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Sara Jones delivering a talk

What does it mean for a witness to give testimony? How can artists and educators work ethically and sensitively with testimony to disseminate it to wider audiences? What does it mean to work across sectors and how is the researcher changed by this work?

In this talk, Sara Jones addresses these questions, focusing on her experience working with the Romanian and German novelist, Carmen-Francesca Banciu, and the Catalan theatre company, La Conquesta del pol sud, to stage a play about Banciu’s experiences as a dissident author in communist Romania. Jones interweaves her own account or ‘testimony’ of working on the project, exploring what it means to deliver ‘impact’ and how working across sectors can be transformative, also for the researcher. The lecture centres the concept of relationality and relationships as crucial to our understanding of what testimony is and how it works.

Testimony is a form of communication: it depends on the translation of an experience into a message that can be interpreted by an audience. That audience must then make a decision about whether to accept the witness’s story as “true” or “authentic”. By believing a witness’s story we grant her the authority to speak, which can be experienced as a form of empowerment.

The audience’s decision about whether a particular testimony is “authentic” in this sense is influenced by their perception of the witness herself, but also by the way in which the story is presented. One key factor is the presence (real or perceived) of the witness’s body. The body appears to provide a link between the past and the present: the witness was – and is – “really there”.

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But the witness cannot always be “really there” if testimony is to be distributed across time and space. Those incorporating testimony into different artistic or educational forms thus need to find ways to encourage the audience to believe the witness. The lecture explores authenticating strategies in different media, from memorial museums to documentary films.

This understanding of authenticity as relational raises questions about fiction as a form of testimony. Fiction is often based on real-life experiences and understood by many authors – including Banciu – as a way of presenting their life stories for an audience. If a reader, listener or viewer believes a fictional text to be an authentic representation of the author’s personal experiences, does that make it so? Jones considers the ethics of fictionalisation and the role that fiction can play in overcoming traumatic experiences.

Concepts of empathy are at the core of discussions about the ethics of testimony. The power of testimony lies in its presumed ability to draw us in and make us care about others. However, empathy of the wrong kind, that is, empathy focused the distress that we feel at hearing another’s story, can be overwhelming. It can make it difficult for us to focus on the causes of violence and what we can do to prevent recurrence. Instead we need a form of empathy that focuses on what the other feels and that allows enough distance to think critically about the world presented in testimony.

Jones explains how the play produced with Banciu and La Conquesta A Land Full of Heroes – offers opportunities for just that kind of empathetic response in its audiences. It intertwines fiction and fact, literature and witnessing, and different levels and kinds of authenticity. It is a highly self-conscious mediation of real-life experience: it draws people in, but also holds them at a distance.

At the College of Arts and Law, we explore what it means to be human – in historical and cultural contexts, within ethical and legal norms and through languages and communication.

Arts Matters is a series of lunchtime lectures from across the College’s wide range of research disciplines. Each week our researchers discuss their work, sharing the concepts and ideas that matter to them - and why these matter to all of us. 

From 27 October 2021, a new lecture will be broadcast on the University’s YouTube channel, every Wednesday at 13:00 GMT.