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A day to day account of a participatory arts-based workshop

This blog entry offers a facilitator’s glance into the day to day activities that comprise a participatory arts-based workshop conducted in partnership with a grassroots activist organisation. I start the entry with a narrative account of the day to day activities of a recent workshop, and I end with a short reflection on the practice of being a facilitator in such a workshop. The project under consideration is the Sex Worker Poster Project, which is a MoVE Project (MoVE) in partnership with Sisonke. The Sex Worker Poster Project follows the Sex Worker Zine Project (2015), which Elsa Oliveira and I facilitated about two years ago, with the assistance of Katlego Rasebitse, the Media Liaison Officer for Sisonke in Gauteng. The poster project draws together the same 24 participants who made the zines in the previous project. The poster project has two workshops planned: one already completed in March 2017 in Nelspruit, a city in the Mpumalanga province, and one scheduled for August 2017 in Makhado, a town in the Limpopo province. The workshops are being facilitated by Elsa and I, and we are being assisted by Katlego. The day to day activities presented in this reflection focus on the March 2017 workshop.

Day to day workshop process (2017) The Sex Worker Poster Project, Nelspruit. | This project gave participants an opportunity to create poster-based messages that are relevant to their lived experience.

The structure of the days
Following an activity structure Elsa and I first conceptualised in the photography-narrative project titled Volume 44 (2013-2014), and which we refined during the Sex Worker Zine Project, we planned the poster workshop around the weaving of individual reflection time, visual-narrative making periods, and group discussions and presentations.

These workshop activities, without question, would be undertaken in the morning hours after a group breakfast (09:00-12:00) and the afternoon hours after a group lunch (13:00-15:30). Breakfast and lunch are two social periods in the day which offer a reprise from the exertions of the workshop, and which exist as moments where participants are able take some personal time, or build their social-professional relationships with others. The workshops would end by mid-afternoon (15:30), to ensure that participants who were travelling to the workshop would have ample time to get back home, and continue their day. A handful of the participants who had to travel further distances to the workshop lodged in the same hotel as Elsa, Katlego and I.

Day 1: Setting the parameters of the workshop environment
On the first day, after breakfast, we started with introductions. Since most people in the workshop were part of the zine making workshops two years prior to this workshop, these introductions were more of a checking in between everyone involved. We employed three “tell us…” prompts to get the workshop going: 1. Tell us… what you have been up to since the last time we saw you. 2; Tell us… how the exhibition was for you; 3. Tell us… if you could make a new public message, what would it be. These three questions initiated the workshop conversation about the lived experience of participants, and they helped set the initial parameters of the workshop in terms of its drive to produce advocacy messages.

After the introductions, we moved on to reading the 24 zines that were produced in the Sex Worker Zine Project. The participants broke away in smaller groups and worked through their own zines from Nelspruit, as well as other participants’ zines from Makhado. Four prompts were used to guide the participants while they were working through the zines: 1. Read the zines; 2. List important messages in single sentences; 3. Choose your favourite zine cover; and 4. Chose a cover that tells the zine story the best. After this group work session, which was emotionally loaded at times given the content of some of the zines, participants presented their thoughts to the workshop group, and a general discussion ensued about getting an advocacy message across.

Considering the nature of these initial activities, the morning session could be understood as an opening to the storytelling component of the workshop. Without yet informing the participants of the details of the work in the project at hand, the morning activities helped to spark their storytelling-imaginations…. At the end of these two activities, and not a moment too soon, it was time for lunch.

After lunch, it was time for Elsa and me to introduced the Sex Worker Poster Project. We facilitated a conversation with participants around the following ideas: 1. What posters are; 2. Why people make posters; 3. How posters have been used in the past; 4. Where posters can be seen; and 5. When posters are successful. We informed participants that we were going to help each of them to find a way to make three or four posters about issues that are relevant to their lives, and that we were going to jump right into the making of posters.

