Restrictions as Resources

Facilitation from an Expressive Arts Perspective

The Mystery of Picasso, a remarkable 1956 documentary made by the French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, traces painter Pablo Picasso’s creative process filmed from the back of the canvas using a certain lighting technique. The most curious aspect of this documentary is witnessing Picasso’s intuitive moves on canvas while he effortlessly changes the images from say, a bunch of flowers to a fish, and from a fish to a rooster. His dance on canvas does not involve any cognitive work; he trusts that his pen will find the best form. While painting, he has only one canvas, one pen, and some painting material. Picasso works within this restricted setting and brings unique images to surface, demonstrating how limitations foster creativity.

Holding the Unknown Through Expressive Arts

The work of facilitators working in the area of conflict transformation through the arts is similar to the work of an artist. When facilitators enter a community they find themselves doing research on the spot: listening to the stories of the participants, tuning in with the art works emerging and intervening when necessary to enlarge the Spielraum, the space of play and art making. Improvising in the workshop space goes hand in hand with doing research. Similar to Picasso’s process, they may start with one interactive play in the workshop space but they might not really know where this play would lead to or how the artworks that will emerge will touch the participants. The research is always alive and present throughout the workshop. Trusting the liminal space as artists do in the process of surfacing their works may similarly allow facilitators to see restrictions and surprise elements that they face as resources in the process of transforming conflicts.

My exposure to the field of Expressive Arts (EXA) and Social Change during my doctoral studies at the European Graduate School’s Arts, Health and Society Division, allowed me to be immersed intensively in a phenomenological learning environment through experiential learning and intermodal art making. This immersion helped me practice how to leave preconceived ideas about the community I am working with aside and embrace restrictions within the community as a resource. A community experiencing conflict is in a frozen state, lacking possibilities in their lives. Introducing the world of art making or Poiesis, which constitutes the philosophy of EXA, allows individuals within a community to shape their world through giving shape to an artwork. In other words, the transformative quality of art making is very much related to how the artwork that emerged touches the psyche of the artist-participants. Once participants experience that Aha moment after encountering their artworks, the process of transformation slowly begins.

In August 2017, the International Institute on Peace Education (IIPE) invited peace educators from all over the world to a conference on the topic of Aesthetic Peaces, organized by the University of Innsbruck’s Unit for Peace and Conflict Studies in collaboration with Cambridge University. The conference focused on the role of affective and embodied learning and the arts in formal and non-formal educational contexts. IIPE’s philosophy on education is based on Paulo Freire and Betty Reardon’s approaches on critical pedagogy and peace education. Both thinkers believe in the participatory learning methodology, in which educators are learners allowing a constant flow of sharing, listening, reflecting between learners and educators. The role of the arts in peace education has always been central as the space of art making embraces a non-hierarchical learning space allowing the participants to reach their own truths in the learning space.

To encourage conference participants to experience a collaborative “edu-learning” experience, the organizers brought facilitators from different parts of the world together based on their area of work and invited them to organize a workshop together. I first met my co-facilitators Lorna Zamora and Allison Paul online. We had not known each other before. Before our arrival in Innsbruck, all we knew about each other’s work was our shared involvement with women and memory in different contexts. Lorna did some dance workshops with women in Mexico who have been exposed to violence and had traumatic memories. Allison was using collage, painting and poetry to work through her own challenges in her family memory. She has been also working with youth in disadvantaged communities in Ohio. I have been working with Armenian women from Istanbul, who have been exposed to intergenerational transfer of traumatic memories in their families. My modalities were photography and storytelling. The first thing we could decide upon was the title of our workshop: “Addressing Issues of Memory and Identity Through Expressive Arts”.

Our first face-to-face meeting happened on our first night at Grillhof Center in Innsbruck, the base for Innsbruck University’s MA Program in Peace, Development, Security and International Conflict Transformation. The moment we saw the large and beautiful room that was assigned for our workshop, we knew how we wanted to organize our workshop. We had 90 minutes to share our work; a restriction, which certainly helped us to be more creative about finding a way to infuse almost all the art modalities we were interested in and to invite the participants to have a profound experience through the arts.

The Architecture of a Workshop: Playing with Restrictions

To frame our workshop and give voice to each facilitator, we followed the architecture of an EXA session, which creates a holding frame for the facilitators but allows them to improvise within the workshop space based on the needs of the participants. Research and improvisation go hand in hand in this process. The facilitators are tuned in with the participants’ process of working through their challenges through art making and may intervene when necessary to increase the range of play and arts.

The architecture of a session starts with a sharing circle. This opening is the first step when facilitators and participants meet and share their motivation to be in that workshop.

Decentering from the habitual world, which is also called bridge to art making is the second step in this model. This is when participants slowly enter a liminal space with possibilities. In our workshop I invited the participants onto the stage, the sacred and playful space of art making, temenos, with evocative music. The participants started to open up their bodies, their senses and slowly they got tuned into the space, synched in with other participants after sharing salutations as they freely danced and looked each other in the eyes.

Poiesis or art making is the third step in which participants are invited to enter an alternative world experience. The idea in this part of the workshop was to invite the participants to recall a memory related to a layer of their identity that was challenged. With a new music score playing in the background, Lorna guided the participants to lie down on the floor firmly as a way of recreating that frozen state and listening to their bodies in that state. With her soft-spoken voice, she asked them to slowly leave this state behind with the leading power of a body part that freed them from the state of being “stuck”.

Aesthetic response is the fourth step of the session. At this stage, participants were expected to respond to their flowing dance through a new aesthetic modality: drawing. They were asked to transfer the flowing dance by using crayons in both hands on a paper while the same music was playing in the background. Allison invited the group gently into the modality of drawing followed by ephemeral poetry writing.

Harvesting, the last step of the session is meant to slowly bring the participants back to the habitual world. All participants shared their process of intermodal art making in three reflection groups facilitated by each of us. The workshop ended with each participant sharing a poetic line based on their painting with their group. The last poetic line shared is a crystallized form of the workshop experience, which can be carried back to the habitual life.

Like Picasso

The art-analogue approach in facilitation makes us aware of the limitations we are faced with in our habitual lives and prepares us to receive the unexpected, like Picasso does throughout his painting process. The holding workshop frame suggested in the EXA approach helps facilitators to gently create a safe space for the participants and allow them to go through their own process of searching and finding. I find the words of poet and EXA practitioner Elizabeth Gordon McKim very valuable in this context: “we all need an agile guide to cross a fragile bridge”. Our role as guides in the work of conflict transformation is not about bringing solutions to conflicts but guide communities through their challenges as they find their own truth.

Image Sources:

  • Featured Image: © Eva B. Nagy
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