Reflections on the ‘Unlocking the Creative Potentials of Research’ Workshop (a Reducing Inequalities in Public Engagement project activity, Yangon, June 2019)

In June 2019, PositiveNegatives convened the ‘Unlocking the Creative Potentials of Research’ workshop in Yangon, with participants drawn from amongst existing P4P Grant research teams in Myanmar as well as creative artists working in a range of media (e.g., cartoons, dance, poetry, sculpture, animation). The purpose of the workshop was to bring together formerly distinct communities of practice – research and the arts – each of which is focused on exploring and representing the challenges and opportunities around more inclusive democracy using their chosen tools. The workshop provided them with a space in which to connect, coalesce, and collaborate with one another on the question of how to ‘Reduce Inequalities in Public Engagement in Myanmar’. Over the course of two days in Yangon, the workshop convenors – Akhila Krishnan and Sara Wong – immersed the participants in a process of telling true stories, drawn from life.

What was the approach?

We structured the workshop development and implementation to be led by practice rather than theory – where activities were prioritised over lectures; this meant that we all learned by doing, participants and facilitators alike. Our intention for such an approach was to allow the participants to trust their instincts and lived experience – and to incorporate playfulness.

This overall approach was structured around 6 principles:

  1. Unlearning

We aimed to create a space for the participants to unlearn traditional processes of learning and expression – so that they would be able and willing to speak in a more personal voice through their work and as such, convey a deeper and more nuanced understanding of their local contexts and experiences. We also focused on erasing existing hierarchies in researcher/artist collaborations – where researchers practice as authors/directors of work and artists merely as translator/communicators of the same. We felt there was a strong need to understand that lived experience is just as valuable as academic knowledge.

We were always aware that we were not experts in this local context, especially given that we think and work in another language. We saw our work as facilitators as creating a structure within which participants could rediscover their own practices in a new way and also build new relationships with other attendees. Our facilitation process didn’t assume superior knowledge of the facilitator – this was a key idea that we held with ourselves as we devised and delivered the workshop. Creative workshops are often deemed successful based on their ‘outputs’ – which are often judged on a level of completion. This workshop upended that – prioritising process and reflection over a ‘completed’ end product. This approach also acknowledged the range of mediums that the artistic practitioners worked in (music, film, painting etc.), choosing to be respectful of the fact that the timelines needed to create work across them is different and is also affected by the story/subject that needs to be expressed. 

2. Flexibility and responsiveness

Given that we were working with new partners and in a different language (consecutive translation was utilised for the workshop) – we felt that our approach needed to be light handed, flexible and responsive to the room, to adapt to the needs of the participants and to also keep them engaged. Alongside an overall structure to the workshop that built in complexity, we also devised and kept in hand a series of short burst activities that we could throw in to re-energise the room. These included activities where participants were asked to move around, sit in new places and also to answer simple questions e.g. what their favourite food was. Our paper folding activity (explained below) also formed part of this approach. We were also considerate of the fact that any instructions on activities needed to be short and simple – rather than lectures, given that live translation doubled the length of any explanation. 

This project was delivered with a new partner and in a new context. These partners were present in the room and our overall workshop structure and approach allowed for input from them – either as live feedback or change in order to activities (for example on Day 2 we prioritised a ‘networking’ musical chairs idea in the afternoon session, as a lead on into the next round of grant making applications). This was only possible because the overall workshop was built in a modular, step by step process.

3. A process that builds in complexity

The overall structure of the workshop was devised so that learning and reflection could build from simple to complex. We began with our opening exercise which involved a process of unconscious creating through folding a piece of paper and sticking washi tape on it, something that took 15-20 minutes only –  that led to a new understanding of narrative and allowed participants to explore sequencing in an unexpected way. This mini activity mirrored the overall workshop goal, but in a way that felt less pressured. Following this, the participants were asked to choose a newspaper story, starting from a real event to devise a new project through the two days of the workshop. In a way, the choosing of the newspaper story was akin to each participant selecting their own washi tape. The idea of choosing newspaper stories and then working on them individually and then collaboratively allowed the group to develop a new shared language in the workshop space. This also erased any previous existing hierarchies or collaborative patterns, allowing participants to meet and discuss new ideas on equal footing. 

