Social Reality Contemplation

A Performance-Led Approach to Making Visible Deeper Layers of Social Fields

Ricardo Dutra
Jul 17, 2019 · 14 min read
Social Fields Summer School, Berlin, 2019.

This piece (blog-to-publication) is a post-action review of an embodied process co-created by choreographer Arawana Hayashi and social designer Ricardo Dutra, in collaboration with MIT Senior Lecturer Otto Scharmer. It is part of an evolving initiative of the Presencing Institute to catalyze social arts practices and embodied knowing as core components of action research in the 21st century.

Last June 2019, we introduced Social Presencing Theater (SPT) as a research methodology at the Presencing Institute’s Social Field Research Summer School in Berlin. Social Presencing Theater is comprised of a series of embodied practices that focus on bringing forth the knowing of the body — both as an individual and as a collective (social body) — which is then used to inform social systems transformation. During this gathering, we introduced a variation (both at the conceptual framework and embodied practice levels) on the SPT practice known as Stuck to a community of PhD students, university professors, social artists and change makers. This constituted an important innovation in terms of how social groups contemplate and act upon social reality as it is. This blog piece describes what we did and what we learned about deep systems change in offering this experimental variation.

The Heart of the Practice

Stuck is a practice that relies on people’s ability to stay with discomfort. When our natural tendencies are to turn away from discomfort or painful situations, to cover them up and ease the pain, this practice invites us to stay with. In terms of social reality, we can notice how deeply painful some of our national and global challenges are. I recently attended an International Literary Fair at a historical site in Brazil and met with climate activists, who were genuinely speaking of how important it is to collectively act towards making a difference for the climate. They said “this is our time, we must act now. We cannot afford to step back.” The urgency of their call, while confronted with the most recent policies carried out by the current Brazilian government (i.e., claiming back indigenous land and communicating an “open support” to agribusiness, which includes continued deforestation), is a desperate cry in the midst of a complex social-environmental entanglement.

How, as individuals and social groups, do we make sense of and relate to the complexities of our times? For us, at the Presencing Institute, one aspect of the puzzle is to claim the felt, embodied dimension of inhabiting such social systems. Through our work, we use Social Presencing Theater to bridge the body-mind gap and offer groups the opportunity to rely on their body knowing (i.e., direct felt experience). To be a part of social systems also involves what it feels like, beyond what we think of. In that way, we can tap into what it feels like to collectively enact climate change — moving in addition or on a parallel direction to the common mental, discursive approaches. Through the Stuck practice, people are asked to tap into this very embodied dimension of what it feels like. Sensing is, then, the ability to engage with pre-verbal knowing.

Our Lens on (Action) “Research”

During the Social Field Summer School, “research” has been defined as “an inquiry into phenomenon with a method”. We began by drawing from action research and phenomenology to establish foundations for what we believe research to be and what role(s) it can play within the clear frame of social transformation. It follows that research is not introduced in an academic vacuum, as that is certainly not our intention. Instead, we position research as the active inquiry into social reality, and the combination of reflection and action methods to effect and learn from societal transformation.

We particularly draw from the works of Francisco Varela and Eleonor Rosch to help frame our “so-to-speak” research “manifesto”. For instance, Varela (2000) claimed that “the blind spot of western science has to do with experience” and stressed how important it is for action researchers to be “black belts of first person experience”, while Rosch (1999) called for “science to be performed with the mind of wisdom”. During the Social Field Summer School, our colleague Otto Scharmer responded to these claims by saying that “first person data is usually restricted to people’s imagination” (i.e., habitual, downloading). Hence, the core question of our research endeavor is: “What does it mean to build capacity for ‘subtle data’ (i.e., pre-verbal sense)?”

Another aspect of our discussion involved how to bring creativity and rigour together in the experiential practice and development of our methods? To offer an example of that, I introduced the notion of research-led prototyping versus prototyping-led research. Research-led prototyping basically means to research in order to do something. While, prototyping-led research is to do something that informs research. What we ultimately did in offering a modified version of the Stuck practice was loyal to this notion of doing in order to research. Our approach is one in which we ultimately believe in the intrinsic value of doing something as a core aspect of knowing. This is in contract to always beginning with extensive reading and secondary research to subsequently initiate the “doing” (i.e., prototyping).

