FUTURES/forward Mentorships: Featuring Mentee Aquil Virani
What can happen in a FUTURES/forward community-engaged arts mentorship during COVID-19? Read on to find out! In this series of blogs, we will post Q&As with featured mentees.
FUTURES/forward Mentee: Aquil Virani, May to September, 2020, mentored by Seanna Connell
Aquil Virani was awarded as last year’s “Artist For Peace” by the Quebec-based artist collective “Les artistes pour la paix”. He is a visual artist who blurs the line between art and activism, often integrating public participation into his socially-conscious art projects. He exhibited his award-winning “Canada’s Self Portrait” project at the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax and the Stewart Hall Art Gallery in Pointe-Claire, Quebec. He won an award from the Michaelle Jean Foundation to produce his “Postering Peace” anti-islamophobia documentary. Read more about Aquil here: https://icasc.ca/futures-forward-mentees/#a-virani Aquil’s mentorship included being placed as Artist-in-Residence with O.U.R Ecovillage (Shawnigan Lake, BC).
Q: What did you do at O.U.R Ecovillage? As part of the 2020 FUTURES/forward program, I was matched with mentor Seanna Connell and BC-based permaculture centre and intentional community, O.U.R. Ecovillage. We spent the majority of our time with the ecovillage building a trusting relationship and connected week-after-week, especially with the on-land and online summer interns. At first, we were focussing on a collaborative dragon sculpture made of organic cobb material that would welcome visitors to the site, but as the effects of the pandemic kept cascading and surprising and delaying, we kept moving and adjusting and adapting. In addition to various arts activities and the development of project infrastructure like waiver forms and file storage systems, we facilitated online community gatherings to inform our creation of a digital app called Tales & Trails – a combination of mythical storytelling and geocaching technology where community members unlock audio chapters on the app as they ascend Mount Baldy (where the ecovillage is located). With Seanna, we developed an informal curriculum at the intersection of my interests and her expertise, covering one topic every Tuesday morning after we checked in.
Q: What was a most interesting success? In addition to the actual outcomes of our collaboration, I want to highlight an overlooked success: “Simply completing the project.” We knew that the pandemic had changed everything, but that was especially true as I attempted to connect via Zoom with a particularly “place-based” community like the ecovillage. In that sense, one of my personal accomplishments was summoning the patience and perseverance to stick with it, spending over 150 hours with the collaborator and the community over 4 months and shifting my focus to the process rather than the end product. On the mentorship front with Seanna, the “curriculum” we developed enriched our conversations. When there was little to update each other on, we turned to our initial brainstorm of topics, such as: theories of change, collaborative processes, careers in art-for-social-change (ASC), parachuting, effective altruism, fundraising or evaluating impact. I was delighted to leverage my time with Seanna to ask questions I cared about; Seanna seemed pleased to have specific subjects to guide her sharing.
Q: What was the greatest challenge? In general, building an open-ended collaboration from scratch with an ecovillage on Vancouver Island from a laptop out east during a global pandemic was fairly challenging! There were domino effects of Mr. Corona that plagued us into month 2, 3 and 4, including staffing and grant delays that switched up project participants. We collectively experienced bouts of Zoom fatigue, spending hours on end trying to connect with a grid of pixels in the shape of a human head. The greatest challenge was “working with uncertainty.” If you’re planning a project yourself, you can carve out a little floating island of stability in which to work. You ask yourself, “What do you know for sure? What resources do you have right now? What are tangible next steps to take this week?” The essence of community-engaged arts is that the community’s struggles become your struggles.
Q: How did you overcome the challenge? Building relationships often hinges on shared experience; for us, that meant spending time with the ecovillage community online, being vulnerable and sharing personal stories, and participating consistently, week in and week out. We mitigated our screen time on a personal basis – turning screens off if not necessary, taking short breaks during longer calls, mixing high-intensity and low-key activities. The not-so-magical answer of dealing with uncertainty is patience and flexibility. We practiced compassion. These kinds of challenges popped up in our collaboration, but also in our personal lives. We knew we had to “taking things one day at a time.”
Q: How did this creative, arts-based project affect change in climate action? Our goal with the app specifically was to encourage physical activity in tandem with meaningful connection to the land. We had a vision where a single person or a family could hike up Mount Baldy, listening to short chapters of a fun fable about human impact on the earth and the other beings who co-habit with us. The story we developed also explores the function of news, science and education in the battle of information surrounding climate change. If we could use storytelling to guide the community’s reflections in an outdoor setting, we could surface the obstacles currently facing our ecological movement and steer our audience toward tangible climate action.
Q: What ideas came up that would be useful for others to know? In organizing a series of online gatherings for the ecovillage community, one tidbit that emerged was an appreciation for the written format we chose. Anyone who has listened to the rambling in a group discussion can appreciate this. Instead of asking participants to “raise their hand” and share orally their responses to our questions, we asked every participant to write down their answers and submit them to us afterwards. Instead of one person speaking at a time, we could get every participant to use the full time to share their thoughts. We were able to minimize any “groupthink” or bias in the responses too. The slightly anonymized format also allowed participants to share observations they might not feel comfortable expressing out loud to the group, especially if related to politics or power dynamics within the community.
Q: What one particular thing about your mentorship experience do you want to share?
To Emerging Artists: Engaging with the community not only enriches your work, but it brings us closer to our responsibility as members of a community (however defined) to advocate for a better world. The more our society struggles – whether under the pressure of late capitalism or a global pandemic – the more we need every citizen to ask, “How can I use what I do to contribute?” Every drop in the (paint) bucket counts.
To Funders and Policy Makers: Community-engaged arts represent an incredibly versatile tool in catalyzing social change. From mental health objectives among vulnerable populations to increased civic engagement for young people, artists empower participants in their work and facilitate critical thinking about the world around us. The strength of community-engaged arts is rooted in collaboration – consider not what an artist can do alone, but how an artist can bolster and enrich existing movements, vectors and initiatives.
Q: Describe your experience with the program in 10 words or less. Connection unstable: write permaculture perseverance into patient pandemic poetry.
We wish to thank O.U.R Ecovillage for this collaboration and hosting Aquil Virani’s artist-in-residency. FUTURES/forward gratefully acknowledges that Aquil’s mentorship thrived due in part to the generous support of the McConnell Foundation and Judith Marcuse Projects.