Arts-based environmental education exercise on Kuusiluoto Island, Helsinki



Exercise "Lines in the hand"

There is something special with the lines in our hands. We carry them with us all the time. Sometimes a future forecast of our lives is made on basis of these "life lines". But in general, we seldom pay attention to them. This is also the case with many other aspects of our body and the world around us; we usually simply take them for granted.

This exercise is aimed at arousing and igniting the imagination and to encourage looking at familiar things with fresh eyes – important aspects of art practice.

The exercise consists of the following elements:

1) The participants receive a white cardboard of 10 x 10 cm, and are asked to use a pencil to make a not too detailed drawing of the main lines in one of their hands. They should use the hand that they ordinarily don’t use for drawing. The reason for using the "wrong" hand is to cause an estranging effect and to focus on the lines of the hand that is most important or predominant in our everyday actions.
It is important that not too much time is spent on drawing, as the lines should not be too elaborate: rather more sketchy and abstract.

2) The participants are then asked to form small groups of four to five persons each. Within the group they exchange the cards, so that each participant has the hand line drawing of somebody else. The group finds a quiet space for itself. One group member is asked to be reporter to the later gathering of the whole group again.

3) The participants are asked to spend some minutes meditating on the drawing of the lines they have in their hands. When doing that, they should try to experience themselves as being in a landscape, a landscape that is formed by the lines on the paper. They should try to feel the different sensory experiences that being in the landscape seems to bring along.

4) Subsequently, the group members tell each other of how it is to be in the landscape that they have in front of them, one after the other, until all have had their turn.

5) After all groups are ready, they assemble together with the others to one big group.

6) The facilitator then asks the reporters to tell about the experiences: did the participants talk about all kinds of sensory experiences? Which ones were easier to describe, which ones more difficult? Was there a difference between participants who talked about themselves as being inside a landscape, or looking at it from a distance (the difference between talking about "I am in a…" or "What I see in it is…"

7) The answers give openings to talk about our (usually) visual-centred relation to the landscape, compared to more orally-centred perceptions among different indigenous or non-literate peoples. Visually-centred people tend to regard landscape as something that unfolds itself in front of us, as a map we hold in our hands.

8) After that, the participants take their own cards with their own hand lines back again and go out into the area to locate a spot which in some way resonates with the lines they have on their card. They should look for some kind of identification, connection, and this can be in a tree, a bush, the grass, a rock, or even the sky, or assembled natural objects, Once found, this resonating part of the environment is then used a point of departure to make a personal art work, using pen or crayons and paper, found natural objects; the art work can also be a piece of writing such as a story or poem. The choice is free. If time allows (there should not be time pressure), the participants gather again and those who want show their art work to the others and tell about it.

Background idea

I sometimes refer to this exercise as the world of the prisoner in solitary confinement. Reports from prisoners who survived such extreme conditions and did not go insane, tell sometimes of their "rescue" through making contact with another living creature in the cell: a flea or an ant, or a mouse. They could communicate (or feel that they could communicate) with the other species and through that keep some very basic sense of social and cultural relations intact. Using their imagination, they could somehow picture themselves in a richer world than just the concrete cell block.
This exercise is also about engaging the imagination as fully as possible, with only some vague lines as point of departure. That these lines are somebody else’s "life lines" makes it at once more intimate and personal. Through that the participants in a way enter a different than ordinary space (in contrast with if the lines on the card would have been drawn completely arbitrary).

An important aspect of arts-based environmental education is to facilitate and to encourage participants to open their senses more fully towards their environment. In the words of Meri-Helga Mantere: "Arts-based environmental education is a method that supports fresh perception, the nearby, personal enjoyment and pleasure (and sometimes agony as well) of perceiving the world from the heart. It aims at an openness to sensitivity, new and personal ways to articulate and share one’s environmental experiences, which might be beautiful but also disgusting, peaceful but also threatening. In short, aesthetic environmental education is grounded on the belief that sensitivity to the environment can be developed by artistic activities." This exercise with the hand lines is in a way the other extreme; this process of enhancing openness to environmental experiences is turned as it were "inside out": all experience has to be retrieved from memory, evoked by the imagination. In that sense it can also be done inside a building, with little or no sense perceptions of a natural environment.

One of the outcomes can be is that it teaches the participants how rich imaginary power can be, how easy or hard it is to imagine different sense perceptions. It brings along the challenge of formulating them to others in a safe environment. One talks about the life lines of other participants, at the same time as somebody else is talking about one’s own hand lines. Participants realize how different the associations are from person to person. Further, the exercises allows for reflection on what landscape is and how we relate (or not relate) to it.
Finally, by making a personal art work on basis of finding resonating elements in the environment, the experience further deepens. Ideally, it allows for increased understanding of what philosopher/biologist Gregory Bateson called "the pattern that connects" the elements of the world: the connection between the lines on our hands, the morphology of our hands, and the forms and expressions we find in nature around us. This realization may help us understand and respect a little more what it is to be part of a larger whole.

Jan van Boeckel, Helsinki, 27 August 2008


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