Social Art Studio Residency

“Freshness is the territory of art.” — Arawana Hayashi.

A prototyping culture is one in which we enact, time and again, possibilities for an emerging future, making them visible, tangible, and explicit. For the longest time, arts, design, and architecture have cultivated blurry intersections and boundaries. And quite present is our shared interest for “studio practices”. Once upon a time, the solo artist kept a studio for developing his or her practice. So what would it be like for an arts-led and studio-based practice to be devoted to — and made — “through” the social?

If ‘aesthetics’ were introduced as the “felt dimension of our lived experience” into the communities we live in, how then could we bring closer together the social change process and the aesthetic qualities, so that what is already happening can evolve into an art form? How do we integrate embodied awareness and social change into our creative practice?

In the very prototyping spirit of rehearsing and feeling our way into what these questions could open up, last February 2019, the Presencing Institute, together with Mexican arts and education social enterprise La Vaca Independiente, co-hosted the 1st Social Art Studio Residency, wishing to explore avenues for social art, what it might mean, look, and feel like.

What is social art? What principles could guide an arts practice committed to social transformation? How do we advance practices, tools, and cultures of ‘making’ with others? The arts of everyday life soon became our core theme. Art that is embedded in our lived situations, contexts, organizations, and social spheres. We explore what social art is, and how the arts intersect with social change, everyday living, and ultimately with the collective making of a healthier, saner society.

1. What we planned

We began our journey by setting the commitment of a 10-day residency, which we thought would be a good chunk of time for people to immerse in a context and be able to devote themselves to prototypes of social art. We rooted the residency in a context. In this case, the Mayan cultural, and natural patrimony, in the Yucatan, Mexico. By creating a short video, we invited 24 Mexican and foreign artists, designers, architects and change makers to save the date. This video was our initial visible gesture in the open canvas.

Promotion video: spreading our intention of bringing social artists together.

As time approached, we soon released a residency poster. As this was the first social art studio residency, we considered it pretty much a prototype, and hence, kept it invitation-only. Guests received a Save de Date poster. Excitement was picking up across our community. Unfortunately, we couldn’t host all who wished to come, but we committed to doing our best to include more and more people in future versions.

Residency poster: Save the Date.

The invitation went out, pointing to three core topics of exploration:

a. embodying the emerging future as an art form and social change initiative,

b. investigating the nature of first person and social group experience, by giving it form and visibility through various art forms,

c. encouraging a dialogue on what social art is.

Residents were invited with a commitment to leverage their design, art, architecture or social change backgrounds to make visible collaborative work and generate a series of group prototypes at the intersections of performance, community work, and social art.

2. What happened

As the residency began, we soon realized the topic of social art seems to be already living across our global community, with different tones of meaning ascribed to it. The group of 22 residents came from very diverse backgrounds, and cultures. Globally, and locally, from China, to Mexico, from Brazil to Australia. Across fields, from nature to graphic illustration, social design to community work. In the same day, we welcomed people arriving after journeys varying from just a 1h-drive, to as long as 2-day flights.

Preparation day: planning is on in full mode. Tecoh, Yucatan.

Arriving one day earlier, the hosting team focused on clarifying the arc of our 10-day journey and creating a loose agenda flow for the first three days. The arc basically included three days of immersions: a. immersion in social art, b. immersion in the local community/Mayan culture, and c. immersion with Mayan young students from the educational programs of La Vaca Independiente. These days were considered “learning journeys”, so residents could experience different dimensions of the local context and begin to explore angles for understanding social art.

Hosting team, Social Art Studio Residency. Tecoh, Yucatan.

A substantial part of the immersive learning journey included an experiential, deeper felt understanding of the Mayan culture and cosmology. It included a series of visits to Mayan sites, pyramids, and to Haciendas, where the sisal production grew considerably in the Yucatan. We also hosted a few conversations with an archeologist, local youth, cultural promoters, and nature conservationists.

Mauricio shares relevant information about Mayan history in the Yucatan, while Ceci Molina goes down a major pyramid in Izamal. Mexico.

Participants were also invited to a social art practice called Voices from the Field. In this practice, participants step into the shoes of various stakeholders from the communities we visited, to give them a voice and an embodied gesture. In that way, we could bring into the room the voice and presence of those we encountered during the learning journey.

