The Art of Civil Action - Political Space and Cultural Dissent
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Civil action as a transformative tool capable to convey cultural dissent into the political sphere aims at social change moving towards a more just and equal common environment by addressing those who are responsible (governors, politicians or administrators) to implement those rights or fulfill their obligations when those are disregarded.

Description of the tool

Civil action is applied as a tool by those cultural organizations that choose to assume the civil role of mediation between the public sphere and the civil domain. By capturing cultural discomfort and capable of moving it from the individual to the collective dimension daring to organize to go public with forms of civil disobedience (i.e. by starting a campaign, protesting into the streets, sit-in in the squares or other forms of more permanent dissent as occupations of squares or buildings starting experiments of alternative forms of production and life together and practices of commining). By manifesting cultural dissent, civil action addresses the responsible individuals or institutions to implement rights or fulfill obligations which are being disregarded to move towards what is considered to be a more equal and just society. By moving in the gray area between legality and illegality, creativity and criminality, civilians initiate that which a government or state has not yet thought of. It is up to public opinion to judge the claim or action on its legal, but also moral and ethical merits. The action is risky and the outcome uncertain or in some cases transitory. (P. Dietachmair & P. Gielen, 2017)

Steps of application

The Civil Chain and the Origin of Civil action

“Civil Action is born from emotions. The initial negative emotion (fear originated in discomfort, irritation, injustice). It is an initial fear converted into anger that defines the engine of civil action. Thus the negative emotion implies an hopeful expectation that something in society can be improved. In order to “enter” civil society we need to specifically address the collective dimension and generate public support. Civil action is only possible if we take our personal discomfort out of the private sphere, when we “de-privatize” the subject matter. Self-rationalization precedes communication to pinpoint the initial intuition or basic emotion, which will be further clarified in dialogue with others. After the process of rationalization (self-rationalisation), communication and de-privatisation, the skill of organization is required in order to set the civil action in  motion and, if necessary keep it going in the long run. Examples of this form of organization are: writing an opinion piece, protesting in the streets, rolling up sleeves to clean and refuncionalise a public space, understanding legal rules, study political procedures, districate among bureaucratic institutions. To organize a set of common rules and procedures are fundamental and even more necessary when scaling-up moving from the local, to the regional, to the national or transnational level. 

The Civil Chain can be summarised as follows:

  • emotion > (self-) rationalization
  • communication (de-individualisation and collectivisation)
  • de-privatisation (or going public) > (self-) organization

Looking at the chain 3 transitions are necessary:

  1. From negative to positive emotions: on the level of emotions, feelings of fear, discomfort, irritation, insecurity, injustice can often result in defeatism or resignation. Negative emotions can positively transform into outrage and hope leading to action.
  2. From the individual to the collective: this transformation can take place on the level of communication. As the individual opening up to the others gets confirmation that his/her own feelings of discomfort are common aso to other individuals the problem can become a collective one (collectivisation). Shared sentiments may lead to mutual support and civil action. Organisations that adopt a civil role often originate in such shared sentiments. Without collectivisation there is no civil action and no organisation, yet de-individualisation and collectivisation are not enough. The third transition is necessary
  3. From the private to the public: in the transition from the private to the public sphere a personal issue is not only translated into a collective problem but the cause of the problem or feeling of discomfort is located as a social phenomena. The transformation from the private to the public sphere implies the politicisation of the initial feeling. If “the political” stands for openly shaping our living together, this transition is an appeal to the political to articulate and address the issue. 

Paraphrasing Jacques Rancière: the political is defined by taking part in living together and in actions that (may) rearrange the relations within a society. The political therefore does not simply coincide with a fixed position within political institutions (parliament, government or political party) but is all about questioning and moving such positions. (Rancières, 2000)

Any civil action or civic role adopted by a cultural organization is potentially political in nature. If the public sphere is a space for expressing opinions or views (Habermas 1989), in the civil domain this “non-commitment” vanishes. Here opinions are linked to political demands and administrative responsibility and will at least stir up or irritate the political, for example by referring to civil and other rights and obligations related to an expressed opinion. In the civil domain those responsible can be addressed. Who should enforce those rights? Who should fulfill those obligations? The very moment that answers to these questions are demanded, civil action occurs or transforms the public sphere into a full-fledged civil domain. Therefore some cultural organizations with a civil role can specifically intermediation between the public sphere and the civil domain and in this case they also contribute to the process of politicization.” (P.Gielen & T.hijs Lijster, 2017)

A note on “creativity and criminality”

