I am glad that we spent so much time planning, *not* because everything went just the way we planned it – quite the opposite in fact! – but because we had such a thorough understanding of our vision and goals that we could constantly adjust and adapt to emergent dynamics without losing our way and stumbling into confusion and reaction.
Nevertheless, there were moments when it felt like “nothing is going according to plan,” and it sometimes became very frustrating. There were 3 over-arching problems which made themselves known early, and demanded creative solutions throughout the entire program:
1. Starting our session at the very beginning of the semester severely limited participation. At this mostly business-focused and culturally conservative small liberal arts college, many of the students I met were genuinely surprised to find out that there was an “Art Department,” and virtually zero of them had ever visited the gallery on the edge of campus. It quickly became obvious that we needed to devote much of our work to just getting students to show up, and that was extra difficult when competing with activity sign-ups, ice cream socials, bounce-house & mechanical bull (yes, really), and parents’ weekend.
2. Due to busy lives, everyone except me was available for only a limited portion of the 4-week residency. We were able to work around this, but especially given our ambitious goals it made planning and preparation more complex.
3. The above issue combined with the fact that professors were initially not prepared and not sure whether they wanted to bring their classes into the gallery meant that even in the middle of Week 2 we still did not really know what our schedule looked like – it felt like we mostly sat around waiting for anyone to show up during Weeks 1-2, then got super-crammed during Weeks 3-4. Not ideal, but we managed it…
Here is how Week 1 played out:
Aug 29: Erin and Tyler arrived on campus, settled into our guest house and began helping Talia set up her larger gallery. This became unexpectedly time consuming, because the huge piles of sketches and mind-maps were not all organized well, and the volume was well over 10x what could realistically fit on the walls. Talia became a little overwhelmed by the daunting task of curating messy piles of tracing paper, but I spent a couple days pre-sorting stuff for her, and eventually it came together very nicely. We also ordered paper at this time, a nice palette of browns, blues, greens, and orange and black for highlights, which we planned to use mostly for cut silhouettes and shapes.
Aug 31: The first day of classes! Numerous professors held a meeting in our Smoyer Gallery, during which they were coordinating their syllabuses, particularly around MVP discussions, and meeting and making plans with us. The meeting was brief, chaotic, and very few of the profs seemed to truly understand who we were or what we were doing. We connected some names and faces, but very few plans were established beyond those that Erin already knew about months prior. A little piece of advice to anyone who pursues a similar opportunity in the future: DO NOT start your residency on the first day of the fall semester, and DO NOT meet the profs for the first time on that first day – this was possibly the source of most of our difficulties, as it meant that we did not really get momentum until Week 3.
Sep 1: Our first interaction with students was in the Comparative Philosophy prof’s “Environmental Ethics” class. We visited their classroom with The True Cost of Coal banner and gave a very brief overview. This was a good way to introduce ourselves to the students with whom we would spend the most time over the month (we had 4 sessions scheduled with this 30-student class, and they would use the MVP as a case study throughout the semester).
Sep 2: Our first “Think Tank” was well attended, with about 12 students and 2 professors. I started with my standard Intro to Beehive Process, which combines an explanation of our methods of collaboration with an outline of the ensuing workshop – Set limits (learning edge, games), Research & Ideation (mind-maps, expansive), Refine (critique, layer), Illustrate (division of labor). Basically, it goes like this (language borrowed from Srishti program):
The Beehive Collective’s slogan is “Cross-Pollinating the Grassroots” – we seek to create meaningful artwork that empowers and inspires people to change the world, especially by methods of working collaboratively, encouraging vibrant open-minded discussion, and uplifting unheard voices and celebrating diversity.
We love the bee metaphor! Here are some reasons why:
Honey bees operate by democracy of enthusiasm – everyone gets a voice and they decide together what choices are best. They have a flexible division of labor to ensure that all work efficiently and focus on their strengths, but they move from one job to the next as needed. They collect huge amounts of nectar and then pass it along from bee to bee (“kissing” – really!) by which the nectar is refined and transformed into honey. Honey is everything to the bees, it is food, medicine, the walls of the hive, it is essential to raising the next generation and also keeping the hive well-fed, warm, and close throughout the winter – what a great way to think about the importance of art! And bees are agents of reproduction and facilitators of evolution – everything in the bees world is about symbiosis, collaboration, and cycles.
