Week 1, Day 4:
As promised, Pinak brought in a couple of films. They were much longer than I had anticipated, and this threw off my plans somewhat, but I think it was really important that we watched them. The first was called “Prisoners of Conscience,” by Anand Patwardhan – it was a 40 minute film from 1978 consisting entirely of interviews with Communists and other radicals who had been held as political prisoners. They described horrific treatment of themselves and oppressed peoples in general, both in and out of the jails. The second film was called “Red Ant Dream,” by Sanjay Kak 2013, and we watched only the first 40 minutes of that – it followed several different revolutionary movements in multiple locations around India. This movie was very impressive, poetically composed, very compelling scenes of everyday struggles. I hope to watch the rest of it some time and I would definitely recommend it to anyone.
After the films, I made a point to say that clearly both of these films were unsubtle pro-Communist propaganda, and that I am not a Communist and that I am not trying to convince any of them to become Communists, but I care about and try to be supportive of any groups of people who are struggling for rights and freedoms and better lives in the face of enormous oppressions, and I believe that art can challenge systems of oppression and that powerful and provocative art can literally change the world, and that there is no better use for art, so that is where I will always focus my art practice, etc… I think that made a good impression on them. And then I moved immediately into another activity.
The “River of History” activity is another pop ed stand-by. It involves everyone writing up whatever historical tidbits they might know all on one big river diagram, thereby displaying collective knowledge. Often this activity is ongoing over the course of longer workshops, and we continued to add details over the following week, so that it became much more full and interesting as groups researched more. I added “History of Social Change and Human Rights” to clearly focus the topics.
After we spent about 20 minutes filling up the River of History, we reformed our circle and began discussing both the films we had watched and all the other knowledge we had just shared with each other through the activity. I reminded the students that we were “standing against unilateral art” and that I wanted to look at a much bigger picture than just what was presented in these very one-sided films, before we began conversation or critique. I think that was a very good way to frame the conversation, students did not feel the need to waste time shit-talking Communism, they instead were able to cut straight to the heart of the matter – why are people in rebellion? and how are they trying to bring about change?
I do not remember the exact details of that brief conversation, but it was a break-through moment in understanding why these issues matter, and why art matters, and students expressed many varied feelings and perspectives. It felt like a major turning point in the class, the beginnings of shared experience and group bonding.
After about 20 minutes that conversation began to flag, so I got one more exercise in before lunch-time. I asked the students to get up and clear out all the chairs and we quickly jumped into a spectrogram activity, where participants place themselves along a line of agreement/disagreement and we can easily visualize different perspectives in the group. I gave them the classic pair of statements, “Ignorance is the main problem in the world today,” and “If people just knew the truth, then things would change.” This of course leads to micro-epiphanies including “what is ‘The Truth’ anyway?” and the importance of telling the truth and the incredible power that designers have in shaping peoples worlds, etc. This was a great follow-up to the films and discussion of heavy topics, getting a chance to try on new ideas and analyze what they had just experienced, and I saw some more group bonding happening in this activity as well.
After lunch we had a discussion about propaganda posters, naming characteristics such as boldness, quickness of communication, simplicity, flatness (of concept/characters), “us v. them” frame, use of archetypes and cliches, etc. We talked a little bit about the fact that propaganda is all around us every day, in the form of commercial advertisements. Looking at some classic Cuban posters (especially those by Raul Martinez, above) we listed out the primary principles of design ( balance, repetition, contrast/similarity, harmony/unity, dominance/emphasis, scale/proportion, hierarchy), mostly just to make sure we were using the same language, but it was also fun and very effective to identify strong design in these kinds of images. Try it, with USA wartime propaganda, or Soviet/Chinese “socialist realism” stuff, or these 60’s-70’s Cubano pop-art posters are the best. They are much more interesting and engaging than studying adverts, as is done in most design classes.
After that we did a mind map based on the idea of “Opposing Forces.” I picked out two things that students had described as opposing in the previous sentence activity: “Buildings” and “Trees” and we just riffed off that for a good long while. The fun thing about this kind of mind-map is noticing subtle connections that run against normal assumptions. Also, it is so easy to set up a simple story, as evidenced by propaganda. So after this we did another session of symbol brainstorm. But this time I pushed the students to be more creative and more thoughtful, to take the cliche ideas that came readily and connect and layer them to try for something more interesting. This was still a little difficult for them, but they were picking it up faster at this point. When the energy started to wane, I observed that there were a lot of common shapes appearing, and that it is good to pursue those arising patterns because sometimes a really great concept can arise out of an image, rather than the other way around.
Then we did another spectrogram activity. This time there were two axes. One was “I think this issue is important (yes-no),” the other was “I think people care about this issue (yes-no).” And then I read a list of some of the issues that I had noticed come up in conversations a few times already, like ‘traffic,’ ‘trash/waste management,’ ‘migrants,’ ‘MNCs,’ ‘water,’ ‘violence against women.’ The vague single words that did not really pass any judgment actually made for very interesting conversations. We spent quite a lot of time in this activity. By now, some students who spoke up very little were starting to find their voices as well. I probably should have kept the list shorter, by number 5 some students were bored with it, but I think that overall it built a lot of good energy.
Which was crucial, because after that session we had about an hour left in the day and we used it to divide our 20 students into 3 groups. This was a little harder than I thought, but we managed it. We started by identifying at least 3 people who considered themselves “organizers” because as a full group we assessed that to be crucial role (remember, we had a super-tight deadline to meet!). Then we tried a couple different variations on splitting up the rest of the class equitably. Nothing really seemed to make sense, but by the end of several rounds of talking about it all, groups finally just came together fairly naturally, with most people recognizing affinity with at least a few others. Some students did not merge into groups easily, but a few took charge and just kind of directed it. I figured that they knew each other better than I did so I just let them do it.
I had hoped that the groups would immediately go into working with each other to decide on the topic, but we did not have time for that. But it was a good thing that it was delayed to the next day, as everyone got some time to think about it on their own.