SVRN Blog 4 -Resisting Urban Violence and Building Social Justice Movements through Comics, by Dr Dom Davies

In this fourth post for the State Violence Research Network blog, Dr Dom Davies, lecturer at City University, London, discusses the concept of ‘planned violence’ and how graphic narratives engage with, reveal, and resist state violence. Dom will be discussing planned violence at the ‘From the State to the Streets’ conference, being held between April 10th and 12th. For information on how to register for the conference, and on how to submit a blog yourself, see the links at the end of the post. 

It is now broadly recognised, in the critical social sciences at least, that urban infrastructures – from roads and railway lines to sewer systems and water pipes – are not static, banal, depoliticised objects. Rather, they are highly charged material actors that allow some forms of social life to exist, while also violently prohibiting others. As my co-editor, Elleke Boehmer, along with several contributors to a recent edited collection, have argued, urban infrastructure can be thought of as a kind of ‘planned violence’, especially, though not only, in the context of colonial and postcolonial cities.

The urbanist Stephen Graham points out that, while we still tend to measure inequality as a spatially flat phenomenon, today’s violent infrastructural developments increasingly operate across multi-scalar, ‘vertical’ terrains – from satellites and skyscrapers to bunkers and basements. It follows that political and social struggle against such violence must also operate along three-dimensional vectors, taking into account the vertical as well as horizontal segregations and stratifications that are becoming the infrastructural signatures of global cities across both North and South in the twenty-first century.

There are important questions that, if they are not always immediately obvious to scholars working beyond the humanities, should I believe preoccupy those of us interested in building social justice movements that are capable of challenging this planned violence. What role can cultural forms – from literary prose to the visual arts – play in the reconstruction of an urban commons (or indeed, an undercommons)? And relatedly, can we think of these cultural forms as having infrastructural qualities that allow us to re-vision and realign city space toward more socially and spatially just ends?

In a new book, Urban Comics: Infrastructure & the Global City in Contemporary Graphic Narratives, I try and begin to answer these questions by focusing particularly on the innovative and elastic cultural form of comics and graphic narratives. I explore how different comics artists and collectives working across five Southern cities (Cairo, Cape Town, New Orleans, Delhi and Beirut), as well as in other urban spaces in the West Bank, Gaza, and along the US-Mexico border, use their visual-narrative form to reveal and resist the resurgent spatial violence of neoliberal urbanism. In this research I found that many of these Southern comics artists are, not coincidentally, at the centre of a range of radical urban social movements that seek to challenge racial and gender-based urban violence, and to reclaim for marginalised populations a newly radical ‘right to the city’, as Henri Lefebvre first termed it.

These comics, artists and social movements teach us that innovations in cultural forms can reveal the infrastructures of the built environment to be material embodiments of competing sociopolitical interests. They show us how the infrastructural shapes of our cities are used to prohibit – or in a radical context, to facilitate – alternative social relationships, political movements and subcultural practices. But, just as importantly, they also intervene into the cultural and infrastructural rebuilding of urban life. In representing and re-representing urban space, many of these comics use what might be thought of as an ‘infrastructural form’ to shift the spatial coordinates that shape social relations, a recalibration that contributes to the rebuilding of more socially and spatially just cities.

Let me illustrate how these processes might work by way of some examples. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 ignited an explosion of radical cultural production that centred on the massive occupations of, and protests in, Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Magdy El Shafee’s 2008 graphic novel, Metro, A Story of Cairo, anticipated these events, especially as they were routed through the reclamation of urban space. Here El Shafee uses the image of the city’s Metro system to visualise the city’s literal planned violence, but he also invests it with metaphorical connotations that enables a wider and more substantive critique of violent urban governance. Meanwhile, Deena Mohamed’s webcomic about a female Muslim superhero, Qahera, focused on the recurrence of sexual harassment during the protests, creating through its multiple online issues an alternative urban vision that not only counters the state’s top-down planning regime, but disaggregates the Revolution’s various social movements to identify their occasional exacerbation of gender-based violence. These Egyptian comics have been both about and of the Revolution. Artists such as Ahmed Nady drew comics as protest banners in the space of Tahrir Square itself, while internationally-renowned graffiti practitioners such as Ganzeer have turned from their subversive street art to speculative comics in order to continue their critique of the oppressive constraints imposed by post-2011 Egypt’s counter-revolutionary urban violence.

