Hannah Scharmer
Jul 3 · 9 min read

When asked where he calls home, Ricardo replies “São Paulo, Brasil,” before adding Mumbai and New York to the list as well. Feeling at home in multiple contexts seems second nature to Ricardo, and not only in terms of geographics. Indeed, trained as an undergrad engineer, his work now centers around something very different: research in the fields of the social arts, design and aesthetics. “Growing up, we never had that much art around at home, it wasn’t really part of my life,” he shares. Nowadays, however, it is such a vital part of what he does, that he sees art — and ideas for his work — everywhere around him.

“I have developed a kind of seeing. I usually look around with an eye searching for inspiration for the work. And I find work everywhere: walking on the street, visiting a museum.”

He laughs: “It makes it hard to actually take a break, but it’s also a deeply nurturing experience to find such meaning and value in what I do.” After all, he says, “art is present every day, it is a part of our everyday life, and it is a part of what we create together.”

Ricardo holds an MFA in Transdisciplinary Design from the Parsons School of Design in New York and is currently a social systems designer and action researcher working in diverse global contexts. Integrating different perspectives allows Ricardo to approach his work from multiple angles. He illustrates this by saying: “sometimes I look at my work through the lens of learning, sometimes I look through the lens of design, and sometimes I think of it from an arts point of view.”

Ricardo’s journey towards Presencing Institute began in his university years, where he read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and felt drawn to the theory. Later on, when he moved to Mumbai, he thus already had this “reference of the work” in the back of his mind as he met Adam Yukelson, who was there to collect stories on the work of the Presencing Institute at the time. He and practitioner Manish Srivastava gave Ricardo a first impression of the work and the institute. After moving to New York to pursue his MFA in Design, Ricardo met Arawana Hayashi. “It was a funny thing,” he reflects, “I came in from different sides: first the actual Presencing work and then through the Buddhist, contemplative perspective, which initially drew me to Arawana.” This was the start of a unique partnership.

Making the Invisible Visible

When Ricardo met Arawana, he was engaged in design research at Parsons, in particular trying to develop a design practice of making transformation visible. “Arawana has this embodied practice and whole performance-based body of work around Social Presencing Theater, which has an elusive quality and does not necessarily generate a visual recording. That was very interesting to me,” he shares. In meeting Otto and Arawana, it was clear to Ricardo from the start that they wanted to develop Social Presencing Theater as an awareness-based research methodology together, to be used with practitioners and universities. Ricardo does so from a social design perspective, trying to make that embodiment work visible through video, photography, drawing, and “a language that’s almost pre-verbal.”

As a social systems designer and action researcher, Ricardo develops protocols and tools to make recordable and clear, beyond the felt experience, the systems shifts that happen through the work of Social Presencing Theater. He explains that this is quite different from traditional design — in fields such as arts and architecture — where making visible usually has to do with creating tangible objects. “So you need to look and touch and feel something, which is then considered visible.”

He goes on: “but with performing arts, like Social Presencing Theater, most of the work lives in our bodies. It’s our felt experience of what it feels like to be in a room with other people and do something together.” Ricardo thus explores what it means to learn about change as we go through the process of change. In other words, what does transformative learning mean, and what does it look like? This seems to be at the heart of Ricardo’s work: “Making visible learnings that are somehow invisible is a challenge for design.”

Body-Mind Synchronization

Another challenge Ricardo faces has to do with finding a language around this embodied work. “A lot of our felt experience is pre-verbal, and it’s often not immediately clear what our felt sense even means. So, if something doesn’t even have a word, how do you talk about it?” Therefore, he considers it part of his work to go deeper into what our perceptions are and how we give meaning to our experiences.

Action research often involves people reflecting on their practice together or writing down some of what they experienced. However, Ricardo points out that they sometimes encounter pushback on that from practitioners, as some feel like they are taken out of their embodied experience once they put words to it. “We’ve had to confront that,” he says. One way of doing so is making clear that the value of an embodied experience begins with the fact that “we always have a chance to be embodied. When we talk or when we do something, we can attend to what we say or do. It doesn’t mean that we lose touch with the body, just because we talk.”

Ricardo notes that it is common experience for the mind to wander off while the body remains disconnected and disregarded. If the body-mind connection is cultivated in practice, however, we are able to pay attention to our context and, in this way, engage in a heightened level of awareness and potential. Ricardo sums this up by saying:

“Body-Mind synchronization might help us change the world.”

Aesthetic Language

Together with Arawana, Ricardo has been prototyping “a language, which we call an aesthetic language.” This language is based on the felt experience of transformation in embodied work. The practice of Social Presencing Theater initially seemed to be reflected on by groups from a predominantly psychological or emotional quality. This language, Ricardo explains, is that of the Relational Structure, expressing feelings around belonging, inclusion, and (dis)connection. He and Arawana felt that there were other elements in the practice that practitioners were paying less attention to, “such as how the group is structured visually.”

