Boys and Girls Club of Bloomington

Group project: Five 5th and 6th grade participants.
Duration: 1 hour daily session for 3 days. 
Location: Boys and Girls Club, Bloomington, IL.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION:

While working as a program specialist at Boys and Girls Club of Bloomington (BGCB), I was asked to organize and facilitate a week-long animation workshop for interested students. Because of some organizational intricacies, only five students volunteered to be a part of the workshop and the meetings took place over a three day period for an hour each day. Each day, the participants worked as a group on a stop motion animation.

LOCATION and SETTING:

Boys and Girls Club is a national youth enhancement program that provides summer and afterschool activities to children, ages six through twelve. The Bloomington-Normal has two locations; the Clubhouse and The Club at BJHS (Bloomington Junior High School), where I was a program specialist and the animation workshop took place. The program itself serves junior high students, between ages of eleven and fourteen. The five participants of the animation workshop included one female and four males; all native English speakers, except for M. (the initial I am using in order to protect his privacy)—a twelve year old boy, who moved to the area from Congo a month before.

STORY:

M.’s story became the focus of the study during this particular workshop. He moved to Bloomington-Normal with his parents and siblings a month prior joining BGCB. His family lived in the area, where three of his cousins also attended the program. M. did not speak English, therefore his initial interactions with other students and instructors were rather limited. Although his cousins spoke Lingala and were able to sporadically translate for him, he was often left to his own devices. His cousins—also middle school students with middle school schedules, interests, and friends—could think of better activities than translating for M. and could rarely be found when needed. I have also noticed that M. was not eager to ask for their help. Like in case of any pre-teen relationships, there were probably dynamics in place that were hard to understand for non-preteen to understand.

M. chose to isolate himself, to sit separate from the group, and to pass on any participation in-group activities. The day was organized into four different parts: academic tutoring, educational activities, socio cultural activities, and recreational activities. M. hardly partook in any of them. The lack of communication and frustration that accompanied it, kept him away from other students and vice versa. I did not observe anyone trying to communicate with him, nor spend time with him.  

I was very pleasantly surprised when I found out that M. was one of the students who signed up for the animation workshop. The first session of my workshop, regardless of the duration, is introductory: focusing on equipment, software, and animation basics, such as timing and spacing. I try to provide “hands on” experience right away, since I believe it is the most effective learning tool. As I was setting up the equipment and simultaneously explaining what we will be doing during the workshop, I noticed that all students, except for M., were vigorously helping by arranging different materials and joyfully discussing ideas for animations, based on the newest Cartoon Network episodes that they were very familiar with. M., on the other hand, was sitting by himself at a neighboring table, ignoring my invitations to join us, until everyone jumped in to start animating. As the students started taking photos of the objects on the table and experimenting with how different distances between the movements influence the speed of the moving object, M. got up and joined them. It was the first time I saw him interact with anyone besides his cousins. The other participants not only immediately accepted his input, but decided to find ways to communicate with M. Another male student, C., started using Google Translate to explain to M. what has already been decided and how to use the software. The students quickly established that Lingala, M.’s language, was not one available on the app, but French was close enough. Thanks to their shared efforts, communication has been established.

All participants worked together in order to create a group animation. As a rule, I assign the roles, as in a professional studio: animators, set designers, camera operators, and the director. In order to experience all aspects of creating, they switch roles. According to Lisa LaBracio, this kind of approach helps students with finding their place and motivating them during the group project. It gives them specific purpose and therefore ownership and pride over certain aspects of animation. I noticed that they fed of each other’s ideas, building upon them. The experience of instant replay and seeing the fruit of their hard work, the actual movement of the objects in front of them, perpetuated the excitement. They communicated throughout the entire process and made sure to include M. by continuing to use Google Translate. After the initial introduction, the technical aspects of animating are very intuitive and self-explanatory, and in turn, create easy collaborative environment.

 

FINDINGS and ANALYSIS:

Linguistic Bridge

I found animation to be an excellent tool of linguistic and emotional communication, both in my own practice and in my research. Along other forms and mediums of art, it can be used to translate one’s thoughts and inner-self to a visual language of shapes, colors, and symbols. In addition, animation possesses invaluable qualities for storytelling without necessity for verbal communication abilities or linguistic knowledge. All of the elements of stationary mediums, bound by sequential layout, structure of beginning, middle, and end, as well as movement itself, give a storytelling opportunity for artists who are either unable or unwilling to communicate verbally or emotionally.

According to Tessa Dalley, the ability to communicate is an essential human characteristic and when speech is in any way impaired, underdeveloped, or used in irregular ways, mark making—in this case, animation—can become its most valuable substitute (Dalley, 1984). When speech is the main mode of communication, not being able to relate to others linguistically creates lack of connection; furthermore, causing isolation, which in turn may lead to serious psychological issues. In case of M., his communication was abruptly disrupted by different linguistic requirements. His ability to connect with people and create new relationships became limited by his lack of linguistic knowledge and though temporary, might leave long-lasting effects. Working on an animation project allowed him to collaborate with people without speaking the same language, but also enabled all of them to tell a narrative with use of universal mark making and storytelling.

