Resilience is inside every one of you – you just have to know where to find it… by Amanda Woodman Hardy
Fourthland came to the Cabot Institute from London to give a workshop which would help us look into how resilience forms an important part of our research across all disciplines. Walking into the room with weird objects laid out and the sound of an Irish choir repeating a hypnotic chant, I instantly knew this would be a very different kind of exploration of our academic research.
A resilient performance
Fourthland started their artistic performance by holding a rope and folding it up…cue lots of confused looks around the room and people shifting uneasily in their seats. I couldn’t help thinking what on earth have I signed myself up to?! Asking everyone to close their eyes, Fourthland continue to set up the room with props.
Upon opening of eyes, everyone was asked to communicate through gestures and not use their voice. A volunteer was plucked from the room to randomly play a piano whilst participants took hay, eggshells, string and a big dish of what looked like the biggest poppadum I had ever seen – it was actually a flat bowl made from wax. Manipulating all these ‘ingredients’ separately in small groups by making straw bundles, ‘moving mountains’ with eggshells, and weaving string in and out and around the room, binding the room together, there was a sense that this had meaning in a way that could not be explained verbally. This is where writing about the experience is tough. What on earth was happening, what did it all mean and where was the relevance to resilience? I couldn’t quite see it at that point…
Fourthland continued and read from a scroll rolled up in a rolling pin. The scroll contained all the thoughts of the researchers that had contributed to our resilience programme over the last few weeks. Contributions came from social science, engineering, arts, and the sciences. After all the noise and manipulating of simple materials subsided, a group of volunteers sat at the front of the room (named the ‘keepers of culture’) reflected on what they thought had just happened.
Digesting the workshop
Taking the time to digest what had just happened was critically important at this point. We had spent 20 minutes inside this weird bubble of wax and string and sound and eggshells and straw and a whole load of visual and aural bombardments. How was the room making sense of it all? I was intrigued.
First reactions were that lots had happened without actually seeing it. Everyone was so engrossed in their little task with their simple material that they didn’t feel like they saw everything that was going on but everyone seemed to sense most stuff that was happening around them, regardless of whether they saw it or not. It wasn’t until everyone stopped and looked around at the transformation of the room that we all realised just how much we had changed our simple materials and our presence in the room.
Cycling and circles were prominent, connecting everyone – whether it was a circular straw wreath, circles in the eggshells or circles of string around the room.
The people sat around the large wax dish, were told to deconstruct it but ended up remoulding it and building something up instead which demonstrated how resilient we can be. Even if we destroy something, we can still make something out of what remains. The group reflecting on the deconstruction of the wax bowl felt destructive to change it but then this feeling reversed once they realised that the wax warmed in their hands and became quite malleable. The wax group described resilience through beeswax in that it can be remoulded if you hold it in your hand long enough but you can also snap it causing a shock. The snapping led to a remoulding of the wax which seemed like a natural process.
The group who had the straw (four male academics) weren’t quite sure why they were creating bundles of straw or where they were going with it but they quickly and quietly started a production line to build a big nest. It felt meaningless to them whilst making the straw bundles but reflecting on it afterwards, they felt that they were creating something new, creating new life, and undertaking the basic processes of being human.
The string group, with a bundle of string and no scissors started by miming cats cradles to each other but then realised that not having scissors meant they had to think more creatively about what they were doing with the string…so they connected everyone in the room up. Once everyone in the room was connected they then turned to making the string look more attractive, embellishing it with knots and some borrowed straw. The string group felt that this process made them question permission e.g. who they could tie up with string, were they allowed to go around the room with the string in the first place? They noticed that there was a bit of risk-taking involved in tying around people and creating trip hazards. In the space of boredom they associated their permissions. No one had said they couldn’t do what they were doing, so they just assumed that they could. Thinking about resilience it was interesting to see what permission allows you to do but also where it restricts your resilience.
The eggshell groups were told to ‘move mountains’. They got into a rhythm of piling up the eggshells to be ‘something’ and moving them around in a collective action without collective words. One eggshell group found that they had both been working on the same creation but that once they spoke to each other – one was working on creating an ‘island’ and the other a ‘sun’. They had the same collective result even though they weren’t working with the same idea. An important lesson – collaboration with people whose ideas or beliefs we don’t hold or understand is vitally important for being resilient to whatever life throws at us. It seemed that order was created out of the chaos of those eggshells.
Artistic interpretations of resilience
After hearing peoples general reactions to the performance, Fourthland started to explain the artistic meaning behind the performance. Each of the resources on the table (straw, eggshells, wax, string) were ‘scarce’ and Fourthland wanted to see how people would be creative whilst the items on the table were running out. The room worked across their academic disciplines by not speaking but creating new things.
Fourthland asked how people would describe the process if we were to tell it again. A silence ensued whilst participants gathered their thoughts. Someone said it was ‘child-like’, others said it was ‘different’ and there was audible pleasure in the room emanating from ‘giggles’. There was uncertainty about what was being created and people wondered what the story was and what their part was in it.
Fourthland discussed how long the process should have taken. Usually they go for forty minutes and interrupt half way through. This time they went for twenty minutes to see what happened when people knew they had limited time. Reflecting back, knowing that we had limited time to create something from nothing seemed to really kickstart the academics. Knowing that the Cabot Institute academics have it within themselves to work together on issues of resilience around future cities and societies, climate change and sustainable engineering, it made me realise how important this whole process had been. In a way it was life affirming because the work they do now has much more meaning and importance, and allowing creativity of ideas through a collective consciousness is invaluable to the future of humanity.
