Poetry Route River Flows
By Wilfred Apiung Akan, Leonoor Akkermans, Eleanor Anabire, Loes ten Anscher, Kate Opoku Boateng, Jacomien den Boer, Mary Chulu, Desta Dekebo, Aliyi Abdulah Deressa, Assefa Addis Habtamu, Nayel Sayed Hasibullah, Mohamed Jalloh, Juliana Alphonce Kabaitilaki, Lufumu Fikiri katiko, Jonas Samuel Laryea, Susan Kosgei Lebuluz, Elizabeth Mutumi Mailu, Alick Sylvester Mbewe, Adélphine Muhirwa, Emerence Mukangabo, Mwale Ernest Mupemo, Kojo Tawiah Baah Nuakoh, Jeroen Rijke, Ali Makame Said, Brinah Mandisa Senzere, Samuel Smith, Yewbdar Tadesse, Sulemana Wahab, Loes Witteveen, Simon Satunmia Yambor
Although the societal justification for new and urgent spaces of communication, participation and knowledge creation in times of conflicts over natural resources, sustainability issues, and climate change adaptation is widely recognized, it is not yet aligned with the training of professionals involved. Themes like agricultural art, creative complexity, learning by designed confusion or poetry for transformation are not yet found in the curricula of the life sciences.
The research group ‘Community resilience, participation and social learning’ of the professorship Sustainable River Management at Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands explores the contribution of community art and visual arts in relation to complex public participation processes in a context of sustainability. To that end, the research group cooperates with the Dutch nature foundation Natuurmonumenten. In June 2017, a ‘Media design for Social Change’ course was organized for international students of the MSc course Management of Development, who all have functions, related to agricultural knowledge and governance systems in their home countries. Students gained exposure to graphic design; painting, theatre, poetry and processes of supporting community resilience, participation, and social learning. The experiences were put in practice in a community art project with Natuurmonumenten.
The students embarked on producing a poetry route to express a ‘sense of place’ in relation to the new nature conservation area ‘Koppenwaard’, with a former brick stone factory, along the river IJssel. They were challenged to create their interpretation of the landscape, their appreciation of the natural resources and surroundings in poems and painting. To the surprise of the commissioning Dutch nature foundation and the international students themselves, the collective effort materialized in a series of banners with poems and painted monotypes portraying the river and the riverbank as a source of wealth, natural splendor and delightful inspiration. Mohamed Jalloh from Sierra Leone described: “Prior to this I had never written a poem and I was wondering how possibly can I be able to do this. After hard thinking and observing things around me (river, forest etc.), I started composing my poems and ideas kept flowing.”
After some experimental use in public consultation workshops, it is now agreed to use the poetry route for community participation in the redevelopment process of the Koppenwaard stone brick factory area and also on a river bank development project of the river Waal. The poetry route is expected to engage as a ‘conversation starters’ and ‘source of inspiration’ in participatory processes, in which nature development, flood safety and economic viability will be key. It is expected that the poetry route will support involved stakeholders to participate in the consultation process from a perspective of cultural and nature values. Using the artworks of outsiders’ and yet insiders for their creative production on location, searches to induce an element of positive dissonance or disruption to render new openings to the public debate. The poetry route aims to rebalance conflictive situations and jammed positioning by presenting novel views.
- Display at the Participation Matters exhibition
- Artist’s Talk on 14.12.2017 during the R! Festival
Interview with Loes Witteveen
By Olga Yegorova, on 17/11/17
Olga: You have been selected to take part in R! with a particular work, but what characterizes your previous work more in general?
Loes: As an academic, I always aim to overcome a dilemma that emerges from my background in the arts. I have the conviction that issues of arts and creativity have a direct link to the academic fields of communication and participation. When I speak about participation, I do not only mean organizing a rational conversation in very logical or linear ways, but my work is always centered around the very interaction itself.
Olga: R! covers a variety of themes and concepts, where all projects relate to notions such as participation, democracy, community media and/or power, always in very diverse ways. From your point of view, which of these concepts resonate with your in your project?
Loes: What resonates with our project are overlapping issues of participation and democracy. To me, it is about “voicing”. It’s about communities participating in larger societal debates. We work on issues of social and material sustainability. There, very often, the democratic materialization of participation consists of impact assessment processes. Instead, we like to work with the people involved, facilitating reflective processes for communities to explore and question what matters and should matter to them and how they can contribute to sustainability with or without a government asking them for an opinion. So it transcends the idea of participation in form of elections or other formal and established democratic processes into a process where people decide more freely.
Olga: Your project highlights the importance of sensorial communication forms as opposed to rationalized communication forms. How does the sensory experience work and why is it important?
Loes: It is widely acknowledged that sustainable futures require urgent transformations, beyond technological interventions; we need to find ways to address discrepancies of power and access and decision making over natural resources. We talk about social-ecological learning, we search to gain insight into the social imaginaries people use to deal with everyday decision-making, and we question how conflictive perceptions could be negotiated. Yet in the universities, while aiming to unveil these contemporary realities, basic qualities such as listening or sensing are overseen. While training students for research work, we focus more on statistics or, maybe, we practice some interviewing skills, but, watching and listening or taking time and being interested in people and things around us is something we only address to a very limited extent as basic competencies required for gaining access and insight into complex life-worlds.
