Curating the space | Lori Passmore [ANVIL vol 36 issue 2]

Lori Passmore

Having both been involved in fresh expressions, pioneering and emerging church communities for some years, in June 2019 my husband Richard and I were invited to join a hui that CMS were facilitating in Oxford.

Hui is a Maori word for gathering, a space where participants traditionally come not only to share ideas but also share lives and do community together. Our brief was to create an introductory session for international participants engaged in theological education and learning.

Our starting point has always been to look at how an idea can be expressed in a creative way. Exploring something from a different perspective offers new insight and engages parts of ourselves we might not always be in touch with – like our imagination. We have planned together a number of conferences so were used to working in this way – but more often with a very particular group of people, usually from a similar cultural context. When we were asked to lead the introductory session for the CMS hui, we knew that one specific consideration had to be the international diversity of the participants. How do you create something that transcends language and cultural difference?

We played with the idea of creating different themes for people to engage with such as colours or the elements of earth, air, fire and water but felt these could be restricting, culturally determined and perhaps not accessible enough. We decided instead upon creating a number of habitats or zones. We came up with five we felt would be most relevant and universal: urban, jungle, river/sea, desert and mountain.

To offer breadth, we framed these five habitats as both physical and metaphorical spaces. For example, urban could also be: buzzing, industry, stifling. Jungle: natural, wild, ecosystem. River/sea: refreshment, inspiration, drowning. Desert: hot, adaptation, solitude. Mountain: barriers, adventure, awe. We hoped that these examples would spark ideas and make the habitats multiinterpretational, contributing to the participation equality and shared learning spirit of the hui.

We didn’t just want these to be cerebral ideas – we wanted our session to also be visually impactful and to physically create these zones within the space, initially envisaging long swathes of fabric pouring from a central point, which participants would encircle. However, fabric is expensive and so with a trip to our local scrap store we found the more cost-effective alternative of ribbons. We also wanted height and so we built a central obelisk from which the ribbons flowed out, a bit like a maypole (see image). We also had painted signposts that identified each of the habitats. The room we led the session in was large with lots of natural light, which gave plenty of scope for creating what we wanted.

Prior to the hui we asked if participants could be invited to bring with them a photo or object that represented a community they belonged to – either where they physically lived or, for example, one based around a hobby or mission community.

Conference all with installation of five pathways of different materials leading to central apex
Close up of one pathway with photos and objects

The space was set up in advance. Having that physical, visual impact on entering really helped set the tone – there is theatre and intrigue, and perhaps trepidation. What do people feel when stepping into a space that doesn’t look like what they’re expecting? It’s something we also do when running our annual fresh expressions days in Cumbria; we want to say, “This is not business as usual – expect the unexpected.” When this functions really well, this can create a TAZ or Temporary Autonomous Zone. This term, coined by Hakim Bey, expresses the notion of a temporary experience that can effect change, a moment of community. [1] It’s not something that can necessarily be tangibly described or pinned down – but it is the creation of a meaningful temporary (shared) experience.

To start the activity, we welcomed everyone and explained the process: that they should introduce themselves, what object/photo they had brought and place it in the habitat where they felt that object best sat and tell us why. The second part of our activity was to give everyone a stone and ask them to place it in a habitat they were drawn to: the habitat/zone they best functioned in or went to when they needed to be resourced. We asked them to sit with others who had also placed their stone in those habitats and discuss.

The initial activity worked well as an introductory exercise, not only because it introduced the person but also as it gave insight into the varied communities they belonged to. Anchoring this with an object gave focus and also physical presence – at the end we could see where all the objects were placed (see pictures). What really made this experience work were the items and stories people shared. We heard candid stories, insightful stories, personal stories. People made themselves vulnerable – there was a real sense of trust and openness in the room that was very special.

The habitats too worked well – in fact better than we had expected. What was interesting was that people gravitated towards the metaphorical examples we had given rather than necessarily coming up with their own or going for the physical geography of the habitat. Some metaphors had a subsequent influence on the rest of the hui; for example, the metaphor of “ecosystem” became a strong theme.

The second part, where people gathered together in the different habitats, helped people to engage with each other with more focused direction. Why had they chosen to sit in that particular habitat? What was it about that space that resourced them? What was it about that habitat that drew them? It helped to flesh out and animate that habitat into a more rounded concept. This introductory activity could be seen as a catalyst to the creation of a TAZ, not only of the whole event but also the physical space. Whenever we met in that room we were drawn back by the installation, to the stories shared and the metaphors explored.

