Project in Practice 24 August 2017

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As a NoVA on exchange in Spring semester 2017 in Oslo, one of the courses offered at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences within Masters in Aesthetic Subjects curriculum was called Project in Practice (PIP). The course focused on development, planning, and production of practical artistic projects included in artistic research in diverse aesthetic fields. It emphasized the development of ideas through practical pre-projects, presentations, and demonstrations of the students’ own practical work. The students’ practical projects were contextualized through relevant contemporary discourses connected to the field of interest and direction of study, and it included examples of perspectives on globalization, resilience, diversity, and gender in the aesthetic field. The course also aimed at situating practical and organizational projects in a wider knowledge-based frame related to ‘sensuous knowledge’.

Particular to the PIP course was the opportunity to collaborate on a project with other Masters students participating in various Masters in Aesthetic Subjects programs at HiOA. In the beginning of the course, students were asked to describe their interest in working alone or collaborating on a project, and thereafter to describe in pairs their abilities, interests, and ideas. The result of the exercises, for myself, was the conclusion that collaboration was an opportunity I wanted to embrace. Together with a theater student, I became involved in developing a project we called Forum Teater Aktivitet: Exploring the Use and Value of Forum Theater in Norwegian Language and Cultural Learning.

Statement of Need

The recent influx of refugees and migrants into Europe from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia has presented European leaders and policymakers with one of their greatest challenges to date. It is a complex issue that can be viewed from many different perspectives and has raised questions about security, sovereignty, and integration that could have a lasting social, economic, and political impact on the European Union (EU).

(T)he flow of refugees has become a political pressure point playing a major role in the wave of nationalist, racist, and anti-Muslim movements that now ravage Europe and the US. These refugees stand in the middle of a politically and culturally polarized society, splitting the people of Europe in two – an event already seen in the US since President Trump’s election. (Hvid, 2017)

Pew Research Center recently published a study of public opinion towards refugees and migrants in ten European countries (Poushter, J. 2016). The study showed that around 59 percent of ten EU countries voice concern about the prospect of increased terrorism with rises in immigration. The study revealed that 49 percent of the public believes that increased numbers of refugees from e.g. Syria and Iraq, poses a major threat to their communities, and in general, 43 percent have a negative view of Muslims in their community. Overall, the study showed that few Europeans believe growing diversity makes their country a better place to live.

While Norway at present is still less polarized than many other European countries, it is also seeing a shift in the electorate. According to FrP leader and Finance Minister Siv Jensen, Fremskrittspartiet will take a much tougher stance against immigration for the next election in Norway. Clear in the coming elections in September 2017, is that among the three main questions to be answered by all parties during the campaign is: How to prevent social division during a time of immigration? It is within the context and climate of the present moment that my student colleague and I chose to take up work with addressing this issue in the Project in Practice the course.

Inspiration

We decided our project design would cleave to artistic practice up to now known by many names: community art, participatory arts, community-engaged arts, socially engaged arts, arts for social justice, artist and community collaboration, relational or dialogical art, applied aesthetics, and community cultural development. With little serious experience of working with this practice for either of us, limited knowledge of the shared norms within the context of its practice, how it is being shaped, what historical background nourishes it, and least, what aesthetic issues it raises, I was initially somewhat hesitant to engage in a project which would intimately touch people’s lives or had the potential for real impact. The project raised many questions in me concerning the blurring of boundaries between socially engaged art, social work and therapy and I began to challenge my perception of the divisions.

Artists and art educators who approach art and art education as a social endeavor have inspired my interest, and I recognized my own impulses toward critical theoretical and political work in the PIP project as “fueled by a passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environments, an education that is worthy of its name—in short a better world” (APPLE, 2011, p.12). Inspiration for the project was partly drawn from our own lived experiences with oppression and immigrant education, and from the theater practices of Augusto Boal, founder of Theater of the Oppressed (TO), whose work was meant to “provide assistance to the oppressed own liberation, and to give them this help in the form of tools from the theatre language and aesthetics” (Aure, Bjerkestrand & Songe-Møller, 2013) and which was named in honor of Paulo Freire’s, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Both the Theater of the Oppressed and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed were powerfully transformational in their original contexts.

Similar research work in theater related instructional methodologies has been made by Songe-Møller and Bjerkestrand in their project focused on developing Solidarity Forum Theater (SFT), described in their article Empowerment of Citizens in a Multicultural Society (2012).  In the article, Emancipatory Theater and Performative Didactics (2013), Aure, Songe-Møller and Bjerkestrand described their contemporary and experimental work with the innovative and holistic approach of SFT and its significance to learning and community development. Through our preliminary research, we discovered many similar studies conducted with a focus on immigrant education and applied theater techniques and we also used many of these projects as inspiration.

 

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Goals and Objectives

The purpose of the workshops was to create a praxis (Freire, 1968, 2003) of critical aesthetics (Carey, 1998) in which participants engaged in a series of aesthetically grounded experiences aimed at confronting own lived experiences with oppression. This was to lay the groundwork for creating a community performance aimed at revealing and disorienting previously conceived notions about immigration. And to imagine alternative immigrant education which could be referenced as constructivist, student-focused, inquiry based, dialogic, collaborative, multi-vocal and project-based. The desired outcome of the project was to acquire knowledge of the intersection of forum theater and immigrant education to identify if and how effective pedagogical theory relevant to immigrants aligns with improvisational theater models towards a re-orientation of immigrant education based on perspectives of the “Other”.

