(A First Fortnight project about Arts Participation for Wellbeing, Collaborative 'Works in Movement' and Colmcille).
First Fortnight uses the arts to create opportunities for connection, conversation and community in those fragile New Year's days when we collectively 'retire to lick our wounds' during the post-Christmas slump. Well established in urban centres, and increasing its prevalence regionally, the festival aims to make a greater impact at rural and grassroots level, continuing to break up mental health stigma as it grows.
The turn towards the grassroots is timely. The world has experienced an extraordinary lockdown in 2020, and the unanticipated challenges provided an opportunity to recalibrate internal compasses. In this 'new reality' it's fair to say that we are learning a fresh appreciation for home-grown creativity. In the time previously absorbed by the work commute, bread is getting baked, vegetables planted, rooms redecorated, and guitars and easels are getting a long-overdue dust off. Home-grown creativity is bubbling up spontaneously and we are discovering from social media feeds that people we know professionally are also proficient clarinet players or singers and that the local café owner is also a landscape painter in her spare time.
Interestingly, with arts infrastructure closed, the arts playing field is being unexpectedly levelled as professional artists are also taking to the same social media platforms using similar (smart-phone) production values. In these unprecedented times, it can be argued that arts production and participation are becoming more democratised and people are remembering anew that the arts are not just for consumption or the exclusive domain of the exceptional few who tread the often precarious path of being a professional artist.
In 2020, arts involvement has shone through as a powerful form of self- expression and as a necessary catalyst that allows us to connect, to socialise, and to dream together. With 'Filleadh', First Fortnight wishes to create a unique project that bridges the gap between professional and amateur art making and puts arts participation centre stage as a means to improve understanding of and attitudes to mental health and wellbeing.
'Filleadh' represents an opportunity to remember the essential and fundamental nature of our innate creative powers and the need to return from exile the potent self-care tool that is arts participation. Working with the theme of Colmcille, the famously exiled saint who himself was an artist and champion of the arts, 'Filleadh' will provide community groups with instructional art resources to help them produce a home-grown, collaborative artwork. The instructional material will be devised and compiled by a lead artist together with invited collaborating professional artists*, and realised and co-created by community participants.
The project will be led by Donegal-based artist Maria Coleman, whose interests primarily lie in collaborative, co-creation. In a chapter published about her work in the book 'The Performing Subject in the Space of Technology' (2015),** she contextualised her approach by referring to ideas developed in 'Poetics of the Open Work' (1962) by Umberto Eco. The essay predicts much of creative openness evident in the relational and participative art of the following decades, but history leaves us much fewer example of the most radically collaborative idea outlined in the essay, namely 'Works-in-Movement'.*** Coleman embraces this idea, since such art works are left open enough to not only be interacted with, but actually be creatively completed by their audiences. She sees such creative input as a necessary evolution from the conventional formula, which see finished works presented fully formed, while audiences consume them on an intellectual or emotional level. This evolution leaves space for the artwork not only to cause the catharsis that may come from resonating with the art work's beauty or meaning, but more crucially, sparks the wellbeing enhancing properties that accompany the creative act.
The project's theme of Colmcille is timely since the Donegal saint celebrates the 1500th anniversary of his birth in 2021. Although a frequently overlooked aspect of his story, he was actually an artist himself, being a renowned and prolific calligrapher, as well as a poet and singer. He is the Patron Saint of Poets and his feast day, the 9th of June, has recently been designated as the International Celtic Art Day. In the context of open art works, it is particularly interesting that he is believed to have precipitated the world's first copyright case, when he copied a book without its owner's permission. The ensuing tribal battle of Cúl Dréimne is understood to have ultimately caused his exile to Iona. The island however became an artistic sanctuary and his ideals of creative openness resulted not only in an impressive raft of artistic innovations but also in an era of creative and intellectual flourishing that has been read in some quarters as having actually saved civilisation during Europe's Dark Ages. Coleman believes there are rich pickings in the Columban story to investigate ideas of open creative participation and a necessary Return ('Filleadh' in Irish) to the wellbeing that flows from exercising the innate creative urge.
*Artists will need to release necessary creative licenses. (The Creative Commons licensing structure will be clearly outlined in the Artwork Manifesto).
**Coleman, Maria, 'Relational Works in Movement using The Body Response System,' in The Performing Subject in the Space of Technology , Causey, M., Meehan, E., O'Dwyer, Néill, (eds., Palgrave Macmillan, London 2015
*** See the draft 'Works-in-Movement' essay below. It covers much of what is in the chapter published in the book The Performing Subject in the Space of Technology.