Expanded (Transdisciplinary) Research Field(s)

Our research work is positioned on a continuum of interdisciplinary contributions to social systems theory and phenomenology. Therefore, we begin from the concept of Social Fields as a. “sum total and quality of relationships we collectively enact”, and; b. “field as what’s visible; the quality of the social soil”. In other words, Social Fields speak to an inner dimension of inquiry into social reality and the investigation of social processes as they unfold. The very quality of relationships within a social system influences social patterns of thinking, conversing and organizing. Which, then, generate actual, real-life results.

If Social Fields are our “grounds of investigation” as action researchers, then our tool sets come from the transdisciplinary intersections of social design, performing arts, and contemplative studies. That means that the core research fields we operate from are a. Social Arts practices, and; b. Embodied Knowing.

The “Innovation”: Performance as Mirroring Back Social Reality

The core intention of this method is to make visible the deep structures (i.e., layers, soil) of social fields. Before using the method itself, we began our practice session by introducing two conceptual frames of reference:

(1) An expanded understanding of data

Fig.2: Image by Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904).

In performing arts, the evidence tends to fade away. Movement-based practices are marked by time and space. “Movement is a practice of shaping time, with beginning, middle, and end” Arawana once told me. Theater-based research mostly uses photography, video, and drawing (e.g., notations) for registering or collecting evidence of choreographic pieces. In that way, “data” is stored and kept for future use in the form of documentation and archives. What does it mean to expand the notion of data beyond documentation, or recording of evidences? At the Social Field Summer School we introduced a hypothetical understanding of “data” as:

  • Document or Evidence: pre-, during, and after-action documentation/archive, artifacts, tools, gestures, etc.
  • Generative Data: data that sparks generative reflection both on individual or social groups (i.e., reflective protocols, photographs, gestures, seed ideas, etc.)
Fig.3: Framing an “expanded notion” of what generative data might include (Ricardo Dutra, Social Fields Summer School. Berlin, 2019).
  • Work of Art (i.e., social art): “data outputs” could also be re-framed as “works of art”. A work of art allows the viewer to step into a piece where there’s no duality (i.e., between observer and observed). Data as a work of art allows for a social system to move its seeing from the parts to the whole.
Fig.4: Expanded understanding of “research data” (Ricardo Dutra, Social Fields Summer School. Berlin, 2019).

(2) Focused Attention, Open Awareness

Fig.5: Focused Attention, Open Awareness. Berlin, 2019.

This framework was a substantial innovation that emerged during the Social Field Summer School in 2019. It was the culmination of a series of conversations, references to previous dialogues (Henri Bortoft, 1999), contributions from our team, and ultimately drawn by our colleague Otto Scharmer. It basically showcases the spine of a reflective process in which a social group begins with focused attention (i.e., mindful individual and collective seeing), which is followed by open awareness through stillness, resonance, and capturing (e.g., journaling, drawing).

The Method: What we Did

In brief, the method Stuck + Postcards was offered in four parts:

Fig.6: Arawana Hayashi tries out a Polaroid camera. Berlin, 2019.

I. Practice. Stuck practice in teams of four, using Polaroid photographs to document body shapes. Evocation Cards, postcards, and Journey Maps as sense-making or reflection tools. Through the initial practice, we moved into the case(s) (i.e., the “parts”, “stepping into the particular as an authentic whole”).

  • Individual Stucks with postcards
Video 1: participants use photography to help sharpen their seeing of embodied gestures. Berlin, 2019.

Each person evoked a place in their work or life in which they felt stuck, where what they were trying to do or create was not moving forward. Each wrote that briefly on an Evocation Card.

Each embodied the sense of that stuck situation in a body shape and showed it to the others. The others experienced the full essence of the shape. One person in the group captured that with an instant Polaroid camera.