The project had two main objectives:

1.) To explore the use and value of forum theater in the context of Norwegian language and cultural learning as non-traditional language pedagogy, understanding that pedagogy and language can be seen as a tool to construct people as the “Other” and force them to acculturate. (Sarabia, 2003)

2.) To respond to the profound challenges of integrating immigrants and building stronger communities through cultural production, with Forum Theater’s emphasis on the procedural, participatory, and liberatory, focusing on how it “can contribute to individuals becoming conscious and to changes in society.” (Aure et al., 2013)

Timeline

Within the time frame of four weeks, my student colleague and I took Forum Teater Aktivitet through the following phases and touched on the last :

  • Contact and Contract: The first phase consisted of contacting St. Olav’s Parish, a non-profit organization offering Norwegian language and cultural classes to newly arrived immigrants. We shared information on Forum Theater and agreed on how to frame the project. We met with the charity coordinator to discuss our project, time, place, and duration of work. The meeting resulted in the obtainment of an ongoing contract to use St. Olav’s facilities to make drama workshops available to interested immigrants within a specific timeframe.
  • Knowledge and Invitation: The second phase consisted of visiting two language classes, introducing ourselves, sharing basic knowledge about forum theater with them, and inviting interested individuals to join. We described our affiliations and provided information about the project to the potential participants. Unclear as to what findings would be made, the project was framed in terms of the above mentioned two goals.
  • Constructing the Workshop: We worked together to describe individual roles in the project, discussed our individual strengths and weaknesses, talked about how to support one another in the project’s aims, and how to collect data that within our focus area while following good, ethical practice. Having experience with forum theater, my student colleague was responsible for choosing relevant applied theater activities that fit the goals of projects objectives to work with the aims of TO. With experience with second language pedagogy and immigrant education, I would fill the role of language consultant and, would look for commonalities in models and strategies to apply to the workshops, while experiencing the workshops as a participant observer.
  • Mutual Encounter: This phase involved encounters between immigrants and Master’s students and included introductory training courses with games, activities, and cases from Augusto Boal’s work. Due to participant inconsistency, and dealing with newcomers to the course, this phase took up a large portion of time in the workshops.
  • Experienced Life Stories Became Theater: Master’s students and immigrants shared stories of oppression with each other. Everyday experiences taken from various places including doctor’s office, jobs, restaurant, and shops, where oppression was part of the experience, were used as cases and performed. These forum play presentations highlighted a reality where oppression was present and opened for our work with more serious issues. Both Master’s students and immigrant were actors.

Findings

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The use of forum theater as a critical aesthetic approach made it possible to create a space for sharing stories and discussion of complex issues, where, together with the multi ethnic participants in the project, we dealt with race, class, gender, and citizenship issues common to their experiences in the community as immigrants. We used stories and performance to create living images about how to strategize about common problems experienced when integrating into the Norwegian culture and the barriers of otherness were broken down through work with improvisational theater techniques toward a mutual sense of commonality and community. What resulted was an authentic experience of cultural dialogue that provided participants with the means for communicating values, traditions, beliefs and experiences, and which my student colleague and I experienced, contained the potential result of better understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity.

Through this project, the “parallels between the processes of art and education” (Helguera, 2011, p. 11) Pablo Helguera describes having observed, became very clear and we began to understand what Helguera meant when he described how relying on the field of education can enable artists to address some of the greater challenges like immersion into communities and understanding their concerns, using communities as utilitarian capacities and so on (Helguera, 2011). Likewise, it was easy to see how many educators claiming to be inspired by Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, can mistakenly transform Freire’s notion of dialogue into a method, and lose sight of the fundamental goal of dialogical teaching, “to create a process of learning and knowing that invariably involves theorizing about the experiences shared in the dialogue process” (Macedo, in Freire, 1970).

Through the experience of facilitating the workshops, it became clear to us that  the project enabled the participants as well as the facilitators to experience “how the arts can be used to release imagination and open up new perspectives” (Greene, 1995, p.19), and how it is possible “to work for the ability to look at things as if they could be otherwise” (Green, 1995, p. 19). We found evidence that supported the possibility to align communicative language approaches and pedagogy with improvisational theater methods, and the use of improvisational theater methods gave opportunities to work with material relevant to each individual participant and their own lives. We also found friction in terms of Norwegian language ability and use when working with personal issues of oppression, when without notice all participants and facilitators switched over to speaking English when communicating difficult experiences. We gained a lot of experience and insight through the project while learning to adapt to the many struggles and challenges experienced along the way.

We discussed how, throughout the project, we felt pulled in different directions: as critical analysts, art educators, activists, artists, and performers, while fumbling our way in our social praxis. Regardless of a lack of experience and confidence, reaching for the radical does not feel like a foolhardy task at this moment, and educating people toward a whole systematic way of looking at things is crucial, so more than anything, I am encouraged to continue my own development and work with art as social practice. What an inspiration it has been to work on such meaningful projects with the many talented students and teachers at HiOA, and how fascinating it was to experience the art scene in Oslo!

 

21015612_10155540061929373_2062034565_n Claudia Lucacel (left) Jennifer Skriver (right)

From the wild shores of Southcentral Alaska with 16 years living all over Denmark. Jennifer Skriver is currently participating in the NoVA Masters program at Aalborg University. She has a comprehensive pedagogical background with over 8 years in a variety of educational settings, including cross-cultural and international settings, immigration educational and adult second language settings. With a focus in art education, Jennifer is inspired and dedicated to promoting the arts in public educational and cultural institutions, enhancing understanding of and helping audiences to relate, connect and identify with modern and contemporary art through creating interdisciplinary links and incorporating contemporary art in various educational settings. She is currently focusing her coursework at the intersection of art, pedagogy, and democracy, with the goal of understanding how to foster civic engagement and social justice through art, education, and cultural work towards change and transformation. She is dedicated to working with youth and adults within communities and experimenting with social institutions and communal life. Passionate towards the aims of democracy and inspired by liberatory education and critical and feminist pedagogy, she also enjoys using photography and visual communication skills for storytelling and documentation.