by Francesca Salidu
Babel, Italian Magazine
Q.- How would you describe your workshop on creativity to those who have never heard about it?
Shelley Berc.- The workshop is, first of all, not about producing an artistic product, it’s about the creative process, so all the activities and exercises are based on that premise. Every single workshop begins with a relaxation exercise and this is not only just to calm everybody down but also concentrate everyone on interior sensibilities.
Alejandro Fogel.- We call our workshop “Writing, Drawing and Story telling and Personal Memoir”, so in fact there are, I would say, more than two sides; it’s not just writing or drawing or writing and drawing, it’s writing drawing and story telling because at the end of the workshop we ask every participant to create a map and that map is most of the times performed, in some ways, by the participants. In terms of the technique that we use, what we try to do is to create the idea that words and images can be one thing; not necessarily separating writing and drawing or painting from performing or separating performing from writing, we are trying to integrate those disciplines since we don’t really teach craft, we are teaching ways to develop the possibilities to get out those images, from inside, that we all have. So, our main goal is to integrate everything, not: “Well, let’s do drawing now” and “Let’s do writing”, it’s basically one thing; to get images out, no matter the way we do it.
Q.- I would like to know the meaning of the word ‘automatism’ in your workshop, because you use this technique. What’s its meaning and its use within your workshop and why is it so important?
A.- Well, the word actually comes from the techniques used by the French Surrealists in the nineteen tenth and twenties. They called the work they were doing ‘automatic’ writing at the beginning, and then they went into automatic drawing. So we took that name for the technique from them and we use some of their principles and techniques too. It means writing or drawing or doing whatever we do without thinking.
Q.- Why do you think that’s important? Why should people try not to think when creating?
A.- Because we have this rational barrier, this rational wall, that doesn’t let images that we all have inside out. So, if we can not think for just a few seconds maybe that those images that are all inside us will come out, and in fact they do.
Q.- Is that linked to an idea of creativity as something that should be disconnected from rational forces?
A.- No, I wouldn’t say that creativity is disconnected from rational thinking because to create a final product we need our rational consciousness to put it together. What I mean by that is that since this wall exists, the rational wall that doesn’t let those images out, what we need to do is to find some technique to get those images out. Then, what we use our rational consciousness for, is to put those images together.
Q.- Another very interesting word that you use in your workshop is ‘appropriation’. What does it mean?
A.- Basically it means stealing! It’s a nice word to describe the act of possessing someone else’s ideas or thoughts. It’s something that’s been going on for quite some time, that’s been accepted since the widespread influence of the electronic media; when you can take a picture from the internet and put it in your computer and transform it, you’re somewhat appropriating that basic image that somebody else created and do something with it and it would be your image plus the image of someone else. We think that in the workshop is very important because, as we constantly say, it’s about process, not about product, so if a participant feels that somebody else’s image means something important to him for the duration of the workshop, he can take it, and it might lead him to something else that is really, truly created by him or her.
S.- It’s also based on the concept that there is no individual idea solely, and that we are all working with the same group of symbols and images, universal characters, almost an alphabet of myth and image, and that, really when you go back and look at the great masters, they were all stealing; Shakespeare was stealing everything, and if you go back to the Greeks, they were all taking from the community oral story, not from their individual imaginations only. So that a lot of what we’re doing, in the ways of putting it together, might be considered weird, but they go back to some very old concepts. Also the concept that language and image are related, I mean, really until you get to the Renaissance, when you had a printing press, there was always a concentration of handwriting and hand drawing; not only in the manuscripts, most books were heavily fought with images as well as the calligraphy, this incredible calligraphy of language. So, in many ways we’re going back to old traditions. When we do the performing that goes on in the workshop it’s really based on community story-telling, so that everybody gathers in circle and listens to somebody tell a story.
Q.- From your words art becomes a site of exchange, and thus paradoxically to ‘steal’ means also to give back what you have previously taken.
S.- To recognize once again that you really are part of a community.
Q.- Do you think that art and creativity could still have in modern society the task they had in the past, for example in the Renaissance; basically to gather people together, to make people share experiences?
