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The workshop as an ephemeral assemblage

An important undercurrent in the arts-based research projects that I have been involved in has been the relationships that form within a workshop space, and the project’s relationship with other assemblages. In this blog post I will look at ideas that are pertinent the relationships that form through projects such as the Sex Worker Zine Project, a MoVE project that was conducted in Makhado and Nelspruit in the last half of 2015.

In this project Elsa Oliveira and I facilitated a process which involved sex worker participants from the Sisonke National Sex Worker Movement in the production of visual stories about aspects of their lives. This project was driven by the participants’ advocacy concerns, but facilitated with the use of methods from arts-based research and community arts education. The visual stories took the form of zines, brief handcrafted booklets sometimes used in advocacy movements because they can be easily be duplicated through digital copying processes.

The zines were made from the positions and perspectives of sex worker participants that were chosen by Sisonke. The objective of the zines was to tell stories based in lived experiences that the participants felt should be known by other people. The zines were framed as visual stories that advocate for, or provide information about a topic of the participant’s choice. We were able to create visual stories for public distribution and engagement, because we first undertook a process of exploring multiple private stories that are not available for a public audience, and were not necessarily shared inside the workshop either.

The Sex Worker Zine Project, therefore, was based in storytelling out of personal experience. While some zine stories focus on particularly extraordinary moments of achievement or turmoil, and others focus on somewhat mundane moments from the everyday, the stories that are shared are all ordinary, and they are made by ordinary people. They are ordinary because they are stories that are prevalent in society, and connect to issues which affect many other people: the discriminatory practices of people, organisations and government bodies; people’s positions within a harsh economic climate and their efforts to survive; how you view your life and achievements; what life is like in relation to other places. The stories presented through the zines are versions of stories that could be told by other people. For this reason, the issues that come forward through the zines are clearly connected to and relevant to macro level discussions around concerns such as health, migration, gender, education, and social justice. However, while these broader issues may impact individual lives, the individuality of the particular stories presented through the zines, the hopes and dreams, and the fears and angers that are contained in them, speaks to an idea that people, in some ways, live their lives and make choices in spite of broader social conditions.

Kagee, 2015, Do you hear them cry South Africa? Click here to see all the participants’ zines on the project’s MoVE issuu page.

Society as interrelated, and differently scaled assemblages

I think that a theory of social interaction proposed by DeLanda (2006) is useful to think beyond a structure-agent formulation of the relationship between the micro level and the macro level in arts-based research and community arts education projects. A core feature in DeLanda’s approach is that micro-entities and the macro-entities are intricately connected, but not intractably connected. This is an approach I will briefly outline, before presenting some more thoughts on the intricacies of local interaction in projects such as the Sex Worker Zine Project.

DeLanda argues against the conception of society as an organism. When society is approached as an organism, what is also known as a functionalist account of society, interaction between parts of a society are conceived as being based on relations of interiority: relations where entities have no independent existence outside their particular grouping. In the society as organism approach all parts of society are dependent on one another, and work together like organs to produce a stable, harmonious and functioning whole. According to DeLanda, however, relations of interiority do not adequately account for emergence: they do not allow for the unpredictability of the movements of people, and their participation in assemblages.

Emergence results in the processes between affecting bodies. Affects are pre-conceptual moments of intensity that produce transitions in the materiality of things, a movement in an affected body from one condition to another created by a body’s capacity to interact and to produce or undergo change. The shifts that are created by non-linear relationships of affecting bodies constitute the entangled processes of territorialisation, deterritorialisation and reterritorialization, the territory forming processes that constitute assemblages. An assemblage, therefore, is a collection of processes, but one continuously morphing, because of the affecting bodies that constitute it. While the assemblage is dependent on the bodies that compose it, the assemblage as an emergent process cannot be reduced to the properties of any of its component parts. Assemblages, furthermore, are entangled with other assemblages. This happens through the lateral and contingent movements of affecting bodies between assemblages of different scales.

According to DeLanda, the collections of entities that constitute assemblages are in what are termed relations of exteriority, they have an independent existence from the assemblages they partake in. In this formulation, entities have certain capacities that enable them to interact in various ways with entities in general, and they have certain properties which are the result of their relation to the particular entities in the assemblage they find themselves in. Because entities of an assemblage are not internally defined, they can move from one assemblage into another, and they will open a different range of properties as a result of the new relationships.

When this approach to assemblages is applied to the relationship of the individual to society, it allows for the consideration that the micro-entities of a society can remain somewhat independent from the macro-entities that they may be part of, and that they can over time become part of other conglomerations in which they will display different properties. This approach does not create a dichotomy between the individual and society where the one is unable to provide an account for the existence of the other. Instead, DeLanda’s conception of society posits the existence of multiple assemblages of different scales that are entangled in each other, but that also retain the particular, albeit continuously shifting capacities of each assemblage. DeLanda’s approach to social interactions, therefore, is sensitive to the shifting and non-linear nature of interactions in the social world.

The scale of the individual in relation to other individuals creates what DeLanda terms ephemeral assemblages. Some ephemeral assemblages, such as conversations and social encounters, have a shorter life span, while others, such as interpersonal networks, have a longer life span. These assemblages exist in relation to larger scaled assemblages, for instance, organisations or government bureaucracies, which are combinations of individuals, and other processes and entities. Ephemeral assemblages, however, are also part of much larger assemblages, such as towns and cities, rural areas, nations and regions. While ephemeral assemblages will be impacted by larger scaled assemblages, ephemeral assemblages are also somewhat independently organised: a range of properties open in ephemeral assemblages that exist apart from, and are not representative of larger scaled assemblages. This approach to the relationship of the individual and society is particularly useful when thinking of details of an assemblage, and when positioning those details as distinct from, yet related to a larger whole.

