FUTURES/forward Mentorships: Featuring Nicole Schafenacker
FUTURES/forward Mentee, Nicole Schafenacker — cohort #4, November 2021 to May 2022 — mentored by Will Weigler
As part of the triad model, Nicole was placed as an artist-in-residence at Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon (CPAWS-Yukon).
Community-engaged arts project co-created with CPAWS Yukon: Corridors: A Community-Engaged Art Series
NICOLE SCHAFENACKER is a writer, performer and artist-researcher. Her work explores body memory, liminal spaces at the threshold of change, intimate geographies, and relationships between humans and place. She often works with devised practices and in collaboration with dancers, musicians and visual artists to create interdisciplinary work. She is the author of two plays, Fish at the Bottom of the Sea and 13 Encounters, that have been adapted for aerial theatre. In 2019 she developed a research-creation public art project entitled Ecologies of Intimacy that has been shown in a hospital (Prince George, BC), an art-gallery (Prince George, BC), dance studio (Edmonton, AB) and a historic cabin (Whitehorse, YT). Most recently she has directed an audio-play for the Climate Change Theatre Action festival in collaboration with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon. She currently lives and works on the traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, also known as Whitehorse, Yukon.
What follows is in two parts: 1) KNOWLEDGE SHARING via “Storytelling”; and 2) DIALOGUE ABOUT PROCESS with Will Weigler and Nicole Schafenacker
1. KNOWLEDGE SHARING via “Storytelling”
Why do we make art as humans?…I think it’s because it is important to our evolution… It is something that helps our brains and our social structures and our communities….humans are very efficient in the way that we try to survive. We wouldn’t keep doing it if it wasn’t absolutely central and necessary to our survival as a community. – Amelia Winger-Bearskin in an interview with Nora Young on CBC One’s Spark (May 13, 2021)
We’re so often told that art can’t really change anything. But I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequities, and it offers other ways of living. (8, 2021) – Olivia Laing in the Introduction to Funny Weather (2021)
Through mentorship with theatre artist Will Weigler and biweekly meetings with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon, I developed the program Corridors: A Community Engaged Art Series. This project was centered around a desire to use site-specific art-making techniques to enliven (or rather to draw awareness to the vitality of) the wildlife corridor of McIntyre Creek/Chasàn Chùa, an area that CPAWS is currently campaigning to protect against development. At the heart of the project was a shared desire between me, Will, and CPAWS to use creative practices and forms that offered the public a meaningful way to engage with McIntyre Creek/Chasàn Chùa. We were interested in working from participants’ sensory and tactile experiences to create original work that invoked McIntyre Creek/Chasàn Chùa as a vital voice in this process. It was also paramount to all parties that we engage this work in an anti-colonial and accessible way.
As such, my mentee-mentor relationship with Will developed out of a shared desire for co-learning about art’s potential to engage social change and decolonial ways of relating to place. To initiate our process, Will invited me to draft a syllabus to centre our weekly meetings around. The topics I proposed exploring in the first half of our mentorship (Jan-Mar) included: Art as a means of enacting change; designing radically inclusive and accessible creative processes; building sustainable, and justice-centered relationships in community; and philosophies on art/aesthetics for fostering knowledge. A further anchor for our process was to engage principles of listening deeply, self-reflexivity, creating space and being in action that I have explored through my writing on collaborative decolonial approaches to community-based research (Gram-Hansen et al., 2021). Will and I were curious about how these principles might apply to a devising process. Based on the topics outlined in the syllabus, Will and I pooled resources and began to think about how a creative structure for my residency with CPAWS Yukon might emerge from this foundation of work.
In the second half of our mentorship (Mar-May), as I worked with CPAWS to create our programming, we shifted our weekly meetings to focus on devising techniques and approaches to making site specific work. We looked at how the above concepts could shape both the creative process and my approach to the facilitation of this work. The devising techniques we explored were: working with assemblages of natural and salvaged objects; the function and application and use of gest in physical theatre; shadow play techniques; site specific devising techniques such as map-making exercises, rituals, found text and free writing. A theme we returned to that became the guiding tenet of my approach to the series was: the restorative value of beauty for making visible the resiliencies and resourcefulness inherent in nature (and therefore in ourselves).
