Aesthetics of lived through experience
Aesthetics since Picasso
It is a well known fact that the Guernica painting by Picasso was created in Paris in 1937 out of protest against the bombardment of Guernica in the Spanish/Basque region. Then came Second World War which ended in Japan with the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. KIDS’ GUERNICA started in memories of both Guernica and those two cities in Japan in 1995, that is fifty years after World War II. Since then the painting of such murals entails that any number of children or youth can enter together a 'collaborative learning process'. It means to become free from the tutelage of adults by adopting an informal learning amongst themselves just as they would do if out in the streets to play. This artistic freedom to decide by themselves what to paint and what colours to use is most decisive for the outcome of the mural both as a process and as a whole. At all times, it poses a huge challenge when children and youth start to paint on a canvas which has the same size being as Picasso's Guernica, namely 7,8 x 3,5 m, is a huge challenge. As any artist will admit filling the size of such a space is no easy task. Yet precisely this challenge is the link to Picasso and not what Picasso painted himself when doing the Guernica mural. That mistake has to be avoided and should guide the aesthetical reflections which can and should accompany the painting process.
Aesthetics of experience
The experiences made while preparing for the mural to arrive is but one important step. Usually only one person is needed to take the initiative. This is best done by getting the canvas, find the paints and collect the children and youth who would like to participate. These can be neighborhood kids or as in the case of Martinique even a gang which could not be reached by the tools available to a Community Centre. To communicate with youth who are involved in selling guns and drugs is already difficult, but harder to overcome is the internal fear factor. For massive doubt exists at first if ever such a mural can be painted by a collectivity of people. What shall be the outcome? No one can foretell clearly what will be the final result.
Experiences are made when stepping outside the system. The children in Nepal left Katmandu and went to a village at the foot of the Himalya, but in order to do so they had to cross through conflict zones. In Nepal there prevailed still a civil war like situation in 2006 when the children did that crossing. At one point they had to stand still with guns pointed at them, and this for six hours before they could continue on their journey.
Journeys are undertaken like the group from Gezoncourt which went first to the battle fields of First World War in Verdun before returning home to paint their mural. To enter that big canvas is likewise a journey. It invites everyone to travel through time and to go along with the process. This can involve going home at night and there discuss quite differently and with much greater interest what the parents and grandparents have experienced when there was war. Memories are then passed on from generation to generation. Definitely that will have an impact upon the children when returning the next day to the place where the canvas is kept and they continue to paint where they had left off the previous day.
Experiences are made by developing certain 'learning hypothesis' and by trying out something specific, for painting a mural can be perceived as a kind of cultural investment. Whether an attempt is made in Belfast or in the Middle East to bring together children and youth from both sides, or else an effort is made to question the use of violent means as would be the case of trying to paint such a mural in Syria 2013, it does not matter whether or not this succeeds. More important is the attempt, and if it does not succeed, then this too is an experience and at the same time a measure of what is possible in reality. When Bernard Conlon initiated the painting of a mural in Belfast, he had a difficult time at first to find someone who would do it with him together. Once he found Cathal, the teacher, then it was only possible with Catholic girls at the school where Cathal teaches. It means the next time another effort is needed to paint a mural by a group of children and/or youth which is composed of both Catholic and Protestant children, and in view of the new situation in Belfast, it would be preferable to include as well migrant children. Thus each mural is a measure for how far it was possible to go and how much further there is a need to go before entering a true peace process.
- How to relate to such a big sized canvas?
A variety of ways have been experimented with. The first mural from Chicago had the canvas cut in four pieces and distributed amongst four different schools with the overall theme being how to integrate the Greek school into an American community of schools. Once the four parts were sewn together, then an image of the whole emerged which was a surprise as outcome to everyone who had participated and who saw such a mural for the first time.
Another method was used by a school in Weimar, Germany with the canvas subdivided into three parts vertically speaking. When one part was painted on, the other two remained folded and could not be seen. Out of this mural emerged the sense of metaphysics with hell and evild remaining underground, life in reality in part on earth and wishes for peace a part of heaven.
- To what degree should artists, teachers, adults be involved in the painting process?
There should be as little interference as possible on the side of adults. The children and youth should be supported in finding their own way. Naturally coordinators like Thomas Economacos do initiate at the beginning some games to introduce the children to a collective sense of working together. But others like Alexandra Zanne undertake something special before the children and youth start to paint. Thus the Gezoncourt mural was brought about after all the children of the community went first by bus to the battleground of First World War in Verdun and discussed there with a historian the reasons for war before they returned home to start painting on the mural. The canvas was laid out in the community hall and therefore the place itself meant to be in a central point of reference for the whole community. This was as well the place of exhibiting for the first time the mural when a public showing meant everyone was invited and a long table with home made food rounded up the verissage.
