In the context of COVID-19, among the many shifts that we have experienced, more than anything the one hat that all educators need to wear is that of a learner. Both educators and students are pushed to unlearn and learn new ways of being, thinking, feeling, doing, making and leading.
As a designer and educator, I felt this has given us many provocations and unfurled many inquiries that we can choose to explore together with many others, and instead of trying to rush to design solutions of the problems, we could use design as an approach to co-sense our ways together through reflective practices. The problems during the pandemic have also been around education, teaching-learning, pedagogy and ways of facilitation. I was genuinely tempted to use principles of design as lenses to frame the paradoxes of our times through many dualities that are integral parts of our lives.
Some of the questions I wanted to explore were:
- Can design be used to connect and create communities? Can it be used to reflect, re-imagine and rejuvenate? Can design be used as a foundation to initiate and foster new relationships and make sense of emerging patterns in their own context, through a collective process of sense-making?
- Can design create a sense of belonging that can overcome the fatigue people might be experiencing to stay connected and do everything virtually?
- Can design be used as a contemplative tool to dwell in a world that is more connected than ever before and yet most disconnected than ever before too?
- Can design be used as a tool of inquiry to explore what it means to be human? Can design respond to what motivates people to come together and become a community? What role can design play in well-being and inclusion?
Eventually I aspired to find some direction, framing questions and reflections through a reflexive and reflective process emphasising on self-referentiality. I speculated that it could potentially lead to the framing of a collective evolving vision and purpose-driven design for the future of a world that cares. This reflection is about one such exploration which I embarked upon initially with two students of mine, which then became four. The basis of the reflections, discourses and self-referentiality in designing this inquiry-led initiative is the fact that a design educator is essentially one who designs a learning experience for future design practitioners.
This paper is a sharing of that unique ongoing journey, of students and teachers together, during the times of pandemic through an art, pedagogy, design-led trans-local initiative. At the time of writing this paper, the initiative has completed about four and half months and would probably continue for at least one more year with a culmination into a virtual interactive and engaging exhibition with many formats. This experience, which has been conceived of, as a year-long bi-monthly or sometimes monthly gathering of a group of people across continents is a story of extra-ordinary break-throughs during times of extra-ordinary break-downs where many myths and assumptions were broken around what could or could not happen through remote or online facilitation. The power of stories, orality, inquiries, narratives and perspectives, through an act of facilitation, mediated by design, art and narrative research, helped in inter-weaving possibilities through self-discoveries. This indeed turned out to be therapeutic, healing and regenerative. You can find more about this initiative over here, https://medium.com/@thearchivalcity/about-us-4e7c3acbc6cc.
Key findings and Insights
One of the aspects we tried to address through our designed initiative was: In these times, how may we come together to question, challenge and resolve existing systems and beliefs? Can this be done with a co-creative and collaborative approach? Can this simultaneously focus on the well-being of the community?
Our Musical Manifesto project sessions are based on a human-centric approach while keeping in mind an ecological and regenerative perspective to inquire into some of these foundational aspects by crafting design research through their unique formats. The idea has been to not just use templates or logically sequenced linear sets of questions in a top-down interview based way to get responses. Nor is it set in a performative unidirectional ways of disseminating knowledge, unlike many webinars that have been happening through the pandemic. Instead facilitation is the most important aspect where the element of design is in using metaphors and art to provoke and evoke responses. Further it is to process and position our findings which take into consideration experiential perspectives, insightful narratives and emerging inquiries. The participants and their sharings are at the centre of all insights and wisdom generated. Over the previous sessions, it has been noted that participants find an element of catharsis while partaking in the collective inquiries and the honesty, authenticity and experiential and embodied wisdom of their sharings give an understanding of their lived experiences and world views. This makes the exchange deep, unique, inclusive, meaningful, engaging, relatable, relevant and rejuvenating.
The collected narratives and artefacts that reflect the emotions, perspectives and experiences of individuals during the pandemic are being archived. This “data” or “insights” are not only useful for our end goal of creating a creative Manifesto of our time, but also for social entrepreneurs and change-makers, who wish to better understand the ground realities of lived experiences across the globe during the times of pandemic where we are primarily bombarded with bad news or people’s social media accounts which often do not reflect what is really happening at the level of both self and the society.