FILLEADH © 2020 MARIA COLEMAN
- With a focus on mental wellbeing, targeted communities will be invited to co-create artworks with the lead artist and invited collaborating artists (eg. Donegal Traveller Group, Men's Sheds, Youth Groups etc. )
- The project will be piloted in late 2020, with community participants from Letterkenny's Wellness Café.
- Pending funding, project roll-out will involve up to seven community groups through the Northwest region.
- The project pipeline will see the lead artist meeting with the community groups to ascertain their creative interests and strengths.
- This initial meeting will incorporate a Creative Wellbeing Workshop, where playful, creative improvisation will be explored.
- An Artwork Manifesto will be drafted by the lead artist together with the community participants. This will outline the 'rules of engagement' for the Work-in- Movement, choose a suitable Colmcille story/stories for inspiration, and cite a preferred medium.
- Collaborating artists will be invited to devise a Work-in-Movement to be competed and co-created by the community group. This artist will engage with the group in a series of workshops. (Examples of potential collaborating artists: graphic artist Jim Fitzpatrick, illustrators Kim Sharkey or Seán Fitzgerald, musician Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, street-theatre designer Orla Clogher, poet Stephen James Smith or choreographer Breandán de Gallaí.)
- Research will be conducted to ascertain participant's sense of wellbeing through the process. Reporting tools developed by University College London will be used.
- Video documentation will accompany all art-making activities and an on-line, publicly accessible version of the project will be made available, where participant art-work can also be displayed.
Works in Movement
(Draft Essay, written in 2013. It discusses Coleman's Body Response System and works made using it, namely The Magic Paintbrush (an interactive children's theatre piece produced as part of the Bluestack's Festival 2010), Freeplay (a series of improvised performance pieces featuring dancer Niamh Condron and musician Séan Óg, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Oct/November 2010), and Goitse (an improvised performance featuring theatre practitioner Emma Meehan and audience members, The LAB, Dublin, November 2011.))
".. it is up to the listener to place himself deliberately in the midst of an inexhaustible network of relationships and to choose for himself, so to speak, his own modes of approach, his reference points and his scale, and to endeavor to use as many dimensions as he possibly can at the
same time and thus dynamise, multiply and extend to the utmost degree his perceptual faculties." - Henri Pousseur
The practical aspect of the project is two stranded, involving both experimental technological design and arts practice. The technological explorations have resulted in the development of a set of new-media art tools cumulatively called the 'Body Response System'or 'BRS', while the arts practice has involved prototype workshops or 'playtests' and the formulation of experimental works called The Magic Paintbrush, FreePlay and Goitse, that blend strands of process workshops, interactive performance and installation. Some of these works will be referred to here, but they all will be detailed thoroughly in upcoming essays.
Driven by the aesthetic aspirations described in the preceding essays, the practice has a strong focus on physically engaging either performers or spectators, drawing them towards improvising and collaborating in live-art experiences in installation or informal performance settings. This participation is enabled by the BRS interface, which registers steps and gestures, allowing audiovisual content to be instantaneously generated by expressive movement in free space. Extremely adaptable, the BRS can be configured to meet the specific needs of an unfolding piece. The audio and visual software can be configured to trigger synthesized musical notes, and potentially pre-recorded loops, sound effects, images, live visuals or specially filmed sequences, all of which can be processed on-the-fly according to one's movements.
Using the BRS in art settings involves configuring the sensing system's responsiveness, programming the audiovisual reactivity, laying out the system in the space, positioning the work in an arts context and, most importantly, inventing scenarios that allow people to participate in loose, playful and creative ways. The construction of opportunities for creative interaction either during the works live execution or afterwards, is matched by dialogical methodology used elsewhere in the work's realization. During the initial BRS prototype workshops, feedback was sought from users and was acted upon to improve the intuitive usability of the system. Written feedback was also sought from collaborators and audiences once a work was completed.
In 'Poetics of the Open Work', Umberto Eco, a pioneer of reader response theory, considers how art works are 'open' in so far they may be interpreted in countless ways. Some artworks however are intentionally far more tangibly open. Citing music compositions by the likes of Stockhausen, Berio and Pousser, he describes these as not only 'open' art works, but 'works in movement'. They are "quite literally unfinished: the author seems to hand them on to the performer more or less like the components of a construction kit." An example of such a work would be Klavierstück XI, by Stockhausen, where the composer presents the performer with a single large sheet of music paper with a series of different note groupings. The performer is free to choose which order these groupings are pieced together and performed.