DeLanda’s approach to differently scaled assemblages, for instance, offers us a way to think about the small assemblages of a project space, and how they may be related to other assemblages. These are valuable concepts when thinking about the workshop and project spaces such as those of the Sex Worker Zine Project.

The Sex Worker Zine Project as an ephemeral assemblage

The Sex Worker Zine Project took place in somewhat rural areas: Makhado, which is a small town in the upper part of the Limpopo province, and Nelspruit, a small city in the Mpumalanga province. Both these places are constituted by a type of urbanity which is closely linked to the rural area around it, but they both also function as points on passages to other countries and to larger cities: Makhado is on the N1 North, on the way to Beitbridge, which is on the Zimbabwean border, and Harare beyond; Nelspruit is on the N4 on the way to Komatipoort, which is on the Mozambican border, and Maputu beyond, but also on the R40 on the way to Bulembu, on the Swaziland border, and Mbabane beyond. Apart from the surrounding rural areas, the border towns, and what lies beyond them, these two project locations are also connected to Johannesburg, not only as part of trade and migration routes, but also through organisational relationships: This project was made possible by its existence as research at the African Center for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, the MoVE project’s long standing relationship to the Sisonke National Sex Worker Movement that is headquartered in Johannesburg, and the connections to wider social research discourses, global funding streams, and sex work advocacy movements that these organisations and their members are affiliated to, and partake in.

When following DeLanda’s schema, the Sex Worker Zine Project can be seen to be involved in larger assemblages such as organisational, national and international assemblages, smaller assemblages, such as other towns or cities, and also other ephemeral assemblages, such as friend and family interactions, or those with colleagues and clients. The workshops of the Sex Worker Zine Project, however, constituted the core of the project, and they functioned as smaller scaled, ephemeral assemblages: the material processes that occur between people and things. Although projects are intricately connected to various large or medium scaled assemblages, much of the work undertaken in arts-based research is impacted primarily by the things that directly concern people: working materials, language, body gestures, proximity, histories, location, curriculum, technologies, and many such day to day aspects of a workshop. When you view a project as an ephemeral assemblage that is connected to other assemblages, but also somewhat independent of them, projects become a moment to reflect on lived experience, to make new relationships between people that might not have happened otherwise, to imagine other possibilities for life, and in some ways start creating them. After an intense two week working period in an assemblage of between 12 and 15 people, participants from each workshop location created powerful and thought provoking zines that speak to the imagination, and also to specific politics and social realities.

My interest in the Sex Worker Zine Project, is mostly based in the ephemeral assemblage: While the artifacts that were created through the workshops have relevance to macro-level issues, I suggest that projects such as the Sex Worker Zine Project are primarily concerned with artistic activities and lived experiences in the small assemblages that open when people work together. They constitute uncertain engagements with various aspects of particular local material conglomerations. Much of the ideas and relationships that are built in the workshop may be influenced by other larger scaled assemblages, but they still happen somewhat independently of those assemblages. This can be felt in a workshop: at a certain point within the first few days, once a space between people has been created, one gets the sense of the workshop assemblage becoming an entity itself.

The workshop spaces are encounters with particular place based practices and meanings, symbols and values, ideas and feelings, recollections and imaginings, hopes and dreams. The interactions created through the project lead to small shifts and unexpected encounters in the assemblages it draws participants from. I believe that it is by making small encounters, the creation of affect while participating in an assemblage, that it is possible to think through, and engage with the complexity of social conglomerations through arts-based processes. This is important because our knowledge of the world is defined by our limited ability to engage with entire assemblages. We cannot know, or be expected to know, all the variation that occurs in social conglomerations. The work that we conduct through arts-based research speaks to a particularity of context, and it is important to recognise that the methods we use are making particular ephemeral assemblages with capacities that are distinct from other assemblages, even when they are connected. In terms of the Sex Worker Zine Project, while the interconnectivity of assemblages creates a situation where the visual stories contained in the zines relate to concerns that are also pertinent to other areas in South Africa, this project was based in a workshop assemblage that is realising properties in people that often remain latent not only because of the harsh realities of people’s day to day lives in larger social assemblages, but also because of the particular capacities that are inherent in arts-based workshops.

Although the zines from the Sex Woker Zine Project are focus points into particular lives and particular social concerns, and although they could help inform conversations around policy change and social justice as macro-level concerns, a most visceral aspect of projects such as the Sex Worker Zine Project is the particular opportunities that open up when engaging with micro-relationships: how thing shift between people and things in a workshop assemblage.

My work deals with aspects of assemblages. I am interested in small encounters: moments that have a particular context, and through the particularity of relationships, make specific material conglomerations. This way of working entails being embedded in situations and being open to the affectations between bodies. In this sense, my work concerns the individual, and how the individual finds where he/she is in a larger assemblage, or in relation to another assemblage. I am interested in the encounters that are created when you work in ephemeral assemblages: how people influence, and are influenced by particular moments… and where this can lead to.

Parr, A. (ed.) (2010) The Deleuze Dictionary Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

DeLanda, M. (2006) A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. Great Britian: Continuum.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. trans. Massumi, B. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Oliveira, E. and Williams, Q.E. J (2015) The Sex Worker Zine Project. Makhado and Nelspruit workshops.

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