1. bookVolume 21 (2022): Issue 2 (December 2022)
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year
Open Access

Situating Discomfort in the Cracked Art World

Published Online: 22 Dec 2022
Volume & Issue: Volume 21 (2022) - Issue 2 (December 2022)
Page range: 118 - 142
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year

I make my way into the middle of the art installation as directed by the sign at the entrance. I weave carefully around the spiky, blood-red spheres hung from the ceiling at different heights, wary of accidentally bumping into or upsetting one, hyper-aware of my own body and its presence in the midst of the artwork. Between the dim lighting, the ominous music, and the pointy red balls blocking any direct route out of the room, I find myself, for a moment, completely disoriented, utterly lost despite the small space, with no clear sense of how to find the exit again. It is, briefly, a terrifying experience – a feeling of being utterly lost, trapped forever, incapable of finding my way out of the labyrinth. As I attempt to reorient myself, to right the tilting access of my sense of direction, I recall my first meeting several months prior with the artist who created this work, a woman called Deirdre Robb. I remember seeing a prototype of the red spheres in her workspace, and Deirdre telling me and the others visiting Creative Exchange studio in East Belfast that she had begun creating these objects as part of her work on menopause, in response to her own experiences thereof. At the time she expressed frustration that none of her friends or relatives had given her advance warning of what menopause would be like; I recall feeling exceedingly grateful in that moment for an aunt who, unprompted, had explained what menopause had been like for her and her six sisters. As I reclaim my bearings, I think to myself that the disorientation and intense discomfort that this installation sparked feels appropriate, given the topic of the artist’s creative work.

Two months later, I attend the Nine Nights pageant at Belfast City Hall, a large-scale Diwali celebration organized and programmed by local intercultural arts organization Arts Ekta. Nine Nights is a spectacular event, combining live acting with a massive shadow display on the side of the City Hall, accentuated by coloured lights, music and sound effects, and pyrotechnics, together with thousands of dancers and performers from the local community. As the lights flash and the music thrums and the sound of recorded thunder shakes the ground of the bone-chilling October night, I find myself repeatedly drawn to the incongruity of the white statue of Queen Victoria that sits in the centre of the City Hall lawn. The brightly coloured lights play over her face while a samba band drums and dances at her feet, and I find her immobile visage, glowing eerily pale white in the dark, chilling and unsettling. Her ablank, pale stare elicits a sense of dread, an uneasiness settled in the base of my stomach; it is like a sense of feeling watched or surveilled, and it prevents me from feeling fully immersed in the more joyful narrative being proclaimed by the performers. When I mention this to a colleague days later, we discuss whether this can be read as Victoria superimposing herself over the celebration – one originally hailing from a part of the world in whose colonization she played no small part – or whether we might see it as the inverse, migrants from all over the world superimposing their joyful multicultural narrative over the monarchical symbol from a past time. My colleague favours the latter explanation, but I still can’t shake the memory of that unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Discomfort in, around, and relating to art is multifaceted and complex, and as such it is a difficult thing to pin down. In this article, I seek to set forth an approach to identifying, exploring, and theorizing discomfort in art, doing so in a manner that will account for both of the experiences recounted above – one that does not minimize their difference, but rather incorporates and gives language to the different ways in which art can discomfort; and one, moreover, that does not neglect the artworks’ sociocultural contexts, but rather recognizes the socially and culturally situated nature of discomfort and the ways in which social relations condition and mediate affective responses.

In so doing, I situate myself within the legacy of anthropologists and other scholars writing about affect. I consider affect to be intimately related to, but not the same as, emotions: ‘[E]motions link affects (as bodily, sensory, inarticulate, and sometimes nonconscious experience) with surrounding local worlds by way of shared or recognizable modes of communication, articulation, and feeling. Emotions are linked to cultural repertoires that enable persons to express their own and label others’ observable or imagined affects and feelings’ (Thajib, Dinkelaker, and Stodulka, 2019, p. 8). While acknowledging that emotion and affect are distinct concepts, I suggest that the two are deeply interconnected through the medium of the body, such that they may be virtually inextricable in lived experience. As such, for the purposes of this article at least, I will treat the boundaries between ‘emotion’ and ‘affect’ very loosely, as the two are bound together intimately in the lived experiences I recount. While my focus in the article is specifically on affect, due to the affordances of the concept as outlined in the next paragraph, readers will also see presentations and discussions of emotion, as it would be artificial to separate the two in this work.

In understanding affect, I align myself with those who take affect to be relational, circulating in the spaces among human and more-than-human actors, objects, and places – what Sara Ahmed (2014) calls a ‘sociality of emotions’ approach. Affects comprise a processual way of knowing: as Slaby and Röttger-Rössler put it, ‘We understand affect not as processes “within” a person, but as social-relational dynamics unfolding in situated practices and social interaction’ (2018, p. 2). With Berg and Ramos-Zayas, moreover, I consider affect not as ‘presocial’, nor as somehow preceding or separate from cognition, but rather as something intimately bound up with racialized and gendered historical processes, as well as with human understanding and ‘intentionality’ (2015, p. 655; see also Slater, 2017).

