We are a group of artists, curators and arts educators, where the majority are members of  Young Blood Initiative, an international community of artists that aims to explore other ways to create and collaborate. We have set up this study group to examine art’s relationship with activism and explore how can artists make real changes.

Through the study period (November – December 2020) we aim to explore our role as artists in society outside of commerce and the changes we want to make; increase our understanding and application of inclusive practices and accessibility;  expand our approaches to facilitation, support and skill sharing within a group; and understand how different cultures reflect different attitudes and approaches towards activism. Most importantly, we aim to discover how to apply what we learn into our own practices in a sustainable way.

We will be documenting our learning and gatherings here.


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FrancisJohn Chan’s Reflection on the Study Group – Art/Activism, initiated by Bettina Fung.

This study group session, led by Bettina Fung and Karen Le Roy Harris, bleeds beyond the hours on my calendar, has me thinking about how we artists/activists organise, how we mobilise ourselves and where do we sit in the greater ecology of the capitalist society.

Each of us in the group got a brown envelope, inside a handwritten letter, a hand drawn shopping list, a reading and another small white envelope, which says. “Please only open on 3rd January 2021 during the session.” We were hinted to be having a guest, an audio-guided cooking activity and a self-conducted exercise later that day. Also definitely the tradition part of a study group: readings.

The evening before the session, I found myself holding my iPad, reading Jo Freeman and Starhawk, while stirring lentils in a pot with cinnamon sticks, peppercorn, garam masala and more spices. These writings are reflections on collaborative groups of activists, manual for self-organised groups, or account of historical events about ecofeminism, the Chipko women for instance.

With a bowl of dumplings with noodles in front of my macbook, I sat ready for the study group to start. Sofia Kosmaoglou “arrived” with her mic not working, and had to do the log-out log-in thing. The group then did a kind of self-introduction that we somehow haven’t done. We talked about our experiences in self-organising: political and environmental activism, alternative education, contact improvisation, artistic events.

We asked a lot of questions with Sofia. One of them stood out so much: “Who gets to be the artist?” The word “artist”, later I realised, can be replaced by many others: “leader”, “star”, “activist” … Or maybe the other way of framing this could be: “Who gets to have a voice?” In a world of perfect structure and system, we get safe space to express our thoughts, be listened to, and have time to listen to other’s. Unfortunately, we aren’t in one. What now then? Especially when you catch yourself holding the mic, contemplating on what you can do and what you should say is then crucial to understand your privileges and responsibilities.

We did a role-play with a nasty scenario where internal conflict in an organisation is hindering its functioning, broken relationship between members. Each of us were assigned a leadership role described in Starhawk’s book: Grace, Dragon, Crow, Spider, or Snake. They each represent a position that one takes to better the group’s functioning, its well-being. Spider watches the group’s communication; Dragon is the group’s guardian and protector. (Okay, it’s a bit more complex than this, but that’s all I have for now.) The magical thing about this practice of having a role for you to speak through, other than being an animal, is: in its most natural way, authorises you to be holding the mic and, at the same time, put you in a position to be hyper-aware of your job.

Reflecting on my own practice, often in collaborative projects I initiated, I attempt to release power, responsibility and authorship to my collaborators. I usually achieve through the means of making sure everyone has the same access to information and resources. This exercise of picking up multiple leadership roles opens up my imagination towards how we define jobs, positions and authority, and how we can reach co-authorship.

Moving onto the cooking activity, we left our laptops for a bit, and cooked while listening to an audio track where Bettina and Karen instruct us to heat up some oil, chop some vegetables, throw in some spices, and make a vegetable fry dish. As we digitally re-gathered with our cooked dishes laid on our kitchen table, conversations did not then become more shallow or daily, but our tables extended across screens, breaking through boundaries of space and geographical distance, and held us together through the simple act of making a dish and dining together. Intellectually, we all understood that our plates could taste totally different. However, nothing is more real than the fact that: this little self-organised group was here dining together.

The same old question: what makes a community? It has to be more than just people gathering, asking questions, looking into various knowledge bases, creating brave spaces for conversations to happen. How can we move on from talking to doing? How can we truly have “takeaways” from these study groups sessions and make changes in our world, little by little? Looking at the flakes of spices left on my hob, I think I found out a little more after this long session.