These works in movement are "artistic products which display an intrinsic mobility, a kaleidoscopic capacity to suggest themselves in constantly renewed aspects to the consumer." Composer, Henri Pousseur on his own work Scambi describes it "not so much a musical composition as a field of possibilities, an explicit invitation to exercise choice" The performer or audience to such works are offered more than an opportunity to interpret; they can actively engage in choices and navigate their own path through. Their journey actually results in a unique execution of the work. No definitive or fixed work results from each realization and the possibilities for different instances are not exhausted, since others can likewise plot their own journey.
Eco postulates that 'works in movement' have a modus operandi that represent a paradigm shift on many levels.
"The poetics of the 'work in movement' [...] sets in motion a new cycle of relations between the artist and his audience, a new mechanics of aesthetic perception, a different status for artistic product in contemporary society. It opens a new page in sociology and in pedagogy, as well as a new chapter in the history of art. It poses new practical problems by organizing new communicative situations. In short, it installs a new relationship between the contemplation and the utilization of a work of art."
Through the field of possibilities' opened by 'works in movement', art becomes a 'new communicative situation' where the artist's voice is met in conversation, rather than presenting itself as a monologue. Importantly, the 'new mechanics' of aesthetic perception mean that art experience becomes more about utilization than contemplation. This type of art works as a 'construction kit' and becomes something that can be used to play with, to interact with, to think with, to express one's self through and fold into personal experience.
Works made with the BRS, especially Goitse and FreePlay, would hope to be judged towork in a similar vein. In this context, I understand the performer or spectator's movements, the choices they make and the actions they take as the expressive locus of the work. The system's responses and the explorative physical improvisations this influences, blend with whatever associations and readings the performer/active spectator bring to the encounter, and this unique subjective experience becomes the seat of the work's meaning. To paraphrase Poussuer quoted at the outset, in open 'works in movement' the spectator finds herself in the midst of a network of possibilities, where she can choose her modes of approach and points of reference. This brings a sense of heightened awareness that multiplies her perceptual faculties. With works enabled by the BRS, their open-ended nature allows free negotiation and a sense of personal ownership potentially results.
Notwithstanding the space left to develop a sense of individual ownership, each execution of a work using the BRS is bound to the particular set of possibilities available within the system at that time. This might include the note choices, timbre or harmony possibilities available in a work such as Goitse for example, or the particular set of sound samples available to be triggered in a given scene of The Magic Paintbrush. Although the performer/active spectator can insert her self freely into the work, the general orientation of their input is largely decided prior to the live execution, through planning, system layout, sensor mapping and digital programming by the author. Eco is notably careful in his formulation of the concept of the 'work in movement', to clarify the site of authorship. Despite being open to elements of chance and the need to be completed by a third party, 'works in movement' are still built from an original set of finite components provided by the artist. For Eco, authorial intention is what guarantees that an artwork is an artwork; otherwise we would only have a mere accumulation of arbitrary components emerging from chaos.
A 'work in movement' is not an invitation to indiscriminate, chaotic participation. Rather, it unfolds as a dialogue, where the performers' choices are always selected from a given set of authored variables. Works that have used the BRS certainly fulfill this description, but interestingly, over time, the objective has been to increase the participant's available choices and gradually relax the bind of the authorial control, to allow a more fluid sense of participative freedom. Though Eco's formula for the 'work in movement' is certainly a suitable fit for the work at hand, as will be discussed in more detail later (with regard to ideas of active spectatorship, interaction, participation and collaboration), I do not necessarily subscribe wholeheartedly to Eco's insistence on the absolute necessity of the author's ultimate control. It might be more true to say that each execution of a work using the BRS is bound to the particular set of authored possibilities available at a given time, but it is also the case that the goal has always been to increase the system's or the art frame's ability to allow enhanced authorial possibilities for the participant. This aspect of the work at hand is undoubtedly at the developmental stage in the larger work-in-progress.