From the conversations we shared during weekly meetings a structure for the project began to take shape. Co-created with CPAWS, we developed a series to engage people in creative offerings within Creek/Chasàn Chùa. (Please see the PowerPoint attached for more details on how each of the days were structured). As an overview, we ran the program titled Corridors over the two weeks in May 2022. The series was centred around four events: an introductory workshop to making site-specific art; a talk with a Kwanlin Dün First Nation citizen about the cultural significance of McIntyre Creek/Chasàn Chùa and sensory walk through the creek; a site-specific art making afternoon in the creek; and finally, an art viewing walk of the work created by participants. The community of Whitehorse was engaged through regular social media posts on CPAWS Yukon’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts that communicated the practice of community-engaged art and activities and approaches that we would explore together in the Corridors series. Participants generally learned about the project through these social media posts or through word of mouth. (Please see the PowerPoint attached for a compilation of the different social media posts). The form of the series emphasized art’s potential for relating to place in a way that endeavoured to bring McIntyre Creek/Chasàn Chùa into the process as an active voice.
As an artist and as a community organizer there were many key insights that emerged from this work. I have chosen to highlight a few instances that I feel embody the spirit of this project. Embedded in the heart of this approach was my desire to respond to a call Robin Wall Kimmerer puts forward in Braiding Sweetgrass (2013). Her call is to challenge people to create and pay attention to instances of humans positively and reciprocally engaging their environment (Kimmerer, 2013). Imagining what positive exchanges between humans and land would look (and feel) like honours the people who have practiced reciprocal relationships for millennia and gives us a better chance of creating more of these reciprocal exchanges (Kimmerer, 2013). Another framing approach that I offered participants was being curious about dissolving the “nature/culture” divide and engaging ‘found’ materials or site-specific features, such as the yellow plastic casing on cables, with as much interest as natural materials in the forest floor. This created space for salvaged materials to become part of the artworks and practice seeing (and imagining possibilities for) what is already in front of us. As one participant observed in the introductory workshop, certain objects, like sea glass, contain dialogue between what we see as ‘natural’ and what we see as ‘human-made’ and complicate the “nature/culture” divide in compelling ways. Essentially, the work became about widening the field of perception and embracing the materials on hand. Rather than ‘layering’ onto the environment, the focus was to see (and feel) what is already there and use creative techniques to celebrate and care for this place. This was unique to each participant; by creating from what had resonance for them, we were able to witness what held meaning for each individual. To accomplish this, it was necessary for me as a facilitator to craft generative prompts that would evoke a rich experience for participants to draw from as source material. The tone for this was set through the introductory workshop.
In the introductory workshop we explored techniques for making art in nature using devising methods. Participants were asked to free write based on the following prompt: Reflect on a time that you were moved by something in nature; how were you different when you emerged from when you entered? After exploring a few techniques, participants translated this experience into a visual form and created an assemblage using the found and natural materials. I was touched to hear about the depth and variety of the ways people had been shaped by being in nature. For instance, participants wrote and made work about the ways encounters with different animals (a deer, a bee, and a finback whale surfaced in people’s memories) had been sources of reflection and joy for years after the encounter. One person further commented on how the moment of seeing an animal up close with her mother had also resonated between them as a special moment they shared for years. Another participant shared about the experience of going on a ‘fairy walk’ as a child and how the wonder, surprise, and enchantment of this experience stayed with them. This was the register of emotional and somatic knowledge that we continued to work from.
