Saturday at Habla [Part 1]: Workshops about "the sound of light" and "navigating the light"

OK, now there's a LOT to write about, and it's 12:37 PM (I just got back from Rosas y Xocolate's rooftop bar, where I briefly sat in with a jazz trio, so the evening got late).

The day started at Rosas y Xocolate too, because it's just down the street from us and they did a great breakfast (I had poached eggs and fried bananas with curry sauce). 

After breakfast, we caught a cab to Habla.

Workshop 1: The Sound of Light (11:00-2:00) (led by Dario and Kurt)

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of this workshop (with lots of photos) here.

We started by going into the gallery space and standing in a circle. 

Everybody walked to a different spot in the circle (silently) while Kurt counted to ten, then again while he counted to seven. Between place, changing, Kurt asked us to check the circle and make sure that it was maintaining its shape and not flattening out on particular sides. 

Next (still in a circle) Kurt had us all jump "as high as you can" at the same time, without speaking to each other. He told us to be still for a little bit before we jumped. After the jump, he asked everyone to point to "who started it". Ideally, we would all be pointing in different directions. We jumped a few times - sometimes there was one clear leader (though they didn't necessarily realize they had instigate the jump), other times we really were pointing all over the place. When it worked really well, everyone was beginning to tense up to jump, and one person's tension went infinitesimally towards a crouch, which triggered several others to crouch more, and then we all went. 

Then it was "bumper cars". We counted off by twos (still in a circle). "Twos" shut their eyes and  crossed their arms in front of them, elbows jutting out protectively from the chest. Their task was to walk across the circle, eyes shut, to a different spot. Ones kept their eyes open. Their job was to gently shift the Twos so that they didn't crash into each other, and so that they ended up in the perimeter of the circle, facing the center, at a different spot. Nobody was assigned a partner, we were all expected to look after everyone. After doing this, Kurt asked people what they were feeling, and got some responses.

This led to us pairing off with someone new, again with one person shutting their eyes. The other person led them around the room by  pushing gently at the center of the back (between the shoulder blades), or touching either shoulder blade. Somewhat counterintuitively (to my mind, anyway), when Kurt and Dario modeled this, touching the left shoulder meant that the "led" person shifted their shoulder back into the hand, thereby turning left (I would've thought the hand on the left shoulder was a "push" onto that shoulder, so it would actually make you turn right). Finally, if you took your hands off the person entirely, they needed to stop. We no longer had a goal for our journey, we were just encouraged to explore the space. Once both partners had been led, we did it again - this time with the freedom to lead however we wanted, within reason - by the hand, by the elbow, by both hands, so the leading took on an element of dance. In the final variation, we led our partner for a while, then indicated in some way that we were leaving, and left them standing alone, for someone else to pick up and lead. Kurt described the loneliness of an elderly architect who had been "left" for a long time when they did the workshop at Brown ten years ago, and reminded us to make sure everyone was looked after, and no-one was left. 

In retrospect, this feels like the point when the "warm-up" ended, and the workshop-specific work began, but that wasn't clear at the time. In any case, we returned to the circle and people talked about how they felt and what they noticed, both when being led and when leading. After that, we sat wherever we wanted and Dario led what I'd call a "listening meditation", listening first to our breath, then what was near to us, then to the entire room, then to everything outside, then back to the room, to what was near us, and to our breath. My mind was crammed with thoughts (among others, wondering how I was going to keep track of all the exercises we'd done and reflect on them) and I didn't feel like I ever really started listening. 

After chatting to a partner about our listening (or lack thereof), we returned to a circle, counted off by twos again, and the twos sat in a smaller concentric circle, while the ones stayed further out. Everyone shut their eyes, and the twos created an improvised sound piece by making whatever sound we wanted when Kurt tapped us once on the head, changing the sound when he tapped us once again, and then going silent when he tapped us twice. After that "conducted" piece, we did it again - this time with no "conducting". We were told to provide some silence, then start our piece. We could make any noise we wanted, change it at will, and stop it when the time seemed right. All the pieces we improvised were magical. 

