Sonja Schenkel combines art with sustainability and social change. With the Creative Change approach, she accompanies and explores creative processes designed to develop new perspectives.
Interview: Irena Sgier
You are an ethnologist and filmmaker, your work moves between art, culture, and business. In which area do you feel most at home?
I see my position between film, business, and science as a form of bridge building. But, first and foremost, I am a filmmaker. Making films is an activity of multimedia-based translation of content into a form. It is also important to me that a film works, not only via image and sound but also via colours, sound, and rhythm. This form of storytelling cannot be done alone, because cooperation with various specialists plays an important role. As a filmmaker, I always work in collaborative settings.
In your dissertation, you also define your way of working as ‘Creative Change’. In your opinion, how are creativity and change related?
With the term ‘Creative Change’, I want to signal that change is always a creative process. But change is also an exhausting process that is not always perceived as pleasant. The following question often plays a role in my research work: How far can we move away from the status quo with creative change?
What answers did you find to this question?
I do not have a general answer to that. But whoever moves away from the accustomed manner is taking a risk. In crisis situations, one can observe that people often prefer to remain in an uncomfortable situation, rather than taking the risk of going from the uncomfortable to the unknown.
You work on different types of projects, including co-creation projects. How does the collaborative creation of something new develop?
My projects are always about finding a solution to a problem. In doing so, I assume a dual role as a facilitator, creating conditions for ideas to emerge so that we can enter into dialogue, and as an idea provider, who takes part in the creative process.
It is very important for me to develop the idea together. The counterpart has to have a basic willingness to get involved in something new. Equally important is that I remain open, and at the same time define certain basic conditions. Each project has a kind of manifesto that defines the pillars of the project, the design axioms, or the foundations from which I assume. In this, you have to be in agreement with the client and the main partner. For my case study in Palestine – my dissertation project – I made a documentary together with Israeli and Palestinian mothers. The topic was: How do you explain to your children the Israel-Palestine conflict? Part of the manifesto of this co-creation project was that certain things, such as calling for violence or trivializing the Holocaust and other traumatic experiences on both sides, have no place in the project. That was a boundary I had to set in advance.
Can you briefly outline the method of Collaborative Design?
Collaborative design, first of all, means going through a common design process. The context is crucial here: Is there a contract situation, will the design process be defined together with the client? Or are you simply inviting people to contemplate together about a specific problem? You have to define and shape the design process in both cases.
It would be an illusion to think that a collaborative process should be democratic. Participatory projects become arbitrary if you simply let them run and say: “Let’s see what happens”. Ideas that have more to do with group dynamics than with the project objective prevail easily there. Or the next best idea prevails because the group wants to reach a solution rapidly.
When working with open formats and, for example, inviting the general public to think alongside, it is important to give direction to the process. A design process is not brainstorming. Behind this is an intention that evolves with the inputs that emerge in the process.
Design is an ambiguous term. What should we understand by it within the context of Creative Change?
A design process is a controlled creative process. The starting point is a task or challenge that you want to solve. Starting with that, you create different shapes and prototypes that each provide different answers to a problem until you reach a final result.
The design concept establishes itself in the development of ideas. It’s about forming a figure, a concept for further discussion. Within the context of design processes, one has to, at some point, start to ‘tinker’, that is, to actually shape and implement the ideas and thinking models by hand. By activating different forms of appropriation, different modalities, new perspectives on a topic open up. Crafting is productive because one must translate his thoughts into a new modality. Looking at the same thing from different perspectives allows us new insights.
Is it possible to associate your approach with Design Thinking?
In Design Thinking, you go through a research phase in which you also implement the ideas manually, but gradually restrict them, until finally a prototype is designed and built after several iterations i.e. development rounds. My work is more broadly defined. When I work on a film, I set up the co-design of the film as a collaborative design process.
Creativity is always about novelty. How do you recognize novelty?
The question of the existence of novelty is part of an interesting philosophical debate. But, I care less about that, when it comes to my work. I prefer to stick to the dimension of what is useful. My kind of reflection is aimed at questions like: “Which form of society do we want, which form of life and which possibilities do we want to open up?” The stories and narratives which I am connected to play an important role.
Also: What is referred to as new, by closer inspection often turns out to be outdated. Today, for example, there are ideas of a future in which technology is always creating new possibilities and threatens to overrun us as human beings. How new is this? The same idea can be found in the Star Trek movies of the 1970s or in the Charlie Chaplin’s movie, Modern Times. Back then, it was the industrial revolution, today artificial intelligence and robots represent a technology that will eventually make people obsolete.
The idea of such a relationship between humans and technology is therefore old. I wonder: Is the perception that technology could make people redundant a useful idea? Perhaps another narrative would make more sense. I would include technology in visions of the future, but as a positive partnership that can be shaped, not as a giant gear or evil algorithm that will eventually suppress us.
You’re trying to take people away from a defensive perspective and encourage other stories?
Yes, what interests me is the question of agency. To what extent do I have autonomy and the power to make decisions? In projects concerning visions of the future, I often meet people who are convinced that there are huge forces at work that would leave them no choice. We are indeed faced with enormous forces: the economy, digitalization, climate change and much more. What I’m trying in my work is to say: In this specific field, in which you are exposed to so many forces, you have to find somewhere, your small space, that you can shape. So, try to look at these forces from another angle. Working with agency means: No matter what happens around me, I can always decide how to deal with it, how to look at it and how to position myself. Even with major social issues, I can decide to go along, to refuse, or to take countermeasures. I never put myself in a situation in which I would be at mercy of someone else. If you succeed in creating the conditions for such an attitude, it is quite natural for people to say: I won’t let anybody fool me!
