From ordinary to extraordinary: workshop iteration

‘The thing is to learn from your own art because it is much farther along than you are.’ (Marina Abramovic quoted in Richards, 2010, p. 68)

Prompted by reflections on the feedback from the second part of the deconstruction workshop, I decided to revisit some of my research from as far back as end of Unit 1. The second session of the workshop did not engage the participants as much as the first one, and although this was partly because these participants were familiar with activities that focus on writing, it did help me think about ways in which the second part could be made more interactive and how the overall workshop could be further developed.

I am fully aware that the workshop is only a very first version and needs much more development. Because the main objective of the  workshop is to explore individual narratives and engage with the creative process as an activity that derives purpose from within itself, it would be beneficial to include as many different sensory experiences as possible and to bring ritualistic elements into the process.

This brings me back to the research I did on the philosophy behind Marina Abramovic’s work during the first phase of my research.  A big part of Abramovic’s work is informed by ritual and ancient spiritual practices, which has resulted in a whole range of different exercises used for meditation, reflection, and creative energy. Her purifying rituals take a holistic approach to making and according to Abramovic, it is only by preparation of the mind and body that a true receptiveness and responsiveness to the flow needed for the creative process can be obtained (Richards, 2010).

During Unit 1, when I started working on shaping my final project, my first ideas for an intervention where that of a creative ritual. The idea was to create a workshop that comprised three different stages: stillness, making, and performance. The current workshop method does already partly draw on these three themes, however, prompted by the latest test of the workshop I am now returning to these ideas more in depth. The workshop method could benefit significantly from more ritualistic and meditative elements, both because it has potential to enhance the experience of creative flow and because it can help with the emotionally triggering topics that arise. Taking into account observations made after the visual deconstruction during the first part of the workshop, I would confidently say that a meditative exercise before and after would be beneficial for the individual process. Drawing attention to stillness could also help some participants let go of a goal-oriented focus, making it easier for them to engage with the process for the sake of the process.

‘…you go through the ritual and you’re not the same after; you learn and become different.’ (Marina Abramovic, 2016)

I am going to trace my steps back and explore some of the concepts Marina Abramovic uses in her method, such as ‘the power of repetition’ and ‘making the ordinary extraordinary’, and read more about the philosophy and inspiration behind the Abramovic institute and method.

I am also hoping to schedule a small session with a couple of MA students from Central Saint Martins to test an iterated version of the workshop method during this month.

 

Resources

Marina Abramovic in Brazil: the space in between (2016) Directed by Marco Del Fiol [Film]. Brazil: ELO Company

Richards, M. (2010) Marina Abramovic. New York: Routledge

 

Torned pockets and a missing button

There was a sense of melancholia during the workshop on Wednesday. Past memories and forgotten feelings were brought back to a present space through the ‘practice of poetry’, and during the post-workshop discussion there was a mix of excitement, sadness, and relief.

I held my first official workshop, This is not a Dress, with a group of eight at the Poetry Café. Overall the event seems to have been a success that resulted in self-reflection and unexpected observations. Most of the participants discovered something different and said they thoroughly enjoyed the process.

The group was mainly comprised of people who are familiar with creative writing; seven out of eight participants use poetry to express themselves on a regular basis. The majority of the participants found out about the workshop through my collaborator Alice Hiller. It was interesting to see how each individual responded to the topic and although they are experienced writers, the process still led them into unexplored and unexpected territories.

Most of the people brought an item of clothing with them, as instructed. Three participants, however, did not bring anything and only had a mental image of a specific item. Based on my observations and the participants’ own reflections, not having the physical item did have an impact on the overall experience and outcome; a sense of distance remained during the process. The process was experienced as more intense and beneficial by the participants who had brought the item with them. This illustrates the importance of the visual and tangible elements, especially during the main deconstructive process.

Only one person expressed that their item was directly linked to a person and their absence – as opposed to the first informal test workshop where everyone brought an item that was associated with bereavement. However, two participants discovered feelings of loss during the visual deconstructive process although their items were not at first considered to be connected with loss. For one of them an open buttonhole and missing button had a ‘potent effect’ and made them think of the ‘absence of an old lover’. Although most items were not explicitly connected with absence, a theme of abstract loss could be read between the lines; past events, forgotten identities, invasion of personal space, and a desire to bring back elements or make sense of that are long gone.

One person chose not to share much at all about the garment (which is stored in a box in the US), the emotions linked to it, or the workshop outcomes. However, afterwards she thanked me personally and said she thoroughly enjoyed the process and that she wishes she would have had the item with her.

