Mediating
To ensure that the concept of the rolling premiere was understood, I created text that I sent to the curators at each site, for the wall labels, and I included it in the video that I directed for the project.
This project would not be possible without the labors of Jessica Cook-Qurayshi, Director of the DePaul University Labor Education Center; Esteban Kelly, Director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives; Zaq Landsberg; Alex Mallis and Cori Spencer of Meerkat Media film cooperative; Susan Jahoda and members of BFAMFAPhD; Ecovative; and Firefly Finishes. This project is part of a rolling premiere with commissions from Moore College of Art & Design, Brandeis University, Tenthaus, Bennington College, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the New School.
In addition to this, for the exhibition in Oslo, I brought in The Study Center for Group Work, see chapter 2, and used part of that budget to create a booklet that showcased my work as simply one of many objects for groups.
I also made 3D-printed versions of The Meeting Game, and a facilitation guide, in dialog with curator Caitlin Rubin, to share The Meeting Game widely in arts and non-arts contexts. Working with The Free Library of Philadelphia, I will continue this work.
RULES OF THE MEETING GAME
Two or more people can play at a time. To start, each player needs at least one of each kind of ball. For example: 1 small ball, 2–5 big balls, and 2–5 medium balls. Each person starts with one of each kind of ball, and these instructions.
    Only one person can speak at a time.
    In order to speak, you must roll a ball to someone else at the table.
    Roll a small ball to introduce a new topic, a big ball to respond, and a medium ball to make connections.
    The person receiving a rolling ball does not need to respond.
    You may redistribute your balls at any time, without speaking.
    The game is over when the group says it is.
This game is inspired by Threeing, a collaborative practice that was developed by the video-artist Paul Ryan between 1971 and the end of his life, in 2013. Threeing is "a voluntary practice in which three people take turns playing three different roles: initiator, respondent, and mediator." See chapter 2.
In addition to a video artwork I created with Alex Mallis, that explains The Meeting Game in an obscure manner, I made an informational video with Don Greenstein, an “Ombuds” person at Brandeis University who I worked with at The Rose. According to the Brandeis website, the Ombuds are “a confidential, independent, impartial, and informal resource for all members of the Brandeis community including undergraduates and graduate students, faculty, staff, and alumni.” Don worked with me as a facilitator, using the objects I created, from October through April, and he asked me if he could present our work together at a conference for meditators and Ombuds people. I am always excited when a project in the arts finds advocates who take initiative to share the work in non-arts contexts. In preparation for his presentation, he wrote about his experiences with The Meeting Game.
Strange Objects on the Table
Don Greenstein, 2020
As a mediator, conflict resolver, facilitator, trainer, and person who cares about people, I’m always seeking ways to engage with participants, empowering them to find options and outcomes that work for them. Recently, I spent some time experiencing Caroline Woolard’s Meeting Game, with various sized spheres on a felt covered ping pong table. I have always had flowers, things (stones, feathers, shells, etc.) on my round mediation table in my office. When I was asked to participate in her recent presentation at the Rose Museum, I was happy to participate, and look at what value unique objects bring to difficult conversations.
I facilitated 4 different conversations with the objects she made and participated in another 3. What I personally experienced and observed was that people enjoy holding something in their hands when having difficult conversations. I listen more intently while moving a sphere (or other object) through my hand, while listening or speaking. I did ask a few people about their experiences of picking something up off the Ombuds table, that are placed there for people to hold or play with during any given session. Sometimes people even ask to take something with them when they leave the process. I was told that it is a distraction that helps with positive or a relaxed mindful communicative process.
I have a sense that some people feel they can put the negative or positive energy into an object and remove it from their own psyche. I have never had anyone complain about these objects or use them in an inappropriate manner. I do find at times some people ask why I have them on the table. No one asked while sitting at Caroline’s Meeting Game table. There may be a difference in facilitating in an art museum as opposed to an Ombuds or Mediators office! Whatever the case I have personally observed and experienced that having unique objects in a CR process adds value.
I look forward to collaborating more with Caroline as I believe her interest in how art and conflict resolution interact has great value to the work I care deeply about. I find that even having a pen and paper on the table people frequently doodle on paper. I see this as another manner of helping an individual focus and listen at a deeper level. I think Caroline’s work is useful to conflict resolvers and people who are in conflict. I can see many ways to use her artistic work in conflict resolution processes, facilitated meetings, and even in one on one coaching situations. I too as a facilitator, mediator or ombuds frequently hold or touch something with my hands, feet, or arms. It’s a manner of helping me listen attentively to a difficult discussion being presented to me and others.
As with every project, I wanted a public program to be associated with objects for groups, to shift discourse about what is possible in the arts, and to tie in artists from The Study Center for Group Work, see chapter 2. I proposed that the Free Library of Philadelphia run a conference about the role of objects in groups. The Free Library was excited about this, but unsure about funding. I decided to apply for a Guggenheim for this, and asked Stephanie Bursese at Haverford if she would support the project, as she had been enthusiastic about my work at Moore, and had invited me to propose a project for the Philadelphia Area Creative Collaboratives Program that she Directs at Haverford College. I am now waiting to hear if I got the Guggenheim, but I do not expect that I will.