However, while these and other authors rightly point us toward understandings of affect that move beyond internal states and individualized approaches, readers will notice that my approach here is necessarily interiorized, drawing on my own emotional and affective responses as a first port of call in seeking to name and understand discomfort in art. This is the tricky thing in writing about affect, as while affect circulates socially and relationally, it is often experienced as internal, and my own private affective responses are simply the data to which I have the best access. In this, I situate the autoethnography presented here within knowledge drawn from a larger-scale ethnographic study: these experiences were shaped by my growing understanding of community arts practices in Northern Ireland, developed during a year and a half of ethnographic fieldwork in 2014-2016, including personal interactions with artists and arts managers involved in both of the events described above.

In particular, in this article I pay close attention to the ways in which my own interiority, my own affective responses, were shaped by relationality, demonstrating how interior feelings and discomfort are almost never exclusively those of the individual, but rather implicate their relationships with others and with the world around them. This aligns with my methods of data collection: in conducting this research, I did not log affects in a separate, systematic emotion diary (as recommended by e.g. Stodulka, Selim, and Mattes, 2018), but rather I intentionally recorded sensory and affective data within my core fieldnotes. The resulting data set is both extremely detailed and very messy, demonstrating the ways in which my own affective responses are entangled within – and not entirely separable from – my expanding cultural knowledge and deepening research relationships.

So while the affective data recounted in this article is, in the first instance, personal and individualized, I use these personal stories as a route into discussing the social and relational circulation of affect in art world rituals and encounters, informed by my research and relationships with others in this social and cultural world. In this, I follow Stodulka, Selim, and Mattes’ exhortation to ‘tak[e] [affects] seriously as relational scientific data’ (2018, p. 520) and to shift our perception and usage of affective data from ‘anecdotes and modes of representation to understanding them as epistemic arrangements’ (p. 523). Affect, in other words, is an embodied mode of knowing, and, where it is used carefully, critically, and reflexively, it can serve as a route into intersubjective knowing (Stodulka, Selim, and Mattes, 2018).

To be clear, this is not to say that I believe my own emotional and affective responses became identical to those of my research participants. As Ahmed notes,

Emotions in their very intensity involve miscommunication, such that even when we feel we have the same feeling, we don’t necessarily have the same relationship to the feeling. Given that shared feelings are not about feeling the same feeling, or feeling-in-common, I suggest that it is the objects of emotion that circulate, rather than emotion as such. My argument still explores how emotions can move through the movement or circulation of objects. Such objects become sticky, or saturated with affect, as sites of personal and social tension (2014, p. 10-11).

My autoethnographic engagements with my own affect in this article illustrate the ways in which my body and my self affected and were affected by others within this long-term field research. Given my strong, and at times surprising, affective responses to certain art objects and performances, I understand these to be ‘sticky’ objects, ‘sites of personal and social tension’ in Ahmed’s terms, and I use that felt tension to guide the way to art objects worthy of further scrutiny in the affective realm. I critically mine my own interior affective data, both contemporarily reported in my fieldnotes and remembered in retrospect, for what it might reveal about art world relationships – relationship between self and art object, self and artistic context, and self and other/Other.

In what follows I will first introduce and outline an approach to understanding and discussing relationality as it relates to art, which I have called the ‘cracked art world’. As I will demonstrate throughout this article, in its focus on relational disconnection and rupture the cracked art world lends itself nicely – if incompletely – to discussions of discomfort. As part of this discussion, I will examine the use of discomfort as method, as a way to identify and explore the art world’s relational ‘cracks’. Following that, I will outline and explore several different ways in which affects of discomfort arise in art world encounters: discomfort from art, discomfort about art, and discomfort with (other) people. These three categories are fluid, and thus are not meant as a definitive taxonomy of discomfort and art; nevertheless, these distinctions are important, as I will demonstrate, and I offer the three categories as potential lenses through which readers may view their own and others’ experiences of discomfort as it relates to art and artistic practices. In discussing the third and final of these three categories, discomfort with (other) people, I focus on intercultural arts events, suggesting that such spaces for conscious, intentional intercultural dialogue produce a certain affective ambivalence which can be potentially discomforting. Throughout the article, I explore both the possibilities and limitations of a cracked art world perspective for discomforting art world encounters, and I demonstrate ways in which analyses of affect can further illuminate our understandings of social ties, encounters, and rituals within the cracked art world.