When each person had completed the exercise, they contemplated their image and created a postcard by glueing their image to the card, giving their “stuck” a name, and writing a message (i.e., from their “stuck” to “Dear….”).

  • Group Stuck with Journey Maps
Fig.7: Groups use Journey Maps and other reflection tools to ground fresh perception. Berlin, 2019.

One by one, each person built a social sculpture around their “stuck” shape: a system of forces keeping them stuck. Going through the Theory U process, they moved from Sculpture 1 (Stuck) to Sculpture 2. Each (forces and stuck subject) spoke a sentence from the social sculpture. A Polaroid image was taken of both Sculpture 1 and 2. These images were contemplated and glued onto the Journey Map. The group supported the sense-making process by reflecting on these questions:

What surprised you? Where did the movement begin? Where did you notice a shift in the movement from Sculpture 1 to Sculpture 2? What was the difference between Sculpture 1 and Sculpture 2?

  • Reflection on Practice with Social Field Shift Template

Everyone was invited to share around the value of the process as a method for learning about social field shifts and were asked to write on the Social Field Shift Template the essence of their learning by completing the sentence “The field shifted from….to…..”

II. Focused Attention (Performance): using the Field Dance format, playback of photo images to the whole group, with individuals reading back their postcard messages as their image appears.

Fig.7: Stuck sculpture 1 Postcard. “From…to…Dear Otto,…”

“Attend to the whole. Listen in to the collective for patterns, qualities, insights. Attend to the feeling tone of what’s been said, and seen.”

III. Open Awareness (Stillness and After Image Resonance): Silence allowed deeper resonance of the collective experience to come forward. Three minutes of stillness allowed for an “after image resonance” process to occur. It worked as a very focused social field meditation, collectively attending to the whole, in terms of the feeling tone of what was seen and said. Hence, allowing images, feelings, and ideas to come forth into one’s awareness and into the awareness of the “collective being” (i.e., the whole social body).

IV. Journaling. Reflecting on the experience. After the “slideshow”, journaling provided a “landing space”. Reflection questions included:

  1. What touched you? (open heart)
  2. As you relax your attention from the parts to the whole, what are you noticing? Draw or write. (open mind)
  3. If this whole could speak, what would it say? (open will)

The session ended by an open space with time for people to share what they noticed about social field shifts, or what touched them. They were prompted to use first-person formats (“I saw, I felt”) or whole social field formats (“It said”).

What We Learned and Next Steps

I think a major innovation of this process has been the introduction of a method that allows for social reality contemplation using a social art form (performing arts-based), and the articulation of that as a process of “focused attention, open awareness”. Ultimately, I learned that the most important aspect of this practice is to actually get to the social performance part, because that is when the social field deepens its capacity for open awareness, allowing the “situation to speak back” as a mirror for social reality. That is where a profound capacity for social awareness, compassion, and deep systemic change lies — where we can experientially understand what Peter Senge meant when he said that the “most systemic” is actually the “most personal”.

“What’s most systemic is personal.” — Peter Senge.

As action researchers, attending to gestures, images, words, and feelings that come from a space of open awareness, we can see that this is where the possibility lies for becoming what Varela (2000) called “black belts of our experience”. As a method, what we did was about creating a container for the social body to attend to a living field (a “social being”), making visible the very social construct that underlies it. We emphasized the importance of how we attend, and of stepping back to contemplate. We invited participants to step inside the phenomenon through a social performance. As a “viewer” one might have wondered whether one is the “audience” or actually “inside of it”. That in-between state is one of dwelling in non-duality (the blurring of the boundary between observed and observer). That is, the audience begins to see itself as the performer, an inversion of the container and content.