“Without rain, there’s no spring, no flourishing”.

– Mayan bee keeper.

We, then, used social art technologies, like 4D mapping — a Social Presencing Theater practice — to make visible social systems and their shifts. A 4D map was done, upon the request of our host, on the stakeholders and social systems around a Mayan Hacienda, where the intention is to build a center for social art, a local hub. The 4D map showed the intensified disconnections in this social system, including how local Mayan artists and craftspeople are disconnected from major parts of the whole. And how visitors seem to engage superficially with what’s happening locally.

Visual record of 4D map showing stakeholders in a social system. Tecoh, Yucatan. Mexico.

During the last day of community immersion, Arawana Hayashi facilitated a Social Presencing Theater workshop with the local Mayan youth. Students and social artists engaged in awareness and body-based practices to awaken the group knowing. In these practices, the voice of the body takes center stage. Students were asked to explore situations in their home or school life where they feel stuck. In small groups, peers helped each other intensify their “stuck situations”, using body gestures. “By leaning towards our places of stuck, we discover profound potential for creativity”, Arawana said.

Honoring the diverse languages spoken by the group, from Mayan to Chinese, group introductions were done by name, and a body gesture.

At the end, one of the Mayan students said “I know that I can practice it anywhere. When I am home, and feel stuck, I can do this practice”. A sense of a social body was palpable. It seemed like we had opened a window into a collective sense of culture, and history. Or of what Claudia Madrazo called “the excellence of being and creating together”. I, particularly, felt this sense of joy in being together. I was touched to discover a sense of what it feels like to be a human being, with others. And to take time to notice, and see the Mayan youth, and culture. Witnessing them embody stuck places was like removing a veil from my eyes. A heart-breaking moment of bearing witness to our shared humanity, struggles, and possibilities. And to the profound joy of simply being with one another.

“This is our village,

the goodness of humans,

as seen by us all.”

— haiku performance group.

Mayan students draw an image of their “stuck”, and what “message” the stuck wants to tell them.

On the night of day 3, a few residents and the hosting team gathered for an incredibly generative and fun conversation on what comes next. The core question being: “How do we move from what we saw, heard, felt with the local communities, and with each other, into tangible prototypes of social art?”. A sense of excitement and curiosity set the team into motion. The evening meeting began, and an initial frame of ideas was introduced — as a mosaic of themes. That was enough to spark off generative discussions, from one conversation into another. And a collective sense of moving forward was palpable in the air.

That evening, the team decided we needed one more day of immersion. Which would be solely dedicated to getting better acquainted with the work of one another. All participants would be given 5–15 minutes to create an “experience” for others to have a taste or glimpse of what their work is about, their craft, and how it touches social art. A sub-team would then string the various “experiences” together, creating a thread through the day that would make sense to all.

Janson’s notebook drawings show the various experiences created by each of the 22 residents.

The 15-minute experiences varied from music, to poetry, from social design to performing arts. Residents were prompted to choose a specific location within Tecoh, where they wished to host it.

Mauricio showcases his work in creating educational materials for students to identify flora and fauna across the lunar year in the Yucatan.
Beth Mount captivates all by beginning her moment, embodying the experience of a young man who was deaf and blind. Supported by New York-based organization, Pathfinders. www.bethmount.org
Ninni Sødahl introduces the group to awareness-based practices to creative processes, particularly drawing from nature, and painting.
Carmen Serra intersects food, art, and nature, by designing a dialogue rooted in a meal experience.
Arawana Hayashi creates a 15 min performance to explore how social groups shape time and space; and what it means for something to arise from openness.

After four days of immersion, residents seemed to be left with various felt reflections, and an incredible richness of content. The group was calling for moments of presencing, to distill and sink in their various impressions. What they heard, felt, and saw. They needed time to simply be still, go on reflection walks, or spend time with nature. That is what we devoted the morning of day 5 to.

The mindfulness-awareness practices in the morning (which already included meditation, and a Social Presencing Theater practice called 20-minute dance), began, then, to be followed by a brief moment when residents would write haikus (short poems). Haikus use the time principle of Jo-Ha-Kyu: a spacious beginning, chaotic middle, and rapid ending. They invite for some kind of contemplation.