It has been quite obvious that the toll the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns is taking on general wellbeing is multi-layered and a lot is hidden or invisible. Many participants shared that through a virtual platform, the Musical Manifesto sessions provide connectivity even through confinement, and each participant ponders over themes as they experience them. The different themed sessions – like Freedom, Befriending Time, Wall of Words Within the War of the Worlds, Mapping of spaces and places – broach topics that are strongly contemplated upon during the lockdown. Every session aims to explore each participant’s views one step at a time in order to understand the overwhelming nature of current times. Confinement and distance have proved to us that being heard is respite to many. Hence the deep listening without having to worry about other people being impatient really helps. Moreover, the creative design of open-ended conversation structures ensure that it does not become a set of boring and fatiguing monologues where people stop engaging after a point. The psychological safety along with the feeling of being included creates and harbours a safe space even though with the participants’ permission the calls are recorded.
The sessions delve deeper into the ways in which art offers escape, reflection and solution to real world problems and therefore calls for a re-interpretation of what are essential for a human being beyond the binaries of wants and needs? “We need art to reawaken our sense of the wonder of being, to remind us of our freedom, and to highlight the things in our cultures that enable us to withstand the dreaded visage of death”, says Nigerian poet Ben Okri. He further states, “One power of the imagination is to enable us to see an alternative future where reason sees none.” This is precisely what the Musical Manifesto aims to do. Armed with existing pools of knowledge from diverse individuals, our changing presents are pondered upon through an artistic lens to imagine what our futures could look like.
There have been critical conversations in our sessions around diverse themes: for example, how the obstruction in viewing facial expressions while communication makes a difference, and how children who go down to play are cautious in engaging in any physical contact with each other. The unfortunate and surmounting deaths during the pandemic had drastically altered last rite cultures, sometimes digital funerals being the only option. These could leave a lasting mark on how we mourn and grieve at the loss of a loved one.
Do future generations possibly need to grow up without physical affection, and how the compromise to this pivotal aspect in the development of individuals could change the way in which individuals interact within families and societies? Participants often question Governments and their regulations, and inquire as to how society will progress with and after the pandemic. As noted by different participants, the pandemic has severely highlighted the injustices stemming from capitalism and class divides that have left many to suffer.
The lockdown period and subsequent easing out in certain parts of the world gave participants both time and space to contemplate on the essence of life. Participants have especially spoken about comparing the vastness of nature and the world with themselves. A participant spending a solitary night outdoors was confronted by the question “What is your truth” while looking at the star-lit sky. She said that the feeling of being absolutely alone in every sense of the word led her to arrive at the question. While she confessed to having felt uncomfortable with this inquiry that emerged in her head, she also said it framed what the “quest of life” could be, with the essence of it all. A participant, a Design Educator from Cairo, Egypt felt a sense of exhilaration after having visited the beach once the lockdown began easing. Examples like these perhaps prove why conversing as opposed to complaining during the pandemic is way more important than ever before. With everything happening and changing at such a speed, nobody is able to grasp and know what to do at the time. It felt like a designed intervention like this can enable people to have some kind of relief and reassurance that all are in the same boat in some ways although the pandemic has impacted everyone differently, and maybe get some guidance on how to look forward. This collective exploration among complete strangers can create a sense of community where there is no baggage of knowing each other too well with the veil of the past, but an unravelling of one’s sense afresh in the light of the present.
As explained earlier the Musical Manifesto sessions take up a range of creative formats each designed with a certain purpose. The Potluck format gives the freedom and flexibility for a participant to bring any artefact, piece of art, text, music in order to understand their lived experiences pertaining to a theme. It is called a ‘Potluck’ because nobody judges what is being brought to the table, and everybody shares the food for thought and soul that is served. The Letter Exchange format enables participants to both address and respond to an inquiry, and the medium of the letters varies from text to photography collections to performances.
A collective cooking up of concepts- for example, the Wall of Words Within the War of the Worlds- delves into new vocabulary emerging from the pandemic and older words and phrases that are being redefined in these times. This is based on the belief that a language essentially captures and frames worldviews. As expressed by most participants, these exercises help them channelise all their creativity in responding to profound triggers, and the sessions see many diverse and enriching perspectives behind each inquiry. This also instils in a kind of creative confidence as most of the participants are not typical artists or designers and yet they use forms of art to express, engage, represent, which is very much in alignment with the Universal Design for Learning concept. This co-creative process of narrative based research gives deeper insights into each individual’s thoughts and feelings by giving them a platform to speak their truth.
