Objects talking

Originally posted here

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Group work

In a recent series of workshops in a community setting, I have been intrigued to observe many of my ideas about the importance and value of objects being not only confirmed but enriched and extended.

My training and background in art therapeutics mean that I am always prepared for workshops to carry emotional undercurrents for participants and I work hard to contain the group – keeping all the members safely held at a level that is comfortable and enabling. It’s not that I avoid deeper waters purposively – it’s simply that the boundaries of the work in community arts must be set in a different place. In therapeutic work, we know our purpose is to confront and contain that which has been traumatic and continues to cause distress. It’s a project which takes time.

In community arts the brief is often to enable, value and support in more immediate ways. It’s life enhancing too, of course, but very different in tone to the therapeutic enterprise. There are many ways of keeping a group within a certain comfort zone while providing enough interest and challenge – also while giving space for genuine exchanges of the self. The trick is knowing how to pitch things and my best trick of all is leading by example – sharing at the level I’m aiming for, enthusing about objects and what they can do for us, and giving some verbal signals about the purpose and function of the group all help.

My observation however, is that the objects also work hard to protect us. I say this knowing that without the boundaries set through the strategies I employ things may be very different. Objects can evoke powerful emotions in us which can be traumatic and at times overwhelming. Yet objects also ‘contain’ emotion. They hold our memories and our felt responses, and because they are not us but separate and at some little distance, we may observe them in a relatively peaceful place at one remove.

Using the safety nets of sound group work practice we found that loss, retirement, loneliness and even personal crisis could be ‘shared’, referred to discretely, obliquely even. Individuals were held and heard by the group and through their objects were valued and accepted. It is possible to acknowledge and bridge these feelings in ways which are light in tone but deep in effect and the net result of these encounters was a noticeable uplift. By week three participants were on a roll, sharing and arranging their objects ready for a professional photographic session, and the possibility of showing this work in various settings spurred them on.

This post for The Museum is perhaps best seen as one of three about the therapeutic potential of objects, maintaining how important they are not only in mediating our emotional lives but also in speaking for us. I came away from this group with such a sense of the lives and personalities of each member through their prized objects – their ability to share them brought each one a sense of intimacy which in turn pierced their social isolation. I can’t help thinking of objects as consummate mediators and connectors and am tempted to say that throughout this series of workshops it was the objects that did the talking.