The cracked art world

In previous writings, I have set forth the notion of the ‘cracked art world’, a model for exploring feelings and experiences of disconnection and rupture within the social worlds in which art is made (Rush, 2020b; Rush, 2022a).

1The phrase ‘art worlds’ is drawn from Becker’s (1982) book of the same name, in which art worlds are theorized as the sum of those who participate in the creation, circulation, and critique of a particular type of art. For a full explanation of how the cracked art world model understands and utilizes Becker’s work, see Rush (2022a, pp. 1-17).

This framework takes its name from the metaphor of a cracked mirror: when a mirror is cracked, the images on either side of the break do not align, to greater or lesser extent depending on the extent and severity of the crack itself. In its focus on misalignment, the cracked art world model is useful for identifying and naming differences of aims and means among the many different actors within art worlds. Cracked-ness, I argue, is the typical state of any art world, or any social world at all, though members of the art world actively can and do work to repair these cracks through intentional acts of care (Rush, 2022a).

The cracked art world is fundamentally an affective approach, one which ‘calls for a sensorial dimension, attending to the feelings and emotions experienced and expressed by art world stakeholders’ (Rush, 2022a, p. 12). It was chosen for its affective resonances, as when I initially conceived of the idea (quite early in the research), I felt the metaphor of the cracked mirror expressed particularly well the ways in which divisions within my ‘field’ were expressed and played out – among artists, between artists and politicians, and indeed (to an extent, and without being overly reductive) in the deep ethnopolitical divisions that exist within Northern Ireland society (see Rush, 2022a, for more on this). Before fleshing out and implementing the model in my work, I presented it informally to a number of research participants, who confirmed that they felt the model accurately evoked their experiences.

But my focus in discussing the cracked art world model’s affective elements has, until now, been largely on affect as a method, as a way to identify troubled art world relationships for analysis. In this understanding (and with apologies for mixing metaphors), discomfort is the analytical seismograph, or perhaps the analytical dowsing rod, aiding the outsider researcher in identifying cracks in the art world of which they might not otherwise be aware. I have found this approach useful for identifying core concerns of my research participants; it was attention to discomfort that led me to, for example, an extended focus on the lived effects of austerity politics on Northern Ireland’s artists (Rush, 2020a, 2020b, 2022a, 2022b). Using discomfort methodologically, I pay close attention to discomfort both as I experience it internally and as I identify it among the (perceived or expressed) collective emotions of those around me – recognizing that the line of demarcation between individual and collective is particularly blurry in studies of affect, as discussed briefly above, and as I will demonstrate in greater detail in the next section of this article.

In what follows, I seek to further develop the cracked art world framework to better account for affect in art world encounters, particularly affect’s role within art world encounters themselves (for which the model does not yet fully account), and its analytical possibilities beyond what I have described so far. To this end, I identify and explicate three different types of relationships between discomfort and its objects in art world encounters: discomfort from art, discomfort about art, and discomfort with (other) people.

Discomfort from art

First, there is art that, in and of the art object itself, prompts discomfort in the viewer. This was the case with the installation piece about menopause, with an account of which I opened the article. Often this is intentional on the artist’s part, as I believe was the case with this particular piece of work. When I spoke with Deirdre later that week, while the exhibition was ongoing, she mentioned to me that her intention in creating art about menopause is to ‘break the taboo’ around the topic and allow people to have discussions about it. She described this to me as a socially informed type of art, a facet of her socially engaged and community arts work. Discomforting in this way is, for many of the artists with whom I have researched, one of the chief ways in which art can speak to society, by creating space for conversations rooted in affective responses to artistic prompts perceived as uncomfortable. Intentionally discomforting art confronts its viewers with the differences and boundaries between selves – whether between artist and audience, or between the viewer and others not currently present (whether real or imagined).

In The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014), Ahmed writes,

In my model of sociality of emotions, I suggest that emotions create the very effect of the surfaces and boundaries that allow us to distinguish an inside and an outside in the first place. So emotions are not simply something ‘I’ or ‘we’ have. Rather, it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others (p. 10).

In this instance, the discomfort instilled by Deirdre Robb’s art installation did exactly this, responding to and shaping the inside/outside boundaries of my own body and self. Both the discomfort, the initial sense of ‘lost’-ness which I felt within that space, and the subsequent feeling of rightness, of the feelings raised being appropriate to the artwork’s subject matter, respond to my own embodiment and my identity as a cisgender woman who expects to one day experience menopause, but for whom this is likely quite some distance in future. If I were being simplistic, I could, perhaps, attribute the initial feeling of discomfort to my own inexperience with the life experience being communicated – that is, the ways in which the artist and the artwork are other than me, or outside myself – while I could then attach the feeling of ‘rightness’ to a shared identity and common experience – that of someone who has menstruated, and who thus shares a particular set of physical experiences with the artist.

