Creative deconstruction

As a result of the latest intervention and my concerns about the accuracy of the ending of my research question, I have edited the question in a way that is (finally) starting to reflect the research core and the information obtained through interventions.

How can creative deconstruction of emotional objects inspire self-reflection and affective empowerment?

I have been struggling to find the right wording for the part of the question that describes the purpose, and after talking to one of my tutors and psychologist Kelly Scott-James, I have re-worded the ending in way that describes the potential objectives of the research without entering territory in which I lack expertise. I was never pleased with the concept of ‘positive change’ as this is highly subjective and not necessarily the aim of my current research. I have wanted to avoid words such as ‘therapeutic’ and ‘mental well-being’ for the same reasons, and because I consider these to be terms which require more expert feedback than I can currently incorporate in my project.

As a result of the workshop method I am developing, I chose to narrow down the idea of creative storytelling into creative deconstruction because this is the concept and technique behind the workshop process; through a process of deconstruction the participants turn an item of clothing into a written piece that reflects the feelings and memories associated with the item.

Prompted by a discussion with one of my tutors and through further secondary research I also realised I need to rethink the use of the words ‘affect’ and ’emotion’. Although often used synonymously, it is important to distinguish between these the two terms. A task that can become confusing not only because of the wide range of terms involved and a history of debate around exactly how to distinguish between them, but also because of what they mean in the first place (Flatley, 2008; Lord, 2016). Trying to further define the two terms did make me more confused, and it seems there are many views on how these two words should be used. The online Psychology Dictionary (Nugent, 2013) defines ‘affect’ as the act of feeling a sentiment spanning from distress to extreme joy’,  ‘affective’ as something ‘with regard to sentiment or feelings’, and ’emotion’ as the complex reaction pattern that involves experiential, behavioural, and physiological elements.’

Further research shows that most sources will define affect as something general that resists being signified whereas emotion is seen as something personal that holds a symbolic link. Affect can be regarded as something that lies on a continuum from undifferentiated and differentiated, with positive or negative feelings being examples of undifferentiated affect and specific emotions being examples of differentiated affect (Ortony, 2009).

My question can shift depending on how detailed my definition of affect and emotion is and which direction I choose when distinguishing between the two terms. Drawing on the Psychology Dictionary’s and a few other sources’, such as Ortony (2009), Fredrickson (2001), and Lord (2016), broader definitions, and the fact that personal objects often are associated with an array of different feelings – both positive and negative – I have decided to define affect as a ‘superordinate term for different feelings that have one out of two values’ and emotions as ‘complex patterns of subjective phenomena’. Therefore I choose to use the term ’emotional objects’ in my research question to reflect the complex nature of objects associated with memories and feelings.

 

Resources

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001) ‘The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions.’ in The American Psychologist, 56(3), pp. 218–226. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3122271/ (Accessed: 16 October 2018)

Lord, N. (2016) Thing Theory, Material Culture, and Object-Oriented Ontology Movement in the Motif: Semblances and Affective Criticism’ in Transformations: Journal of Media and Culture, 27, http://www.transformationsjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Lord_Transformations27.pdf (Accessed: 13 October 2018)

Nugent, P. (2013) Psychology Dictionary. Available at: https://psychologydictionary.org (Accessed: 16 October 2018)

Ortony A. (2009) 'Affect and Emotions in Intelligent Agents: Why and How?' in Tao J. and Tan T. (ed.) Affective Information Processing. London: Springer doi: 10.1007/978-1-84800-306-4_2

 

 

 

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.

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

Narrative

Some key thoughts and questions so far…

There is a strong link between mental well-being, forming meaningful affective connections, and engaging with emotions and the present moment. Stories and narratives connect us to and help us ‘make sense’ of the world, and thus one could argue that storytelling and narratives are crucial to our mental well-being.

People form affective connections between objects, moments, and other people through personal storytelling. Objects become part of our narrative identity and they can hold especially significant meaning in difficult times.

Observing someone else’s creative process instinctively connects the observer with the process at a subtle neural level (Franklin 2010, p. 161). Which means that including the viewer in the creative process can create a moment of empathy between the artist and the viewer.

Most art therapy forms seem to be quite one-dimensional, usually focusing on only one medium such as painting, sculpture, or drama.

How could artistic expression help people suffering from poor emotional well-being connect with themselves and their surroundings while also raising awareness about mental well-being in the general public by helping them empathise with the creator of the art?

How could then co-creation between artists, people dealing with emotional distress, and the audience be used to create moments of self-reflection and empathy?

How could fragments of peoples’ affective stories be turned into a narrative landscape with an immersive nature?

What kind of therapeutic possibilities could combining several art forms in a self-reflective creative process open up?

How could a combination of narrative creation and different creative mediums such as costume, performance, and photography be used in a therapeutic way?

What could a therapeutic process of creating personal portraits and/or narratives with costume, objects, and performative elements look like?

Or, how could creating personal symbols and narrative landscapes support affective well-being…?