INSTRUMENTS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
University of the Trees is an arena and a framework for exploring our relationship to the world, and for enabling us to develop actions based on insights and perceptions that derive from alternative forms of knowing.
Once, when asked by a forest ranger what kind of art we would be making to put in the forest, I said that instead of making 'objects of attention' we were developing 'instruments of consciousness'. This seemed to answer many of his questions. We then began to try this phrase out on others, including passersby. And it worked. I now use it as one way of describing some of the expanded practices that are key to the field of social sculpture and our transformative work.
But the 'consciousness' referred to in this phrase in not only the rational, linear consciousness of our practical, literal and intellectual lives. It is also about another mode of consciousness that enters and inhabits the things perceived; a mode of consciousness that scientists like Henri Bortoft and Arthur Zajonc describe as 'participatory consciousness' as opposed to 'on-looker consciousness'.
Using these 'instruments of consciousness' is also closely linked to another core idea in the University of the Trees: that we need to develop 'new organs of perception'.
New organs of perception is a phrase that stems from the scientific work of Goethe, who contrasted a participatory, holistic mode of seeing to onlooker consciousness. Joseph Beuys' used this phrase too to emphasise the need for new forms of knowing and perceiving that would lead us to act in a more connected way.
Some of our organs of perception -like eyes, ears and tongue - are already fairly well developed at birth. But others, our higher human organs of perception - like the ability to empathise, to develop a conscience, to perceive the idea in things and the interconnections in the world- are given only as a potential and therefore need to be developed.
"The sound of the trees suffering is audible. But we need to develop new organs of perception so that we can hear this sound in the world, recognise what it means and shape new social forms that do not continue this great suffering of all nature." (From a discussion with Beuys in 1980). Beuys says something very similar in his conversation with Friedhelm Menekes in ‘Beuys on Christ'.
"At the heart of today's ecological crisis lies a terrible failure to understand the essence of our relationship with the natural world. One can of course address that failure rationally and empirically; but the arts (particularly the visual arts) offer different insights into that relationship, and touch people in ways that conventional education and advocacy can rarely do." Jonathon Porritt, Director, Forum for the Future, UK.
"If the aesthetic is seen in contrast to the anaesthetic - or numbness, it can be understood more correctly as ‘enlivened being'. Reclaiming the aesthetic in this way enables us to understand the link between the aesthetic and responsibility: response-ability not as a moral imperative, but as the ability to respond." (Shelley Sacks, UN Summit on Culture and Development, Stockholm 1998)
Internal mobilisation and becoming imaginatively active
Just as the Exchange Values project captured thousands of people's imagination, taking them into an experience of producing for another, of consuming what another has produced, and of the corporate control of our lives through bodies like the WTO, so this University of the Trees project is opening up a space for new understanding, dialogue and shifts in consciousness about how we perceive our relationship to the world.
Joseph Beuys emphasised that art, including expanded art practice, needed to ‘scratch on the imagination'. He described social sculpture as a vehicle, or instrument for perceptual thought, but emphasised that this was not to be confused with the illustrating of ideas. This is similar to the importance that James Hillman places on 'imaginal thought' and the image as ‘metaphoric insight'.
For both Hillman and Bertold Brecht, literalness is the blinding force. Literalness is what binds us to our taken for granted attitudes and disables us from inhabiting the world in a different way. Bertold Brecht's strategy of ‘Verfremdung' - to make strange - centres round the importance of disrupting our normal taken for granted way of seeing things in order to mobilise us internally.
Beuys, Goethe, Rudolf Steiner and James Hillman emphasise the importance of perceptual or imaginal thought so that we can ‘hear the soul of the world speaking', so that the invisible is made visible through the body of things, so that we can become imaginatively active.
A literal restatement of how things are and an emphasis on external action alone are will not help us to end the great suffering of nature, or the dangerous contradictions inherent in our view of progress. It will also not help us develop more reverential perspectives toward other living beings, or deal with the complex questions of our supposed stewardship. The way we inhabit the world will not be transformed simply by information. As the coordinator of a UK climate change organisation has said: "We have enough information to have caused us to change our lifestyle decades ago. What is holding us back?" Deeper levels of connectedness are vital if we are to find the energy and commitment needed to make such enormous changes.