Animation is a rare medium that has an ability to communicate clear information and bridge linguistic gaps. In my interview with Lisa LaBracio, she talks about the role of filmmaking and animation in Dadaab Refugee Camp—one the biggest refugee camps in the world that hosts people from multiple countries in the Eastern African region. Lisa LaBracio was sent there by FilmAid, a non profit organization, which according to their web site, is a “leader in humanitarian and crisis communications. Using a community-based and multi-platform approach, FilmAid provides refugees and displaced people with access to life-saving information about their rights, their safety, their health and their future.” She described an importance of a universal communicator, like animation, in a place where relating clear information can be life saving. The content of the videos and animations can have direct influence on people in emergency situations, or help them in acclimation process—describing the new arrival procedures and safety regulations in the camp. Most of the educational videos describe content relevant to many of the refugees—malaria, HIV, early childhood marriage, FGM (female genital mutilation practice)—and because they are created by the follow camp residents and not the Westerners from outside of the camp, they can be more trusted and relatable. In addition to communicating important messages, creators of the videos and animations are left with a new computer skill set, which will potentially help them in resettlement process. Small percentages of the camp population (only one to three percent) having a chance to leave the camp, motivates people to get as educated, ready, and competitive as possible and learning video, animation, and any type of technology can possibly help with that. In referring to FilmAid’s role, LaBracio says: “They are making a meaningful content but they are also in that process giving people voice and a microphone. They manage to give people a wide range of important skill sets and also communication devices, so they are allowed to keep themselves relevant” (personal communication, November 24, 2015).

 

Bodily Engagement

There is a lot to be said about the performative aspect of communication, specifically in the case of immigrant experience. Lack of linguistic knowledge is often compensated for by performance or over-performativity. In other words, the message is enhanced by bodily and gestural performance. “Human phenomena are lived through our bodies, but are typically described through language, which in turn is supposed to invoke an embodied response as part of the process of understanding” (Kirova & Emme, 2012, p. 141). There is a “taken-for-granted level at which humans act and experience before attaching language to their actions and experiences” (Kirova & Emme, 2012, p. 142). It is the unconscious understanding of the universal body language and gestures that relies on signaling intent before verbalizing it. As an animation instructor, it is one of the basics I teach about animation—an undeniable aspect of communicating non-verbally. Though, there are plenty of animations that rely heavily on language, the beauty of this medium is that they don’t have to. I believe that is why I found animation to be an excellent conductor of information and emotional expression and in turn, a therapeutic tool for those unable to or unwilling to use regular modes of linguistic or verbal communication.

Animators often fulfill many roles: storytellers, writers, designers, creators, voice-over actors, editors, and actors. In order to come up with a character’s movement, they not only have to design it, but most importantly—perform and reenact it—they must understand all aspects of it. They need to consider situations, their character’s background and motivations, as well as overall context of the story. In order to do so, they use their imagination, but also rely on their own lived experiences. Not only they are forced to put themselves in “other people’s shoes” and empathize, but also they must be able to consciously analyze their own body and how it reacts to different stimuli. Ha Tran, in one of the interviews that I conducted with her, explains that animation tends to bring people in, forcing them to focus on “here and now” (Personal communication, 2017). Thus, language becomes an extension of their performance.

In “Immigrant Children’s Bodily Engagement”, the authors write about linguistic fluency vs. embodying the language fluently. Although, one might grow to know and practice a language on regular basis, mastering its grammar and nuances, it is often the case that the bodily performance of the speaker does not match the language, but reflects his or her language of origin. Originally from Bulgaria, one of the authors, in a sense, writes about the idea of “passing”—passing as a native English speaker, passing as a non-foreigner, passing as a legitimate qualified professor teaching in English. With more linguistic fluency, she describes facing more doubt and more trouble conveying the intended message versus when she was not a fluent speaker and enhanced the message by exaggerated performance and gesture, in addition to her conversationalist being more open, understanding, and helpful. She says that though she speaks the language fluently, she does not embody it fluently. She admits to being “painfully aware” of her gestures, performance, and her tone of voice, which do not reflect her spoken language fluency. “My body is in my native language as much as the language is in my body” (Kirova & Emme, 2012, p. 142).

 

Tool of Emotional Communication

According to Ha Tran, when dealing with immigrant community, the lack of linguistic knowledge is only a partial challenge. Often, the individuals she works with have problems expressing themselves emotionally, which in turn leads to more serious issues. In fact, that might be why the individuals are in therapy in the first place. Tessa Dalley references one of the pioneering views of art therapy by Elinore Ulman that “even for the most articulate, art can be used as a type of 'symbolic speech' (Ulman 1961: 11); a means of saying something non-verbally through symbols” (Dalley, 1984, p.xiii).

