Can Creativity Change the World?

The AtWork Manifesto

Many, Many (people), 2011 — Pascale-Mhartine Tayou, Moleskine Foundation Collection.

“We have nothing to teach anyone… This inner light that belongs to everyone just asks to come out; and provided that we have the necessary intellectual and human tools, our role is to help this light reveal itself and flourish.”

— Simon Njami

AtWork is an itinerant educational format, conceived by Moleskine Foundation and Simon Njami, that uses the creative process to stimulate critical thinking and debate among the participants. It contributes building a new generation of thinkers. Driven by the conviction that creative skills are key to producing positive change in society and making our collective future, we wish to provide formats of learning, knowledge acquisition and thinking that differ from those often applied in formal education systems. The right to quality education, free access to information, and sharing of knowledge should be some of the fundamental and undeniable principles for planetary citizenship. Through AtWork, Moleskine Foundation is committed to providing youths from marginalized communities with unconventional educational tools and experiences that help foster the three Cs: critical thinking, creative doing and continuous learning.

An unconventional transformative experience

The unique approach of the AtWork format combines inspiring creative practices and poetics with scientific and educational methods. The AtWork format is composed of four main moments: the workshop, the exhibition, the community and the collection. The combination of these elements creates the unique quality of the format. AtWork is neither interested in schooling nor in proposing solutions or remedies. AtWork does not offer an artistic training or a course in specialized disciplines. What AtWork offers is much more — a transformative experience on the path of continuous learning throughout life with individual and social impact. The workshops offer the rare opportunity to encounter a new way of reasoning, of knowledge and of experimentation, in order to develop not only a different point of view but a personal posture of thinking.

Born and developed in the African continent, the AtWork format expanded into world. Workshops have been implemented in the cities of Dakar, Kampala, Venice, Cairo, Addis Ababa, Athens, Harare, Lisbon, Douala and New York, among many others.

“AtWork allowed me to find who I am and to guide my creative approach which is inscribed today, in a quest for self, that is body, soul, spirit. For years I had wondered if I was crazy or if I had lost all sense and reasoning. Thanks to this experience I received the answers to my questions, I am just a sensitive, creative person. I know how to get closer to my ME and how to exist without having a big inner fear veiled by my smile. I can smile without worry and live as I am. With my visions and in pursuit of my dream as multidisciplinary artist.”

— Claude Massassa-Bunny, AtWork participant

How does it work?

The key element of AtWork is a workshop conducted by a charismatic and successful professional in the creative or academic field. For the duration of one year, a curated workshop theme tours several cities worldwide which host a workshop and build an even wider, international community of AtWork partners. Understanding its role as a unifier between different actors in society, AtWork invites cultural and educational institutions (from the national level to the grassroots) to apply in an Open Call in order to host and implement the workshop with us. So far AtWork has partnered with numerous cultural institutions that represent those trailbrazing voices that can transform and innovate education and create cultural programs able to uplift their communities.

Based on the local partner’s expertise and networks, we co-create the workshop, select its conductor and develop a call for applications to be disseminated through already established information channels. We encourage young people especially from economically and socially marginalized communities to participate in the workshop. The selection process, carried out with our local partner, aims at bringing together participants with diverse social, educational, professional and cultural backgrounds. The chosen topic stimulates the collective discussion and a personal self-reflection on issues such as identity, culture, community, etc.

Far from the conventional frontal classroom situation, the workshops create a safe space of mutual respect. Preventing the traditional power relationship between teacher and students, only experimentation and “knowledge sharing” are relevant. AtWork focuses primarily on training thinking skills rather than acquiring new knowledge. Critical thinking and the ability to learn how to learn are priority targets. These soft skills are becoming increasingly important in contemporary educational programs and are crucial 21st century skills. As a final output of the workshop, each student produces a personal expression of their thought process through the object of a Moleskine notebook. In a public and collective exhibition, bringing together all the chapters of one thematic tour, these notebooks are exhibited as the reflection of a thought at work.

Workshop

One of the participants summed up what we aim to achieve within the workshop when she said: “I discovered in the AtWork workshop what is missing in my school: the intimate contact and exchange with my peers and a conductor who can give direct, personal feedback in a safe environment.”

The workshops are arranged in an informal, horizontal setting: workshop participants, conductors and facilitators encounter each other in a circle of mutual respect that gives the opportunity to interact with each other in a direct and personal manner. The safe and judgment-free space created in the workshops allows for discussions and interactions to unfold. The participants, invited to apply through an open call, form a diverse group of young people from different educational, social and professional backgrounds. The diversity of the group plays an elemental role in the success of the format. “Participants were coming from different disciplines: that in itself is enriching. A writer of novels would come with a different experience and viewpoint than a sculptor. We can benefit from each other,” states another workshop participant.

Following intense, free and challenging discussions in the group, each participant produces a personal expression of their thought process through the object of the notebook. In a public exhibition, co-curated and mounted by the students, these notebooks are exhibited as the reflection of a thought at work.

