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A report from the fringes

The Sunday of the Transition Network Conference 2012 turned out to be a weird old day for me. While the other 99% of the participants were creating the transition town of the future with cardboard, chalk and inspiration, I found myself wandering the empty corridors of Battersea Arts Centre, bewildered by my lack of enthusiasm for this "group process".

 my dogWe were told on Saturday to be prepared for some “time travel” on Sunday, but that was about all the info we were given, it was terribly secret. Not until the doors to the big hall opened on Sunday morning did we have any idea that we were going to be asked to construct Transition Anywhere, a fictional future town, displaying all our collective hopes and ideas, our ambitions and dreams come true. Four hours to build Utopia with mountains of cardboard, stacks of newspapers, parcel tape, blackboards and chalks.

In no time at all, what was happening in the main hall looked nothing like a conference, but more like a giant kids' playscheme, complete with over-active, sugared up kids. It was totally buzzing, people were planning, talking, creating at a frenetic pace. Smiling faces, bright eyed enthusiasm, intense discussions all around me. Intricate webs of chalked up peoples' stories wove the past into the future revealing old pains and new found hopes. Fantastic structures rose up, businesses and projects got started, gardens were planted and the High Street sprouted trees. Even a fire circle complete with drummers sparked up on the outskirts of the cardboard town.

 a community area for all the familiesAlthough I marvelled at the inventiveness and creativity filling every nook and cranny of the old hall, I increasingly felt isolated from all the activity around me. Maybe it was the cardboard, or the droning, ominous music. Maybe it was the slow, deeply earnest and serious voice in which the instructions were delivered or the unquestioning willingness of the masses to follow them. Maybe it was the psychedelic, steampunk beauty of BAC's main hall and massive organ pipes adding an epic quality to the proceedings. Maybe it was just me.

I think I gave it a good shot, stuck with it for nearly an hour or so. But when I found myself in a group having discussed for the last ten minutes what the exact wording should be of the first answer on our “charter” questionnaire, I felt myself slipping into my own private dystopia like the character Berenger in Eugene Ionesco's play “Rhinoceros”. The smiles became horrible smeared grimaces, the bright eyes staring and hollow and the echoing cacophony of noise unbearable.

Busy Town AnywhereI muttered some excuse to the rest of my group ( “Eh....gotta go blog...sorry..”) , backed swiftly out of the magnificent hall of madness and as I burst through the doors back into 2012, I experienced a wave of actual, physical relief. As I looked around the octagonal room, I spotted somebody who looked as confused and upset as I felt. He too, “didn't get it”. I tried several more times to walk back into the hall, contemplated about building a hermit's hut in a corner but never lasted long enough to execute it. Later that day, when my homegroup reconvened, another owned up to “Not being into it that much, but having just gone along with it because everybody else did.” That made me wonder how many others had found themselves in that position?

Musical swapsIt is incredibly hard to step away from the united, happy clappy crowd and find yourself alone, very alone. Too sit with your discomfort and totally own it. Not to try and blame and make others responsible for your pain. It is much easier to go along with the group and ignore or belittle your feelings. It's how we mostly are brought up; not to be a party pooper. But I can't do it. I remember my days as a 15-16 year old in the Communist Youth Cafe “The 1000 Apples” in Antwerp, sitting around a table with some really old, heavily bearded geezers from the Communist Party. We youngsters listened in awe as they told their stories from their time in “La Quinta Brigada” during the Spanish Civil War. They were heroes to us. I will never forget how one of them, my friend Jan, said to me whilst rhythmically tapping my forehead with his index finger: “Always (tap), always (tap) think for (tap) yourself (tap,tap)!

 Please don't sleep here...So I go through life in a questioning sort of way, taking nothing at face value or for granted, feeling grateful each time something turns out to be what you'd hoped or were told it would be. I'm always a little wary of “mass movements” and “group cultures”. Too many people are happy to surrender the effort of thinking to actual or perceived leaders, prefer not to acknowledge niggling feelings of wrongness, in order to be part of the group. Of course the group then needs to be seen as totally wonderful and criticism as unhelpful and negative or the dream is punctured. How many times in our lives have we all not spoken up when we disagreed with what went on, because everybody else agreed and we didn't want to cause discord?