“It is perhaps in the gaping gulf between legality and illegality, between creativity and criminality that the civil space sees the light of day. In the grey area between what is allowed and not, or not yet allowed, civilians initiate that which a government or state has not yet thought of (or does not want to think of) and for which there are no interested markets. For the record: civil action does not coincide with criminal behaviour. Civil actions simply concern non-regulated domains, areas not yet covered by law. For instance civil action may denounce the fact that something is not, or not yet sufficiently, regulated by law; or may develop a practice for which there simply is no regulation, or at least not a good one. Whether the actions involved are lawful or not remains to be seen. It is then up to public opinion to judge the claim or action on its legal, but also moral and ethical merits. However within a democracy, at the end of the day it is the legislative and judicial powers that decide whether to categorize the issue at hand as legal or illegal. At the moment of the actual civil action itself it is still undecided: will this practice be tolerated, embraced or even passed into law, or rather not? Or it is more likely to be criminalised? Civilians who take a stand, who invoke civil rights, are in other words still uncertain about where they will end up, how they will be judged. They simply do not know if these rights will be assigned to them. This is why civil action is always a risky undertaking … Civil undertakings that at one point in time are legal or tolerated tend to be quickly criminalised when demacracies start to shale to their foundations. But also for the allegedly more “democratic” regimes civil action often represents provocations that result in being declared illegal. “Know your laws and know your “constitution” … artists and cultural initiatives who reclaim the civil domain had best not be naïve when it comes to challenging the democratic state and its enforcement of the law in “civil space”. (P. Dietachmair & P. Gielen, 2017)


The world of cultural institutions sends strong signals that recognize the innovative value of cultural and artistic experiences born from occupations: the ECF Princess Margriet Award and the Ubu prize to the Valle "for the example of a new possibility of experiencing the theater as a common good"; the Angelo Mai "laboratory of artistic experimentation and political activism, motivated by the intention of bringing culture among primary goods"; the EU Urbact Price to City of Naples as best practice with the model of Civic Uses initiated by L’Asilo. 

But why is politics so slow when it comes to being proactive in supporting those experiences, yet  so ready to take action when it comes to inhibiting and evicting these experiences? Perhaps all of this has very little to do with legal issues, perhaps this is a shift of axis that politics perceives as an invasion of the field, that field that politics and art share as Rancière articulates.

We understand how important it is for art and culture not to be submitted to political interests to play in a healthy way its role in society yet in too many ways we witness how art and culture instead of being recognised as fundamental rights, have been reduced to a commodity in the name of the freedom of the market by neoliberalism and capitalism

Following the financial crisis of 2008The action of social movements such as the Indignados (Spain)Occupy Wall Street (USA), the Arab Springs, Gerzy Park and Syntagma Square (Greece) and the Movement of self-governed cultural spaces (Italy), all contributed to give relevance to the “civil sphere” as a dynamic space between governments and the markets.

In many cases this civil action started thanks to or with a strong participation of operators of the cultural sector as being among the first sectors affected by strong reduction of welfare support during times of crisis. Those struggles share common claims: access to culture and art non based upon economic conditions and social equality (fighting against poverty, for universal and unconditional basic income for all, respect of fundamental rights of workers including artists and cognitive workers, environmentalism, transfeminism and depatriarchalization, anti-sexism and pro LGBTQ rights,  anti-racism, respect of democratic values, freedom from international finance dominance and the struggle for the commons against neoliberal privatization of public spaces, solidarity as opposed to capitalism push towards individualism).

In this sense the direction also underlined by Rancière assuming the foucaultian category, the experiment of new forms of self-government and practices of commoning carried on for example by the Italian Movement of Occupied Cultural Spaces shows how those experiences more than placing themselves as utopias, can better be considered as heterotopias being situated in and challenged by a real environment the contradictions rising from having to relate to a real environment: those experiences do not consider themselves as isolated island of exceptions, on the contrary they trigger the contradiction aware of the fertile power rising from dissent and conflict. (J. Rancière 2000, G. Riccio 2018)

Context of origin

Visual representation


Philip Dietachmair & Pascal Gielen, The Art of Civil Action: Political Space and Cultural Dissent, Valiz, Amsterdam, 2017

G.Riccio, La Pratica dell’Uso Civico come scelta Estetica Etica e Politica per il Sensibile Comune in Stefano Rodotà, I Beni Comuni. L'inaspettata rinascita degli usi collettivi, La Scuola di Pitagora, 2018



Philip Dietachmair & Pascal Gielen, The Art of Civil Action: Political Space and Cultural Dissent, Valiz, Amsterdam, 2017