But I think the reality is not so neat, and that the two affective responses are mixed up in a more complicated way, similar to how my own insider/outsider position with regard to this artwork is more complicated. Somewhat unusual for a cisgender woman of my age, I do not currently menstruate, an unexpected (though for me very welcome) side effect of hormonal birth control. Thus, for the time being I am removed from the insider category, though not entirely. The installation, then, in some ways brought me back to the messy reality of my own body, its surfaces and its boundaries and its pains (see also Ahmed, 2014, pp. 26-27). Furthermore, being confronted with an art object that aroused an affect of dis-ease and adhered or ‘stuck’ it (to use Ahmed’s terminology) to the sign ‘menopause’ brought to mind in a visceral way the pain of several people whom I love, as at the time several close friends and family members were experiencing either menopause or pre-menopause. This included a loved one whose menopause journey necessitated a hysterectomy several months after I visited this exhibit, and the two have become bound together in my mind: I cannot recall the artwork without the memory, in turn, recalling her face when I saw her several days after the procedure, the glassy eyes dulled by painkillers, the halting way in which she walked – and also, less important but still present, the nagging fear that one day my own menstrual journey will end the same way. As Ahmed notes, the ‘ungraspability’ of others’ pain heightens awareness of the surfaces of and boundaries between bodies and recalls the one not in pain to the habitation of their own body (2014, pp. 30-31).

The discomforting art object, then, serves as an unsettling and unexpected sign that not only sharpens awareness of the surfaces toward which it points but also, and perhaps more importantly, in its intensity provides an opportunity to better explore the work of affect that is going on. While certainly not every viewer or spectator of an artwork will take time to work through and identify these affective processes and circulations, discomfort with art can provide and provoke possibilities for recognizing the complex ways in which we inhabit affect, and in which affect inhabits us.

Discomfort with the art object often begins with the interior world, but it does not necessarily stay there; it circulates, sometimes even explicitly so. For example, discomfort plays a crucial role in discourses about public art in the Northern Ireland art world.

2Here I am using ‘public art’ to refer broadly to any artworks displayed in public places. For a rigorous look at what specifically constitutes the genre called ‘public art’, particularly within the Northern Ireland context, see Hocking (2015). For an emic Northern Ireland art world taxonomy that differentiates ‘public art’ from other publicly displayed genres such as street art and graffiti, see Rush (2022a, pp. 87-91).

My community arts interlocutors regularly spoke of their discomfort with paramilitary murals, especially those that featured violent imagery such as masked men holding guns. Their descriptions of the affective effects of these public art images bear significant similarities to Ahmed’s description of comfort and discomfort, inasmuch as comfort allows one to ‘fit’ more easily into their environment (see especially Ahmed, 2014, pp. 147-149).

Northern Ireland art world members discussed how the images we see every day shape our orientations to place and cultivate specific emotions, identifying these militarized images as cultivating an affect of fear. They suggested that replacing such images with others could instil in residents a sense of hope, or even of love for their environment. At a public discussion event about art in Belfast, one of the speakers described how the images we see every day ‘incrementally’ change our outlooks on life. He shared a photo of a well-known Dublin mural bearing the words ‘Don’t be afraid’ (the final words of poet Seamus Heaney), inviting the audience to imagine how seeing those words every day would slowly change a person’s perceptions. Comfort and discomfort with the local built environment accrue over time, through repeated viewings of the public art images (cf. Ahmed, 2014, p. 148); they also shape the surfaces and boundaries of and between individual bodies and their material environments: ‘[I]n feelings of comfort, bodies extend into spaces, and spaces extend into bodies’ (Ahmed, 2014, p. 148). Thus images of hope or love make individuals feel at home in the city, as though one ‘fits’ within the urban environment. On the other hand, militarized murals, as well as other forms of threatening urban textuality such as racist or homophobic graffiti, not only arouse affects of fear: they are also felt as unequal, unwelcome intrusions into the individual body.

In these discourses about public art in urban spaces, even where art world stakeholders share a desire to cultivate comfort in urban environments, they frequently disagree on the question of for whom that comfort ought to exist. While many local residents call for public art that they feel better represents Northern Ireland’s diversity and a shared desire for peace, state and local governments have emphasized replacing murals viewed as hateful or contentious with images that will be comforting to foreign investors and upper-middle-class consumers and tourists (Hocking, 2015). This mismatch of spatialized desires can be read as a visual and visible manifestation of the cracked art world, and I have provided a reading of it as such elsewhere (Rush, 2022a, pp. 84-111). But it is also a discussion, played out live and with high stakes, about who gets to belong in the city – about whose comfort is prioritized, and at whose expense. Artist-led organizations like ‘Save CQ’ (‘Save the Cathedral Quarter’, an area of Belfast’s city centre with strong links to local artistic organizations) advocate not just for street and public art that cultivates affects of hope and belonging, but also for new development practices centred on the comfort of all of the city’s residents, including those whose interests are typically left out of planning processes for urban centres, such as older adults, families with children, lower-income people, and homeless individuals (Save Cathedral Quarter, 2017). These affective narratives are at the heart of what Northern Ireland’s artists have to say about space, place, home, and belonging, and notions of comfort and discomfort from art hold a central place in these discourses.

