USING THE ARTS TO EXPRESS AND ADDRESS CONFLICT AT MINERVA

This project aims to explore ways we can draw from theories of arts-based peacebuilding to express and address conflict within the Minerva community. We developed a framework for this process through research, generation, and experimentation. We explored this process using a lens of gender dynamics because of the topic’s relevance and the diversity of opinions it invites. Over two weeks, we ran a series of three community artistic interventions that aimed to call attention and invite reflection, followed by an arts-based workshop. The combination of interventions and workshop is analyzed as a case-study, testing for the effectiveness of the arts as a framework for discussion, conflict transformation, and community building at Minerva.

Arts-based peacebuilding is defined as the practice of using the arts to transform conflict at a community, national and global level. Art is used as a tool to address diverse needs in conflict transformation, communication, and healing. In this context, art is defined broadly as an “expressive vehicle for communication” including dance, visual art, and performance art (Schirch & Shank, 2008). Peacebuilding is defined as transformation of conflict “from negative to positive relations, behaviors, attitudes, and structures” in which peace mechanisms are built into societal structures (Schirch & Shank, 2008). Arts-based peacebuilding includes work with “communities that [have] an intentional element of representing, responding to, preventing or transforming conflict as a way to build ‘positive peace’” (Hunter & Page, 2014.)

Traditional peacebuilding frameworks are criticized for lacking expression, healing, and reconciliation, with many practitioners expressing that those processes are “not currently prevalent or available within the peacebuilding field” (Schirch & Shank, 2008). Arts-based peacebuilding can fill this gap since its key outcomes are accountability, expression and conversation, as exemplified in the following cases:

Image 1: Indigenous Quilt Project. (2013). Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Accountability: Art allows for individuals to see themselves as stakeholders who are responsible to act, and hold groups liable to act. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Indigenous People used art as evidence which demanded government responsibility for the injustices perpetrated including over 100 years of enforced residential schools (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015).

Image 2: Solleder, S. (2009). UVF Mural about the Peace Process.

Expression: Art provides a space for individuals and communities to express emotions and narratives. Murals in Ireland expressed the effects of 30 years of political violence, and armed conflict between the state and the insurgency led to over 2000 deaths by the 1970s in the northern counties of Ireland. The murals are viewed as “bearers of painful or ugly memories” yet needed to provide a narrative for both sides of the conflict (Beck et al., 2012).

Image 3: Drama Therapy. (2017). North American Drama Therapy Association.

Conversation: Art sparks dialogue and inspires discussions about challenging issues. Drama therapy is used to heal historical trauma, allowing groups in conflict to converse, explore, and express through theatre (Volkas, 2009).

Image 4: Shanks, M. (2005). Diagram of Strategic Arts-based Peacebuilding.

Arts-based peacebuilding can be applied across multiple scales and at different stages of conflict (Image 4). It is, however, usually applied in situations of ethnic violence and trauma. Since we aim to use it as a framework for conversations specifically within Minerva, we take into account that there is no overt form of conflict in the community. Therefore, the interventions are designed to acknowledge tensions, prevent their escalation, and enable mutual understanding. We focus on promoting accountability, trust, and safety at the community level while facilitating self-expression, healing, and awareness at the individual level.

Where is there space for theories of arts-based peacebuilding at Minerva?

Currently, the most prominent platform to voice controversial opinions at Minerva is an anonymous online forum that appeals to a minority of students who are comfortable participating in such discussions. While providing a means for expression, it curtails the creative and formative potential of an actual conversation due to its unidirectionality. Many students are resistant to virtual discussions due to the format’s lack of empathy, connection, and nuance. Moreover, the growth and trust that could result from engaging in productive conflict are unrealized. We aim to change the situation by providing an arts-based framework that allows for expression and resolution. Thus, our project aims to fill a gap and requires us to prototype on how to bridge the gap of both engagement and understanding.

The arts can be used to avoid exclusively verbal forms of debate that are polarizing. While many Minerva students come from artistic backgrounds these forms of expression are not used as a means of discussion. We aim to expand the role of the arts at Minerva to include supporting conversations about sensitive issues to increase students’ ability to engage and find common ground in their differences. In the sections below we detail our process of developing and testing applications of various tools and strategies of the applied arts.

Case Study: Gender Dynamics at Minerva

In order to develop our framework and test its practical implications at Minerva, we needed a case study of tension or conflict in the community. After much discussion, we identified gender dynamics as a frame for our development process and the interventions we designed.

In late March, Minerva’s Feminist Collective held several panels and discussions about how gender affects perceptions and interactions at Minerva. Concerns that were expressed included tension over expectations of women in the community and unaddressed reports of a sexual assault incident earlier this year. The conversations were solution oriented, however, many students left unresolved since the group did not come to any conclusions, or even find common ground.