We believe that – ART – EDUCATION – ACTIVISM – are most powerful and most interesting when used together, our group employs not only artists but also community organizers, teachers, biologists, and journalists. Our work bounces around these different aspects restlessly, always changing and evolving, sometimes unexpectedly, but often deliberately as we continuously move through these cycles:
* ART cycle = create, critique, refine…
* EDUCATION cycle = theory, practice… (aka praxis)
* ACTIVISM cycle = recruit, train, action…
1. Games! Remember to set limits, set goals, and always stay on the “learning edge”
2. Idea Generation: includes research, and mind-mapping – this part is “expansive”
3. Refining: edit and critique… often multiple iterations of this step
4. Drawing only comes after these 3 steps, some times it is the smallest part of the process (though not necessarily the quickest!)
5. Division of Labor – artists vision, organizers initiate, educators research, everyone involved in story development, then artists represent, educators share, organizers recruit…
Drawing process divided into different types, very similar to assembly-line style process of comic books – writer passes to pencil artist passes to inker passes to colorist passes to type-setter passes to cover designer passes to pre-press etc… this allows each artist to play to their strengths while together we create something much more elaborate and skillful than any one could ever do.
After drawings are finished, reproduced large (on fabric) and small (on paper) – then the largest and longest part of our work begins, traveling and re-telling stories, learning new stories, making connections and building networks… this is the “cross-pollinating” work that is really the heart of what we do, the drawings are just the beginning!
Often we continue making derivative works like narrative booklets, translations of those booklets, mini-posters and patches, slide-shows, presentations and workshops, videos and online tools, for years afterwards – these graphics and stories continue to be living and evolving as long as we continue making use of them.
This went pretty well – as long as it is kept brief and snappy (and in our RC sessions it was more brief than the above), it is a great way to begin a workshop.
We intended to start with an icebreaker game called Canoes, which is a funny variant of a “mingle” activity. Facilitators ask a few broad questions such as “What is your major?” “What is your favorite animal?” “What is your home state?” and participants have to wander around until they identify everyone else who shares a similar answer. They band up in lines, as if they were in canoes of varying sizes, and have to work together to move through the space exactly as if they were in a canoe, so turning gets a little tricky (and funny). It is a great ice-breaker with a small dose of challenging cooperation but mostly just lots of laughing. I include it here because I like it so much. But we were not actually able to do it because we did not have enough people! Students trickled in, and by 25 minutes into our session we had only a handful.
So we followed the intro with an impromptu Story Ad-Lib where everyone added one sentence as we went around the circle. It was lackluster. This was our first noticing of the students’ difficulty with creative activities.
The basis of our first Think Tank, and the starting point for everything that would eventually fill the gallery, was a big group Mind-Map activity analyzing the MVP. Students enjoyed the large group mind-map exercise in spite of the fact that I was exhausted and actually did a kinda lousy job of facilitating. We immediately followed this with a large hand-drawn Infrastructure Map on which we drew all the pipeline projects we know in the US. The map was prepared but we added the pipelines and mining and fracking regions live, making it into a conversation. We prompted students for input, asking them to do some research on their phones, and were surprised that they struggled to get much of anything within the first five minutes. We felt pressed for time and rolled through this quickly, so by default it became mostly Erin and I talking again, just pointing out a few more general resource extraction areas. All in all, these mapping activities were pretty good (one of the profs was very impressed, and students seemed to enjoy it), just not our best.
We followed with another Small Group Mind-Mapping exercise so they could practice the skill they had just learned. Maybe because of my lackluster example, or more likely just because they were reluctant to be creative, most of them really floundered when making mind-maps in their small groups. We asked them to map other fossil fuel industries like coal, oil, and gas, and gave them plenty of evocative questions, such as “Who benefits?” “Who suffers?” “Who cares?” “Who is connected?” “What is the nature of the relationship?” etc, but somehow after 15 minutes one of the groups had only 4 extremely vague things on their paper (“oil,” “corporations,” “environment,” “everyone”). This timidity and lack of creativity was a consistent challenge throughout our residency, notably more of a problem than with most groups I have worked with, and presumably a product of the conservative culture of the school.
