distinct approaches to understanding conflict and political issues.
The initiative’s visiting artists will work with students on projects about human rights abuses. Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani, visiting artists at JUNCTURE, will continue their project “Index of the Disappeared: The Afterlives of C.I.A. Black Sites” at Yale. Ganesh and Ghani began the project in 2004 to investigate the experiences of those detained under suspicions of terrorist activity after 9/11 by collecting released C.I.A. documents and drawing attention to large erasures in data. In a talk at the Yale Law School, Ghani and Ganesh elaborated on their work and mission. “We are archivists. We collect what already exists in the world and connect it in meaningful ways,” elaborated Ghani. Their work is primarily investigative and researchbased, but they portray their findings through uniquely artistic means.
Much of their artwork consists of “documentation”: annotated and edited images of C.I.A. released documents concerning detainees and their conditions. In a document titled “Detainee Health and Medical Record of Screening Examination” released by the C.I.A. in 2009, Ghani and Ganesh highlight the phrase, “It was determined that the detainee was holding onto hope that he would be found innocent. Investigators explained this was a false hope,” along with the phrases “hunger strike” and “separation from his brothers.” The artists visually craft the placement of these stark C.I.A. statements so that they are bolded and centered; this deliberate framing facilitates the viewer’s understanding of the subject and brings immediate attention the human rights violations. The artists’ only annotation in the document is the phrase, “How do we catch fate’s dagger…by the blade or by the handle?”
The rare commentary in the documentation brings a strong poetic tension to the calculated, governmentissued pages. Ghani spoke of their art as bringing out the “warm data” in the issue, which she defines as the individual, human elements of inhuman systems. “It is about a detained individual’s life and experiences, as opposed to data collected by the government to implicate them,” she explained. Ghani and Ganesh illustrated this concept in an installation commissioned by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
The installation showcased two rooms adjacent to one another: one displaying an interrogation room, the other an individual’s living room. The empty living room contains books strewn on the table, picture frames, a vibrant blue wall and a maroon Persianstyle rug–all objects alluding to the life of a detainee before detention. The artists place it in direct contrast with the colorless C.I.A. interrogation room, filled with stacked office shelves and a single metal table. The viewer is confronted by what the interrogation room omits: the humanity of its suspects. “By putting these problems on a visual platform, we bring a new dimension to the issue,” she said, explaining that people can more fully understand complex issues and movements through visual means because humans live in a textured world.
Nonvisual forms of art can be just as effective in delivering these messages about human rights, however. Dipika Guha, another visiting artist at JUNCTURE, is collaborating with students to produce a play about migration and refugee crises throughout history. Students working with Guha are each tasked with researching great migrations and crises from their own homes. Her past plays have focused on the ideas of “otherness” and included themes such as fleeing from Japanese internment camps, the legacy of colonialism, and immigration in America.
In an interview with The Politic, Guha spoke of the unique ability of theater to portray human rights issues: “When theater is at its best, it relies on transformation rather than change. Both between the audience and the listeners, between the play and the actors, the quality of flux is very akin to what happens in the world, nothing is stable.” She also suggested that theater forces the audience’s complicity. In live theater, audience members must play a part in the actions being committed on stage. The audience is a witness, each individual viewer a bystander. In these positions, audience members can be easily consumed by discomfort, and even guilt, for onstage atrocities. They are tasked with feeling both the emotional pain of the subject and the frustration of the perpetrator, in a semipassive role. Playwrights, therefore, have the power to elicit anger and calls for action within their audiences, and they can encourage a greater public awareness about the intensity of human rights abuses.
Outside organizations have also developed to formalize the link between art and human rights movements. Professional photographer Kay Chernush founded ArtWorks for Freedom, a nonprofit that uses art to raise awareness about global human trafficking. In her recent exhibition “Bought and Sold: Voices of Human Trafficking,” Chernush showcased photographs set from the viewpoint of human trafficking victims. One work, titled “Ghost Workers” is narrated by the phrase, “He locked me in a container for three weeks. Nobody noticed.” Colored images of transportation containers and boats are superimposed onto each other, with a glaring negative image of a young man’s face in the background. The work describes the tumultuous journey of human trafficking victims. The viewer peers through the victim’s eyes, seeing the instability firsthand through the changes of color and texture. Chernush told , “I think that art has always played an important role in shaping opinion and shaping social responses. Because art is visceral and really reaches the heart and the imagination, it has a lasting impact.”
As Chernush suggests, art can bridge the gap between the experience of a human trafficking victim and the experience of an uninvolved viewer; it brings together what is strange and unfamiliar. Before founding Art Works for Freedom, Chernush traveled to human trafficking sites for USAID assignment and met with several survivors and advocacy groups. Chernush, like Ganesh, Ghani, and Guha, became an expert in her field of interest by relentlessly investigating the subject matter. This research equips artists like Chernush to deliver the piercing messages embedded in their artwork. Creative Time Reports, a subset of public arts organization Creative Time, praises artists for speaking out about political issues.
Marisa Mazria Katz, the Editor of Creative Time Reports, further clarified the role of her journal, “We work with artists whose practice focuses on the communities in which they live. These artists know about these issues and they are capable of speaking to these issues.” Publications like Creative Time Reports facilitate the dual role of artist and activist by bringing the work of artists to mass media and giving them a platform beyond the traditional gallery settings. Katz emphasized artists’ roles in shaping the way the public views political issues, suggesting that artists have a distinctive approach in investigating their subjects: they are not confined by regulations and not expected to deliver a singular result. Artists often conduct purely independent investigations, as they do not represent larger publications or interest groups. Because of these factors, artists are in a unique role to speak about issues that concern the public, and they can offer new, creative perspectives that result from their research.
For example, Katz cited Trevor Paglen, a contributing artist at Creative Time Reports, who released rare images of the National Security Agency headquarters outside of Washington D.C. Paglen recognized the scarcity of images of the NSA, an agency criticized for hiding itself from the public. In response, Paglen rented a helicopter and took aerial photographs of the NSA compound, bringing a visuals to the heated debate over government secrecy. “Artists deserve a seat at the table, and they deserve to be heard on the issues they are passionate about,” said Katz.
As Creative Time Reports and JUNCTURE show, artists have the potential to bring new information and ideas into the realm of political conversation. In our visualdominated, sensory world, art frames how the public views an issue, by drawing links between foreign experiences and what people view as their own.