the social art of scribing for (social) artists

Setting the room.

The first cohort of LA County’s Art of Leadership program were gathering for the first time. These two days would lay the groundwork for months of work, as both emerging and established leaders cultivated their leadership potentials. Complex issues were on the table within their arts education ecosystem: individual, systemic and institutional patterns of inclusion and exclusion, scale and equity, representation, choice and voice.

From my perspective as their scribe, the ‘normal’ way of working - mapping out the content on a series of individual boards, one white eight-foot rectangle at a time, wasn’t going to suffice. Something more was called for.

And so, in a room full of artists and arts educators, I set out to do something I’d never done before. To counter my habits and the many learned ‘tricks of the trade,’ and to work in an entirely new way. It would be an experiment in social art and generative scribing. And it succeeded.

Why? Because I had the confidence of my facilitation colleagues from the Presencing Institute, who said at the outset, “I don’t understand exactly what you’re doing, but I trust you.” Because I had the immediate gratitude of the attendees, who saw their worldviews and experiences being validated through my scribing, and repeatedly came up to me to tell me so. And because I had the willingness to listen to the work and the walls as much as to the people in the room - to let go of certainty and convention, and to trust what emerged.

Setting the container.

My first deliberate choice was to build a freestanding wall for the main body of work. I wanted to create a container for the room - to use the scribing to foster a sense of place, not just work, on easels, in place. The wall naturally had a gentle curve to it, because of the cardboard pads I’d used. As the map unfolded, this larger curve ended up being echoed across the face of the wall multiple times - somehow itself always referencing further containers - the fragile atmosphere of the earth, the skin of our individual and social bodies, the arc of the Theory U framework itself.

My second big choice was to use brown and black paper as well as white, and to layer and collage the paper across the wall. This represented a challenge to white normativity and the oft-invisible dominant structures of theory and practice.

White paper and boards are the default surfaces of the scribing field. Our markers and paints are designed for them, and they’re a convenient surface for hiding mistakes. It’s easy to forget that white paper isn’t naturally occurring - it’s been manufactured to look that way. White cultural and institutional norms likewise are so entrenched as to be the invisible ‘norm’ - until we call them out. My choice to incorporate black and brown paper was a way of honoring the complexities in the room and to make a visceral connection between my scribing practice and the topics at hand. It is hard to make clean marks across cut seams and torn edges. An errant mark on brown or black paper is not so easily ‘erased’ by those handy white stickers.

Likewise, we cannot so easily erase the effects of our actions, systems and marks in this world - especially as they impact underrepresented communities and people of color. Building new understanding, practices and structures is required of us.

The final choice I made was, once the convening began, to stop making deliberate decisions and instead, to make only offers. I would offer content to the wall, and it would tell me if it was in the right place, or if it needed to be amended or moved. If it was complete, or if something more was required. Rather than acting from a place of knowing, I acted from a place of finding out. The scribing became a process of inner and outer discovery, both honoring and reflecting the self-discovery happening elsewhere in the room.

Passions Map

The gathering began with a community dinner. It took place in a loud restaurant, with dim lighting. As I strained to hear participants’ introductions, and to even see the board in front of me and the colored pens and markers in my hand, the first piece was born. A rapid-fire capture of the passions and interests in the room.

The Theory U Journey

I had pre-mapped an overview of the group’s journey onto a second board, adding details as the facilitators elaborated each stage of the path to come. This piece was also designed to be separate from the main wall, so that it could easily be re-displayed at future gatherings. As Liz, Grace and Marie set the stage for the work, establishing community guidelines and extending an invitation to participants to fully engage, I listened. Both to the words being spoken, and to the blank and waiting wall. Listening for the distinction between setting up, and diving in, that would signal the right moment for me to move onto the larger wall.

Liz recounted a story of the work of Joseph Beuys and his piece, 7000 Oaks. I drew stones at the left bottom of the journey map, and at the right, one small sapling of a single tree emerging.

Beuys' 7000 Oaks

This theme carried over to the larger wall in the form of multiple scraps of paper, anchoring the start of the map like a pile of stones laid as a foundation. It planted the idea in my mind that perhaps a tree or a forest would emerge by the end…

Co-Initiating, Absencing and Presencing

The wall began with a deeper look into the Theory U framework, which segued into personal reflection and discussion around the questions of, in their ecosystem, what was dying, and what was being born. Hopes and fears were articulated, all somehow circling around questions of creativity and life - what supports it, what does it, in turn, support.

Scale and Equity and a History Lesson

The second morning, Denise Grande of the LA County Arts Commission shared a history of legislation that informs today’s current realities. Her own story in the field, which she shared at dinner the first night, was also illustrated at the far left of this stand-alone piece. As this presentation’s content was distinct from the main workshop journey, and could also be a useful graphic on its own terms for the arts commission, it was captured on its own.

Social Sculpture

The introduction to Social Presencing Theater (SPT) centered around what themes of embodiment, listening, and activating relationships and attention. Conversations the second day circled back on this again, as the group explored what it means to hold space for the unspeakable, discovering the power that comes when villagers learn to hold and behold one another.

Social Presencing Theater

By intentionally stepping into the unknown, the work became sacred, and I found myself sensing into the discoveries of the participants, representing even their unvoiced experiences on the wall. One example of this came as the group began practicing SPT together. I had brought acetate sheets and alcohol inks to this event, certain they would serve a purpose, not knowing what it would be. As the group explored this medium for the first time, I literally drew inspiration from their wordless and organic movements with my own breath. Blowing on inks through a straw, the resulting square of acetate laced with color became the most vibrant and nonverbal portion of the wall, an anchor point of experiential understanding.

Extending an invitation.

On the afternoon of the second day, I facilitated an activity with the participants, a reflection around containers and holding. Each person was given a rectangle of paper, upon which I had made a single golden mark. To me, this mark was a seed - a reference to Beuys’ 7000 field stones, which would first become seedlings, and finally a forest. These leaders were seeds, seedlings and trees too, growing forests of their own. The mark was also a beating heart - a nod to a remark made during the first morning’s mindfulness practice, that were were in a room “full of 60 beating hearts.” I did not explain these meanings, I did not mention the mark. I simply introduced the reflection, and invited everyone to make their own marks in response. Their drawings were then gathered and added to the wall, symbols of the rich work that had been seeded, and the forest yet to come. A tangible and explicit and entirely integrated way for each of them to make their own marks on the wall.

7000 Oaks

The final panel did in fact emerge as a tree - or rather, the outline of a tree-to-be. I drew the visible tree on the floor and taped it up, and the wall immediately told me that the underground part of the tree also needed representing. Somehow rather than draw roots, a mirror image of the tree emerged, spilling off the wall and rolling onto the floor. When the participants shared their works from the closing exercise, I populated the base of the tree with their cards, seeding the forest of the future.

Active Listening.

The resulting wall requires active engagement. It does not give up its essence easily. In this way it differs from much of my usual work, where I strive to make the main points and the journey more obvious at a glance. This wall, instead, demands attention. It asks for active, not passive, viewership. Just as the work before this cohort of leaders demands their own active and sustained attention.

When the last panel of the wall was put into place that final afternoon, somehow that gave the wall just enough gravity of its own that its long curve began reflecting the sound of our voices back into the room. The wall had begun to speak.

The wall, like the leaders it reflected, had found its voice.

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