One of the ideas that Will and I had explored in our mentorship and that I introduced during the workshop was about how nature opens space for experiences that may be described as mystical; experiences that shift our perception of our place in time and space. Many writers, knowledge holders, and artists have described the reciprocal link between language and perception: having language to express phenomena – a sensation or experience – may create space for that experience to be more fully perceived and felt. Through free writing participants dove deep into the how being in nature opened their senses and perceptions to the extraordinary and how the memory of experiences that had maybe taken course over a few moments had nevertheless been powerful moments of affect that shaped their relationship to nature. By articulating moments of when being in nature shaped their sense of themselves or sense of the world through free writing, followed by group reflection, participants developed a well of descriptive language and vocabulary. They then began to translate these ideas into a visual form (an assemblage) to be shared with a viewer. They captured these experiences through imaginative visual representations such as headphones plugged into seashells; through textures of salvaged materials like plastic and cotton string woven into a daisy chain to create the bubbles in a waterfall; or a bed of moss with shells, feathers and stones suspended above it like a child’s mobile to capture the sensation of being held by nature. Nature writer Helen McDonald speaks eloquently about how these “small and transitory” encounters in nature have the power to strike in us an awareness of the complexity and mystery woven into the world that we co-habit with countless others. In her book, Vesper Flights, she describes these experiences as “the numinous ordinary”. She writes:
Those moments in nature that provoke in me a sense of the divine are those in which my attention has unaccountably snagged on something small and transitory – the pattern of hailstones by my feet upon dark earth; a certain cast of light across a hillside through a break in the clouds; the face of a long-eared owl peering out at me from a hawthorn bush – things whose fugitive instances give me an overwhelming sense of unlikely it is that in the days of my brief life I should be in the right place at the right time and possess sufficient quality of attention to see them at all. When they occur, and they do not occur often, these moments open up a giddying glimpse into the inhuman systems of the world that operate on scales too small and too large and too complex for us to apprehend… (249, 2020)
Through the introductory workshop we used free writing and devising prompts to explore the power of being affected by a sensory experience and how this relationship to place fosters a desire to care for it.
Following this introductory workshop, I led a series of three outdoor events where we engaged McIntyre Creek/Chasàn Chùa as a creative site. We began each event with a sensory exercise to ground participants in the space of the wildlife corridor and to foster attentive relationship to this place. Following these sensory exercises, I provided a series of creative offers such as a mark-making map. Through these activities each participant worked with their sensory perceptions as source material to create work from. Participants were also able to offer individual expertise (such as a geologist) on the shifting forces that had been at work in the creating this area (and to imagine together what it might look like far into the future), and on bird species migrating through the area. Individual observations such as this added to our group’s vocabulary for knowing this place and deepened our perceptions. Participants offered and observed not only how the marshland area of the creek shifted endlessly throughout the day but how their own sensory perceptions, and what resonated with them on a given day, were also dynamic. Through practices of paying attention, of strengthening muscles for presence and embodiment, the wildlife corridor of McIntyre Creek/Chasàn Chùa entered into our creative process as a dynamic force revealing colours, textures, as well as images and metaphors that offered insight into cyclical life, death, and rebirth processes as creative source material.
A vital part of this work was engaging a Kwanlin Dün First Nation citizen to share about the cultural importance of this place. Hearing about his experiences of exploring McIntyre Creek/Chasàn Chùa as a child fed into the core theme of engaging this place in an embodied way and through the senses. Further, his insights also opened our group to the ongoing injustices and intergenerational trauma taking place as a result of Indigenous people in the north being separated from this land. His presence and the stories he shared helped our group to make connections between the environment and the broader social geography of Whitehorse and the immense harm that has been done as well as the healing that being on the land continues to offer. This re-focused us on the broader task at hand of addressing how conservation efforts (including ones such as the FUTURES/forward program) are often made up of middle-class white voices to their own detriment.
In the debrief conversation following the programming the CPAWS team and I reflected on how a further way to respond to ongoing inequities would have been to set up carpooling or offer bus tickets to ensure the programming would have been more accessible and inclusive. Bringing in an Indigenous perspective helped to draw an awareness to the larger complexities and injustices at play in engaging land. This was also visible in the art that participants created. For example, one participant further drew attention to the histories here (both the presence of people and relationship to the wildlife corridor for millennia, and the history of genocide and ongoing colonial violence) through the image of a body made of dried wood in her assemblage. This programming aimed to offer space for participants to create brave work that honored the realities contained in this landscape.
