The Performativity of Nonviolence in Translation

By Zoya Sardashti, Carolina Truzzi, Farnoush Nik, Fatemeh Takhtkeshian, Margherita Landi, Megan Lederman, and Jacob Lefton. 

Project Description

Witnessing violence on social media creates a heightened sense of urgency that can evoke a feeling of disjuncture in physical reality. In June 2020, Zoya Sardashti formed a reading group that evolved into a research collective as a response to ongoing police brutality in the U.S. because forms of activism, such as the framing of Black Lives Matter protests, were labeled as violent by opposition groups. The debate over the legitimacy of how public protests are enacted by certain media groups threatens freedom of expression and other modes of solidarity.

So the research collective, composed of eight people in five different time zones, took up the task of creating new approaches to enacting nonviolent assembly by translating theories in The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind by Judith Butler within multilingual and nonverbal contexts. We created a format of inclusive practice as a mode of artistic research that resignifies Butler’s theory through the lens of performance-making processes and conflict resolution. We approach nonviolence as a technique of using both singular and collective methodologies to make links across multiple subjective experiences through assembly formation.

Below is an excerpt from a practice-as-research session. Collaborators reflect on ways autoethnographic methodology in a multilingistic context connects to nonviolence.

In chapter three of The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico Political Bind, Butler offers Walter Benjamin’s writing in Critique of Violence for us to consider thinking around ways translation, exchange, and communicability are in relation to the practice of nonviolence. Butler suggests, “For Benjamin, translation consists of a reciprocal activity of one language upon another, transforming the target language in the course of the exchange. This reciprocal activity of translation alters, intensifies, and augments each language brought into contact with another, expanding the domain of communicability itself by partially realizing that non-sensible “intention” that runs through all languages.” If a non-sensible “intention” can be a force that runs through all languages, we use performativity in Butler’s theory as a guide to activate nonviolence. By engaging people through performative practices, we augment conventional techniques often used in conflict resolution and activate this as a technique in daily life. This technique is an extension of conflict resolution because it opens the constitutive possibility of translatability, not only between languages but also between conflicting positions within a language. Since each language has within it an opening to a foreign language, an openness to being contacted and transformed by the foreign, forming theory collectively across multiple multilingual and nonverbal contexts, situates activating nonviolence as an ongoing, ever forming practice of being in translation within a group.  (Butler, 2020)

Butler, J. (2020). The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind. Verso. London & New York.

In partnership with Liebig12, the project was promoted by Vorspiel / Transmediale & CTM Festival in Berlin Jan. 21-Feb. 6 2022. Programming included a public talk and practice-as-sessions with people local to Berlin. Documentation of the practice-as research was used for the collective narration via Zoom.

During the collective narration, a group of voices assembled online. Similar to a Greek chorus, people used the porosity of words to cascade into virtual space. The focus was to speak to understand rather than speak to be heard. Participants were invited to read what they had written during the practice-as-research sessions as well as the other writings from the group. 

The audience was invited to sense nuance in multiple expressions of subjectivity and imagine how relationships can be formed without the need to categorize and identify according to physical appearance.

Documentation of the practice-as-research and virtual collective narration was exhibited at Liebig12 and shared with a broader public. Guests were invited to participate in a shortened version of the practice-as-research, write reflections, and discuss the relationship between nonviolence and social equality.

In future iterations, presenting the outcomes of the practice, e.g. documentation of participants’ experience, will be organized into a strategy of nonviolent action that can be activated in daily life. Outcomes of the artistic practice-as-research will be contextualized strategies to counteract socio-political challenges. The research collective has been working on topics such as sexual violence, transphobia, gender inequality, and displacement. 

A Force with Force Chorus: Actions to Create a New Mourning Ritual

During March 2022 Zoya expanded the practice-as-research within the context of displacement as violence. 

Ilana Salama Ortar and fellow ZK/U residents were invited to participate in writing activities on the topic: migration-as-performative process. Collaborators were asked to write about memories in a place they desire to be in relation to adjusting to an unknown environment. The performative writing activity, devised and facilitated, by Zoya, approaches writing memory into the present as a way to open up new space for more possibilities for attention and thought to emerge. 

Collaborators were welcome to read writings out loud to each other, so the action of narrating the process of migration is an activity that connects people across generations, cultural heritages, and places of belonging. People gathered as a choral assembly through narrating stories of migration to discover intersections in ways people seek refuge. 

At the end of the performative writing activities collaborators were invited to insert their writings inside plastic bottles installed on an arch.

The arch, an extension of an ongoing project by Ilana, is made of plastic bottles that symbolize bottles made from truncated clay canisters (fusées-céramiques) that were joined to each other to create an arched form. The bottles were originally manufactured for the German TODT company for usage during World War II. TODT stands for death. Initially the ceramic bottles were used to build a barrack for displaced people such as political prisoners, African American G.I. soldiers, and Jews from the deportation camps from North Africa. At the end of the war the truncated clay canisters were confiscated by the Allies and  repurposed to become building blocks that would construct the arches of the Arénas camp, known as the “Camp of Jews” (1946-1960) for refugees who were given documents to immigrate to Israel.

When Ilana was a baby she and her family spent a few weeks in the camp at the beginning of 1952. She returned there for a project in 1998. This began a long term project on the topic of the camp which ignited layers of memory anchored in being an immigrant.  The process made her realize that the transit camp marks the breaking point of her life – but also the connection to other displaced people.  

For the ZK/U OPENHAUS on March 2022 audience members were invited to sit under the arch and read writings out loud. 

A special thank you to Luuk Smits for helping install the arch.