20.10.2010 | Dancing, Debating, Diversity Dérive

On the Way to a Literacy of Complexity

To have a chance at creating a sustainable future we need to expand our ways of thinking and make room for the complexities of this amazing, contradictory, delightful and difficult reality we call home. The first ASSiST summer school brought together thirty artists and scientists from around the world to explore how we might do that. As it turned out, a lot of the good juice happened outside of the program... - by Lucy Ridsdale, Fremantle (Western Australia).

When I got home from Bulgaria I found a piece of paper in my journal that had been used as a conversation starter for one of the Open Space sessions of the ASSiST summer school. It said: We must learn to not be afraid of complexity. If there’s one phrase that would sum up the intention, preparation for and delivery of the summer school program that would be it. Complexity was a topic we kept circling around and was a principle embodied in everything we did, including, as I see now in hindsight, the dancing, debating, drinking and drifting we did together outside of the programmed activities.

What I would like to explore here is the way the unplanned, spontaneous, ‘extra-curricular’ facet of ASSiST was absolutely vital in our coming together as a group, and therefore our ability to engage  in a deep and sustained way with the formal content of the summer school. Also, the weaving together of these two strands over the seven days was a manifest example of the ‘complexity’ we were interested in exploring. What I suggest therefore, is a valuing of ‘dancing, debating, diversity and Dérive as a modest and partial response to the question: How do we develop a literacy of complexity?’

ASSiST 2010, held in the Bulgarian town of Gabrovo in the Balkan mountains, was billed as a transdisciplinary symposium for artists, scientists and sustainability practitioners looking at questions of sustainability and social transformation. We were thirty participants from twenty countries and spoke at least sixteen languages between us. Amongst our group were visual, conceptual, performance, digital-media, photographic, community and eco- artists, clowns, actors, academics, humanitarian workers, philosophers, dancers, intellectuals, landscape architects, sociologists and anthropologists. We were women and men from the ages of twenty-three to sixty-two, living in the majority world as well as the so-called First World. In short, our point of departure was a rich, wonderful, and yes: complex, profile of diversity.

An ambitious project for the complexity it embraces, ASSiST is also ambitious for the subtle methodology by which those aims are brought to realisation. This summer school was no conference of experts  disseminating their detached research material to audiences of more or less interest. ASSiST was,  more like a big playful-yet-serious experiment where presenters and participants together experienced an intense program of activities, encounters, workshops and ‘interventions,’ impromptu performances and open-ended discussions. The main focus of this first implementation was Walking as a transdisciplinary action-research method and one of its purposes was to engage with questions such as: How can we unlearn a culture of unsustainability? What does it take to create a truly interdisciplinary practice? How can we teach and learn a ‘literacy of complexity’? What might a transdisciplinary project look like and involve? There were about ten workshops over the seven days, interspersed with open-space discussions that seemed to open up expanding layers of enquiry.

We must learn to not be afraid of complexity

An interesting aspect of ASSiST is that at times the group rebelled against the program that was very full and very finely scheduled. Sometimes there was not even enough time to eat in an unhurried way, nor to digest what had arisen during the sessions. Occasionally, in what I believe was an attempt to balance this dynamic, we didn’t turn up on time, or people did not participate fully in the workshops but ‘did their own thing. Once we refused to have another session that day.

What I learned from this situation was firstly, that a methodology as experimental and open-ended as ASSiST requires unprogrammed time for the group to assimilate the experiments,  as it finds its own dynamic and wants to realise itself in action. This brings to mind Guy Debord’s notion of Dérive, an exploratory technique of letting oneself go with the flow of movements, gestures and encounters while wandering through a place; to stroll aimlessly with seemingly no agenda. Cultivating a group dynamic, where spontaneity and intuitive action of this kind are encouraged within the context of the formal program would, I believe, create a powerful container for the complexity of the group to be expressed.

Secondly, out of this gentle mutiny evolved a rich extra-curricular ‘non-program’ that ran alongside the scheduled activities. Often there would be long evenings out in Gabrovo with pockets of intense discussion, debates and lots of laughter while we enjoyed the local beers and varieties of vodka. And, for the last four nights, we danced. In cheesy local nightclubs, around our conference room and downstairs in the hotel restaurant, we danced. On a terrace overlooking Gabrovo, down the streets, and in our hotel’s fabulous ‘piano bar’ complete with Elton John’s Bulgarian equivalent, we danced and we danced. Now that I think about it, like a subtle but necessary element in an alchemical equation, dancing with one another turned out to be one of the crucial things we did together. It was, in my view, as important to becoming a group and building connections of trust and friendship, as the more formal aspects of the summer school. To the credit of the organisers, there was a commitment to be mindful of and move with the energy of the group, to respond to the often divergent wishes and expectations of group members, and make space for an iterative process where the programming could be, and indeed was modified over the seven days.

Commensality before communication?

We spent several evenings in a community cultural centre of Gabrovo called ‘The Bread House’ where people gather and make bread together. The process of the bread-making becomes the ‘space’ where people connect with each other. Bread-making is an activity that links a multitude of different cultures around the world and reconnects us with the process of making food and nourishing self and others. One of the Bulgarian scholars at ASSiST and founder of the Bread House, Nadezhda Savova, talks about ‘commensality’ or the act of sharing at table with people, as equally important as ‘communication,’ and this links back to my experience of the informal aspects of the summer school being the binding agent, somehow, that meant that the group could engage as deeply as we did with the content of the workshops and come together in more disciplined, structured ways.

Making food together, walking, eating, and dancing, are the simplest things, and yet for the most part, completely overlooked as ways of bringing collaborators and colleagues together in our western societies. Like walking, they are non-elitist, inexpensive, egalitarian and transversal human activities that connect all cultures. It is a strength of the Creative Arts that it can make room for these activities in its programming, and why as a vehicle for making progress in sustainability and social change, it is so effective.

Living well

If there is one thing I took away from the summer school, it is that the world is truly complex. And good art / research / science / praxis takes time, and is connected intimately, if obliquely, to the notion of ‘living well’ in all its dimensions. Transdisciplinary practice is likewise complex and is bound to our relational, embodied selves. Marnie, a community artist from Canada living in Melbourne, shared some advice she’d been given early in her career: to create something truly collaboratively, at least half of the project span needs to be devoted to building relationships, and creating and nurturing the group dynamic. This shouldn’t surprise us, and yet how rarely is it acknowledged in project briefs where the focus is skewed towards outcomes. A question I often ask myself is; “what does it take to really be in something for the long haul? To give one’s life and love to what’s important?” Maybe if we spent time preparing food and eating together, walking, drifting, drinking, debating and dancing with each other, our work would be more fruitful, and effect deeper and more substantial change. Maybe, we could be in this for the long haul, not as a chore, but as an expression of who we are: the pattern that connects; the seeds of the new; the dance of life.

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  1. Walking for social and ecological transformation | culture360.org ()

    […] young artist from Australia, Lucy Ridsdale, wrote an article in Cultura21′s webmagazine in which she reflects on how the extra-curricular activities at […]

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