Ultimately the creative activities above served as research for the final creative prompt to participants: To create an assemblage in response to what moves you about McIntyre Creek/ Chasàn Chùa. Each individual assemblage formed a node on the pathway of our art walk. Using this structure, we pooled each individual artist’s perspective together into a collective vision of the creek. The overall structure of working together to create an art walk allowed us to appreciate the plurality of ways that people relate to this place. Valuing each individual’s way of responding to the creative prompt through this structure allowed us to exercise a decentralizing approach to knowledge where “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. A vital part of the art walk was the participant’s witnessing and articulating what they saw in each other’s creations. In a time where our attention is at a premium, the simple act of witnessing and looking deeply at each other’s creative impressions helped to strengthen each of our capacities for remaining present, for widening the depth of our perception, and for valuing difference. In a broader sense, the valuing of difference relates to CPAWS’ approach to the McIntyre Creek/Chasàn Chùa campaign: rather than separating the wildlife passages from human recreation in the corridor, CPAWS is investigating how humans can responsibly co-exist with these vital wildlife habitats in this shared space that passes through the city of Whitehorse.
Through this work I was reminded of one of the ancient and original reasons that humans make art: the desire to express and share a vital experience with another. Assembling natural objects or using them for mark-making has been an impulse shared across millennia and is part of our vocabulary as humans. Relating to place is a part of our make-up. As Amelia Winger-Bearskin says the practice of art is one that supports our evolution as humans. Now more than ever our capacity for widening our vision to appreciate difference, and to see who and what is in front of us with care will allow us to step into the unknown and trust that together we will find the emergent and creative strategies that we need to thrive.
Note: Here is a PDF of the PowerPoint for the presentation on Corridors: A Community-Engaged Art Series that features participant feedback, a compilation of social media posts, and details of each event. Please see dialogue with Will Weigler (below) for a more indepth discussion of this work.
Gram-Hanssen, Schafenacker, Bentz, 2021. Decolonizing transformation research through ‘right relations’, Sustainability Science.
Kimmerer, R. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. Milkweed editions.
Macdonald, H. (2020). Vesper Flights. Grove Press
2. DIALOGUE ABOUT PROCESS with Will Weigler and Nicole Schafenacker
Question 1: Reflecting on my (Nicole’s) initial application to the FUTURES/forward program.
WW: What resonates for you again as you heard yourself read it?
NS: Well, so much of it. It’s interesting, because I feel like the pieces around being able to really engage with site in a meaningful way and look at how much information is contained in place — that gives us information about ourselves on a personal level, but also the ways that we manage space as a society or as a collective and how space is engaged.
And then how this natural environment operates — I feel like that was a really successful piece of this: being able to go deep into McIntyre Creek and look at it from a variety of angles without sort of telling people, “These are the things that are there.”
I feel like it just kind of emerged and was evoked through the prompts. And so, people were making those connections for themselves and really sort of looking at and finding their own way into that. So, I’m really so happy with that level of it and that we were able to get there through the body through sensory prompts, sensory explorations of the space, but also free writing that was more image and memory driven. And, and then working in a tactile way with the actual materials from that place.
WW: Yeah, [gesturing] ping, ping, ping, ping, ping. It’s interesting for me to hear and realize that the hook for me in this is something that I had, you know, presumed that I could contribute to what you’re doing. What’s in the line about the body as a site? What I thought of was my interest in gest.
And yet, my discovery in working with you is, I thought, “Oh, I can’t wait to explain to her about finding those physical things in your dance work” or whatever. But although this is a little crude, remember the thing I told you about those two different plays that came up in my research of a fight? And how in West Side Story, they have the rumble? And there was this Scottish play where the soldiers have a fight. And the reviewer said, “Why is this so much better than West Side Story?” And looking at them, I realized that Jerome Robbins started with a vernacular of ballet and kind of tried to move it into fighting; whereas the other guy started with a vernacular of fighting and elevated it into dance.
And I realized that, in a kind of analogous way, you started with the nature and went from that into our realm saying, “As an artist, what can we make?”… It’s so interesting that, for me, the hook was, “Oh sure, how to do justice-based bodywork”, but what you’ve done is transformed that gest around nature which allows everyone to engage directly with it.