We follow the case-study characterization and terminology of Thomas (2011) in this project. Thus, the student body of our class at Minerva is our subject, whereas arts-based peacebuilding can be seen as the object in terms of its appropriateness of catalyzing conversations about gender dynamics in our community. Moreover, the case is of local knowledge due to our embeddedness in the subject (i.e. we are students and members of this community ourselves). The purpose is instrumental as we aim to assess the effectiveness of the intervention in accomplishing the goals of facilitating expression, accountability, and conversation. While our approach resembles both a theory-testing and a descriptive one, we focus on the latter as our goal is to improve conversations at Minerva rather than validating arts-based peacebuilding. Furthermore, this is a single diachronic case-study as we focus solely on Minerva and analyze how the community responds to the interventions over time.

Intervention I: Accountability

Image 5: From left to right, Sara, Ellie, Izzy, and Vini performing an artistic intervention using the technique of invisible theatre.

Following an anonymous Facebook post about sexual assault on campus, no organized form of discussion occurred. Beyond micro-conversations, the student community did not take responsibility in facilitating dialogue, healing from the news, or creating measures to prevent further assaults. Our group aimed to inspire self-reflection and a sense of responsibility in our audience by creating malleable statues depicting sexual assault in a public space. This intervention was inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed technique of Invisible Theatre, which claims that if theatre is produced in environments that are not the theatre the audience will be pushed to critically reflect on their participation in the event (Boal, 2008). We developed a theatre installation in the lobby of the residence hall. For ninety minutes, the four of us held poses designed to tell a story of the trauma and violence of assault. In preparing the scene, we paid special attention to how body language could help convey our message (Image 5). Vini played the role of the perpetrator, leaning forward over Izzy with a strong grip on her shirt and hair to show an exertion of power. Izzy pulled back with a hand over Vini’s as if trying to shake off his grip and another trying to push him away, eliciting a sentiment of fear and confusion. Ellie sat on the mattress, curled into herself in a powerless, retreating position. Sara stood to the side, open, vulnerable, and neutral, allowing spectators to project their own interpretations of her body language and role into the scene. As an ensemble, the lack of physical or eye contact among the Ellie, Izzy, and Sara, who were representing different reactions to assault, intensified their respective feelings by hinting at the isolation and alienation of a victim.

We also invited passers-by to shift the positions of the statues to change the dynamics and manipulate the outcomes of the situation. We specifically chose the space in front of the building exit so that community members had to confront the intervention. Thus, in terms of the choice of engaging or not, our architecture in both a physical and psychological sense nudged people away from apathy and toward direct observation and interaction. The social pressure at the prospect of walking by and ignoring a group of peers depicting an intense situation of violence nudged passers-by to choose to engage with the scene.

Although the violence occurred in the audience’s imagination, there were effects on their physical reality since they were called to act, connecting them on an emotional level as can be seen in the patterns of audience interventions. Some people created a support system for the abuse victims by using the blanket to foster emotions of safety and comfort. Others turned the violence into loving gestures, placing Izzy and Vini in an embrace. Some shaped the group to fight against the violence. In contrast, others intervened with humor or walked past the scene. People discussed whether or not they should intervene, and many looked for support and validation from us and other spectators. Unexpectedly, some participants commented that it was hard to get fully engaged in the scene as it was somewhat unrealistic. They reported it was difficult to imagine Vini in the negative role of a perpetrator. This effect is a shortcoming due to our embeddedness in the community and is explained by a subtle perception bias. While the immediacy of the violence in the scene strongly draws attention in a bottom-up manner, contrasting effects take place when the violence is considered in the context of the observer’s prior interactions with Vini. Thus, this bias tended to decrease the potency of the intervention because of his personability and friendship connections at Minerva.

Upon designing the installation, we took into account the ethical consideration of how the scene could be triggering for survivors of sexual assault. We were divided between the positive outcome that it could generate by bringing people’s attention to the issue and the negative effects it might have on a few individuals. The former outlook represents an utilitarian perspective, in which the benefit of awareness is likely to be larger than the side-effects, while the latter is more concerned with individual rights and preservation, questioning our responsibility in consciously running the risk of damaging someone’s mental health. In order to take an informed choice, we consulted with one student that is a survivor. She recommended that with the appropriate use of trigger warnings, we could mutually advise self-care for those approaching the scene while not curtailing its effectiveness (Image 6).

Image 6: We placed trigger warning signs on the stairs and elevator near the intervention.

Intervention II: Expression

Image 7: Our collaborative mural intervention in a residence common space (immediately after and then several days after it was set up)

In our second intervention, we constructed a large paper mural and left it empty with prompts about gender and markers provided for community members to contribute. This created a space for public expression of conflict which used the expressive arts therapy technique of “aesthetic distancing”: providing an opportunity for participants to draw out their experiences, to step back and visualize their stories in order to build collective understanding. Inspired by strategies of creative placemaking, we chose to place this in an unavoidable common space in the residence hall to create encounters with art in public spaces in order to support community engagement and expression.

Due to the anonymity of the art piece, it was taken with varying degrees of seriousness. A small fraction of the community contributed directly to the mural with mostly similar perspectives. While the wall did not spark much observable in-person conversation there was some contributors responding to additions on the mural. A few Minervans we interviewed said even if they did not engage directly, the mural’s prompts and responses sparked self-reflection.

