Ken Winnick of Visual Cognetics partnered with Goethe Institut, Germany's leading cultural institution, and five cultural practitioners, to discuss the works of Hannah Arendt, among others. You can visit the project archive at the link below, and read the essay I wrote to accompany my presentation. My talk focused on publicly engaged contemplative video projects. Participants experimented with contemplative ways of seeing while using cameras. I explored the question of using new technologies, such as our phone cameras, as important means for knowing our own thoughts and developing attentiveness.
Anne Beffel, Essay
In light of the both peaceful and violent actions we are witnessing this week, are there ways of seeing that can create empathy and foster fundamental change with regard to inequities and oppression?
As a participant in the 1970’s desegregation of public schools, I was aware of how my social world was carved up by classist and racist attitudes. In response, at age 16 I retreated to the art classroom despite prevailing opinions that art was not an intellectual subject, and that only the most “talented” should consider themselves artists. The art room was where I began to develop my burgeoning values and sense of empathy, regulate my anxiety, and cultivate my nascent connections to a world more vast than the harms humans do. Since then, I’ve absorbed many ideas and questions about contemporary Western art owed to the influence of Buddhism.
Now, as a practicing “public artist”, I utilize contemplative approaches to create spaces and opportunities for people to steady themselves in the here and now – and see the world as it unfolds from moment-to-moment. Working with cell phone cameras exemplifies this approach. Viewer-participants are encouraged to temporarily suspend words, in favor of direct sensory engagement with what they see. Colors, shapes, and patterns can coalesce, calling to attention the dependent nature of seeing. Most importantly, this seeing is a complex process, a kind of thoroughfare between the world behind our eyes and the world in front of them. It is a process of creating mental models that serve as corollaries to how we navigate the world. Although these reflections of the world are fabricated by our minds, these mental models are the basis for our social interactions.
Tools -- such as cell phones and video cameras, and methods such as breath work -- can make it easier to become aware of our choices of not only what we see, but how we see. Specifically, this raises our awareness of how we frame things, our distance or proximity to that which we observe, the direction and angle of our gaze, as well as the aperture of our field of vision. Seeing enables us to notice opportunities to center our bodies, take a new stance to the right or left and re-see what was in front of us a moment ago.
This means our pre-baked thoughts, fears, and categorizations can become malleable. Simple adjustments to how we see can help us discern when it is safe to explore different mental models, which may lead to new ways of structuring the world.
Moment-to-moment seeing gives us the room and opportunity to breathe. Breathing links directly to our capacities to regulate our autonomic nervous systems, which in turn are tied to emotions and behaviors such as fear, aggression, denial, or clarity, flexibility and empathy.
Although seeing is multi-faceted and fundamental to how humans model their world, it is often discounted because it is not considered entirely linear or under the thumb of language. However, the multi-dimensionality of seeing means that during times of crisis, we often look to images and image making for refuge, ritual, and as portals to things which cannot be easily communicated.
The intricacies of seeing and the momentary decisions they evoke, are harbingers of how we perceive and experience our world. The choices we make of how we see are malleable through contemplative approaches, and they are fundamental to putting into practice responses and behaviors that cultivate empathy and support creative liberty.