Dr. Pilar Riano-Alcala


Co-investigator - University of British Columbia


In my scholarly work, I am primarily concerned with three broad themes relating to mass violence: the lived experience of violence and displacement, the politics of memory, and the ethnography of social repair. My work also explores how ideas and boundaries of “community” are negotiated and contested in contemporary societies and how individuals construct their memberships as citizens, victims, refugees, or through social movements or creative art based processes. My work is part of a collaborative research and teaching agenda developed with Dr. Erin Baines at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at UBC that seeks to develop a conceptual framework on how micro-level memory and social repair practices interact with national and international transitional justice and historical clarification processes.

Case Study: I am interested to explore the intersections between performances of memory, mourning and commemoration by Colombian visual artists and the ‘memory as practice of social repair’ initiatives of some civil society organizations. The idea is to analyze the growing collaborative practices between artists (individuals or collectives) and communities exemplified by the work of artists such as Erica Dietters, Libia Posada, Juan Manuel Echavarría or Transductores and by the emergence of powerful community based cultural organizations such el Centro Cultural Moravia, the Corporación Son Batá or El Colectivo de Comunicaciones Montes de María. Specifically, I would like to examine the process and terms of engagement in collaborative projects that have emerged in the last five years between artists and “communities.” Questions guiding this exploration are: What do remembering, social repair and reconciliation mean in these performances and engagements with memory work? How is the past narrated and enacted in these performances and what are the claims, disputes and representations produced?

Broad thematic interest:  These ideas relate to a broader thematic interest on witnessing, social suffering (trauma) and political agency (resistance) in the practices and performances of memory of diverse social groups in contexts of mass violence. Undoubtedly the witness (as the direct survivor or as a third party –artist, human right activist or researcher—who bear witness) has become a key figure of contemporary discourses and practices of memorialization. Witness testimony in these discourses and practices is constructed as a key component in ensuring the social effectiveness of the imperative of no repetition and often framed as a means to facilitate closure and healing to the victim. The witness, in this context, has become primarily located as one who bears witness to the suffering of victims, to the trauma of entire social groups. I would like to interrogate the extent that this focus on witnessing trauma depoliticizes the actions, political agency and strategic silences of those affected by violence. I am interested in examining witnessing beyond an engagement with the wrongful suffering of the victims to consider matters of judgment and political agency: the open and subtle manifestations or resistant responses to violence, the diverse ways in which “victims” or those subject to oppression exercise political agency and judgment. What happens when the historical and performative record turn to documenting and representing resistance? It is from this place of interrogation that I propose a thematic exploration of witnessing, social suffering and political agency.

Methodologically, I have been exploring the methodology of intercambios/exchanges: a guided visit by members of a social/cultural group or “community” to another community or socio cultural setting that involves knowledge and experience sharing, emplaced conversations and direct engagement. “Intercambio/exchange” as an idea can be creatively appropriated and used in many different ways and I am interested to foster creative uses of such a method by cultural workers, activists and groups/collectives who visit each other with the purpose of exchanging knowledge, know how, ideas and experience. The idea will be to facilitate “border crossing” visits across geographical and territorial boundaries (rural/urban; country to country; regions) to specific sites of memorialization and activism and to learn and witness various forms of memory work and memorialization.