This project has the overarching topic of sustainable river management in an era of climate change. In contrast to processes of participation that are mostly connected to already established possible scenarios by governments, we are calling people to get closer to the area concerned, physically and emotionally. The river Rhine is a major river in the Netherlands (and in Europe). In order to think about this area and connect it to what we feel and think about nature, and how we experience it, we tried to create a space where people are confronted with their ideas, values, their own wishes through the exposure to others and their expressed sense of place.
Most of the students who wrote the poems and made the paintings were by no means engaged in the arts or used to assignments where artworks are the output of dedicated fieldwork. It was very new to them. Many students, hearing the word “art” think impulsively about “chaos”, they translate art into being creative, which in turn means being chaotic for them. We tried to show them the contrary, exposing them to artistic discipline and the materiality of artwork. We worked to make them perceive the environment through their senses as a dedicated search activity. This was a bit scary at the beginning for them, as it goes far beyond anything they were asked to do in their studies before. We had to embark on processes of which the outcomes could not be foreseen. It is a risky process for all involved; it was only at the first exposition, watching the audience reactions, that the meaning of the work really gained shape. And only then did the students recognize that the team of artists and lecturers shared similar uncertainties. There was a surprise about the resulting poetry route which saw its profile sharpened through the relationship to the audience.
Olga: Can this sensory approach be transferred into democratic practices?
Loes: Democracy is often based on a mathematical idea. If 51 % of the people say “We want this!”, it means “We all want this!” and a decision is perceived as legitimate. But to me, this is quite funny because even the 51% do not necessarily want a certain thing they have voted for. They only express that they want this pre-set option given to them. Between the expressed and the real desire, big insecurities can exist … uncertainties that are not addressed. I think that we should really ask each other: How would we like to live together? Or how do we think we should establish conversations, which really matter. We need to have the sensed and thought conversations instead of reducing people to numbers.
Olga: Your project evolved from individual work, but also constitutes a collective contribution. Do you see a tension between those levels in your project and more broadly?
Loes: We tried to discuss with the students that not all work is merely individual, it is also collective. Of course, there is an individual flow that influences the individual’s creation. But there is also the contribution of everybody that merges into the collective outcome of community art, in our case the poetry route. And exhibiting the work, you need to select individual works, still honouring all of the co-creators. This becomes sometimes complicated when questions about authorship arise. That is why we include all the students’ names in the exhibition.
Olga: How important is the notion of empowerment to your work when encouraging people’s participation?
Loes: Empowerment is not very often part of my discourse. I emphasize diversity. And “voicing” is my keyword. I might create moments of empowerment, but I would not label them like that because it implies that there are others defining that somebody needs to be empowered, marking a vertical relationship. I can deal with vertical relationships when it is about acknowledging different positions. Being in academia, I am entitled to teach. That is a deal. But I do not have to empower students. And they can and should kick me out as well if I do not manage to teach them appropriately. Maybe resilience could be another term to express our focus.
Olga: What does “voicing” in participatory practice mean and why does that matter to you?
Loes: Participation means to create a space that allows communities to form their ideas and express their feelings. Everyone has different functions in open communication spaces, despite the inequalities outside of those. And what is important, is to break with the tendency of trying to make single-issue persons. This is nice in the opera: you have the villain, the queen, the nice guy. But in the rest of the world, every person has many different aspects of the self. You are not only the vegetarian fighting against windmills, but you are the person who also loves your mother and her chocolate cake, is fanatic about playing darts etc. People are a composition of many aspects and I aim to create spaces where this diversity becomes a recognized and a springy quality rather than reducing people to one aspect that becomes a one-sided argument in dichotomous discussions.
Olga: Through your project, you also point at conflict situations due to global climate change etc. How does your project address these crises and possibly suggest solutions to them?
Loes: I would seriously doubt that we offer a solution. I think the only solution that we provide in this project is to inspire to have these conversations. I would not dare to say that we achieve something beyond the creation of a communicative space. This opens the potential to establish shared visions about different social scenarios that we would like to achieve so that it may be possible to think about what future situations we would like to live in.
Work at Respublika!
Poetry Route River Flows artist talk, photos by Olga Yegorova
Fragments from Poetry Route River Flows artist talk by Loes Witteveen and Jacomien den Boer – On Averages, video by Olga Yegorova and Nico Carpentier
Fragments from Poetry Route River Flows artist talk by Loes Witteveen and Jacomien den Boer – On Participation, video by Olga Yegorova and Nico Carpentier
Earlier work (the full Poetry Route)
The poetry route was on display before: A short movie (3.39 min) was made to create an impression of the students’ activities. The poetry route attracted the attention of a local newspaper, the ‘Arnhemse Koerier’. The Dutch press release on the visit to the Veluwezoom National Park and the Koppenwaard area can be found in a local newspaper. The article was published on June 14, 2017.