The students describe their participation as a motivational and empowering experience that some have called a “turning point,” a “revolution” or a “new start” that “helps to give your life a direction.” This powerful result is also caused through the unique status of the format: although being embedded and developed through and with local actors and networks, AtWork maintains an independent position without ties to local structures of government or administration. We would like to highlight the transformative moment of artist and LGBTI activist Babirye Leilah who joined the AtWork chapter in Kampala (Uganda): “The workshop which was supervised and led by people from outside of Uganda, gave me a lot of strength. I felt this is the right platform to blow it out: We were given notebooks to do an art piece and I decided to write a story — the history of my coming out, of what has happened to me, of people who have inspired me, of things that I really believe in. And then I burnt it. I got a lot of criticism for it in university where the workshop was conducted. All my professors were there, students were there — to whom I had to explain the book, my burning of it and through this my being openly gay and addressing the issues in public. I feel like we need space, we need to talk about this, because we are here, it is real and it is happening.”

Methodology

AtWork focuses primarily on training thinking skills rather than acquiring new knowledge, which recent research in educational studies highlights as elemental assets for impactful learning. Critical thinking and the ability to learn how to learn (metacognition) are priority targets in relation to self-regulated learning. In a so-called Input-Elaboration-Output structure, the workshop initiates critical debate and discussion, followed by the elaboration of ideas and definitions around and beyond the given workshop theme. These soft skills of critical thinking and metacognition are becoming increasingly important in contemporary educational programs and are considered as 21st century skills in the scientific literature. They are not targeted at passing exams or succeeding in graduations. They are crucial tools for continued learning in knowledge societies.

AtWork 2018 “I Had a Dream” | Kampala

A 2018 study on the AtWork format emphasized that the collaborative focus of AtWork is key inachieving its learning goals which are in line with scientific findings. They prove that collaboration is key in learning, especially when it comes to developing thinking skills which require social interactions.

Notebook

“This notebook is a book yet to be written, the book you write yourself. Its blank pages are a waiting room, waiting for your ideas and projects, for your identity to be.”

— Maria Sebregondi, Moleskine Foundation President

The Moleskine notebook, a pocketsized, portable, nomadic and itinerant object is the keystone of the project. As is constantly shown by creatives, a simple blank notebook can be transformed into anything. It becomes a unique and irreplaceable gift. Just like knowledge.

The notebook serves as a distinctive thread connecting all the elements within the AtWork format. The whole structure around the community, the exhibition and the collection is being created, empowered and strengthened through the Moleskine Foundation collection.

Some of the notebooks in the collection contain stories, others are turned into sculptures, but all of them have something in common: they reveal a creative process of thinking and crafting, exploring the documentary power of “notes” and their endless possibilities of interpretation. Made of paper, the notebook is a technologically simple but conceptually rich object, able to absorb and preserve physical and material signs. It therefore becomes a space “in between,” able to convey fragility and strength, as well as an artefact involving a very personal act, implying simultaneously relation and mutual exchange.

Notebooks offer a democratic base for all participants since they are not connected to a specific form of art or craft that might be intimidating. The notebook nevertheless demands an honest and intense engagement and process of thought and creation.

Every participant receives the same device — a Moleskine notebook with blank pages. As a creative icon carrying a deep heritage and contemporary aura, it is an inspiring object in itself. Used in the workshop, the tool of the notebook offers the open platform of a free and safe space that also describes a limit — in time, space and material. This limitation is a strong aspect in AtWork’s methodology as it allows for creativity to expand. From offering equal devices, equal constraintsand equal opportunities, highly diverse outputs are produced.

The notebooks created through AtWork share a radical dynamism, both in the images and in the experiences they convey. We understand notebooks as a metaphorical tool, which, even before becoming a form of knowledge, may provide some clues as to the meaning of creative practices in the knowledge society.

Additionally, in these technology driven times, we seem to be losing our ability to transform things with our hands. This craftsmanship that allows one to reflect on oneself and the world, and to record feelings, reflections, images and moments, is a unique tool that permits the survival of a vernacular memory. Studies have shown that a larger part of our brain is affected when we are physically active. Handwritten notes and sketches are remembered better, since the act of writing activates that part of the brain that is related to emotions. We need items that hold a story, because pure technology does not arouse any association with the memory and heritage of a society. A notebook can offer a platform to develop creativity, to express one’s identity. Thus, they contribute to our culture.

Exhibition

Bringing the discussion and moments of reflection to a wider audience, the exhibition is key for the effectiveness of the workshop. It forces the participants to move beyond the intimacy of their thoughts and to take responsibility and ownership over their opinions and ideas as well as their (discovered) blind spots in order to test and share their concepts with an external audience, creating a wider discussion and thus strengthening their critical thinking experience.