For my particular purposes, I believe the more salient aspect of Eco's formula is its accessibility to notions of process over product and experimentation over result. An artist delivers a 'work in movement' in a state that promises multiple future realizations while the performer or active audience member brings the work to a completion. Any given completion is not a closure, since, as already noted, 'works in movement' do not result in fixed works and each realization does not exhaust future completions. Definitive, concluded messages are rejected and interpretative possibilities are therefore multiplied. The 'art' happens through the journey of the participant's particular experience, something that not only animates their own objectives, but also concurrently breathes life into the artist's intentions. Aesthetic experience is drawn from the general stuff of life (physical gestures in the case of this project's oeuvre) and woven through with the artwork's influence (in this case, the system's responses). This parley is exploratory, relational and open-ended as opposed to an encounter with an artwork that stands apart and dictates the encounter according to a more static gravitational pull.
In this sense, 'works in movement' are a refreshing counterpoint to more conventional works that have prescribed beginnings, middles and ends or object-bound art works that perhaps lend themselves towards more fixed meanings. Philosopher John Dewey noted that the detached nature of art objects create "conventions that get in the way of fresh insight," and that remote "objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art [can] seem anemic to the mass of people." He notes that when art is separated from its point of origin and given no operative function (as it the norm in current art object production practices), it is banished to a disengaged realm, cut off from the flow of associations that might bind it to the everyday. Dewey saw art's task as a restoration of the bond between the "refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience." By his reckoning, art springs from the beauty found in life's minutiae, like the poise of an athlete or the contentment of a gardener. According to him, our understanding of an aesthetic experience should evolve to include the everyday and the pleasurable flow of absorbing satisfaction derived from life's journey in it self.
This project's work aims at creating evocative, lyrical aesthetic experience and hopes to admit some of the deep sense of immediate living that Dewey espouses. By interposing art and everyday settings, and allowing chance, improvisation and play to shape the work's unfolding, it attempts to insert itself within the unifying quality of unfolding experience itself.
The on-the fly nature of the audiovisual responses provided by the BRS allows for these to couple with the participant's movements in an evocative intermingling. The work's setting aspire to mix 'art' and 'life', retaining and perhaps intensifying some of the dynamics inherent in social encounter by temporarily using segregated performance conventions, but facilitating formal and informal opportunities to break these.
On Dewey, fellow pragmatist philosopher Richard Shusterman writes,
"[His] prime purpose was the aesthetic and practical one of improving experience by making it the focus of our inquiry, of enriching and harmonizing our experience, for example, by affirming and enhancing the continuity between soma and psyche, between nondiscursive experience and conscious thought."
Sharing a similar focus, my practice would hope to achieve a sense of enriched and harmonized experience, facilitating opportunities for life-affirming and holistic aesthetic encounters that acknowledge the deep connection between soma and psyche. This work is realized and presented as it unfolds, through improvisation in real time. Movement is both its point of origin and function. Through movement, everyday non-discursive experience is celebrated and drawn towards a realm where it might be understood for its aesthetic qualities. Everyday activity and experience become the art.
Experience is allowed space to breathe and express itself through the work's conscious movement towards openness. The construction of opportunities for creative interaction either during the works live execution or afterwards, is matched by dialogical methodology used elsewhere in the work's realization. During the initial BRS prototype workshops, feedback was sought from users and was acted upon to improve the intuitive usability of the system. Written feedback was also sought from collaborators and audiences once a work was completed. Add to this the inherent versatility of the BRS itself and the readiness to experiment with the system layout and the art context frames and it is clear to what extent this practice prizes this sense of openness.
Openness is perceived necessary given the evocative experiential aesthetic aims outlined by way of introduction. According to these aims, this work would seek to encourage movement and physical participation and bring awareness to the body through a multi-modal address. It would create opportunities for playful interaction in informal performance or 'ritual' settings that blur the division between art creation and art reception. This reads as a very particular prescription, but rather than intentionally constructing each element, openness in the creative process is aimed at allowing a sense of authenticity to permeate the outcomes. Openness allows 'life' to pour in.
Life is after all at the heart of the enterprise. Even though movement is possibly one of the most mundane aspects of everyday life, the facilitation and celebration of physical movement is a primary aesthetic aim. In essence then, the project's aims fulfill and reiterate two long-standing 'avant-garde' desires, that of integrating art with life and engaging spectators' creativity. These desires are intertwined in that, once the supposed 'autonomy' of art and its separation from quotidian life is rejected, not only is art brought closer to real life but the exclusivity inherent in art as an institution begins to disassemble, the myth of artistic genius is brought into question and the creative process is demystified. To illustrate the difficulties inherent in delivering upon this particular strain of avant-garde ideology, allow me, in the following condensed review, to browse some historical lessons on the subject.