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.
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.
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