Easel news

VTS Facilitator Training – Summer 2022

Thanks to the generous support of the Lithuanian Culture Council this training was FREE!

Coach: Karen Vanhercke

Facilitators in a 10-week training hosted online from Vilnius, June-August 2022.

There is a shift in awareness, already, four weeks into the training! The Q&A sessions have been lively form the start, with good questions like: “Why don’t you share the name of the artist during an Image Discussion?”. The answer to this one took up most of a lesson – and if ever I am asked again, I might simply claim that our understanding of art is not hampered by a lack of data, but by a lack of visual literacy! It seems that my (lengthy) message came across, and the trainees began to look at art with more connection to the materials, with more understanding of the creative process and perhaps most importantly: with more self awareness. There is still a craving for factual subtext, but I believe that genuine curiosity is at the basis of it, and we need that to drive the thinking forward.

VTS has been criticised for its resistance to facts. One of my favourite educators, albeit critical of VTS, is Rika Burnham. She wrote a scathing chapter on the topic: Questioning the use of Questions! Underlying her criticism is the concern that research information – paid for with public funding – should be available to all who take an interest in culture! True, and to a large extent the research is available. There is a wealth of art historical research ready to be googled through online museum databases, including large resolution digital images of artworks in the public domain! Those are fantastic resources, which make it easy to verify what we talk about during Image Discussions. After my sessions I always provide a caption, for exactly this reason: now that you’ve connected to this artwork, go check the facts! Yes, I believe we can have both: eye-opening discussions and to keep a finger on the pulse of art history.

I experienced Rika once, when she was still working at the Frick Collection in New York, and she certainly had an endearing way to draw people into discussions! Indeed, she didn’t ask, but affirmed her wish to look at the art together. “Let’s look at this picture!”, she said, with a kind and welcoming attitude! The same welcome is of course imbedded in the question that opens a VTS Image Discussion. When a facilitator asks “What is going on in this picture?” she or he invites people to the dialogue. After hospitality has been established, however, the question remains: Who will claim authority? Anyone who has ever been invited to tea with an educator, knows the answer to that! I very much appreciated how unobtrusively Rika positioned herself as an expert in the dialogue. She eloquently answered questions as they came up, never offered information unasked. In that sense, she modelled excellent educational skills, but she never gave up control over the content. If her goal was to teach art history, this approach worked fine! VTS has a different goal, however, and that is to train visual literacy.

One of VTS’ core principles is to “suspend all beliefs” which is an attitude similar to empirical research methods – where the aim is to make space for observation and fresh knowledge derived from it. Artwork lend themselves very well to practice this scientific curiosity, because the different components of a picture relate to one another in exactly the same way that elements in the physical world do, by cause and effect. The artistic message has to be discerned from objective criteria : closer, farther, bigger, smaller, clearer, more blurry etc. When VTS facilitators ask: “What is going on in this picture?”, they invite observations and associations, because the latter allow people to bring relevance to the experience! Once people establish a link between what they observe and what they know or believe about what they observe, they will have a clear purpose of why they are looking at it and a choice as to what they want to do with this knowledge.

People don’t often get opportunities to question their observations nor their beliefs in a truly open dialogue, and in this sense VTS Image Discussions offer unique experiences. Sometimes it worries beginning facilitators to see how many questions come up during Image Discussions! If they have been in the role of educator before, they may have relished more controle over what kind of data were needed in order to sell a general idea. In VTS there is no general idea and a bucket full of -isms will not suffice to keep multiple valid interpretations going strong all at once. This doesn’t mean facilitators have to possess encyclopaedic knowledge, or special juggling skills! In fact, it’s enough to inspire curiosity and when differences comes up, to acknowledge them. Not surprisingly two of the most heard questions in VTS are: “What do you see that makes you ask about this?” and “What do you see that makes you say that?”.

There is really no such thing as a common perception, so to ask people what they see and why they think so, is an essential part of the process . Many people have learnt to suppress their perception and their ability to think is stumped even on an observational level. Without the option to see things differently, they essentially stop seeing or rather differentiating. The conclusions that are presented to them, bear little relevance, because they literally see no difference. There might be a group consensus, but for the individual the information is difficult to remember or to apply. Their lack of choice blinds not only their perception it also instills a self-sabotaging notion of irrelevance which blocks all constructive thinking. This can not be fixed with an authority story, only with choice! The moment people can choose how to interpret and integrate information, is when it becomes relevant.

Relevance can not be assumed. Receiving unsolicited information about an artist while standing in front of an artwork is a bit like receiving unsolicited information about a specific bus trajectory – let’s say the 66 – while standing at a bus stop – let’s say in Vilnius. To some people the name / number may be useful information – if they are hoping to hop onto that trajectory. Others however might be waiting for a different bus, or a different meaning, while yet others might have just come in out of the rain! Hence the sheer indifference to messages of this nature – often heard through loudspeakers! They constitute a sort of noise which people have to filter out, while trying to get on with their lives. Information does not inspire focus, but questions do: “Where are you going today?”. Facilitators need to know what people bring to the picture, before they can bring the picture to them.

The information theorist James Gleick says: “When knowledge is cheap, attention becomes expensive”. That is precisely why VTS facilitators withhold contextual information to increase the level of attention and jump start a dialogue process, with relevance! Attention is a requirement for both participants and facilitators and that is why in this training course, people learn to practice active listening. They learn to pay attention to what is going on in themselves in relation to the artworks, and later to what is going on in the dialogue with others. With practice they can learn to transfer this awareness to other areas of life. Anyone who takes on a role as caregiver – as a parent, teacher, doctor, lawyer or therapist – can benefit from VTS as the quality of care is directly related the quality of one’s attention.

These are the questions that came up during session 4: “What is VTS for?” , “How can I hold space for others if my own mind is full of stories?” and: “Why is it important to distinguish between stages of aesthetic development?”. Hearing these, I realise that some of the participants are getting ready to become facilitators! Here are some short answers to help them on their way: VTS is to establish connections between people and artworks and connections between experience and meaning. Next: Paying attention to your inner thought process, will help you keep the stories separate. You will be less likely to project your own bias onto the dialogue if you can articulate it. Next: Housen’s Stages of Aesthetic Development form a theoretical framework, that you can use to observe what the specific needs are in the group so that you can support their process accurately. The word development does not imply that one way of thinking is better than another! Aim for inclusive dialogues, without hierarchy, and celebrate difference!

Go for it! Start leading image discussion as soon as you can! You will need a lot of practice! Observe other facilitators often and notice how different they are! Try bringing your own style into it: you corky humour, your hungry curiosity and wonderful sensitivity. You will make a difference with your personality! Good luck, summer group! Join us for upcoming events and trainings!