And yes, you gave them all these tools for gauging “How do I make something? Oh, she showed me about light and shadow. She showed me about found objects” – but it’s all coming out of what I see. So now this is part of my growth, recognizing that your vision has helped me expand my own understanding.
NS: Thank you and that’s a such a beautifully articulated way because I feel like it was such an intuitive process of working it out together – so thank you for articulating that for both of us.
WW: Yeah. I have here “body is a site” blending with the line “place as site”. You talked about your body as a site but, really, that privileges you as a performer. But by privileging the place as site we are serving that. It’s such an Indigenous way of being, an anti-colonial way of being.
NS: Yeah, I feel like it’s about how these things are in relationship to each other, you know. Or how the place impacts the body, and how the body impacts that place.
WW: I’m realizing more and more how the word colonial and colonization is linked to imposition. And that is what differentiates this whole thread from artist as someone who presents their vision.
It’s like someone who comes to BC and builds houses like they have in England, you know? It’s my vision for how this estate will look. Being present with what this is is responding to it on its terms. You still are, as you said, inhabiting this place. You know, instead of saying, “I live here,” which imposes yourself on this place. It just changes the relationship, and there is something to be said for that. It still allows you to have agency but it’s agency in response to place.
NS: So interesting, that’s a really great metaphor. Taking an English-style house and placing it on this land, rather than responding and being in relationship to what is already here.
And I feel like [that relates] to joining with CPAWS and where this campaign is at. They are asking how we can coexist in this space [of McIntyre Creek] together? The wildlife corridor is in the middle of the city and people are using that space, so how can we as people learn to co-habit [with wildlife]?
WW: There’s something around, I mean you talked about a few times, bringing forward stories, local stories, and all. Yeah, there’s something that’s resonating for me that stories were formed in the moment based on their experience with this place…. You know, again, coming away from imposing a story to actually creating the story together.
NS: Yes, creating a story together. It was really interesting to me, bringing in the Kwanlin Dün First Nation citizen…. He started the day with us on Tuesday, our sensory walk, talking a lot about his experiences growing up in the creek and having it as a place that he would just explore every day as a kid and all the sensory memories from that. But I think the story that he shared that was really compelling or that I feel helped to make a link between people that were participants from a decolonial place was sharing about the loss of his daughter, and how that’s been a big motivating piece for him to commit to working with youth and bringing them into nature.
I felt like hearing that it really made a bridge between some of the things that came up in FUTURES/forward conversations of how conservation work can be very white, middle to upper class people wanting to protect these spaces. But, what is actually happening in the community that links this place to the broader environment? And how did we get here in the first place? What are the sorts of intergenerational trauma pieces that have taken people away from the land that they were on and how can we, you know, support that reconnection? Not only for the health of the environment but for our society’s health.
WW: As we’re talking, I’m thinking about the difference between community-based theater and applied theater as saying, “Here’s the prescription of what you should do” and try to convince people, versus create an experience where people feel compelled to invent or find out or research or take it upon themselves to figure out what to do. And then the power of performance in art generates the passion and the desire.
NS: Yeah, when people create from their own experience there isn’t that layer of imposition again. I think that there were so many people coming at things from different connections to that place and different skills and roles that they play in the community. And, like you were saying, it offers a space to see how these things can come together to bridge some gaps that are there.
Question 2: What do you feel changed for you as a mentee?
NS: I think the thing that shifted the most is a willingness to go deeper into trusting the community as a whole, to find what the steps of the practice and the process will be like… a deeper willingness to go into the unknown really.
My desire as an artist often is to come in with answers and to come in with something that shows these connections. What I discovered was a willingness to invest more in asking the right questions. You know, to find what the questions are that will activate some of these processes and willingness to not know what people will bring and how they will want to engage it.
So, I felt like I learned a lot through the foundational pieces that we worked on together, like a way to position the right questions and the right prompts that would sort of open that space. And then the four-part structure for the program was a solid container but had enough flexibility that each session informed the next one.