 

4. Real life research & stories

The idea of beginning the core workshop process through a newspaper article was deliberate. We were interested in connecting the workshop space and process back to the participants’ existing work and concerns, specifically the idea of deepening inclusive democracy. Through this process, we hoped that our participants (researchers & artists) would be able to leave the workshops confident in their abilities to be authors of the real world. We considered a few different starting points aside from newspaper stories/non-fiction/journalism – e.g. myths and folktales. But on reflection and in iterating the workshop delivery we realised that using non-fiction and real stories as a starting point would both focus and resonate with our participants, given their existing concerns and practices. Our local partners also supported this conclusion and we did feel strongly that we needed to be led by their deeper expertise and understanding of the local context. 

5. Sharing and reflection

Building on from our approaches, as above, we also resolved to have the workshop space be one of conversation rather than lecture. As we have said before, we did not consider ourselves as more expert or more knowledgeable than our participants. Reflecting and sharing were built into the end of each step of the process. This allowed the group to come together and get to know each other, as well as collaborate better – within their groups as well as with the idea of a larger network/community of practitioners that seemed to emerge from this gathering. The workshop space became a safe space for participants to reflect on their own practices, to share concerns and difficulties and to not feel judged. This was only possible because we set up an environment of constant sharing, no matter how ‘rough’ or ‘unfinished’ the idea was. 

 

6. The role of the facilitator

Through this process, we redefined (for ourselves) what the role of a facilitator could be – in facilitating a workshop on collaborative practice. We realised that our role and priority was to set up a loose yet clear framework for participants to work within. This framework would also allow us to facilitate collaboration across language and cultural borders. In devising this workshop, we followed a collaborative process as well – since both of us came from varying backgrounds with varying levels of experience. This was both intentional as well as organic. But we felt that we balanced each other very well as a team. As such, we would always suggest that a workshop of this nature is devised and delivered by two people, ideally by a researcher/artist pair who work in an equal/horizontal relationship.

What did we learn?

Local partners are vital

When working in an unfamiliar language it’s vital to work with a partner organisation that understands the local sociopolitical context. This group of participants was carefully curated by our local partners who were able to bring a deep knowledge of their work. This allowed us to reach a far more developed stage in the process than we might have with another group.

Committing to the room and the working space is important

We discussed a methodology for the workshops which outlined that participants be fully present in the room. We originally envisaged this a tool that would facilitate the creation of a shared common language and goals. It wasn’t until we were in the space that we realised how vital this idea was to the workshop as a whole, in reiterating that participants put away their phones and be fully present in the space, we helped facilitate meaningful collaboration and community building. We were reminded that physicality is an important consideration both within the space and in the planning of the activities themselves. Academic and creative workshops tend to be fairly mind-based. By introducing a couple of embodied exercises, we were able to change the energy and engage the participants. 

Flattened hierarchies are imperative

An equal structure needs to be established between everyone present, including the facilitators and the participants – this was very important to remember and hold from conceptualisation through to delivery. There were several partnerships in the space, between all those present; facilitators, participants, and local partners. Only in acknowledging that these partnerships are equal and horizontal can a workshop of this nature can be devised and delivered. For example, one of the participants asked the question in the first couple of hours the workshop “What is creative collaboration?”. We decided to leave this an open question that drove explorations throughout the workshop. As part of the closing activity, we asked the participants to answer this question themselves. One of our favourite answers? ‘1+1=3’

Collaboration and creativity have a universal language

From the point of the facilitators, we learned that these types of workshops can be facilitated across language barriers. This involves trusting the participants and local partners knowledge, experience and passion. Creativity, and the mediums it is expressed in, cut across language and cultural barriers. The more specific, nuanced and personal a story, the more resonance it has. The local can be global. 

A shared conversation as a process has valuable outcomes 

When you create the conditions for open self-sustained discussion, language barriers don’t impede comprehension and collaboration; this is true from devising through to delivery.  

A collective conversation pulls the group together in the commonality that drives their work and builds a community of practice. The group discussions and reflections opened participants up to exploring new mediums in a safe environment. For example, we had performances in the final sharing which included a researcher sharing a poem he had written for the first time. 

A human centred-design approach yield dividends

An open brief has the potential to free both the participants as well as the facilitators in interesting ways.  This workshop was truly devised from the ground up through iterating and building; we continually questioned ourselves through every stage and always kept the participants’ experience at the heart of our decision-making and development. Given the success of the workshop, we have proved that this is a valuable way of working.

We hope this reflection is a useful starting point for anyone looking to develop workshops or facilitate conversations in this way. We hope that in sharing our experiences and being transparent about the process in this way allows other people and organisations to engage with and understand this way of working.

Sara Wong and Akhila Krishnan