An arctic bird, sleet turned into shiny ice, background noise, and a pot of soup

Yesterday afternoon I tested my storytelling workshop concept in a small focus group of three – unfortunately the fourth person had to cancel. It was a moment where I got the chance to see all my research in action, and for the first time truly test my research thesis.

The response was positive, and I gained a lot of information about how my research could be applied in practice and identified future challenges. Because the workshop is a result of extensive research, iterated ideas, external feedback, and a solid project core, I knew the potential of the workshop. However, yesterday ended up being almost overwhelmingly valuable and exceeded the expectations I had. My workshop collaborator congratulated me on a successfully realised workshop and said she thinks I am doing interesting and valuable work, which is welcome feedback since I am not doing my research just for the sake of the MA, but because I have identified something that I strongly believe others could benefit from and I see potential in developing the project further.

 

Expectations or apprehensions before the workshop

The test group was curious and intrigued by the theme of the workshop, and were hoping to explore the ‘magical’ aspects of their chosen item of clothing. The majority were also a little worried about what they might discover and about exposing their vulnerability (both to others and themselves).

 

The process and discussion

The task of choosing the item had already triggered a self-reflective process and when everyone described their emotional items at the beginning of the workshop it became clear there was a lot to be shared and explored.

We started the creative process by reading a poem, ‘The Slinky Dress’ by Selima Hill, that I chose from a selection of poems Alice collected exclusively for the workshop. We then had a brief discussion about the poem. This helped create the ‘right’ atmosphere and was a way to avoid the metaphorical blank page.

We started with a brief writing exercise that Alice put together, during which we described the item as an animal, weather, a song, and a fragrance. This was a perfect introduction to the creative process and allowed everyone to see their piece of clothing from a new perspective. Even some significant discoveries were made during this stage and the subject in question said she was subconsciously aware of these things but had never previously been able to bring them to the surface. Most things discovered during a process like this are not new; the person is already aware of them either consciously or subconsciously, but this type of process helps one externalise them and see them from a different perspective; it creates a distance between the subject and their feelings. This idea of looking away in order to see something more clearly – which Barthes (1981) discusses when he writes about the experience of looking at a photograph – is embedded in the building blocks of my research and the workshop core.

The main activity during the afternoon was exploring the item through images. Because of my background in clothing design combined with high attention to detail, close relationship to my research process, and previously testing the activities myself, it is difficult for me to see this activity with fresh eyes. I was therefore looking forward to seeing how other people would engage with the task. The people in my focus group said the activity presented entirely new ways of looking at the garment and you could see how words simply poured out of everyone – including myself, which I did not anticipate.

 

Feedback

The younger female participant answered the question ‘Do you feel creative workshops are within your comfort zone?’ with ‘It’s actually the first creative workshop I’ve done’, and that she is not intimidated by the creative part of it but rather about ‘experiencing’ herself. After the workshop she was very happy she participated and is looking forward to continuing the self-reflective process in hopes of reaching a type of closure by turning the process into something creative and ‘tangible’.

Even for someone who is used to writing and using creative workshops as a means of ‘accessing places when they seem closed’ to her, yesterday’s workshop led to ‘a new avenue of thinking.’ She said that exploring her relationship with the item through images gave her some potentially useful raw material.

Everyone’s item was somehow, either directly or indirectly, linked to a person. This suggests that it may be very natural for people to choose an item that they associate with their relationship to another person. This also links to observations made by Csikszentmihalyi (1993) that generally, people who form more meaningful relationships also tend to own more affective objects.

A common theme yesterday afternoon was loved ones who have passed away and the legacy they leave, which shows the workshop has potential to be used as a grief ritual to both nurture the connection to the lost loved one and finding ways to let go.

 

Conclusion

The reflective process was emotionally very straining, and yesterday’s workshop was only the beginning of it. We all agreed that bringing the process to a kind of closure with a second, follow-up workshop would be highly beneficial. I could clearly see that exploring the item through visual details opened a flood of thoughts and emotions that will need time before being further processed or explored. I plan is therefore to design the workshop in two parts, with a couple of weeks between the two workshops to ‘look away’ from the experience and allow the subconscious to process it.

I also see potential in exploring this process long-term and adding more creative elements such as self-portrait photography and creating ritual objects or costumes.

To the questions about whether the experience was enjoyable and helped them discover new aspects about the item, themselves, or their relationship someone, everyone answered yes, even if they had the option of choosing ‘not sure’.

