Peace used to be presented as something otherworldly in art. Now, it’s rarely presented at all. Art historian Anneleen de Jong looks for novel ways of visualising peace through design.
In March 2018, I look up to the design students sitting in a steeply ascending auditorium at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Daylight steeps in between tall curtains trying to cover high windows overlooking the city.
The Master students have been given an assignment, which not the easiest ever. They’ve been assigned to re-think and re-visualise peace and justice with institutions based in The Hague, the capital of international courts and tribunals.
Knowing the meta-level, conceptual mode of the student’s minds, as a guest lecturer, I try to provide them a very hands-on, practical perspective on working with peace-related institutions, which are usually not familiar with implementing design-anything in their work.
It’s not that there isn’t curiosity and interest in the organisations necessarily, I try to point out to the students, but often there is a lack of common language. It’s an encounter of very different worlds, backgrounds, educations and experiences. Whereas designers — perhaps especially students — are often used to approaching things on a high meta level, the people working in peace and justice are used to looking for very pragmatic solutions.
After the lecture, the students spontaneously gather into their own small working groups and disappear from the auditorium to go through the thoughts (hopefully) raised by the day’s lectures.
The students’ assignment is a part of a PhD research by Anneleen de Jong, an art historian and a researcher living in The Hague in The Netherlands. After studying art history, she worked for the United Nations in Geneva in Switzerland on how to visualise the message of the UN, before moving to Chile to study museography.
This is the third time she is challenging design and art students to find new approaches to peace and justice in the project ‘Visualising Peace and Justice’— and the third time she is challenging peace and justice institutions to look into their work from perspectives of design and art. The collaboration with the students, initiated and coordinated with design educator Marina Martinez Garcia, started in 2016.
In an interview, Anneleen de Jong gives insight to the need and urgency to re-visualise peace, and the lessons learnt from the experiences gained in the project.
Anneleen de Jong, what is the importance to re-think and re-visualise peace and justice?
For me, it dates back to when I was working for the UN. I saw that countries were not presenting exciting works of art to support the UN, but always the most conventional arts. For instance, many countries offer copies and lesser examples of artworks typical of their culture. In some cases indigenous artworks are used to express the respect for culture and for human rights. Often this is just a cover-up for not respecting human rights, as works of art that question social injustices, for instance, will not be shown within the diplomatic community. The good thing is that art enters the scene, but the bad thing is that the artwork should not touch upon or support any issue, or raise any questions. I am fully aware of the rules of diplomacy and I understand why confrontational art will not strengthen any difficult political dialogue, as it will create opponents instead of allies, but I still see that there is a missed opportunity.
Cultural dialogues must run parallel with political dialogues with high-level art. You have to find a solution within the rules of diplomacy. You have to address an issue to the core and employ the best of art, in its full splendour, no matter the medium, the origin or the history of the people it belongs to. With art, we have the chance to include new ways of thinking, but we may as well use it to prevent just that. Art as a cover, as a way of excluding the artist’s voice because we don’t want to see what people — through artists — are really saying. To see the difference between these two is not just about how the topic is addressed, whether it depicts social injustice or topics related to war. It is far more subtle and complex.
You have written about the famous Peace Palace in The Hague that “100 years ago, there were artists that decorated the Peace Palace who understood that the senses have to be addressed if one wishes to unite people around peace and justice. One of the things that Hague Thinking needs today, is to revive that insight in a 21st century manner.” What do you mean by this?
What is smart at the Peace Palace is how the decorators at the time tried to trigger the senses through light, colours and so on to give people a sense of peace. From my experience, this doesn’t work anymore with today’s audience, or maybe how it has been done at the Peace Palace is not enough to break through the complex situation of today’s world. What do we need now? Not more illustrative symbolism, but perhaps something more basic, going back to gaining physical experiences through art, making use the technologies we now have. And use the knowledge on how our senses really work.
The definition of peace has also changed. Hundred years ago its was based on a consensus that peace was the absence of war, and the outcome of the victory of good over bad. The relevant iconography consisted of unifying symbols, which long before derived from Greek mythology and were passed on by Christianity in the Western world. Only after WWII, divergent definitions of peace came into use, very much trying to include or describe a situation in which the different human rights are respected. Now we have to bring together a lot of different things: in a globalising world, the expectations are complex. Instead of theoretically, we can deal with how people feel about peace individually. For many, peace is still the absence of war, but there is no peace without equality, sexual freedom, freedom of expression, ecology, and so on. It’s a lot of things — so many that we cannot even think of them at the same time, leave alone catch it within one unifying symbol. An icon maybe.