S.- It’s one of the possibilities. Art has so many possibilities, but certainly that’s one of the needs of the world community and one that art fulfills very well. For us one of the most profound things is that it’s possible when one asks a group of people who don’t know each other to explore their creativity, to find out the dreams of a community. It’s exciting to watch people come out with many of the same images, many of the same longings, many of the same hopes, that for one reason or another the world community right now doesn’t respect. So, it’s really a place for lost dreams, because we’re living in a culture now that really doesn’t respect dreams that don’t lead to money, or don’t lead to star dust, which is usually alley to money and to finance and trade. But for everything we know that’s a very abstract need, people have other needs that are far more basic and that’s: human contact, the ability to dream very deeply, to go places in your imagination, to hunt for images, because we really are hunters.
Q.- If you were to suggest to people coming to take part in your workshop for the very first time to leave something at home and to bring something to work with during the workshop, what would you suggest them to leave at home, and what to bring?
S.- I would suggest that they leave their critical brain at home, the part that says: “yes! no! it’s not good enough! it’s better than…”. Critical judgment all should stay at home, be locked in a closet under the bed or in the cellar. And I would bring all my openness, all the energy of a child, the sense of wonderment…
A.- …the wish to dream, because what we basically want the participant to do at the workshop is to dream, something that we usually forget. It’s something probably related to the isolation we have today as human beings being surrounded by concrete. You know, in the big cities we don’t look at the sky any more, we don’t know that the stars exist, or that the moon comes out, or the sun comes out, you know, we don’t see the sunset, we don’t see the sunrise anymore. And that’s connected with dreams too, we don’t pay attention to our dreams any,ore, and we probably don’t even realize that we dream any more. So, one of the things that we want people to bring to our workshop, or at least while they are at the workshop to think about, is the ability to dream.
S.- One of the reasons that, you know, people in modern capitalist societies are so possessive-oriented is that an object, you see an object and it holds some kind of fantasy, that you yourself with imagination could easily create in your mind and hold much longer than this object that you give money, you put on your body, you could ever in the world. So, we’re trying to teach people how to recapture their own dreams without living this culture that makes you keep wanting and needing to buy things, to have another dream, another goal. We’re saying “ok, well, we believe in dreams too, but the dreams and the imagination are in you and they are in the other people and they are in nature; let’s try to recapture them”.
Q.- Have you ever noticed any difference in the participants coming from different countries or have you experienced that people all over the world have the same needs, the same barriers, the same hopes?
S.- Yeah, amazingly the same.
Q.- Because actually you have been working in many different places, you are used to traveling along the world, where societies sometimes are different…
A.- Yeah, we haven’t done work with the aborigines yet, so we’re not quite sure what the reaction would be, but we’ve done work with people of the western societies, many different western societies, and the reaction has been pretty much the same. The kind of response has been pretty much the same and the kind of work too.
S.- You really start to see a basic humanity coming out, from country to country, from age to age. We really like to work with people of all different levels of experience, all different ages, all different backgrounds, because we’re promoting a kind of group-work in imagination and in play that is totally non-competitive. It’ not about a group competing, the participants can even be working together; it’s about each one finding a very deep and tender part of themselves. And what invariably we all find out is that when each one finds that very deep part there are connections to other people, and it seems to us a very lovely balance between community and individuality, which is something that all political organization have sought for over history, you know, weather you have an aristocracy or communism, I mean, all the different variations and the issue is that human beings need to strike a balance between community and individuality, between narcissism and altruism. It’s a very difficult balance. I think what pleases us most about the groups and this methodologies that we’ve developed is that people start to find a balance, each group starts to find one another and themselves as individuals.
Q.- So, is it that each one has his own personal route and path but at the same time one is helped finding it through the group-work dynamic?
S.- Yes, and you start to like the other people. You know, a lot of people work together afterwards.
A.- What I think the workshop really does is to make people get to know each other deeply because of the nature of the exercises, such as ‘show and tell’; they show their particular object and they explain why and there are questions about it that interrelate; that connects to when they do drawing, cut pieces together and create a group to build a new drawing or a new piece and they’ve really established their relationship before. So, I think what we create is some kind of archetype that would go beyond the sense of community, would be more like a tribe, you know, a small group of individuals pursuing maybe one idea, at least for one week or two. That seems to be one of the keys for the success of the workshop.
