Art as a powerful tool for social action – Michel Dongois, in collaboration with Denis Schneider


, September 23, 2018

On June 20, 2018, the Atelier d’art social de Montréal1hosted an evening with Gwenaël Quiviger, French artist, musician, dancer and doctoral researcher in the field of social science. The event was held in the upstairs space of the Grande Ourse toy store in Montreal.

It was an email sent by Gwenaël to Denis Schneider requesting references in the field of social art that initiated a series of decisive phone conversations between the two. Gwenaël then invited Denis to attend his thesis presentation at Montreal’s National Institute of Scientific Research. When Denis subsequently attended a concert given by Gwenaël in Montreal, he immediately recognized the artist’s calibre and his deep interest in social questions. He decided then and there to invite Gwenaël to give a presentation for the Atelier d’art social during which he could share something of his biography and speak of his research projects focussing on art as a means of empowering individuals to take charge of their own lives. And, of course, to perform some of his songs, accompanying himself on the accordion. The plans for a festive evening including music and an exchange of ideas were then set in motion.

At the University of Poitiers, in connection with the Université du Québec en Outaouais, Gwenaël is studying the use of traditional art forms as a social intervention tool for empowering individuals to take charge of their lives. His outreach work led him to the multicultural Bellevue neighbourhood in the city of Nantes, in western France. A parallel study led him to discover the underprivileged neighbourhood of Ascot, in Sherbrooke, Quebec. There he is heading several projects, among which are the Young Musicians of the Worldand the Cultureof the Heartinitiative to combat social exclusion.

Breton Culture

Gwenaël was born in Brittany 46 years ago. At the age of 18, he was shocked to discover that: “As I was striving to be a good French citizen, I learned that Breton, my parent’s mother tongue, was banned in France. Had I been lied to all those years?” The French vision of universality claims that differences do not exist, he said. But does a nation’s culture not also include, though of course not exclusively, elements linked to various ethnic origins that must be taken into account?

He then took it upon himself to discover Breton culture, and began attending Fest-Noz, (festive gatherings celebrating collective traditional dances of Brittany). He studied the traditional Breton martial art of gouren. He developed a passion for traditional folk dances, and lived for a time in Ireland, where he acquired a knowledge of Irish folk music.

After having taken several training courses and working at odd jobs, he took on a position as a social worker with underprivileged immigrants. After performing as a professional accordionist, singer and dancer for 15 years, he became a night watchman for the blind and deaf. “Though I am both a performer and an academic, I am first and foremost a social activist.” And indeed, throughout the years, he has always lived with one fundamental question: “What is the social worker’s true role?”

“Social intervention can have a negative effect if one tries to find a solution to an individual’s problems without taking into account the personal context and the individual’s social milieu, not allowing him or her to claim authorship of his or her behaviour and treating such an individual as a child. This can even go so far as to blame the individual if he or she does not adapt to the mould we create with our own expectations, to fault the person for not fitting into the model set out by the dominant majority.” This causes many social workers to feel that they are not up to the task, incapable of finding satisfactory and lasting solutions for vulnerable individuals.

“What is most important is never to act withoutknowing the individual concerned. We have to consider an individual’s desires, fears, abilities, handicaps and dreams in order to help him or her on the path to emancipation, liberation, and eventual healing. What this really means is allowing the individual to regain the power to act, otherwise the social worker is left with the feeling of having done nothing more than placing a band-aid on a bleeding wound.” He went on to say that suffering is not only physical or mental. Reducing or taking away one’s power to act, one’s freedom to act, to express oneself and to interact with one’s surroundings – this also causes serious damage to the dignity of the individual.

