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Constellations of Support

Image credit: RM Sánchez-Camus

​​For this edition of the blog, we've been speaking to Marcelo Sánchez-Camus. Marcelo is a creative practitioner, organisational developer, performance coach, and futurist. He is Creative Director of Applied Live Art Studio (ALAS), an action-research studio developing work around socially engaged and site-responsive works of art. He is co-founder and co-director of Social Art Publications, a publishing house for artists' books on social practice. He is currently Head of Delivery for Public Engagement and Learning at Imperial War Museums.

His work happens in two strands: creative artworks working collaboratively with communities, and sector support work developing research and organisational development to help improve cultural democracy and participation. He co-founded various creative networks including: Coalition of Creative Artists in New York, Social Art Network in UK, and Social Art International in Berlin. He was Lead Artist and report author for Social Artists For Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (SAFEDI) an AHRC pilot EDI fellowship producing research around arts access and policy. His exhibition From Birth till Death: Scrolled Life Stories was shortlisted for Museum + Heritage Exhibition of The Year 2021. His work features in the permanent collection of the Museum of London.

Some of Marcelo's previous working partners have included: Horniman Museum and Gardens, Whitechapel Gallery, Tate Modern London, Museum of London, Freedom Festival, IN SITU European Outdoor Arts Network, Artangel and People United.

Can you start off by telling us what 100 Stars in the Sky are for, and who they are for?

100 Stars in the Sky is the result of a really long process of thinking about support mechanisms for creative people who are interested in the intersection of community development and creative practice. It's a self-mentoring tool to help guide you through situations and projects. It was developed because, over the years in the sector support work that I've done, one of the things that come up repeatedly is that creative practitioners don't have enough support and don't have the funds necessary to find ongoing support.

I've done lots of work around creating systems of support for artists who work in socially engaged practice. I wanted to bring some of my personal learning as a creative person, as an organiser, as somebody who does community and organisational development, and as a coach and mentor, into an interactive card-based artwork. I don't really call it a game, to be honest. It's just some points that might guide you through something you're working on.

So rather than a game, it is more like an interactive artwork? Is it more like a set of prompts?

I call them tips. Each star is like a guiding point. and a suggestion to (re)frame thinking. I used the stars and constellations as a metaphor because it was about using constellations to help navigate and guide. Also, I like the idea of reaching for the stars. Each star is a tip about ways of working. If a star relates to your situation, you collect it. When you have a collection of stars you lay it out in a constellation format. You can then see how the set of stars relates to each other. Each card has some steps on the reverse to guide you to reach that star. The suggestions are sometimes very short and offer practical ways that you could put things into effect.

It didn't begin as an artwork, it began as a working document. I've been wanting to develop something like this for a while. It started as a list of 100 tips for social art practitioners. Then it grew into a self-mentoring toolkit for creative practitioners who work with audiences and communities.

When I had a go, I didn’t exhaustively look through all the cards, I chose them almost randomly. If I came across a card that seemed to fit, it seemed like luck. But the resulting constellation offered me a manageable selection of advice or ways to alter my thinking about something. Is the possibility of multiple combinations that come from a certain sense of randomness an important feature for you?

Absolutely. It's designed to tap into a few things. Part of my expertise is around health and well-being in art making. I teach a short course on that at CSM. A big interest of mine in research, teaching and artwork, is how and why we enter moments of flow. What do moments of flow do to our thinking patterns and what does it do to our physicality? How is flow a valuable tool for communication with your subconscious? Flow moves beyond spoken and written language, which is a very linear and very focused type of communication. It sits in your frontal cortex. So, to tap into flow we need non-linear patterns, and a list is really linear. Linearity is one way of thinking, but it's limited. 100 Stars offers a mind map, it allows you to remember differently, to see the bigger picture. It allows you to see things in context and take a bird's eye view. We need these different, non-linear perspectives to step over and above an issue. A change in perspective allows you to resolve something. That’s how it's a self-mentoring toolkit.

Part of the reason there is an enormous selection, 100 is a big number, is that you're unlikely to read all 100. People are more likely to choose by scanning them. Your brain processes an enormous amount of information, and it knows how to delete, store and generalise. We’re always doing this scanning with language.

I'm really interested in transformational grammar which relates to one’s ability to scan the cards and choose what pops out at you. Your subconscious is doing an enormous amount of work all the time without you realising it. So that feeling of wow, I picked this collection and it actually makes sense relates to your subconscious picking things that are on your mind. It’s very different from reading a list and checking things off, that's a different type of thinking. There's an aspect of chance which is working with subconscious thinking.