In the Southern US city of New Orleans, the New Orleans Comics and Zine festival (NOCAZ) attempts not only to create a platform for a growing network of independent artists and comics collectives across the South, but also to open that network up to previously occluded voices. NOCAZ aligned themselves with the recent movement to remove New Orleans’ confederate monuments, and they support the city’s local chapter of Black Lives Matter by creating, like Ahmed Nady, banners that protest the deaths of young black men at the hands of police and contributing the proceeds to the families of these victims. Meanwhile in South Africa, historian Koni Benson collaborated with the comics artists and brothers Nathan and André Trantraal to document the history and ongoing activism of women’s social movements organising in Crossroads, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. Visualising continued calls for basic infrastructure services such as water, shelter and electricity that extend from apartheid into the post-apartheid era, this comics series – entitled Crossroads, after the community it represents – seeks to place the twenty-first-century activism of marginalised African women in a decolonised historical context.

Readers may be familiar with the ground-breaking work of the US comics journalist Joe Sacco, whose 1990s comics series Palestine pioneered a new field of politicised graphic narratives that sought to capture the voices and experiences of marginalised urban populations. Much of the Southern work I discuss in the book takes inspiration from Sacco’s example. But this is no uni-directional, North-South, movement, and Palestinian artists have themselves collaborated with other anti-colonial activist groups across the West Bank to realise the role that comics and other cultural forms can play in decolonising the violent restructuring of its urban spaces.

For example, the artist and architect Samir Harb has drawn comics for the collective Decolonizing Architecture, an architectural studio and art residency programme based in Beit Sahour, Palestine. As they outline in their book Architecture After Revolution, the collective incorporates the work of decolonial writers such as Frantz Fanon into their methodologies. In a 2010 project and exhibition, Decolonizing Architecture explored the liminal legal space of the lines that were drawn in pen onto maps of the West Bank during the 1993 Oslo Accords. While these boundary lines organised the territory on either side of them into administrative units, the ink of the drawn line itself signified a thickness that, at the scale of 1:20,000, translated into more than 5 metres of actual geographic space. Harb’s comics for this exhibition documented the everyday activities of Palestinians who build in these interstitial zones in order to resist the spatial constrictions of the Israeli Occupation. With his infrastructural form, Harb here combines a right to the city narrative with a decolonial methodology in order to mount a challenge to the often violent, top-down urban planning regimes of settler colonial states.

Combining these examples with many others, I have tried in Urban Comics to show how, in the global South especially, comics artists might be thought of both as cultural practitioners and infrastructural engineers. They use the graphic narrative form in innovative ways to draw up alternative urban plans that are aesthetically capable of capturing the informal, subversive rhythms of city life – rhythms that push up and against the state-facilitated violence of neoliberal planning and infrastructure. More than this, these artists are especially interested in linking up with local urban movements, bringing a decolonial perspective to bear on their activist and social justice impulses. As infrastructural violence takes on an increasingly multi-dimensional character, so too are comics – along with other innovations in literary and cultural production – demonstrating a formal agility that is capable of imagining alternative future infrastructures. Urban planners and policy makers interested in circumventing planned violence and recovering a shared urban commons should, I would argue, take heed of these cultural movements, learning from and reading with their artistic forms.

Registration for the SVRN’s inaugural conference, ‘From the State to the Streets: Representations of and Responses to State Violence in the Nuclear Age’, is now open. To register, please click here. To see the provisional programme, please click here.

If you are interested in submitting to the SVRN blog, please click here for more information.

The opinions and viewpoints contained in this blog post are not necessarily shared by the State Violence Research Network, and publication should not be considered an endorsement.

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