 When we choose to be alone we are still a communityIn Transition there is room for all. We carry inclusiveness high in our set of ideals. Criticism is merely seen as feedback; it is acknowledged and often responded to by changing how things are done. Or at least this is what we should aim for. It isn't easy to accept negative feedback and respond to it in a way that makes it easy for those who have a different view to give voice to that view. It's like you saying to a new mother: “Wow, your baby is really ugly!” and the mother responding with: “Yes, but he's really sweet and I'm sure he'll grow into that big nose.” I think it is more likely that the mother will be cross with you, give you a quick assessment of your own aesthetic shortcomings and walk off. As transition activists, we need to practice receiving and giving negative feedback graciously; praise is nice, but criticism shows you where your growing edges are. This was not an easy piece to write, but I feel quietly confident that it will be received as a personal reflection and not as an all out criticism of the day. As I said, the overwhelming majority of participants loved the exercise; so it was definitely a success, but let us show we mean business when we talk about inclusivity and maybe put on one or two other workshops as well on the second day next year, just in case there are some who'd rather not do “group process”?


Photo's: Your name+something you like: A man and his dog / Wishes and dreams / Busy goings on in Town Anywhere / Free-economy / Side entrance to BAC, note on door reads:"This is a fire exit, please do not sleep here. If there is a fire durng the night you are blocking an escape route for people n the building"; Cardboard and London always reminds me of homelessness / No comment needed.


Kerry Lane's picture

that awkward feeling

Thank you for having the courage to write this post Ann. I stuck at it all the way through, but I found the 'building' quite stressful and awkward. I don't like doing group processes under time pressure. I kind of opted out of the building stage, even though I was still there. I was relieved when it was built because just being part of the high street was fun when you could go and join a massage circle etc. But I definitely agree that there needs to be more space for diversity, everyone should feel comfortable.

Charlotte Du Cann's picture

when the future is in play

I'm not sure process is supposed to be comfortable is it?! We're moving out of our individualism and control positions (however those manifest) into working in groups and collectives. First ingredient in The Transition Companion and arguably the most key and the most difficult. One resistance against this is that we lose our "individuality" in the group, so pull back. The other is that we can't be in control of our experience, so grind to a halt. My own Transition has been learning to work in harmony and co-operation with comms and events crews, who are all highly-valued as individuals, But there is a lot of hardwired programming in there we have to break down first, in order to let any new stuff in.

For me these kinds of "speed dating" events help decrystallise old patterns. I valued the High Street for its creative and colourful matrix and for its good vibes, and am looking forward to writing my own reflections this weekend, especially Sophy Banks' workshop on dealing with fragmentation and marginalisation.

Been really enjoying everyone's write ups over this fortnight. A real group process!

Ann Owen's picture

What's the point?

I can't help but feeling; "What's the point?" It is unlikely that I'll ever have to work with these people again in order to create something real!? It'd be a different thing if it would have been in my own home community, that would have made sense. I guess am too pragmatic maybe, but process for it's own sake doesn't do it for me. Been there, done that. Now if Danny (from Teens blog) would have been part of the group, that would have interested me. My point really was that it's not very inclusive to make the entire second day of the conference a giant process experiment without any other options but...nothing. If you're the only game in town, it's easy to be succesful; all the people who loved it will rave about it, those who didn't won't say anything, so we'll never really know how popular this kinda thing is. I'll offer to run a workshop next year during the group process to serve a control group, yeah?

John Mason's picture

Interesting.... suspect I'd

Interesting.... suspect I'd have found that hard-going too. Too used to doing the real thing and find such exercises bewildering!!

Jo Homan's picture

you say that Ann

but I was talking to someone today who ended up in the education bit. She ended up doing outreach work from the holistic education centre, or whatever they ended up calling it, because she realised that key element for its success was being properly connected with the rest of the town. She said something like, "I'd never normally be comfortable doing that kind of thing, talking to people I don't know, but because I'd helped create the project and I knew everything about it, I felt happy going and doing it." Given the choice, she might have opted out of the group process. It ended up being her favourite bit of the weekend. I suppose it worked for her because she somehow got drawn into the dream or the story. Perhaps you're saying that some people may just not want to, at that point, be drawn into a story. May even feel really unhappy, feeling like they're being jollied along. I suppose it would be better for that position to be validated by being catered for, than being a space people have to break into by walking away. Perhaps there should have been a chill out space in the room. I suppose it's a bit like having the butterflies in an Open Space session, the people who aren't quite wanting to join in at this point.

Graham Truscott's picture

High Street session

I was present for the REconomy day but had to rush back to Melbourne Area Transition to help with our local arts and (thanks to us) excellent food festival over the same weekend (around 4,000 participants). Very tough choice but somehow the local perspective and hard work triumphed even over the renewal of energy and inspiration that I've found at Transition conferences. 