Intervention III: Conversation

Image 8: A completed drawing chain

The third intervention served as an invitation to the workshop designed to engage individual students through a collective drawing experience. We created ordered chains of five students that would pass along a sheet of paper with a gender-related drawing prompt. We hoped students further on the chain would interact with the drawings already made, thus creating a conversation through drawing. The reach of this idea was contingent upon students contributing and passing their drawings to each other. Because we were the last members of the chains, we were able to acknowledge that the intervention did not work—only a few drawings reached us. The lack of participation could be due to some combination of the general chaos of final projects week, discomfort with drawing complex concepts, or apathy. The papers that did reach us had drawings separated and unrelated to each other, demonstrating that the conversational aspect of the intervention was not fulfilled. People did not seem to engage with each others’ ideas or to have discussed the prompt.

The Workshop

Image 9: The planning process for our workshop

The final stage of the framework was a workshop focused on expression, exploration, and dialogue we facilitated for six people. It drew from arts-based peacebuilding theories, theater of the oppressed, and expressive art therapy practices. The process included a mix of individual activities—aimed to recognize and express participants’ preconceptions, experiences, or differences—and community activities to inspire collaboration, discussion, and accountability. We opened with our objectives and a disclaimer about confidentiality to create a safe space for vulnerability. Overall, the workshop utilized several variations of sculpture and image theatre to understand how emotions, interactions, and experiences are physically embodied.

Initially, we led a warm-up activity in which participants were given relationships and scenarios (i.e., a parent and child arguing about school) that then escalated to more explicitly gendered relationships (i.e., a male bartender hitting on a female customer) as an introduction to the topic. Following, participants were prompted to enact a series of individual association statues (i.e., “Embody your gender as defined by your culture”), designed to recognize differences in their understanding of gender and sexuality. We then transitioned to a similar but more collaborative activity, prompting participants to add on, one by one, to a group statue of their experiences with gender at Minerva, focusing the exploration on gender dynamics. In the following activity, we asked participants to write freely about the same topic and, if they wish, to share with someone else or the whole group. We ended with another group statue of how we want to see gender at Minerva, allowing participants to compare the current situation to the change they would like to see. We closed with a reflection, including what we had gotten from the workshop, and what we wanted to stop, start, and continue doing as a result.

Conclusion

One major limitation of our case-study is the convenient nature of the sample of people who interacted with the interventions or came to the workshop. The invisible theater and mural were only available to those who passed by the installations during the time when they were enacted. In terms of the workshop, most participants were our close friends. The drawings, which we’d hoped would engage a broader audience, did not work as intended. Thus, the varying engagement could indicate that those who interacted with our interventions were either already interested in gender dynamics or were our friends. This limitation prevents us from definitively concluding the applicability of our framework. It is, however, hard to avoid a convenience sample in a small community such as Minerva. One possible next step could be to hold another workshop with randomly sampled participants. This strategy could approximate a simple random sample by initially selecting twenty participants and inviting them one-on-one to achieve greater representativeness. We could also improve our framework’s applicability and generalizability to the Minerva community as a whole by building a structured way to collect feedback from all participants with a clear outline of survey or interview questions for participants to answer.

Based on observations and feedback from our interventions and workshop, we see a potential for greater use of arts-based peacebuilding in the context of conflict transformation in the Minerva community. The following are our recommendations for future exploration or implementation of these frameworks:

  • Continue to reiterate on strategies and techniques in order to assess which interventions are most effective for the community, and in what situations.
  • Design the framework to incorporate other artistic modalities to appeal to a wider sector of the community
  • Incorporate arts-based practices in workshops on sensitive topics in Foundation Week (such as alcohol use and consent) as a preemptive measures to avoid such conflicts
  • Immediately after a controversial topic arises in online forums, respond with artistic interventions to bring conversation offline
  • Make artistic interventions a consistent part of Minerva culture by establishing the process for each cohort earlier in the year

The four of us, as members of this community, are grateful to have had the opportunity to explore and discover possibilities for artistic intervention within Minerva. We look forward continuing this process through greater learning and constant iteration, and we hope to establish a future of arts-based conflict transformation within Minerva communities in Seoul, San Francisco, and beyond.

Bibliography

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Schirch, L., & Shank, M. (2008). Strategic arts‐based peacebuilding. Peace & Change, 33(2), 217-242. Retrieved March 12, 2017 from http://escolapau.uab.es/img/programas/musica/strategic_arts.pdf

Solleder, S. (2009). UVF Mural about the Peace Process. Retrieved from http://www.continentcontinent.cc/index.php/continent/article/view/230.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (2015). For the child taken away, For the parents left behind. [Brochure]. Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Volkas, A. (2009). Healing the Wounds of History: Drama Therapy in Collective Trauma and Intercultural Conflict Resolution. In D. Johnson & R. Emunah (Eds.), Current approaches in drama therapy (pp. 145-171), Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Ellie, Vini, Sara, and Izzy engaged in the creative process.

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