A lot more happened. A lot more needs to happen, including a self-conducted postcard drawing, writing and posting activity that we need to complete separately. On our own, but together, in some sense. :)

 


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Reflection on Session #2 by Jimena Mendizábal de Moral

Our study group is composed of a wide range of practices within the art world. We are all art agents yet we are testaments of the diversity that make up the contemporary art landscape: some of us work with the body, its possibilities and movement; some of us work with laptops, drafting documents and making schedules. When we come together to share knowledge and opinions, the exchanges can take a myriad of shapes, that not only make the sessions engaging and stimulating, but it also allows for the sudden appearance of a gap- an interruption of our usual ways of thinking and doing. We are forced to consider other ideas and to look at problems from different angles, that is not rare during an exchange, but what is different – and where the magic of interdisciplinary learning happens – is that it breaks the logic and the temporality of an encounter.

Each encounter is akin to a performance: We adopt a specific behaviour depending on the nature of the meeting – work meetings require a different language and attitude than a party with friends – and consequently each performance has its own rhythm (based on the language, purpose and expected outcome) and logical procedures (or expected rituals). We can say that each encounter has its own structure and channels of communication, this usually has the goal of facilitating the meeting and ensuring that everybody knows what to expect from a certain event. This of course makes things easy but it can also makes things predictable and can make us blind to anything that lies outside the thought structure that shapes an event.

When our sessions change from a talk to a drawing exercise to watch a video, a gap in the continuity of the event appears for a brief period of time. This rupture is when creativity takes place because is the opportunity for endless possibilities to come into negotiation. Is like if chaos would pop its head into the session for just one second before the facilitator pull one of the possibilities of the yet-to-be-seen and materialise it into being. This brief gap is sensed by the body and mind as a minor yet rich interruption of the usual ways of being, it surprises us for a moment of pure possibility before marking a detour in the path we are all following. This kind of possibility might not be exclusive of interdisciplinary exchanges but it is definitely present in every single one of them.

Where I see the magic of inter discipline coming into full being, is when the interjection of different ways-of-thinking and ways-of-doing interrupts any kind of pre-established order or design. A pre-given structure cannot hold a session that includes Power Point presentations, sound recording and dance; this kind of session requires its own structure than cannot be thought beforehand so it has to be created on the spot. The rhythm of inter-discipline then is created as a sort of improvisation where participants have to listen to each other, understand their intention and read the emotional mood of the room in order to communicate effectively. Interdisciplinary exchanges require an openness to difference that breaks up preconceived notions of what an encounter would be, and they offer the chance to create something together right there in the spot and to move to a collective rhythm that can go in any given direction. And that is how magic happens.


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Session summary written by Catherine Harrington

This session explored self-care and empathy, through physical exercises and readings – and a focus on elevating our approach to each other, through using compassion:

We started off with an exercise set by Colleen of experiencing the space we were each in – heightening our senses physically, mentally.

Candy took us through some of the thinking of Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman – We discussed extracts of his book Humankind: A Hopeful History and we shared our comments with each other using our What’sApp group voice recording.

The extracts involved:

  • “Assume the best of people” Reflections – we need to consider self protection of our ideas and our personal safety/ but yes, it is good to trust
  • “Avoid the news” – manipulation of different news feeds and the need to decipher the news we receive; also – where can news be detached from data collection? The Correspondent was discussed, and its sad demise in Jan 2021.

Jimena introduced the important differences between empathy and compassion – responding to the readings of “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom:

  • Tainia Singer and her book Bridging Practice and Science
  • Empathy is more focused on feelings – like a spotlight it can leave much left out. Empathy can be narrow, linking people who are like-minded, with same race, same cultural background. We shared experiences of this happening to ourselves.
  • Proposed shift from empathy to compassion is wanting to help others and to listen more. Compassion can be holding a space for another and closing the experience gap; we can recognise the distress of another – listening and responding to others’ needs.
  • We agreed that being compassionate is different – we can avoid being overwhelmed. We discussed how – by maintaining our distance but closing the gap between ourselves and others – we can expand our moral imagination and create motivation and feel more powerful.
  • Art can do this too – (there was a callout for more art examples):
    • Case Study 1 – CARNE Y ARENA – by artist Alejandro Gonzáles Iñarritu. film and installation – We experience compassion for refugees, in this immersive spectacle of an encounter between a caravan of refugees and the US Border Patrol.
    • Art Case Study 2 A BRIDGE TOO FAR – by artist Tashi Iwaoka. Durational performance,
  • Resource – Centre for Empathy and the Arts Univ of Minneapolis https://new.artsmia.org/empathy/

Colleen facilitated an amazing session based on Authentic Movement, an experience of movement, drawing and observation – where the group, in pairs, took turns enacting roles of Mover and Witness – and made drawings – improving our ability to observe each other, and to make emotional connections through movement and drawing.

