In the summer of 2017, a woman was murdered by her partner in Sofia. The woman, let's call her "V," was beaten for over 50 minutes before she died. The morning after, her neighbors told the press that they heard her screams, but they didn't intervene. You see, in Bulgaria and many other societies, domestic violence is typically seen as a private matter. Neighbors, however, are quick to react to any other kind of noise.
We wanted to expose and affect the absurdity of this. So we designed an experiment. We rented the apartment just below V's for one night. And at 10pm, Maksim, the artist in our group, sat on the drum set we had assembled in the living room and started beating it. Ten seconds. Thirty seconds. Fifty seconds. A minute. A light came on in the hallway. One minute and 20 seconds. A man was standing at the door, hesitant to press the bell. One minute and 52 seconds. The doorbell rang, a ring that could have saved a life.
"Beat." is our project exploring the ominous silence surrounding domestic violence. We filmed the experiment, and it became instantly viral. Our campaign amplified the voices of survivors who shared similar stories online. It equipped neighbors with specific advice, and many committed to taking action. In a country where every other week, the ground quietly embraces the body of a woman murdered by a partner or a relative, we were loud, and we were heard.
I am an activist, passionate about human rights innovation. I lead a global organization for socially engaged creative solutions. In my work, I think about how to make people care and act. I am here to tell you that creative actions can save the world, creative actions and play. I know it is weird to talk about play and human rights in the same sentence, but here is why it's important. More and more, we fear that we can't win this. Campaigns feel dull, messages drown, people break. Numerous studies, including a recent one published by Columbia University, show that burnout and depression are widespread amongst activists. Years ago, I myself was burned out. In a world of endless ways forward, I felt at my final stop.
So what melts fear or dullness or gloom? Play. From this very stage, psychiatrist and play researcher Dr. Stuart Brown said that nothing lights up the brain like play, and that the opposite of play is not work, it's depression. So to pull out of my own burnout, I decided to turn my activism into what I call today "play-tivism."
When we play, others want to join. Today, my playground is filled with artists, techies and scientists. We fuse disciplines in radical collaboration. Together, we seek new ways to empower activism. Our outcomes are not meant to be playful, but our process is. To us, play is an act of resistance. For example, "Beat.," the project I talked about earlier, is a concept developed by a drummer and a software engineer who didn't know each other two days before they pitched the idea. "Beat." is the first winner in our lab series where we pair artists and technologists to work on human rights issues. Other winning concepts include a pop-up bakery that teaches about fake news through beautiful but horrible-tasting cupcakes —
or a board game that puts you in the shoes of a dictator so you get to really grasp the range of tools and tactics of oppression.
We did our first lab just to test the idea, to see where it cracks and if we can make it better. Today, we are so in love with the format that we put it all online for anyone to implement. I cannot overstate the value of experimentation in activism. We can only win if we are not afraid to lose.
When we play, we learn. A recent study published by Stanford University about the science of what makes people care reconfirms what we have been hearing for years: opinions are changed not from more information but through empathy-inducing experiences. So learning from science and art, we saw that we can talk about global armed conflict through light bulbs, or address racial inequality in the US through postcards, or tackle the lack of even one single monument of a woman in Sofia by flooding the city with them, and, with all these works, to trigger dialogue, understanding and direct action.
Sometimes, when I talk about taking risks and trying and failing in the context of human rights, I meet raised eyebrows, eyebrows that say, "How irresponsible," or, "How insensitive." People often mistake play for negligence. It is not. Play doesn't just grow our armies stronger or spark better ideas. In times of painful injustice, play brings the levity we need to be able to breathe. When we play, we live.
I grew up in a time when all play was forbidden. My family's lives were crushed by a communist dictatorship. For my aunt, my grandfather, my father, we always held two funerals: one for their bodies, but, years before that, one for their dreams. Some of my biggest dreams are nightmares. I have a nightmare that one day all the past will be forgotten and new clothes will be dripping the blood of past mistakes. I have a nightmare that one day the lighthouses of our humanity will crumble, corroded by acid waves of hate.
But way more than that, I have hope. In our fights for justice and freedom, I hope that we play, and that we see the joy and beauty of us playing together. That's how we win.