I'm interested in how we understand star constellations and in star gazing, along the lines of esoterica, fortune-telling, tarot reading etc. How do these things tap into something that is beyond chance? Serendipity is really interesting. The word was coined by Horace Walpole and I've done a lot of research on it, I'm really interested in serendipity. Our mind decodes information and then it feels like the right thing has come by chance. Actually, we are making choices, sometimes subconsciously, in order to arrive at that place. Serendipity was another area of interest I wanted to combine into the cards.

There’s an interesting link between serendipitous moments and someone who is in flow. Could you talk a bit more about what you mean by flow?

There's quite a lot of research around this but I’d refer you to a really good book called Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, which talks about states of flow. Our brain has automatic functions that we don't think about like heartbeat and breathing. Generally, these things happen automatically. Then we have our general consciousness of the things we do. But we might think of getting dressed or brushing our teeth in the morning, for example. We get ready but there are times we don’t have conscious memory of it. That’s a kind of flow. Or driving on a long stretch of highway and you're spaced out thinking about things and then you realise you missed your exit, but you're still driving, that’s a form of flow.

Creative practises allow you to trigger that state faster. When you're accustomed to different kinds of creative practices or more comfortable with them, you engage in the work that you're doing. While you're doing it, your mind wanders. You don't need to necessarily technically focus so much on the action, you're able to busy your brain functions on the task at hand and free up background thinking to make sense of that soup of information that's there. You're doing this action, this action frees up brain space and that free space gets you into a state of flow. Flow allows you to tap into your subconscious so you can have new insights and new understandings.

For a long time, I’ve worked in end-of-life care and I’ve witnessed flow as an incredible source of pain relief. Some patients get to a point where no pain relief will work. They come into an art workshop and they sit down and for 15 minutes they go into a state of flow and they don't think about their pain. Art-making can be a very effective form of pain relief. We need more studies on that. So, when I think about flow, I really think about it as a type of brain function that frees up background complex thinking.

I’m not familiar with the idea of transformational grammar. Could you talk about that? Does it relate to flow?

It looks at the differences between deep structures and surface structures of the things that we say. I'm a performance coach and I have been working around the intersection of EDI and coaching to think about how we use language, especially in relation to power structures. All the things we say and how information is received and given back are all subject to deletion. We don’t take everything in so we delete things and this leads to distortion. Through these distortions, we reinterpret things to our advantage, and we generalise. Generalising things makes it easier to deal with the world. I’m interested in how we communicate and how to understand the world, how to overcome some of those things through mentoring tools. Some of the 100 Stars tips are about being able to see through the limitations of language.

When I looked through the cards I was struck by the range of interpretations available for some of them. Is part of the idea that a card can jolt you out of a singular interpretation you’ve been holding, and through that jolt encourage a new way of seeing a situation?

Absolutely. Many things have informed the cards, from coaching, psychological mentoring, counselling and therapy tools, First Nation wisdom, and various philosophies. Basically, I’ve disguised all of these influences in the work. One of those is non-violent communication or NVC. NVC says there is conflict, but you have to look above it and around it to see the actual causes. Usually, that's what happens and it's what these cards intend to do. For example, the tension around an issue often doesn’t have its root in the issue itself. You have to go above it and around it and behind it to see what the motivating factors are. Hopefully, the cards can help people do that. When we're in the issue, it's very hard to rise above it and find the assistance we need.

What a great range of theoretical positions to fold into the cards. On an aesthetic level, are there other thighs that influenced the design, even down to the choice to have 100?

Initially, as I said, it was a list born out of an interest in being able to create more well-being in the sector. I tested it out in a role that I was given for the early, early version of the project at enSHRINE with Lady Kit and Sarah Li who were developing an inclusive policy for an LGBTQA+ group in Newcastle. They had some funding to bring in a well-being facilitator to help manage their well-being while they were managing this project. I was already working on the cards and I thought, well, let me test it out with them. They had some really good suggestions about language. In the beginning, I used them in a workshop where people just picked 10 out of the list.

When we were thinking about launching it, a digital campaign seemed best so it was launched on Instagram. They are square because of Instagram, I also really like the square cards, it adds a lot, especially because it's like one star, one tip, in one square. There's something about the symmetry that works really well. Instagram definitely edited the format because it was in rows of three so we ended up with a perfect grid. The initial campaign worked really well and it allowed us to print some and then run a series of workshops where I’d lay them out exactly like Instagram in rows of three. It’s really interesting because today we are used to that visual format, so when I run a workshop and lay them all out, although people may not realise it, they're basically scrolling. It taps into a mode of ingesting media that we are accustomed to.