September 16, 2019
A Guggenheim Fellowship will support the development and completion of The Gathering, a research-based sculptural installation and a two- day conference about conflict transformation in self-organized groups. This project will be presented in Philadelphia, PA (fall 2021) in partnership with Haverford College and the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, in Bennington, VT (winter 2021) at the Center for the Advancement of Public Action, and in Santa Ana, CA at Grand Central Arts Center (spring 2022). The Gathering will be the subject of the documentary series New York Close Up, a digital film series produced by Art21.
The Gathering is an immersive installation of sculpture and a two-day conference in an abandoned office building. Visitors will approach sculptures, placed in the banal physicality of everyday offices, that evoke the human body through its absence. In the past, I have worked with electrical outlets, clocks, and meeting tables because they intimate the power dynamics of meetings. In a recent installation, a tongue hangs from the ceiling. Enormous glass levels are pulled by gravity over wooden knobs. A deflated object is plugged into a box the size of a ceiling tile, always charging. An hourglass never runs out of time. This array of sculptural objects, as well as a series of videos and a game placed on a boardroom table, reflect upon the unavoidable antagonisms of working together.
The Gathering will deepen my practice through a large-scale installation and two-day conference with members of worker-owned businesses, artists, and people interested in economic justice and the arts who activate the installation. This project takes “the meeting” itself— the gathering of people for a formal purpose—as a site for artistic and social intervention. Most people will spend over a quarter of their lives at work. For office workers, a large portion of this time will occur in meetings. Facilitation—the skillful guiding of the meeting process—is a key part of running self-organized groups and worker-owned businesses, because these are horizontal organizations that share power and require that members attend meetings in order to make decisions together.
Rather than trying to “solve” conflict in groups, I have been learning to see interpersonal conflict as an opportunity to transform relationships, groups, and to consider the systems that make antagonism inevitable. This approach to conflict is called conflict transformation, rather than conflict resolution, and is often used by members of worker-owned businesses. I have been learning from these groups and making objects in response to them, and am now ready to bring these groups together in a public conference.
A central component of The Gathering is an installation of handmade nets that hang from square ceiling grids. My interest in nets comes from a formal experiment with the metaphor of the colonial net, a tool that traps, and holds, in my use of it, a mushroom bust of a head. Cascading from the ceiling and hung on the wall, these nets I have been developing “catch” sculptures and make reference to both the fishing nets of colonial Philadelphia and to the minimalist, conceptual works of the artists Eva Hesse and Jiro Takamatsu. I want the project to hold this tension.
I have started making square walnut frames that mirror the shape and scale of ubiquitous ceiling tiles, suspended overhead in meeting spaces as “dropped” or “false” ceilings. The false ceiling is a surface that hides the infrastructure installed above it—air diffusers, smoke detectors, sprinklers, CCTV cameras, and neon lights—from the room below. In everyday speech, the ceiling acts as metaphor for a limit which cannot be trusted. Think of a “glass ceiling” or a “debt ceiling.” The square frames hold net sculptures that fit perfectly in everyday office ceilings and can be installed in a gallery, an office, or transported by meeting facilitators. The work reaches beyond this apparent limit.
The Gathering follows on the heels of two years of material experimentation with glass-blowing, net-making, mycelium-growing, and research about worker-owned businesses with members of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC). As the inaugural Walentas Endowed Fellow at Moore College of Art & Design (2018–2020), and as the Ruth Ann and Nathan Perlmutter Artist-in-Residence at the Rose Art Museum (2019–2020), I have had time to develop ideas that have taken me to The Gathering. I am ready to create a project on a large scale.
With a Guggenheim Fellowship, I will be able to continue this work with Esteban Kelly, Director of the USFWC, learning conflict transformation techniques that inform the sculptures and videos that I will make. At Haverford College, I will work with confirmed partners Craig Borowiak, Associate Professor of Political Science, and the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship to develop public programs around unconventional meeting practices with sculptural objects and to convene artists, organizers, and activists, as well as campus communities.
I will also work with Stephanie Bursese, Philadelphia Area Creative Collaboratives Program Manager, to premiere The Gathering, a public project, in 2020–2021. Stephanie and Craig have been following my work at Moore College, and have invited me to create this project at Haverford.