WW: I love it. That’s beautifully articulated. The word I was thinking was also “container”. And that’s the part where there is generative quality. Because to me, it’s how you describe an effective prompt. Some prompts will just lead to a declaration of a “yes or no”, or something. Or some other prompts will just be so wide open, that they’ll go in any direction.
So, to be able to find the craft, the way of asking the prompt so that it doesn’t prescribe what the answer is but leads in a productive way to connection, communication, and collaboration, is a revelation. And that is where your artistry is: it’s framing not just in the words but in the container so that they can express it or see it. I mean, there’s great artistry in that. Both cognitive and spiritual.
NS: Yeah, part of me in the beginning was wanting some kind of anchors because, as we went, I was, “I feel like this is really immaterial” but in a way that is exciting for me. Yeah, it became more about changing, changing people’s responses, or deepening people’s responses, or opening up new spaces that they might not have access to previously.
At first, I really had a desire to ground it in, “Okay, how do we work with these found objects or work with shadow play...” I don’t think I realized it at the time, but that felt like a security blanket of sorts, to have a structure. But in the end, people worked the most with natural found objects [that they discovered on the day] and it made it really clear for me what the difference is between a product and a process-oriented process. I think the work itself, the real work, was in those immaterial pieces.
WW: Absolutely, yes. And just looking at some of the images, the snapshots you took, were really profoundly moving to me. From an outsider only seeing the product, it contained such passion and insight and care…. But [as a facilitator] you have to focus on the launch part — and trusting that it will [launch].
NS: Yes, a lot, a lot of trust. And, I feel like making it a drop-in space [for participants] and not having a core group all the way through, but trusting that the people will come who, you know, need to come for that session will. And some people will want to come for the whole journey. And some people might just contribute a piece, you know, at the start or at the end. And that’s helpful. Because I think that’s how things happen in our society.
WW: What a relief for you in that it’s not a failure as a facilitator that the people didn’t show up all the time. Recognizing that this is the world we have. You were there to steward.
NS: Yeah. It felt like it was. Yeah, it allowed it to be more inclusive than it would have been if they had to commit to these dates and times.
WW: There’s a poem ringing in my head by Hafiz. It’s about relationships, but it seems so appropriate for this. He says, “Now is the time to know… now is the time to understand, that all your ideas of right and wrong were just a child’s training wheels to be laid aside when you finally live with veracity and love”.
NS: Wow, wow. Beautiful.
WW: Although that’s about relationships, [it relates to] the idea of being a facilitator. You know… “How do I do it? What’s my toolkit? What are the prompts and the thing…” But they’re the training wheels that allow you to set them aside when you can be there with truth and with love.
NS: Yeah, it was really, so lovely to see those moments of, you know, to feel that with the group. To feel the nervousness, especially the last session when we were going to be presenting more, and then to be able to find a process together where we engaged the space in a sensory way and looked at what’s already here, and to see that shift where it’s like, “Oh, right, like, I don’t have to do something” — it’s coming from witnessing and being present and then you create. You co-create something together with [the site].
WW: And there’s such a sense of ownership. I mean, here I am, Professor Will again, but Lao Tzu and the Dao has this line about a true leader is one who at the end of a great achievement all the people say, “Look what we did”.
Question 3: What community-engaged arts skills and techniques did you employ in your participatory arts project? What skills did you attain or enhance?
NS: I think the skills and techniques were… more skills and techniques for devising in a way that works with multiple authors. Or techniques that bring multiple voices into the room and, also, brings the site in as sort of a contributing author.
I was moving beyond what my own singular devising practice is for making solo work or offering structures to other artists. And instead, I learned what a devising process could be that allows us to all [in the community-engaged series] sort of become the author of what this is?
WW: I want to jump in because I will admit that I was intrigued but a little skeptical when you talked about incorporating the voice of non-human. And I thought, yeah, okay, good luck with that. But the fact is, that’s exactly what you’ve done. You know, not the sort of Walt Disney image that I had, but really giving authority to those voices to be a full contributor by recognizing their status and value and your relationship to them. You really achieved that, I felt, and that’s significant. My paradigm shifted when I saw what you did…
NS: And I didn’t really know how that was going to happen in the beginning but I’m glad that we were able to. I feel like we had to take that creative risk of, “Will this be enough? Will people really be able to lean into this?” And I think it gave me new somatic tools, as well. I like the idea of really working deeply from the senses and from what you’re experiencing on each given day, and sort of just trusting that will give you enough information to make the piece that you want to make. Or sort of letting the body be the main source or guide, rather than trying to think your way through what it should look like.
