‘one day : Day One – Resilience’ In Dialogue
15th September 2015
one day : Day One – Resilience is a participatory artwork that connects resilient thinking around Bristol and the world. With support from Bristol Green Capital Partnership members, the project has been touring the city this summer, collecting visions for the future from Bristol’s diverse population. Sophie Laggan, research associate at the Schumacher Institute, caught up with the project’s creator, Sara Zaltash, to see how her ideas about resilience had grown with Day One’s development.
Sophie Laggan: We’ve crossed paths on numerous occasions these past few months of the Green Capital year, catching one another in fields, conference rooms and among the hustle and bustle of central Bristol. Is the dome taking you to these places, or is it your own curiosity?
Sara Zaltash: A lot of my creative works are self-led explorations into things that interest me in the world, or things that are necessary for me to engage with to be a relevant artist. Before Day One existed, I was definitely already going to fields, conferences, community growing projects, gardens and social centres. I don’t think you can be awake in this world and not be going to those sorts of places… the project gives me a place and a valid voice when I am there.
SL: Can you pick a favourite moment from your Day One journey so far?
SZ: I love watching the fresh batches of videos from each location. After a long day of planning, watching the beaming faces of the people of Bristol warms my heart. Touring the dome, taking it to different locations and communities, my favourite responses are when people understand the wider idea of the project. They’ll say, “Oh! Because if everyone starts thinking together… they will.. do something about it together?” And I think, “Yes!” Or, “Because this way, loads of different voices will be heard?” Again, “Yes!”
SL: Those “penny drop” moments…
SL: Has there been a time during the project when someone has challenged your conventional wisdom?
SZ: My wisdom is quite unconventional, as it goes. I believed that by taking the project to many different communities, Bristolians would surprise everyone, themselves, other communities, even me, with their responses and their resilient voices and their ideas. I guess one of my biggest challenges has been witnessing intimately how predictably socioeconomics affects peoples’ ability imagine their futures. My parents were immigrants, we didn’t have money or family in the UK, we struggled. I absolutely believe that everyone is capable of amazing things whatever disadvantages they have, because people believed that about me and that’s why I do what I do now. It really challenges me to carry on having that faith when people in “usual suspect” areas do not engage with their contexts, don’t care about the future, don’t encourage their children to care, think that the future-thinking is a waste of time, people who are just really disengaged and disempowered.
SL: Yes, I think that is one of my biggest hurdles, too. The resilience literature hasn’t done a great job of assessing the role of power dynamics in social and cultural systems. How has power revealed itself in your work?
SZ: Power reveals itself with every interaction. Each participant holds a power over me because my artwork only survives through their interaction. That is an assumed power-dynamic which I always try to uproot from the moment that the interaction begins. To say, “I’m not in charge, you are in charge.” People find that quite difficult. They often ask what my ideas about the future are and I point to the project as a whole; my ideas for the future are to create a platform for their ideas for the future. Power also manifests itself in the way that people respond to me – a youngish woman, stood alone in strange places, inviting an interaction that is outside of the norm. People often think I am naive, that they should lecture me, that I am there for them to vent their anger, or that I am somehow proposing a confrontation to them. And of all the people who use the project to vent their anger and frustration about the world, about the environment or politics, it’s only the older men who deem it appropriate to rant at me specifically, to treat the human me as a verbal kicking post. I don’t know if that is the kind of power you mean, though it’s hard to ignore the gender of the aggression being levelled at me sometimes.
SL: Certainly, I have found that my masters gives me a discursive and practical power, an authoritative stamp…
SZ: It takes a lot of firm, direct eye contact and standing your ground to be able to be taken seriously as a young woman. Actually, attempting to address these global problems from within a nexus of other power problems often makes young women even more resilient. If the same creative, smart young women are being forced to jump through hoops – through our own gender-oriented shocks and stresses – to just be heard, it means that when the chips are down we are the ones who are going to bounce back because we have had so much experience of bouncing back. Which is why it’s even more annoying when the old men don’t listen!
SL: I am thrilled that art is penetrating scientific discourse, which, let’s be honest, is well overdue a makeover. What value do you see in combining art and science?