A Gavotte and three Songs

Gwenaël Quiviger played a traditional Breton gavotte on his accordion, to the delight of an audience comprised of nearly a dozen people. He then went on to accompany himself on the accordion as he sang three songs conveying social messages:

Nous voulons vivre en paix(We want to live in peace) – a song written in 1938 by Jules Fortuné, a poet-farmer and militant humanitarian, who founded, in 1963, France’s first community agricultural cooperative (GAEC), which is now a model for coops throughout the country, but was initially sarcastically referred to as “the kolkhoze”;

Réveillez-vous bonnes gens qui dormez (Time to get up, good people) a « reveille » style song, popular in the villages of the Auvergne during Holy Week, designed to wake the villagers in the morning;

La liberté m’enchante (Freedom delights me) – a song written by Providence Bouteau, part of the heritage of the Island of Noirmoutier.

And it was then that he spoke of the most significant element of his research, the Bal de Bellevueproject which took place in May of 2017.

The Bal de Bellevue

During a two-year period, Jean-Marie Nivaigne, a musician and entrepreneur, would visit homes in the Bellevue neighbourhood with his team and encourage the residents to teach them the traditional songs of their native lands. “What dances do you do at weddings?” was the first question the residents of Bellevue were asked; this sector of Nantes is home to over 120 different nationalities. Then, a community cultural project was organized with the help of various organisations and financed by the municipality of Nantes. The initiative, called Le Bal de Bellevue,became the focal point for various activities, including local dances where residents could discover the music and dances of their neighbours’ homelands. Gwenaël Quiviger explained how the performers “revisited” (with acoustic or electric instruments or electronic devices) the traditional sounds of their countries and regions (Brazil, Brittany, Cambodia, Madagascar, Turkey, etc.). The audience joined in, dancing to rural and urban music from various places around the world.

“The Bal de Bellevue centres around the fundamental notion of spontaneous friendship created through the living arts.” Strangely, the researcher adds, “conventional” social workers did not seem to recognize the value of this festive event! And yet the Nantes experiment showed clearly that it is possible to bring people together in a positive way, a way that enhances their self-esteem through ethnocultural arts that are alive among people from the various ethnic groups living in vulnerable neighbourhoods. These residents learn that they themselves are able to create, to show the world what their culture has to offer in the way of song, dance and music. “In this manner, they can prove to themselves and to each other that sharing is a means of living together, an excellent first step towards bringing various ethnic groups to better know and appreciate one another.”

Developing personal skills

The essence of empowermentis bringing a person to a state of awareness of his or her strengths and to the realization that it is possible to transform one’s life and improve one’s situation. This is the central idea Gwenaël discovered in the work of Yann Le Bossé and Manon Chamberland of Laval University. This means that one can recover self-confidence and free oneself from a sense of helplessness through one’s own strengths. “The social worker has learned to find solutions to one problem or another, but he cannot accomplish this forthe other person but only withthe other person.” “Personal competence, knowledge gained from experience,” he goes on to say, “are not things that one necessarily finds on a CV, nor is imagination, that capacity that allows us to compose a song or start a business. We must take into account the reality in which an individual lives, and what he or she feels.”

The Social Art

The gathering at La Grande Ourse continued with a question and answer period. Denis Schneider mentioned how important it is to acknowledge a person’s successes. Indeed, in the biography work offered by the Atelier d’art social, an individual is encouraged to think back over the good things he or she has accomplished. This can become a useful tool and a source of great strength for one’s life going forward. As for one’s failures, they can often be seen as opportunities for self improvement and can provide a chance to adjust one’s focus.

How does Gwenaël Quiviger see the Social art? As a practice that uses the arts as a means towards social change and as a tool for developing an individual’s own capacity for action. “By going beyond thoughts and words, we go beyond ourselves and share who we are with others. It is a way of touching something the eye cannot see, something intangible which exists on the level of the imagination. This is an alternative method of becoming personally involved in improving the health of the community, a method involving body and spirit on both the personal and collective levels. And the ultimate goal is always social change.”

But is the use of various traditional art forms still an effective tool for understanding the culture of another person and for facilitating living together in an atmosphere of dignity and mutual respect? Can social workers use traditional art forms as tools for intercultural intervention in a given locality, and in so doing transform or even invent new spaces for social interaction among populations of different backgrounds? Gwenaël Quiviger answers this question with another question: “What if true universalism can only exist because of the existence of distinct differences?”