Some foundational basis
“Storytelling and performance are not ‘add-ons’ – they are vital to how societies withstand the trauma of these trying times”, says renowned Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri in his article titled “We need art more than ever“. A Facilitator and Design Educator based in Bangalore, India, spoke about “Imagination being the key ingredient in saying Yes to Life as during times of uncertainty with imagination possibilities can be designed. The Musical Manifesto collects the lived perspectives, experiences and emotions of people from all walks of life in order to better shape our understanding of well-being during the Pandemic, as well as reimagine what the post-pandemic world could be like which is neither about the new normal, going back to old normal nor rushing to pivot without thinking about the unintended consequences.
From students and design educators, to artists and high ranking corporate officials- participants of the Musical Manifesto sessions while diverse in background, geographical locations and socio-cultural contexts, do understand and empathise with the change making abilities of social entrepreneurship and endeavours. According to an article published by the World Economic Forum, “nearly 50% of social entrepreneurs who attended the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in 2018 reported to have struggled with burnout and depression at some point”. The chances of these change makers encountering burnout are much higher in the pandemic scenario. This has been reflected by multiple participants that have spoken of burnout and unproductivity during the lockdown, confessing that “getting back to full swing” seems almost impossible.
As the link between ‘well-being’ and ‘well-doing’ is thoroughly appreciated by the Musical Manifesto team, sessions are centered around the same. Participants have acknowledged that the creative expression and inquiries facilitated during sessions have made the Musical Manifesto a safe space for vulnerability and catharsis. With participants based in India, UK, Singapore, Egypt, Germany, Nigeria and Pakistan, to name a few countries, the Musical Manifesto is a collaborative and co-creative endeavour that truly fosters global networks and partnerships.
It has become a space where even complete strangers can share their dilemmas of sexuality, experience of child sexual abuse, insecurities about relationships, vulnerabilities of life, share about personal loss, speak about death, mourn together, express grief and anxiety, have self-discovery, share long lost stories that would otherwise find no audience. It is a space where educators and learners from around the world can have nuanced and unrestrained conversation about prominent themes of our times, and can exchange their world views and narratives in order to build a collective understanding of the pandemic as a community of thinkers, makers, connectors and empaths. A student based in Bangalore, India, spoke of the Pandemic being a one-of-a-kind, globally shared experience, and what the world needs to gather from it should encourage global understanding, empathy and collaboration.
Most of our participants resonate with our inquiries of the Musical Manifesto and have been in constant involvement in its explorations since the first session. “Regular” participants definitely feel a sense of belonging, as they return for each session purely based on their interests, no membership or fee is involved. All attending are free to share pieces of their own, borrowed pieces, respond to what the other participants bring to our heartfelt sessions, or be listeners. The individual sharings lead to collective discussions in a participant-centric approach. This kind of research on people’s lived narratives ensures no broad generalisations about a person, race, nationality or culture are made. The raw data- all the conversations, lived experiences and artefacts shared in the session- is recorded with consent of the participants and transcribed to unearth some emerging questions and themes that could be potential triggers for subsequent sessions. In this way, the sessions are truly created by and for the participants.
The Musical Manifesto is truly a design-led collaborative reflection and re-imagination of what the world needs during and after the COVID-19 Emergency – a set of inquiries, inspirations and understanding that work to improve the health and well-being of communities and individuals, bring in a cultural of regeneration, as gathered from individuals’ experiences through community exchange of emotions and intuition, interpretation and imagination. It takes the pause much required, to go inward together, over weekends where otherwise people would go outside. It is that point where one feels gratitude for having this priceless gift we all have: Life!
Sudebi Thakurata is a Co-Founder of Depicentre Consulting, and a faculty member, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, India.
Research and synthesis Inputs: Probal Banerjee, Aditi Singh, Gayathri Menon, Kunika Bajaj and Niladri Mukherjee
The Archival City: https://medium.com/@thearchivalcity/about-us-4e7c3acbc6cc