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Summer School 2014 – Learning through Play and Art at the European Graduate School EGS

Updated: May 16, 2021

A personal perspective by Steve Levine, Dean of the Doctoral Program in Expressive Arts, EGS The summer of 2014 marked the 19th year of teaching and learning at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. In the Expressive Arts Programs of the Arts, Health and Society Division of EGS, education is carried out through play and art-making, as well as through more traditional forms of lecture and discussion. Here are some of the highlights of this year’s Summer School that stick out in my mind:

1) Paolo Knill, the founder of EGS and one of the pioneers in the field of Expressive Arts, stepped down this year as President of EGS. The summer promised to be a more relaxed time for him, without his previous administrative and leadership responsibilities. Instead, Paolo came to the Summer School in intense pain resulting from a herniated disk in his back. Although it was difficult to see him suffering in this way, what stood out for me was the way he carried on teaching and leading Community Art sessions in the same creative and playful way that had been characteristic of him for so long. In conversation, Paolo told me that the only time he didn’t notice the pain was when he was teaching. To my mind, this shows the power of the arts to access our resources and expand our range of play, even in the most difficult situations.

2) Barbara Hielscher, an EGS faculty member and Artist-in-Residence in the first session of Summer School this year, arrived in Saas-Fee after caring for her mother in her dying days. Again, Barbara drew on her creative resources to respond to her loss through the arts, by developing a choral performance piece with the whole community. The haunting music and song that resulted touched us all and brought us together in both mourning and a celebration of life.

3) In a different vein, Max and Sadie, our old clown friends, came to Saas-Fee for their annual performance at the graduation of both Masters and Doctoral students in the Expressive Arts. The performance comes after the formal graduation, and after the apero in which wine and snacks are served to both students and guests – thus ensuring a receptive and “well-oiled” audience. This year the play was called “100% Natural!”. Max and Sadie come to the car-free town of Saas-Fee high up in the Alps looking to get away from the overly technologized and surveillance-dominated world of urban life. Much to their surprise, they find the students in the Digital Arts Program preoccupied with their smart phones and iPads. Although Sadie is delighted at the new opportunities for communication (especially with her grand-daughter Maidele, who is studying at the school), Max longs for the old days when life was more “natural”. In a dream, he remembers a time long ago when he and Sadie were in a garden with her friends and all seemed full of peace and delight. The “friends”, played by students, dance and caress him in a loving way, when suddenly he realizes that they are all taking pictures of him with their hand-held devices. In a state of horror, he cries, “Stop!” and everyone freezes on stage. Then, in what I consider the high point of the show, a small “drone” suddenly appears flying above the audience and making an eerie mechanical sound. (The drone was a toy supplied by one of the hoteliers, but it shocked everybody.) Then the evil Wizard, played by one of the Digital Arts students, enters the scene clothed in black, his face covered by a white neutral mask, and stirs the dancers to a frenzy. Finally Sadie returns with her Maidele and awakes Max from his nightmare. Max is relieved but terrified when Maidele’s boy-friend turns out to be the same character as the Evil Wizard, but this time appearing innocently in a red clown nose. When Max realizes that the Wizard is actually a sweet and innocent young man, he is relieved and invites everyone to dance and celebrate this new union. The whole audience, including distinguished guests from the government of Saas-Fee and the Canton of Wallis, join in the celebration, after which we all go down to the Hotel Allalin for the graduation banquet. The show was great fun, especially for the clowns (played by Ellen and Steve Levine) and had a serious side as well, questioning our dream of a pure nature as well as the negative effects of technology.

4) The ecological theme was an obvious one, since the school is situated in such a beautiful but threatened natural setting, in which the glacier has retreated noticeably during the two decades we have been in the town. We use this special environment as a learning frame, both in our classes and on the two excursions that everyone participates in during each session. On one of the excursions, Ellen and I invited the students to take their cameras and smart phones with them on a hike and have a partner photograph them in the landscape. The images were collated later by our genuine technological wizard, Alejo Duque, and shown in classes and community meeting. This environmental theme was carried forward in the second session, when Paul Antze, a colleague of mine from York University, and I gave a lecture on the danger of ecological collapse and the possibilities for creative responses to our dire situation. For me, the field of Expressive Arts offers many opportunities for exercising what we call our “aesthetic responsibility”, our capacity to shape the world in an encounter with beauty.

5) Politics was not neglected during the Summer School either. We were all pre-occupied with the war in Gaza and the horrific suffering that it involved. At one community meeting, I read a poem I wrote inspired both by the current situation and by the community art-work of Carol Kane, a conflict-transformation student who had worked with the community of Omagh in Northern Ireland to find a creative way of coming together after a horrible car-bomb exploded in 1998 in the crowded market place of the town. Under Carol’s guidance, the members of the community took the thousands of flowers that were sent from all over the world and made beautiful paper art-works from them. Her work inspired me to write a poem in which Gaza and Omagh are woven together in the imagination. I have appended this poem at the end of this report. The last line is a quote from the poet Seamus Heaney, who had sent it as part of his response to the event.

6) Finally (and at the risk of omitting so many memorable moments), I recall the Art Asylum night of the Doctoral students. Art Asylum is an occasion for students, after intense study in a subject course together, to let loose and play in a totally improvised way. One of the things a few of us did was to make puppets and engage in a ribald puppet play responding to the work of Gabriel Levine (yes, our son) and his partner Bee Pallomina, who had made some short videos parodying the performances of Marina Abramovic, using her recorded voice but replacing her and her partner Ulay with two papier-maché puppets (Website). This had been done all in fun, but much to their surprise they received a letter from Ms Abramovic’s lawyer urging them to cease and desist or face dire legal consequences. After some deliberation, they decided to respond by having a news conference – by Percival P. Puppet! Mr. Puppet, as he was called, pleaded with Marina to recognize that the videos were all in fun and were in fact a sort of homage. Two students and I then took this as a theme during Art Asylum night and made some puppets of our own to play in The Case of Marina Abramovitch Against Anonymous, a play in which Marina takes “Anonymous” to court for infringing on her copyright. In the end the judge rules against Marina and then has an encounter with her in which they become lovers and go off together. We filmed the play and sent it to Gabe and Bee as our aesthetic response to their work, which was itself a playful response to the recent art-star status of Marina Abramovic, who had been for a long time relegated to the marginal world of Performance Art.

In reflecting on these highlights, I realize that what stands out for me is the power of the arts to hold both horror and joy. One of the things we emphasize at EGS is that Poiesis, art-making as a response to the world, is always possible. The Expressive Arts rests on this foundation, which itself is not guaranteed by any authority but must be rediscovered again and again. Often we need the help of another to do so. In the words of EGS Poet Laureate, Elizabeth McKim, “It takes an agile guide / to cross a fragile bridge.” We are all in the midst of crossing that bridge. I hope that we at EGS can be agile guides and help others to develop that capacity as well.

A Bomb Explodes – A Poet Responds Steve Levine

Omagh Gaza

Where will it end?

Flowers bombs

Can they be woven together?

Colours strike

Bombs caress

Petals torn

Limbs askew

Blinded in Omagh

Eyeless in Gaza

To see to feel to make

The ending in the mending

On the far side of revenge

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