BRAKC – Mission Statement

How does art shape our experience of belonging?

BRAKC is a Research Centre based at Birkbeck, University of London, co-founded in 2009 by Dr Andrew Asibong (then a lecturer in French Studies at Birkbeck) and Dr Nathalie Wourm (a lecturer in French studies in the Department of Cultures and Languages at Birkbeck).

BRAKC exists in order to promote new perspectives and intellectual debates from the Arts on how people live together, how humans bond, belong, and organise themselves into groupings, on what constitutes “community” and what defines “communities”. While “community studies” figure prominently in the social sciences, they are less commonly associated with the humanities, where the concept of community is considered mainly a philosophical concern. Building partly on the works of philosophers such as Ferdinand Tönnies, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Giorgio Agamben, BRAKC aims to reframe the discourse on community to include scholarly studies of its aesthetic dimension. Works of art can be rich sources of conceptualisation, representation, criticism and innovation around issues of belonging and community. They can inform other academic disciplines, but also other spheres of activity where these concepts are paramount. Researchers in literature, the arts and philosophy can work with sociologists, anthropologists, but also doctors, economists and politicians, where all are involved in attempting to map the shifting, unstable, transitory ideas of community and relationality.

In his seminal book, Poétique de la relation (1990), Édouard Glissant proposed that “relation” can only be imagined, not defined. In that sense, literature and other creative arts are a great source of materials for anyone engaged in analysing the nature of the relationality that generates a community. Glissant, for instance, notes that paradoxically “the great founding books of communities, the Old Testament, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Chansons de Geste, the Islandic Sagas, the Aeneid, or the African epics, were aIl books about exile and often about errantry.” Glissant identifies a type of relationality based on the negation of the Other, on the duality of selfhood and otherness, which he considers to be obsolete. He suggests that métissage, multiplicity, diversity, represent a high point of modern development, prophetically prefigured by Baroque Art, but at its most accomplished stage in the present day.

BRAKC aims to consider a number of questions emerging from Glissant’s analysis. If the conditions of relationality are imagined rather than defined, if they are made (a poiesis), rather than a fixed truth, how are they being invented, deconstructed and invented anew across time and space? Is it the case that selfhood and otherness have become porous, and that communities are now rhizomatic? Isn’t community necessarily based on the negation of the Other? And what happens when an imagined concept is used as a fixed truth, when one invented form of community is used as a definition of what community is or should be? In La Communauté désoeuvrée (1983), Jean-Luc Nancy argues that violence is an outcome, citing the ideal communities of the pre-modern era as mythical.

In a lecture entitled “Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art” (2006), Jacques Rancière describes artistic forms, outside the confines of the book, the canvas, the museum, that “provoke modifications of the space of everyday life, giving rise to new forms of relations” or “social bonds”, pulling the “question of community out of its ethnic configuration”. Rancière cites the example of Urban Encampment (Campement Urbain), a French collective of artists, architects and theorists who engage with communities in the suburbs of Paris. Other artistic initiatives involving local communities are thriving. Through comparative collaborative research, BRAKC aims to consider a number of significant examples of inventiveness in artistic experiments, to generate insights into ways in which artists and performers can impact on the fabric of communities.

Contemporary academic studies on the “aesthetics of community” – the artistic representation, conceptualisation and configuration of community – are numerous, albeit disparate. Amongst those, the books of Grant Kester, a professor of art history interested in relational art and founder of the “Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism” are particularly relevant, in that they represent both theoretical and artistic analyses of innovative projects outside of museums and galleries. In Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (2004), Kester engages with a number of debates on the concept of community, including attacks on the idea of community itself. He describes, for instance, how poststructuralism has put into question the “essentialism” inherent in conventional perspectives of the concept, invoking the works of Jean-François Lyotard, Deleuze and Nancy, in particular. Kester also discusses examples of critics of “community-based” art, bringing to the forefront the questions of how such communities are defined by artists for their projects, and also whether these projects are not overarchingly patronizing. BRAKC is committed to providing a thorough examination of the concepts used by researchers, writers and artists, but also by the establishment. What purpose do ideas of community serve in a political sense?