Art and Peace Series
In praise of gentle disorientation:
An interview with Paul Hutchinson
Interviewer: Stefania Gualberti
Paul Hutchinson is the founder/director of Imagined Spaces, (specialising in creative community relations) and a former Centre Director of Corrymeela, Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organisation.
He is a mediator and educator (including Visiting Professor at Dalhousie University and the Atlantic School of Theology), and an award–winning documentary filmmaker and writer.
“Between the Bells”, his book from 2019, recounts the varied experiences of many whose lives have been changed by their visit to Corrymeela.
“Waiting and Silence” https://proost.co.uk/downloads/waiting-and-silence-by-paul-hutchinson his film from 2015 explored a particular Quaker Meeting to ask some universal questions about the role and function of silence and contemplation in our society.
Stefania – How did your background and experiences lead to your involvement in art and peacebuilding?
Paul – That is such a great question because when do you start believing that you are creative and that imagination shapes the world? When you are a child you don’t say this is my future career. You say I don’t understand this, I do understand this.
Both my parents left school at age 14. My mom hated to read, she is dyslexic and left-handed and they frowned on you if you were left handled, so she was shouted at twice (for being left-handed and dyslexic) and she thought she was stupid, which she isn’t. From her, I think, I got the power of movement because she was a dancer. She had a physical intelligence, and so in our house she would be preparing for a class and she would be putting on music and trying to count it out 1234 2234 while we sat watching her in the living room. So that helped me to think to about the mechanisms behind music, behind dance – she was unpicking it before my eyes.
My dad loves books and loves telling stories and he features in lots of my stories. Libraries were a big deal and a love for me. It was a bonding between this macho man of action who liked to read, and me as a child. For me books, libraries and reading, are about connections and windows to other worlds.
I suppose, growing up then music was what really showed me that you needed very little skill to be creative (and skill also helps creativity.) I’m old enough to have been around when punk music came to Northern Ireland and so I formed a band, and we were noisy and awful, and it just gave me confidence to go: “I need to find my voice”. And you start off by sounding like other people and sounding distorted and eventually you might find your own voice, but you certainly develop a voice through pretending to be other people.
I always loved going to the cinema. At first with my Dad – Kung Fu movies, war movies, westerns, blockbusters. And then I fell in love with French cinema (Godard, Louis Malle) and then lots of other countries opened up to me via their films. For example, Iran was a country I knew so little about – it was a cardboard villain kind of knowledge. And then I saw a film from Iran and it was extraordinary – A Moment of Innocence by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. And then that took me to all sorts of places.
So, music, dance, books, films. Poetry was always there. English was probably my best subject. Then going to University doing undergrad, postgrad on Psychology, I became a therapist.
I worked at a mental health centre, when I was 26 (and what did I know at that age?) It was a day centre for people with a range of mental health issues and I suppose I brought my therapeutic practice, my creative practice, into the space to say how do we do things that are holistic? To try and let people know that they were more than their illness, more than their label. So, storytelling classes, art classes, massage classes, dance classes, film clubs. I formed the first youth group for people with mental health problems in Northern Ireland many years ago, like 1992. It was based around creativity, based around mostly not talking about their illness and it was about trying to say: “you are more than your illness, you are more than your pain” and creativity was really helpful.
I then did more post grad stuff in drama therapy and I thought how can I do creative stuff? I realised that: “We get stuck when we can’t imagine alternatives and pain sometimes keeps us stuck, routines, habits, culture… what I saw was imagination could expand our horizons, imagination could show us that we could be contradictory, complex, that we could have five feelings at once.”
I retrained in the early 90s to be a mediator, I had been doing lots of volunteer peace activism in different places and locations and I needed some theory. I did my foundation training with Mediation Northern Ireland and the two main trainers were John and Naomi Lederach (parents of the world-renowned John Paul Lederach). I didn’t realise until later how profound that first training was for me, and as soon as I finished it, I designed something to address mental health and conflict. I was just so excited by having a theory which could help me understand my intuitions.