SZ: Infinite value. The division of art and science is one of the many injustices brought on by industrial capitalism. To separate creativity into genres or subjects or themes is helpful if you want to make money – “this is the way we make money out of this type of creativity, we call it engineering, we call it innovation, we call it technology, etc etc”. We know that division of any kind brings with it a series of social injustices. By instead accepting that there are parallels of method and shared modes across all processes of creativity, it’s possible to see that there are also parallels of value in the discoveries that are made. The value of combining art and science is the value of that big epistemological step that we all need to take towards valuing things equally. If we can value creativity in art and science equally, then we can also value other belief systems equally, because art and science are ultimately just belief systems. If we can accept art and science as having equal place in our society, perhaps we can also accept atheism and theism as having an equal place, perhaps Islam and Judaism can have an equal place… All these things are put in conflict and I just feel like humanity needs to move passed conflict. This secularised, humanistic world of art and science should be the first place where we say, “there is no need for conflict, there is only and essentially a need to work together.”
SL: You said you were attempting to engineer moments of synchronicity. Do you feel like you have been able to achieve this? Is there a shared vision of the future evolving in Bristol?
SZ: Yes, with a disclaimer. Yes, I do think we are achieving moments of synchronicity, and yes I do think there is a shared vision of the future evolving in Bristol. The disclaimer is that the project is so over-capacity that the moments of synchronicity that I am aware are being created are not being multiplied because I do not have enough time to get all of the videos online, to do as many events as I am being invited to… I’m sure lots of people understand the frustration of knowing that you could be doing so much more, and just not having the capacity to do it. About a future evolving in Bristol: I think it is. Whether people are already engaged in green activity, or if the environment is just a passing thought in their lives, humans wants more green space, they want less cars, better play areas, better education, better healthcare, they want renewable energy. That desire will become action will become change. If you have a quarter of the population who have heard of the solutions, half who have heard of the solutions and want them, and another quarter who have heard of them, want them and are bringing them into being, then that is an evolution in process – and it’s happening.
SL: From what you have learned on your travels, how would you define the term resilience?
SZ: One young male participant responded to that question by saying, “Being able to go solo, or stick together, when the chips are down”. I think balancing those two impulses is resilience for me. Knowing that I can handle in my individual being so that when the chips are down I know what I can share and how I can work with other people. It’s about holding yourself in a way that is always ready to connect and also always ready to let go. A constant agility, always shifting, prepared and with no fixed plans. I am living that resilience at the moment.
SL: Two words that come to mind are “empowerment” and “engagement”. From the past few months of being in Bristol, watching community projects that share knowledge and include people, which empower through engagement, that is really what resilience is about.
SZ: Definitely. The people who have been banging the drum of the environment for years are probably very resilient. Their work in Bristol will proliferate exponentially now that it is being picked up by projects all over the city with the Green Capital year as a catalyst. As the problems, which are daily becoming more apparent – to do with increase in population, ageing infrastructure, reduction of services, the corruption of democratic accountability, the mental health crisis – as these problems apply pressure, as their impact presents exponentially, I hope that people’s resilience, their self-sufficiency and sustainability also increase exponentially to meet that challenge, to shore up the dissolution of the relative stability with which we have lived for many years.
SL: Knowing what you do now, is there anything you would change about the project? How would you suggest that we make our future more resilient?
SZ: If we can imagine our futures then we have a chance of dealing with them. Within Bristol, imagination is respected. Seeing what other cities do to survive and thrive will be good for the types of resilience that we are going to need, for the types of problems that we don’t want to imagine. Look at the situations of people in the world – not the positions of power, or politics, or debate – but what life is like for real people, what people are doing to survive and thrive, what the base level of humanity is before we become savage, before we start abusing each other. Are we even there? Looks to me like are abusing each other a lot of the time in our world. Imagining a future where we all meet the base level of our humanity makes me feel more resilient, gives me hope. And would I change anything about the project now? I tend to live with a “no regrets” rule so… No. Of course I would love for the project to have more capacity, both in terms of funding and personnel. That said, people love this thing, the dome, the videos, me buccaneering around the city with the whole project bungee-corded to an ikea trolley – people love that. And I am learning so much. I am glad that I am not one of those experts who could have predicted everything before it happened; I am glad Day One has all these emergent properties and emergent qualities that are exploding all over my future; I am glad that I am running over capacity, rather than within my capacity and having less of an impact. I’m glad it’s evolving, that it’s a process and that I’ll get there one day.
SL: And here’s hoping for that Day One.