We always had the intention to print them. I always called it 100 Stars in the Sky, I’ve always thought of them as stars. It was a natural design element to think of it as a nighttime scene, but not quite a black night. Maybe a Summertime dark blue light where there’s still a bit of light because the sun takes a really long time to set - I'm a solstice baby. Then on the flip side, we wanted to put the steps to the star which would look more like twilight or dawn, it is a very beautiful graduation of colour. It's gorgeous. The edges are rounded, so it’s a gentler format. They are quite structured with the star, the number, and the tip on the back. The numbers are in the corners so it reads like a traditional playing card. That's where the gaming aspect came in, but that was an afterthought just to follow a tradition of how cards are used.

Can you say a bit about the Instagram campaign?

Launching on Instagram was really a way to make it open source and accessible as well as archive it. That's the great thing about Instagram, It's got its own world. The stars sit on it like an archive, it’s a nice space to hold them. They're also downloadable off the website and you can buy the box of cards which is the only product. Of course, that's at a premium because they have to be printed. We just opened up the shop and that's gone live, it's gone up on Amazon which is exciting. For the campaign, we were able to partner with quite a few different organisations and artists who adopted certain stars. They got them in advance and over 100 nights we posted a new star on Instagram. So, for example, we were posting stars 20 to 24 and then a partner organisation on the same days was posting those as well and we were having conversations, tagging each other, again just a way to build a community around the project.

I know some people don't want to use platforms like Instagram, or any kind of social media platform. Do you have much of an opinion on that?

Of course, I understand that but I think it's good to have a multiplicity of methods for engagement. The cards are available on the studio website and they're downloadable, so you don't have to use Instagram necessarily to engage with it. But the cards are also for sale in an online shop that we've designed for the studio website. They are also for sale on Amazon and Etsy.

There are a lot of people who protest Amazon and don't want things to be sold there, they don't to give Amazon their money, which is valid. But from my perspective, it's really about offering people as many different methods and points of access as possible.

A few of the other card makers we’ve spoken to have funded production as part of a larger project. This often means there’s a finite amount and that they’re not really for sale. How do funding and sales work with 100 Stars?

At the moment, the way it works is that we're moving towards our third print run and the print runs are funded by the sale of the cards. I think with the launch we probably sold most of the second print run. The first print run was a pilot so it was very small, the second print run was bigger and then we sold most of those and came up with the funds for the third print run and that will just exponentially grow as we look into distribution and marketing. The studio helps in terms of production and promotion because it's connected to larger sector-wide work.

The initial development was done in tandem with my role as a well-being facilitator for enSHRINE but at the same time, I had already started working as the co-lead for Social Artists for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (SAFEDI). That was a pilot fellowship funded by AHRC with 10 partners around the country. We produced a very interesting report. I’ve done inclusive policy work for foreign organisations in the past. Throughout that, I was thinking about how to support the artists who are doing the work to support other artists with protective characteristics. I was able to continue to develop the stars while working on SAFDI. So the fellowship helped me inform some of the thinking behind it and it helped with the first print run. It’s been exponential from there.

You've always struck me as someone who is very good at juggling lots of projects but hearing you talk makes me think that you also seem to use some of the space or energy from one project to support and inform other projects, and then inform and support others. This seems to be reflected in the cards as well, a sense of taking some energy from one place and putting it into another which seems to have the effect of growing your net energy.

That's a very astute way to put it and I would totally agree with that, I might even borrow it. The thing is, all of this is my practice which is sometimes hard to explain to people. All of this is my art practice, it’s all things I’ve done working as a creative practitioner. It’s all interdependent and sits in relation to each other. Some projects have ballooned in the last four years and then some are kind of shorter-lived. But for me, it's all interrelated. I'm always looking at the connections between the learnings with everything I do. Nothing exists in isolation.

I think that's reflected in the cards through the idea of constellations, finding a disparate selection of things and putting them together to create a whole picture from the individual bits.

That’s part of what the cards offer, to consider the interrelationship and interdependency between disparate things you're involved in. This is key because often if we don't find those interdependencies and interrelationships, we don't necessarily nurture a balance between the many things we do in our life. Things can’t be too siloed. The cards are an invitation to consider the relationship between different outputs and issues, all the various topics and aspects we might come across in our life and in our work.

What ambitions do you have for 100 Stars going forward?

I’d like the cards to be utilised in spaces and places where people need to bring an offer of support services. For example, somebody came to the launch that does work in a prison and they are going to use the cards with some of the prisoners. Somebody else works in investigative reporting and is going to use the cards to do mentoring with the journalists. They told me it's a field where there's not enough mentoring, so they could really use something like this.

I realised quite quickly, even though I originally designed it with creative practitioners in mind, it can really very easily become cross-sector. My hope is to be able to begin to understand how the cards might be useful in a variety of different settings and to think about how, once they've been tested out and people have fed back, what kind of different editions might come out of it. I see the cards as a long-term, if not lifetime, project.

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