The therapeutic, peacebuilding, mediation and the artistic are all a part of me so I wanted to use it all. I don’t have a hierarchy on talking is bad, dancing is good, stories are good, and theory is bad. To me it was: “How can I help people find their voice? How can we find our voice to give people lots of possibilities?”
Stefania – What do you feel is special about art to facilitate conflict transformation?
Paul – Symbol will allow two or three things alive in the same space (without competing), so ruling out a binary right and wrong, it allows the possibility of multiple ideas and perspectives not at war in the same space; or in dissonance and yet still part of it, and I just adore that – that there is all that possibility. Empathy is built when we use the arts. You get to jump into another person’s head or feet or smell or language and that seemed to be foundational for conflict transformation. It’s about the nature and quality of relationships; Who are we to each other? What is the multitudes of who we are? I think creativity can give so many languages, so many ways that are not hierarchical. I think creativity allows for the possibility of there being lots of truths.
It is not one or the other. I can do the straight therapeutic “tell me about your childhood” and I can say “let’s create a metaphor” or I can say “let’s watch this movie, what do you see?” or I can tell a story and see if it touches your story. Stories breed other stories – we see and hear and understand through stories so I think art at its best can offer the possibility of a polyphonic inclusive space.
I think art at its worst can be propaganda so it can say: there is only one way (obviously examples of certain propaganda films during the Second World War on both sides were saying there’s only one way). They can be beautiful AND manipulative. Every film is trying to shape us.
Stefania – You are an artist. You create poetry, photography, movies, stories, images and metaphors, movement and drama. Is there an art form closest to your heart? What, or what combination, is most effective with groups and with what groups?
Paul – I don’t know if there is an art form that’s closest to my heart. I think I’m better at some than others, technically. Technically I know that I have more range in words that I do in music or I’m probably more technically gifted in film making than dancing these days, and so that’s about technique and ability to use the medium.
If I take films, movies, they have got movement, they have got words, they have got sound, they have got dance, if you wanted. Everything is in there, however it’s also the most expensive medium so I can’t say I love it more than others. I adore movies, I am a real geek. I think movies have shown me different worlds. In all the mediums, I think there’s a distinction between what I love and what I’m technically good at.
It also depends on the group and what you are there to do with them. Is it just for fun or to learn something?
I remember working with Jonny McEwan, Derick Wilson, Libby Keys, Karen Eyben (what a group of people!) and they had got this amazing piece of research money to look at creativity and growing a learning society. There was a Shared Future document, this is many years ago, where they got to asking people what sort of future do you want? We were invited to eavesdrop, to sit in on all these conversations and then to make art. I mean, it was lovely because people were giving you permission.
There was a group of artists called “Think bucket” which Johnny McEwan founded, which was really looking at how can art help reframe, re-lens, re-language, peace and reconciliation. I do remember though we went to Stormont and we had been given two rooms and then all the civil servants came in to see all this art and there was a complete mismatch. I had created T-shirts with slogans that people had said they wanted the future police to wear (Muslim, Gay, I bleed etc); I remember a civil servant saying “you couldn’t fit that into a filing cabinet”. We hadn’t done enough work between one language and the other, (civil servant and artistic) so I think people thought we were freakish. Sometimes you need to have a form that people can get, other times you need to disorient them out of their language into that new learning space. Now, if it’s too weird people just give up or feel defeated.
So, I guess I’m always looking at: “What’s the point of the session? How much time do I have? What relationship is there?” and then I build something from that.
One example that comes to mind is where I was asked to do ‘something creative’ with a group of youth workers. They were looking at resilience and these were brilliant youth workers doing a lot of amazing innovative frontline stuff. I brought a big bucket of dirt, fresh dirt into the room. I could just see in their faces that I was losing them almost immediately by this big bucket of dirt. I said: “I want you to stick your hands in the dirt and take a fist full of dirt for a walk”. They were like: “What’s wrong with you, mate? Why? And what will be doing next? Why? Why? Why?”, there was lots of resistance and the resistance is the material as I say all the time. You don’t go: “You are stupid, you should get this”, the resistance is telling me they’re uncomfortable, they fear: “Who’s got the power? Is this a test? Will they be valued? Are they going to get it right or wrong?”.
