In anticipation of the activist exhibitions Aftermath Dislocation Principle (ADP), and Fighting Walls + a rebel scene at NAE, Rhiannon Jones considers the 2011 riots and what lead to the social outbreak.

In anticipation of the activist exhibitions Aftermath Dislocation Principle (ADP), and Fighting Walls + a rebel scene at NAE, Rhiannon Jones considers the 2011 riots and what lead to the social outbreak.

In 2005, the Kaiser Chiefs sang a song that predicted a riot. On a hot summer day in 2011 the temperature rose in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham and Salford and rioting occurred. Little did I know, a year later in 2012, that I would be asking what the effects of these riots were on the people of Nottingham, and how and why Nottingham got involved. And five years later, in the context of today, of Brexit, of Black Lives Matter of ISIS and The X factor, I’m still asking that very same question for this article.

Let’s go back to 2012, and to an arts project called Mediated Riots that set out to explore the impact of the riots in Nottingham. I talked with police, schools, outreach centres, community activists and individuals in an attempt to piece together a picture of what really happened, and not just what was reported. So what did Mediated Riots tell us and what does it speak of now 5 years later?

Our culture is one that speaks rather than listens. From reality TV to political rallies, there is a clamour to be heard, to narrate, and to receive attention. I asked why the riots emerged and no one really knows beyond statements of civil unrest and a desire to revolt against ‘something’. From the clashing of cultures squeezed into neighbourhoods living parallel lives, with littered pavements and graffiti bins. The community delivered a resounding message.
I was told about a ‘grassroots’ approach to working with communities not against them, about localized issues, matters of importance to appease and resolve… somehow. I heard how people reacted because it was a moment to speak out, to throw a lighter at a closed police station, to steal trainers, to smash car windows and stand and be seen in the street as a collective. But what was the experience of young people involved? The experience described was one of confusion, one of fear, one of wanting to feel hope and not anxiety for the future. Young people felt that what happened in 2011 wasn’t new, for them riots always happen – they told me gang wars, gun wars and cycles of abuse always are taking place.

The audience at Mediated Riots was catalyzed, given a space to voice unheard opinions. I heard passionate expressions for the need of better education, to close the divide between rich and poor. I watched the word ‘die’ being etched into an art bench designed for panelists by a youth group I worked with, a small protest but a stark reminder of the vulnerability and disillusionment already carved into the young. A man wanted to tell me about an altercation he had on a bus, he was angry, he was hurt, he blamed youth and society. He wanted to make a stand, to tell me because no one had stopped to listen to him before.

After the riots, fourteen people were sentenced including two young people, Judge Michael Stoke QC praised the police force and the force’s dog, Ritchie. We speak of revolutions against the system and for some, that night in 2012 represented just that, but for others it was just tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping. But when does a riot become revolt and when does revolt become revolution? Eyewitnesses told me they saw fights, shops vandalized, looting and burnt out cars. Updates flew in on social media, gossip took place in shop queues with people warning each other to ‘go home early before it all kicks off…’ it became about the anticipation for something. For most of us it unraveled online, on social media updates. For some it actually happened, but why it happened still really remains a mystery; even to those who took part.

The riots weren’t just about young people. It involved a spectrum of society, old and young. Because it was about the possibility of overturning marginalization.

Arts projects like Mediated Riots provide a good starting point to be vocal, to create solutions for a better place to work and live, to demarginalize people. It does so because it provides a safe place to discuss complex situations and ideas, by taking the revolution into the gallery. The event aimed to produce creative interventions and invite individuals in positions of authority to be face to face with local communities to listen, speak and seek understanding in a world seemingly more and more misunderstood. Fractionalized civic and political opinion divide and run riot now in our country, our city and our streets. ‘I didn’t know that bothered you, sorry’. And ‘we can do something about that now we know’ could be heard during one of the project’s events. That’s got to be a good start, right? We need to acknowledge that it’s a complex issue to try to understand why riots happen. For the majority, they remain baffled by why people can’t get on, why it’s still cool to rebel? We need to see beyond the sensational headlines of violence and vandalism.

The young people of 2011 are now leaving school, politicians and community police are facing retirement, others still work for amazing organisations to make a difference; and so I’m left still wondering in 2016 what the future holds for all of us? How can we listen better, whether to the Kaiser Chiefs or each other, and empower our voices and not tear gas, batons and fists? We need to master a universalism for the artistry of conversation. Perhaps all we need is a commitment to vitalize an ethical, global society for Nottingham and the twenty-first century.

Rhiannon Jones is resident artist at Primary, founder of InDialogue and doctoral researcher into The Artistry of Conversation, and academic at Nottingham Trent University. www.theartistryofconversation.com www.indialogue.uk.com

Back to All Posts