This text explores the urge and potentialities of transdisciplinary collaborations between Law and Human Rights education and artistic approaches and practices, in order to possibly offer tools to mitigate against an abstract and dogmatic understanding of terms such as dignity and freedom. Terms that, in juridical science, always require other words to be explained and that swiftly turned into abstract and conceptual notions. In this reification process, we risk losing their concrete experiential significance, reaffirming the disconnection between Human Rights and its embodied and situated account instead.
As a jurist, I have experienced first-hand the risk of drifting into an abstract understanding of Human Rights. This awareness led me to experiment with artist practitioners from performative and visual arts backgrounds, educational processes engendering embodied and grounded understanding of Human Rights. This work is a shared reflective analysis with two ‘transdisciplinary companions’, Beatrice Catanzaro, a visual artist, and Andrea Rampazzo, a dance artist, whom I have engaged in numerous collaborations in various educational settings. We intend to cast light on the urge to find ways of practicing juridical education that reconciles with the person’s embodied experience and learning capacities. Through one’s own body and biographical narratives, as we have verified, it is possible to enter in dialogue with oneself and others to comprehend more profoundly otherwise abstracted and dogmatic juridical concepts.
This text intertwines with our personal narratives; this is because biography, with its sensibility, longings and desire, is the ground where we embody the contradictions and tensions between the flux of becoming and the tendency to categorize and fix life into schemes and fields of expertise.
The un/legal procedure: Claudia Pretto
The system of Law encompassing Human Rights protection and human dignity is built on procedures, mechanisms and terminologies often disconnected and removed from the sphere they mean to ‘protect’ and ‘regulate’: that of life. For almost 14 years, I have been working as a jurist in Human Rights protection, especially in the refugee status determination procedure, which included UN official ruling over the eligibility for refugee status. The international refugee protection procedure highlights more than other legal issues the constraints and limitations of practicing Human Rights when segregated to and dependent only on Law in the books.
This limitation in the approach risks widening the gap between Law in the books and Law in action, leaving unattended to consider the person’s bodily presence properly, his or her embodied conditions and story. The asylum interview aims to collect the applicant’s story and any evidence related to the risks of returning to the country of origin, and the examiner does so by a specific interview technique. However, the examiner’s training in preparation for those hearings is purely theoretical, ingrained in abstract legal knowledge connected only to Law in the books and informed by inadequate and insufficient case studies, leaving the examiners resorting to one’s life experience, cultural capacities and social background, and inevitably influenced by the moment’s psycho-emotional circumstances. The result of this inadequacy is a profound disconnection from the embodied reality of the applicant.
I have been sitting for six years, five days a week, over ten hours a day, listening and transcribing the lives of almost 6000 asylum seekers. The increasing number of people I interviewed with the growing number of protection requests led me to cross the threshold from confidence to impotence. From the initial confidence in my work and my role, a sense of impotence gradually surfaced. Impotence in the face of the tools’ inadequacy, substantiated only by knowledge of international standards, but poorly equipped with other lenses that could help me understand the multi-nuanced narratives of personal stories (Veglio, 2017). The key questions asked to assess the asylum seekers’ application and evaluate the eligibility for refugee protection, are produced by the legal system I represent, and I live in.
Who are you?
How old are you?
Do you hold documents that prove your identity?
When did you leave your country?
Why did you leave your country?
Why can you not find protection?
What do you fear today if you return to your country?
Gradually, the asylum seekers’ bodies, eyes, hands, faces turned into an unknown land, a land I was told to seize, measure, and categorize, and without the tools to comprehend the others’ worlds historical and cultural complexities. The physical environment in which those interviews took place mirrored this sense of impotence and displacement: a decaying office situated in a dark basement. Here, the listeners of the others’ worlds – the asylum authorities – enter into twisted paths. I struggled in managing bodily pain while sitting helplessly and for endless working days, attending those deficient and reductivist procedures. But also, and more severely, witnessing a dehumanizing distance buffered by the interview protocols. This was the case of the Iranian girl detained and tortured in the Evin prison to then be given as a bride to her prisoner torturer .
