Modified carton wall
Photo: Tintin Wulia

Research on how aesthetic objects instigate socio-political change receives prestigious ERC grant


The artist and researcher Tintin Wulia secures 1.5 million Euro to reveal how aesthetic objects instigate socio-political change. The grant, which is awarded by the European Research Fund, ERC, is one of the largest and most prestigious an early-career researcher can receive.

- This is a great honour and responsibility. It is also a fantastic opportunity to have ERC support to tackle these important questions, says Tintin Wulia.

For many years she has been developing the question of how different aesthetic objects can mediate and drive different social and political movements.

- One example is gilets jaunes – the yellow high-visibility vests – that became a worldwide symbol of protests in 2018. But even smaller-scale aesthetic modifications on cardboard waste that I did during a project in Hong Kong between 2014 and 2016 indicates a potential for social change.

Thanks to the grant, she can now assemble a research team and carry out a large international study, in collaboration with museums, cultural institutions, and social justice organisations around the world. The project, Things for Politics’ Sake: Aesthetic Objects and Social Change, is nicknamed THINGSTIGATE and will run for five years.

Powerful symbols or everyday objects

- Aesthetic objects can help people bond, motivate them to act, and stimulate societal change. This isn’t something new, there are many historical examples over centuries. It has led many to believe that the aesthetic experience is transformative, that art is useful for society. However, we don't know exactly how. How do aesthetic objects bring us together, and how do they instigate socio-political change? Through THINGSTIGATE I’d like to pinpoint how.

The project will start with a deep dive into thirty-years’ worth of archives of socially engaged art, an art genre emerging in the '90s that specifically pursues societal change.

- One of the archives is at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics in New York, which has been awarding prizes for socially engaged art projects from around the world since their 20th anniversary in 2012. Another is at ZKM/Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, where a significant exhibition curated by artist Peter Weibel and sociologist Bruno Latour, Making Things Public, was held in 2005.

Develop and test the hypothesis

Tintin Wulia
Tintin Wulia
Photo: Tintin Wulia

Tintin Wulia will adopt a methodology in historical sociology to analyse socially engaged art archives from around the world. With her team she will identify larger patterns to develop a hypothesis of how objects behave in social relations and instigate change.

They will then test this hypothesis, by engaging the public to generate aesthetic objects and observing how these objects behave over long periods. The team will set up public projects in collaboration with partners, amongst others with the transnational collective 1965 Setiap Hari in Indonesia, the Queens Museum in New York, and the Make Your Own Passport network at the Centre on Global Migration, University of Gothenburg.

Important to gain a deeper understanding

- Aesthetic objects stimulates imagination and emotion. And these are also important elements in socio-political change. Trumpism and Brexit are only two of the many examples of how imagination and emotion are entangled with society and politics. Imagination and emotion also influence how societies around the world institute their own COVID-19 strategies, in times of uncertainty and scientific distrust. The more connected our world, the more entangled they are – and this is often exploited for divisive impacts.

So, it is important that we gain new knowledge about how this works. We can easily see that certain objects become symbols of a movement, but this is not the only thing objects do in social and political situations. A deeper understanding will help us work consciously to bring about constructive social and political change.

By: Pia Ahnlund


About Tintin Wulia
Tintin Wulia is an internationally practising artist and researcher who joined the University of Gothenburg in 2018, with a Postdoctoral Fellowship in design, craft and society with a focus on migration. Wulia's practice-based research pivots on the complexities of borders. She currently works as Research Project Leader at the university’s department HDK-Valand – Academy of Art and Design.

Her project, Protocols of Killings (funded by Swedish Research Council) probes the connection between violence, distance, and accountability by linking the protocols surrounding the Indonesian 1965-66 massacres – as a form of hyperdistant killings – with those of drone warfare’s technologies of the future.

ERC Starting Grants
ERC, European Research Council, was started by the EU in 2007 and is one of the largest research funders in Europe. Thousands of newly appointed researchers within all subject areas and from all over the world apply for their Starting Grants every year. Of these, just over ten percent get their application approved: the best early-career researchers in the world. Therefore, the grant - in addition to being unusually large and thus enable research in a significant scale - is also very prestigious.

ERC Starting Grant is aimed at new researchers, two to seven years after completing a doctoral degree. Grant amount is up to EUR 1.5 million for a maximum period of five years, with the possibility of an additional EUR 1 million for special costs. The grant is part of the EU's research and innovation program, Horizon Europe.

This is the first time that a researcher at the Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts, at the University of Gothenburg, receives the grant.

More about the ERC Starting Grants