Scenes in Picasso's atelier 2009 - how not to do it!
Left: images scanned by computer and then made into an overall design was printed out and then imposed altogether onto the canvas. Indicative is the passivity of the children who just sat on the sidelines and watched what the adults did.
Left below: according to a floor plan very similar to how a museum prepares for an exhibition, the children were told at what precise location they should redraw and repaint the sketch they had made independently from the canvas
Below: Boris Tissot giving instructions to the children who were allowed altogether only three times to interact with the canvas.
The involvement of adults became a controversial subject matter when Boris Tissot undertook the action in Picasso's atelier in 2009 and along with his collaborators imposed upon the children a composition which was based on computer simulation of sketches children had made and then were transformed to fit the aesthetics of graphic design. This meant as well a challenge to the usual assumptions made within Kids' Guernica e.g. the love of children of colours.
Takuya Kaneda confessed then during that controversy that there other murals done not by children or youth but by adults assembling some original things done by children and then elevating these ideas into an own sphere of reflection, but without ever so much designating this as being a mural which has been painted by an adult or adults.
Naturally there can be many deviations from a mural done strictly by children and youth, and one done by adults or else one in which the adults imposed themselves so much that anyone can see this mural has not been done by a child. There is the one mural from Japan done on rice paper and which depicts the cherry blossoms on trees reaching into the sky. Apparently it was done by 80 people ranging from the age of two to 80 years of age. If a collective work of children together with adults, why not! Yet that differs from an adult or adults imposing their moral view upon children as was unfortunately the case in Picasso's atelier in 2009.
The Blind Boys could not really paint a mural together so each blind boy did one image and then were pasted altogether onto the canvas to form a mosaic. Here the question remained how did the blind boys pick the colours and found a way to make both straight and circular lines so perfect that it appeared as if done by a seeing person with high artistic skills?
- How long should such a painting process last?
It can take as long as one wishes, for the process is more important than the final outcome, even though there is always a wish to have something completed and that the work is shown in the end in public, in an exhibition and especially in another place. When the gang painted the mural of Martinique, they knew that the mural shall be traveling to Athens for the ECCM - Kids' Guernica exhibition in 2007. It inspired the youth and filled them with pride to know their message shall be read by many distinguished participants. Their message was an expression of a wish to end all discrimination.
It is something else when the painting process lasts not only over several days, but weeks and even months. It is easy to paint over them. When the Izmir-Chios mural turned out to be a display of nationalist sentiments by painting on the first day only Greek and Turkish flags respectively, after much discussion that evening the next day everyone started to paint over the flags and together they unified around a tree of life which symbolized to them as rooting themselves in mutual respect and honesty.
- Making use of the space
Making use of this enormous space entails some practical wisdom. It can begin by letting children take off first of all their shoes and then to dance and play on the canvas. They can roll over it and discover in the process how huge a space there is just waiting to be explored.
Drawing in Chios on canvas taken later to Izmir 2007
There can be learned the relationship between negative and positive space insofar as the former does not contain anything while the latter is filled with objects. Yet immediately children would counteract and travel through space. This is when their souls would touch the canvas while they are engaged in painting.
Once they are involved in painting on the canvas, it can happen that for some time some of the children do not see what is happening in another part. There are distances in need to be covered. Yet any time a miracle can happen, that is when all are engaged is this sense of simultaneity and suddendly things started to converge and an image of the whole mural begins to emerge.
Learning to make use of such a space to be painted collectively resonates for a simple reason. Children and youth need to be free to explore and badly need mutually reinforcing relationships. All this can help them gain in social literacy. That component seems to be badly missing in a society not keen to give the next generations the Right to question what goes on in society, and this mainly in the name of 'abstract' power linked to money and being legitimized by various but often not moral means. The latter confront the children and youth in the form of state related institutions and includes the police, firemen, trade unions, Red Cross, church organizations etc. as they all uphold the state and what is deemed as requirement of citizenship within that specific state.
Use of sketches and drawings before use of colours
Boys drawing on Chios canvas 2007
It is possible for children and youth to first draw either seperately sketches or already directly on the canvas before colours are used, or they can start to use colours right away. For there is no correct or wrong way on how to approach the painting process. Needed is a freedom to explore and to develop out of spontaneously created situations something which gives expression to this moment of joy felt when working and painting together with others on such a huge canvas.