As for the question about connecting with the clothing itself, everyone expressed that they felt an even deeper connection with their item than before. Two people specifically said they now appreciate its emotional value even more and want to take better care of it in the future. We concluded that affective objects are very important and that it is a good thing if you know how to value those connections; they’re part of our personal rituals that help us make sense of our world.

 

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993) 'Why we need things' in Lubar, S. and Kingery, D.W. (ed.) History from things: essays on material culture.Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 21-29 

Designing participation

On Saturday I attended an informal workshop at The Royal College of Art called Designing Participation, which was led by PhD researcher Jack Champ from Kingston University. The objective of the workshop was to share ideas on how to engage participants during the research process. I joined the afternoon in hopes of getting some concrete ideas about what to keep in mind when planning workshops, and this is exactly what I left with. The things that came up during the afternoon will be useful in the planning stages of my own upcoming workshop.

The group was small but we had a good discussion about what to be aware of when organising workshops that engage people in your research. We discussed the topic in pairs based on mutual themes – my group’s connecting theme was empathy – and compiled a list of things to consider.

After writing down the key points on a big white balloon, we had a brief conclusive discussion with the other groups.

These are some of the things that came up:

Test it yourself. When you test potential workshop 
activities yourself you will have better understanding of 
what the participants are experiencing.

Be mindful of the researcher-research subject relationship. Does your presence affect the result and in what way?

Think about the space and atmosphere. What kind of mood do you want to set?

Do not start with the 'blank page' as this can feel very intimidating. Provide some stimuli as an introduction (e.g. 
visual imagery, music, objects, etc.) while still leaving 
space for people to create and interpret freely; there is 
a difference between offering stimuli and imposing 
structure.

Co-creation. In some cases you may want to engage in the 
activities together with the participants.

 

Investigative deconstruction

I am in the process of planning my next intervention, which will be a small focus group where Alice and I will test and develop the ideas for our upcoming poetry workshop. Because the haptic and visual senses are strongly linked to each other and to the emotion and memory processing parts of the brain, I think it is important to focus on both visual and tangible aspects in the upcoming workshop.

When thinking about ways to structure the workshop I ended up playing around with ideas inspired by deconstruction and forensic investigation – partly sparked by a book called Vintage Details that I bought on impulse after my meeting with Alice Hiller – as potential approaches to the creative process. The idea is to visually deconstruct the garment and explore its details in relation to emotions and memories.

To test the idea in practice I experimented with it myself, again using the black dress, and photographed a few details that I then analysed visually.  I wrote down any words and thoughts that surfaced when ‘reading’ the detailed images both in a factual and fictional way. 

Picking apart the garment in this way allows for new associations and emotions to surface. I am looking forward to observing how people who do not continuously include visually creative processes in their daily lives might respond to this type of activity.

 

My personal experiment resulted in the following poem.

‘No strings’ you said 

so I carefully folded myself into your 

creased 

chaotic 

abstract 

history 

and stitched a neat little hem to hold the dust of 
future memories 

Until my fingers bled and ached 

 

It’s a complex weave  



delicate, uneven, tightly wound

 

The ghost of clothing: a thought

There are similarities between how Barthes (1981) describes the Photograph and the process of observing it, and looking at certain items of clothing or outfits. Much like a photograph refers to a moment frozen in time; something that once was there, worn clothing refers to a body that once inhabited it, or still regularly does. Worn clothing speaks: ‘There has been a body here’.

Worn clothing refers to a living body; flesh and bone, feelings, memories, identity. The more it has been worn the deeper the connection will be.

When looking at images of Frida Kahlo’s dresses in Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe (2007) – after recently finishing Camera Lucida (1981) – I cannot avoid thinking about the clothing in relation to the body that the items once adorned. The outfits subtly hint that also my clothes are in the process of becoming empty; devoid of me. Like the photograph, clothing becomes a referent to the passing of time.

 

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage 

Rosenzweig D. and Rosenzweig, M. (ed.) (2008) Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida's wardrobe. San Fransisco: Chronicle Books LLC

Pages to fill

In the summer I contacted the editor of The Bare Minimum Mag, Abigail Jones, not about my MA project but regarding my clothing label and she said she was interested in working with me for the magazine so we decided to arrange a meeting and discuss things further.

On Saturday we finally met for a quick chat and coffee. After telling Abigail about my current MA project she said it sounds like something that would fit perfectly with the magazine’s style and spirit. I agreed with her fully. She asked if I would be interested in publishing some of my research as a story in the magazine so we ended up discussing the format and decided on a few preliminary details.

This new opportunity opens up a future platform to showcase my research evidence and help me further explore how it can be communicated and applied in tangible ways.

