Language and labelling - by Ulrich Kreienbrink

Reflections on The Promised Land training week in Bologna / San Lazzaro di Savena, Italy (24 – 28 April 2018) by Ulrich Kreienbrink - part of the Stadt Oldenburg group visiting Teatro dell'Argine.

The group at work in MAMBO

The event in Bologna was the second of a total of five training weeks of the project and the first one that my colleagues and I took part in.

The notably well-organised week was packed with informative visits, insight into practices, theoretical foundations and valuable impressions new to me as an “outsider” in the field of grass roots artistic practice with a social approach.

Viewing the work from said outside perspective, I was thankful for and impressed by the openness with which our partners from TdA shared aspects from their decade-long work and their rich experience. Working in a different field and often more concerned about practicalities, I was curious to see how to possibly translate the approaches of the TdA into different administrative and organizational structures and envision possible transfers of knowledge and approaches to our German institutional/municipal museum context.

It is hard to pick single highlights from this very intense training week. In general, I have to mention that I got a glimpse of how much national requirements/aspects/handling regarding the issues at hand may differ in various countries and how much politics shape and influence the various approaches. Also, it became obvious that cooperative efforts are needed.

The opening session on the first day proved to be great demonstration of the methods applied by the TdA, especially as it also doubled as a very effective ice-breaker for the members of the group (resulting in quite a few “oh, that's how they do it – and it works!”- moments for myself). Furthermore, I found the elaboration on the theoretical foundations, among others inspired by the writings of Roger Caillois to be intriguing.

Very impressive was the wide spectrum of practices the TdA engages in: serving as a cultural centre, a theatre, the travelling theatre company and the amount of workshops that are held – 350 in one year. Interesting to note was that while a social approach was part of the whole thing, the emphasis was clearly put on a high artistic standard. That way, mutual human, social and cultural interaction is part or by-product of a creative process rather than an openly declared goal of a pedagogical intent. This approach seems to offer a high openness, adaptability and flexibility, more so than a possibly rigid pedagogical top-down concept. 

To complement this conceptual openness, the TdA staff further elaborated how the teaching process is never “vertical” but “horizontal” instead, meaning that teachers and participants are meeting on eye level. On one hand, this enables participants to forget about learned hierarchies as well as their place therein (a process which was described as “delabeling”) and everyday life in general. On the other hand, participants have the opportunity to explore other roles within the newly provided and playful “rules of the game” i.e. the theatre workshops. That this reimagining and exploration of identities and roles is undertaken in a group offers a space for individual as well as collective experience, thus building a community.

Having been part of the art education/communication team of the ERH previous to my current role, I feel that some aspects of the TdA are present in our practice while are missing, given the differences and possibilities between theatres and exhibition spaces. 

Avoiding a top-down relationship is an important part of the educational practice both in a workshop context but also during guided tours. When visitors are reassured that no specialist knowledge is mandatory in order to decipher or find meaning in artworks, they often recontextualise the exhibits at hand with their own knowledge, personal experience or opinions, entering into a dialogue with the guides and other visitors. This point was also raised during our visit of the MAMBO.

Naturally, this kind of interaction happens on a verbal level in space whereas the methods of the TdA or theatre workshops in general offer physicality as another means of expression and an alternative language. It would be worth exploring possible ways of adapting and translating TdA methods into our museum context, yet this will require the expertise and experience of the members of our educational teams. 

In general, I am inclined to think that there are lots of good practices to be found in the different parts of our municipal structure. It will be an important task for us to approach the various organizational branches, leanr about experiences and bundle the present .knowledge

Besides language barriers, there are also what one might call acceptance barriers - as my colleague Kristina Gerigk pointed out in her report, both the theatre and the museum sectors are widely perceived as being institutions catering to an elitist, often aging populace, requiring a certain register of manners, language and knowledge. Overcoming this preconception is a task that requires dedication, yet one that pays off as our hosts from the TdA stressed. Judging from our local practice I feel confident to confirm this: once the audience gets to know that the topics and discourses shown in a museum are not hermetic and that their perspectives are valued, they are willing to attend more often and also spread their experience by word of mouth.

