Artistic Activism and the Globalization of the Art Scene

Call for paper - International Symposium:

Artistic Activism and the Globalization of the Art Scene

 (Theory, Practice, Paradigm and Circulation)

The research team ADS (Art / Design / Scenography – research laboratory MICA - EA 4426) of Bordeaux Montaigne University, CEIAS (Centre for South Asian Studies – UMR 8564-EHESS-CNRS) and CLIMAS (Cultures and Literatures of English-speaking worlds - EA 4196) of Bordeaux Montaigne University are organizing an international symposium on Monday 4, Tuesday 5 and Wednesday 6 May 2020, at Bordeaux Montaigne University, France.

Under the direction of Nicolas Nercam ADS-MICA (UBM) associate researcher CEIAS (EHESS-CNRS) and Mathilde Bertrand CLIMAS (UBM).


"Arts Activism" is a title often used since the 1990s in reference to a significant part of the production of contemporary art throughout the world, without any clear definition. Numerous international events - the Berlin Biennial in 2012, the Venice Biennial in 2017, the Manifesta 12 in Palermo in 2018, or the Kochi-Muziris Biennial “Possibilities of a non- alienated life” in 2018-19 to name some recent ones – made it a central question and broached, among others, the themes of ecology, anti-globalization, feminism, responsible consumption, social and economic alienation or immigration. Similarly, a number of works (C. Mesch 2014, D. Vander Gucht 2014, JM Lachaud 2015, N. Thompson 2015, 2018, P.

Weibel 2015, G. Didi-Huberman 2016, G. Sholette 2017, 2018, D. Berthet 2018, M. Reilly 2018) and magazines (the May 2019 Artforum International for example) address the question of contemporary forms taken by the interrelations between art and politics.

“Artivism” encompasses artistic actions, which tackle social and political issues, reviving agitational practises, in resistance to the planetary hegemony of the ideology of so- called neoliberal capitalism. This resurgent awareness of the political nature of artistic creation questions consensual discourses on the neutrality of art and aesthetics, confined in their "autonomy" and impervious to the disorders of the world. Within artistic activism a dialectic between two entities, traditionally perceived as being of a different nature, is played out: on the one hand the field of art (too often defined as autonomous, with no other functionality than its own) and on the other hand in the field of politics and social activities on the other hand (thought out as a praxis of the exercise of the power in an organized society).

Art, today as yesterday, cannot change the world concretely. But the experiences to which it invites us can still, by challenging and disturbing us, nourish our capacity to revolt and awaken our faculty to aspire something other than what it is (Lachaud 2015).

The central question posed by artistic activism could be stated in this way: How can we evaluate the capacity of art (visual arts, literature, performance, theatre, dance, video art, etc.) to function as social and political protest?

The possibility of measuring this capacity (let alone its effectiveness) is a difficult task. Because the artistic and ideological aims of activism are varied. This is made evident in the extreme diversity of appellations which, across the world designate activism in the arts: Socially Engaged Art, Committed Art, Community Art, Dialogic Art, Interventionist Art, participatory Art, Relational Art (art relationnel) Collective Art, Contextual Art (art contextuel), Artivism (artivisme), etc.

Etymologically, the notion of "activism" doesn’t seem to emphasize any particular reflective position about the contemporary world, but rather, without claiming any particular political or artistic filiations to favour vigorous action that can be perceived as boisterous, treading at times a fine line between “agitation” and “action”. In this sense, activism is symptomatic of our time, where “urgent action” in response to climatic and environmental crises and social upheaval, etc. is more likely to take place rather than discussion on global issues.

The range of artistic practices mobilized by activism is thus very broad. It goes from so-called traditional techniques (painting, drawing, sculpture, theatre, etc.), through ephemeral practices, in situation, inscribed in a particular time and place (public space, urban space, warehouse, etc.). ) to the development of interventions on the web of the net (net art, hacktivism, etc.).