S.- The quest of survival is the imagination, is to save the imagination. Because we recognize it as a basic human need, such as food, shelter, sex… I can’t remember, there’s five basic human needs, but imagination is one. Nobody talks about it, but when you don’t have it you have great destruction, you have such frustration, because we’re simply too complex an animal to just go out for things and eat things, and buy things. We’re trying to make this basic human need celebrated and important. We’re not just interested in a group people who may be artists, we’re interested in a community, many communities in the world that have imagination.
Q.- Let’s go back to the idea of personal and human history as a means to be aware of things that have been happening through the years in human societies and as a key to understand our present . This is a very important point in both your works: “A Girl’s Guide to the Divine Comedy” is the journey of a girl who is in some ways a symbol for all human beings, and that’s the idea that Dante himself had when he wrote “The Divine Comedy”; that seems to be also the starting point of “Root to Route”, the story of a very personal journey which at the same time represents the possible journey of each human being inside one’s own past. Tell me how you developed this idea of traveling inside the mind, in the past and then to the present and then back again, always ready to set for a new journey.
A.- I think in my case it developed by accident, like most of the things that happened to me through life…because until I’d really discovered my roots, or at least at that point what I thought were my roots, I was just following Argentina’s education paths that lead to look to Europe and to look to United States for inspiration. So I was an artist creating pieces that were like Magritte or Max Ernst, like one of the Surrealists of the beginning of the century, so I was kind of copying those people. Then one day by accident I ended up in the Andes and when I saw the mountains it was like a lightning, like an explosion inside me. I found a culture that I didn’t know existed. First I found the landscape and then I found the people that live within that landscape and they had lived there for centuries and nobody told me about. I went through university and I had never heard of them. I heard vaguely through history books but I was explained things that happened in the civilizations that were there in the past, you know, like they explain things in the history books: very cold and distant. So, that was my first connection with my roots; my direct connection was that I was born there, in that part of the world, and somehow I was attracted, I understood the sensibility that was connecting those people with the landscape. And I said before that I thought that those were my roots because even though my father told me many times that he was a survivor of the Holocaust I kept erasing his voice from my memory all the time because I guess it was very hard for me to take, but my roots are also in Eastern Europe, where he was born from a Hasidic family, went through the Holocaust and escaped and ended up in South America. So, I’m telling you all this facts and where my roots connect because that’s how I create my own art. My art is not really separated from my real life. It’s like I am a living artist that creates his pieces depending on where I go and what happens to me. So there is an inseparable connection between my art and my life and I could say really easily that my studio is everywhere I go, not necessarily I have a studio where I sit down and make drawings and create canvases or videos. My studio is here too, you know, in San Remo by the sea, searching for the connection. Then it takes me to trying to encourage people not to do exactly what I do, because I’m one of those few fortunate that can do it, but to search through their roots, because we can always find really important things, maybe only important things for us: memories and connections with our families and traditional stories that maybe we can rescue and maybe transform, and that’s why the connection with Shelley’s work is personal memoir. We really believe in personal memoir as a way to transform society in a way, transform it today, that it is totally being overrun by the media and by impulses that are trying to erase our past.
S.- And impose dreams, artificial dreams, not our dreams: Cindy Crawford’s dreams, Walt Disney’s dreams, Madonna’s dreams.
A.- Yeah, it’s an absurd. We have so many individual stories running like sound waves, that are spreading all over the world and the only thing we need to do is to straighten our arm and grab one because it’s already passing by.
Q.- So there is like a net of personal stories around us that represents our life and tell us something about our real needs and dreams, not those artificially imposed by the media or by outside standards and fashions. And this perspective open new ways to understand human history, the one you don’t find in the books.
A.- Yes. Well, I’m not saying that we don’t have to listen to what’s going on around us, but we shouldn’t let those impulses run our life and our memory and our past. We don’t want Mac Donald’s to take over what we want to eat and make disappear all the cafes in Paris. We want everything to have a place.