WW: I would love to see you write about that in the report. I think that’s a contribution that I’ve rarely seen. And I think it’s cutting edge in the field…Help us understand what that looks like. Because it’s foolish to translate it into scholarly terms, but you can indicate what it is that was different. And, yeah, the frame of this was a discovery for both of us, me hearing about it and you telling it.
Question 4: What does this experience make you think about the future as an engaged artist of community engaged arts sector post pandemic innovations?
NS: Well, I think part of it was just being able to do the whole program outside and giving people that safety. Part of the innovation for me as a facilitator was the way being outside shaped the container. Like on the one day with the sensory walk, we had talked about making a wild crafted tea and having that sensory experience as a way of being able to start with, “What is the taste of this place?” Moving it outside was safe pandemic-wise, but it also opened up these other sorts of ways of engaging the place.
WW: Love it. And it takes me back to when you’re talking about being centered in the body. I mean, I think our cliche of that is interpretive dance. But drinking wild crafted tea from this place grounds the body in the experience. It’s a flip, a deepening of what it means to be grounded in the body for someone who’s not accustomed to that perhaps.
NS: Yeah, and I felt like it really changed the tone because that was also the day where we were able to have a member of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation with us and starting with just drinking tea together and hearing him speak about the memories of this place — it started it on such a different note and got us into that register. When we did go into the sensory experience, people had that sort of grounding from drinking this tea together but also from hearing him speak. He’s a really wonderful speaker. So, just the sound of him speaking created that soothing experience of being told a story.
WW: Yeah, yeah, I’m thinking about the alchemy cards [from the Alchemy of Astonishment: Staging Strategy Cards] and the one from the blue suit “You complete me”. And because we were talking before about inhabiting this place, drawing from the experience of this place, and being in relationship with the place, “You complete me” is about that. The true “You complete me” really does say that we come to this and ask, “How do we find ourselves in relationship to tree to water to bird?” You’re saying, “How do we engage so that we are in relationship with?” You know, it leads to your generative prompts as a sort of container.
NS: Yeah, and it also strikes me that one of the things that was able to happen was that we had to adapt multiple times; for example, because of the weather, or people were just really, really fatigued on one of the Sundays and we ended earlier than what I had thought because it was just so clear that they were just done. So maybe another innovative piece is just being able to really respect people’s body rhythms and let the time be flexible, that it’s valuable to listen to that and to not push forward.
Question 5: How was it working online together?
WW: Positive. I just feel positive. The fact that we can do this with you in Whitehorse. You know, we couldn’t have done it otherwise. And I just felt like it was a way we could record it easily and share documents and photos. It was really excellent as far as that goes.
NS: Yeah, absolutely. And I feel like it really sort of expands the capacity to be able to do this work in the north and be situated in the north. Like, in theory, if I was to come down to Vancouver and make this thing and then come back up here, it wouldn’t be the same. I love the idea of being able to witness and to live with this place and let these things come from this place. So yeah, that’s a really good point. The online option really opens that up.
WW: I don’t feel it’s diminished the experience and, in fact, you know, we’re also walking the talk, because not using jet fuel…
NS: And then just being able to record this and kind of archive these things. I feel like it also will open it up more for other people to have a model, you know, once we share the final report then it sort of decentralizes that knowledge or like — it becomes something that we can share with other people who want to do this work in the north.
Question 6: What was your experience of self-directed learning as mentee?
WW: How about that process of you kind of setting the tone for what you wanted to learn? Anything that you learned from it? Or how did that change things for you as a mentee? You’re such a Hermione, like me [laughing].
NS: Yeah. Well, I think it was just really empowering. At this point in my work, it was really empowering to come up with a self-directed structure of what are the pieces of curiosity that I have or like, the things that I feel like I want mentorship on to strengthen my practice.