AtWork 2018 “I Had a Dream”, exhibition | La Galleria Nazionale, Rome

The notebooks produced by participants can be showcased physically at a local art gallery as well as in the online exhibition of the Moleskine Foundation Collection. Through the exhibition, the students have the possibility to continue their debate as well as their personal process while acquiring some basic curatorial skills. Usually a notebook is a tool, a beginning, a stepping stone in a creative process towards a scientific study, a novel, a business idea, or a piece of art. The immediacy and intimacy of an AtWork workshop turns this process around and “exhibits” the process itself as an object of creativity, of expression, of responsibility.

Community And Collection

What do we mean when we talk about community? How are we going to live together? How are we going to be faithful translators? Are we going to think, with Arthur Rimbaud, that “I is an other”?

From its onset, the community aspect is at the core of AtWork. Within the structure of the workshop, the individual process is one of collective participation. Mutual exchange and interaction lead to the breaking open of tabooed topics, the challenging of acquired assumptions and the questioning of stereotypical sentiments. The workshop consists mainly of collective exchanges and results in a collective exhibition: the individual experience cannot be thought independently from the social experience. To recognize the “inner light” in oneself means to become aware of the inner light in others. Here, communal learning and taking responsibility begins.

Following the workshop, the individual eyeopening experience of each participant is being carried into their respective communities where they further spark reflection and change in thinking.

The closing of the workshop is not an end but a beginning — the beginning of a personal journey but within a larger community of AtWorkers: Through online platforms like the AtWork website and the Moleskine Foundation Collection as well as an intensely moderated Facebook group, the participants are connected to an international and cross-cultural network of critical creatives as well as to a space where they can exchange their experiences, and share opinions and practices.

It is important for those young creatives who question the status quo in their societies to know that they do not belong only to a certain culture, to a certain location, to a certain country, but they belong to something broader. The network we build with them provides them with kindred spirits, with shared, world-spanning experiences, with lessons learnt. What is crucial within this network is the exchange among the young people themselves rather than the dialogue with their mentors, tutors and facilitators. It is up to them to take their destiny in their own hands. AtWork provides them with a “toolbox” (Gilles Deleuze), that they are free to use as they wish. Such a sense of belonging provides the courage to face obstacles. It is important for them to experience that wherever they are they are connected to a larger community in which they can share problems and questions, and even more importantly, solutions.

An essential part of building the community is achieved through the collection of the Moleskine Foundation, another central and unconventional characteristic of AtWork. The Foundation’s collection of “Author’s Notebooks” includes unique works created by renowned creatives (artists, musicians, thinkers, designers, writers and others) on Moleskine notebooks and donated to the foundation to support its mission and activities. Among them are Spike Jonze, Nicholas Hlobo, Francis Kéré, Sue Williamson, Joana Vasconcelos, Antonio Marras, Sigur Rós, Marina Spadafora, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Giorgio Vigna and many others. The collection, which today comprises more than 1000 works, is a unique example of the variety, wealth and com-plexity of contemporary creative thought.

At the same time, the collection’s unusual horizontal, non-hierarchical approach offers an invaluable platform and exposure to the young students who all become part of the AtWork Community. This group of international artists, students, curators, cultural organizations and intellectuals strongly believes in creativity as a tool for social transformation. The collection’s online presence in particular inspires young minds all over the world with the breadth of its creative proposal resulting from various AtWork experiences. Being part of the collection is a unique opportunity for the students to exhibit their work and convey their message alongside prominent contemporary creative professionals, without any hierarchy of the works’ importance. It allows the workshop participants to cross their local, generational, cultural or professional boundaries and enter an international arena of discussion with wide and diversified audiences.

We understand this relay of generosity and reciprocal gifting as another form of inspiration. Donating a notebook to the collection is a commitment to the Foundation’s convictions and mission. The works by renowned creatives and thinkers stimulate and motivate the workshop participants whose engagement in turn inspires the creatives in the collection.

Future

AtWork intends to promote this kind of idealism that activates the solitary character of reason, helping individuals think for themselves and within themselves. We have long understood that there is no such thing as objectivity. There are only more or less explicit wills to power. The flame of reason is flickering. It is our responsibility to revive it. This is the ambition of our modest contribution.

— Simon Njami

Together with our curator Simon Njami we believe that “Africa is a metaphor for the world. All that is happening there is happening everywhere else.” In that sense, the AtWork format was born and developed on the African continent to expand into the world. Its potential for global expansion and replicability is another decisive asset of AtWork. Through a “Train the Trainers”– programme we intend to expand the format in order to build an international AtWork Faculty. We envision AtWork as a global platform that connects creative, cultural and academic organizations with youth in a wide international network of people believing that creativity can change the world and putting this credo into action.

Written by Anna Jäger for Moleskine Foundation

Discover more on AtWork Program visiting AtWork official website.

This article was originally published in Aprl in April 2019 in Folios n.1 “I Had a Dream”, the Moleskine Foundation cultural publication.

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Moleskine Foundation

Moleskine Foundation

The Moleskine Foundation is a non-profit organization that believes that Creativity and Quality Education are key to producing positive change in society.