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Cards on the Table at City of Women

Image courtesy Nada Žgank / City of Women

This month we talked to Urška Jež, executive producer for the Ljubljana-based City of Women Association about how and why they have been playing Cards on the Table. Established in 1995, City of Women’s basic mission is to promote women in arts and culture, in Slovenia and beyond. Every year in October they hold an international contemporary arts festival where they give a platform to both emerging and established artists. They also work year-round with schools and communities to address questions of gender equality and gender-related power issues through the language of art. Urška’s involvement with COTT comes through BE PART, an EU-funded network of art organisations trying to understand and further participate in culture. Urška describes how gamifying evaluation can lead to a more open and collaborative working environment.

Urška Jež has a BA in cultural studies and an MA in NGO management. She has been collaborating with the City of Women Association since 2006 and is president of the Managing Board of the Association and the executive producer since 2014. Prior to that, she was the executive producer of the Animateka International Animated Film Festival. Since 2005, she has been working as an animator, mentor and youth camp leader and is also the author of the study Arts Education and the NGO Sector in Culture (2017). She loves to use diverse tools and methods to facilitate group processes.

Hi Urška, thank you for talking to us on behalf of City of Women.

Thank you, I love what you’re doing with this blog. I was looking at the Emotional Learning Cards, and they look great. I think I might try and use them in the context of some youth work I do. For me, cards like that can ask questions of people that they might be reluctant to answer. So, the content of the cards doesn’t have to be revolutionary, but the structure of the game is such a useful tool. Games can open up a space for discussion because you can get information from people without trying, by just, you know, playing the game.

Yes, absolutely. Before we get into COTT and how you have used it, can you tell me a bit about City of Women and your role within the organisation?

City of Women is an association whose basic mission is to promote women in arts and culture, here in Ljubljana and beyond. It started in 1995. Through artistic production and an international contemporary arts festival every year in October, we give a platform to both emerging and established artists. Another important aspect is cultural education. We do a lot of work with schools, and with different communities to address questions of gender equality and gender-related power issues through the language of art. I joined in 2006 and I’m currently the executive producer. But when I first started I was an administrative officer, I then coordinated volunteers, and was a festival driver, I’ve had many different roles.

How did you come to use Cards on the Table?

We came across the cards within the BE PART project, which is focused on community-based artistic production and collaboration between artists and different communities. Each partner organisation does “Fieldworks” which are basically localised projects funded by the wider network. COTT was a tool that was suggested by the project to do localised evaluations.

In what kind of situations or projects do you use the cards?

We initially used it to evaluate our production process. Well, first we tried it within the team to discuss the BE PART project. Then it was used outside of the core team after the first Fieldwork was finished, which was a collaboration between artists, researchers, university students and high school students. The title of that project was Corneous Stories and it tried to look at the underpaid labour market, gender-related power, migrant workers, and environmental issues in relation to the cosmetic industry. We had students from both a cosmetic school as well as students from the art university, so they all brought very different perspectives to the project. There was lots of research and exchange between the different students, and the project culminated in an international exhibition of curated artworks in a gallery space and a publication. This was back in 2019.

How regularly do you use the cards?

Basically, whenever we wrap up a cycle of work, not only within BE PART but with another EU project that looks at similar types of collaborations with communities. With a lot of the community settings we work in, there are often questions of, again, who's making the decisions and how is the process itself designed. To what extent is a producer able to, or should define a process upfront? The discussions we have using the cards after production can act as a learning curve for us to take into the next projects. These conversations get us to think about how and when to step back and when to leave the agency with the group of people that maybe don't have an artistic background but have been invited to create something.

Part of our thinking with the cards and this blog is to find different ways and points of access to conversations around participation. Do you think games can lead to different conversations regarding participation?

Well, for me, I think the fact is that COTT (and other games) balance discussions very well, without putting anyone in a position of advantage. The variations in power between producers, artists, and community members can vary a lot. If you say “Okay, now let's discuss” those power imbalances really come out. While using COTT, the moderator can’t give more attention to one player than another, and this allows the moderator to be more neutral. It really balances the power around the table, giving everyone an equal opportunity to share and have room to explore their thoughts. Players can’t already frame what they will say, so it makes them think while they talk.

Also, as the game is more playful, the setting can bring down some barriers. It’s easier to be honest and tell someone they’ve done badly or if my feelings were hurt in the working process. Self-censorship is taken away because what we say can be seen as just part of the game. It makes it a lot easier to talk about how things didn’t work well and to find the weak points in a process.

Do you think there’s a kind of freedom in the rules?

Yeah, exactly. All the participants get to articulate more, but in a less structured way, it's this duality, really, when I think of it. It forces you to articulate your thoughts but at the same time, it doesn't put you under the spotlight as much because everyone is playing the same game, with the same cards.

A lot of people don't like evaluation. It's often seen as an annoying thing to be done at the end of a project.

Yeah, I think that’s right, but if you gamify it, it becomes a bit more stimulating. There’s less of a feeling it’s something we just have to get through, it can be fun, actually.

From my perspective, evaluation is often repetitive.

But if it’s more fun it can give an opportunity to share something beyond the task that has to be done, beyond what tasks have been done well or not. Evaluation can also give an opportunity to learn a bit more about your organisational culture and about the characters of the team. I think this kind of soft content is just as important as a questionnaire or some other indicator that tells you how many people came to the event or how much budget was spent. A more fun approach to evaluation can connect a less tangible culture that leads to projects being produced.

What’s been difficult or less successful about using the cards? I know you’re often not playing in English, how’s that?

Yeah, that’s not easy. When we tried the game with younger or elderly people, we had some issues. Basically, we had to translate the cards as we played. Also, as some cues are quite abstract, it can take a round or two for people to understand what the game really wants from them. I think for this reason it’s important to have someone that knows the game and can explain the purpose of the cards and give it a good introduction, someone to convey and maybe reassure people that enter the space. So, in that sense, maybe it's not something that you can just use, or just take from the box and start playing. Yes, it's a bit abstract at the beginning. So maybe that's a weak point.

Does the caution from people come from the fact that it’s part of an evaluation?

No, I think it's just because it's a hassle to keep track of the rules at first. You know, what each card is and how much time people get. But if you have a moderator, players don’t have to worry about that stuff so much. It's easier if someone can lead. Then if a person is not so confident, they don’t have to worry that they have all the rules memorised and under control.

The first time we played was with our internal team. There was a lot of laughing and joking around about whose turn it was, who’d gone over the time… But that didn’t matter because it was internal, and everyone was comfortable with each other. Getting to know the game was important before we started using it with people externally. Knowing how the dynamic of the game works makes it much easier to then moderate with others.

I've often been the moderator rather than a player. Have you been both? Do you think it's different being the person who's trying to run the session while also being in the session?

It's definitely easier if you're moderated by someone because you can focus on the content. But I think knowing the game, at least at the beginning, it's easier to engage because you know that you will have space and you're less burdened with timing etc. At first, when I didn’t know the game so well, I worried if I’d have enough time to formulate my thoughts because some of the cues you’re faced with can seem a bit conceptual. After being part of the process a few times, I now know relevant cards always come up. Even if a card seems totally abstract, it will trigger the right questions and the right discussion. As you play more, you gain more trust in the game and it’s easier to participate. We’ve never played it twice with the same group. Maybe that's also something we could try. It would be good if different people could lead the game.

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