The Politics of Listening

Fiona Whelan |  Fiona Whelan is an artist and Joint Coordinator of the MA Socially Engaged Art (Further, Adult & Community Education) NCAD

From voice to listening

For eleven years my art practice has been positioned at the intersection of collaborative art and community youth work. I have spent most of this time as an artist in a youth project in an area of Dublin’s south inner-city called Rialto. Working in that context I have gained new insights into the unequal society that we live in, the nature of power relations at local, institutional and state levels, and the lack of recognition so many people get for their lives and struggles. For many young people, their experience of the state is highly antagonistic. The education system, the media and the justice system, continuously oppress them, placing them under constant inspection and observation, their lives subject to persistant scrutiny. Living in this reality, many young people have little access to public space and are exposed to a model of policing that wouldn’t be accepted in middle class suburbia. 

Many projects within youth work, participatory arts and informal education contexts are concerned with the ideas of voice,  ‘giving voice’, ‘finding a voice’ ‘speaking out’ etc. As a result of my practice operating within a youth project whose mission it is to work with young people ‘most at risk’, I have become particularly attentive to the concept of ‘voice’, its nuances and politics. Staking a claim to speak is essential. In a climate where so many young people aren’t asked to offer their opinion on the world or share an account of their lives, I recognise the importance of voice. But in this article I would like to explore a little deeper the politics of listening. When the most powerful weapon being used by those in positions of power is so often the refusal to listen, I’m interested in the potential effects of shifting the emphasis to listening, promoting opportunities for people to become active agents in creating spaces to be listened to by those that matter. As Indian theorist and philosopher Gayatri Spivak says, “Who shall speak’ is less crucial than ‘who will listen”. (Spivak, 1990.) 

By listening I am not talking about the actual use of our ears, I take listening to be more than that. Listening as Nick Couldry describes, is “the act of recognizing what others have to say, recognizing that they have something to say or, better, that they, like all human beings, have the capacity to give an account of their lives that is reflexive and continuous, an ongoing, embodied process of reflection.” (Couldry, 2009. p.579).

So voice and listening become interwoven. As one speaks and gives an account of their life to another, Couldry describes how they make a claim on another as a reflexive human agent, presenting an account of their life that needs to be heard. Essentially, listening is what gives meaning to voice, and brings it into a relational sphere. But asking someone to listen, to hear what you have to say requires space and time, and for those of us concerned with making that happen, it requires us to move beyond ‘a politics of expression, that is, of speaking up and out’. As described by Australian researchers and writers connected to The Listening Project, 

Taking listening as a starting point implied moving to a politics of impression . . . a move in which mediated  communication more readily presents itself as a relational space of intersecting practices and identities’ (O’ Donnell, Lloyd and Dreher, 2009).

 It is this conception of listening which connects with the nature of collaborative art practices and projects that I have been involved with, that I would like to draw upon.


60 Anonymous Stories

As part of a four-year project between myself and the Rialto Youth Project, a collective of young people, youth workers and me as artist was established to test the boundaries of collaboration and explore local power relations. Central to our process was a collection of 60 anonymous stories gathered through a careful process of audio recording, transcribing, and co-editing. Rather than viewing these stories as fixed memories, I understood them to be recollections constructed during the encounter with the person gathering, emerging from the temporary position of each author, with the analysis available to them at that time. Each story gathered was a version of experience as it was felt in that moment of telling it and each sharing would have an effect on the memory of the experience, which would be altered by working with it over time. In that context, anonymity became of central importance to our project. While it had initially been used as a device to make the story telling process safe, the potential of anonymity grew as it allowed people to explore freely their experience. They would not feel bound to the ‘original’ version, and in this sense the stories grew in understanding and insight as they journeyed from private to public in a phased way. 

Over two years this process included: an exhibition and residency, two participatory reading events, two films, and a mobile cinema, which exhibited the stories and films in national and international contexts. This durational engagement became a reflexive process, as, stories were reworked, reconstructed and re-presented in increasingly public environments, engaging with various publics who were targeted and invited to listen. I recently wrote a critical memoir; ‘TEN: Territory, Encounter & Negotiation’ (2014) in which I unpack a decade of practice, and each stage of this durational project. One of these stages is particularly useful to further explore how listening was sought.


An act of listening

The event was called ‘The Day in Question’ and took place in The Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2009. Intended to temporarily reverse power relations and allow a different mode of exchange between the groups, it was clear that listening would be a core feature. The event involved a choreographed collection of young people’s accounts of power and policing being read aloud by newly assigned Gardaí (police officers) to their district, with many of the anonymous story-tellers present in the room. After the performance, the Gardaí, the collective and a group of invited witnesses engaged in a facilitated conversation which explored issues arising in the stories and the performance.