In my experience, it is easier to express difficult emotions through art and especially animation, which allows an artist to analyze the emotions for a longer time period. Because of the process of animating, the artist is forced to spend extended time creating the animation which allows him / her to not only to develop the initial ‘visual symbolic dictionary’, but to further its development by progressively changing the already existing meanings and adding to them. It allows for clearer and more open way of communicating complex feelings, but also distancing oneself from them, if necessary. When dealing with taboos, traumas, and difficult situations, symbolic communication the use of visual metaphor puts distance between complex emotions and making oneself open to vulnerability. According to Levine, “metaphor both shelters and reveals the truth by distancing and suspending literal reality”, while allowing risk-taking (Levine, 1998, p. 272).

Often, it is the reality of the situation that does not allow us to express ourselves. “Overwhelming pain is language-destroying; words lose their original meaning” (Meyer, 1999, p. 244). Through communicating our feelings, we reclaim the situation—we take control and stop the cycle of victimization. In case of many immigrants and refugees, people often experience serious traumas caused by very real situations of wartime or sociopolitical crisis in their countries of origin. On the other hand, the experience of immigrating—being stripped of previous identity, having to learn a new language, culture, and reality of life, dealing with stigma and scrutiny surrounding immigration—might be traumatizing in itself. According to Debra Linesch in her 2014 study, “in addressing the challenges of immigration and acculturation art making acted as a form of meaning making, communication, catharsis, and emotion regulation” (p. 127). Creating gave the participants of her research voice, community, and relief of psychological distress, among other benefits. Art was used to clarity feelings and openly express them. Another interesting aspect of art making described in this study that I can parallel with my own findings is that art reflected the participants’ “uniqueness and cultural background, it provided a source of support and pride, and assisted in reconnecting to their nurturing roots” (Linesch, 2014, p. 127).

I find that in many of my own animations I talk about the subject of immigration, although for a long time it was a taboo in my family. Because of the broken immigration system, my family was considered undocumented for more than a decade. Not only that we all followed an unspoken rule of not sharing that fact with anyone outside of the family circle and the closest friends, we rarely talked about our situation ourselves. I longed to talk to my parents about it—to know the answers to my multiple questions about their motivations for moving—to hear that it was not my fault that they gave everything up to provide better lives for me and my brother. Because I couldn’t simply ask them, I created an animated short, “That’s How it is / I Tak to Jest”, based on a short interview with them. In another animation, I asked people from various backgrounds about the most meaningful “I love you” they ever heard or said to anyone, having my own answer in mind. Not only that my answer was meant to reveal my appreciation and love for my dad—something that I have never said out loud—it was meant to underline the importance of my own language and culture, along with all of my interviewees’. I enhanced the narrative of immigration by asking all participants to answer in their language and even translating my own answer to Polish.

Similarly, Ojullu Opiew Ochan’s “The Flower Mondays” animation, created during a workshop with Lisa Labracio in the Dadaab Camp is a reflection of his pride and cultural identity. As Lisa explained, poetry is one of the highest valued forms of art in Ethiopia, where Ojullu is from. Like many other workshop participants, he came in with a poem already composed, eager to translate it in a visual metaphor with animation. By doing so, he shared one of the most sacred forms of communication, giving us a glimpse into his culture, without having to literally explain its importance. He spoke beautifully about his experience of “meeting with animation” for the first time and the appreciation that he has for the process and the teacher herself. Through incorporating his own words explaining the animation and introducing himself, Lisa elevated his message of pride and honesty.

 

Bibliography:

Dalley T. (1984). Introduction. In T. Dalley (Ed.) (1984) Art as therapy: An introduction to the use of art as a therapeutic technique. London: Tavistock.

Kirova A. & Emme M. (2012). Immigrant children’s bodily engagement in accessing their lived experiences of immigration. In N. Friesen, C. Henriksson, & T. Saevi (Eds.), Hermeneutic phenomenology in education: Method and practice (pp. 141-162). Boston, MA: Sense Publishers.

Linesch D., Ojeda A., Fuster M.E., Moreno S. & Solis G. (2014). Art therapy and experiences of acculturation and immigration. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 31(3) pp. 126–132. 

Meyer M. A. (1999). In exile from the body: Creating a ‘play room’ in the ‘waiting room’. In S. K. Levine and E. G. Levine (Eds.)  Foundations of Expressive Arts Therapy: Theoretical and Clinical Perspectives (241-255). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Levine, E. G. (1998). On the playground: Child psychotherapy and expressive arts therapy. In In S. K. Levine and E. G. Levine (Eds.)  Foundations of Expressive Arts Therapy: Theoretical and Clinical Perspectives (257-273). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.