After almost 8 hours of interview, the asylum officer found her story defective as she would cast down her eyes and fall in long silences when asked what happened inside the prison. Again, I remember the cynicism in the words of an asylum officer in response to my proposal to recognize protection to a woman victim of domestic violence and who could not access protection in her country. He said: “If she managed to arrive here [in Europe], it means she is a strong woman. It makes no sense to grant her protection”. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention of 1951, those at risk of persecution for one of the reasons outlined in article 1/A are entitled to seek protection and access asylum procedures. The procedure should provide a careful assessment of their particular situation. Although the norms appeal to the loyal collaboration of the asylum-seeker, I have always wondered if and how far Governments enable asylum officers to understand the asylum’s embodied complexity.
I specialized in studying and researching information on their Countries of origin provided by official portals of various research institutions. Yet, the most significant challenge is to understand the actual situation of the persons sitting in front of me, their story, traumas and cultural background, profoundly different from mine. Little by little, I felt the pain in my body, in my skin, in my bones, up to the uterus where my illness sits. Endometriosis came back to tell me that I was entrapped in a deadlock, an impasse from which I had to step beyond over and above. I had to step beyond the universalism imposed by the juridical language and possibly start recognizing each human dignity. I do not remember the faces of all the asylum seekers I met, but each of them marked my skin, my soul, and I am sure I have marked them with my verdicts. From this journey to the boundaries and limits of Human Rights and effective protection emerged the need to return to the body. The body, by which I could overcome the procedure’s generalizations and abstractions, in order to start listening to the unheard details of my interlocutors. However, the haste imposed on my daily duty nullified any attempt for such connectedness and careful listening. Different tools and other contexts were required to engage with each person as human beings and not as mere subjects to be scrutinized and assessed.
Bodies speak. I listened to the body of many Nigerian women applying for asylum, all of them telling the same story and all accused by the procedural system of lying. Until one day, I finally succeeded in bringing to the fore that these women, often minors, perhaps were forced to lie out of retaliation. This realisation opened a long legal road leading to the recognition as refugees of women victims of trafficking in human beings. With my ‘legal hat’, my argument referred to the obligations of European Directive 36 of 2011 (Pretto, 2017), but what enabled this insight and awareness was my body. Through the trauma experienced through my body, I could connect with other women’s traumas, as my uterus, violated by the endometriosis, knew how to listen to the violated uterus of another woman. Following this insight, I met on two crossroads with Beatrice Catanzaro and Andrea Rampazzo, with whom I began exploring ways to engender Human Rights rooted in Law in action. To learn through the body the reasons and sensibilities of human dignity protection and incarnate those universal assumptions into the particular and singular diversity.
From the crossroads: Beatrice Catanzaro
In 2016 I was invited by the cultural association Lungomare in Bolzano (South Tyrol), to develop an artistic intervention, You Are But You Are Not, on the theme of border and migration. During this one and a half year-long research and production, I first encountered and started collaborating with Claudia Pretto.
Arriving at Platform 3 of Bolzano’s train station in 2016, I was confronted with the waiting room locked since early 2015 (that still is at the time of writing), restricting migrants from halting. The locked waiting room mirrored the general condition of waiting imposed onto migrant bodies, entrapped in a morass of bureaucratic procedures, giving rise to ongoing delays, forms of imprisonments and human desperation. But also, that locked waiting room mirrored my personal experience of having undergone (and still undergoing) a conflictual and painful legal custody procedure over my daughter. A procedure that – although different in privilege and forms – nevertheless resonated with the condition of those whose lives are entirely on hold in the wait of a verdict.
This resonance with conditions of entrapment produced by legal procedures became the starting point to question whether it was possible to begin talking from shared conditions rather than talking about or on behalf of others. In Paulo Freire’s words: «even when one must speak to the people, one must convert the ‘to’ to a ‘with’ the people. That implies respect for the ‘knowledge of living experience’ […] based on which it is possible to go beyond it» (Freire, 1994, p. 20). The question was reinforced by the stories shared by many interlocutors involved in the refugee’s reception procedures (social assistant, lawyers, volunteers etc.) in Bolzano. Those voices were testimony to a tangible sense of impotence of being a subaltern to bureaucratic structures which separate and fragment attempts to assist into prescribed norms and protocols, despite all the human desperation involved. The impotence emerging from those conversations reignited the impotence.
I lived through while having to obey legal norms ruling over my parental role and often conflicting with parent-daughter relation’s concrete emotional needs. The encounter with Claudia Pretto brought to the fore a shared urge for finding ways to integrate the legal language of Human Rights with processes that could help to resonate and connect with the embodied conditions produced by reception procedures. In essence, how could one relate to refugees’ stories without turning them into observation objects and reject a disembodied, conceptual or abstract understanding of Human Rights procedures?
