About narratives and artistic practices

The interdisciplinary network Narrative & Memory – Ethics – Aesthetics – Politics organized a three-day symposium Fiction and Facts in Narratives of Political Conflict in Kristiansand, Norway. The symposium gathered approximately 40 researchers from fields such as literary studies, media studies and social sciences. The papers ranged from traditional textual analyses to broader analyses of culture and media and to presentations of empirical projects.

Although the range of topics was wide, the discussions kept returning to certain core issues. One of those was the researchers’ and artists’ role in today’s conflictual world. There seemed to be general agreement that we need to adopt a more active role in the society and to intervene through research in situations where we detect injustice and inequality, and that to do that we need courage. Moreover, the institutions where we work should find ways to recognize such less traditional ways of working that many researchers nowadays adopt: for example the practical and co-creative projects conducted with e.g. marginalized groups, children or refugees. It was also pointed out that many researchers do not want to adopt the role of a public commentator and that the researchers who are engaged in more traditional academic work, continue to have an important role, because from a more distanced perspective it may be easier to make insightful perceptions. However, from our perspective, these two stands need not to be separate as for example arts-based research offers many possibilities for combining participatory, engaged, critical, traditional and theoretically oriented insights.

In the discussion following the presentations, many referred to the perils of post-factuality. It seemed that in addition to the relationship of fact and fiction the relationship of truth and lies was equally often addressed. Both keynote lectures touched on this theme. Alison Landsberg analysed Jordan Peele’s film Get Out (2017) in the political context of “post post-racial” America, arguing that the film can be seen as a wake-up call that enables the viewer to see the reality in a different light and to see the truth through its narrative disruptions. She described the film as “horror vérité”, but it was not entirely clear what she meant by the term. She probably referred by vérité to the fictional world of the film where the characters were made to face the ugly truth: that behind the civilized facade racism is still alive and well.

The title of Timotheus Vermeulen’s keynote lecture was The Second Society: Fiction and a Method for Truth Telling. He used as examples the seemingly never-ending search for truth in certain television series and works of art; search for truth that only produces an endless number of new twists and leads. The cinematic devices in cases such as The Keepers are used to enhance the effect of suspense: the camera zooms in and out in search of details, thus creating an impression that there is always something new to be revealed that potentially challenges established truths.

We participated in the symposium with our paper “Remembering and Imagining the Past in Two WWII films”, in which we deal with the blurring of boundaries between fictional and factual elements in the documentary film Auf Wiedersehen Finnland and the feature film The Midwife. Both films deal with the romantic relationships of Finnish women and German soldiers during the Lapland War in 1944. In practice, we ended up discussing more our current project, Crossing Borders – Artistic Practices in Performing and Narrating Belonging. It was a pleasant surprise to find that several other projects had similar methods and aspirations to our Crossing Borders project.


Cigdem Esin and Aura Lounasmaa from the University of East London presented refugee stories that have emerged from a project conducted in the Calais “Jungle” camp and from Open Learning Initiative for Refugees and Asylum Seekers at the University of East London. One of the aims of these projects is to allow the refugees to tell their own truths through the stories, poetry and images they themselves have produced and chosen to be shown, resulting in a form of resistance.

Per Roar Thorsnes who comes from the field of artistic research described the dramaturgical narrative of the dance performance While They are Floating (choreographed by Hooman Sharifi and Carte Blanche) at the Norwegian National Company of Contemporary Dance. The performance takes as its starting point the personal narratives of refugees and it tries to express embodied experiences, that is to say, something that cannot be documented factually. In doing that, it enables the transformation of micro/individual level experience into macro/public level experience.

Another paper, by Michaela Marková titled “Addressing diversity and inclusion in contemporary Northern Irish/British Literature for children and young adults”, we did not hear, but later on found that we have overlapping interests with Marková, who is interested in exploring what role storytelling can have in creating reconciliation and understanding in the context of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

In the symposium it was not only the researcher’s relationship to activism and the pressing issues of contemporary world that emerged as a shared topic. Some of the presentations concentrated on engaged forms of artistic expression. Louise Mønster’s presentation dealt with science fiction poetry as a critical reflection of topical and pressing issues such as the climate change and the sustainability of our modern life style. This inspiring speech was followed by a similarly interesting analysis of other examples of engaged poetry. Hans Kristian S. Rustad talked about the upsurge of social responsibility, taking up Marie Silkeberg’s video poem as his example of artistic responses to today’s conflictual world.

We were not prepared that there would be so many papers discussing engaged research and art, in other words the role of artistic practice in creating understanding and challenging othering practices and more generally questioning the prevailing representations in various contexts, but that certainly was a pleasant surprise. As a whole, the conference was very rewarding. We made many new contacts and came home with our heads bursting with ideas and inspiration. So the mission of the symposium was truly accomplished. A heartfelt thanks to all the organizers and participants from us.

Kaisa Hiltunen & Nina Sääskilahti