Discomfort about art

A second type of art world discomfort is that which surrounds the artwork in some way – not because of the shape or content of the art itself, but due to something or other that has clouded the work’s creation or circulation. Tinius (2018) writes of what he calls ‘awkward art’, specifically examining colonial art objects and artworks looted by the Nazis. He notes that in problematic, contested cases such as these, artworks cause discomfort and are ‘the subject of contestation not because of their formal qualities, but because the social relations they retrospectively embody are seen as troublesome and thus demand particular attention for their future reception’ (p. 132). Tinius’ analysis is a reminder that art cannot be separated from its social contexts, nor from the meanings its accrues via its post-production movement through the world (see also Jackson, 2014, pp. 224-30; Svašek, 2016). Discomfort arising from these post-production social relations is important and instructive, pointing to the ways in which art is moved, valued, circulated, and used by people within the context of unequal structures and systems of power, domination, and oppression.

My dis-ease with the statue of Queen Victoria during the Diwali pageant celebration, recounted in the opening of this article, can be placed in this category. For ultimately my discomfort was not with anything to do with the performance itself, but rather with the ongoing inscription of colonial symbols onto the urban landscape that I at the time called home, one whose increasing racial and ethnic diversity is not yet echoed in its public art and imagery. Arts Ekta’s large-scale takeover of politically and symbolically vital civic space is in fact quite a significant moment; but using that civic space temporarily comes with its more permanent fixtures, including symbols of colonialism and patriarchy. (Though it should be noted that this landscape is slowly changing, as in summer 2021 Belfast City Council approved plans for the installation of two new statues of prominent historical women activists – both white and Irish – on the City Hall lawn. According to one of the news outlets that reported on the successful vote, ‘The effigies are part of a bid to make the city hall grounds more reflective of society, following a review in 2012’; BBC News, 2021).

Discomfort with monumental symbols of colonial history has become a more commonly discussed affect in the years since I attended Nine Nights, with widespread calls for the removal of statues dedicated to historical figures complicit in imperialism and genocide (see e.g. Çelik, 2020; Habib et al., 2021; Sentence, 2021). As discussed in the previous section of this article, images and signs in public spaces impact on affects of comfort and discomfort, and thus on ideas about who can belong in certain spaces. These affects do not disappear when certain spaces are co-opted or taken over for temporary arts performances and art world rituals; rather, affect continues to circulate within the space, among its human occupants and its material features – both permanent and temporary – though perhaps in different ways than usual, as evidenced by my friendly disagreement with a colleague over the relationship between the performance and the statue. Ultimately, our differing views as to whether the performance was superimposed over the statue or vice versa is one small corner of the cracked art world, as well as an indication that we were and are both aware of the ways in which affects move between, accrue, and stick to objects.

The Victoria statue is a prime example of what Ahmed calls a ‘sticky’ object, ‘saturated with affect, as [a site] of personal and social tension’ (2014, p. 11). Representations of hereditary monarchs of colonial powers, or of any leaders of states for that matter, will nearly always attract to themselves conflicting affects. This is especially so in Northern Ireland, where state images are part of a complex visual and spatial negotiation over state sovereignty, meaning that representations of British monarchs are particularly unwelcome to a portion of the region’s population. Thus, the presence of the sticky object within the art world event in turn affects the ways in which performers and audience members experience and are affected by that space. In its potential to discomfort, the sticky object retains the possibility to, in turn, disrupt and discomfort the artwork, and to change audience members’ readings and experiences of the art, as was the case with my own affective response to the statue’s presence.

Discomfort about art, which is to say discomfort with and about the social and relational processes in which the artwork is made and through which it moves, is, then, closely bound up in larger historical processes such as colonialism and imperialism, and any art world perspective cannot neatly disentangle the artworks from these complex legacies of inequality and oppression (see also Berg and Ramos-Zayas, 2015). Furthermore, a cracked art world perspective is incomplete if it only identifies differences and inequalities as they relate to art itself, separated from its socio-historical contexts. Thus, a cracked art world model influenced by and steeped in understandings of affect will, of necessity, pay close attention to the ways in which contemporary affective art world experiences are influenced and affected by their contexts. The following section of this article further explores the ways in which (cracked) art worlds are situated in historical processes of domination, by examining a series of racist art world encounters that I witnessed in another intercultural arts event in Belfast.

