Sailing the archipelagos of collective practices

2023.01.10

By Chloe Luchs

This article is the third of a series that draws the first intermediary conclusions from the “Creative Collective Practices for Transformation” project, as part of the Plurality University Network’s Narratopias program: “Collective creative practices for transformation: first lessons learned.

A Google doc version is available for download, and to receive your comments.

“To have a practice, you need to have a community of practice” (Anna Tiquia, All Tomorrows Futures). At the beginning of our research on Collective Creative Practices for Transformation, this affirmation justly represented our ambition of federating practices using arts and creativity with the public to activate transformation. An implicit desire of knowledge exchange and curiosity towards the creation of a field of practice in order to act on various problematics observed, and to develop a better understanding of our commons. What is it, in our practices, that allow us to converge, to diverge? How can we inspire each other? Can we find ways to put, or not, common meanings on our intuitions, our intentions and our actions? Can we learn more about the impacts of our projects?

Launched at the end of 2021, the Collective Creative Practices for Transformation (CCP) project aims to create a community that involves groups from around the world who develop collective and creative practices (theater, writing, design, poetry..) with intentions of transforming something related to the current state of the world, towards the emergence of a field of practice. After a year of gathering and discussing the artistic and fictional narratives that feed these collective and creative spaces (conducted during a first umbrella project in 2021), this project is born from an intuition drawn from observations: could the conditions for these practices to play a transformative role lie in their collective character? That is, the moments of co-creation, preparation and discussion in the process of a creative production. Moreover, it seems that all over the world, these artistic, fragile and experimental practices are multiplying and gaining both terrain and participants.

During a webinar organized by the Elisabeth Bruyère School of Social Innovation with Judith Bulter, Elsa Dorlin and Françoise Vergès, the three panelists agreed on a general portrait of the situation of our world today: we are at a moment of collective suffocation and “exhaustion of bodies and minds”. In fact, in their opinion, the spaces where we can express ourselves freely and creatively are narrowing down significantly (even if technology makes us feel like they are expanding) and many liberties and collective initiatives are being restrained by different political, economic and social processes. More than ever, it seems urgent to multiply spaces of liberated expression where it is possible to imagine alternatives with others for more inclusive and desirable futures. These spaces, refuges and sanctuaries are “essential”, as they allow us to practice imagination, to learn to dialogue with others around new images generated and to set directions towards the worlds we want to inhabit. The time spent in these spaces are valuable occasions to glimpse at other possibilities and ignite new hopeful perspectives.

Who are the Collective Creative Practices for Transformation?

There is undoubtedly a common desire on the part of the initiators of these practices to help guide current social-ecological systems towards desirable and necessary transformations for a sustainable world, by creating open spaces to help social imaginaries get back on track.

In these spaces, a participant learns to use or practice artistic formats; to develop tools for thinking and reflecting; and, to cultivate ideas that could inspire action towards constructive changes for the world. It goes without saying that in order to change the reality of a specific society, imagination is an essential resource providing alternatives to sometimes pragmatic and cemented imaginaries, such as the reorganization of certain things that exist solely because they have a lingering status of existing.

Besides the obvious benefit in the encounters between our initiatives and the creation of a community (making visible and accessible our explorations, methods, challenges and new learnings), our wish is also to gently legitimize these spaces of fragile practices. By keeping a trace of their history and setting up procedures to perpetuate and assemble them, we want to figure out how the plurality of what we all stand for and do (people, things, ideas), can connect and weave into something of a commons, something of a bigger unit (Latour, 2005) .

The project becomes political when the individuals and groups who initiate a creative practice feel responsible and concerned by one or more ecological, social or economic issues and wish to activate a change by federating a collective (1).
Our initial intuition is to assume - like any other process or initiative - that the creation of a space can be motivated by the desire to solve a problem (climate crisis, conflicts, poverty, immigration, oppressive man-nature relation, patriarchy, racism…).

The energy behind putting in place this kind of practice comes from a strong aspiration to activate a paradigm shift and bring other individuals towards taking part in that transformation, by offering a space to experiment other possible visions for a livable world. The practitioners we have met so far in this first step of the project carry the desire to activate (more or less radical) changes against stifling injustices they have identified as being their cause.