The audio guide You Are But You Are Not designed for the city of Bolzano emerged from this question in the attempt to engender in its 20minutes narrative an embodied understanding of those conditions of entrapment and procrastination imposed onto the migrant body in the name of justice, freedom and security . With You Are But You Are Not, Claudia Pretto and I began exploring ways to integrate Human Rights teaching with dialogical and imaginal processes, in order to disengage from generalised and reified Human Rights terminologies such as freedom and dignity and instead situate those vocabularies in individual embodied experiences. The following paragraph outlines two settings of our collaboration.
Setting 1: Two-day seminar on the theme of Citizenship, State of Exception and Hospitality , at the Art Academy ESAD (Grenoble, 2017).
The seminar intertwined an in-depth legal reflection on the right to asylum, right and duty to hospitality, state of emergency and the state of exception, with dialogical processes inspired by the artistic work developed in Bolzano. Among others, the ‘tessera hospitalis process’ and the You Are But You Are Not audio piece. The ‘tessera hospitalis process’ is inspired by the ancient notion of this travelling object used in Roman times to sanction access to people external to the community networks and organisation. The Roman tessera hospitalis consists of two equal parts, each kept by a person or a family whose names it recorded. We used a couple of chopsticks to perform our tessera hospitalis.
The two equal parts were passed on to two people simultaneously, inviting each one to share their first gesture of hospitality. This simple process set in dialogue embodied hospitality practices with institutional procedures, confronting the group with the dissonance between embodied experiences of hospitality and the institutional system of hospitality. Another central process was listening, with closed eyes and free to move in the space, to the You Are But You Are Not audio piece. The students were then invited into a collective reflective sharing bridging the audio narrative with their direct experience of the restrictions imposed at that time by France’s declaration, in the face of terrorist attacks, of the State of Emergency – State of Exception.
Setting 2: Two-day course on Refugee Law at the Hamburg University (Hamburg, 2017).
In this setting, after an in depth analysis of Human Rights Legal definitions, Claudia Pretto invited students to listen to the audio piece You Are But You Are Not. The students’ first reaction was disorientation as never in their studies had they been offered this kind of interaction. Among them, there were four second-generation refugees and one refugee. While listening to the audio guide, students’ physical attitude shifted from passive to active recipients, unfolding an evident change in perception. Students changed posture and started inhabiting the classroom in a different and more personal way. After the audio piece, the previously introduced notions and concepts of Refugee Law, such as refugee status, border, residence permit, right of asylum, right to reception, right to the procedure etc., were suddenly inhabited, engendering active participation in the debate by the entire class.
The four second-generation refugees from Syria and Iran shared their family stories with delicacy and spontaneity, and so did the two refugees. The class shifted from an impersonal frontal lecture to a highly participated vivid circular dialogue. The students with no migrant or refugee backgrounds became aware that, in their way, they had shared similar conditions of migrants whenever they had had to exercise their rights in crossing borders or visiting foreign countries. The otherwise frontal lesson of Refugee Law became a shared collective reflection grounded in each one’s embodied experience, in which Right and Law were enlivened, concrete and human.
From the crossroads: Andrea Rampazzo
“Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.”
Over the years, I have discovered that by practising dance it is possible to perceive and understand what exists in and around me with different eyes, or better, with different eyes, ears, skin, tongue, words, thoughts, imagination, and sensitivity, as dance always involves multiple channels simultaneously: physical, mental, analytical, emotional, intellectual and intuitive. This awareness stems from something very concrete: the act of doing. Ismael Ivo, one of my first mentors, used to say “learn by doing”, an insight laying the basis for my practice: moving without too many questions, theories and concepts since, when staying connected to the body, unforeseen possibilities emerge, unexpected ideas arise, different needs surface and new viewpoints germinate.
Through this lens, dance is mutual nourishment between theory and practice – thinking and acting. Still, it always brings you back to the body – real with its precise limits. Dance trains to expand while remaining within those limits. With this awareness, in 2017, I was invited by CSC – Centro per la Scena Contemporanea in Bassano del Grappa to join, as a choreographer, Migrant Bodies – Moving Borders: a European international research project focusing on implementing actions for the inclusion of refugees and migrants through dance and movement-based initiatives . In this framework, I met Claudia Pretto, who shared her knowledge and experience with us.
