Art, a pedagogical tool for urban resilience

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Art, a pedagogic tool for urban resilience

Much has been written on the conceptual framing of urban resilience and how to operationalize it, engaging all stakeholders, and make it useful for the community. But some ambiguity around the word “community”, fueled by multiple case studies emphasizing the difficulty to reach an optimum resilience level due to “community capacity building”, may lead to some confusion. This ambiguity could increase the difficulty for experts to understand how citizens can be appropriately empowered. The question is not to know if citizens should be part of the decision process but how they could be trained to understand the meaning of the concept. This post should be seen as an open letter to artists and experts willing to commit themselves into a teaching process. It aims to explain how “Art” can contribute, as a pedagogic tool.

Resilience thinking and citizen empowerment.

Resilience thinking is a matter of perspective. It goes beyond the definition of urban resilience as the ability to withstand shocks. It implies a capability to reconsider what could be seen as granted and by doing so, enables a holistic approach encompassing the ways we interact with our environment. For urban citizens, standing back from daily lives and dealing with the unexpected change is not an innate gift. Though, understanding such capability is key. It will help to build the link with experts mastering the concept of urban resilience, and will enable citizens to be efficiently empowered. This being said, the pending question is how experts can fulfill their social responsibility in a transfer of knowledge from teacher to learner. Skilled and recognized experts have no or limited training in such matter. Though the sociological dimension of urban resilience advocates for a better understanding of philosophical and sociological concepts, as those developed by E. Levinas and P. Freire on alterity and dialogical pedagogy, it is unfortunate to see that few publications underline their critical role in the process of building citizens empowerment.

What is art and what does it teach us?

The very first question coming to anyone’s mind is of course “What is Art?” But the relevant point on the topic of urban resilience is not “What is Art?” It is “What Art teaches us?” The answer plays a predominant role as “Art” enables to think differently compared to more traditional ways of thinking. As such, it may be seen as endangering institutions by breaking norms and creating a counter-power. Duchamp considered “Art” as a thought and not simply for its aesthetic pleasure. The role of “Art” is not to please political institutions. By doing so, it would feed a suspicious feeling on its true nature. “Art” can be politically incorrect when needed; it should not aim to “aestheticize” politics but possibly to “politicize” aesthetics.

Do artists give a better understanding?

Art gives a better understanding of the world. Its vision of reality enriches the collective debate, enabling a significant change by shifting the perspective to more open-minded views. It gives the opportunity to understand reality differently, either using our sense of understanding or our sense of emotions or both. It helps to identify the changes, to question possible causes, to reconsider the standard and the positions on which a policy is based. Art history is full of examples showing its pedagogic role. The Bauhaus movement is amongst the most striking with its innovative way to teach how “Art” could influence manufacturing, not speaking of the legacy of Josef Albers with the experimental Black Mountain College. The creative approach of artists should be understood independently of the creation itself. A sculpture, a painting, a poem have their own value that can be provocative, embarrassing, upsetting, radical. The artistic approach, whatever its outcome, basically aims to ask questions, to think differently, to build new narratives. Seen from this perspective, artistic approach and resilience thinking deal with the same issue: reconsidering what needs to be reconsidered.

Art, a pedagogic tool.

Pedagogy cannot be decreed, it earns to be learned. In the specific case of urban resilience, teaching is cognitively challenging. It requires an ability to share the same wording, to connect to urban citizen’s sensitivity and in the same time to contextualize the teaching. It will be meaningful at one condition: to connect to citizen’s experiences while in the same time making sure that the teaching process can inform them on the threats and challenges related to the concept of urban resilience. A critical step in building this connection will be to learn and share a common language enabling to understand the meaning of urban resilience and the philosophy backing the concept. This should be thoroughly prepared by artists and experts beforehand, to make sure that the message will be correctly understood, but also to help artists. Indeed, the artistic approach is often based on personal experience, living conditions and emotions. Writing a poem from a white sheet, painting from a blank canvas or carving a block of marble does not aim necessarily to teach something. The message does not appear always at first glance. But nothing prevents from translating emotions into a learning process. Emotions can also help us to think.