Haiku morning practices. Tecoh, Yucatan. Mexico.

Although we had taken time for sensing and presencing, we began to approach half journey into the residency, and began to explore how we could take all learnings, and experiences into group prototypes. How to land a coherent and, hopefully, smooth transition?

Social artists begin to distill learnings from the various social art technologies used to sense and see the community’s present and emerging future possibilities. Yucatan, Mexico.

For leaping into prototyping, we used a social art technology called Thematic Village. By walking across the room, participants began to voice, one at a time, their ideas, wishes, and intentions. By saying “I want to explore…”, or “I wish to prototype…”, others would, then, position themselves closer or further away from the person who voiced his/her intention. In that way, we could map the “oomph” factor of the various intentions.

Intentions are recorded on individual sheets of paper, and then used to seek clusters of affinity for prototyping. Yucatan, Mexico.

These intentions were then clustered, coming up with four key themes: Mayan Youth, Performance & Haiku, the Yucatan as a Sociart Art Peninsula, and Nature & Culture. Over 5 days, participants used a variety of art forms or crafts to create their prototypes. These included: design, photography, film (cinema, documentary), print, poetry, writing, drawing, painting, installation, sculpture, architecture, dance, theater, and music.

From there onwards, the residency became its truest version of a studio. The schedule got looser, with a mindfulness-awareness practice in the morning, and one or two group check-ins during the day. Besides that, groups were free to meet, define their working schedule, and whenever needed, seek and recruit others for immediate feedback. All moving towards a final performance or prototype showcase, on the last day.

Visual evidences of days of making visible, explicit, and known the various prototypes for social art.
Prototyping group uses intuitive painting to access and deepen individual anchoring and collective awareness.
Painted canvas is carried across the campus. Tecoh, Yucatan.
Groups make visible their conversations and learnings in order to inform prototyping.

Final prototypes presented on the last day at hacienda Ochil included: a. an immersive experiential journey through the Hacienda, with guided visits to a social art museum, and nature programs; b. a performance integrating learnings and conversations from various dialogues with Mayan youth and communities; c. a meal experience designed to integrate playful games around Mayan culture; d. a performance structured around the theme of “haikus”, stringing together moments — a social art technology for making visible social systems; and e. a handmade book integrating principles of social art from the various prototypes and conversations during the residency.

A. Prototype: Hacienda Ochil — a Hub for Social Art.

Hacienda Ochil prototyping group welcomes social art residents for an experiential journey into the heritage site. Yucatan, Mexico.

B. Prototype: Mayan Youth.

Prototyping group uses performance to convey days of dialogue and witnessing of Mayan communities.

C. Prototype: nature & culture.

Prototyping group designs a meal experience that leverages the Mayan culture.

D. Prototype: Haiku Performance.

Haiku performance: form and freedom. Hacienda Ochil, Yucatan. Mexico.
Haiku performance: “viewers” are asked to make an offering at the end of the performance.

E. Prototype: Social Art Book (Principles)

Making visible conversations and key uncovered principles for social art in the form of a handmade book.

3. What we learned: 5 key learnings

a. minimal structure, maximum creativity

What does it mean to offer space for form and freedom? Creating an experiential flow of the residency was more like an investigation of how to offer a minimal structure, and affording maximum creativity. We intentionally kept the residency as open as possible, for as long as we could. Clarity of what to do next emerged, mostly, from the fresh knowing of doing it. However, we did ask what would be a minimal structure that would afford the residency to move forward. Just like training in the discipline of a particular form, we learned that freedom can emerge from basic structures.

b. social art as…

In no way was the residency’s intention to come up with a definition for social art. However, it did wish to spark a conversation, and bring to the surface a few shared themes, views, and principles the group envisioned for social art work. The way of doing that was by, initially, hosting a world café-like conversation and then using the participants’ direct prototyping experience over the days to refine a visual recording of emergent topics for social art. We learned, for instance, that social art came up under different forms. Social art as social change, process as social art (that is, the process becoming the art piece itself), and art as everyday life (what does it mean to be an artist in everyday life?).

c. principles, dimensions, and art ‘crafts’

Principles of social art come together to spark new conversations.

