Difference-Attuned Witnessing: Risks and Potentialities of Arts-Based Research

Authors: Carla Rice, Katie Cook, K. Alysse Bailey

In this paper, we interrogate notions of affect, vulnerability and difference-attuned empathy, and how they relate to bearing witness across difference—specifically, connecting through creativity, experiencing the risks and rewards of vulnerability, and witnessing the expression of difficult emotions and the recounting of affect-imbued events within an arts-based process called digital/multi-media storytelling (DST). Data for this paper consists of 63 process-oriented interviews conducted before and after participants engaged with DST in a research project focused on interrogating negative concepts of disability that create barriers to healthcare. These retrospective reflections on DST coalesce around experiences of vulnerability, relationality, and the risks associated with witnessing one’s own and others’ selective disclosures of difficult emotions and affect-laden aspects of experiences of difference. Through analyzing findings from our process-oriented interviews, we offer a framework for understanding witnessing as a necessarily affective, difference-attuned act that carries both risk and transformative potential. Our analysis draws on feminist Indigenous (Maracle), Black (Nash) and affect (Ahmed) theories to frame emerging concepts of affective witnessing across difference, difference-attuned empathy, and asymmetrical vulnerability within the arts-based research process.