Who gets to Dissent anyway?

Bubble Version 2, Susan Merrick, Laboratory of Dissent 2019

We have been having a really interesting chat on our group messages. Talking about Dissent of course, but how we each relate to it, personally and within our practice (if we do relate to it at all in our practice).

We have been talking about privilege too. The privilege to choose to dissent perhaps, the privilege to even be artists. I am interested in this because I haven’t used the term dissent in talking about my practice before. But it is definitely a part of what I do, how I respond, or what actions I make, perform, photograph or film. I often respond to injustice, or where I get uncomfortable. When something doesn’t feel right. In my Art practice i have been given a method, a language, a tool for responding to this. Having this language is a privilege I have gained since getting older.

As a child I did not have such language, I remember our class when I was 10 lying down on the playground as a strike. We had just been told in assembly that we would not be able to join the rest of the year group on the annual end of junior school trip because our teacher had other commitments that week. It was the early 80s, and we were in a small struggling coastal town in East Yorkshire, near Hull. We didn’t know about art and artists. We didnt know about philosophy or how to talk about social norms and dissent. But we had seen the news about coal miners and strikes, we knew that if something seemed unfair we could perhaps say so. So we lay down in the playground and refused to go back to class.

We still didn’t get to go on the trip. But we had practiced our first action of dissent – without really having much language for it.

Throughout my teenage years I had moments of speaking out, but many more of trying to fit in. I perhaps rebelled against the teachers who told me I wouldn’t amount to anything (when I had spent most of my GCSE years going to raves and suffering with undiagnosed depression) and the boyfriend and friends who wanted me to get pregnant and get a flat…. by finding a subject I loved, and that gave me the voice to understand my social situation, our norms, values and how these are constructed. Sociology. By gaining this language I gained a voice and went to university – the first in my family.

So when over a decade later I began to explore my voice through art, it is unsurprising that I found it through wanting to face or voice challenges, injustice and other voices.

So for me, is dissent my practice? I think it probably is. Or at least a large part of it. And that is because I often naturally want to question why? As James Aldridge pointed out, this is a privilege. I agree. Not that dissenting is a privilege in itself, but having the language to talk about dissent perhaps.

”Dissent – the holding or expression of opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held.”there was no dissent from this view”

I often think about dissent in the form of actions. Which for me express a challenge to the opinions commonly held……

but if it can also be the ‘holding of’ opinions…. we can surely then be silent dissenters? If our opinions are at odds to the majority even if we do not express them…. we are dissenting?

I also (after a visit to HMP Winchester last week) considered how much we are actually dissenting compared for example with those who live their lives at odds to the law. Surely we then witness people who are truly dissenters I wondered…..James Aldridge considered this too, asking if you have no choice to live your life outside of social norms… is this still dissent? Do people have to ‘choose’ to dissent? Or can it be dissent if it is simply seen as other?

Is that then the majority ‘labeling’ those living ‘other’ as dissenters?

Maybe again it is about choice? But to what extent. What if someone has limited choices, and through these limited choices they MUST dissent.

So dissent is only constructive/useful/empowering perhaps when it is a choice, an act/opinion or expression against something that is seen as the majority or norm. When it is a label provided by others or a situation you are placed in via discrimination…. that doesn’t feel like dissent, it feels like something else.

Excuse the meandering thoughts but I am enjoying feeling in a safe enough space to have differing and perhaps usefully fluid opinions on this (linking back to Laurence’s sharings on hydro-feminism) and be able to express them and work through them. I don’t feel this is dissent in itself, as there isn’t necessarily a majority view about all of this. We are all openly considering the theme, the methodology and our responses.