A few dimensions of a social art work became more visible throughout the residency. These included:

  • 2nd, 3rd, and 4th dimensions: 2 dimensions (drawings, paintings, writings, etc.), 3 dimensions (objects, designed artifacts, etc.), and 4 dimensions (time), such as performance pieces.
  • ephemeral and lasting: participants reflected on the nature of the work of art as being ephemeral or lasting.
  • I, project, ecosystem: in addressing the social domain as its main topic, social art encompasses, at times, the individual, a specific project, or a particular ecosystem.
  • Form and freedom: craft (such as photography, design, painting, drawing, etc.) enables the discipline of a form, while freedom emerges out of it. Form and freedom are, hence, interdependent.

d. social fields and social bodies: no ownership of the making

Social art is, intrinsically, art that is made by and through the social group. At various levels, we collectively explored what it meant for each of us to create something together that may hopefully add to more clarity, sanity, and health on our planet. In this process, we learned that all contributions are valuable, and that everyone adds up to the collective piece. In that way, the “audience-performer” dichotomy tends to collapse. We learned there is no such a thing as a “viewer watching a performer”, for the very fact that both are interdependent. As improvisers, we learned to say YES, AND… rather than YES, BUT… And by stringing various contributions together, we witnessed the birth of a collective sense of something new. And through this emergent thread, a sense of no ownership of the making.

e. moving forward

We see incredible potential in continuing a long-term dialogue and prototypes on social art. These are a few possibilities we can think of going forward:

  • global hubs: an initial conversation is around setting local hubs (or campuses) for social art practices. Given participants come from various regions of the world, there’s a growing interest for residencies and studio spaces to be hosted or developed in different cities or regions in the world. These hubs would be local centers for attracting artists, and change makers, and evolve a global dialogue on social art.
  • social art principles: some of what was learned in this residency will soon become a set of shareable principles and dimensions of social art, which in no way define what it is, but which we hope can go forward as a prompt for conversations, and a living archive of our experience in Tecoh.
  • hacienda Ochil as a social art hub: the local team in the Yucatan will continue the development of their prototype for transforming Ochil, a Mayan restored Hacienda into a social art studio. This includes a museum for social art, residential programs, and various cultural and nature-led experiences.
  • other opportunities: the Presencing Institute is hosting a new program called Ecosystem Leadership Program, where social art practices will be integrated as a major part of its curriculum.

Ultimately, this residency was an effort to ground creative expression in embodied presence. By blending awareness-based practices, intentionality towards ecosystem activation, ‘hooking’ into some sense of potential and goodness, and uncovering insight from art practices.

Final notes: Site-specific art and Theory U

The social art studio residency was hosted at Tecoh, a site-specific work of art. A restoration project led by Cuban artist Jorge Pardo, and Mexican artist Claudia Madrazo. Tecoh is considered a learning campus for social art. Social artists presented and performed their final work at Hacienda Ochil, where a hub for social art is under construction. Ochil hosts an amphitheater designed by world-renowned light artist James Turrell.

Our social art residency work builds considerably on the work of MIT Professor and co-founder of the Presencing Institute, Otto Scharmer. Theory U served as a fundamental structure of this residency. Particularly, Social Presencing Theater, an awareness-based social technology developed by Otto Scharmer and choreographer Arawana Hayashi. More can be found about this method here: the impact of social presencing theater. The residence was also created under the Philosopy of La Vaca Independiente, and their design experience and co-creative work and practices.

Tecoh, site-specific art designed by Jorge Pardo. A learning campus. Yucatan, Mexico.
Amphitheater at Ochil, designed by light artist James Turrell. Yucatan, Mexico.

Hosting Team: Arawana Hayashi, Claudia Madrazo, and Ricardo Dutra.

Photos by Ninni Sødahl.

The Studio was held 08–18 February, 2019 in Yucatán, Mexico
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Ricardo Dutra

Ricardo Dutra

Social designer. Ph.D. candidate at Monash University. Associate Researcher at the Presencing Institute. www.ricardo-dutra.com.