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Art, research, and intervention

Posted on Dec 18, 2017 by in issue #08 |

By Erin E. Cory

Postdoctoral researcher, Refugee Migration, Malmö University (Sweden)


/Profile and Case Analysis

Art, research, and intervention: writing and working towards imagined futures beyond the “refugee crisis”


The so-called “refugee crisis” has captivated global publics since it entered popular discourse in 2015. In the art world, group exhibitions, and pieces by contemporary heavy-hitters like Banksy and Ai Wei Wei, have both served as awareness-raising efforts and stirred controversy, as when the latter posed as drowned Kurdish-Syrian child Alan Kurdi[1].  Likewise, humanitarian initiatives have sought to harness art’s apparent power to help refugees in addressing and working through their trauma.

However, as some scholars have pointed out, despite the good intentions by which they are motivated, such interventions bring up questions of both sustainability and impact.  Although these initiatives have raised money and awareness in efforts to contribute aid to refugee populations, the forms they take – museum or gallery exhibitions, for example, or projects tailored for refugee camp inhabitants – mainly offer sites through which monetary and symbolic support for refugees can circulate, but leave something to be desired in terms of sustained, practical engagements with situations that are extremely urgent and, indeed, a matter of life and death.  They are, in many ways, spectacular:  crafted by turns to draw the (optic, financial, and perhaps humanitarian/justice-oriented) attention of those who have the privilege to access the sites in which they operate (as is the case with art exhibitions), or to provide (and document) temporary respite and expressive space for refugee populations.  The question becomes, in a sense:  To what end?  How might art and creative practice, not only on behalf of but also by refugees, create positive, sustained change?

Given the relative recentness of the “refugee crisis” and academia’s own (very slow) temporalities, it is not surprising that so far there exists little work specifically addressing these questions.  This “profile piece”, then, represents an effort to summarize the work of­ two contemporary scholars who have long engaged the issue of art’s role in the lives of displaced, migratory, and asylum-seeking populations.  Their work maneuvers between various poles, including art in conflict zones/art in exile, and non-participatory/participatory research. Taken in sum, it offers a compelling starting point for current and future researchers working at the intersection of arts/conflict/exile.  Their scholarship also complicates the sensational and often geographically and temporally decontextualized nature of representations of refugees, which continue to circulate with real consequence.  This profile concludes with a brief “case analysis,” gesturing to one site of cultural production where both past and present, online and offline contexts, and the changing geographies of home, are engaged and addressed.


miriam cooke

miriam cooke (she spells her name in lowercase letters) received her doctorate from St. Antony’s College, Oxford, in 1980, and currently works as Braxton Craven Professor of Arab Cultures at Duke University in North Carolina (USA), where she teaches Arabic language and literature, as well as courses on the Palestine-Israel conflict, postcolonial theory, and war and gender.  She has an extensive profile of international teaching, including visiting posts in Tunisia, Romania, Indonesia, and Turkey. While her earlier work explored the relationship between gender and war in modern Arabic literature, and on Islamic feminism as conveyed by Arab women writers, her more recent scholarship engages Arab cultural studies, especially in the Syrian context, as well as connections between Arabs and Muslims around the world.

Her work on cultural production in the Arab world has resulted in numerous monographs, including War’s Other Voices:  Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War (1988), Women and the War Story (1997), and Women Claim Islam:  Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature (2001).  She has also edited multiple volumes including Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop (2005) which, with its focus on popular culture and everyday life, provides a welcome antidote to the violent discourses that have been normalized around the idea of “Muslim networks”.  Several works in her oeuvre have been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, and German.

cooke’s writing on Syria is particularly interesting for the way it examines in turn, and draws connections between, historically specific generations of Syrian cultural producers.  Well before the Syrian conflict began in 2011, cooke was writing on the role of the arts in sparking and maintaining a simmering revolutionary spirit in the country.  Her book Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official (2007), published by Duke University Press, draws on rich ethnographic fieldwork in Syria to document how artists during Hafiz Assad’s regime (1970-2000) navigated making art in an environment where the government often co-opted artistic works as propaganda, a tactic cooke calls “commissioned criticism”.  In interviews with Syrian playwrights, filmmakers, and authors of “prison literature”, cooke explores how these practitioners traded in innuendo and gesture, and found success abroad for works that could not be shown in Syria, all the while alternately worrying they would be seen by their fellows as either complicit with the government, or charged with treason against it.