So far, we have been able to identify four types of transformative intentions behind these practices, to:

  • Make individuals and groups aware of the roles they have to play in the face of climate catastrophe and the social injustices that result from it;
  • Recreate spaces for liberated expression and dialogue around polarizing issues and experiment with forms of sharing;
  • Give visibility and room to voices of marginalized individuals and communities;
  • Develop imagination skills and the ability to project oneself of participating individuals and groups;

What we know today is that the practices we are federating share at least three commonalities:

  • They create open spaces that activate the encounter between disciplines, cultures and environments. Whether it is the art format, the diversity of participants, or the flexibility in the venues, fluidity in the organization and openness to differences are important values shared by these practices.

  • They are evolving practices. Most of the practitioners we spoke with said they are continually searching for new methods to adapt, integrate or mix with their own, in order to meet the needs of the individuals, groups or themes being addressed.

  • They have difficulty understanding how to evaluate their impacts because they operate on different logics than those used for “changemaking” and hence, cannot use common evaluation methods. These practices are still searching to articulate the link between the individual’s creative experience, the collective’s creative experience and the relation between the collective experience of a practice and concrete actions.

How to create common knowledge in our community

During a session of exchange and experimentation we call Agora: Ingredients for change , it was noted by the group Seeds of Good Anthropocenes that, delimiting common notions to an emerging community could rigidify a set of principles and stifle the emergence of new understanding. So, how then do we build common knowledge and distinguish common typologies towards being a community and building a field of practice?
Especially when the practices we are studying use everything differently: from methods to approaches and artistic formats. Do we need to find some kind of vocabulary specific to the Collective Creative Practices for Transformation? What could allow us to all address “our field of practice” in a way we can recognize its practices and identify our common potentialities and limitations, our similarities and differences as a community of practice?

If we start with a general perspective on what these practices are trying to do by taking Edouard Glissant’s work on the metaphor of relation through archipelagic thinking, we can allow ourselves to look at our community as a hesitant and intuitive movement where differences can link us in a plural, diverse and narrative form. Archipelagic thinking offers a lens to think of commons. Namely, gathering around values, strategies, relations, projects, towards the common change we want to see. The archipelago is also a strong image as it gives us a symbolic form to depict collectives as islands floating in waters. The water could be our field of practice with similar values and goals. Projects, as boats in the water, navigating between the islands.
To think of this community as an agile, fragile and flexible network is also described in Corinne Morel Darleux’s article as the possibility of a new form of political project for the 21st century. To begin by welcoming our differences and the fact that we can all be at “our post” whilst contributing to a larger political plan.
As our wish is not to fit these practices in the same boxes, but rather to look at this field as a rhizometricform, that extends from one root to the other, allowing a few practitioners to meet towards reactivating many things, such as our political desires, around several archipelagos of common issues, themes, problematics, that help guide the strength of this new field’s potential.

After several months of Agoras, of interviews, certain questions have been raised by our beginnings:

  • Regarding this community of practice: are we able to specify the reasons why we choose to invite certain collective and creative practices and others not? Is it possible to map or gather several definitions, quotes or even larger motifs in which the practices we federate also identify? Is it possible to do this while keeping the evolving aspect of classifications? How does the use of creative forms allows us to achieve certain transformative goals, whatever they may be?

  • With regard to creative and collective practices: what do they wish to transform? Who are the target audiences? What are the indicators that the practices are succeeding in their transformative objectives? In what ways are these desired transformations expressed in creative formats?

  • With regard to the reception and the effect of these practices on collectives: who are the publics or individuals involved in these practices and what makes them a “collective” together? What is the link between the creative process and the creation of a collective? How do the initiators’ desired transformations act on these individuals and the collective they are aimed for?

How to build a community with Agoras and interviews

In order to compare our experiences with those of other practices and to continue to evolve in an international and changing field of action, the Agoras offer an online space open to all who wish to learn more about these approaches and for practitioners to share their different paths, challenges and advances.

The feedback we received from the Agoras is consistent with its intentions: many practitioners feel grateful that such a space exists and find it enriching to discover new people, new tools and methods from everywhere in the world. Nevertheless, it is important to mention that the dynamic online format of the Agoras offers an opportunity to experience the experience of a practice as it runs always online. The strength and the limit of these get togethers as they glimpse at the experience the participants might live, but from them are subtracted everything linked to the context, the field and the community in which it is rooted.