No enemy picture
Ever since the mural painted in Kabul, Afghanistan was shown first at the exhibition in Kastelli, one aesthetical principle of Kids' Guernica became a way to analyse and to denote the existence of violence but to do so free of creating just another 'enemy picture'. For the perpetuation of violence over generations means to pose the question of violence quite differently than what has been attempted previously before. In short, painting such a mural should equal finding a way to analyse the reasons for violence best done by going beyond mere enemy pictures as simple explanations.
Here the contributions of poets like Brendan Kennelly and K. Satchidanandan are crucial for this kind of understanding of social literacy, namely as the ability to question violence and therefore the abuse of power.
Murals by Children (ages 2 to 12)
Experiences of the imagination
Once children and youth start to participate in the making of these murals, they stand to experience how their imagination can unravel and what creativity they have when it comes to deal with the complex theme of war and peace. At the same time, adults who share these experiences can rediscover the enthusiasm that is hidden inside them. They can rediscover the power of the imagination, itself a prerequisite to develop empathy for the other. Without such an empathy dialogue is inconceivable.
Indeed, children’s art can show another beauty despite life being darkened by constant strife and war. This is mainly due that these murals painted by children have been touched in the process by their honest souls. Children are still open minded about the world and not at all pessimistic. They understand and want to understand. If told authentic stories, they all listen and absorb the narratives told to them by the older generations. That is why the philosopher Bart Verschaffel considers Kids' Guernica to be a practical example of 'memory studies' and therefore gives another access to how memory works.
Love of colours
Children love colours while cherishing above all one thing: friendship. With it comes human contact and a perception of the world which is free of enemy pictures. Thus the images they create are embedded in reality, in human experiences. It makes possible the impossible, namely peace.
Gift by children from action in Picasso's atelier to Jad Salman 2009
Aesthetics of Youth
The difference in murals painted by the youth can be noted immediately. They are already much more inhibited than children. They face many more uncertainties and are under severe pressures.This leads to uncertainties, revolts, failures and tensions with parents and other peers like teachers. If caught in traffic when taking a bus or subway without a ticket, they can get immediately into trouble as they are charged with a criminal offense.
The freedom to make mistakes and to learn out of them
Often society seems to know only severe punishment as if this is the best way to a youth making mistakes. As picked up by Valletta 2018, the youth of today wishes to be able to make mistakes without being punished for that since only then can they learn out of them. It is a matter as to what is considered to be a mistake and therefore how to be corrected. In mathematics, a mistake can lead to not finding the solution for the equation. But when painting together a mural, no mistake can be made. Rather it is realized more often mistakes convey in reality the fears adults have that children and youth can go astray and would make mistakes.
Naturally in philosophy a mistake can become a trap when Heidegger grants, for example, to a leader the Right to make mistakes since he is the only who is innovative. That did lead to Hitler who as a leader would not like Stalin admit he made ever a mistake, nor can that what happened under Hitler ever be considered a mere mistake or something similar to an industrial accident if only it happened not merely in production but within the state and the entire way of governing Germany from 1933 until 1945.
By the same token, but meant differently, there is the famous saying by Frederique Chabaud: "don't make mistakes with children, but with adults one can since they can learn out of mistakes". This advice is given when adults stand to make mistakes as parents with their children when contemplating divorce for the sake of another love, and then the children are confronted by a reality which can end in tragedy. This is because children tend to shoulder all the responsibilities for the separation of the parents while youth can easily become filled with hatred against one of the parents by taking sides with either the mother or father. Hatred here seems to spring out of having to bear too much pain.
Learning to develop a cultural filter against false influences e.g. 'invisible violence'
Jad Salman said already when he started to live in Paris important is to learn not to get involved in a wrong fight. This means often youth confront each other. This kind of provocation is often at the edge of daring the other to fight back and equals some of the more crueler tests which provoke by saying if you are not afraid then jump off the cliff. Provocations have to be fruitful. Often they are not read and understood as such and then if taken as insult, tempers flare up easily and quickly a fight begins.
Of interest is what the youth at the Helene Lange school in Mannheim experienced when painting the mural. They discovered extra time and space which allowed them to discuss topics they had not touched upon before. In other words, what accompanies the painting process the whole time is as crucial and important as what is finally painted onto the canvas. The discussions seem to create spaces within the group and allows for another integration of each other. This was stressed especially by the youth in Gent. They felt after the experience they had made while painting the mural that everyone had become more tolerant towards the other and that everyone appreciated more fully the contributions each could make not merely to the group as a whole but to that person or group of persons. In other words, the give and take became more differentiated since it was acknowledged that to create something like a whole mural many in between steps are needed e.g. groups of two or three paint on some detail while the rest is preoccupied with something else. Such an appreciation is only possible if there is no jealousy but the giving and receiving perceived as an overall socialization process with many contributing to making things work at various and different levels.