Her most recent monograph, Dancing in Damascus: Creativity, Resilience, and the Syrian Revolution (Routledge, 2016) revisits the Syrian context in the midst of the country’s civil war, during which a “politics of insult”, as cooke calls it, has flourished, with artists-cum-activists finally, cathartically, unveiling the criticism around which they had to so carefully dance before. Dancing, of course, is not only a metaphor for collective artistic action, but also describes the actual practice of dancing, which Syrians did with great gusto (in the form of dabke, a circular, spirited social dance endemic to the Levant) during protests as an act of embodied cohesion.  But this art took on many forms, indeed. Artists also staged plays and produced online puppet shows[2], co-opted popular songs for revolutionary purposes, and composed new songs specific to the struggle.  They wrote novels, produced films, and published poetry. This “dark matter”, as cooke, borrowing from artist/activist Gregory Sholette, calls it, had been percolating throughout the region previous to the Arab Revolutions.  It broke through when the “wall of fear” intrinsic to Bashar Assad’s (son of Hafiz) regime, and others throughout the Arab world, finally cracked.  Previously atomized Syrians forged artistic connections that contributed to a sense of solidarity, a feeling that became increasingly important as they realized that their first-person footage of disaster and death failed to move people beyond Syria’s borders to action.

In this book, cooke also addresses another vector of her research, the network.  She examines how activist artists use the Internet as a space to relay messages from the frontlines of the Syrian conflict (among others), and foster networks between Syria and artists who had left their country. Such imaginings represent a compelling intervention into the time-space of conflict and displacement, “marrying the real to the virtual by inviting visitors into the artist-activists’ online studios and exhibitions” (cooke, 2017, p. 73). cooke primarily locates this union in the series of websites and digital images that have cropped up throughout the ongoing conflict. Artists use these sites and images as platforms to archive their art, and the cultural spaces and places that were quickly being (and continue to be) demolished.  Artist Tammam Azzam’s “freedom graffiti”, composite pieces in which famous paintings (such as Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss) merge with bombed out buildings across Syria, remains perhaps the most famous example of this dynamic, as indicated by its “going viral” online[3].  Larger collaborative sites include the Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, Al-fann wa al hurriya/Art, Liberté, Syrie [Art, Freedom, Syria], Syrilution Creative Arts, and Syrian Art – Syrian Artists. Importantly for cooke, these online archives allow artists political, artistic, and imaginative agency.  Here, the conflict that is often termed a “civil war” retains the potency of revolution (notice that most of the archives use that word in their names), even as many of the artists have been forcibly displaced, and now live in exile.  Moreover, as cooke notes, the artists can create, archive, and disseminate images/imaginaries of a future, where the nation is once again united, quite against the designs of the Assad regime, which has strategically used the divisiveness of the conflict to justify further control. Unfortunately, many of these sites were short-lived, for reasons that may never come to light, but are nonetheless grim to imagine[4].


Maggie O’Neill

If cooke is primarily concerned with the revolutionary and network-building potential of art both in Syria and in exile, Maggie O’Neill asks what might be the transformative power of art and art research for refugees and asylum seekers as they begin the process of making new homes and crafting transnational identities.

O’Neill has served as Chair in Sociology/Criminology at the University of York since 2016.  She has held several previous positions, including Professor of Criminology at Durham University, where she was also the co-director of the Centre for Sex, Gender, and Sexuality and the Council for Academics at Risk (CARA) Academic Champion.   She co-founded the Race Criminal Justice Network, and served as editor of the British Sociological Association (BSA) flagship journal, Sociology, and also chairs the Sex Work Research Hub.  She is currently in the midst of several projects, including a Leverhulme Trust Research fellowship called Methods on the Move: Experiencing and Imagining Borders, Risk, and Belonging[5] and an ESRC/NCRM research project, Participatory Action Research (PAR): Participatory Theater and Walking Methods’ Potential for Co-Producing Knowledge.

In 2010, she published Asylum, Migration and Community with the Polity Press.  This monograph, based on a decade’s worth of research in the UK, marries participatory action research, critical theory, sociological and criminological literature, and participatory arts-based methodology to make a case for including research that will “foster a radical democratic imaginary” (p. 258).  To do this, O’Neill argues, scholars must generate fuller knowledge about forced migration and the processes and policies that construct it.  They must also actively encourage discursive shifts by creating space for refugees and asylum-seekers that will call attention to these communities’ issues by representing them directly, instead of through intermediaries.  One tactic scholars might employ to help carve out this space, and to therefore disrupt persistent representations, O’Neill argues, is through participatory action research and “ethno-mimesis”, a term she developed in earlier work to describe “a combination of ethnographic work and artistic re-presentations of the ethnographic developed through participatory action research” (O’Neill, 2005).  This ethno-mimesis involves the interlocutor’s (in O’Neill’s work, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers) taking on the role of storyteller and working with an ethnographer and an artist to “find ways and means of re-presenting her story facilitated by the collaborative process” (O’Neill & Hubbard, 2007, p. 23, as cited in O’Neill, 2008).

