As we settle in to a new year, the twin challenges of Trump and Brexit continue to dominate our political and cultural discourse.

These and other issues will be examined at the Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics during 12-18 March and through a new initiative – The Artivist Academy – which will be launched in May.

The growth of populism – both its left and right-wing incarnations – and the trumping of reason by emotion was the focus of the recent World Forum on Democracy, organised by the Council of Europe in November. Initiated in 2012, the forum is a platform for dialogue and innovation in democratic governance. Over 2,000 people from 80 countries attended the 2017 event, including a delegation from Northern Ireland, supported by Building Change Trust. Politicians and international leaders shared their views on the problems posed by populism and its impact on traditional party and media structures as well as on multilateralism. In addition, a range of civil society actors, experts, journalists and youth leaders considered a number of innovative initiatives to support pluralistic and open democracies.

Carmen Perez

Among the many highlights of the three day event was a speech from the US civil rights activist, Carmen Perez, who contributed to a discussion on From the democracy of parties to the democracy of citizens?

Carmen Perez is an inspirational leader in the field of activism. She has dedicated 20 years to advocating for many of today’s important civil rights issues, including mass incarceration, gender equity, racial healing and community policing. Her most recent achievement was her role as the National Co-Chair of the Women’s March on Washington, which drew over 5 million people across the globe who marched in resistance of hatred and bigotry. Last year, Carmen was named one of Fortune’s Top 50 World Leaders and one of TIME’s most influential people.


As we have come to realise, many current political decisions are the end-product of emotional processes rather than the outcomes of rational thinking. The World Forum, in considering this context, highlighted the necessity for the use of new narratives, tools, and skills in order to make democratic activism more efficient and to allow it to involve a broader audience. Another highlight of the conference for me was the workshop on ArtiVism against populism, which explored the role of arts and culture in shaping political values, and their impact on generating social and political change. This event heard from a number of ‘Artivists’ on how to navigate the current political environment using techniques developed from artistic practice and popular culture. The ‘lab’ looked at three very different projects and came up with the following recommendations:

  • To encourage the use of popular culture and artistic practice and support initiatives that use art and culture to engage activists and the general public. Such initiatives could include for instance, the development of specific trainings and workshops for activists and other activities carried out in public spaces that have impact also on the general public.
  • To encourage start up approaches when designing such activities: for instance, developing content and materials by engaging people with different opinions in the debate, taking into account their feedback.
  • To support initiatives that are inclusive and accessible and that reach people with less access to arts and culture: in particular, promoting initiatives that use a methodology that is open source and transferrable in other countries and that can be adapted to national/local circumstances.

About the projects

The Center for Creative Activism (USA) The centre is a research and training institute which helps activists around the world to engage with current political concerns. This initiative focuses on the concept of popular culture, which is “a repository of our dreams, fears, desires and nightmares”. According to Professor Duncombe, Director of the centre: “Popular culture, whether we like it or not, is popular” and can “teach us a lot about how to reach people in a way that resonates with them”. He pointed out that popular culture can lead us “to a more robust democracy by teaching us about the desires and fears of everyday people and how to speak with them in a way they can hear us”.

Fearless Collective (Pakistan/India) According to Shiv Suleman, Co-Founder of the Fearless Collective, “Beauty saves us”: people experience beauty without being aware of it, while cooking, shopping or in other ways. The aim of the Fearless Collective is to promote a shift from “fear to love” using participative art in public spaces. The Fearless Collective defines itself as a “soft revolution” with the aim to create “a participative movement of women and girls reclaiming public spaces through art and storytelling”.

Boiling Point, Mouka Filmi Oy/Boiling Point campaign (Finland) Boiling Point is not only a documentary, directed by Elina Hirvonen and produced by Mouka Film, but also a campaign linked to the film. The goal was to inspire constructive dialogue with the help of the film so that Finnish people would continue to show respect to one another and engage less in hate-mongering on refugee issues. The documentary was shot during 2016 and premiered at DocPoint – the Helsinki Documentary Film Festival in January 2017. It was also screened at international film festivals and on the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE’s TV channel in spring 2017. Anyone with an internet connection could also arrange a screening at home or in a public space. The end result was 738 screenings in Finland and in 20 other countries, with 18,000 people participating in these events.

Further information about these projects and the World Forum is available by contacting me: Peter O’Neill, Festival Director, Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics:

Image © Council of Europe.

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