During these reported and/or reproduced zoomed-in practices, it is possible that several conditions limit the potential of an immersion with others in a creative activity. Screens, poor connection or transmission, the digital supports used such as Miro, and even working towards building common grounds with strangers from a distance, are examples of the factors that can influence the experience. Moreover, in order not to tire the participants on zoom, the Agoras last a maximum of two hours. They offer the glimpse of a practice which, in order to generate the impression of creating a common, must undoubtedly be built over several sessions with the same participants.

This is a considerable teaching as it shows us that the context (place, people, format) and the time allocated to the practice are conditions for its success. Our next step for these sessions of community building will be to define a number of questions to ask practitioners, to understand their motivation in attending these activities.
Furthermore, these observations show us that if we want to look into the impact of these practices, we will need to look more closely at the experience of the participants who attend the practice spaces of the community we are federating.
The Agoras sessions are not a space to study the reception of the participants but are nevertheless very valuable as they offer a meeting space for practitioners from around the world.

How to use transformation

Several questions were asked about the weight of the word transformation in Collective Creative Practices for Transformation. Did the transformation provoke the desire to initiate practice and/or is it the objective of the collective activities carried out by the practitioners as we mentioned above? For instance, what are the motivations behind creating fictional writing workshops on the future of work with workers from corporations? Or, theater workshops on resilient futures for a city? And even fictional tik-tok short films on biodiversity with youth?

At this stage of the research, the use of the word transformation is still very broad. What does it wish to trigger and is it able to presume it has achieved its goal?

In order to understand if there is a collective effect produced from the desire of transformation that initiates these practices, it is necessary to depict which transformation(s) to observe and how they evolve in time. According to the practitioner Vera Sacchetti, a transformational objective can be largely formulated at different steps of a project or during the elaboration of an action. In the Driving the Human initiative, a call for artistic propositions was sent after a time of deliberation around the objectives of the overall project, to create new visions for ecological and social renewal. The objectives must, in Vera Sacchetti’s opinion, remain gaseous in order to allow the emergence of new forms.

Moreover, it is possible to understand the impact of the desired transformation in several ways without constraining the creativity of the collectives involved. For example, by receiving feedback from the participants at different moments during the process, by receiving feedback from the public during the presentations of the creative format, or even by following how certain ideas travel or are reproduced in other environments. It is a shared belief, between the practitioners we’ve met so far, that creating set boxes of success criteria before starting a practice defies the objectives of transformation in question, as they rely on the current standards for project evaluation. These practices are precisely set up to overcome these evaluation techniques which are, for many, the reasons why we are calling for “new narratives” today.

How to create collective dynamics

How to observe the dynamic actualization between creative ideas that imagine other worlds and the creation of new collective forms? What does the emergence of such a space look like? Currently, the community we are federating to identify the limits of this new field of practice articulate their desire for transformation in either or, the choice of participants, the tools used for collective creation, the content explored and the form produced.

For example, the Laboratoire d'expression et de créations (LABEC), a project put in place by the non-profit Plus Loin situated at Porte de Bagnolet in Paris, encourages individuals from working-class neighborhoods to express themselves through performing arts. Working fictional scenes through improvisation and dialogues, this initiative is part of a transformational, and therefore political, process as the project started from the desire to build capacities and confidence in the attending participants. Each week and for several years, the project noticed a growth in their collective of practice, as the older members became more involved in the organization and recruitment of new participants. LABEC does not explicitly explore “transformative” content or themes, but acts in the name of social transformation.

The SPACE project has also a common vocation of theater practice and expression for social objectives. The sessions usually include climate and political refugees. However, unlike LABEC, SPACE’s creative space’s goal is to engage the participants on a social and ecological front by investing it with speculative scenarios as well as stories that trickle down from present or past experiences of the participating audiences. The objective is to build new dynamics and practice dialogue for common grounds. The acquisition of a new creative skill is rather a secondary objective here as the artistic format evolves and adapts itself to the different contexts of practice.