The structure of the event was planned and negotiated over many months with the Chief Superintendant of the district and the Sergeant connected to the group of Gardaí. In preparation for the event, many of the young people said their ambition was simply ‘to be heard by the Gardaí’, so for this reason, all decisions were made in order to best promote the conditions for listening. These decisions included; choosing a public venue away from the neighbourhood and not associated with the police to stage the private encounter. No media would be informed to hep prevent fixed positions being taken. Speaking in the first person ‘I’ became of central importance both in the stories (which were rooted in lived experience rather than opinion of the other) and in the subsequent discussion (our group engaging in preparation work in order to ground our exchange in first person language), strategies to avoid people reverting to fixed positions, thus keeping open the space for listening. Selected Gardaí would read aloud anonymous experiences of powerlessness and policing, one after another without interuption, knowing that the authors of those accounts were somewhere in the room, adding another tension. Aesthetic and political decisions were intertwining in the construction of an event focused on listening. 

Of utmost importance in this listening act, was that the collection of stories read aloud by Gardaí, were experienced for the first time by everyone present. This encounter was not to be symbolic. While allowing individual Gardaí an opportunity to rehearse the stories they would read, we prevented the collection being shared with the class in advance. Fearing a listening space would be lost if the Gardaí had already heard and discussed the stories together, we avoided the young people becoming subjects of discussion. It was important that the stories should first be shared while the young people were present, so that they could be part of the mediated process through which they would come to be understood by the Gardaí. Otherwise, there was a possibility that the act would operate as a depoliticised display of politeness. 

It is often queried why we did not offer the same process of sharing personal stories to the Gardaí to allow both sides to speak and listen. But we recognised that the middle space between young people and the police was not an equal space. For both sides to speak would not have served the act of listening in the same way, and would also have risked the event becoming a polite exercise of tolerance. This event was consciously constructed as a temporary reversal of power between young people and the state, creating a space where Gardaí were being asked to just listen. But for the new Gardaí, their individualisation of the material read aloud raised the issue of  their own agency within their institution. They stood before us, in the same uniform and backed by the same institutional power, as the Gardaí in the stories. They represented an authoritarian institution, but they were new recruits, who may not have engaged in behaviour described by young people. It was clear that engaging in this single act with this group was not enough, and led us to another year of work culminating in a major exhibition and residency ‘Policing Dialogues’(2010) at The LAB, (a Dublin City council run art space)  where the two groups would open up the complexities of neighbourhood policing futher and co develop a local training programme for future Gardaí.


Why listen?

Political theorist Hannah Arendt describes the process of transitioning a story from the private to the public realm as two fold. (Arendt, 1958). She describes the public realm first as a space of appeareance where an individual experience is refashioned in a way that makes it recognisable to an ‘other’, and so there is potential validation in contributing one’s story to the process. But she also describes the public realm as a space of shared interest where a plurality of people work to create a world in which they feel they all belong. The act of telling these stories as a collective and working with them as a collection was a significant act in relation to power. In a climate where powerlessness is felt in the lived experience of so many, I’m interested in changing the dominant focus on ‘voice’, to it’s partner ‘listening’. Moving beyond the idea of validation through the sharing of voice, I want to consider the potential to build agency and to speak to power in a way that power is faced with the responsibility of listening.


*This is an edit of a conference paper for ‘A Field in the Making’ The Second Irish Narrative Inquiry Conference, Maynooth University, March 2015




Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Couldry, Nick (2009) ‘Rethinking the politics of voice’, Continuum, 23:4, 579 — 582

Spivak, Gayatri (1990) ‘Question of multiculturalism’, in G. C. Spivak and S. Harasyn (eds), The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, 59–66, New York: Routledge, cited in 

Penny O’ Donnell, Justine Lloyd and Tanja Dreher (2009), ‘Listening, pathbuilding and continuations: A research agenda for the analysis of listening’, in Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, 23:4, 423–39, original emphasis, cited in Alan Grossman and Aine O’Brien, ‘Voice, listening and social justice: a multimediated engagement with new communities and publics in Ireland’, in Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture, 2 (2011).


I’d say I get stopped about 20 times a month,

20 times a month just for walking around.

I’d be walking, and a Garda car would see me and stop and ask me where I’m going. These are all different Guards. By now you’d think the amount of Guards that stop me, they would know my name and where I was from, but they still have to stop me to see where I am going and what I’m doing. It’s unbelievable. It’s unreal. I wouldn’t mind if I was in the wrong and going doing things but I’m not. I’m walking places.

I’m going to a shop, they stop me.

I’m going to get a dvd, they stop me.

I’m going home, they stop me.

I’m going to me mates, they stop me.

I can’t win with them. They know the amount of times they stop me that they are pissing me off. They are waiting for me to do that one thing that they want me to do so that they can bring me down to the Garda station. It’s unreal….

—(Anonymous, 2008)