How has peace been visualised historically?
Traditionally, peace has been visualised as the absence of war or something that overcomes you. It’s been a goddess or a god, something non-human, religious almost. When that ended, it became very different.
This is a question of divergent and convergent thinking. Today’s society is so complex. Maybe we could understand this through a Taoist system, but that’s not our society. We can learn a lot from the Taoist way of thinking, and how our bodies are connected to the environment around us. Then we can go back to technology, and to connecting the mind to the body.
From my perspective, peace is related to harmony, as a multi-layered concept. If we try to bring back its unifying role, we have to take several steps back and understand that this divergency and the very contradictions related to peace are within us. This is not about inner peace, love and so on. It is about the very question whether we are able to think of peace in the first place. Do our brains allow us to do this exercise? Are we trained in the right way? Or are we chasing a phantom? It was very exciting to experiment with these questions through design, as we did in the projects in The Hague. The results were amazing. In some cases we could really see how this approach to the topic of peace and justice impacted the thinking of some high-level professionals working within the international organisations.
So this is just the beginning. Even after three years and sixty very interesting projects, all the amazing and inspiring research and experiments with students, I have not found any convincing method to visualise peace — or justice although justice is somewhat different. We can talk about it and illustrate its impact, but it’s too big of a concept for our minds.
I recently had a conversation about new narratives of peace with designer and filmmaker Timo Ramu from creative agency Musuta. In their short film ‘Resolve’ for peace brokering organisation Crisis Management Initiative CMI, Musuta has been looking for a narrative of a society that is falling apart and being built up again. From your perspective, how is peace visualised today?
To my experience, it’s not visualised, but it should be. It disappeared from the art scene after the Second World War. Visualising war has an easy connection to the senses — people suffer and the rules of empathy and catharsis can be easily applied in a way that people recognise it. Peace became a very difficult thing to understand. Our brain is not trained to understand it.
Now we are trying to use design theory to come close to understanding why. We need to develop divergent thinking — when we can do that we might be able to visualise peace. Divergent thinking needs a physical and highly sensorial, developed exercise. This is where art comes in.
All art is representation of how we think, nothing more and nothing less although we tend to forget this and interpret what we see as if it were an illustration of a reality. So we hardly ever visualise peace. We visualise the society, and indirectly, we visualise peace within being a part of it.
Some of the projects by the students are presented online on the website of the ‘Visualising Peace and Justice’ project. They seem to vary from creating voids to tuning the outfits of the judges. How would you sum up how the students approached the issue?
All students said they were shocked in the beginning, that this is too big of an issue. Each group had a sub-theme selected by their tutor. There were 16 different ways to approach the topic from spatial design of the premises of the Former Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) to the role of secondary trauma within the institutions today.
Some groups had more connections with the participating institutions than others. Those who worked with the institutions received a lot of relevant content from the lawyers working in defence and prosecution in international criminal law, for instance. But there were also students who developed very interesting projects by translating the topic to their own background context, by interviewing people, or by creating a new tonal system for the sound of peace.
What kinds of conclusions can you draw from the research and projects? How could that be applied in practice?
I would say that artists of all kinds, whether designers, dancers, painters, musicians, performers, poets or other, do have a reason to be in the world of peace and justice. Bringing together the art world and the peace and justice world opens up thinking. I would be interested in finding a lab-like situation in The Hague where we could continuously theorise, reinvent and experiment with a visual and auditive languages on peace and justice.
At the Peace Palace in The Hague, there were originally a lot of images to tell the story. Today, the city of peace and justice has very few images to share. To me, The Hague could take the lead in making this change on a global level, break the mental walls between the inside world of international law and the innovation that art can bring. Then, the Hague Thinking would be more a verb and less a heritage.
The interview is a part of ‘Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy,’ a project and a series of talks, articles and interviews by Brussels-based design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Spaces of Peace’ looks into crossovers of design, architecture and peace mediation in order to find synergy between the sectors.