Bishop John V. Taylor spoke of Jesus’ experience of temptation in the wilderness and identified three kinds of power to resist: the power to provide, the power to possess and the power to perform (or the three Ps). Resisting the three Ps was somewhat negated at the hui due to the shared learning nature of the event. The installation was left up for the entirety of the hui and was incorporated and used by others in subsequent aspects of the conference. For example, it was used for worship, where we tangled up and cut some of the ribbons. Allowing people space to engage, play, be inspired, take and change your concept is one that should be celebrated and encouraged. Try to hold your concepts lightly.

When we were planning this activity, our hope was that it would provide a different and informative introductory session. In fact it surpassed our expectations, not only in how it set the tone for the hui but also how it organically influenced other aspects of the conference. It captured people’s imagination in a way we hadn’t envisaged and allowed them to find language for some of the ideas subsequently generated. We are not saying that if you come up with creative ideas for creativity’s sake, they are all going to work well. Sometimes things just don’t quite translate. But what we would encourage is be playful, push ideas beyond the realms of the expected in the hope that others will journey with you into this new space. Don’t give up; if something doesn’t work once, try again, try something different, listen to other voices.

How you curate a physical space, whether that’s simply how you seat people or more elaborate physical installations, sets the tone – it tells a story or narrative that’s going to lead them, as participants on this learning journey. So thinking about space is important. What size room are you in? How is it lit? Are you constrained by layout? What could you add/change/take away? Where will speakers stand/sit? What functionality do you need – for example, projectors, flipcharts, etc.? Will participants need space for laptops or paper and pens? How many people are there?

At one conference we ran, the physical space was quite dark and we were limited as we could not hang things on the walls, and so instead we projected images onto the ceiling and used artificial lighting to create atmosphere. But it doesn’t have to be that dramatic – how could you change a space with tables and chairs? Cover the table in paper for drawing, wind wool around the chairs, place mirrors on the tables facing participants… the only limit is your imagination – but make it relevant to what you will be exploring, or the theme of the event.

The number of participants can also influence the environment. At the hui there was a small enough number that we could work together as a group. In a setting with larger numbers you can create this “smallgroup” feel by working around tables or grouping people together either randomly or around a shared interest or learning.

If the room is your set piece, what are the participants? How they interact with the space is what makes it come alive. However, you want to try to resist the three Ps (power to possess, perform and provide) or it could become more about leaders performing and participants spectating. Rather, you want to bring down that fourth wall to envisage a space where the differentiations between spectators and performers are blurred, where all become “spect-actors” involved in both the creation and spectating of the event. [2]

Creating the right activities and asking the right questions will help participants engage with the space in a meaningful way. The introductory session we facilitated at the hui worked on two levels; firstly it told us about the participants and where they came from, and secondly it gave a more intimate engagement than the usual “tell us about yourself” slot. As an ice breaker it worked well as we kept it open and simple enough that everyone could feel comfortable contributing, but it also gave a more nuanced insight into the “person”. It gave the activity a cohesive feel where all contributed equally to the process.

Although not intentional, this introductory activity threaded itself throughout the conference, an echo of that TAZ concept. If we had been running the whole conference, we would have done this in a much more intentional way. Having something as an anchor helps to tie everything together and also influence the flow and content. Again, think about what you are wanting to say – don’t try to force ideas to fit a theme; how can the theme help influence the ideas? An example is a conference we ran called Threads – we played with the idea of untangling, untying the knots, weaving or knitting together. Give your idea enough breadth that it can give you plenty of material to play with.

It doesn’t have to be grand – if this is all new for you, keep it small, make one change to the usual. Look for inspiration in the communities around you, nature, the internet, social media, art, science – you’ll be surprised how a small “what if” can grow into a fully rounded idea. Think big: even if you don’t use some of it, you can always scale back or think how a big idea – “let’s have a rowing boat in the space” – can become a more practical one – “let’s get everyone to make origami boats out of paper”.

Our experience of curating this space for the hui was a positive one, and it gave a real energy to the start of the conference, bringing together a diverse group of people – some of whom knew each other, others not.

We subsequently went on to use a variation of the idea at our fresh expressions day in November. Our encouragement to you would be: if you’ve not tried to do this before – give it ago. If you already do this – share your ideas; it is great to learn from one another. Let’s together create spaces that are pushing us, and participants, out of our comfort zones: as much mirroring a different way of being as creating one.

Lori Passmore works for God for All in Cumbria and has been writing creative youth work resources for the past 15 years for various publications. She is a trustee of Frontier Youth Trust and involved in two fresh expressions in Cumbria: Mountain Pilgrims and Maranatha Yoga. She lives with her husband, teenage daughter and lovely views of the fells.

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Notes

[1] Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1991), https://hermetic. com/bey/taz_cont.
[2] Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, 3rd revised edition (London: Pluto Press, 2000).

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