Discomfort with (other) people

On the August bank holiday weekend, the Botanic Gardens in South Belfast were bedecked in signs and decorations identifying them as the site of the Belfast Mela, an annual celebration of the diverse racial, ethnic, and national communities who make their home in the city, and of their cultures (cf. Smith and Carnegie, 2006; Penrose, 2013). White open-air marquee tents clustered around the entrance to the public park. Winding my way through them, I found that each belonged to a different local cultural association: there were representatives from the Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and multinational Russian-speaking communities in Belfast, among others. Some sold handicrafts, while others offered spaces for children to draw, colour, or make artwork. The Polish cultural association’s booth featured two long tables: one devoted to children’s crafts, and a second to a selection of English-language tourism literature about visiting Poland. The Filipino group’s booth, meanwhile, featured music, dance, and the display of a small, light-framed house on stilts, which a local newspaper write-up several days prior identified as ‘a traditional bamboo house, known as a bahay kubo’, this particular one designed by ‘a local architect, who once lived in the [Philippines] islands’ (Black, 2015). The bahay kubo could be accessed by a small ladder, and a small queue of children waited to be helped up the ladder by a man in traditional garb.

Around the corner at yet another white tent, this one bearing the name and logo of a local Irish language and culture organization, a group of around fifteen young people, mostly white, played an Irish traditional tune on traditional instruments. I overheard a middle-aged white man next to me proudly and confidently repeat to his friends several times that the group of instrumentalists were a ‘Chinese orchestra’, insisting that they ‘look’ and ‘sound’ ‘Chinese’.

In front of the Filipino association’s tent, a small band of four men began to play – a singer, a guitarist, a ukulele player, and a man with a cajon, a portable box drum on which the drummer sits and plays with palms and fingers. Next to the band were stacked several long bamboo poles. I found the bamboo poles particularly exciting, as I recalled watching videos of tinikling – which, together with its ‘more recent … form, singkil’, has ‘remained as the stereotypical choreographed image of Filipino identity for over fifty years’ (Shay, 2006, p. 106) – in my undergraduate ‘world music’ module, but I had never seen it danced live. The bamboo poles, however, remained off to the side while the band sang and played a variety of songs, some in English – including one about the North American city of San Francisco – and some in a language that I did not recognize. The band’s close harmonies and charismatic demeanour began to draw a small crowd.

While the band played, one spectator, a middle-aged white woman, began to sidle into the space behind the band, her body language indicating that she was attempting to be sneaky, to conceal her movements from the musicians. She snuck up behind the singer and began to bob her head around behind his in a mocking gesture directed at a group of white women around her age in the crowd. Her spectating friends laughed and took pictures with their phones before she crept away from the performance area once more. I watched as the group of laughing women, followed by other groups of white women, gathered to have their photographs taken in front of the traditional bamboo house, standing next to and putting their arms around the man in traditional dress who had been helping children climb the ladder into the small structure.

I felt deeply uneasy hearing and watching both these encounters, in a way that is difficult to put into words. I intensely wished that I could un-see and un-hear these interactions, that I could revel unproblematically in the colourful, joyous multicultural narrative of the Mela. It was as though these individuals’ interactions with their (and my) cultural ‘others’ marred my experience, a small rotten spot in an otherwise delicious piece of fruit, or a tiny stain on an otherwise pristine sweater. I worried that I was taking these interactions too seriously, or perhaps not seriously enough: a handful of ignorant individuals are likely to exist, after all, within an event that draws tens of thousands; but at the same time, by thinking this was I minimizing the racism inherent in their statements and actions? The interactions loomed large in my experience of the day, and they continue to take an outsize role in my memories in the years that have followed.

Of all the uncomfortable moments I experienced during my field research, this is the one that I recall most vividly, the one to which I kept returning when I was given the special issue brief on discomfort. If I take discomfort as methodology, as discussed previously, the intense discomfort I experienced watching these scenes play out, as well as my own continued association of these experiences with an affect of discomfort, indicate that here is something which bears further scrutiny. But in the half-decade that has passed since this occurred, I have time and again struggled to make sense of these encounters – not necessarily with why I felt uncomfortable, but with how to describe and explain the discomfort itself, and with the location of my own white body in that space.

Arts Ekta’s work is at the forefront of what is called ‘intercultural arts’ practice in Northern Ireland today.

3For collections of wide-ranging interdisciplinary critical reflections on intercultural arts collaborations and exchanges, see Schneider (2017) and Durrer and Henze (2020).

At the time of my research in the region, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland had begun to devote significant resources to intercultural arts training and projects (see especially Tracey and Shields, 2015), and thus interculturalism was present in many art world discussions. In a wide variety of settings, from casual conversations to government policy documents, Arts Ekta was held up to me as an exemplar of good intercultural arts practice in the region, and they are certainly the organization with the widest reach for their intercultural practices, given their engagement in large-scale performance and festival events such as Nine Nights and the Belfast Mela.