Additional note: During our meeting Abigail also mentioned a couple of useful magazines; one related to narrative clothes and the other about witchcraft and magic.

The poetics of a serendipitous encounter

Yesterday I had a wonderfully inspiring meeting with Alice Hiller, who will be helping me put together a storytelling workshop. The idea is to take an item of clothing, or accessory, that holds emotional meaning and turn it into literal and visual poetry. Although there will be an end product, the objective of the workshop is the creative process, which will hopefully create moments of self-reflection and perhaps even some healing. Alice has a background in both journalistic and creative writing, and experience running a small poetry group herself so her input is exactly what I need and it will bring much added value to the intervention.

We decided to start by testing some ideas with a small, informal focus group to help us plan the first official workshop. Although the first workshop is by no means intended to be a finished end product, I do of course want it to be organised and planned in a way that the participants (as well as Alice and I) can benefit from the process.

Alice told me again how much she liked my black dress performance and that she would never have guessed that it is not something I do frequently. I said to her that I think it is perfect that we met by sharing our personal creative work; that we were drawn to each other through our stories and a moment of vulnerability and empathy. Had it not been for the language of poetry we may never have ended up collaborating on this workshop. And the fact that an intervention that was organically shaped during my research process – with roots in the Nightmare – serendipitously ended up catching the attention of a collaborator, is poetry in itself.

Planning future success stories by exploring past narratives

I was invited to participate in a workshop of self-exploration by one of the contacts (psychologist and coach Kelly Scott-James) that I have made during my research process. The workshop was based on concepts and exercises used in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and the objective was to explore personal aspirations, obstacles, and feelings.

NLP builds on cognitive psychology and deals more with the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’. It is essentially about exploring our narrative identity and ‘telling ourselves better stories‘; shaping and adding strength to your personal narratives by turning worries into opportunities and realising our own potential. NLP explores the complexity of a person’s inner world and builds on the idea that the basic tools we use to process the world (sight, sound, touch etc.) are the same but the way these tools are used is highly individual (Grayson, J and Proctor, B., 2000). NLP sees the world in systems of individuals, relationships, and societies that form an ecology of systems and subsystems that interact with and influence each other (Grayson, J and Proctor, B., 2000). Furthermore, NLP believes there is no failure, only feedback – failure happens when something is completed and life itself is a process and not a completed event (Grayson, J and Proctor, B., 2000) – which happens to be exactly the same concept action research is built on – and although sometimes perhaps a dangerously black and white view, it is unarguably a healthy approach to some aspects of life. 

I cannot confidently say I fully agree with the philosophy of NLP and that I know enough about it yet to form a comprehensive opinion, however, there are clearly several aspects that offer a sustainable way of approaching our personal narratives and place within the world.

During yesterday’s workshop we did brief NLP-based exercises in a small focus group of three. We started by choosing an individual objective and then worked on visualising the journey and identifying the obstacles that we have or may encounter. We did a series of self-reflective exercises that eventually lead to a stepping stone activity designed to mentally prepare us for the objective/s we chose for ourselves. I organically ended up choosing my own research process and a PhD as the aim. At the end of the day I had a visual, physical, and emotional manifestation of what the journey could be like. During the afternoon we all realised we have reached similar aspirations before and already possess the tools we need for the journeys we want to do, which can be a highly empowering realisation.

Overall it was an inspiring and empowering afternoon for me both on a personal level and for my current research process. When I received the invite I became intrigued by NLP and the experience of analysing my personal narrative and how it would impact me emotionally, partly because it links to my current research (self-reflective storytelling and affective well-being). The interactivity of the workshop made things seem much more tangible and created a space for exploring narratives linked to a certain topic and how it fits into the ‘bigger picture’. I can see potential in pushing a process like this into even more creative territory by involving different artistic media and combining aspects of NLP with art therapy and DIY culture – a thought that strongly links to my existing research.

 

Grayson, J. and Proctor, B (2000) 'Neuro-Linguistic Programming' in Palmer, S. (ed.) Introduction to counselling and psychotherapy. London: Sage Publications, pp. 159-171

 

Current state of (project) consciousness

Earlier during the independent study period, after setting aside my worries about creating interventions and pleasing tutors, I was able to focus on what is important for my research at this stage by going back to trusting my own process. Additional secondary research helped me organise and shape the things I had previously researched and observed. It was obviously very difficult to identify the next steps and tangible ideas when I was not finished shaping and strengthening the core of the project – to borrow from the philosophy of Pilates: it all emanates from the core.