S.- We want also Mac Donald’s to have a place?
A.- Yes, of course. I like Mac Donald’s as an image!
Q.- What kind of journey is your Dante’s journey?
S.- I’m a little different from Alejandro in that I really in my blood am a Gypsy. I think if I just had my bag and my jacket and a pen I would be very happy.
A.- Why are you saying different? I’m saying the same thing, I’m saying that my studios are everywhere.
S.- Well, because I think that you’re grounded in a culture, I mean I feel a Gypsy in a way that I don’t really feel I belong to any culture.
A.- What culture?
S.- Your roots, you have a sense of roots. I don’t feel I have any sense of roots. I don’t really feel American or European…you go into your family, you go into the blood of the land of South America, you have roots and you feel them! I feel no roots, I feel that my root is to journey. That’s what I mean is different, and it is different. So, I feel like Dante a lot, I feel like I’m in exile from some ideality that probably doesn’t exist, and I keep wandering and on the way I see stories. I’m probably looking for something that I never hold in my hands or in my heart, but I keep looking because ..I don’t even know why.
Q.- What is the gift or the promise that your theater wants to offer to the audience? In a sense Dante promised through his journey the salvation of the human soul.
S.- Yeah! The salvation of the human soul. That’s why in the “Girl’s Guide to the Divine Comedy” we go through a whole part that is very active and there’s a lot of people on the stage and things are happening: people are going to the subway station as the Inferno, shopping malls for Purgatory and you get a Paradiso when you have a twelve year old girl alone building a garden out of junk and telling the story of the cartography of the soul. She’s trying to figure out how we change even our ideal of mapping, so that instead of mapping places to conquer, places to possess and make money you trade that you map what the distance is between the heart and the head and how far is it from despair to hope, so that you understand how is to live life as a human, ‘human’ in the most humanistic sense, possibly also, I guess, as a spiritual being, not of the body, and how do you make the body and disembody aspect of all of us go together. I’m hoping that when you see something like that on stage, that can’t be staged, then you start to understand the paradox of our condition and the possibility to dream out of our condition.
Q.- This is a very, very precious and special gift. Do you think that people are able to understand and experience this? How is the situation in America when you practice such kind of theater? How do people react? Is it difficult to make it through?
S.- What’s funny to me is that it’s difficult because of the people who produce theater. I don’t think it’s a difficult theater to understand anymore than Shakespeare is a difficult theater to understand, but if you have people who produce who say “no, what we have to have is family drama with a kitchen sink, that’s what the people want to hear” and that’s what gets done…so, we’re facing a lot of problems with people with power second-guessing what people want to watch. For example, there’s a book now called Sophy’s World, which is a history of philosophy and it’s a best-seller all over the world!
Q.- So you’re saying it’s not a matter of people’s taste.
S.- No, I think it’s the people who market the taste. I think people are open to anything. If somebody said “Hey, the cool thing is ‘Theater of the Mind’!” then people would go and see “Theater of the Mind” and they would understand it! They would understand it in their way, the way that everybody understands something a little different. But if people go “Oh, no, that’s too intellectual, it’s not comprehensible, there’s too many words”…I think this is the big problem; the kind of people who have taken control of our media, including artistic media. Because you see things that slide through, you know, mistakes get made like this “Sophy’s World” or…there’s so many examples of things like “Hundred Years of Solitude”.
Q.- So, how would you describe in general the situation in the United States concerning theater?
S.- I think it’s in very bad shape. I think it’s not very deep, everything is on a very superficial plane. It’s a little like television, even the experimental work is really modeled on the talk show; one-person-stand-up comedy. There are so many links between performance art and the night club, the cabaret and television rather than the avant-garde as we think of it, the history of the avant-garde in Europe. There’s a lot of irony, which has its place but when your all concept and attitude is irony there’s no pathos. There’s a lot of blatancy in the drama, the serious drama is very blatant, political in ways that you could get in a soap opera. So, I would say that it’s lacking in depth, profundity, any kind of spiritual redemption, and, most painful for me because theater is a medium of language, is lacking in musicality of language. It’s not an important thought to most playwrights now that language should have a sound the way that a composition has a sound. What it means is you put word ‘a’ together with word ‘b’ and you get meaning ‘c’, and it’s not true because human interaction has to do with the quality of words and a poetry of expression that we just simply don’t respect. We respect meaning and information, it’s very puritanical.