There was a High Street session during the REconomy day. I've also participated in a High Street training session  at NEF with Liz Cox. There are two issues. One is how the exercise is introduced and placed in context for maximum learning and benefit to participants.  Ideally "the High Street" exercise needs to account for all human and environmental needs - in a Maslow-like hierarchy. If it doesn't result in a hyperthetical "street" that does these things abut which is mostly lots of "nice to haves", has it really helped us much in tackling the end of cheap oil and "degrowth" ?

The second issue is the inclusiveness or otherwise of this or any other group activity. Again, I think it is a matter of framing the context well. If those leading such exercises recognise that whatever the activity there will be people who are out of their comfort zones at some point and acknowledge that, it can be enormously helpful. Publicly acknowledging the ironies of "organising" group activities which require a high proportion of people to subsume their indviduallity for a while and "obey" instructions also helps. Having run events of various scales on many occasions, the best one hopes to create is space for something that most of the participants appreciate, welcome and gain from, most of the time. There are responsibilities between the "organiser" and the group and vice-versa, between the group and individuals and between all individuals to make this happen. Sometimes one participates so that others benefit - the benefit to oneself may be less immediately obvious. A degree of tolerance and give and take and self awareness and analysis all help - but sometimes one does need to step aside from the group to achieve these things and that also needs to be respected and acknowledged. Very much appreciated your article Ann. A great strength of Transition is the ability to explore different perspectives and raise our mutual understanding and support as a result.  

Caroline Jackson's picture

High Street

Thanks Ann - comments from the struggling heart always reach places of honesty and stop us pretending everything is fine!  There were others who felt just the same as you did and Iupset at least one newish person by trying to explain why these kinds of activity were sometimes an essential part of Transition. Which was ironic because i didn't enjoy it much myself!  I went along with it because I was curious - I am always curious to see what a big group of people can achieve in the way of co-operating, thinking together, being creative under time pressures.  It was instructive to see how much we did manage because many, many groups would have done far less.  So there is hope for a difficult future if Transitioners can manage this type of co-operation.  For me the thing was pointless because there was no answer to the simple question, "What happens if someone has a heart attack?".  The Transition High Street has to sit within a real infrastructure and be more than a cardboard shanty town if it is to be worth that many hours of my time.

Charlotte Du Cann's picture

is there a doctor in the house?

Shame you didn't come to The Talking Shop. We would have answered your question lickerty spit! Fetch for a doctor, or go to a hospital, which you will rarely find in a High Street, real or imaginary. As far as I know we were not there to organise the whole infrastructure of the planet, but to practice co-operation and share resources, ideas and inspiration. This is a common misunderstanding of such exercises and why movements such as Occupy always resist being pressured into coming up with solutions and demands, at the risk of being dismissed as impractical.

If you act without the conversation you build the same (non resilient) world.

When I joined Transition I had a phrase: get over yourself and get on. Mostly I used it on myself. We are all very very resistant to change, and always default to our silo positions. This is part of the trauma work that Sophy Banks was talking about in her workshop. We are institutionalised not to work together or be generous or give unknown things a go.

Creative acts are one way of breaking out of those silos by going at "right angles to the world" to use Lucy Neal's phrase. Which is why I felt it was an ace move for the practically-minded Transition movement to hold its 2012 conference in an arts centre.

Stephen_Hinton's picture

I know what you mean

Thanks for sharing. You remind me that I had a similar experience. I just didn't feel like I was part of it - or at least one part of me didn't. The other was struggling with the idea that if I didn't play a  part in this low-risk, funky exploration, would I not take part in any real-life event? Could I stand by and watch other people design my town? Could I let others just get on with it? Are they not better equipped than I am anyway? What talents do I have anyway. Am I not "over estimating my abilities" by even suggesting that I have anything to say for example on simple suggestions of how to invite residents to a governance system? And what right do I have to ask them to pay me for the privilege?

What I am getting at is that the inner journey that you take during such an exercise is as informative as the technical solutions that are spawned forth.

Here are some conclusions as to why the exercise had a magical core in an albeit cardboard, chalk and parcel tape chaos.

  • It invites you to describe what kind of society (neighborhood and town) you want
  • You are forced to consider what your talents are rather than to think about how to sell yourself for a job.
  • You need to consider payment, and money is a freak-out in itself. (you are either poor and proud or rich and a bastard)
  • You need to describe your idea in simple words to willing others who you know are good people
  • You need to do this in a voluntary work team where you balance planning and doing, including all and getting on with it.
  • Others are doing their bit for you, you are called to step up.
  • Ideas about how to do things that you learned from the corporate world seem so last century.

While I am at it, I updated my ideas about community, corporation, and why we need to revive community and why food and housing and social security should come via the community. More on my blog here.