Indeed, in her work with Bosnian Muslim Refugees in the East Midlands, O’Neill looked holistically (both spatially and temporally) at the lives of her interlocutors (pre-war, during the war, and while they were building new communities in the UK).  She worked with her interlocutors to document their life stories as testaments to the suffering they endured in their homeland, to collaborate with artists to re-present these stories visually, and finally to generate textual/visual installments in community spaces, universities, and civic centers in an effort to foster understanding and forge new communities within and between newcomers and longtime locals.  This sort of work, argues O’Neill, may have real political/policy consequences, as it challenges notions of identity and of citizenship by

[envisioning/imagining] a renewed social sphere for asylum seekers and refugees as global citizens, with our eyes firmly fixed on the ‘becoming’ of equality, freedom, and democracy, through processes of social justice, cultural citizenship, legalization and mutual recognition and renewed social and public policies – in the spheres of polity, economy, and culture (O’Neill 2005, p.4).


Trampoline House, Copenhagen

Trampoline House presents an excellent case study for some of the issues central to cooke and O’Neill’s work.  The independent community space is located in Copenhagen (Denmark) and offers an opportunity for refugees and asylum seekers in Denmark to find “a place of support, community, and purpose”[6].  Founded by an artist collective in 2011, Trampoline House largely relies on donations and crowd-funding to stay open, as its small government stipend ended when the most recent, conservative government, came to power.

Trampoline House sits in the historically diverse neighborhood of Nørrebro, which is fairly centrally-located in Copenhagen, but nevertheless still quite far from many of the centers where refugees and asylum-seekers live while waiting for decisions on their cases[7].  To bridge this distance, the House has developed a praktik program.  In the context of the asylum centers, praktik involves inhabitants’ contribution to center maintenance by way of menial labor like cleaning up rubbish or sweeping up cigarettes.  At Trampoline House, praktik takes shape around such activities as helping to cook the weekly house dinner, caring for the community garden, and taking a language class[8].  In exchange for committing to a series of these tasks each week, House community members have their bus fare paid from the asylum centers to Trampoline House.  Given that allowances for asylum seekers are notoriously low in Denmark, this waiver is quite a relief[9].  Community members are also encouraged to offer classes or services (e.g., a sewing workshop, childcare, or running the House’s online radio station) in which they are skilled.  Thus, through praktik and a consistent validation of the talents they bring, House community members are, and understand themselves to be, integral to the production of the space, and see their participation as important to the House’s maintenance and growth.

Trampoline House functions neither as a state institution, nor as a charity; all are welcome (there is no sign-in sheet at the entrance, and access is based on trust), but must concretely contribute to the life of the House in order to have continued access to it.  This rule applies especially to volunteers, who tend to be young Danes or other Europeans studying in Denmark:  the public is free to visit the space, but volunteers and interns must commit to a certain number of hours every week.  For prospective researchers, the expectations are more stringent, with three months of regular service required before one can approach the House with a proposed project.  Investments of time and money (volunteers, interns, and researchers are all expected to become regular donors to the House), as well as demonstrated commitment to the life of the House, act as safeguards against opportunistic research and as a counterbalance to the “research fatigue” that has set in around refugee populations.

Trampoline House provides a range of services, including trained lawyers to help participants prepare for their case hearings, and doctors who come by regularly offer examines and answer questions.  Trampoline House also finds regular opportunities for community members to express themselves, and to document and curate, their experiences and the experiences of people with migration experience worldwide.  Weekly House meetings offer a forum during which House participants can bounce ideas off of one another, or address community issues.  The House also hosts “The Bridge Radio”, an online-based community radio station contributed to and run by people holding a range of legal statuses.  It is run on donated equipment out of a small studio in the House, and includes programming that links the House’s efforts and the lives of people with migration experience living in Denmark, with similar spaces, people, and allies in different parts of the world.  Often community members will participate in large cultural events, such as Roskilde Festival, where this year Sisters’ Cuisine, a catering service started by the House’s Women’s Club, had a kiosk at the festival’s main food court.  Community representatives were also present at Denmark’s Folkemødet (or People’s Meeting), an annual assembly meant to stimulate conversation and debate between residents and politicians.

The House is as much a resource for asylum seekers and refugees as it is an educational opportunity for the larger public. Trampoline House’s Center for Art on Migration Politics (or CAMP, a reclamation of a key signifier of the nation-state’s violent response to migration) is a space for art that directly deals with issues of displacement and migration[10].  It hosts work by both established international artists and newer artists, especially those with refugee or migrant experiences, and is envisioned by its contributors and curators as a venue through which those with and without these experiences might connect, and perhaps find inspiration for new modes of addressing the needs of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants.

Indeed, this imagining is central to Trampoline House’s project, and is what connects it most directly to cooke and O’Neill’s work:  by focusing on the collaborative, everyday production of the community, the House nurtures a network that (even as its majority remains in limbo) actively imagines the future. By continually reasserting the possibility of a radical democratic imaginary, community members find the revolutionary in their daily practice.  Their space is, by their own description, a microcosm of what they hope to see happen in the larger culture: co-existence built through trust, collaboration, co-production, and creativity.


