Music and humanitarian narratives

In a recent article published in Arts & International Affairs, I explore how an artistic work can produce knowledge that is complementary to social sciences research on humanitarianism. Through the examination of the creative process and rationality behind a recent video installation presented as a part of an exhibition on contemporary propaganda, this text reflects on the role of art in stimulating critical thinking.1

In early 2017, Stephanie Weber, curator for contemporary art at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, commissioned me to do a video piece for the exhibition After the Fact. Propaganda in the 21st century. This atypical art exhibition explored current forms and methods of propaganda in times of post-truth politics, looking at the concept of propaganda “as a complex and potentially helpful tool of analysis and thought.”2 For several years, I was working on the complementary dimension of academic research and artistic work, and the commission from the Lenbachhaus was a great opportunity to develop this further. The result was Reflections on music and propaganda, a two-channel video installation I did as electroacoustic music composer with the Venezuelan video artist Sergio Santamaría Borges, which expanded and completed in a particular way my research on the role of humanitarian songs in the depoliticisation of armed conflicts and the moralisation of international relations at the end of the Cold War.3

Our artistic work started from the recognition of the emotional power of humanitarian songs and media narratives which accompanied them. We wanted to deconstruct their emotional dimension through the montage, collage, and overlapping of statements from “humanitarian” musicians, TV images that accompanied the songs, and excerpts of video clips, all of them produced between 1984 and 2014. No other material was used or added, just images, words, gestures, and sounds that were scattered in a flow of information. Our objective was to reveal the ethical contradictions and the political implications of their recurrent and redundant humanitarian narratives. In other words, the “theatrical arrangement that separates safe spectators from vulnerable others and communicates its moral message through the staging of spectacles of suffering.”4 Overall, we wanted to provide to people watching and listening to our video installation with elements to develop their critical thinking associating and dissociating the images, sounds, gestures, discourses, and staged emotions contained in the videos.

Cite this article as: Luis Velasco-Pufleau, "Music and humanitarian narratives," in Music, sound and conflict, 08/11/2018, https://msc.hypotheses.org/1557.

  1. Velasco-Pufleau, Luis, “Critical reflections on music and humanitarian narratives”, Arts & International Affairs, vol. 3, no 2, 2018, p. 25-32. https://dx.doi.org/10.18278/aia.3.2.3 / PDF []
  2. Weber, Stephanie and Matthias Mühling (eds.), After the Fact. Propaganda in the 21st Century, Munich: Lenbachhaus, 2017, p. 6 []
  3. The title of the work is borrowed from my article “Reflections on music and propaganda“, Contemporary Aesthetics, 12, 2014, which at that time was being translated into German (Velasco Pufleau, Luis, “Betrachtungen zu Musik und Propaganda“, in After the Fact. Propaganda in the 21st Century, eds. Stephanie Weber and Matthias Mühling, Munich: Lenbachhaus, 2017, p. 409–449) to be published in the exhibition book with several historical essays by Hannah Arendt, Bertolt Brecht, Edward Bernays, Jacques Ellul, and more recent thoughts by Lucy R. Lippard, Coco Fusco, and Dan Graham among others. []
  4. Chouliaraki, Lilie, The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism. Cambridge: Polity, 2013, p. 27 []

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