The ‘inter-’ of ‘intercultural’ is intentionally suggestive of a similar movement-driven in-between-ness as that which comprises affect, with intercultural arts ‘exist[ing] on the borders between performing bodies, bodies of knowledge and bodies of culture’ (Burnard, Mackinlay, and Powell, 2016, p. 2). As a socio-relational process that, much like affect, ‘unfolds “in-between”’ human and more-than-human actors, objects, and environments (Slaby and Röttger-Rössler, 2018, p. 2), intercultural arts practices create space for contact with cultural ‘others’, and thus open-ended opportunities for emotions and affects to circulate, to make the surfaces and boundaries of self and other, and to ‘stick’ to signs of belonging and otherness. These spaces are potentially generative of new formations of belonging, but they are also deeply ambivalent, providing opportunities for counterhegemonic, alternate, or even racist readings of others and practices of othering.

The discomfort that I experienced in these encounters at the Mela is different from those previously treated in this article, as it stems neither from the artwork or event itself nor from the larger social conditions in which the event occurred, but rather from encounters with other individuals with whom I shared the space. I have termed this category ‘discomfort with (other) people’ to indicate that the discomfort comes not only from intersubjective encounters, but is also bound up in processes of racialization and othering. In some ways, perhaps, we might argue that the discomfort had nothing at all to do with the art, as I could of course have encountered these individuals and their orientations and actions toward others anywhere. However, given the festival’s specifically intercultural and anti-racist aims, I contend that these encounters must be understood as part of both the art event and the art world in which occurred, as they shine light on the affective ambivalence of the Mela and spaces like it.

As Svašek (2020) demonstrates, arts managerial and curatorial practices are intentionally deployed to cultivate certain affective dispositions for art world events, which can (but do not always) in turn cultivate and influence audience members’ own affective engagements with art world spaces and rituals. This is certainly the case with the Mela, which carefully and self-consciously cultivates a public affect of joyful enthusiasm, which it ‘sticks’ to the actions of sharing and exchanging elements of diverse cultures within a space of mutual respect and intentional engagement. Ahmed (2014, pp. 133-141) and Bartleet (2016) have both described this affect as ‘love’, though from very different perspectives – Ahmed as a cultural theorist critically examining UK social and cultural policy, and Bartleet as a long-serving practitioner facilitating intercultural arts encounters in Australia – thus drawing very different conclusions about the nature and uses of this love. This affective framing of joy and love is visible in both the material arrangements of the Mela itself and in the public-facing media presence with which Arts Ekta advertises the event. Much of this framing is visual, featuring and featured in the material decorations of the Mela, which are vibrant and colourful and feature ‘othered’ images such as mandalas and stylized renderings of Hindu deities. Acrobatic stilt walkers and tight rope performers dressed as mystical beings with their skin painted blue or green featured especially prominently in the Mela’s promotional images that year, indicating the desire to cultivate an affect of excitement and wonder.

4While space does not permit me an in-depth analysis of these particular performances here, it is interesting to note that the acrobatic performers were both deracialized and exoticized through the act of skin painting.

The strategic uses of, in particular, bright colours and a mix of othered or ‘from elsewhere’ cultural symbols align closely with research on Melas elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Smith and Carnegie write, ‘Like Caribbean Carnivals, Melas have come to symbolise all that is “colourful” about Diaspora, transforming ethnicity into a cultural showcase for growing numbers of white and tourist audiences’ (2006, p. 1). Mela events provide opportunities for diverse individuals and cultural groups to represent themselves to others (see Penrose, 2013, p. 840), and the diversity of usage choices for the white marquee tents points to that, as each cultural association took a different approach to self-representation. However, these self-representations cannot be extracted or removed from the gaze of the other, and in particular the white gaze, for while the crowds attending the Belfast Mela were diverse, white attendees of Irish and British descent and nationality formed the clear majority (cf. Smith and Carnegie, 2006, pp. 4-6).

Svašek notes that not all attendees at an art world event will take on the affects suggested by those managing the event (2020, p. 101), echoing Ahmed’s point that affects in circulation do not necessarily mean that each actor experiences the same feeling or emotion (2014, pp. 10-11). This is also at the core of the cracked art world model, which holds that different actors in an art world will have different perspectives and different goals in engaging with, or even planning or organizing, an artwork or event. And this is very much the case with the Mela, which is a charged and curated affective space, but whose managerial choices cannot dictate or legislate individual feelings or interactions within the Mela space. And this affective ambivalence can in turn provoke anxiety, perhaps especially for those who wish to be ‘good white people’ (and especially ‘good white women’) in encountering those ‘others’ whose racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds mean they and their families have been disproportionately impacted by the effects of racism and colonialism (Slater, 2017).