At this point, we returned to the air-conditioned but acoustically problematic room, made groups of four or five (self-selected), then went outside to listen. Kurt told us when to start and when to stop listening, and gave us time to jot down what we heard in our notebooks. This was our first "text", (Kurt's word). In our groups, we used a collection of objects to recreate the soundscape we had just heard. We performed out composition for two other groups, who also performed theirs for us. 

Before we composed our piece, Kurt reminded us of the "jumping at the same time" game, and encouraged us to seek distributed leadership in our team. When we were composing our piece, I was reminded of the painful aspect of collaboration - especially with strangers - as I would see an idea begin to flower and then die of neglect in the general tumult of ideas, variously directed enthusiasms, and the critical work of projecting goodwill to the people we'll be spending the next week working with. The withering of neglected ideas is an inevitable byproduct of collaboration, but I always find it hard. I also find that I (increasingly consciously) decide where collaborations fit on a continuum of priority, between "make something really good" and "have a positive experience in a group". This act of triage has helped me to relax a lot in collaborations, and be a less obnoxious group member, because I'm able to tell myself things like "Hey, in this context we do not need to produce the platonic ideal of a pipe-cleaner animal circus," and relax into having a good time. And the work always ends up being good, and better for me having relinquished my role as self-appointed arbiter of quality. Although I also nearly always feel a sense of "why didn't I think to do that" competitiveness when I see the work that other groups produced.

What I'm trying to say is that I have developed a relaxed attitude to group work through force of will, which I suppose means I don't have a relaxed attitude to group work. 

The other interesting thing I was reminded about, working in the group, is that groups are nearly always composed of some people who prefer to carefully map out what they want to do before they do it, and people who want to do it and then figure out what they liked and didn't like about it. I tend to want to do whatever we're planning to do (my general attitude is that it's never to early for a first draft) and then discuss what we did. Lots of people, I've noticed, really don't want to "do the thing until they have a clear sense of what they want to do. I haven't heard this difference of approach acknowledged in groups before. I'd like to bring it up.

After that, we did our first "serious" reflection, a 3-2-1

Here's what I wrote:

Three thoughts

  1. I want to make sure I remember these games
  2. The games were purposeless, and as such, depended on our goodwill
  3. There are some very dominant voices in the group - I'm curious to see how this dynamic develops over the week.

Two questions:

  1. What additional steps would Kurt and Dario have included in the warm-ups if we weren't as receptive, mutually trusting, and/or as skilled at these kinds of physical games?
  2. How far will goodwill and expectations get me with teenagers, weighed against their (justifiable) fear of losing face? What if we do something like the improvised soundscapes, and the first time we do it it isn't magical? If that happens, why would students want to give it a second try?

One analogy:

  1. The process that we went through - of making yourself vulnerable, disconnecting from speech (and thereby rationality), and putting blind trust into other people - is the same process that indoctrinates people into cults. 

After a short break, our next text was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story, "Light is Like Water", from Strange Pilgrims. I read it in Spanish. I'm going to try to read everything in Spanish. It's a novel experience to read something that takes me our entire allotted time to read, and that I then only partially understood. It had a remarkably minimal impact on my ability to take part in the conversation, which took place in a trio and followed the "building conversation" protocol in which each of us spoke for a minute, with each minute building on what was said in the previous minute, then for three minutes we spoke together (with the only direction being that we not merely rehash what was said in the first three minutes). Full disclosure: after the discussion, I skimmed the English version of the short story. 

I should mention that the 3-2-1 and “building conversations” protocols, which I described in the previous post, come from Harvard’s Project Zero.

I should also mention that Kurt uses the term “thinking routines” instead of “protocols”. I’m going to try it. 

OK, it's 1:30. I will continue this tomorrow...