A day to day account of a participatory arts-based workshop

This blog entry offers a facilitator’s glance into the day to day activities that comprise a participatory arts-based workshop conducted in partnership with a grassroots activist organisation. I start the entry with a narrative account of the day to day activities of a recent workshop, and I end with a short reflection on the practice of being a facilitator in such a workshop. The project under consideration is the Sex Worker Poster Project, which is a MoVE Project (MoVE) in partnership with Sisonke. The Sex Worker Poster Project follows the Sex Worker Zine Project (2015), which Elsa Oliveira and I facilitated about two years ago, with the assistance of Katlego Rasebitse, the Media Liaison Officer for Sisonke in Gauteng. The poster project draws together the same 24 participants who made the zines in the previous project. The poster project has two workshops planned: one already completed in March 2017 in Nelspruit, a city in the Mpumalanga province, and one scheduled for August 2017 in Makhado, a town in the Limpopo province. The workshops are being facilitated by Elsa and I, and we are being assisted by Katlego. The day to day activities presented in this reflection focus on the March 2017 workshop.

Day to day workshop process (2017) The Sex Worker Poster Project, Nelspruit. | This project gave participants an opportunity to create poster-based messages that are relevant to their lived experience.

The structure of the days
Following an activity structure Elsa and I first conceptualised in the photography-narrative project titled Volume 44 (2013-2014), and which we refined during the Sex Worker Zine Project, we planned the poster workshop around the weaving of individual reflection time, visual-narrative making periods, and group discussions and presentations.

These workshop activities, without question, would be undertaken in the morning hours after a group breakfast (09:00-12:00) and the afternoon hours after a group lunch (13:00-15:30). Breakfast and lunch are two social periods in the day which offer a reprise from the exertions of the workshop, and which exist as moments where participants are able take some personal time, or build their social-professional relationships with others. The workshops would end by mid-afternoon (15:30), to ensure that participants who were travelling to the workshop would have ample time to get back home, and continue their day. A handful of the participants who had to travel further distances to the workshop lodged in the same hotel as Elsa, Katlego and I.

Day 1: Setting the parameters of the workshop environment
On the first day, after breakfast, we started with introductions. Since most people in the workshop were part of the zine making workshops two years prior to this workshop, these introductions were more of a checking in between everyone involved. We employed three “tell us…” prompts to get the workshop going: 1. Tell us… what you have been up to since the last time we saw you. 2; Tell us… how the exhibition was for you; 3. Tell us… if you could make a new public message, what would it be. These three questions initiated the workshop conversation about the lived experience of participants, and they helped set the initial parameters of the workshop in terms of its drive to produce advocacy messages.

After the introductions, we moved on to reading the 24 zines that were produced in the Sex Worker Zine Project. The participants broke away in smaller groups and worked through their own zines from Nelspruit, as well as other participants’ zines from Makhado. Four prompts were used to guide the participants while they were working through the zines: 1. Read the zines; 2. List important messages in single sentences; 3. Choose your favourite zine cover; and 4. Chose a cover that tells the zine story the best. After this group work session, which was emotionally loaded at times given the content of some of the zines, participants presented their thoughts to the workshop group, and a general discussion ensued about getting an advocacy message across.

Considering the nature of these initial activities, the morning session could be understood as an opening to the storytelling component of the workshop. Without yet informing the participants of the details of the work in the project at hand, the morning activities helped to spark their storytelling-imaginations…. At the end of these two activities, and not a moment too soon, it was time for lunch.

After lunch, it was time for Elsa and me to introduced the Sex Worker Poster Project. We facilitated a conversation with participants around the following ideas: 1. What posters are; 2. Why people make posters; 3. How posters have been used in the past; 4. Where posters can be seen; and 5. When posters are successful. We informed participants that we were going to help each of them to find a way to make three or four posters about issues that are relevant to their lives, and that we were going to jump right into the making of posters.

Just before jumping into the poster-making, however, Elsa and I wanted to create a context in which participants would think critically about the image and text choices they were going to make. To this end, we presented a selection of poster precedents. The poster precedents were intended to frame the poster making as an undertaking in critical thinking regarding visual-narrative messages in posters, rather than be a guide to specific poster styles or advocacy messages. For this reason, the poster precedents we employed were from a variety of fields and contexts, and did not have an overt focus on human rights issues. Each participant had a poster to work with. We gave the participants three prompts to guide their analyses of the posters: 1. What is the main message of the poster?; 2. What works in the poster?; and 3. What doesn’t work in the poster? Elsa and I ended this exercise with a group discussion in response to the ideas participants were presenting regarding the poster precedents.

After this analysis and group discussion session, Elsa and I transitioned into a session in which participants brainstormed a range of issues they would possibly want to make posters about. We asked participants to come up with words or simple sentences that encapsulated the essence of the issues they were concerned with. This was a fast-pasted conversation during which Elsa and I made note of the options forwarded by the participants, to be consulted later in the workshop when they were making posters.

In the second part of the afternoon, after Elsa and I had managed to create a coherent workshop environment, it was finally time to do the jumping into the poster-making. The assignment was clear: Make a poster that tells a message from any zine, or create a new message. While the assignment objective might have been simple, the actual process of achieving it was not. Making, and thinking through a making process, is a tangential and multi-faceted undertaking, and it is one which is difficult to take stock of through writing. For the next hour and a half, however, participants were brainstorming messages, making images, writing copy, refining image and text relationships, pasting everything down, and sometimes ripping everything off, and then adjusting the composition. All the participants created one or two posters within that first poster-making session. We closed the session by asking participants to present their posters to the group by describing the main message of the poster. This turned into a group discussion in which participants shared their learning experiences, and gained feedback from other participants.

Before we could end the day we had two short activities planned. These activities would help us transition the first day into the second day. The first activity was to distribute to the participants the publication which was created as a document of the Sex Worker Zine Project. Although the handing out of the publication was framed as a celebration of past successes, Elsa and I also used it as an opportunity to reinforce the idea of simplifying messages for posters. As participants were paging through the publication, we asked them to think about short messages that resonate with the zines stories. The second activity was to present a homework assignment. This assignment was titled Questions you can answer to help you design a poster, and it contained eight prompts for participants: 1. What are the issues you want to talk about?; 2. Why do you want to talk about these issues?; and 3. Who do you want to talk to about these issues? This assignment would assist the participants in making specific advocacy messages the next day.

With a full day behind us, and two more ahead of us, it was time to for the participants to leave the workshop for the day, and for Elsa and I to go over the schedule of the rest of the workshop period.

Day 3: Finalising posters, and presenting them to the group
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About Quinten Williams

Quinten Edward Williams is a Johannesburg based artist. Arts-based research projects provide him with the opportunity to work with nuanced relationships that are embedded in specific places. Projects such as the Sex Worker Zine Project allow Quinten to expand his art practice beyond the painter’s studio, linking up with social justice movements.