In a 3-day hands-on seminar (21-23 November 2017), we explored the topic of conviviality in participative and social art practices. Brack invited reflections from the participants who came from diverse interests in art, research, and other professional backgrounds, as well as the facilitators themselves. The aim is to continue the conversation post-workshop, and to provide opportunities to engage with each other and the material. In her essay, Jade Chen explores the paradigms and reflections around the participative exercises from the Workshop with Susanne Bosch and Herman Mendolicchio. READ MORE about the #ArtofConviviality.


The Convivialist Manifesto: A response to Crisis

The Convivialist Manifesto, the philosophy and principles behind which inspired this series of workshops, states that:

“Convivialism is the term used to describe all those elements in existing systems of belief, secular or religious, that help us identify principles for enabling human beings simultaneously to compete and cooperate with one another, with a shared concern to safeguard the world and in the full knowledge that we form part of that world and that its natural resources are finite.”

Borne out of an urgent reaction to the escalating intensity and frequency of global crises on local grounds in the 21st century such as terrorism, migration, political and civil upheavals, religious conflicts, amidst a looming world-wide threat of global warming, climate change and other natural disasters, the Convivialist Manifesto is a call to “come up with new solutions and new ways or forms of living”, Susanne explained.

In that sense, art can be a way to create platforms and spaces where people can collaboratively question what has been done so far, pool together a collective intelligence -co-intelligence-, co-create and experiment with different ideas and solutions together.

“Within the arts, it is about the intelligence, it is intuition, embodied experience and it is understanding that this complexity is not something that we should be scared of, but instead, it should be something that can be used as a backdrop to realise that even complexity can be experience.”

A tool for everyday living

Applied to everyday living, convivialism is “a mode of living together (con-vivere) that values human relationships and cooperation and enables us to challenge one another without resorting to mutual slaughter and in a way that ensures consideration for others and for nature.” Or to summarise it more succinctly, as Susanne did for the majority of the participants who have only heard of the meaning of that term that very morning, conviviality is “the art of living together”.

Inherent in any forms of relationships are conflicts. While convivial living explores methods of peaceful resolution, it does not deny conflict that stem from differences in beliefs, attitudes and thinking. It believes that conflict can be negotiated and mediated on different levels and scales collectively, ranging from the family unit, teams, organisations and extending to societies:

“We all know that within history, there have been highly intelligent societies that either survived or collapsed during huge changes. And what allows a society to survive? It has a lot to do with the ability to be diverse. Diverse means to look at more than one end on solving solutions. It has a lot to do with what they call “self-organisation”, that is, you don’t wait for someone to tell you to do it but to try to organise it yourself. It can be very small pockets and experiences of how things could be done differently. It has a lot to do with resilience, to be able to respond to change: adapt it, maybe reject it, or resist it, and how does a society deal with unexpected situations.”

By utilising creative methods and “tools in our own context” to engage and interact with others, the broader goal is to transcend individualistic tendencies and “get a stuck situation moving again” by empowering the individual to proactively take action:

(On art in public spaces) “There is always a small group of people that like it or people who have an issue with what you are proposing right now as an artist or as a human being. So it makes you aware of the public space as a constant place of negotiation because this is what people need, to have very different interests and very different agendas. As an artist, I realised at some point that if I want to continue working in a public space, I would have to enlarge my toolbox.”

“So I have had the pleasure to explore what it means to do art in public spaces. We should be aware that the public space is not a playground for creative things. Rather, it is about how we can constantly care for those who are using it.”

“The ultimate artistic protection is evolution of the people involved in the process. So it’s about the switching of views to the point where it’s become: I can do something about this. I have an idea and I feel I’m invited to take this into my own hands.”


The First Exercise

The first activity conducted by Susanne and Herman was based on ‘The Village’, an exercise developed under the methodology of Social Presencing Theater (SPT) by Arawana Hayashi. In this exercise, participants were given five options of action: 1) to walk in straight lines 2) to sit 3) to stand 4) to lie down 5) to greet a fellow participant should your ways cross.

Over about 20 minutes, different encounters and interactions emerge. Most people started walking, the relatively safe form of participating while acutely observing the actions of others in the room. Gradually, the majority chose to sit and observe within and at the edges of the room. The vagueness in the instructions were opportunities to play with possibilities; a few people were observed backing backwards, walking extremely slowly or stepping back and forth. Some people started to lie down and more followed suit.

The room was thick with anticipation, expectancy and possibilities, though governed by an acute sense of scrutiny, both self and external. Should I interact? Do I start something new? What are other people doing? Should I respond? Susanne later addresses this sense of possibilities as an invitation to ‘let things emerge’.

A participant was walking around the room, another then followed behind. This sets other people in motion; others saw this as an invitation to be a part of something interesting, to be part of a group. Eventually, more people joined in and what started as an individual walking became a long train that circled around the room. What was obvious in this micro-milieu of a village, certain individuals took on the roles of initiators, deliberately initiating new positions or actions that emboldened others to follow suit and invigorated the lulls that naturally occurred.

