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Getting messy with it

Creativity is often seen as an added extra in business, but to Martin Gent it is essential and to be effective we must develop our innate abilities in this area and get our hands dirty.

Creativity is perceived and often used as embellishment, as enhancement. It is much more than this; it is a part of the human condition. For us to be truly insightful, we need to develop and re-engage our own innate, intuitive, creative selves.

So what is creativity?

Now there’s a dangerously complex question to ask! It’s one that scientists and philosophers have been wrestling with for centuries. Humbly I’d like to offer that, for me, it’s about making: turning ideas into something real. This involves thinking and making, and also using making to help thinking.

One of the key mindsets for creativity is inquisitiveness and engaging in one’s own unique view and feel of the world. The aim should be to trust that different view, to highlight the hidden, to make connections with seemingly unrelated elements and manifest them.

“Creativity requires passion and commitment. It brings to our awareness what was previously hidden and points to new life. The experience is one heightened consciousness: ecstasy.” (Rollo May, The Courage to Create)

Arts practice is not a soft option; it’s a robust, hard-core investigation and development tool that involves risk, mess, emotional engagement, the unknown, embodiment and a deep connection and commitment to ideas. We are not talking about art and creativity as decoration, or the curation and arrangement of things to make life nice to look at. We are talking about its more authentic form of developing and bringing something new into being.

Our work as researchers and engagers is intrinsically linked to our own capacity to empathise, both with others and ourselves. This is a sensorial and emotional quality that is about one’s own ability to be fully present and cognitive. It’s not just about turning up and being present in a process, but also the quality and intensity of our engagement in that process. We need to re-engage with our own uniqueness, enhancing our ability to be comfortable with the risk and discomfort inherent in working creatively. To paraphrase a quote from the artists Gilbert & George:

“We know we are doing new work when we are frightened.”

Creative practice allows us to connect to ourselves and develop an understanding of the way we engage and make new ideas. It heightens our own intuitive abilities to receive and invent, to listen to others and ourselves, to be a cipher for ideas and to ‘get out of the way of ourselves’ and let the complexity of ‘things’ be present with us. This can be enabled by developing and supporting an environment where creative behaviour is the norm. Working creatively is contagious; everybody can do it and help promote and encourage a climate where these behaviours are valued.

So how does arts practice help us engage and reinforce these abilities?

When we talk about performance and art practice, we are talking about a particular kind of practice, ‘devised practice’. Devised work is original work that emerges from, and is generated by a group of people working in collaboration — the collaborative process is an empowering way for people to work creatively.

This way of making enables a group of people to be physically and practically creative in the sharing and shaping of an original piece of work that directly emanates from assembling, editing and reshaping. Devised working encourages freedom for all those involved to discover, and is a way of working that supports intuition, imagination, spontaneity, thinking and a building of ideas.

Devised working and its output can start from a multitude of different points, such as concept, image, idea, object, writing, piece of music, an illustration or painting, etc. It embraces the idea of putting disparate inputs together to find new links and ‘things’. This encourages the mindset and behaviour of not ‘end gaming’ what will arrive, but enjoying the complexity of making, allowing this playful activity to have its own life and influence on our thoughts, behaviour and being. Ultimately, this allows us to be a cipher for the new and exciting to appear.

So what goes on to develop this collaborative culture?

In our work, and I am talking about work together with other researchers and with clients, we look to set up and embrace the rehearsal/studio environment and behaviours. One of the key tools to use here is ‘experiential working’, active doing together.

Creativity is a balance between control and out of control, teetering on the edge. The feelings that are encountered when standing in this position also teeter: these are feelings such as anxiety and fear mixed with excitement and sense of discovery. Like a muscle, we have to exercise this position, so we can experience and learn to understand and embrace these feelings. We then begin to enjoy and recognise this as a sign that we are working in the right area. Developing these skills enables us to be more fluid and flexible to change and new ideas. In turn, we learn to step forward when these feelings arise, rather than retreat into our protective shell, and resist attempts by them to act as our ‘playground bully’.

The creative journey is an experience; it is a doing thing. Movement, physicality, building and play can help trigger and open up channels, and assist in developing a more creative and robust environment. By employing techniques and exercises drawn from the worlds of performance, theatre and art, we can explore our more intuitive side; develop a more visceral, embodied presence that builds our empathy. We need to tune ourselves up! Let’s develop our ripeness, our ability to be in a state of readiness to receive and action.

Applying arts practice

There are many areas where arts practice can be applied effectively and play a potent role. Two key areas are, firstly, preparing and priming our whole self to be aware, ready and skilled to engage in ‘making’ together and secondly, as the tools to investigate, make and solve.