Q.- This way communication passes through the brain and not through the texture of language.
S. Yeah, and communication should be the easiest, simplest, the most blatant way to say something.
Q.- This is a very pessimistic portrait of our society!
S.- I don’t think it’s pessimistic about people. I feel very disillusioned and frustrated with the people who control what gets seen in art, any kind of art form, what gets heard. Those people for some reason are looking for the lowest common denominator, even in the highest of the art forms, for some reason, if something is not understandable or doesn’t fit a genre that they are certain will sell, it’s not only not saleable, it’s not good. ‘Good’ has become so associated with popularity that there’s no room for a new possibility, and if you don’t give people the possibilities of new ways of seeing different kinds of art forms then, you know, they buy what’s there to buy; if you go a store and you can only buy ‘x’ you buy ‘x’, if you can’t buy ‘y’ you don’t buy it, if it’s not there. So, my frustration is with the people who control what gets produced, not with the people that go or even more so with the people who don’t go because particularly in the world of theater people don’t go! And they don’t go because the same stuff gets produced and produced and it’s bad and it’s boring and there’s nothing new about it, there’s no possibility about it.
A.- It’s also a circle; tickets are very high so, you know, you have to pay thirty-forty dollars to go and see an off-Broadway production when a ticket for a movie-theater in the same city costs nine dollars. So you are erasing a generation from theater because young people can’t afford it. Imagine a couple who wants to go Saturday night to see a play, so that’s eighty dollars, plus going out to dinner, another thirty, take a cab, take a drink, we’re talking about one hundred and fifteen dollars…it’s an absurd. What it does is it lowers the quality of the production because, you know, it’s a circle, so young people don’t go, so things are created for a certain kind of people.
Q.- Do you think it would be possible maybe to do something in other countries? For example how do you see the situation in Italy, judging from your own experience?
S.- There seems to be more opportunities, even though there isn’t a lot of money people still manage to do things and people go and see theater, people get exited to try new possibilities. Like here it’s the way also in France and Germany.
A.- There’s more support from the State.
S.- Much more support from the State. But I also know that people are very frustrated that that support is also diminishing. Maybe they’re following in the wake of the American course. I’ve heard from so many Italians that nobody cares about art or our theater or workshops because all that’s important is to make money. It’s a very cynical way to go about your life; you go to school not to learn but to get a job, so you really don’t care what happens in that class, you only care if you can get the parts to get a good grade. I think eventually it’s going to turn around because this kind of attitude oddly enough will not work very well with the communication age and the information revolution because you need a lot of creativity and problem-solving skills to use the technology. So, if you don’t have a kind of inquiring mind you can’t keep up with your own machines. -That’s another paradox!
S.- Yeah! And I’m hoping and hoping that that will bring again the Renaissance to creativity, maybe not in art, maybe in some other form. 18- The last question: concerning the word ‘paradox’. That’s also an important concept in your idea of creativity.
Q.- Why? What is paradox in art and for human beings?