To move from the parts (i.e., individual Stuck cases), using photographs to set up a social performance, is basically to move from the awareness of an object to an encounter with the whole, and the experiential understanding that each person is part of the whole (i.e., experiencing “soft boundaries”). By seeing the performance back (through the playback of the photos), we allowed the data talk back, pushing cognition in a different direction. Below, we detail some of the key learnings unfolding from this process:

a. Informed Consent

The process opened an ethics conversation around the use of photos, cases, and information, i.e., a dialogue about “data”. Should participants receive a prior description of what the practice is? Or see a short video of the practice? If people knew about the Stuck practice and the social reality performance beforehand, would their participation be more contrived or would they perhaps refuse to do it because it involves the body? Moving forward, we think that giving ownership of the making to the participant (i.e., the doer, co-creator), making clear where the process is leading and offering opportunities to withdraw at any point, are of extreme importance.

b. Framing: What’s the Point?

The frame needs to be clearly stated. Why are we using this method? There was some confusion about whether we were asking people to participate so we could collect data around our methodology. This was not the case, seeing as the data from this workshop will not be used to conduct any further research. It was, rather, a process of discovering and making the method move forward through a collective experience. That was the invitation, which we did not clarify. How do we create an opportunity for participants to share what they know or co-create with us?

c. Practice

The practice has multiple steps, which requires the written instructions to be shorter, clearer, and well-formatted. Spoken instructions needed to be more concise and clear. The fact that there were experienced practitioners in the room helped, but did not solve the problem of complex instructions. We learned that stating the time allotted is important, so people do not feel rushed.

c. Reflection Toolkits

Our intention was to add a playful aspect to people’s experience through reflection tools, evoking a sense of curiosity. Did they? Or were the contents of these tools overwhelming and confusing? Some people also offered the feedback that there was a lot of waste created (e.g., Polaroid film containers and wrappers, paper, and the printed photos themselves). We wonder about alternatives to this that may reduce waste, increase speed and efficienty in the process, while keeping a tactile aspect to the “collective making”.

d. Technical Challenges

When we tried to transfer the Polaroid images from print to screen format, and created the ordered performance flow, there were great technical challenges, which demanded time to be sorted out. How else could that have worked? We noticed that the physical set-up of chairs and places for groups went smoothly.

e. Social Reality Performance

Instruction on the performance and the participation caused some anxiety in the room. One participant did not want their image to be shown, so it was removed. Then, another person brought up the consent issue. Once the room settled and people read their postcards, there was a great sense of tenderness. People spoke of how vulnerability opens up the field, how powerful it is to courageously stay with the field when it is mirrored back.

“The tenderness of the voices come from a different place. What is that?” — Participant.

“What if sculpture two was not the future, but deeper layers of the social field?” — Participant.

f. Multi-Media Art Forms

The use of multiple media forms seems to require some familiarity (i.e., a certain ease and inclination) towards the craft of photography, film, video, etc. An overlay of art forms (architecture, performance, film, photography, video, etc.), especially when there is skill in the articulation of the crafts, can allow for an incredibly comprehensive scope for the art work and, consequently, affect a vaster sphere of resonance with the “audience” (which may ultimately be the co-artists anyway).

Thank You

We want to express our deep gratitude to all of the Social Field Research Summer School participants who have collectively enabled so much learning through this process. A special thanks to the Presencing Institute core team for holding this process and helping review and understand its possibilities and effects. May the unfolding of this method be of benefit to many.


  1. Ana Janevski and Thomas J. Lax, Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done (New York: MoMA, 2018).
  2. C. Otto Scharmer, The Essentials of Theory U: Core principles and Applications (Oakland: BK, 2018).
  3. Eleanor Rosch, “Primary Knowing: When Perception Happens from the Whole Field”, Presencing Institute, accessed on July 02 2019,
  4. “Étienne-Jules Marey”, MoMA, accessed on July 16 2019,
  5. Francisco Varela, Eva Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016).
  6. Francisco Varela, “Three Gestures of Becoming Aware”, Presencing Institute, accessed on July 02 2019,
  7. Henri Bortoft, “Imagination Becomes an Organ of Perception”,Presencing Institute, accessed on July 02 2019,
  8. Lisa Grocott, “Design Research and Reflective Practice” (doctoral thesis, RMIT, 2010).
  9. Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 27th ed. (Rio de Janeiro: BestSeller, 2011).
  10. “Social Field Summer School”, Presencing Institute, accessed on June 27 2019,

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