To achieve the best pedagogic conditions, experts and artists should accept two main prerequisites:

1- Experts need to recognize their social responsibility and be involved in a transfer of knowledge from teacher to learner. Some of them may find difficult to leave their comfort zone: a transfer of knowledge means also a transfer of power; experts cannot expect to empower urban citizens and in the same time, not to be challenged if they cannot provide convincing arguments. In the way experts and artists will build their pedagogic process, a sine qua non condition needs to be respected: to make things simple though they might be complex. A good example is how to introduce the definition of urban resilience, knowing that most experts would try to encompass its full range of sociological, environmental and urbanistic dimensions on justified grounds of their interconnection. But let’s recall that a definition is not a description. A definition sets limits while a description opens the limits. Therefore, saying that an urban space is resilient when it can integrate the occurrence of hazards without compromising its operations is an acceptable definition when the pedagogic program intends, at a further stage, to open the limits set by the definition. To avoid any misunderstanding, the objective is not to oversimplify a conceptual approach, on the contrary. Being able to contextualize the various facets of urban resilience is key to understand its conceptual dimension.

2- Artists need to recognize their social responsibility and be involved in an artistic approach consistent with the objective to reach. Some of them may find difficult to leave their comfort zone: going beyond a natural sensitivity finding its expression in a painting, in a sculpture or in a poem is not easy, and sometimes not feasible. But artists can also be engaged to improve our well-being and well-living, using so their skills to increase our collective awareness as shown by associations like Art of Change, Arts everywhere or Bien Urbain.

As explained above, it is the artistic approach that is relevant and not the work of art itself. To be used as a pedagogic tool, the approach will need to be described objectively. This could be seen as “counter-artistic” by those defending the idea that “Art” is essentially subjective. But the opposition between objectivity and subjectivity is as counterproductive as the opposition between figurative and abstract art. Though some artists may have difficulties to explain objectively their approach of “Art”, it can be assumed that those willing to engage into a learning process will have no difficulty to explain why their approach is consistent with the issues raised by urban resilience.

Three Guidelines

Guideline 1: understanding the paradigm of cognitive apprenticeship. Though pedagogy earns to be learned, self-studying is fully conceivable. A lot of publications are available online and though most of them are dedicated to a typical “teacher-student” relation, they are appropriate to acquire the basic knowledge needed to engage into a learning process gathering experts, artists and citizens. To build their program, both artist and expert should keep in mind the following recommendations:

1- defining urban resilience as simply as possible. 2- naming the hazard(s) which is/are relevant for the urban community. 3- brainstorming on the limits of the definition and what makes it incomplete or questionable.

Guideline 2: sharing a common language. Building a pedagogic tool based on “Art” is challenging as it relies first on building a “joint productive activity” which itself depends on the message conveyed by the artist. When an artist is influenced by his relation with Nature, he/she will have generally no problem to translate his/her emotions into the appropriate wording. But when it comes to speak about the relations he/she has with our urban space, the artist will have to acquire a basic knowledge of the wording used by experts, admittedly incomplete but necessary for a dialogical process. In this regard, the open access Disaster Science Vocabulary published by Ilan Kelman is a valuable source of information.

Guideline 3: selecting the appropriate artistic approach. Using art as a pedagogic tool is aimed to improve urban well-living and wellbeing. Therefore, the needs of citizens should be at the core of the process. When there is a requirement for a local community in the southern hemisphere, asking the contribution of an artist coming from the northern hemisphere with a global approach is risky as potentially off topic. Priority should be given to local artists conveying a message that could make sense for local citizens. Associations involved in the way our society can take full advantage of “Art” will play a key role by bringing together experts and artists.

Building the tripartite relationship “virtuality-reality-action”. Such tripartite relationship should be thought in terms of narrative. Narratives are commonly used during teacher to learner processes. They help to better understand our environment and are useful to create a group dynamic. In theory, a narrative should be structured to enable a quantification of its efficiency. Depending on the objective to reach (from “soft” awareness to “hard” teaching), the expert may decide to structure the teaching process accordingly. In the below example, the tripartite relationship “virtuality-reality-action” refers to the interactions between the artistic work (here, my own photographic work), the comments of the participants and the resolutions decided by the group under the expert leadership.

Though a dialogical process of learning suggests a co-working approach, it should be stated that the role of teacher and learner are fundamentally different. The teacher, in our case the expert, is the leader. During the tripartite relationship “virtuality-reality-action”, the relevant questions need to be anticipated, determined and prepared by the teacher beforehand, with the cooperation of the artist.