Just before jumping into the poster-making, however, Elsa and I wanted to create a context in which participants would think critically about the image and text choices they were going to make. To this end, we presented a selection of poster precedents. The poster precedents were intended to frame the poster making as an undertaking in critical thinking regarding visual-narrative messages in posters, rather than be a guide to specific poster styles or advocacy messages. For this reason, the poster precedents we employed were from a variety of fields and contexts, and did not have an overt focus on human rights issues. Each participant had a poster to work with. We gave the participants three prompts to guide their analyses of the posters: 1. What is the main message of the poster?; 2. What works in the poster?; and 3. What doesn’t work in the poster? Elsa and I ended this exercise with a group discussion in response to the ideas participants were presenting regarding the poster precedents.

After this analysis and group discussion session, Elsa and I transitioned into a session in which participants brainstormed a range of issues they would possibly want to make posters about. We asked participants to come up with words or simple sentences that encapsulated the essence of the issues they were concerned with. This was a fast-pasted conversation during which Elsa and I made note of the options forwarded by the participants, to be consulted later in the workshop when they were making posters.

In the second part of the afternoon, after Elsa and I had managed to create a coherent workshop environment, it was finally time to do the jumping into the poster-making. The assignment was clear: Make a poster that tells a message from any zine, or create a new message. While the assignment objective might have been simple, the actual process of achieving it was not. Making, and thinking through a making process, is a tangential and multi-faceted undertaking, and it is one which is difficult to take stock of through writing. For the next hour and a half, however, participants were brainstorming messages, making images, writing copy, refining image and text relationships, pasting everything down, and sometimes ripping everything off, and then adjusting the composition. All the participants created one or two posters within that first poster-making session. We closed the session by asking participants to present their posters to the group by describing the main message of the poster. This turned into a group discussion in which participants shared their learning experiences, and gained feedback from other participants.

Before we could end the day we had two short activities planned. These activities would help us transition the first day into the second day. The first activity was to distribute to the participants the publication which was created as a document of the Sex Worker Zine Project. Although the handing out of the publication was framed as a celebration of past successes, Elsa and I also used it as an opportunity to reinforce the idea of simplifying messages for posters. As participants were paging through the publication, we asked them to think about short messages that resonate with the zines stories. The second activity was to present a homework assignment. This assignment was titled Questions you can answer to help you design a poster, and it contained eight prompts for participants: 1. What are the issues you want to talk about?; 2. Why do you want to talk about these issues?; and 3. Who do you want to talk to about these issues? This assignment would assist the participants in making specific advocacy messages the next day.

With a full day behind us, and two more ahead of us, it was time to for the participants to leave the workshop for the day, and for Elsa and I to go over the schedule of the rest of the workshop period.

Day 2: Getting into the practice of poster-making
The second day, like any other workshop day, started with breakfast at eight. Participants, however, began arriving from about seven thirty in the morning, and sat down in groups of two, or three, or four. After breakfast, Elsa and I did a quick check in with the participants. We wanted some feedback on the homework from the previous day. This activity was structured as a group discussion around the three points: 1. The issues participants wanted to explore.; 2. The audience the participant wanted to reach; and 3. How the participant wanted to reach that audience.

This group discussion around the participants’ messages, and their audiences, evolved into a facilitated discussion around the practice of poster activism. We discussed with the participants ideas around the production of local forms of communication, and included for consideration ideas relating to audience, public spaces, sharing messages, and the use of images and language. This general discussion on poster activism lead to a presentation by Katlego Rasebitse about Sisonke. Katlego gave an overview on the broad activities that Sisonke is involved in, what it means to be a Sisonke member, the general positions that Sisonke advocates for, and the specific efforts by Sisonke in its activism towards the decriminalisation of sex work.

These initial group discussions were aimed at opening a space for participants to think about their advocacy messages, and their audiences. Although group discussions are good to spark thinking about a range of ideas, they need to be followed with working sessions in which the ideas are worked with, challenged, and expanded, through a mediation with a material. It was time, therefore, to make work of any of the ideas that had opened for the participates, and Elsa and I transitioned the group discussions into a group/individual writing exercise. To assist the participants in this writing exercise we presented to the participants four prompts on a handout: 1. My message to my community; 2. My message to the South African community; 3. My message that Sisonke can use; 4. My message to other sex workers. These prompts helped participants refine broader issues and into specific issues with specific audiences that could lead to clear poster-based visual-narrative messages. The participants banded in groups of two or three people, and worked on their individual messages. After this writing exercise was completed, each participant had several ideas for posters to supplement the posters they had made the previous day. However, although the participants had poster ideas, some of these ideas still had to be transformed into messages that would read well on a poster. Before continuing making posters, therefore, Elsa and I facilitated a group brainstorming session in which everyone helped create slogans for specific messages.

