There is a difference between face and surface. According to a study on domestic violence conducted by the National Agency for Equal Opportunities between Women and Men in the first semester of 2019, 38.94% of respondents stated that they suffered some form of domestic violence daily, while 20.57% suffered it weekly. Another study, carried out by the FILIA Centre in 2018, reported that 64.6% of respondents agreed that “a woman must follow her man” and only 20% of them would resort to some form of help to settle a domestic conflict. This statistic exposes a harsh reality: we are not aware of how serious the issue of violence is, and the victims tend to remain marginal, with minimal chances to make themselves heard publicly.

Things are not always clear in the current socio-political context, public space being ultimately occupied by those who hold the power. This typically leads to the subjugation and alienation of other voices in order to define the local cultural and social space. After all, it is not only about image, it is also about one’s right to a place in the world. Art turns into a political gesture and the artists react almost involuntarily to the environment in which they find themselves, rendering the essence of the present and facilitating the development of further directions by outlining situations and experiences.

A cultural act can also be an agent of change, especially if it involves a community and capitalizes on its shared experiences. For the On Her Side project, artists Irina Botea Bucan and Jon Dean have proposed three workshops addressing three groups of women coming from different social backgrounds, who have experienced domestic violence. The workshops have generated new situations, ideas and images. The three groups, Collective Voice, Power of the Ladies and The Peaches, worked together with the artists. The final work focused on process and methodology, with Irina and Jon creating the environments in which the participants expressed themselves. It is an expression that goes beyond language, beyond a certain narrative, touching on ways of communication that are closer to a form of theatre-performance; environments overlap and convey a complex, multilayered and multi-sensory message.

The three workshops followed three lines of expression: movement-performance, writing-embroidering, and the moving image accompanied by sound. Each line developed a different exercise of expression – of the body, of the message and of the voice. Irina and Jon imagined gestures and exercises that sometimes intersected with the theories of forum theatre (without being theatre per se), a general concept defined by Brazilian director and activist Augusto Boal. This concept is based on exercises that are meant to de-mechanize the body and shape communities. In Boal’s forum-theatre (a form of dramatic expression actively involving the audience in solving situations represented on stage), people control the entire creative process without external help from the artists. This democratic manner of cultural expression has the power to shape and even consolidate communities, pointing out self-management forms that can provide solutions to concrete socio-political problems.

Each workshop revolved around the above-mentioned lines. The exercises did not occur separately; they co-existed as a continuous and constant flow negotiated by the participants, in a holistic approach depending on the group, and facilitate collective expression. The first line focused around the body and performance – de-mechanization and relaxation leading to the development of personal scenarios and constructions. The second centred on drawing and keywords encompassing common visions and phrases that were embroidered and then exhibited. The third line used sound and the performing nature of voice and its capacity for non-verbal communication. No activity was pre-arranged or directed in any way. The exercises had an open character, in order to encourage the participants to express anything they wanted, despite any inhibiting traumas. Irina and Jon aimed to build a safe environment where the participants could co-operate and co-create. The way the iterated actions in the three workshops materialized had a precise meaning within a space where the embroidered material implied an activity labelled as typically feminine, where the woman confirmed her own time and creative individuality. As far as the video part is concerned, the two artists chose analogue technology – the 16-mm film. Compared to an ultra HD digital camera, this film has its own body, a fragile one that could be tampered with at any time, making the recording less intrusive.

Ultimately, what the viewers saw was an open path, a forum that encouraged interaction and introspection. The path of images, sounds and objects was the work of a group of people who managed to form close-knit communities by participating in artistic practices. One conclusion that was drawn at the end of a workshop was that “experience can be a chasm or a path to perfection.” The agent that leads to experience is easily visible.