They set out to develop an aesthetic language that also includes these aspects of how social groups work together, addressing the Visible Structure — patterns of how bodies move and form shapes together — and the Deeper Structure, which reflects how people are paying attention to each other, or to themselves, within the social body. With this in mind, Ricardo and Arawana have been prototyping a game that uses a set of cards as generative tools to prompt a dialogue around how social groups interact. Now ready to open up this method to the community, they shared their aesthetic language prototype in the Social Field Summer School that took place in June in Berlin and will also take it into other programs. The aesthetic language centers itself around the notion that “as long as we are in a space with others we feel something, and the question is: what’s that about and what do we learn from that?”

The Youth as a Force for Transformation

When asked where he sees transformation happening in his context, Ricardo points to the seeds of transformation that can be witnessed in small interactions. One example he gives is from the context of him and Arawana bringing Social Presencing Theater to a public school in Los Angeles with a high number of immigrant students. In an interview, a student shared how through the practice he started to understand what it meant to be heard. “Before, he thought that the only way he could be heard was if he were to receive advice after speaking. Now he realized that people could actually just listen to what he had to say.” This changed his perspective and experience in the group. Indeed, Ricardo sees great potential for transformation in the youth in various contexts, from students he met in Norway engaged in climate action, to students of color in NYC shifting their understanding of identity and self-reliance.

Bringing embodied work to contexts where it is less usual requires Ricardo to reflect on where he sees himself playing a role for the group in question. “I’m interested in the new,” he says, “and that is what I look and listen out for.” He shares that in many contexts, it can be challenging to bring in this newness. Taking the example of the LA school, he touches on the great pressures the children from migrant backgrounds face, such as possible deportation, but also language, housing, drug issues in their communities. On top of that, they also have the pressure of needing to get into college. “When we think of the new,” he says, “we think of freshness and openness; usually there is some kind of space where something can appear. But with such pressure, it is challenging to relax into the space of what is possible.”

Ricardo shares how they kept their interventions in the school simple and just brought in a few rituals around cultivating attention. Wonderfully, the students picked that up themselves and created their own mindfulness club. “They took responsibility for that themselves,” he says. That’s also where he sees the great potential in young people: “I’m very hopeful when I see young people in Brazil taking responsibility for politics, societal renewal and youth action. There are so many examples of that now. Young people are incredibly resourceful, thoughtful and kind.”

Social Transformation as an Art

According to Ricardo, the very act of social transformation is an art form. An example he gives of this is Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks, which he created for the seventh edition of the contemporary art exhibition Documenta in Kassel, Germany. Together with a community of local individuals, Beuys planted oak trees throughout the German city. Through this work, Beuys consequently altered and transformed the landscape of the city. Ricardo reflects on this by saying: “It is a way of seeing change, where you can see that the trees have grown and that the trees in the city stem from a work of art.”

Ricardo feels that “social arts can be a space for the collective to work together in a more aware form and see everyday life as art.” In this way, he points out the two sides of social art: the shared, communal act of creation and the understanding of everyday life as art. Social art emerges as a tool — or, as Ricardo puts it, a “space” — for innovation and social transformation.

It is with this in mind that he is now co-creating social arts studios around the world. In February 2019, he co-hosted a Social Art Studio Residency in Yucatan, Mexico. The 22-person group engaged in community immersion, personal and collective reflection, and ultimately transitioned to group prototyping and performances around the themes of Nature and Culture, the Mayan Youth, Performance and Haiku, and the Yucatan as a Social Art Peninsula. Within the frame of aesthetics, this residency inquired into the emerging future and the nature of social group experience as social art forms. He has another social art studio coming up in Berlin in the Fall of this year, hoping to continue these studios on an annual basis.

A stage performance in the Yucatan, Mexico

The thing Ricardo is excited about is hosting meeting points for practitioners and researchers to come together more structurally for co-learning and investigation. An example of this is the Social Field Research Summer School in Berlin that just took place in July, meant for collaboration and creating a community of research around ‘social fields’ and collectives. The summer school is meant to bring together various groups and therefore was attended by ten researchers, ten teachers and ten practitioners. In January Ricardo will be gathering with a practitioner group in Denmark around SPT research, which will be combined with a writing retreat. “This group noticed that they wanted more time to dedicate to the writing and language part around the practice, so we scheduled two extra days for that.”

When asked about the future, Ricardo reflects: “I think of the future as an open canvas. So much is happening. The possibilities for the future is in the now. It’s not in the idea of how the future should be. It lies in what we do now and how kind we are to each other.” He goes on to point out: “The future is already here. I think what we do now, and how we pay attention to what we do now and what we create — this act of paying attention — is where the real future opportunity lies.”

Watch Ricardo’s video interview here:

Thank you to Sarina Ruiter-Bouwhuis for her invaluable interview and editing support, to Zoë Ackerman for her edits on the article draft as well as a big thank you to Rachel Hentsch for the video editing.

Field of the Future Blog

We believe it’s possible to create results that serve the wellbeing of all

Hannah Scharmer

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Field of the Future Blog

We believe it’s possible to create results that serve the wellbeing of all

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