The Fellowship will also allow me to travel to the Center for the Advancement of Public Action in Bennington, VT (2021), where Director Susan Sgorbati will support a convening focused on conflict transformation in the arts, and then to Grand Central Arts Center, and in Santa Ana, CA at Grand Central Arts Center, where Director John Spiak will support a residency to work in glass at California State University at Fullerton and an exhibition and premiere of The Gathering (2022). I will also continue my work with mycelium, a mushroom material, and my work with colonial landing nets and net-making. Rose Art Museum curator Caitlin Rubin writes that my use of mycelium “might be read as a material metaphor for Woolard’s approach to public practice—a practice in which she seeks, through meaningful collaboration, to activate and ally latent and often disparate energies into generative form.” It is my hope that I can continue to deepen my studio-based sculptural techniques in an approach to art-making that emphasizes participation and dialogue.
I sent a draft of my Guggenheim application to Stephanie Bursese, Program Manager of the Philadelphia Area Creative Collaboratives (PACC) at Haverford, as she had attended my lecture at Moore and expressed interest in working together. Stephanie moved quickly to support a version of The Gathering at Haverford, bringing together two faculty members (Shannan Hayes and Craig Borowiak), Esteban Kelly, and me, to run a series of workshops both at Haverford and in a community space in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Area Creative Collaboratives seed grant provides $500 for each faculty member, $3,000 for the artist, and $3,000 for the partner organization (Esteban), and $3,000 for food, transportation, space rentals, and materials. Stephanie invited us all to edit the description of the project in a shared Google document. Here is the way we decided to describe the initiative and the first of three workshops:
Through Conflict
What skills — emotional and organizational — help us work together to achieve progressive social change? How might we create bonds of trust amidst interpersonal conflict, while still allowing space for difference and autonomy? How might the pressures generated by austerity and economic crisis generate either new openness to change or greater rigidity and closure? How can interpersonal conflict in groups be transformed into an opportunity for greater communication, new perspectives, and enhanced collective capacity? What does it actually take to create the kinds of spaces that allow people to make mistakes and come back again? And how might aesthetic objects aid us through such difficult dynamics, interrupting pre-given scripts and opening new, collaborative visions?
‘Through Conflict: Collective Capacity amidst Capitalist Crisis’ brings together the work of artist Caroline Woolard, leading community-oriented transformative justice educator Esteban Kelly from the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives, and faculty members Shannan Hayes and Craig Borowiak, teaching Haverford College courses on political economy and affect theory, in a semester-long investigation into the above questions.
Workshop, Saturday, March 7th, 1pm-4pm
In recent years, communities have garnered breathtaking momentum in building a movement for new frameworks of justice. Transformative Justice builds on the intentions of restorative justice and seeks a more fundamental change in mitigating alarming trends of the prison industrial complex and adequately addressing perpetrators and survivors of sexual assault, intimate partner abuse, and other forms of violence. Esteban Kelly of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) and AORTA Co-op (Anti Oppression Resource & Training Alliance) will guide a workshop where we will explore why we use transformative justice practice, stories of how these practices have been used in the past, and concrete tools we can use in our own communities.
I also sent a draft of my Guggenheim application to my partner's friend, Lara Cohen, who is an Associate Professor English Literature at Swarthmore. I asked Lara if she would want to bring this event to Swarthmore, as the location is relatively close to Esteban Kelly's home, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and to Haverford College. Lara said yes, and went ahead and applied for funding from William J. Cooper Foundation and Promise Fund Grant at Swarthmore without even telling me. This grant earmarked $4000 for my honorarium, $2500 for Esteban Kelly, budgeted $1000 for travel, lodging, and meals, and allocated $2000 for materials. To write the grant on her own, Lara looked through texts that I sent her, and wrote:
Organized by New York-based sculptor and installation artist Caroline Woolard, The Gathering is a series of workshops that explores how material objects can interrupt the unavoidable antagonisms of working together. In the first workshop, Woolard will lead participants in a discussion about the role that object-making can play in collaboration, interpersonal conflict, and collective capacity. In the next workshop, participants will respond in material form to the methods they discussed by creating sculptural objects for use in group communication. Finally, Woolard, in collaboration with Esteban Kelly, Director of the US Federation of Worker Co-ops, will train all interested members of the community on how to use the objects created in the workshop in order to enable embodied, somatic, and haptic knowledge that does not emerge in purely verbal facilitation methods.
I think that both of these opportunities for support — at Haverford and at Swarthmore — arose because I wrote to people to see if they could adapt The Gathering to their contexts and because my idea was articulated clearly in the text that I wrote for my Guggenheim application. The Philadelphia Area Creative Collaboratives group decided to write a text that emphasized the skills required for progressive social change because we were offering free workshops about transformative justice to activists and organizers in Philadelphia who we knew personally, and who might not be able to attend these workshops elsewhere. Lara Cohen at Swarthmore opted to focus on haptic knowledge in group work, as the William J. Cooper Foundation and Promise Fund Grant is intended for students at Haverford who might be new to organizing or activism. Both grants enabled me to take funding from elite academic institutions — Haverford and at Swarthmore — and to channel them into the solidarity economy, supporting the work of The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the training of Philadelphia-based activists and organizers, in addition to students at those colleges.
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