There is often a resistance to change, but there is also a resistance to incapacitation. I have a positive belief in humankind and am convinced that people want to draw their strength from positive ideas and are not just based on a survival instinct.
If you start from the useful, you can ask: Useful for whom? Change processes are often related to power. Who has the power to define what’s useful in your projects?
I think creative decisions are always moments of power. The definition of ‘useful’ must be renegotiated in each project. The search for consensus may slow down processes a lot, we know that well in Switzerland.
I commit myself to certain basic values. These are values in the sense of human rights and ecology. I see humans as a part of nature. What goes against nature, also goes against humans.
In your dissertation, you observe that Creative Change creates a balance between individual thinking and collective interests. Which place do you grant individual creative thinking?
I note that individual creative thinking often finds spontaneous recognition. But integrating the ideas of creative thinkers into a collective creative process takes a lot of time.
Those who work with groups, know the phenomenon: You create a framework for creative processes, people open up and get involved in the experiment, but in the end, the result is always the same. This is related to creative risk. Groups are often unwilling to take creative risks and get involved in the unknown. Although they spontaneously appreciate the ideas of the creative thinker, sometimes they are unable to integrate them into the collective creative process.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that individual creative thinking always leaves a mark and changes the collective, even if the effect is not immediately apparent. It seems all the more important to me to find a form of documentation for creative thinking, to create an archive, so to speak, so that these ideas are appreciated and not lost.
What forces come into play when it comes to implementing jointly developed ideas? What is your experience regarding this?
So far, I have been mainly involved in development processes and less in their implementation. However, I partly experience that projects are developing and changing their own momentum during implementation. This brings me to the conclusion that idea development and implementation should be parallel processes. Idea development should always take place punctually and is not to be seen as something that has to happen prior to implementation.
In your work, you pursue a scientific and an artistic approach. How do you combine these two approaches when it comes to creative processes?
I feel very connected to science. The most important thing to me is to reflect on how knowledge is generated. In social sciences, we constantly question how knowledge is generated and what world view it is based on. The problem with social sciences is that one cannot distance oneself from one’s own research object; human beings require constant self-reflection.
What I appreciate the most about art is the big experimentational space. When I visit an art exhibition, a dialogue develops between me and the image, or I become part of the sculpture or performance. As a result, I become the subject of the research process myself. It goes without saying that this experience cannot be controlled. Apart from that, it is also the task of art not to define everything in advance.
In the encounter of art and science, I find an exciting space, which I also like to explore. What comes out of it, I would call neither art nor science.
Your film with the Palestinian and Israeli mothers is one such example. You could have addressed this question in the form of a classic research paper with interviews. Would the same knowledge have arisen in this way as with the film project?
No, it definitely would not have generated the same knowledge. Before I started filming, I actually conducted interviews with the women. I sat with them on a sofa and asked: How do you explain to your children the Israel-Palestine conflict? After this initial phase, I worked with the approach of participatory action research, until the documentary, created under the guidance of these women, was finished.
Immediately after the interview, the women started to design their own film and decide what they wanted to say. At first, I asked questions, then they started to ask themselves the questions so that new answers to the initial question arose. It was a learning experiment for everyone involved.
What has been created has a very different quality than classical research works. When I interview the women and the people in their environment, I obtained knowledge that already exists. But when I use a design experiment as a research method, the research subjects themselves generate knowledge that did not previously exist in this form and that allows for some surprising insights.
The experiment was also instructive for me in the role of a participating observer. When I say to a woman “We’re making a movie about how you raise your kids, and you decide what’s being filmed”, I create a condensed setting that shows what showplaces are important to this woman. She determines what is filmed and said. It was sometimes hard for me to record consequently only what the women wanted to have in the film. Finally, there was another difficulty: The people around them started to intervene because a camera was present. Suddenly it became important what was said. I found this aspect interesting: At what point does the public begin to become dominant? Where do women begin to restrict themselves? The mothers are assigned a politically charged role in conflict regions. With this film, they were able to answer the question of how they raise their children in the midst of this conflict in their own way. The film is only one part – the public part – of the answer, another part of the answer lies in the process that the Palestinian and Israeli mothers have jointly developed during these four years.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment, I am focused on a project in the Amazon, in the tri-border region of Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru. The project has been running for three years now and is supported by a coalition of NGOs, local universities and government ministries. The goal is to contribute to a new developmental paradigm through the development of forest-friendly high-tech centres in the Amazon and sustainable agriculture. It was recognized that the fourth industrial revolution, i.e. areas such as biotechnology, kinetics, but also robotics, could benefit greatly from a new perception of nature and indigenous knowledge. The concept «Amazonia 4.0» created by the Brazilian climate researcher, Carlos Nobre, serves as a framework (www.elgranpaititi.org). We are convinced that you need to bear in mind the past in order to design the future – and in that process, you are allowed to consciously let go of it as well. Artistically, we cover this topic with the project ‘Chrysalis – The Possibility of Growing Wings’ (http://www.paititi-lab.org/chrysalis-proposal/). At Paititi Lab, ‘we’ always mean emerging constellations of people working in research, business and/or the arts.