Reflecting retrospectively, I can identify this anxiety in my own affective reaction to (especially) the badly behaving white women I encountered at the Filipino cultural association’s tent. Returning to Ahmed’s sociality of emotions, it is interesting (if still rather uncomfortable) to think about the ways in which my own affective engagement in that situation worked to form surfaces and boundaries. My initial affective response to the white people behaving in racist ways – whether the man ignorantly identifying a group of white teenagers playing Irish tunes on Irish instruments as a ‘Chinese orchestra’ or the women training an appropriative tourist gaze on the musical performance – was one of distancing myself from them: internally marking myself as a ‘good’ white woman, as opposed to the ‘bad’ white people around me. In their responses to cultural others, they became ‘other’ to me. We might even call this disgust, an intentional ‘pulling away’ from those whom I wished to affectively mark out as other than myself (cf. Ahmed, 2014, p. 99).

But there is still further discomfort here, beyond the initial ‘pulling away’ response, and these layers of discomforting affects unfolding between myself and the other Mela attendees are what made (and continue to re-make) this moment as so affectively charged. For our shared white skin meant, and means, that I can never wholly distance myself from them or make them completely other than me: we share a surface to which a particularly potent series of signs has been stuck, through sticking and re-sticking across centuries of racialization (Berg and Ramos-Zayas, 2015). Slater writes illuminatingly of this sort of discomfort with the behaviour of other white women in touristized and festivalized spaces of cultural contact in an Australian context: ‘Focusing upon white women’s emotional responses to Aboriginal people and politics is uncomfortable, to say the least… My attention wavered between the lessons and the Napaki [non-Indigenous] women’s compulsive curiosity. It was shaming and illuminating. I feared contagion: affects leap from body to body’ (2017, p. 336).

There is also discomfort with myself and with my own white gaze, for I was deeply aware then, and am perhaps even more so now, that I too was accessing that space as a cultural tourist, even if I liked (or like) to think that I did so with better intentions. My own curious, eager reaction to the tinikling poles, based on a cursory encounter with one specific aspect of Filipino cultural performance as part of a survey course taught by a white lecturer in a majority-white institution – and we must not forget that ‘world music’ courses are themselves a product of histories of colonialism and the white gaze turning itself upon the music of ‘others’ – is also a form of privileged affective othering, of seeking to take in, to consume other people’s cultural art objects through my white gaze. It is perhaps a more benign othering, but it serves to illuminate and entrench, via affect, the boundaries between myself and other (and othered) people within the Mela space.

This is why I have found it necessary to fold affect into the cracked art world model. For the cracked art world on its own, without an acknowledgment of how affects unfold and stick to objects and actors in the spaces in between, could chalk these discomforting experiences up to a misalignment of frames, a difference of perspectives on what the Mela is or ought to be. But to analyze these encounters in this way is to ignore their racism, and with it the ‘intentionality’ of the actors involved (Berg and Ramos-Zayas, 2015, p. 655). The addition of affect, then, and especially the prolonged focus on discomfort, provides for a means of incorporating into the analysis and better articulating the ways in which race and racialization shape affective encounters with others.


As I attempt to write some sort of conclusion to this article, I find myself once more unsettled. It is uncomfortable to turn a critical lens onto my own past experiences and attitudes and to find myself not as distanced from the others in these art world encounters as I would like to be. I do so – and make these reflections rather uncomfortably public in the process – because I believe that discomfort can be both personally and analytically productive, but only if we allow it to be (cf. Slater, 2017, p. 336).

In this article, I have named and described three different ways in which discomfort exists and circulates within cracked art worlds: discomfort from art, discomfort about art, and discomfort with (other) people. This is not intended as a definitive typology, but rather as a series of broad-strokes understandings, in recognition of the fact that discomfort in the art world is not always about the art object itself, as dis-ease can relate to or be triggered by a variety of socio-relational factors. I invite and encourage other scholars to critique, expand upon, and add to this list, and especially to do so in ways that account for other social and cultural contexts outside of my own research in and on twenty-first-century Northern Ireland.

Affects of discomfort are meaningful ways of knowing the world, and of encountering the other(ed) cultural worlds in which we research. They have much to tell us, both about where we ourselves fit or do not fit into these worlds and about how our interlocutors experience everyday life as comforting or discomforting (or both). They can also highlight the long shadow of colonialism and historical oppression, in addition to contemporary racism and inequality, via these processes’ affective and embodied effects on our lives and those of the others who share their knowledge, experiences, and lives with us. In other words, discomfort is analytically and methodologically productive, but in more complex ways than I, for one, had initially realized or described. Probing the possibilities of discomfort requires a deeply critical reflexivity and necessitates a perhaps-discomforting level of honesty with both oneself and one’s peers.

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