Decisive seems to be the perception as to what sustains the process itself. And compatible seems to be fore mostly that what seems impossible most of the times at home and in school. Clearly this is as well a recognition of how talking to one another is a prerequisite for solving problems. It allows putting problems on the table while becoming more aware how their lives are intertwined with the complexity of a society not to be perceaived in mere black and white schematas as if this would alleviate them from having to make very differentiated judgements.
Developing social literacy - social learning - through socialization
In the age of Internet, with social media exploding virtually on multiple screens from computer to I-pod, it has been noted that children and youth are more readily exposed to images than ever before. With it comes the new phenomenon of 'invisible violence'. They experience this through video games but more directly once exposed to 'cyber bullying'. To date it seems that schools neglect to educate children and youth on how to decode these images. They are more often used and over used in all kinds of direct and ever indirect, that is hidden forms of advertisements. Significantly political legislation talks about 'placement advertisement' while politicians contemplate lowering the age of being an adult from 18 to 16 or even lower on account of the younger generations being that much faster in adapting to the new technology. At the same time, it is doubtful if whole books are still read while reading natural signs when outdoors is almost non existing. This kind of illiteracy has become a widespread phenomenon due to a 'poverty of experience'. It has also been noted the increase in dyslexia.
Learning to understand the problems gripping the youth of today
Talking with the youth about war can bring up important and crucial observations which shall surprise everyone. for the sake of security or revenge does not heed the need to respect the dignity of every human being. As the poetess Merlie M. Alunan would put it, how come there is so much terror, indeed senseless killing? And once another absurd killing takes place in broad daylight, whether now in 2005 when the London Tube system was hit by bombs or a soldier stabbed to death in 2013, the question why such radical views on revenge seem to be able to grip especially young people's minds has to be answered. There is the philosophical view of Ernst Bloch who maintained all along young people can easily catch right wing fire, and this seems to bear out in what is happening in Greece with the rise of Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn). However, that explanation does not go far enough, especially if there is stressed as a need to respond an assertive logic which uses such terms as 'de radicalization' of a youth. That then entails the term 'radical' in the widest possible sense of thinking to be only then believable if radical as this equals not making the usual compromises. Such a hardening of attitude emerges after a youth having become convinced the system is only an enemy but needs to be fought against with the most radical, indeed extreme means.
Since 1995 more than 250 wonderful paintings have already been completed around the world. It has become an international peace movement for children and youth who invite the adults to join them in this quest for lasting peace. There have taken place Kids' Guernica actions in Asia, Europe, Northern America, Middle East all while working on future actions in Africa and Latin America.
USA, JAPAN, KOREA, FRANCE, PAPUA NEW GUINEA, NEPAL, KUWAIT, INDIA, AUSTRALIA, CANADA, TAIWAN, BANGLADESH, ETHIOPIA, GERMANY, ALGERIA, CHILE, SRI LANKA, CAMBODIA, ITALY, INDONESIA, UK, BRAZIL, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, ISRAEL & PALESTINE, LEBANON, HOLLAND, THAILAND, AUSTRIA, BELARUS, CZECH, GREECE, AFGHANISTAN, EAST TIMOR and many more countries have been involved so far.
There are several criteria by which the outcome can be measured, appraised and evaluated.
- has the cultural action of painting a mural become a community based action to encompass more than the original group which did the actual painting?
- how has the impact been felt and experienced by the participants themselves?
- what is the response of the immediate surrounding?
- what are the long term impacts?
An outcome can be measured in terms of lasting friendships, but also youth taking up certain studies e.g. conflict resolution and entering more deliberate participation in the peace process. As indicated by the example of Belfast, a change in behaviour towards the other would imply first of all a deeper understanding of the nature of human conflicts, and therefore alter the response by promoting truth telling, redemption work, and the institutionalization of friendship (e.g. confidence building measures by having open telephone lines on both sides of the peace line).
Experiences of these kinds can lead to a better way of challenging aggressive behaviors at home, in institutions and in the streets, while overall it would contribute to a change in policy towards children, youth and in foreign relations above all in the security agenda by putting more resources into international dialogue than in weapons.
Athens May 2013