Saturday 19 February 2011

Effectiveness in art and in peace building

I have been meaning to jot down notes on this for months but things have been so busy...
Late last year the German Institute for Foreign Relations (known here as IfA) organised a day-long research dialogue with twelve women and men - half of them professionally involved in peace building, the other half in art. I had the privilege to participate as a representative of the peace building crowd. The idea, devised by researcher Vera Kahlenberg, was to explore together what "effectiveness" ("Wirksamkeit" in German) meant within our respective disciplines and practice.
Vera Kahlenberg divided us into "mixed" pairs, gave us a handful of broad questions and audio recorders, and sent us off, two by two, into quiet rooms with the assignment to dialogue for two hours. I was matched up with Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, an Argentinian-Armenian artist living in Berlin. I am at a loss trying to describe her rich and intricate work - take a look at her web site!
It was an extremely inspiring conversation. I realised that the way in which Silvina described her way of working was highly relevant to peace and development work. As Silvina sees it, the artist perceives herself and shares these self-perceptions with others, which generates new ideas among those who view or participate in her art work, as well as new questions for the artist.

Isn't that reminiscent of the "learning spirals", "feed-back loops" and "action research cycles" we use in development? But the thing that development workers often shy away from is critical questioning of their own self-perception and the motivations behind their actions. Development professionals are not "neutral", trivial machines whose only purpose it is to bring peace and welfare to "poor countries" according to a standardised path that would work in any context. We are human beings, carrying our own histories, our ties with many other people, and rich and sometimes contradictory aspirations with us, and we interact with other individuals, each of them unique and unpredictable! I believe that being aware of our own mental "baggage", and unpacking, re-sorting and enriching this baggage every now and then with other people's perceptions, makes us more effective in supporting others in their own development.

The other learning from this event has been about dialogue across disciplines. It has been extremely enriching and enjoyable to explain our conceptual worlds to each other and draw surprising comparisons. In a final plenary session, we reflected on discoveries made in these dialogues. Again, an inspiring, lively discussion that made participants eager to remain in contact, and to find new opportunities for stimulation from different disciplines.

Many thanks to the host institute, IfA, for making this happen! Vera Kahlenberg will generate a publication from this event.

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