In the project Stories from 2050, the public is not identified as being the primary concern of the transformational objectives but is rather positioned as a leverage for advocacy. The design fiction device is put in place to demonstrate that a significant number of people can be engaged in a reflection on sustainable worlds. The objective of this project is therefore to create a report responding to set quantitative and qualitative objectives set by the funding body - in this case, the EU. The secondary objective would be to raise awareness by pushing the public towards experimenting with disastrous climate scenarios and identifying what needs to change in order to prevent humankind from reaching a place of non-return. The methodology put in place by Stories from 2050 starts with the same scenarios for every public and is structured to follow specific steps along the way.

In this case, the project is less focused on the creating a collective as the design process is always the same (the participants are for the most part, one-time visitors to the creative space, unless they want to try out another of the four scenarios). Therefore, the role of the collective creation is slightly accessory: the objective is not as much to produce creative content of quality collectives can feel proud about (although this might of course happen), but to produce a specific quantity of stories to be reported. This is another way to explore how creative research for transformation is put in place on levels we do not completely grasp. It will be interesting to further look at how this data is used by higher instances. It will also be useful to consider this level of initiative in our definitions of transformational motives from our community which is today described as being acted by the collectives.

In one of the initiatives from the Tomorrowland project created by the School of International Futures (SOIF), Finn Strivens works to raise awareness amongst youth on issues related to global sustainability (the future being a pretext to build capacities and shape actors of change). Together with different groups, they determine the theme of their exploration as well as the creative form they wish to practice. In this case, the transformative dynamic is decided during the meeting between the practitioner and the collective, in a distinct spatial context (program, school, center). Strivens’ desire for transformation is to teach youth to think more systematically about their futures. Therefore, the topic is not identified at the beginning of the practice, but emerges during the process. Within this larger frame and throughout the project, there is a collective negotiation and decision-making process to determine the topic, the format and the final production.

This last example is interesting as the desired transformation becomes visible at each stage of the project, up to the final production, through a multitude of decision-making moments. According to Strivens, between the time the group is created and the final production, the method remains flexible in order to let new forms influence automatic responses, and allows surprising ideas to be raised by the group.

It is perhaps in this dynamic, one that arises from the process and where it is possible to acquire new capacities with others while agreeing and disagreeing on notions that become common, where we can distinguish some of the typologies of collective transformations. Indeed, to dialogue, to find a common meaning, to learn about new issues, to express oneself differently, is also working on developing important capacities to listen, dialogue, consent, support and of course, collaborate.

Specifying even largely the transformations we wish to observe in our community towards building a field of practice, will allow us to study how they can translate into actions and how they have been embraced by the participants. It will also help us delimit the field of practice we are identifying and the actors who are part of it.

How to use creative forms in the collective process

The use of art and creation in a collective process encourages us to consider another important condition in the participants’ experience and reception of the transformational objectives set by the initiators of a practice: the public’s affects.
Art and creativity make us relativize and redefine certain knowledge through emotion rather than rationality. In a creative space working towards producing a message, the participants also learn to integrate more intimate forms of expression to thoughts to discourse. Furthermore, by using creative formats such as theater, design, poetry, fiction writing, the community we are federating is sending a clear message saying that we need to explore new strategies of idea-building. Creative spaces are by essence evolving and subversive. By building artistic and creative format with participants who are not always familiar with these techniques, these practices are stating a desire to change the way we build knowledge – and who we build it with – in order to open up new paths for the future.

How to build a collective of practice

The creation of a collective to practice a creative activity is an initiative that may require certain considerations from the organizers, especially if the objective is to generate one or more transformations. If our initial intuition suggests that a transformation occurs from the constitution of collectives, there are certain elements to consider in order to make the encounters favorable between the participants during the creative activity. In other words, how does a collective feel like a collective? What are the conditions that allow this to happen in a creative activity?

The SPACE project uses documentary theater, interactive play and installations in public spaces to dissect complex social issues such as migration, polarization, inequality, gentrification and decolonization. These workshops are for the most part face-to-face and the participants are socially engaged or directly concerned with the issue in question. In contrast, Stories from 2050 virtually brings together a remote and international network under the seal of the EU and on identified themes relating to the climate crisis. The work is conducted online in subgroups of four or five and the pace moves rapidly between the different exercises.

