In the first of a new series of blog posts that coincide with our new monthly workshop series Ways of Being, A Space Director Lyn French explores the history, approach and importance of our emotional learning workshops.
Reflections on the Iniva Creative Learning Workshop Programme from early 2000s-present day
By A Space Director Lyn French
Exploring identity, difference and diversity is always relevant, compelling and emotionally resonant regardless of the times we live in. These subjects touch us all. Each of us must work out who we really are which usually includes challenging some of our skewed self-perceptions as well as re-thinking our place in the world and how we imagine others see us. In tandem, defining and refining who we want to become is a lifelong task. This is supported by increasing our understanding of the rich and complex interplay between messages we pick up from the world around us and our internal thoughts, each influencing the other in ways which may be outside of our conscious awareness. Uncovering our limiting self-beliefs, discovering our agency and creating possibilities for ourselves is a dynamic process. It is never carried out in isolation but within a context shaped by our gender, race, class and culture, all of which are social constructs which also shift and change.
Our current workshop programme, which is now delivered on Zoom either in short blocks or as one-off sessions, has its roots in the history of the Iniva /A Space partnership dating back to the early 2000s. We came together as two organisations with seemingly divergent core aims. However, we recognised the overlap between the range of themes being explored by Iniva artists, curators, thinkers and educators and those which often bring clients to therapy, namely, the wish to explore individual and collective psycho-social histories and to reflect on the complexities of identity more generally.
When the first set of emotional learning cards What do you feel? was co-published by Iniva and A Space, we introduced workshops to provide anyone interested in using them with the opportunity to try out them out under the guidance of a facilitator. As I wrote the texts for these cards, and subsequent sets, it was agreed that I’d create a model for the workshops and facilitate them, drawing on my background as an artist and a psychotherapist. A key feature of therapy which I built into the workshop structure centres on Freud’s concept of free association. In her book Sigmund Freud, Pamela Thurschwell, Reader in English at University of Sussex, described it for the lay person as follows: “The importance of free association is that the patients spoke for themselves instead of repeating the ideas of the analyst; they work through their own material, rather than parroting another’s suggestions”. (Routledge Critical Thinkers Series, 2009)
In the Iniva/ A Space workshops, participants are invited to interpret or respond to art images featured in our emotional learning cards based on whatever comes to mind, that is, to freely associate without censoring their thoughts or putting themselves under pressure to say something that sounds informed or insightful. The workshops are not intended to give weight to what any given artist may have wanted to convey in their work. In contrast, we prioritise the participants’ personal reactions and associations to selected images from our sets. To ease participants into this process, I created a series of ‘Ideas Banks’ which are statements and questions capturing some of my thoughts relating to different facets of identity. When delivering workshops in person, these are printed out and cut into squares or circles so that participants can choose from a selection and match them with the emotional learning cards. For Zoom workshops, participants are emailed an ‘Ideas Bank’ prior to the first session.
Again, there is no ‘correct’ pairing to aim for: any statement or question from any Ideas Bank can be linked to any card. Equally, anyone running a workshop using the emotional learning cards can create their own Ideas Bank highlighting particular themes and pitched at the right level to ensure accessibility depending on the participants’ age and context. As well, Ideas Banks can be created easily by googling apposite quotes on identity and printing these for use in the workshop. Blank slips can also be provided so that, if they choose to, participants can record thoughts or questions and match them to specific cards.
This method of free association has no agenda other than to support participants in learning more about what they think and feel. It works by encouraging creative thinking which, in turn, facilitates intuitive leaps, often leading to new personal insights. Described as a form of unconscious thinking, meanings and connections begin to appear out of seemingly random thoughts or questions. The overarching aim of our workshops is to initiate this kind of co-discovery which enables more intimate sharing. This, in turn, allows for naming and processing sometimes difficult material and developing greater capacity for unmasking unconscious biases about ourselves and others. Just as in therapy sessions, there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ contributions to make, so, too are workshop participants invited to freely offer their thoughts or impressions to discuss, questions to ponder and feelings to reflect on.
Since taking over the workshops from me a few years ago, Georgina Obaya Evans has brought her research interests to the project. Following her first training as an artist, Georgina subsequently qualified as an Art Psychotherapist and then a Yoga Therapist. She brings her own critical thinking and enquiry from these areas to her facilitation of the workshops and will be offering personal reflections on the body, identity and ‘the performance of self’ in the coming weeks.
Image courtesy of Lorna Simpson, Waterbearer, 1986 featured in the Emotional Learning Card set How do you feel?