Collective Memory

According to Gwenaël, the power of the collective memory carried by traditional art forms is still strong enough to facilitate the empowerment of the individual – provided it is not a question of merely repeating tradition but of taking up traditional forms in a new way. “Traditions are too often wrongly associated with the past, sometimes with nostalgia or a sense of regret, sometimes with resentment or contempt, because they are considered to be old fashioned!” But traditions, like life itself, are in a constant state of flux by the very fact that they are living,” he points out. “I play pieces I have learned from my elders, but I will never play them the way they did; they were peasants, with hands much more muscular than mine. And I have also been exposed to jazz and techno music, etc. Only a robot could reproduce a piece in exactly the same way a second and third time. Whether or not I intend to do so, I always imbue the music with an imagination that is mine and mine alone. Therefore, traditions are not the past; they are always contemporary reinterpretations.”

Art relies on feelings and emotions. “It calls upon an inner imaginary world unique to each individual while retaining the possibility to act as a bridge between human beings; this gives art the potential to act as a tool for social intervention which can facilitate, for instance, the integration of new immigrants.” He states that a human being should, as much as possible, be able to feel at home anywhere on earth, provided he or she shows respect for others and is in turn respected by others. This of course means finding a common ground that can lead to understanding, gratitude, friendship, sharing and mutual support. “It is working together, not competition, that has always led to progress among human beings. And these are actually the words of the great political-philosophical anarchist Kropotkine!”

Gwenaël Quiviger points to the samba schools of Brazil as an example of this phenomenon. Within the crime ridden slums (favelas), these samba schools go a long way in giving young people the feeling that life has meaning. In the performer’s own words: “There you see the magical power of art – it opens up a world of imagination.” Denis Schneider added: “This is something that totalitarian regimes have understood well, which is why they insist on controlling art in order to force their citizens to adhere to the forms dictated by the state.”

Denis then remarked on how Gwenaël connects with tradition while adding his own personal colour, and how he even completely recreates a traditional song if the original source has been lost. He reminded us that even though the incalculable wealth of our collective memory has been shattered to pieces by an all-consuming mechanistically-inclined intellectualism, there is still room for our ability to think thehere and now.This does not of course exclude our being able to look both to the past and to the future.

It is an undeniable fact that we help each other become stronger. “Studying my own biography, it became clear to me that I would not be who I am without the people I have known, including those with whom I have had conflictual relationships. That is the very essence of the social art.” To that, Gwenaël Quiviger added: “I would not be who I am without the people I have chosen.” Each one of us chooses, as far as this is possible, the persons who will help us go forward on our path, individuals who may actually play a decisive role at certain times in our lives. “This has often been the case in my own life. As social beings, we build ourselves – or deconstruct ourselves – through our contacts with other people, in our interaction with them. Actually, I don’t really believe in the philosophy of failure. It is above all our successes that shape us.”

“I” and “We”

These remarks were followed by a series of reflections on the nature of “I” and “We” in the act of artistic creation. There is necessarily a tension between the two. For example, traditional songs have no author, or rarely do, because any number of people sing various versions, and it is often impossible to discover a song’s origin. As Gwenaël put it: “This obsession with discovering the “original” is rather disturbing. Why is it so important to find the author or the original? And isn’t there also the question of intellectual property, whether individual or collective?”

He drew our attention to the fact that the UN recognizes the existence of distinct cultures, Intangible Cultural Heritage(ICH), now officially identified in a convention adopted by UNESCO in 2003. But there is no intention of awarding a prize to the best cultural expressions worldwide. Gwenaël points out that the only thing taken into consideration in this document is “the subjective importance that a specific practice has for the collectivity that keeps it alive.” Each and every oral tradition deserves to exist and is never the property of one individual. The living traditions of a people or ethnic group belong to humanity as a whole.