To come up with the syllabus itself was a really instructive model for me to look at, “Where do I want to focus my energy?” And I guess to self-identify, “What are the pieces that I want to strengthen in my own practice?” So, I think there’s a lot of reflection and putting that together — and then speaking about the different pieces together and pooling our resources.
For me, it was really helpful to start with a theoretical foundation, an interdisciplinary foundation of bringing together those pieces around decolonization, accessibility, and taking feminist approaches, and, you know, sort of get to start from the theory and ask, “What could come out of all of these ideas on a practical concrete level as a model to go into a devising process?” So, for me it was really helpful to have that as a way in, which is maybe a little bit ironic, because I wanted to look at the body as a site, but I found that we were able to get there by looking at some of these theoretical or cognitive ideas and how they can support body-based work.
WW: To me, that speaks to what we began with: the idea of framing generative prompts where the theory was actually our pathway to figure out, “What are the prompts that then lead to the action?” And the prompts are well crafted because they’re grounded in a lot of thinking around feminist and Indigenous approaches to theatre. That’s the value of theory, to be able to hone our sense of what needs to be learned and to pursue it.
For me as a mentor, I would so encourage others to do what I was able to do — read your writing and find those things that I recognize [will be helpful] and return them to you. I think those four points [of listening deeply, self-reflexivity, creating space, and being in action] were really useful to offer back to you. You know, in the forest of stuff that you’ve written about, just to say “Here’s what I see you seeing” and to focus on that.
NS: Yeah, that was very helpful for me to receive that. To think about those things and then see how they could be integrated in a different way. Or, how could I look at them coming from a slightly different angle, to not use them as analytical tools but as creative tools. Yeah. Lovely.
Question 7: What were the impacts for the organization you collaborated with?
NS: Well, one of the CPAWS staff who does their social media posts was saying that, even though she wasn’t directly involved in the process, just editing the posts, sharing them and being part of that process shifted her way of seeing as well, which was really lovely. Maybe that can be something that links back to the benefit of doing this work online – it has these ripples in small ways out [to the broader community].
And I was so happy that they were able to bring some different staff to the last day to participate in the project. All of them were coming after a full day of work but, by the end of it, they shared how they felt energized and inspired by this different way of relating to this place they spend so much time campaigning on. Having a sensory experience with the place really helped support some of the ideas that they were working with — of why this place is important. Part of this project was exploring how we can cohabit in a positive way. Having humans in an environment might not always be a bad thing. There can be really supportive way of caring for a place. So, I think, yeah, it opened that space up.
There was also an intern and it sounds like, from what I know of her, that she has a lot of interest and expertise in working from a decolonial perspective, as well. She was the one who created the sculpture of a driftwood body that was laying under that tree that was half dead, half alive.
And I felt like it was such a brave thing of her to create something like that and to bring that into the room — what the history is of the land that we’re on and all the different pieces that it contains…[To me] it had implications of a body resting in this place and also a ceremonial grave, how the human body can be in deep relationship with this place and have this as a temporal resting space. So, I feel like it shifted the tone. It opened up deeper conversation between us. Because I feel like that person was able to really bring their perspective forward in a way that was really received by the group.
WW: Fantastic. You know, we may have talked about this — I need to find out who was the original person who coined the term, “differentiating safe space from brave space”. It’s sort of a natural progression to feel that you can — you know, you won’t be attacked for who you are — but to actually know that you can be bold and actually take a leap. Yeah, and summoning the courage to put something forward and that’s part of the alchemy of what you’ve done.
 Four guiding principles of decolonial approaches to community-based research identified in a paper co-authored by Nicole Schafenacker: Gram-Hanssen, Schafenacker, Bentz, 2021. Decolonizing transformation research through ‘right relations’, Sustainability Science.
We wish to thank CPAWS Yukon for this collaboration and hosting Nicole Schafenacker’s amazing artist-in-residency! FUTURES/forward gratefully acknowledges that Nicole’s mentorship thrived due in part to the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts and Judith Marcuse Projects.