Then we did a Bus Stop activity where we asked half of each group to rotate to the left, so that they could share their mind-maps with each other and identify concepts that were similar in each group. And out of this students identified “characters” and “actions” which they had shared and wrote them on different colored paper strips (blue – characters, brown – actions). Then we arranged and interconnected the characters on either side of a dividing line in a great mind-map variant called Opposing Forces. We talked about differences and connections between those that benefit and those that suffer from fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure. We disassembled the mind-map and took turns Building Sentences, drawings arrows that connected one character from each side through an action. This activity required some serious hand-holding, once again due to timidity or lack of creativity, and Erin and I named and wrote a lot of the verbs as needed, but once we got over this hurdle, we had a pretty lively and interesting discussion. We noted that some characters are complex and they benefit and suffer in different circumstances, we rearranged sentences as our ideas became more elaborate, and I felt like the students learned a lot. I will definitely do this activity again.
Then we conducted a Spectrogram with statements, “I think that my generation has greater opportunities than my parents generation,” “I think that my generation faces greater challenges than my parents generation,” and “I am hopeful about the future.” This went very well, perhaps it was even the highlight of the whole session. By this time students were beginning to overcome shyness and they had a lot of comments. We ending up repeating the spectrogram activity with exactly these statements several times, because they consistently yielded interesting discussions. After the discussion was finished we pointed a couple of spotlights at the whole spectrum of participants and traced silhouettes of everyone on the largest wall. This was repeated at the end of most of our sessions (at least the ones with significant turn-out) as a way of documenting participation in a way that became a part of the final piece, a “rising wave” that represented both the threat of climate change as well as our collective power.
We wrapped up the session with a quick “Yes, and…” exercise and a little bit of symbol ideation, returning to the original mind-map, and beginning a first pass at ideas for objects which would make up our “Corporate Person” character. By this time we finally had some creative juices flowing, and there was good energy. We busted out the scissors and colored paper and began Silhouette Story-Telling, encouraging students to choose their favorite symbols and cut out a multitude of simple iconic silhouettes, then after 10 minutes we instructed them to assemble it all into a composition. This is often a challenging exercise, but for these students they just quickly cooperated to replicate the same drawing they had made before (also easy because only 2 students were making any suggestions, the rest too shy to be creative). But I was very pleased with their “Burning Fish Bowl Earth” idea and incorporated it into the Corporate Person later.
Eventually we just ran out of time, tried to get a little reflection/assessment out of the participants (they were tight-lipped), and then dismissed them feeling like it went pretty well for a first try.
In the evening we had our official Opening. Erin and I gave a 30 minute talk about the Beehive process and conducted that Spectrogram activity again. This was very well received and led to a lengthy discussion among the large and multi-generational audience, half of whom were from the wider community. There were drinks and snacks and a cute country band – it was a great first day!
[Note: I have very few photos of the first Think Tank, and relatively few photos of activities in general because it was just so full-on demanding the whole time. I might as well mention that the time lapse video idea obviously didn’t pan out. Oh well, maybe next time.]
Sep 7: Because Labor Day canceled our first Monday Think Tank, and because Erin was gone for about a week, replaced by very enthusiastic but relatively inexperienced HB, we kept Week 1 pretty light. The first class to visit us in the gallery was a Latin American History class focused on the ancient Maya. I gave a brief picture-lecture about Zapatistas, telling students basically, “If you think the ancient Maya were amazing, you should learn about what contemporary Maya are doing!” I also shared an article conceptually related to each of the scenes that I showed, printed on paper so they could pass around and skim as well as linked in an email to the prof so that they could read in full later. This was very well-received by students, and the prof was very happy for the extra material which she to which she could refer throughout the class. I thought it was a great mini-lecture version of the MR graphic, and though including articles for further research is not logistically sensible for public presentations, it is a great idea for a class; I can imagine it working really well with high school students.
Check out the slideshow here.
These are the articles I shared, each corresponds with one slide.