Most of the morning of the second day was used to create a selection of messages to specific audiences, but this enabled participants to undertake a focussed poster-making process for the rest of the day. After we distributed the art materials, Elsa and I recapped with the participants the properties of good posters: that they have coherent image and text relationships that create clear messages. As soon as the participants started working with the art materials, the workshop transformed: Ideas that were brainstormed during the previous sessions were challenged as they were transposed into image and text relationships. The posters that were emerging were unexpected for participants and facilitators alike. The participants became focussed on choosing images, getting their text right, composing their pages, and adjusting their compositions. Elsa and I moved between participants, assisting where needed, with the aim of generating posters with clear messages. Somewhere in between poster-making we had lunch, a momentary reprise from the poster-making, but not a disruption to it… after lunch the poster-making continued, the participants as focussed on their work as before lunch. It is difficult for me to capture in words the dynamism of a participatory arts-based workshop process. The poster-making process, however, involves searching for images, cutting, pasting, drawing, writing, printing, adjusting compositions, and so forth. There is talking, there is music, there is quiet. This process is a thinking process: Arranging image and text relationships involve many decisions made by participants around their positions, their rights, and their objectives. By day’s end, each participant had about three posters in progress. These posters would have to be finished the next day.

Day 3: Finalising posters, and presenting them to the group
If the first day, going into the second day, was about introducing to the participants the ideas and objectives of the workshop, the second day, going into the third day, was about making posters, and about learning through that process. On the third day of the workshop, however, participants had to finish up any posters that they had started, and make one or two more. As with the poster-making sessions of day one and two, participants became immersed in the work, and Elsa and I assisted where needed. By lunch, the participants had their bodies of posters ready. Each poster had a clear message about a specific issue which was pertinent in the life of the participant. We closed the session, and the workshop, by asking participants to present their poster bodies to the group. Participants described their posters, the main messages of their posters, and the audience of their posters. This presentation was an important moment for participants to witness the range of posters and messages that were made over the three-day period. The group discussion that ensued gave participants and facilitators an opportunity to reflect on the workshop experience, and give thanks for the time spent on the workshop undertaking.

Evenings: Not just the end of the day
The Nelspruit workshop was conducted in a conference room at a hotel called the Bundu Lodge. This hotel has about two hundred rooms and chalets on the side of a hill overlooking the farmland areas just outside of Nelspruit. There are many trees on the grounds, and there are some farm and herbivorous wild animals, either roaming the grounds, or in pens. The hotel has a pool, a mini-golf course, a restaurant, and a bar. During our stay, a wide array of people lodged at the hotel: A school tour stayed one night; a group of tourists came on a bus; there were several parties and individual clearly on business trips from out of town; and there were people who seemed to be from the surrounding area, visiting the restaurant or bar for the night. While quite a modest hotel, it created a welcoming atmosphere for our workshop.

It is quick to forget the surroundings while you are busy during the day conducting a workshop. The workshop, however, does not end in the afternoon. The evening, which is an intermission in the workshop day proceedings, remains part of the workshop environment. Tired after a day, and wanting dinner, or a refreshment, facilitators and participants enter another variation of their relationship: It is a continuation of a professional relationship, but in-between working hours, and a bit more casual. Facilitators, however, do not really stop working until the end of the workshop. Nor do participants. This means that workshops can sometimes become all-consuming. However, they can also be a lot of fun: While the stories and interactions which arise in a workshop process can be intense, the workshop period can also be filled with joy.

Budgetary constraints in the Sex Worker Poster Project meant that not all participants could stay over at the hotel. Only the participants who had to travel far to attend the workshop could stay over at the hotel – though a few participants who could not get a room because they lived too close to the hotel may likely have bunked with those participants who did get a room.