He goes on to say that it is the “We” that is essential, especially in the field of traditional ethnocultural arts. It is the “We” that gives social bonds, sharing, and collaboration among people their true meaning. “Of course, any artist creates for his or her own self insofar as a certain degree of introspection is necessary for the creative process, but the artist does not only create for that reason. The creator also has a need to share, to be seen by others and to gain the recognition of his or her peers. And so, there is a perpetual “productive tension” between the “I” and the “We.” In the social art, however, I think that it is the “We” that takes precedence over the “I.”

Denis Schneider added a nuance to this idea: in the social art, the “I” and the “We” share the same playing field. A “substance of resonance” is created between the players. Thus, each time one awakens to the “I” of another person, it is an opportunity for one’s own creative “I” to awaken; this will take on an individual colouring according to the specific circumstances of the encounter. That is where art enters in. No constraint, moral or otherwise, can force an individual to open up to another individual; the attention required to accomplish this is a free deed with which each person must come to terms in his or her own way. In former times, the situation was quite different in that there were strict rules of social interaction designed to insure the cohesiveness of the collectivity. The further back in time one goes, the stronger the pressure exerted by the group upon the individual.

Denis went on to say that today, and in spite of rampant destructive economic individualism that excludes the “We” and tends to replace it with an egoism that rejects economic brotherhood, no one can deny that an individual retains the possibility to take a personal stand in complete cultural freedom. While it is absolutely essential to embrace the contributions brought by other like-minded human beings, one can create, “in resonance”, one’s own culture, one’s own cultural content, and this in spite of the fact that one’s “I” is constantly being forced to assume a multitude of constrictive identities. Denis acknowledged that we could now revisit the question Gwenaël had posed earlier, a question that has its own particular colour: “What if true universalism can only exist because of the existence of distinct differences?” Is this a foretelling of a future reality? But together with the effort to create a free culture and an economy of brotherhood, we must also consider the effort to create equality for all in the eyes of the law.

In 2002, the Atelier d’art social devised a creative writing project called I build a community 2in which I want to live. This series of workshops was given in 2006 in the community centre of Montreal’s Ahuntsic district. During these sessions, residents of the area explored the notion of “I” and “We”. For some of the participants, it was clear that the word “I” expressed commitment on the personal level, and that the word “community” represented the “We” as a place where individuals agreed to work together. For others, however, it was difficult not to say: We build a community that makes us want to live in it. Were these people any less sensitive to the individual’s involvement (the “I”) and the particular quality of his or her participation?

This experience of action-research through art led the Atelier d’art social to formulate two clear statements regarding the process of empowerment of the individual, statements which 12 years later remain true to the Atelier’s fundamental impulse: 1. – Cultivate a sense of belonging to one’s community through what one brings to it personally; and 2. – Cultivate the will to discover how to take control of one’s life in order to meet the needs of the community.

Tradition and transformation

Gwenaël characterized his living connection with his work by observing that there is a worldwide movement advocating for the preservation of the values of specific cultural traditions (protection of heritage values through “living memories,” transmitters of culture, etc.) as a way of resisting the overriding tendency towards global cultural uniformity. And all of these efforts have as their aim a certain historical continuity. “We must value what is unique to a specific culture in one corner of the globe and take pride in our efforts to revive ancient traditions in a new way in order to improve the life of society as a whole.”

Respect for language and territory, preservation of cultural rights: these are universal values. This preoccupation has been alive in Quebec for decades, as witnessed by the work of Marius Barbeau, among others, who spent years recording traditional songs and stories.

Gwenaël Quiviger concluded the gathering on this optimistic note: “I have faith in humanity, in its ability to invent solutions that will allow us to live together in our neighbourhoods, our cities, on our Earth.”

1Organization working out of the indications of Rudolf Steiner, philosopher and pedagogue (1861-1925).

2A group of individuals who share a task or goal.