I said: “Go and do it, and come back”. I would say half of them probably just ignored it and came back and pretended to do it. I said: “Now, here is some lovely warm water and some soaps. Wash your hands”. They were really happy to do that, to get all that dirt off their hands. I said: “You folk are amazing, you work really hard and you pride yourselves about getting your hands dirty”. “Yep, that’s us”, they got that. I said: “How do you get your hands washed?”. They went “Ohhhh, now we get it!” They could still feel the dirt in their hands and the warm water when we got into the conversation.
Then the next day we were using that language to say, “how do you look after yourself?” because if you’ve got dirty hands all the time that goes into your partners’, your children’s hair, your food, what you read, everywhere you’ve got these dirty hands. I was trying to say in a metaphor, which had a very physical sense to it, how do you take care of yourself? Could I have just used the metaphor and said how do you get your hands dirty? I don’t think so. because they wouldn’t have felt it.
Stefania – Do you find people resisting creative and artistic approaches in group work?
Paul – Resistances is part of the process and obviously if there’s too much resistance, people can get hurt, nothing can get done, or there is distress or acting out or withdrawal. If there is too much storming, it can disrupt any learning for anybody. Sometimes that happens, people want to disrupt the whole thing in order to escape. The safety of the group, the stretch of the group, the comfort. I mean, we are built to push the genes further ahead into the next generation. We are genetically built to seek comfort and avoid discomfort and yet we have a sophisticated brain, within this very primitive body. Trying to build resilience with discomfort is part of the work, to monitor that and to measure that. Co-working can help a lot because you can’t always see it yourself. Yes, people resist and when they ask questions, that’s very helpful because I can’t mind read. Planning is hugely important for me, you plan very well in order to have the possibility and flexibility of all these options. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But risk is part of the practice.
I’m not there to force people, it is a fundamental principle for me. I’m not going to force people therefore I don’t know what’s good for people all the time. I think that when people resist, that’s telling you something (which I don’t know right away) rather than me going “Stop resisting!”
Stefania – Do you think the creative process can help healing trauma at both individual and collective levels? How?
Paul – Yes, yes and yes. I begin by saying some of my best work has happened because people thought I was only doing a bit of ‘fun art’ . I would get into community to do a ‘silly piece of art’ because they thought I wouldn’t do any damage therefore I was safe. So, some of my best work has happened when people have underestimated art and creativity and it’s allowed me in. If I had said can I come and do some peacebuilding they would have went, ‘no way’ because it would have been viewed as a threat. So, I sometimes downplay what art can do. I would say I will tell a few stories and see what happens and I’ll tell a story and you see what happens, or we watch a film from Iran and we see what happens.
There’s this gorgeous set of films called September the 11th, where eleven film makers were asked to write a response to 9/11. There is tragedy, comedy, metaphor, transformation and they are films from all different parts of the world. I use it in training sessions. The first film is from an Iranian film maker. It’s beautiful, I showed it to people in the American military, and they connected to that. They said, “All we knew was what we were told by Fox News, that the whole Muslim world was cheering when 9/11 happened, which is not what happened” and I remember this woman just going “This can’t be true” and I said, “Why can’t it be true?”, “I just thought Iranians were fundamentalist religious people who hated the West, and here they seem to be sympathetic to the West. It can’t be true, or….. I’d have to change my opinions about the enemy”.
I think creativity has a way in that straight talking hasn’t, art has a gentleness, it has a strangeness, it can be looked at entertainingly. If you watch a movie about something for example you think: “It is a movie therefore I can understand it”. There’s not a stealth, there’s a disguise, sometimes, that art can bring in. When it is otherwise just too hot or too cold for people to get to that place.