At a point in time during the exercise, six people were lying in a circle in the middle of room. Others circled around them. Some came closer, but stood outside the circle, hesitant to disrupt the unspoken equilibrium. Most chose to remain seated deliberately at a distance, still quietly observing.

At the end of the exercise, participants were asked to rank on a scale of 0-10, the village, and secondly, one’s own contribution to the village. The discussion that followed highlighted the importance of experiential learning through an embodied presence; of being mindful to our body, thoughts and environment within a space. Through gestures and body language, we communicate nonverbally our thoughts, intentions and openness to others.

With the awareness of our interconnectedness, the exercise raises the question of how can ‘I’ transcend individual perception when situated within a collective body, whether a team or group or organisation, relate to others and through specific actions, communicate and invite others in, or conversely, marginalise and exclude them? Broader implications of one’s role beyond the village to society were also considered, through the roles we consciously or subconsciously play, take on and reject.

For all who saw this exercise as a reaffirmation of their ‘reserved’, unsociable tendencies, here is another possible explanation: initiating and maintaining extended eye contact, touching or remaining in close proximity with strangers are social norms that govern rules of contact we consciously or unconsciously adopt, or in this case, avoid to various degrees, in everyday social life.

Although invited to cast aside self-consciousness within a space for self-exploration, the tension one still feels is confirmation that socialised behaviour is not quite a switch one easily turns on or off.

The Second Exercise

The second exercise was an opportunity to practice conviviality and conflict management in an actual setting through a real-life case study. (While such an aim now seems abundantly clear on hindsight, it probably was not as obvious then to participants, I suspect.)

The situation: an art installation in a German sports facility that highlighted the discrimination footballers of a particular ethnoreligious group received was abruptly removed after having received complaints. Participants were then tasked to identity the parties and stakeholders involved in this matter and through role-play, hold a collective discussion to resolve the situation. Alliances based on perceived common interests were quickly forged and made.

While all parties listened respectfully and attentively, the general feeling was that it stemmed from an already existing genuine willingness to listen rather than a conscious effort to practice conviviality. Discussions were lively and engaging, (some participants showed real flair in the improvisation of their roles), save for the tiniest smidgen: nothing quite conclusive came out of the meandering discussions.

The unfamiliar context of German society proved a stumbling factor for some participants as most had to clarify their roles with Susanne. This incomplete contextual background coupled with the participants’ unfamiliarity with the networks of power that exist could explain why the discussions could not dive deeper beyond surface concerns.

I am reminded of The Lesson’ by the Dramabox, which was based on a somewhat similar discursive model. The quality of the discussions relies on the audience’s shared knowledge of the political, socio-cultural nuances and power structure of Singapore society and hence, the stakes and ramifications inherent in their choices and actions.

But perhaps the goal was not for resolution in the first place? In the debrief, Susanne and Herman raised the questions: Who holds power? Who gets to decide during the negotiation process? This can be likened to the “WICOS problem” used in the medical community when doctors have differing opinions on the best course of treatment for a patient: Who is the Captain of the Ship? What is obvious in this situation, is that the artist is no longer the captain once his/her work is sent out into the public.

Beneath the veneer of conviviality, the insidious nature of power lurks persistently: when power is taken away, how does one get it back? Apart from questions on the negotiation of power, perhaps taking the first step to identify the right parties and stakeholders involved in an issue together was more vital. Perhaps the exercise was to have participants get a taste and feel for the absolute ‘messiness’ (to quote a fellow participant during sharing sessions) and cacophony that inevitably descends when working with so many disparate parties and stakeholders with at times conflicting agendas, something undoubtedly inescapable and familiar to the artist and art communities.

The best possible outcome was for participants to use the ‘tools’ in our toolbox to work together effectively to get an ‘unstuck situation moving again’. This second exercise suggested the possibility of role-play as a convivial method and tool, although, if based solely on the outcome of the exercise, its effectiveness in conflict resolution remains questionable.

As a value-system, conviviality has its benefits: it reminds us to hold on to our interconnectedness; to rise above selfish and petty individualistic tendencies in the face of conflicts, or even better, prevent disagreements from escalating into full-fledged conflicts in the first place.

Beyond the private sphere, how can the spirit of conviviality go up against entrenched attitudes and beliefs, bureaucratic systems, capitalistic structures and legislations set in place in society?

Prerequisites to convivial relations include a willingness to listen, to be respectful to diverse and conflicting views, and more importantly, a humility and openness to change. How useful is conviviality, as an enlightened way of living and working together, if as a value-system it is not known, dismissed or rejected by the people the artist or the practitioner works with? This is especially pertinent for socially engaged artists that coordinate social interactions among the public, the government, organisations, amongst other parties.

Seeing as the Conviviality Manifesto was borne out of a necessity to address the crises in the 21st century, how effective have socially engaged artists and practitioners been in coming up with “new solutions and new ways of living”? Day 1 of the Art of Conviviality seminar concluded with a new vision for living, one that verges uncomfortably on the hinges of great possibility and challenging constructive means to get there.

More pictures from Susanne Bosch’s workshop