During the two-year project, I visited many refugee reception centres in Europe, having the possibility to encounter experiences, knowledge and talents of persons whose uniqueness was shaded by the homogenizing label of ‘migrant’. In the absence of a shared verbal language, we established intimate body-to-body conversations by dancing together in different contexts: in a reception centre in Zagreb, in a home for unaccompanied minors in Rechnitz camp, in the outskirts of Paris, in the streets and museum and studios in Bassano del Grappa.
Especially in Bassano del Grappa, we started rehearsing with a group of local dancers and ‘newcomers’. From this experience, in which we shared all aspects of life, including the reception procedures refugees had to go through, the performance Just Papers emerged. We verified the potentiality of dance as a way for returning to ourselves, for regaining one’s body (perhaps a traumatized body), for reconnecting and listening, for observing ourselves through and with others, for opening up communities and creating new ones, for becoming aware of differences and living them as opportunities.
Setting: IOM Tunisia, 5th edition of the international summer school on Migration (Tunisi, 2019)
From a dance perspective
I was invited by Claudia Pretto to the Summer School in Tunisi to share the experience developed with Migrant Bodies. With me were my dance colleague Ilaria Marcolin, and Soulayma Sassi,, a south Tunisian dancer, whom we met for the first time there. With Soulayma, we did not share a verbal language; instead, we communicated through our bodies, engaging in a shared physical experience. Our daily activities included formal lectures and dance practice, rehearsing for a short performance we conceived and presented at the Kasbah, Tunis city hall. We found ourselves in a context that is very different from that of the performing arts, sharing the same space with lawyers, university professors, legislators, UN and police officers, politicians and institutional representatives.
For instance, during the coffee breaks, the participants had to cross our practicing room to access the buffet, and therefore could witness our process, which triggered their curiosity. Although our presence was undoubtedly raising some perplexities, a form of exchange was already taking place. Furthermore, while we allowed being observed, we observed them in their daily ritual of moving between the conference room to the coffee break room. My attention was drawn to the small actions and physical exchange occurring: hands shaking, business cards swapping, formal interactions, yawning, chit-chats etc. Above all, I could witness how, day after day, body details and postures were changing: backs were increasingly curved, eyes becoming tired, steps slowing down, stiffening jaws, painful necks.
Those bodily tensions certainly mirrored some of the dynamics and frictions taking place during the week among this temporary community of people carrying different experiences, backgrounds, ideologies, visions and needs, and yet coming together to discuss the prevention of human trafficking. By the end of the week, it was my turn to put the panellist ‘hat’ and share the experience of the Migrant Bodies project. Initially, I thought of delivering a conventional frontal presentation. Then, inspired by the details and postures observed in the participant’s bodies and following my personal need for sharing-through-practice, I decided to take a risk. I decided to conduct the audience in a series of actions that could trigger another way of being and interacting with other conference members, after spending one week sitting in the same place and engaging with the same few people.
From a legal perspective
Invited to design and coordinate the International Summer School on Migration with a special focus on human trafficking, held in Tunis, I was aware of the sensitivity of this topic in the country. In Tunisia, child labor is necessary for family’s subsistence, and polygamy allowed, resulting in minors and women becoming victims of trafficking, in some cases even through family networks. Circa 150 participants worldwide (Ivory Coast, Togo, United States, Colombia, Canada, Italy, Germany, Qatar, etc.) joined the Summer School carrying different perspectives on human trafficking. I knew that confronting the drama of human trafficking by inviting people from different religions, cultures, and legal systems represented a significant challenge. In this daring context, I felt the urge to include dance practice to offer an unconventional lens to challenge the participant’s various and often conflicting perspectives. The tension among those different legal and cultural perspectives on human trafficking was palpable throughout all the lectures.
Moreover, some Tunisian speakers felt offended by using French as a vehicular language and decided to deliver their lectures in Arabic. This decision caused a lack of understanding among the non-Arabic speaking audience, who were sitting up to 8 hours in the conference room listening to an incomprehensible language. On other days there was tension among participants due to different understanding of the concept of victims of trafficking. Day after day, the fatigue became visible in the participants’ bodies. However, the presence of dance artists rehearsal in the coffee-break room mitigated against this accumulation of tension, offering a serene dialogue that positively affected the participants. On the last day, the dance practice proposed in the conference room brought the participants into a mode of dialogue that seemed impossible on the previous days: participants start entering into conversation, exchange perspectives, and listen to each other in an unprecedented way.
