Social change first happens in the imaginative world
At the end of November I went to a 2 day conference in Budapest about Art and Intercultural Adaptation. I met all sorts of people. There were a lot of Cultural Anthropology students living in Budapest, as well as actors, artists, film-makers and writers from Greece, Spain, Poland, France, Hungary, and Wales. I went along with people I know from Cambridge based arts charity, Momentum Arts, who played a part in organising it along with their European partner organisations. Each organisation gave feedback on a two year long, European funded project, running workshops with recent migrants in theatre, film-making, stop-motions, painting, body-writing, sculpture, poetry, story-telling and how this has helped them to adapt to their new environment. I was really inspired by the speakers and workshops that I took part in. Up until recently I had been working in hostels teaching people how to make stencils and creating stories for clay model animations, and some of the people there were recent migrants who were struggling to fit in and feel accepted into the country. This is why I wanted to go to the conference. There are a lot of issues faced by immigrants and everyone’s story is unique. The project was about empowering people who’ve experienced harsh treatment from immigration authorities, culture shock, isolation, depression or trauma.
One of the highlights of for me was doing a Forum Theatre workshop on redefining the self with Athens based arts charity, Osmosis: centre for the arts and intercultural adaptation. The workshop was all about challenging prejudices and stereotypical thinking in relation to diversity using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. The Theatre of the Oppressed was born in Brazil in the 1960’s and uses real stories and so in a sense, they rehearse reality, and can use this medium to elaborate on situations allowing the group to offer new solutions to a scenario. The teaching style was highly inventive, using chairs, a table and a bottle of water they gave everyone the opportunity to re-arrange the set up, changing the power balance, to spark off discussion about what makes some people (or chairs) more powerful than others and also most importantly what makes someone oppressed, or a victim. So for example, if someone else perceives another as being a victim, but the ‘victim’ is not trying to change their situation and doesn’t feel the need to, then is this person being oppressed? We played improvisation games involving puppeteers making people into statues, and did some work in groups to act out a scene of oppression with regards to migration. We chose media coverage, some people chose voting rights and another scene was to do with violation of privacy when immigration authorities carry out legitimacy checks on marriages.
I took part in a body-writing workshop with Spanish Artist and Art Therapy Lecturer at the University of Madrid, Marian Lopez. I was really inspired by the subject, as a body artist myself, and was introduced to artwork by Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat, where she writes out part of the Kuran on her hands and feet. In the featured image I’ve included she poses with a gun between her feet. She uses her body to make very powerful statements on society, religion and sexism and I absolutely love her work. She has also made a film called Women Without Men. In the workshop Marian asked us to write society’s prescription for us, the expectations which are put upon us by others that can cloud our sense of what we actually want, somewhere on our bodies, so I wrote all over my chest and arms. It felt great and I want to do it again, but more neatly, and stand absolutely still in town for hours. I’ve drawn pound signs on my heart as I feel that I’m expected to worship money like some kind of new religion, and that I should be buying a house, driving a big car, doing what I’m told and keeping my silly ideas to my silly little self. Well, it’s cathartic, there we go. I said it. Some people chose an activity which was more related to immigration and they wrote on themselves what they have brought with them to a country and what they take from the new one, not necessarily relating to material possessions.
There were so many speakers and workshops jam-packed into two days that it kind of felt like I was there for a whole week. The Artemisszio Foundation, Hungary, were the hosts for the conference and gave talks about their work in participatory film-making with migrants and showed some short films. The techniques are so simple but really engaging and exciting for the participants, and they talked about how the workshops helped to build self-esteem, self-autonomy, and empathy, helps to handle emotions related to uncertainty and to reconcile people with their own personal stories. The participants gave feedback on the project and lots said it made them feel like citizens again, that they felt part of something valid and important. It really made me want to come home and finish off my own stop-motion films (damn editing software) and start making more with other people.
Much discussion took place around the value of art and why it is important in society. It seems that there are a lot of funders out there who give grants to arts charities to do this work and the charity then has to justify how each participant is then better equipped to get a job or go to college, or move on with their life in some way that doesn’t involve being on benefits. It was very refreshing to hear Francois Matarasso, the keynote speaker, talking ever so freely about the fact that he does not do his work for socio-economic reasons, but for a reasons much more powerful yet difficult to quantify. He’s based at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen and his recent project, Bread and Salt, is about finding a home from home in art. Offering bread and salt to a stranger is an old tradition, and he says ‘The bread gives life and the salt gives flavour’. He comments on how what is being offered by an artist is quite often measured by who is offering it. The EU claims to allow for full, free and equal participation, but he feels that immigrants are only given conditional participation and often can’t defend themselves against prejudices. For example, he helps many immigrants to establish themselves as artists, writers, comedians, actors or whatever they happen to be. One writer and comedian, Aziz Aarab, wrote a book about growing up in a tough immigrant neighbourhood but the publishers wanted him to change the story so that the image of his father was stricter. So that it was more in keeping with common stereotypical views. He refused to change the story so in the end he self-published.
Other speakers were Elan Intercultural from France, who talked about the art of adaptation. They are an arts charity doing work in contact improvisation, shape poetry, and gave an interesting talk on creating inner landscapes relating to how identity is always open and changing, relative to surroundings and people. TAN Dance from Swansea were also there giving a talk about an inter-generational dance project they ran with refugees and asylum seekers in Wales. I also went to a really fun workshop with them. We worked in groups to make a paper sculpture of someone or something that we could all relate to. My group made Medusa’s head as there were people in the group from all over Europe but we were all familiar with Greek mythology.
I got so much out of going to the conference and it was just great being around so many inspiring people. I came back to England with a renewed sense of passion for what I do and I’m so glad I went. One of the main things I got out of the conference is that it’s ok to not know what you’re doing. The creative process can be really frustrating and confusing but maybe you’re not supposed to understand it, you’re just supposed to go with it. If you knew what you were going to make before you made it then that doesn’t leave much room for any creativity. It’s all about just enjoying to process I suppose. So that’s it.