 

The core 

The heart of my research lies in exploring the affective connections people form with objects and how these can inspire self-reflective storytelling. I have focused particularly on the moments and relationships people associate with things they wear.  I am not, however, only interested in the affective narratives themselves. I am interested in further investigating the creative and therapeutic possibilities of self-reflection through narrative objects. Why do the emotions we associate with objects matter and what possibilities lie within the raw material?

Personal stories act as a framework for creating meaning, communicating with others, and connecting with our own experiences (Ellis and Bochner, 1992; Skultan, 1998; Walter, 1999; Simmons, 2013), all of which have been shown to affect our mental well-being (NHS, 2018). Furthermore objects can act as points of entry when reflecting on one’s own narrative identity and offers the potential to open up new layers of internal dialogue. So what are the healing possibilities of extracting personal stories from objects?

Based on the secondary and primary research I have done so far, I would argue that the affective connections we form between inanimate objects, people, and moments hold creative as well as therapeutic possibilities that are underutilised and could be explored further. 

 

The question

During my research journey my research question has naturally evolved from:

‘How can dress and performance art be used in a self-reflective and transformative way to enhance emotional well-being?’ 

to

‘How can creativity and self-reflective storytelling support affective well-being?’ 

to

‘How can affective objects and creative storytelling inspire self-reflection and positive emotional change?’ 

and finally the current one

How can creative storytelling through affective objects inspire self-reflection and positive emotional change?

The foundation of the question is similar in all four versions, which shows that the research has shifted and developed but the foundation blocks have remained the same.

 

Why objects

There are existing projects and literary works that explore the narratives people have in their wardrobe; such as Worn Stories by Emily Spivack and Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman. Few of them, however, seem to further investigate the self-reflective and therapeutic potential of exploring these stories creatively. There are also projects that consider the therapeutic properties of dress and costumes – such as costume drama therapy – but these methods do not focus particularly on the personal wardrobe or the self-reflective possibilities of it.

The primary research I have done so far suggests that exploring the affective and mnemonic qualities of one’s wardrobe can result in a highly reflective personal journey. The topic also clearly attracts people who are, or have been, seeking ways to explore and express complex emotions. The visual and tactile characteristics of objects make them ideal mnemonic and therapeutic tools. Visual material is highly conducive for emotional transformation because the visual and emotional systems are extensively interconnected (Tamietto and de Gelder, 2010; Karlsson, 2013).

 

Primary research

The first intervention I developed is a series of self-reflective exercises – referred to as ‘intervention scores’ because they were inspired by performance scores from the 70s (Shiomi, 1975) – have shown elements that are conducive to personal reflection and internal dialogue. For this to happen a certain amount of time and commitment is required from the participant. The more time spent, the more intense the personal exploration becomes.

My second intervention, which was developed based on the intervention scores and secondary research, sought to bring this moment of reflection into one interactive space. The result was an event exploring personal narratives and emotional connections through clothes swapping, poetry-creation, and a self-portrait studio. The objective was to observe what kinds of mnemonic and affective relationships people have in their wardrobes, and what happens when people are invited to share their stories in an interactive space.

The key findings during the second intervention happened in the self-portrait studio. At first people did not seem attracted to the idea, but after being encouraged to try it the response was positive surprise. The objective of the self-portrait room was to create a quiet and intimate moment with the camera and observe how people interact with this concept. A female participant in her early 20s experienced a moment of novel creativity which caused her to reflect on the way she sees herself as the subject in an image. This obviously raises thoughts about the nature of the self-portrait in a digital age.

 

The storytelling methods

My personal interests and experiences, and secondary research led me to choose photography and poetry as storytelling techniques. Both provide powerful tools for giving shape to emotions that may otherwise be difficult to express. Poetry is defined as the intensity of emotion and has long been used to express feelings and complex thoughts. It is not uncommon for people to use poetry – both the act of reading and writing – as a tool for healing. Poetry can be very self-reflective because it sends the creator on a creative journey in search for words.

Photography has similar qualities as poetry in that it provides a tool for expressing emotion, and self-portrait photography can create a particularly therapeutic space for expressing difficult emotions (Nunez, 2013). By objectifying repressed feelings in a photograph, we can momentarily separate ourselves from things that hurt and create a chance for internal transformation (Nunez, 2013). My secondary and primary research indicates that a deeper exploration of self-portraits may be beneficial in inspiring personal change in an increasingly digitalised age where the concept of the self-portrait is rapidly changing shape, and perhaps even losing some meaning.

Additionally, with dress and the act of getting dressed we are constantly creating a type of dynamic and transcendent self-portrait that we carry around with us.