Sometimes you distance to get close, sometimes it is too painful to go near, you need to look at something from really far away, another country or a fairytale. That helps you to get a sense of it. Art has the possibility of allowing us to take a glimpse at the pain we have, sometimes from a distance, or masked, or transformed.
For example, I did a piece of work with Susan McEwan, I love working with her. It was coming up to the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, she said “I think we can get some money to do something, let’s dream big!” And I dreamt big and I said: “why don’t we get 3600 volunteers (to represent the 3600 deaths in the Troubles) and we will give them all a birth date and a death date of one of these dead, nothing more, and we will get them to surround the City Hall on one specific day”. She said: “that sounds good, let’s do it and we’ll see what happens!” I went: “okay, let’s do it!”. So, we began to think this up and it became too big for us and we didn’t have enough money. The scale of it was just too big but the idea of it… so this is back to art- the idea of it changed us! When we met, we would go “3600 people! How would that look like?” and so even not doing the project was changing us. Susan said, “let’s do something else”.
So we created “Just for one day”. On the 20th anniversary we invited 10 artists in 10 different locations around Belfast to produce a response to the Good Friday Agreement and the 3600 dead. One of my favourite pieces showed me what art could do. Leonie McDonagh is a dancer and comedian, not from the North. She put this idea to us which was how many times can I fall down and get up in 3600 seconds, which is an hour, and that’s what she did. We invited people who could go on a special bus that visited all the sites or people could go to one site. She performed in An Culturlann, she was downstairs and all you could hear was a bang. It was her falling down and getting up, again and again for an hour. She was bruised all over. People there would say “I need to look away, but I hope she’s okay”, “Every politician should see this, because look at what we’ve done to ourselves”. There was no manifesto, it was a slim woman falling down and getting up. And no one talked about her getting up, they only talked about her falling. This is profound, I am so pleased that we commissioned this. We had ideas about touring it and didn’t get to any of that.
That’s the example: those people were changed, should everybody have seen it? Should we have done the 3600 volunteers? Who knows? Another example was an Esther O’Kelly piece. She does these beautiful abstract paintings we said we’re going to put your really abstract work at a hairdresser in north Belfast. So, the hairdresser, all her clients and her mates, came and the hairdressing salon changed. Something quite abstract was beside a pair of scissors, and a pair of scissors sat beside something bright and beautiful and she had this new conversation, this juxtaposition, which delights me and very few things can do that, you know, talking therapy can’t always do that and art can do that.
My piece was a film. I was trying to find a sports stadium that had 3600 seats to show the scale of the deaths. Crusaders has 3200 seats and so I made a film with me doing a voice over, showing rows and rows of seats. At one point in the dialogue I say something like “Crusaders can only have 3200 people in it, what will we do with the 400, not let them in?” and this notion of heaven, hell, in and out.. I just wanted to weep, thinking “We got to get them in, we have to have them in, we’ll bring them in”. I got a gorgeous cameraman just to do these amazing images, it is 7 minutes long and I’ve shown it all over the world. People go: “What are you saying?” I say “No, what are you seeing?”. In the movie I list the jobs people had, shopkeeper, student, farmer, soldier and I just kept listing, in the end I think I did 50 occupations. It is different every time I see it, because how can your brain, really grasp, that amount of dead. In global terms, when you look at Rwanda, Cambodia, it’s a very small group, but it’s still a large number of people for the size of Northern Ireland.
So, I suppose what art can do is create a language for grief, create a language of remembering, create a language for lament and create language for recovery.
An artist recently said, “Every piece of work I do means nothing and everything. It means nothing in that it’s only a painting, it means everything because that’s all I can do.”
Art making and mark making have to be about everything and nothing. It is only a page with words on it, it is only a movie and yet it can reach to the heart of things.
