What do I know? Part Two

| January 7, 2013

A few years ago I was fortunate to be invited to a skill swap group for participatory artists. I learnt an exercise in which a group splits in half and holds out their index fingers so that a long bamboo can be rested between the two lines they have formed.  With the bamboo ibalanced between the two closely grouped lines of fingers, the group are given the task to put the bamboo on the floor. The effect is quite bamboozling. It is as if the bamboo has a life of its own. The bamboo goes up, half up/half down, takes the group for a walk around the room and generally creates mirth and mayhem as the group tries to perform the simple task of grounding the damn stick. This task has proved a great boon and group warm-up in many workshops I have run.  It causes a wonderful mix of bewilderment and hilarity.

Having set this task to many groups my expectation is that there will be an initial struggle with task, laughter, a little frustration and then the group will sort themselves out and find an agreed method.  In Canada this exercise was used in each workshop. First with the research group and then with the Cree youth near the reservation; later with the theatre group, the students and finally, at the Concordia Laboratory of Imagination with facilitators.

In that final workshop with the facilitators, a few people found this exercise very challenging. Accusations began to arise within and from the group. Firstly, one person tried to take leadership of the group and lost their own physical contact with the bamboo – it is a rule of that each person’s fingers stay in contact under the bamboo – as they accused the other end of the line of pushing the bamboo in the air. Then, people thought that we had tricked them and weighted the bamboo in some special way. In short, the group dynamic was quite wild and there were a few feeling that this exercise was trickery on our part and even the idea that we were trying to make people seem foolish.

Apart from the usual hilarity and disbelief that bamboo task engenders, I also love it because it reifies the invisible space between individuals. When I watch groups doing this I am struck by how minds have to meet in order to achieve even a simple collaborative task. And whilst the bamboo is being put down by the 20 or so connected fingers then there is a wonderful collective focus – individual brains have melded into a single mind.  Of course, this sort of melding is not easy and the more you try and impose your brain’s idea of what is going on and what needs to happen upon the group, without their willingness to follow, then the more the bamboo will travel any which way.

Many years ago, I had witnessed some difficult youth do this task very efficiently. When I say difficult, these were young people who were in care, had offended, were at odds with each other and presented us with a lot of challenging situations across the project. They did the bamboo well though. It worked like this. One of the group was a gang leader. He said , “right we do it like this” and the group took his direction and so by following one person the task became easy and down went the bamboo. I have never seen the task done so well until working with the  Cree youth in Fort Qu’appelle. We explained the task and, in the same instant that we placed the bamboo lightly resting on their fingers, the group were silent. In unison, down they went with bamboo.  I had never seen that level of spontaneous and embodied collaboration and understanding before.

At Concordia with facilitators, one or two absented from the exercise and walked around the outskirts looking thoughtful and working out what was happening. And when it finished, there was a general clamour for explanation.  I told them what I did know, which I have learnt from witnessing the bamboo in action. I said that blame is inhibiting. A way has to be found to become mindful and physically present – over-thinking does not help this. And, of course, that the group has to work together. I told the two stories of the gang leader and the Cree youth to illustrate different ways these conditions had been arrived at – two instances in which  the group became present enough together to allow the bamboo on their fingers to go down.

Later I heard that the telling of these two tales had been regarded by a couple of the facilitators as a further attempt to make them feel foolish as I had related how children had put the bamboo down easier than they had.  Not my intention at all.  Our idea in both workshops was to create an environment in which all who participated could negotiate their own journey of discovery. It is perhaps ironic and certainly interesting  that the first nation people who would be thought of as being colonised  discovered their own easy way to find common purpose within a somatic task whilst the urban , middle –class , highly educated community were divided and felt belittled and in the end suggested a change of language. It is impossible to know beforehand how these things will turn out. We know when we know. Telling what we know is a different matter.

Friedlander, the great Max Friedlander, is very good on this. ‘Correct attributions’, he says, ‘generally appear spontaneously and “prima vista”. We recognise a friend without ever having determined wherein his particular qualities lie and that with a certainty that not even the most detailed description can give.’ [Frayn – Headlong]

For me the journey from community to community over less than a month was definitely one of discovery. Each time, the same things were applied they had different and unexpected outcomes. It is the least connected to the geographical terrain that I have felt in travelling but the deepest connection I have experienced to the people. Over 25 days, I worked with eight different groups in five different communities and with over 200 people.  Comfort zone? What comfort zone. Each time I began afresh and the not-knowing at the outset was both painful and compulsively exciting. Each time a workshop ended it brought a corresponding mixture of satisfied relief and a tinge of regret that the moment had passed and the people had gone.

Discovering that which already existed before you happened on it is not necessary a colonial act; not if you are discovering that knowledge for yourself and through your own expression. Of course, the claiming of territory that belongs to others for your own is an act of colonising.  It is all a matter of intention.  In Workshop, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and in workshop if we do not eat together, do not learn from each other then it is not a workshop. The intention of Workshop is that we journey together to learn from each other.

Category: Blog, Canadian Blog, Uncategorized

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Director of School of Workshop

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