During the closing discussion there were a couple of accounts that clearly show the self-reflective possibilities this method and process has. They said the process had made them ‘really sad’ but that they were ‘quite happy to be sad’. They did not write anything during the deconstructive exercise and mentioned that: ‘as a few of you know I write loads in workshops’. his participant had entered a state of intense self-reflection and said about his thoughts: ‘I’m just willing to let that be there and see what happens…’

Information during the workshop was collected by observation and field notes, audio recordings of the discussions, and interview forms filled out by the participants. Regarding the question ‘Did you discover anything new about your relationship to the item, your relationships to other people, or yourself?’ Six out of seven participants who filled out the post-interview form said yes. One participant found it ‘interesting’ how the ‘reflections revealed more about their emotional state at the time they wore it than about the object itself’. An observation that suggests they were perhaps surprised by the evocative properties of the object. Another participant did not feel that the activities did not make them connect with the garment more deeply and intensely than before and wrote that the experience was different but ‘still felt a bit superficial’ and that perhaps they ‘needed to go away, think, and come back?’ This may be an indication of the participant’s willingness to let go and explore their emotions, but it may also illustrate how important it is to leave space for the reflective process. During the first workshop the idea is to let emotions and associations flow freely; to embrace the wild and chaotic of your emotions and subconscious. The raw material that comes out of it can then be reflected on and discovered in different ways and to allow this process to happen as naturally as possible it is important to leave sufficient space between the raw material and the creative process; exploring the wild takes time and patience…

The second part of the workshop will be on Monday 5 November at the Poetry Café.

 

 

Poetic closure

During the informal testing of my workshop method (latest intervention), the participants and I concluded that the process has to be broken up in two parts because of its emotionally intense nature. It is also beneficial for the reflective and creative process to leave some space for the participants to process the raw material extracted during the first part before attempting to shape it into a story.

Yesterday I tested the second part of the workshop with one of the participants from the informal test group. This gave me the opportunity to test the activities and structure of the second part, and my workshop participant the chance to continue with the emotional and creative process she had started. Because this method so far has shown it can bring unconscious thoughts to surface, it is important the participants are offered an opportunity to bring the process to an end.

The structure I had initially planned for the second part worked well, and the participant told me it felt like a very natural process and that she would not have wanted to do things in a different order. We started by reading some poetry to set the mood, after which we discussed and reflected on the material discovered during the first workshop – my workshop participant told me she had lately been sleeping in her garment as a result and as part of the process. After a conversation about relationships, identity, and the ethereal nature of memories, we immersed ourselves in a jumble of words by using different creative methods and started shaping a poetic interpretation from the raw material.

After a while my workshop participant stopped the creative tasks and said ‘I’m done.’ with a smile on her face. She then told me how liberating and amazing it felt to have put all these feelings she had been struggling to define into a creative process with a poetic outcome. Even though the emotions are still chaotic, she now has a new sense of control over them. With the help of the workshop she has both let go and held on to emotions and memories that until now had been difficult to process.

The evidence from the first part of the test workshop and yesterday’s events, show that the method I am developing has significant transformative and self-reflective properties, which supports my research question and shows there is potential for further exploration. And, like my workshop participant said, if it works for one person, it will likely also work for others.

Personally, I could not be more pleased. I want my project to have meaningful impact, rather than create brief moments of curiosity or pleasant feelings; even if it is only among a handful of stakeholders.

Exploring emotional narratives through clothing: a workshop

The date has been set for the official workshop, and it will be 24 October (2.30-5.30 at The Poetry Café in Covent Garden). This workshop will give me a chance to test my research thesis and the idea of ‘affective archaeology’ with a larger group. The event is open to everyone over 18 because I want to see what type of people the workshop attracts and if there will be any patterns or linking theme among the narratives shared during the afternoon. The group is limited to 10 people due to the sensitive nature of the process and based on Alice’s previous experience with poetry workshops, and because a smaller group is also better in terms of observing change and finding new knowledge for my research.

https://poetrysociety.org.uk/event/this-is-not-a-dress-exploring-emotional-narratives-through-clothing/

Would you like to investigate the feelings and memories 
your clothing holds through a creative storytelling process, and find the poetry that is stitched along the seams? 

Come join a two-part workshop designed for poetical exploration of clothing and discover your personal narrative in a new way. During the first session we will extract the raw 
material from the clothing, while the second workshop 
(optional) focuses on turning your personal findings into a story. The workshop is part of designer/artist Henrica 
Langh’s MA research and is being realised in collaboration with writer/poet Alice Hiller.

My collaborating partner, Alice, has shared the link with some of her poetry contacts. She told me there has been ‘lots of positive feedback’ regarding the workshop, and five people have already registered so we are off to a good start. 

'Dear Poets

I'm going to be collaborating with Henrica Langh at 2.30 on 24 of October at the Poetry Café on a free workshop working with clothes and memories. I'm facilitating the writing processes and Henrica is leading the workshop.   We have trialled one together already and I got an interesting poem afterwards from the material that came out of it.

For those of you who came to the Stanza Bonanza - Henrica did the performance art piece around a meeting that may or may not have been a meeting. She wore a black dress and had long auburn hair. It comes out of research for Henrica's MA. Henrica is also a fashion designer and performance artist. I'm interested in developing it to work with people who express alternative identities through drag at a later stage.'  - quoted with permission from Alice Hiller

P.S. I have also created a new blog, which will act as a more official record of my research, because I did not want to link the event page to my learning log. 

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