In the first instance, for example, we can use techniques drawn from movement and dance practice to expand ourselves beyond our own skin, to work around embodying ideas, to find the physical dynamics of what it takes to make and work together, to develop fluidity and ease, to come out of our intellect, re-enforce our ability and trust our intuition to help find solutions. Another example is using character development techniques from theatre and performance to explore what it means to be in somebody else’s shoes. This can both give us new perspectives on what we are working with, plus develop our capacity to empathise with, and acknowledge different viewpoints, e.g. consumer, client, team member.

In the second instance we can work through and explore ideas using the arts as a tool. For example, we can work with different materials and installation art to investigate ideas. This involves us ‘talking’ through the materials, how they are arranged in the space, how they are juxtaposed, making our idea 3D, making it textural. Building something together then ‘reading’ what we have made as a way of uncovering new solutions that were previously invisible to us. Working with the abstract can allow us to go deeper and find previously unimagined connections, e.g. roadmap development.

These techniques work on many different levels, and although we may contextualise and work with them for a particular purpose, engaging with them will offer up other insights. These are just a few examples of using arts practice and in each case one needs to design and combine techniques in a bespoke way, according to the job in hand and the partners involved.

Combining arts techniques to suit the various contexts

We have used many arts technique combinations in many different contexts. Within the research environment: claim and demo development, road mapping, innovation, co-creation, consumer immersion, debriefs, workshops, team and brand team development. We have also used them in many personal and professional development programmes, particularly on personal and team leadership, culture and organisational change implementation and support.

One essential element that needs to be present when building something new is the ability to improvise. Using arts practice can build our capacity to improvise, to take different elements that are present or are available to us and make something new. Making together is emotional and can be difficult and messy, but we need to engage and stay in this mess, mess is where the gold is — mess is beautiful.

So we need to know when to ‘get up’ and do something, get physically inside the ideas. When not to view it critically from the outside, but take it ‘onto the floor’ and embody — ‘dance’ — it, make it. Let’s take materials, images, sounds, bodies, etc, and bring the ideas to life in the space; to experience them, test them, break them and re-make them.

One can only work so much of it out in the head, we can find so much more and move so much quicker, by sharing, making and playing with the ideas ‘live’. Why not allow serendipity, sharing and a trust in the primed dynamic collaborative culture, to engage, indentify and action transformative ideas?

Tune into cultural needs

Often we are looking to work and develop this culture at particular times in particular places, say a workshop, where others often facilitate. But how do we bring this into our everyday working practice and life? How do we lead others and ourselves in a culture where different creative mindsets and behaviour can take place? Again, we need to be meta-aware of our own emotions, motivations and idiosyncrasies, not to mention our own needs from this culture, both as provider and receiver. And, of course, we need to model the behaviour we want to see.

Again, this can feel uncomfortable if we are not practiced in it. We can feel insecure allowing others to, at times, lead direction and guide ideas. In fact, it may always feel insecure — we just have to get used to it!

  • We need to achieve comfort in a multiplicity of roles we might find ourselves in to help facilitate the culture: jester, fascist, buffoon, straight-man/woman….

  • We must not always be ‘sitting on the throne’, but ‘sit in the fire’ that goes with working with — no script — no starting point — nothing to go on!

  • As leaders and holders of this culture we need to develop our own agility and ability to improvise with what this scenario brings, so we can mould and guide towards unique and potent solutions.

Create equality of purpose

Our drive is to create an equality of purpose, where the work we are making together becomes the property of the group, which everybody feels they can take and develop. Our roles fluctuate between participant and leader, and in this fast changing dynamic we all have a responsibility for the culture that encourages and supports the behaviour we want to manifest. Working creatively involves our ability to actively hold the conflicting dynamics that are present in both ourselves and the group — excitement/fear, ease/frustration, joy/rage…… these conflicting dynamics are the drivers that will get us to something new and interesting.

Leap of faith

I have tried not to use the word ‘process’ in this article; we run the risk of killing creative working if we reduce everything to this level. Our logical tendencies will want to ‘do it like we did last time, because it worked’, but there is no guarantee that what worked last time will work this time. It is essential that we approach every moment like the first time, start from the beginning. It is about engaging with the visceral reality of the experience, this experience!

The arts have many different expressions, meanings and purposes, one purpose is to show us a different perspective and interpretation of the world, and by this help us to recognise our own ability to take a view, interpret and make things different and new.

The arts are a powerful transformative tool and I believe that the arts, and the position of artist as anarchic trickster, have an important and ongoing alchemical role to play in societies and organisations.

 

Martin Gent
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2014