Below are some of the academic interpretations of the resilience workshop, all meaningful and thought provoking:
• One scientist thought the workshop was about the individual stories and that life was precious.
• “It was less about looking for someone else in the room who knew what was happening and more about what I knew”.
• “We took away our human stuff e.g. language and knowledge, and sought an older part of ourselves, like making eye contact in order to make and do and continue”.
• A social scientist asked about cooperation and what happens if something happens that is malign like external shocks? What happens to that group cooperation? If the shock came you would need to know that you can all come together to get over that shock.
• Another point well-made was that there was a whole load of people who weren’t in the room. “Every time we try to be resilient we are excluding certain groups”.
Future thoughts on resilience
Fourthland said that the process was all about stories and myths in stories. However one academic counteracted this and said that these myths already exist, for example, in cultures such as Native American Indians and Aborigines. These cultures have passed down ‘myths’ and ‘stories’ generation to generation that will get us through our important global situation. The academic said we shouldn’t necessarily create new stories but “listen to the stories that already exist”.
I don’t know about anyone else in the room but Fourthland totally blew my mind and I feel rather differently about life and the future of life. It is looking increasingly likely that ours and future generations will have to cope with a more uncertain world as global governments are not pulling their weight with regards to environmental policies and regulations around emissions, climate change, environmental degradation and more. But the resilience that lies inside every one of us and the innate capacity that we have to work together even when we have nothing in common gives me much hope for the future.
Resilience: The power of being bored…together, by Hayley Shaw
Louise and Eva belong to a London-based arts programme called Fourthland, which they describe as “A movement. An idea. A place. The handheld. A way of working. A history of projects”. I’ve had the pleasure of working with them since Tessa Fitzjohn, a local curator, and Aldo Rinaldi, the Senior Arts Officer at Bristol City Council offered us the opportunity to host Fourthland as artists in residence. Together, Aldo and Tessa launched the ‘Resilience Laboratory’ in light of Bristol’s ‘Green Capital’ award – a project that aimed to explore the meaning of resilience from multiple disciplines and create a space to share learning. Whenever I meet with Louise and Eva it feels like something profound has just happened, and is about to happen again, if I can only grasp the thoughts for long enough. They have provided a place and a time for us to stop. Think. And dwell on what it means to be resilient. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to capture just one of the many themes I found surprising and interesting at Fourthland’s most recent resilience workshop at the Cabot Institute – boredom (the good kind).
I have never (ever) considered boredom as a precursor to resilience, but yesterday I did. When you consider the amount of work we need to do to mitigate the effects of climate change, or tackle inequality and hunger, it’s difficult to argue that we should ever move so slowly that there’s time to be bored. The scale of the challenge is so vast that those who truly engage in the topic can almost be consumed by a constant need for progress.
In yesterday’s workshop we were set a task to work with simple materials – wax, hay, string, and eggshell – in silence. We weren’t given strict instructions on how to use the materials; just that they were ours, and we had twenty minutes to work together using silent gestures. What we learnt is that each group started the task politely – exploring the materials and gently negotiating how they might be used. We were delicate, patient, and searching for rules that might guide our behaviour. We all seemed to feel that there might be actions that weren’t ‘allowed’. After what must have been around 10 minutes there was a surge of creativity. People had become bored with their ‘safe’ tasks and began to be more provocative – breaking materials, tying furniture together, making meaningful products, or reading aloud. In this space, boredom became a catalyst for a change greater than we originally felt comfortable with. We stopped searching for rules and broke the ones we thought existed. Colleagues overcame their discomfort of physical contact, and began to share materials across their workspace. Boredom forced us to create and connect.
In the post-event analysis, Louise, Eva and I discussed the possible importance of boredom in resilience and I was taken aback by their ideas. They suggest; “when we are bored, we are seeking something – something stimulating, something interesting. In this state, we become more receptive to learning.” Shima Beiji has previously argued that in order for an agent to become resilient, it must undergo a continuous process of knowledge acquisition and learning. Is boredom a condition that makes us more receptive to learning? Perhaps, but it’s possible that we’re also open to a different kind of learning. It’s not the reductionist type of analysis that takes place after a disaster (where did the issue originate, what specifically could we have done to make it better, how can we be more resilient next time?) It’s a far more emergent way of creating understanding that intuitively feels more innovative and preventative. If we took more time to be bored and engage in mindless repetitive tasks, could we actually be far more mindful in the present, more creative, and more resilient in the future?
In the scientific and engineering literature, it is clear that a degree of ‘redundancy’ in a system is critical for resilience. This means having additional resources or capacity that allow you to absorb shocks without compromising productivity or safety (e.g. having a store cupboard full of beans in a food shortage will mean you can avoid hunger). It seems to me that there’s a link between boredom and redundancy.
If boredom arises (in part) from repeating a task beyond the point that we can learn more from it, or enjoy it, then is boredom a form of mental ‘redundancy’? Does it give us time to absorb the mental ‘shock’ of constantly receiving new information every day? I repeatedly hear people say they crave ‘time to really think’ away from the daily slog of tasks, but have realised that when we create this space it’s often for a defined purpose: “Think through new paper ideas – 2 hours”, or “send thoughts on strategy document to Rich – 30 mins”. Very rarely do we schedule time for unadulterated, unstructured and exploratory learning. So what did I learn from playing with a bowl of wax this afternoon? That in order for people and communities to become resilient, we need time to be unproductive, together. That boredom can be a precursor, maybe even a catalyst, to a different kind of creation, connection and learning. That we need to trust that the use of this time will surpass our initial expectations. And that I want to work with more artists like Eva and Louise.