Elsa and I have started discussing the idea of the evenings between workshop days, and the location away from home in a welcoming environment, as being important aspects of a workshops period. While it is possible to maintain a productive workshop environment when people leave for home during a workshop period, there is something significant in staying over. Perhaps it is that the experience of staying over involves a heightened sense of being somewhere with a purpose. Workshops are social undertakings with a purpose. People come together momentarily around a shared interest. While having all participants staying over would increase budgetary requirements considerably, this could be explored in future projects.

Considerations on the practice of facilitating a participatory arts-based workshop
The first workshop of the Sex Worker Poster Project entailed creating a workshop environment in which participants could work with ideas and lived experience through a mediation that is based in storytelling and art-making.

The facilitation process Elsa and I undertake is emergent: It is based in responding to the group dynamics of the workshop, and balancing it with the educational and research-based objectives we intend to achieve through the workshop. While some of our facilitation strengths overlap, they are also supplementary to each other: Elsa is very sensitive to group dynamics, and I am able to work with people to help them realise their specific objectives. Facilitators employ many skills during their practice, but there are four areas in which they need to remain attentive while conducting a workshop.

The first area in which facilitators need to remain attentive is in following efficient practices in conducting meetings. Facilitators need to be good at timekeeping, at setting-up, relaying, and following clear agendas, at creating agreed upon ground-rules, at keeping records of the progress, and at being able to adjust meeting proceedings according to any contingencies that arise during a day. Workshops are meetings, and they become untenable when good meeting practices are not followed.

The second area in which facilitators need to remain attentive is in their listing, and their prompting. It is important to make information clear, to spark conversation, to include people who remain distant, to link activities to lives in a meaningful way, and to enable group decision-making and problem-solving. Without guiding the interactions that comprise a workshop, the workshop becomes unfocussed, and participants lose purpose in their discussions. Without creating a discursive movement in a workshop between participants, workshops soon become dull, and participants frustrated.

The third area in which facilitators need to remain attentive is in the group dynamics of the workshop. Workshops with multiple individuals are emotionally saturated conglomerations, and are intrinsically political spaces. There are a range of personal, environmental, and leadership factors that may emerge from within the workshop, or outside of it, and which can influence the workshop proceedings. The facilitator needs to be aware of the interactions of the group, and know when it is necessary to intervene in, or diffuse an interaction. To maintain a productive workshop environment, facilitators need to be sensitive to the flow of energy between people as they become immersed in the workshop period.

The fourth area in which facilitators need to remain attentive is in applying their specialist knowledge in a way that is accessible to participants. While arts-based workshop facilitators may be knowledgeable in methods and activities relating to arts-based thinking and learning, and in participatory forms of practice-led research, the way facilitators apply this knowledge in the workshop needs to be appropriate to the participants’ interests.

Elsa and I tried to remain attentive of these four aspects of facilitation. The Sex Worker Poster Project presented participants the opportunity to create their expressive forms, and partake in meaningful group discussions, in a way that was wrapped in the narratives of their lived stories. The workshop environment of the Sex Worker Poster Project, therefore, was one in which the participants could explore their own interests through a coherent structure provided by the facilitators – a structure based in a range of storytelling, discussion, and art-making processes.

It takes effort from facilitators, and from participants, to create a productive workshop environment. The task of a facilitator in this undertaking is to guide the workshop along a path that remains valuable for participants to discourse, and to make. This is best achieved when participants can see how the workshop makes sense in their own lives, or at least makes them feel like it is heading somewhere that will make sense to them later. The facilitation, therefore, is based on the participants’ lives and interests… participants influence the direction of the workshop content, but also, at times its activities. This is because facilitators adjust the core ideas and activities of a workshop to make sense to the participants in terms of their lived experience. Therefore, although facilitators may strive to remain neutral in their political position in a workshop, facilitators have much influence in the way that an event is structured, how activities follow on from each other, and how discussions transform into decisions. Elsa and I were able to create a productive workshop environment in the Sex Worker Poster Project because we followed a clear facilitation process that guided participants through this decision-making and thinking process.

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