Questions for further discussion:

  • What does it mean to be a “refugee”? How is this term different from “migrant”?

  • What do you know about the “refugee crisis”? How has it been represented in photos and stories?  Why is it a crisis, according to these accounts?  For whom?

  • What is being done to help refugees in your country or community? What is the direct impact or result of these efforts? Do you know where refugees and asylum-seekers live?  What are these places like?

  • How can art be used for humanitarian purposes? Can you give any examples, either past or present?  What concrete change came from these examples?

  • Describe some examples of art related to the “refugee crisis”. What motivated this art, and how would you describe its results or impact?

  • If you were to carry out a research project involving refugees, what sorts of ethical considerations might you have to take into account? How would you address these in your research and writing?

  • Can, and should, research be used for humanitarian action? How and in what contexts?



cooke, m. (2016) Dancing in Damascus: Creativity, Resilience, and the Syrian Revolution.  New York: Routledge.

cooke, m. (2014) Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

cooke, m. Hopes and Disappointments: Revolutionary Narratives from Egyptian and Syrian FeministsJadaliyya (July 24, 2013).

cooke, m. (2011) The Cell Story: Syrian Prison Stories after Hafiz AsadMiddle East Critique, 20(2), 169-188.

cooke, m. (2010) Arab Feminist Research and activism: Bridging the gap between the theoretical and the practicalFeminist Theory, 11(121).

cooke, m. (2010) Nazira Zeineddine. A Pioneer of Islamic Feminist Pioneer. Oxford: Oneworld Press.

cooke, m. The Politics of the Veil. FEMINIST THEORY, 11 (2), 220-221.

cooke, m. Baghdad burning: Women write war in Iraq. World Literature Today, 81(6), 23-26.

cooke, m. (2007) Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official. Durham: Duke University Press.

cooke, m. and Lawrence, B. (2005)  Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop. Chapel Hill: UNC Press.

cooke, m. (2001) Women Claim Islam Creating Islamic Feminism Through Literature. New York: Routledge.

cooke, m. (1997) Women and the War Story. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haaken, J. and O’Neill, M. (2014) Moving images: Psychoanalytically-informed visual methods in documenting the lives of women migrants and asylum-seekers. Journal of Health Psychology, 19(1), 79-89.

O’Neill, M. and Perivolaris, J. (2015) A sense of Belonging: walking with Thaer through migration, memories and space. Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture, 5 (2-3), 327-338.

O’Neill, M., Roberts, R. and Sparkes, A. (eds.) (2014) Advances in Biographical Methods. London: Routledge.

O’Neill, M. and Hubbard, P. (2012) Asylum, Exclusion, and the Social Role of Arts and Culture. Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings. Leeds University. Available online at:

O’Neill, M. (2011) Participatory Methods and Critical Models: arts, migration and Diaspora. Crossings: Migration and Culture, 2, 13-37.

O’Neill, M. (2010) Asylum, Migration and Community. Bristol: Policy Press.

O’Neill, M. and Hubbard, P. (2010) Walking, Sensing, Belonging: ethno-mimesis as performative praxis. Visual Studies, 25 (1).

O’Neill, M. (2009) Making Connections: Ethno-mimesis, Migration and Diaspora. Journal of Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, 14 (3), 289-302.

O’Neill, M. (2008) Transnational Refugees: The Transformative Role of Art?. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 9(2), art. 59. Available online at:

O’Neill, M. (2005) Humiliation, Social Justice and Ethno-mimesis. Note prepared for the 2005 Workshop on Humiliation and Violent Conflict. 6th Annual Meeting of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies. New York, December 2005.


Erin Cory holds a PhD in Communication from the University of California-San Diego. Her doctoral research examined the spatial/memorial practices of artists and activists in Beirut. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher in Refugee Migration at Malmö University, where she is focusing on the space-making and media practices of youth with migration experience. She tweets at


[1] For more information, see:

[2] Watch Top Goon at:

[3] For more, please see:

[4] In April 2017, cooke’s body of work was honored at conference at Duke University, called Dissident Subjects: A conference in honor of miriam cooke. 

[5] For more information, please visit:

[6] For more, please visit:

[7] Danish readers will be interested in Garbi Schmidt’s work on the neighbourhood’s immigration history, Nørrebros indvandringshistorie 1885-2010.

[8] It should be noted that language classes offered by the state are often given at time inconvenient to asylum-seeking and refugee families, mainly in the evening, when parents would need childcare to take these classes, but cannot find/afford it.

[9] Denmark’s allowances have been roundly critiqued. To find out more about actual amounts, please visit:

[10] Visit for more details.

Header image: Summer holiday 2014 by Frans de Wit on Flickr// CC BY 2.0