The method of interaction of the TdA with various communities and partners was of high interest to me, having worked with artists who create community-based performances before. I was impressed to learn how the intense networking over a period of several decades resulted in a high number of people interested to commit to theatre work and become performers. Again, for me this stressed the importance of long-term dedication and frustration tolerance required for comparable projects. The learning curve was high, as admitted by our hosts, resulting in a number of mistakes made and lessons learned during the course of the years.

We were also presented the work of two local NGOs, namely Camelot and GVC. Here, I think, I sadly wasted an opportunity of criticism. GVC showed us their awareness work – basically commercials – aimed at countering specifically Italian prejudices about migrants as a predominantly “male” problem. While the intent certainly is commendable, I found the visual strategies employed here rather problematic: To counter the preconception of the male foreign intruder, the print and online media shoed to us focused on the image of women and children as prime “victims” of migration. While it is hard to argue that these are the weakest links, so to say, and most easily exploited, statistics seem to suggest that a large percentage of migrants are indeed male. Besides any numbers and statistics (which would require some additional research and cross-checking, naturally) I mention this with an eye to specific German perspective: in Germany, a few years after the opening of the borders, this approach faced criticism from several sides. It was claimed in order to paint a “friendlier” image of migration, journalists and media in general focused on images on families, single women and children, neglecting the large numbers of single male migrants – which was at least partly admitted by some papers. This could be considered as strategic and even dishonest reporting and may prove to be counter-productive. My second criticism was the otherwise very well-shot and directed awareness clip, which showed an Arab mother searching for one of her sons. While some shots and incorporated media footage suggested an involvement in terroristic activities, it was later implied that the son chose to live a life as a transvestite. The persecution of homosexuals, especially male ones, is a sad fact in several countries which cannot be argued away. Nonetheless I am unsure whether this may be a too broad and cliché brush to paint Arabic societies with. Numbers will be hard to come by, yet it would be interesting to see statistics to get a glimpse of actual numbers of people fleeing oppression based on their sexual orientation. All in all, while the intent is commendable, I found that almost all of these visual strategies aimed to feminize migration in order to paint a somewhat passive and “less hostile” image which might make sense in the specifically mentioned Italian context but might prove to be detrimental elsewhere or in the long run.

The visits of the schools proved interesting as they illustrated the important role of the teachers of the TdA who offered services which are not part of the general Italian curriculum. The aspect of legislative insecurity as part of the migration issue, directly related to the political fragility or instability of the Italian political system was brought up here for the first but not the last time during our visit. Personally, I found it very illuminating to hear first hand accounts of teachers facing these issues.

Very touching was the visit at the municipality-run Intercultural Center Massimo Zonarelli where we were met by two members of the Association Annassim. They gave us their personal perspective on their initially successful work which slowly fell apart in the years following the economical crisis and the erosion of political culture during the rule of Berlusconi which seemed to have had an profoundly negative effect on the mentality of the country and also the bureaucracy according to both women. I felt this to be another intense reminder of the necessity of political stability and long-term dedication required to maintain intercultural work.

Meeting pupils at schools and as well as the young migrants at the Reception Centre Opera Padre Marella proved to be interesting – while I personally did not have a specific set of questions I wanted to ask in mind, I noted how keen some of them were very keen to learn about methods of employment in our respective countries. This I took as a reminder how these young men set out with the goal to get the means to building a better life. 

Some of the guys from the reception centre we met again at the open rehearsal of the ESODI workshop for the Tower of Babel production. Personally, I think this invitation was an impressive demonstration of the concepts of the TdA put into action. After being introduced to the group my means of the ice breaking techniques described earlier, we were allowed to watch the complete rehearsal, witnessing the dedication with which all participants put their everyday lives aside and focusing on the play, which reminded me of the introduction at the Teatro. So in a way we went full circle with this visit.

There could be many more aspects of the training week which I could write about here as there was incredible amount of impressions we were offered. This, though, also made two slightly more critical things clear: On the one hand there was the realization that not all group members are on the same page concerning cultural sensibility and knowledge (myself most definitely included) and that some primers or additional schooling/information would have been helpful. On the one hand we should have taken more to time for reflection during the week to let the experiences of the days sink in and exchange our views and impressions and altogether reflect on what we have seen and experienced. As all group members felt that way, I am very much looking forward to see this being implemented into the further training.

I general, I feel the need to again stress how stimulating, thought-inspiring and also cordial the whole experience has been for me. There will be opportunities for further constructive, engaged and friendly exchanges of approaches and practices and learning from different people.