Spent a fulfilling day this week with a small group of university students exploring a NZ issue – in this case Kahikatea deforestation – through Mantle of the Expert.
The objective was to set up opportunities for solo work and collaboration in the Visual Arts, using drama as a pedagogy – and based around a social issue of strong local resonance
First, we explored an old photograph showing men digging a huge muddy ditch. We explored the thoughts and feelings of these men at these moment in their lives. Students were asked to remember this image and consider, as the day went on, what it might have to do with our ‘company’.
Then, students were enrolled as “Arts on the Street” – public Art makers. Their particular speciality – large scale public representations of local history. Through drama, we discovered that past successes of the company included a painted mural in the town of Russell, depicting the social history of the place (we knew we must have done a good job because we received a letter from the rate payers organisation thanking us for our attention to detail and our historical accuracy). We also recreated the moment that the mural was unveiled, and heard the various reactions.
Once we had built belief in our company (a bit of a rush job, as this was a ‘mini mantle’ only), we received the commission: Hamilton Civic Arts Trust were inviting us to enter a video for a new project….
Hamilton city has a well known and very ugly grey concrete wall in the city centre known as ‘wintec wall’. The commission described how this wall was to become a screen for projected art videos. We were asked to create a 30 second video exploring the history of Kahikatea forests in Hamilton.
Next it was off in the cars to check out the wall, take measurements and consider the best use of our video.We also visited a Kahikatea forest fragment (Claudeland’s bush). First, students collected images and samples and got to know the look and feel of the forest. Then they were invited to sit down on the edge of the forest as they were going to meet someone closely associated with these trees. I put on a mask and stood, simply doing a ‘wiri’ with my hands. From this, the students inferred that I was playing the role of Kaitiaki (or spiritual guardian) of the trees.
The students thought about what questions they might have for the Kaitiaki. I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to speak ‘as’ Kaitiaki. Instead I used Trevor Sharp’s very nifty convention from his ‘Huia Beak’ drama. I distributed pieces of paper containing fragments of historical information – then I asked the questions to the Kaitiaki (now represented simply by the mask lying on the ground). The students then spoke the answers, drawing on the information in front of them. We discovered how this 800 acre forest had been reduced to a tiny remnant the wetlands drained and how the 300 year old trees were struggling to cope. At this point, students made the connection with the photograph we had seen at the start. We even located the actual drainage ditch at the site. The stories of the settlers working hard to make the land productive, were placed alongside the story of destruction and loss as told by the Kaitiaki.
Armed with this information, we travelled back to the campus and began working on some ideas for the video. The commission required simple power point and luckily we were able to get some ‘professional development’ (aka straight skills teaching) from Donn, one of our Arts lecturers. Working in collage, the team came up with some abstract responses to what they had seen, heard and gathered.
Students have taken materials home to continue their work on the commission….
Not a full Mantle, but satisfying as a way to spark interest and commitment in a shared project. Nice, too, to link with Arts making as I more often find myself involved with science, technology and suchlike.
Attaching the plan for this mini mantle if anyone is interested. Feel free to use however you see fit, but please acknowledge the original author. (NB the plan is formatted for A3 – thanks Nat for the template!)