During this first step of the Collective Creative Practices project, we were able to observe that on one hand, the rigidity of a method, a vision, an approach could prevent creative immersion during a collective practice. Other experiences demonstrated that the opposite was also true: the lack of structure and/or mediation created sometimes disjointed, cacophonous and discouraging situations, making the experience frustrating, or even impossible.

In order to enable a creative production participants are proud of, it is necessary to set a general framework, to remain attentive and to clearly set some rules (the spirit under which the session will take place, the way to behave between each other, how to build ideas constructively, the objectives of the day, the tools used…).
In these evolving spaces, the dynamic between the collectives and the creative process is constantly creating the knowledge used by the community we are federating. And, the collectives are composed of individuals. Therefore, taking into account the conditions specific to a positive experience are important elements to further consider for the next step of the research. While one-time zoom practices offer an introduction to creative and offbeat formats, it seems that a practice conducted solely online is limiting for building a collective with unknown participants and in living a transformative creative experience. In the years to come, we will look more closely at the collective experience as well at the intimate connection participants may have with the desired transformation that initiated the practice.

Why do participants attend these practices?

The practices we are federating usually rely on volunteer individuals. Their presence can be motivated by several elements:

  • The theme explored (climate, city of the future, border…)
  • The desire to learn more about the methodological device (collaborative writing, game, design…);
  • The desire to improve an artistic discipline (writing, theater, painting…);
  • The desire to experience a creative immersion with others in an imaginary world.

Furthermore, the individuals who attend their workshops generally share certain characteristics with the initiators or organizers (discipline, theme, interest…) or belong to a targeted demographic group (youth, migrants, women…).

For example, the LABEC wishes to give another image to youth from working-class neighborhoods. The space welcomes new participants and offers a practice where the emergence of new ideas is encouraged. The production of the day is decided at every session and sometimes, many times during the session if the work of the day is to explore different themes of exercises.
There are usually one or two days a week where audiences can meet at their leisure, as their presence is optional. The LABEC has been able to build trust with the public participating and has become very much integrated in the social fabric of the neighborhood, enough to see familiar faces appear every week without needing to recruit participants.

Participants in Anne Caroline Prévot’s Science Fiction Committee seek to experience creative and collective construction in immersion with other practices and disciplines, around a theme they care for, such as biodiversity. In this practice, the collective builds around a common creative project and takes “the time to do it together”. The CSF is part of a punctual program with a final creative objective. Here, the participants were chosen for their desire to work together as a collective. In this small group, the absence of an individual is felt and his absence will have an influence on the direction of the final production.

Conclusion

The first stage of the project allows us to define, even broadly, the limits of the community that we wish to federate towards creating a field of practice. These spaces have a unique spirit, specific and inherent to the experiences and affects of the participants who compose them. Therefore, the productions also depend on the collectives and the practices that nourish them. Furthermore, these spaces have the distinctive feature of being based on a temporal dynamic and a renewed process, built for and supported by the spaces of exploration: contexts, themes, participants, devices…

By creating spaces where it is possible to imagine and express oneself, these practices are also inventing possibilities by allowing collectives to free themselves from suffocating infrastructures even for the time of a workshop, a practice, a session… Insofar as the impact of the desired transformations for our community of practice, for our field and for each individual Collective Creative Practice is not yet identifiable, what we can say with certainty is that these spaces are multiplying and demonstrate a strong desire to inspire action towards some changes and societal movement, by also building towards a larger project.

In order to continue circumscribing, even broadly, the desired transformation that initiated these practices, we wish to continue our exchanges with the practices identified as well as reach out to others that are continuously being invented. Furthermore, before exploring the process experienced by the participants, we will also start specifying the conditions to the contexts of these spaces and clearly pull out a number of typologies from the exchanges with our community (Agora and interviews). This will allow us to approach the individual and collective reception of these practices with a starting set of elaborated questions.
In addition, we wish to ensure a follow-up with the practices that we’ve already discussed and observed as it will allow us to consider on a longer temporality, the impacts of these practices and how they infuse through collective work. For an important question persists: what can remain of a project once it reaches its end?

(1)- Translated from, Joie militante : construire des luttes en prise avec leurs mondes (Joyful Militancy : building thriving resistance in toxic times) . By Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery. Édition du commun, 2021, Rennes, p.188.