 


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We kicked off the study period with a session looking into nature, paying attention to non-human relationships that could inspire new ways of thinking.

The session involved:

  • memory and location mapping exercise: connecting the body, memories, places and imagination, a process used by Ghost & John to develop their work Meniscus.
  • watching excerpts of My Octopus Teacher and Our Planet, touching on anthropomorphism and the theory of mind.
  • looking at hierarchies and interconnections between species and comparing them with society and more specifically the art world. This section involved: exploring keystone species (what would be the keystone species in an art ecology?); reading an excerpt from “The Second Body” by Daisy Hildyard about sharing resources between ‘abled’ bacteria cells and ‘disabled’ bacteria cells; watching a video excerpt of Examined Life with Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor on disability in society.
  • we touched on deep ecology and activism, looking at ‘self-realisation’, less human-centric thinking and discussing the problems/concerns with creating art about environmental issues (exploitation vs raising awareness). Case studies we looked at were: Among the Trees exhibition and HS2 Rebellion, Liberate Tate, UN’s ‘Love song to the earth’ and Lil Dicky’s ‘Earth’ (for addition context click here).

In this session we discussed: permeable kinship, capitalism and how it affects interdependence, the precariousness of making a living as an artist, the difficulty of changing institutions and indigenous wisdom of asking the land for permission, how to create a different paradigm and what are we (human/artists) giving back to the environment.

The session ended with the whole group writing down what they would like to do if they had unlimited resources, money, space time and energy (image below, highlighted text indicated activities involving art).

Extended reading for this session:

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jul/20/from-baboon-raps-to-extinction-gongs-can-climate-art-save-the-world

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/arts/art-climate-change.html

https://www.samvanaken.com/trees

https://www.daisyginsberg.com/work/resurrecting-the-sublime


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For the study period we decided to have four study sessions taking place between November and the beginning of January. After having several discussions we noted down the four key topics we would like to study together (one topic for each session). We split the whole group into pairs and one group of three (there are 9 of us) and each pair/group will be in charge of planning and facilitating a session (support will be given from other members of the group where needed). This will involve working out what materials to read, inviting speakers, planning activities and how to spend the budget of £100 (we split the budget of £400 into £100 per session which could go into guest speakers fee, materials and admin cost). Each pair/group will decide how they would like to spend this budget.

We will be carrying out all the study sessions on Jitsi Meet as well as our group meetings. This is an alternative to Zoom, where you could also screen share, raise hands and type in the chatbox. A work around for breakout rooms is to create new meetings rooms, synchronise watches (optional) and come back to main meeting at a set time. We’ve attempted this in the first planning meeting where each pair/group went away to plan their session and come back to give thw whole group an overview of their progress.

This photo here is our second planning meeting. We have since finalized our session dates and times and can see the shape of the whole study period, which is pretty exciting.

Our sessions and topics are as follows:

Session #1 Human and nature in activism
Facilitated by Ghost and John

Session #2 On Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion  (in the context of activism)
Facilitated by Colleen, Candy and Jimena

Session #3 Relationships between an artist/artworks and society
Facilitated by Catherine and Mirei

Session #4 Self-organising and the DIY Culture
Facilitated by Bettina and Karen

These are all big topics and this study period is a starting point. We accept that we might be just touching the surface but we have to start somewhere. We also decided to keep these sessions closed and not open them to the public in order for us to know each other better within the group as well as being able to be messy and learn by doing. Keeping the session closed also means elevating the pressure of delivering public events and the additional work of advertising the sessions and energy of ensuring newcomers feel included.

I feel that developing the study group this way allows us to learn how to communicate within a group as well as facilitate better.

I will write about what we did in each session in later posts.


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