The following instructions were given to the participants:
find a partner you do not know
choose a body part other than the hands
introduce yourself with that body part
change the body part and introduce yourself again
repeat the action with a different part of your body
now choose the best body part you could offer
introduce yourself one last time and keep connected
move as a couple around the room
you can go wherever you and your partner want
when you meet another couple, connect and keep those new connections.
With those instructions, all the participants found themselves connected. Following this simple practice, partakers shared with us that they would have liked to join a dance practice each morning before starting the conferences, asserting that perhaps, some of the conflictual issues arising would have been dealt with differently. An Ivorian head of border police stated that art practices could help overcome juridical conflicts and bring about new opportunities to deal with the phenomenon of forced migration.
What if? an open-ended enquiry
We decided to bring our intentions and fields of knowledge into dialogue and pursue an active exchange and transdisciplinary research. We described this way of working as ‘transdisciplinary companionship’ to evoke and remark the attempt and willingness to walk together as companions on a journey to unsettle field-related and individual assumptions. As a Jurist, entering this new transdisciplinary space unfolds a horizon of possibilities to claim back the inseparability of Law in the books and Law in action. This new horizon sanctioned the impossibility to return to modalities prescribed by the current legal procedures standards that, as I have experienced, are in essence de-humanizing the profound meaning of Human Rights.
What if art practices could integrate training in Human Rights obligations for police officers, judges and lawyers?
What if Arts and Law education could join a shared curricula?
What if asylum officers could listen to refugees’ stories while walking in a field?
What if interviews could turn into conversations?
 HRC – UN Human Rights Council: Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran; Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman [A/HRC/46/50], 11 January 2021. See also
 Justice Freedom Security See also
 Pratiques d’Hospitalite See also
 Migrant Bodies See also
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Dworkin R., Taking Rights Seriously Harvard University Press, Massachusetts 1977.
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Hathaway J. C., The Law of Refugee Status. Butterworths, Toronto 1991.
Pretto C., Victims of trafficking and refugees: the nexus between asylum and anti-trafficking, in Cortese F., Pelacani G. (ed.) Il Diritto in Migrazione, in Studi sull’integrazione giuridica degli stranieri, Quaderni della Facoltà di Giurisprudenza 30/2017, Università degli Studi di Trento 2017.
European asylum support office, EASO, Practical Guide: Qualification for international protection, 2018 (Accessed: the 27 April 2021)
European Asylum Support Office, EASO, training for State’s member staff (Accessed: the 27 April 2021)
HRC – UN Human Rights Council (formerly UN Commission on Human Rights): Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran – Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman [A/HRC/46/50], 11 January 2021 (Accessed: the 27 April 2021)
IOM Tunisia, 5th edition of the international summer school on Migration (Accessed: the 27 April 2021)
Migrant Bodies – Moving Borders EU Project (Accessed: the 27 April 2021)
You Are But You Are Not, audio-guide (2017) (Accessed: the 27 April 2021)
Manuale Operativo No Tratta (Accessed: the 27 April 2021)
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Beatrice Catanzaro is an artist, researcher and teacher. She is a PhD candidate at the Oxford Brookes University with the Social Sculpture Research Unit and co-founder of the Social Enterprise Bait al Karama in Nablus, Palestine. Her practice questions hegemonic social structures through collective imaginary, dialogical processes and transdisciplinary collaborations. Her work has been exhibited at MART, Rovereto; Fundação Gulbenkian, Lisbon; Espai d’Art Contemporani, Castellón and Rome Quadriennale.
Claudia Pretto is a lecturer and senior legal expert. She obtained her PhD in Constitutional Comparative Law. She worked as a UNHCR Officer. Claudia is involved in cases and research to guarantee the effective protection of special needs people, unaccompanied minors and victims of trafficking. She works as an expert in human rights in multidisciplinary teams, trying to question Human Rights through practices shared with visual artists, contemporary artists, human geographers and dancers.
Andrea Rampazzo is a dance artist based in Italy. After attending Arsenale della Danza in Venice Biennale he collaborated with Ismael Ivo, Virgilio Sieni, Artemis Danza, Déjà Donné, Silvia Gribaudi. Parallel to his career as performer, he joined a number of international dance projects (Duo à trois voix, Migrant Bodies-Moving Borders) and created on-stage and site-specific works as well as participatory performances.