How do you have a light touch and be passionate about it? How do you be deeply invested in something that may never get seen? Yet, isn’t that what relationships are about? There’s no guarantee of any relationship’s future and so when you start off to do a big piece of work, like write a book or make a film, my big fear is will anybody see this? Would anybody get this? What else could I be doing? I could be playing with the kids, I could be making dinner, I could be cleaning the bathroom.
To me art is about everything and nothing. I am not making it higher than doing the dishes and what I’m saying is I think it has capacity to let us see the world in all these different ways.
I used to think if I do a strong enough poem, everybody who sees it would be changed forever. You want to make a difference, but what does that mean? I think it changes me. I get the most out of it, I am sure.
I made a film about cheerleaders in Sandy Row, I didn’t know I was making a film about superheroes but that’s what they are. They went across boundaries by dancing. Because they were female and from Sandy Row they were disregarded. When I showed the film to them at the Queen’s Film Theatre, they wanted to have the red carpet. They got their own red carpet and the limousine. I said to myself “This is tacky” and then this woman said, “Nobody is ever going to make a film about me again”.
Stefania – In your years of experience is there a particular project or engagement that you want to talk about in relation to this conversation on art and peacebuilding?
Paul – I was really proud of a piece called “Patrick, Prods and Prams” with a group of women which began talking about celebrations and became an exploration of Saint Patrick’s Day, because they had never been to the Belfast parade on St Patrick’s Day as they felt it would have been dangerous. It became them participating in St Patrick’s Day parade as one of the first Protestant groups in Belfast. I have to say they took far more risk than I did. They said “We’ll do it, we don’t want to wear green and you have to lead us in the parade”. I did.
Stefania: Do you consciously try to use humour and light-heartedness in your work?
Paul – It’s about lightness and appropriateness of touch. I think with a heavy subject I try to hold all that’s in the room and sometimes I can hold it too heavily or too lightly. Other times a light touch can open it up, other times you’re holding it and it’s a real strain and other times you tell a joke, and the room opens up to possibilities. I’m doing a piece of research in West Belfast and we’re looking at cemeteries along Falls Rd and I’m going to start the session (which we do in a couple of weeks time) by saying that “I once went on a date, a first date, in a graveyard”. Now people are just going to be curious because as soon as I say that I know I’ve got the audience because you want to know, they want to know and… “it didn’t end well”, the date…
Stefania: What have been your biggest learnings during the years in your experience with art, creativity and peacebuilding?
Paul – That light touch, how do you develop your touch to hold what’s in the room?
A lot of this work is about practice, you have to practice, you have to prepare and then you have to reflect on what you have done. I have not done enough of that, in terms of reflecting. It is a benefit, part of that is economics and part of that is an odd thing which is a part of me doesn’t want to know how it works (as I might ruin it!). The researcher in me is saying “it is actually good to know that, so you can do it again and again and again.”
The intuitive, how do you develop the intuitive as a skill? Rather than going: “I’m just making it up”. I need to prepare for hours, in order to make something up on the spot. It’s a bit like musicians, you practice for hours so you can improvise with what’s in the room, who you’re playing with.
I remember a language translator saying: “don’t try and understand too soon”. To me that has become a mantra. It has massive implications. I think that creativity is not trying to understand too soon, (and also it stops people becoming problems to solve). When working with mystery and metaphors isn’t to explain things, it is to guide you through something you don’t understand with reason at first. Some people want me, every time I tell a story, to analyse it (that just sounds like a drag). I would like the story to be the story and that’s it. The learnings are practice, intuition, reflection, preparation, create models. Don’t not try to understand too soon. That art is about everything and nothing.
Victor Hugo said “There is nothing like a dream to create the future”; what he is saying to me is Imagination can create new worlds.
I suppose art has been saving and transformative for me, because it has allowed me to be a whole bundle of contradictions and if it helped me, I think it might help other people. It allowed me to be multiple things, to work in tough areas and believe in gentleness, to be good at talking and practice listening a lot, to be good with words and to do movement instead.
For a photo of Paul Hutchinson, see https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/19644887644/in/dateposted/