Two radically different positions can be delineated, within all these practices:

- When artistic action is part of a form of enhancing the functionality of the message and political action, in order to make the latter more "attractive". In this case, the activist artist must be sympathetic (or at least in agreement) with the object of the political discourse. If this type of intervention allows the artist to cherish the hope of obtaining some social and political changes, it contains the risk of ideological subjugation, drifting into the art of propaganda and the reduction of aesthetic innovation.

- When artistic action participates in the diversion and dysfunction of political action and its discourse, in the cancellation of their practical and efficient dimension. This last position seems to have been adopted by a large number of activist artists in order to call out the dangers, the excesses, the flaws, the hypocrisies of this or that political actions or this or that ideological principles. It ensures a greater autonomy of the artistic action and seems to avoid any subjection to one political discourse. On the other hand, it relegates to the background the impact of artistic action in the social and political domain (in a sort of objectification of a political and social status quo).

These two contradictory traditions nourish, by mingling with each other, what we call contemporary artistic activism. An analysis of its productions sometimes reveals more or less ambiguous aims.

Taking into account the need for a global approach to the phenomenon, and the exploration of its most diverse forms and concepts, this conference aims to contribute to the study of arts activism since the 1990s.

Globalization invites us to no longer be content with a North Atlantic conception of art history. But for many observers, this supposedly unified worldview cannot mask the sharp divisions between the privileged and the "developed" and the oppressed, in the process of “development”. The crossovers, the transfers, the interrelations between art and politics, at
work within the artistic activism, can thus find specific colourings in different places of the globe.

The organizing team of this symposium aims to bring together researchers from different perspectives to reflect together on the various forms and conceptions of art activism:

- In cultural areas other than Western (Central and Latin America, Asia, Africa, Pacific), often marginalized in the approaches to the phenomenon.

- In artistic productions developed in Western countries, attentive, in particular, to the issues of marginalized areas, immigration, otherness, and diasporic identity.

Some non-exclusive themes, presented here in a non-exhaustive way, can serve as a guideline for the preparation of this conference:

The contributions and resistances vis-à-vis the "models" of Western engaged arts (upsetting or reinforcing the notions of "functionality" and "dysfunctionality" of the field of art).

The contributions of political struggles specific to the construction and development of an activism(s) in art.

The legacies or continuities of anti-colonial struggles in manifestations of contemporary artistic activism.

"South-South" circulations originating in the construction and development of artistic activism in various parts of the world.

Significant contributions of local political and / or artistic and cultural practices to the dynamics of artistic activism.

 The contribution of postcolonial discourse in the development of specific forms of artistic activism.

The phenomena of alignment (or even recovery) of the protest practices of artistic activism within the "cultural industries" and "creative economies".

For more information, contact Nicolas Nercam (nicolas.nercam@u-bordeaux- and Mathilde Bertrand (

Submission of abstracts:

Communication proposals, written in English or French, must include:
  • The name and email (s) of the author (s),
  • The institutional affiliations of the author or authors,
  • A short presentation of the author or authors, 200 words maximum,
  • The title,
  • An abstract of 500 words maximum,
  • A list of 5 keywords, - An essential bibliography,
  • The written and signed commitment to pay the registration fee of 20 euros, in case the proposal is accepted.

Proposals should be sent in pdf format before December 9th 2020 to Nicolas Nercam ( and Mathilde Bertrand (

The communication proposals will be examined and selected by the scientific committee of the symposium.

The 20-minute talks will be followed by 10 minutes of discussion. They will be held in French or English. No interpreting or translation services can be provided. (The accommodation and transport costs will be borne by the participants)

Scientific Committee:

Nicolas Bautès (ESO-IFP-CEIAS)
Mathilde Bertrand (CLIMAS)
Cécie Croce (ADS-MICA)
Bernard Lafargue (ADS-MICA)
Nicolas Nercam (ADS-MICA-CEIAS)

Organising Committee:

Mathilde Bertrand (CLIMAS)
Nicolas Nercam (ADS-MICA-CEIAS)