Narratives of the Unconscious, a university project for undergraduate illustrators.
I have been a lecturer on the BA illustration course at the University of Brighton for many years and it was through my teaching that I made the decision to train to become a counsellor. I teach into the final year of the programme which is focusses on self expression and self authorship. The students have the ability and technical knowhow to make images or films; the question then becomes ‘what do you want to say through your work?’
'Narratives of the Unconscious' is a project that I designed based on my experiences training to be a counsellor at the Psychosynthesis Trust. Roberto Assagioili, the founder of Psychosynthesis always maintained that the Psychosynthesis model had uses beyond therapy and envisaged it being used in education also, so I'm happy to be able to put his vision into practice.
The project is not explicitly therapeutic in intent, but instead is designed to introduce students to their psychic interior and the power of their imagination. Often student's work becomes based around exterior events; politics, social issues, music or stories that others have written. I wanted to create a project that offered an alternative source — the unconscious. In addition to listening to ones own stream of thought the project requires inner criticism (something many artists are often crippled by) to be bracketed and bypassed in favour of exploration, permissiveness and play.
The first part of the project was a workshop in which the students, through the use of guided visualisation, met several characters from their unconscious mind. The task was then to bring one of these characters into existence through either puppetry or use of masks and finally to produce a short film depicting this being.
We began the workshop sitting in a circle. Whilst this may be a familiar setup for many training in counselling it was a new experience to most of my students; they were taken out of a standard configuration of teacher in front of rows of students and into a more relational and equal space. There was already a sense in which today might be different to the norm. After asking students to 'check in' with a short sentence on how they were feeling I conducted a warm up exercise to get them talking. Students then partnered and found themselves somewhere comfortable to sit with drawing materials and lots of paper close at hand. I asked one partner to take all the drawing equipment and the other to close their eyes in order to be able to go into a visualisation. The drawer was to listen whilst the visualiser described what their imagination was creating. Whatever they described had to be drawn as fast as possible on sheets of paper. This differs from what might be done on a counselling training weekend or in a therapy session where the visualiser would draw their own images. There were reasons for this: firstly, the loosely guided visualisation was quite long with a lot of information to retain, much of which may have been forgotten; secondly I didn’t want them coming in and out of their process to draw, so having a person to report to and draw on their behalf would help hold and deepen their visualisation; thirdly I wanted the drawers to get out of any possibility of perfectionism or making a ‘good’ drawing — they would simply not have time. It was an experiment in spontaneity where their inner critics would hopefully have no time to jump in and judge.
I asked the visualisers to close their eyes and picture themselves in some kind of outdoor place; to look around and see what was there. What the floor was made of? What the weather was like? etc. Once they felt ready they described to their partner what was being seen and the drawing began. We continued in this way as I suggested a building in the distance. Once entered and its interior described, I told them that there was somebody there who had something to say. This was the first of their encounters with a character from their unconscious. There was a glade of trees and a second being, and later a mountain plateau with a temple on top and a third being, this time with a gift for them. Finally, when it was over and the visualiser opened their eyes, they could see what their partners had drawn for them — the room erupted in excited conversation.
Many students were really surprised; they were amazed at what their own minds were capable of seeing. Most were unfamiliar with the level of intimacy with their own interior. This was exciting for me as part of my aim in this project was to demonstrate and exercise the ‘muscle of inner vision’, which is so necessary for creative students to become more familiar with. I had not intended that it be in any way a therapeutic visualisation, more like an exercise to develop the faculty of imagination, however some reported feeling extremely calm afterward, as if their interior had just been soothed and ordered somehow.
During the afternoon I gave a brief illustrated lecture on subpersonality theory using some of my own subpersonalities as examples to initiate discussion. I focused particularly on the idea of an inner critic as I felt that even just knowledge of this concept may help bring some disidentification to those that may have a powerful critic. They were then invited to answer the question ‘who are you’ ten times. From one of these answers I asked them to visualise an aspect of themselves and draw it, much as would be done in a counselling session. This drawing was then described and discussed in dialogue with a partner. This final exercise was probably the closest we came to a therapeutic use of drawing and visualisation. By the end of this day they had been on a journey into their own imaginations and met several characters along the way. These encounters were to serve as inspiration for the remainder of the project and be brought to life and filmed. The short film I asked them to create could be as nonsensical and non narrative as they liked. The only request was that they consider setting, atmosphere and sound. I wanted as much permissiveness for creation as possible and told them that I did not care if their film made no sense or was of rough and ready quality, just that I wanted them to try and to allow it to be as it turned out.
In order to get them into the spirit and mechanics of puppet making I ran a second workshop with a colleague Matt Rudkin who is a performance artist and puppet maker. We began with drawing games to create an atmosphere of play as opposed to work. From these drawings they were asked to create a simple narrative which, in groups of 4/5 they were to turn into a ‘radio play’ with narration and oral sound effects. This was then performed to the wider group whilst we all closed our eyes and listened. In this way the students were gradually being introduced to expressing themselves to a group whilst minimising judging eyes (as they were all closed).
Later Matt demonstrated a simple puppet making technique using newspaper and masking tape and students made a form of puppet called Bunraku – a Japanese technique where a mobile puppet is controlled by three people holding the body arms and legs. Armed with this experience the students could now bring into existence one of the characters from their unconscious mind and begin to make a film.
The resultant films, I thought were wonderful. They are rough and ready, but that was the point, the students had a short time to complete them and expression (not production values) was the main emphasis. I was surprised that many had seemed able to relax fears of critical judgement enough to actually express some ‘shadow’ psychological aspects of themselves. Though the student’s public personas were seemingly quiet and unassuming, their expression in the films were often disturbing or violent. This is sometimes a sticking point for my students; they are often still operating from a persona that was constructed to fit within the expectations of family. Students sometimes fear making work that might be perceived as transgressive, worried about one day having to show it to mum and dad. Some of these films seemed to cross that boundary.
“The Final String” by Chloe Yau is a short film expressing anger and desire for revenge. A woman ransacks a strip bar and murders her adulterous partner and all the strippers climaxing in a triumphant and vengeful pile of beheaded bodies!
“The Healing” by Thea Mallorie is a film based on a character that was encountered during the visualisation: A small mouse dressed as the Pope! Again there is much disturbing material which I will not describe as it would spoil the film.
“New Faces” by Molly Lester is a narrative questioning identity. Based on the author’s musings about subpersonalities and the stories we live our lives by, she created a film exploring how we can be our own best friend and our own worst enemy.
“The Office” by Grace Aiken is a disturbing look at stress and fear. She saw a man in a dark basement standing, frustrated at a photocopier.
"Anger Issues" by Alice Bloomfield is a clear expression of the creative struggle and the pain and frustration that our inner critic can cause.