 

Further research

My next objective is to explore in more detail how affective objects can inspire therapeutic self-reflection and test how this process could be complemented and enhanced by photographic and poetic approaches. The plan for the next intervention is to further investigate the creative and self-reflective possibilities of emotional dress in form of a poetry workshop in collaboration with a poet.

 

Further questions

What is a self-portrait and how does it manifest itself in people’s wardrobes? What is the role and importance of emotional objects and self-portraits in an increasingly digitalised world? How can the emotional value of objects help us create healing stories?

 

Karlsson, H. (2013) ‘Photography and Neuroscience: marriage, cohabitation or divorce?’, in Loewenthal, D. (ed.) Phototherapy and therapeutic photography in a digital age. East Sussex: Routledge, pp. 159-164 

NHS (2016) Five steps to mental wellbeing. Available at: http://mergefestival.co.uk/merge-events-2018/2018/6/8/requiem-for-crossbones-emily-peasgood (Accessed: 8 June 2018) 

Nunez, C. (2013) The self-portrait as self-therapy, in Loewenthal, D. (ed.) Phototherapy and therapeutic photography in a digital age. East Sussex: Routledge, pp. 95-105 

Shiomi, M. (1965-75) Spatial Poems [Performance scores] 

Simmons, M (2013) ‘A creative photographic approach: interpretation and healing through creative practice’, in Loewenthal, D. (ed.) Phototherapy and therapeutic photography in a digital age. East Sussex: Routledge

(Hopeless) intervention

Unfortunately my intervention evening last Friday gathered a hopelessly small amount of people. This means that I was not able to observe and analyse how people might respond to interactive storytelling through affective objects, in the way I had hoped.

People showed interest in the intervention but eventually only 4 people attended the event, and two of them were the owners of the venue. Sometimes the most difficult part of an event is getting people to come, and I suspect that the location and insufficient marketing were the main reasons for the low engagement rate.

However, there is always something gained. Although the event may briefly have felt like a waste of time, there were useful things to learn from both the evening itself and preparing the event.

There was a positive response to the self-portrait studio – a separate room with a tripod, remote-control for the shutter, mirrors and a few other props –  which indicates that this may be a concept that is worth exploring and developing further. At first people did not seem tempted by the idea but after I encouraged them to try it they were positively surprised at the experience. Quoting one 22-year-old female participant: ‘My first reaction was doubt and mild panic, but afterwards I was excited to try similar pictures at home.’ She said the self-portrait studio was a curious exploration in creativity, and has prompted her to think about the way she is used to interact with the camera lens and in what ways she views her self as the subject of an image. Her experience illustrates how a creative photographic approach can provide a means to translate and evaluate personal experiences through a creation of original photographic artwork (Simmons 2013).

In addition to the self-portrait studio, I also created a word puzzle to inspire poetic word play during the event. Based on my personal experience this is a useful tool for starting the process of poetry creation. Arranging and rearranging a chaos of random words is an effective brainstorming technique. The words ‘kitchen’ and ‘lake’ inspired me to write a poem almost entirely out of the blue. I believe this word collection will be useful for the next intervention, which is going to be a poetry workshop at the Poetry Café.

I did also notice that selecting and bringing in a personal item inspired a general conversation about emotions, memories, personal narratives, and identity. One dress that an older woman once wore to a 50s themed secret cinema triggered a whole range of memories and self-reflection, not just in the owner of the dress but others as well. This suggests that affective and mnemonic objects are powerful devices for self-reflective, and potentially therapeutic, storytelling.

Although there were moments of self-reflection on Friday, they were superficial and no noticeable in-depth exploration happened during the event. It is of course possible that the theme will prompt self-reflection at a later stage, but it also does show that trying to reach people who already have a desire to investigate their own emotions may result in more significant change.

 

Intervention SWOT

Strengths: the self-portrait studio was a success, and caused notable change in at least on participant; spending time selecting an item beforehand prompted more reflection than not choosing one; random word play can act as a simple and efficient tool to inspire poetry writing

Weaknesses: the activities were not clear enough and people needed to be encouraged to interact with them; the event inspired very little in-depth exploration, which may partly be because of the personal and intimate nature of the subject and the empty room

Opportunities: using elements from the event in a structured workshop and reaching the ‘right’ people could result in more significant self-reflection and interaction with the activities

Threats: a small amount of participants has an overall negative effect on the atmosphere because it does not encourage story-sharing and spark curiosity; by not targeting a specific group of people (by choosing the right venue and marketing channels) there is a risk for the story-sharing to remain casual rather than deeper exploration within the stories