S.- A paradox to me is when two opposite things are together in the same thing, so you can’t say it’s white or black, you can’t say it’s gray, you have to say it’s ‘white and black’. This to me seems to be the quintessence ? position of humanity, that we’re ‘this and this’, or we’re ‘that and that’, the same way we’re an individual and we are a community, we are narcissistic and altruistic, the way we can be evil and good. It goes all the way back to the old myths and all the old fairy tales; this incredible battles go on that we play out as individuals, we play them out in such things as wars. It is a deep basis of creative expression. I would rather see them being played out in the creative expression that in the battle field which is really one of the things that happens when groups of people can’t dream. They explode. – This idea of paradox brings me back to the idea of history and to the Renaissance ideal of art, because it makes me think how the attitude of human society towards this concept has gone through different changes. In the Renaissance the paradox of androgeny, with its implicit idea of homosexuality, was regarded as a miracle; a human being in whom the two opposite sexual identities could meet and cohabit was considered a privileged creature, the living symbol of harmony and perfection. At the end of the sixteenth century, when such society undergoes economic and social changes, and thus the humanistic mentality gives way to the strict censorship of the Reformation, the myth of androgeny and the idea of homosexuality came to be condemned as a monstrous sin, an abortion of nature. The concept of ambiguity, rooted in the paradox, is no more a means to explore new possibilities in man and nature, but it’s become a dangerous phenomenon that destabilizes society instead of enriching it, and leads men to confusion and damnation. This big shift in the perspective of ambiguity and paradox seems to me deeply connected to the shift in the idea of art and creativity. I think that ambiguity has a very important part in what we’re talking about.
A.- Yes, I think that the basic notion of our workshop is a paradox, because we say that we are trying to teach people about process and not product and that’s what we do, but at the end they all end up with a product! So, the basic ideology of our workshop is to work with this kind of paradox, and it’s unintended, but the very nature of the techniques we use to produce a process through the days the participant work together, to just give the tools of the process, become that paradox that at the end they all have a product. An that’s unintended.
Q.- I was impressed during one of the workshops when a participant asked you if she was supposed to choose words to match the images, to explain the images, and you said “no, that’s not the way, because then you don’t have paradox and you don’t create new images, new ideas”. S.- That’s very important! I hate descriptions. I get worried because one of the things that people fall into is that…
A.- …they tend to describe, that’s the easiest thing to do. You sit here and you describe the sea, the waves…
Q.- It’s reassuring in some ways
A.- Right, exactly. What we intend to get people to understand is that we want to produce shock, at least little shocks. You know, it’s very hard to shock people today at the end of the twentieth century but sometimes some connections, words put in some particular place with some images put close to them, produce little shock-waves, and that’s the idea. Those little shock-waves will generate other images. That’s why we try to be really careful about it; one would say: “well, cut some words from here and place them, and cut some images from here and place them”, because the tendency is: if you draw the image of a tree and than you have the word ‘tree’, maybe you put them together or you have the word, I don’t know, ‘dog’, and then you put them together…
S.- Yesterday I got very angry because one of the participants had drawn this beautiful, very abstract horse, and then we put them in groups and one of the other guy completed the horse, meaning made it look like a horse, and we couldn’t say anything because we were asking them for the exercise to work together, but I felt that I had been stabbed, that everything we were trying to transmit was lost.
A.- That’s the rule of the game; you can’t guide people, but we can point things out; we can’t do the work the work for them.
Q.- Anyway, I have seen people getting little shocks during your workshops, like for example when you take a sheet of white paper and crumple it up and throw it away. That really produces a strong impact on people’s minds!
A.- Yes, that’s a kind of symbol of our workshop–that the impulse to create is always more important,more infinite we could say– than the product created.
S.- It’s also important that participants don’t sit calmly in chairs to write. Lots of time they sit on the floor, they lie on the floor. We associate writing with stress and being at a desk and being a student. It’s not! It’s dreaming. If you ever watch children when they’re on the floor they write and make pictures at the same time, they don’t sit up at a desk holding their pen like it’s, you know… – …a dagger!
A.- Yeah, doing it on the floor really changes the association you have with writing or with drawing, because most of the time you do it on the desk or at the table. Going down to the floor takes you to another dimension, both literally and figuratively.
Q.- A sort of underworld.
A.- Yes. What we try to do is create the idea that the participants are not really doing the work consciously– they are not responsible for the unusual images or words that emerge because they do so automatically. So, they can be free of guilt of what they do because they’re not rationally thinking about it, and that’s probably what produces the most interesting pieces, because people have more freedom from self censorship than they normally do when they sit down and purposely write something or draw something with their rational consciousness.
Q.- So, these are all tricks that you use to try make people free of their own defenses.
S.- Tricks are good because, you know, the trickster in folklore is a humorist, a somewhat nasty character who shakes everybody up out of their complacency.