Interview with Tony Fegan

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Tony Fegan of Tallaght Community Arts (Ireland), one of the organising partners of TAOH, has extensive experience in participatory arts projects with young people (often with very diverse cultural backgrounds) and people with disabilities. The TAOH Newsroom joined in on a video interview that was recorded with Tony, and jotted down some of his thoughts on several important topics that will be raised during the summit.

On what it means to be a European citizen
“I have to go back to this idea that being a citizen is about the collective action, to ensure that the quality of life is the best that it can be.
In many of the communities that I work in, some people feel that they don’t have a say in what goes on around them. They feel that, if they do vote, it does not make any difference. The question is also how to deal with that. Do you just do nothing? Or do you begin to organise yourself on the things that you can do?
Three things I consider to be important. One: do people know what their rights are, the civic entitlements that they have? Two: do they understand that with civic rights also comes responsibility? And three the way in which culture – in the broad sense of the word, can really play a role in articulating, amplifying, illustrating, celebrating and criticising the idea of what being a citizen is.  That living in a democratic process is and needs active involvement.”

On creating a new language of hope
“Some of the words that we need might need to be rescued from what I like to call ‘the left luggage room of history’. For instance: words like collective, or collective action, or union. All those words have been made seem redundant in many ways in the last 40 years of this neo-liberal mirage we find ourselves living in. They have become in some people’s eyes tainted words. So maybe we should reclaim those. A bit like we did in gay politics, where the word ‘queer’ was used as a derogatory, insulting word at first, but then was reclaimed as a word of opposition and pride. Maybe there are words we left behind that need reclaiming?
I did a lot of work in South Africa after 1994, the first free election, right up until the year 2000. There was a word that came out of the anti-apartheid struggle: ubuntu. ‘I am what I see of myself in the other.’ I  use an exercise with people (during theatre workshops?) to get this point across: if you look very directly in someone’s eyes, you can see yourself reflected in their pupils. It’s a simple way of saying: my gaze is upon you, you are reflected in me, and what we have to do is work out what our relationship might be; that it doesn’t have to be one of suspicion and animosity, but could be one of sharing, of finding a way to support and help each other. Maybe there are also new words we need to find.”

On rehearsing the future
“We have to understand that there are times when we do have agency, and other times when we don’t, but that we have to continue to rehearse with each other all these concepts, the agency that comes with citizenship. A good example: the massive protest marches against the war in Iraq in 2003. It felt amazing when you were there. At the same time, I think most of us knew that the protest would change nothing. This war had been decided upon. So the only sense of agency that you could take home that day was the fact that you had said what you needed to say alongside thousands of other citizens. That you were together with a whole group of people you might not have had much in common with, but what you did have in common was this shared idea that a very wrong thing was about to happen.
But of course, if you haven’t rehearsed this many, many times, if it was your first time at a protest like that, afterwards it would be easy to think: ‘Oh, what was the point’?
So, it’s vital to find ways to support people to understand that they do have agency and that all of us working together have to make sure we have some successes along the way, small as they might sometimes seem, in order for us all to feel that it’s worth it to go back out and do this again and again. For the anti-apartheid struggle, there was a eventually a worldwide response.  We now see an increasing worldwide response to the situation in Palestine. Sadly, there is no such worldwide campaign to end the way in Yemen and we are stuck at an impasse in the war in Syria. So yes, there are times when successes are few and far between.
We are running out of time. Our politics, our economics, and most importantly our environment is in really bad shape. The question becomes even more important on how we can mobilise people, how we can support people to feel hope that we can do something.”

On Europe in the year 2038
“Europe in 2038 will be much more culturally mixed than the Europe I grew up in. If I take the positive view, we’ll have worked out all of these historical anomalies that we have between all these squabbling little tribes, having realised we need to live with each other and everybody else who has joined us on this continent as a result of our historical misadventures across the world.
A good thing is that a huge amount of change is already happening right now, and I do look forward to the demise of all these big institutions that Europeans created in their delusion that they could control everything. My anxiety is that we keep squabbling with each other politically, that we won’t address the environmental and economic consequences of what’s going on. It’s almost unimaginable that 50 percent of biodiversity has disappeared since 1970.
So we could be in for very difficult times. And if we are going to be in for very difficult times, then that sense citizenship and having a collective agency becomes even more important and something that we have to rehearse like crazy daily.” (KB)

Tallaght Community Arts (IE) is responsible for the concept and realisation of session 8: Climate of change, 11th November 2018, 11:00 hrs, ABVV.

Photo by Joe Lampasa