— Cultural Sources of Newness

Establishing improv for renewal and resistance

If Berlin feels especially energized this week, it may be partially thanks to the participants of the world conference of the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN). Over 225 men and women from 36 countries working with impro/improv/improvisation in diverse fields poured into the Kalkscheune  in Berlin-Mitte on October 3rd and again today to share their ideas and questions. And to advance the establishment of improvisation as a source of renewal and, in some cases, resistance to the new.

Just a few glimpses of what I am taking home to digest from the very full, very interactive program:

In his introduction, the president, Paul Z Jackson, defined AIN as “the emergent interactions of its members. It’s what we do together and our conversations.” (I wonder: what would happen if managers and employees thought of their organizations this way? What might they think and do differently?)

He is seeking to “expand the repertoire of what we do beyond theatre”, while warning “don’t let the fun obscure the learning—organizations want results; fun along the way is a bonus.” (I fear: are business logic and language becoming overwhelming?)

From the program overview and the participants’ list it is evident that improvisation is relevant in many fields (e.g., health, education, business, environment, international affairs, mediation) and countries. In his introduction, Martin Ciesielski noted that it is symbolic that the conference is being held in Berlin on the day of reunification, because there are walls to break down between some fields in which improvisation is being used.

Throughout the conference plenary sessions, an artist visualized the conversation. Here is her summary of the introductory session.

Visualization of introductory session

Visualization of introductory session by Martine Vanremoortele

The first keynote speaker, Prof. Wolfgang Stark from the university of Duisburg-Essen, agreed to break with academic conventions and present his research in collaboration with the conference co-organizer, Martin Ciesielski, impro artist and consultant. The research is fascinating, seeking to “tune in to the tacit language of organizations and society” by working with a jazz musician, Christopher Dell, and applying ideas from Christopher Alexander’s pattern language.

W Stark & M Ciesielski Tuning In to research with improvisation

W Stark & M Ciesielski Tuning In to research with improvisation

Wolfgang sees patterns as the material of improvisation, and believes that the potential for transforming organizations lies in first recognizing, then redesigning patterns, rather than trying to break them. Experimenting with new ways to help people develop this skill and explore their tacit knowledge, he has been inviting participants to represent their organizations in a musical score, and Christopher Dell “plays the organization” for them.

Wolfgang Stark's work with Organizational Scores

Wolfgang Stark’s work with Organizational Scores

He finds that the participants reach a different level of understanding with this approach. He showed a fascinating clip of a new instrument, the “Reactable,” an interactive surface on which a team can experiment with working on a question by composing and redesigning patterns with sound.

Gary Schwartz and Viola Spolin

Gary Schwartz (sporting Viola Spolin)

Out of the many workshops to choose from, I went to the one led by the venerable improv veteran Gary Schwartz  on “Creating the Corporate Playground (Culture)”. From the brief introduction I learned about his teacher, Viola Spolin, “the grandmother of improvisation in the United States.” Gary explained how she had worked with the sociologist Neva Boyd and discovered the power of games, with which she realized it is possible to overcome the “approval/disapproval syndrome” that blocks people from trying new ways of doing things. His favourite quotation from Viola is “creativity is not the clever rearranging of the known.” When someone wanted time to write during the session, Gary told us that Viola was not a fan of information, what matters is what we know in our bones, so I have no further notes from his powerful session, but a lot of learning in my bones from the interactive exercises he led us into.

I have no notes from my own keynote session today, either. Paul Z Jackson and I decided last night to go for an interview format rather than a presentation in the 1.5 hours allotted to my research. Responding to so many questions about the research process and research findings on artistic interventions in organizations made for a stimulating and lively morning, with many follow-up conversations afterwards. The session was filmed, so I might be able to add a link later. Here is the summary from the “visual harvesting” artist.

Visualization of artistic intervention research conversation: Martine Vanremoortele

Visualization of artistic intervention research conversation   by Martine Vanremoortele

The last session I attended was the most powerful and meaningful illustration of the concepts of improvisation. Zeynep Ozyurt Tarhan and Koray Tarhan presented “#occupygezy: A huge improv experience”. They participated in the 15-day resistance to the government plan to construct yet another new shopping mall in Istanbul.

Zeynep Ozyurt Tarhan and Koray Tarhan

Zeynep Ozyurt Tarhan and Koray Tarhan

Unfortunately, I did not film the session, so can only present a few slides, hoping that the reader will have the imagination needed to reconstruct the intensity of the moment and the message.

Improvisation for resistance

Improvisation for resistance


Illustrating the power of improvisation for resistance

Illustrating the power of improvisation for resistance

Koray spoke of the many examples of creativity and art that arose in the square.

Multiple facets/faces of improvising resistance

Multiple facets/faces of improvising for resistance


Coping resources to activate

Coping resources that need to be activated to deal with trauma

The call to action

The need for more creative collaboration continues

The conference continued with workshops this afternoon, exploring how to relate improvisation to topics like climate change, medical education,  and autism. But I needed to digest this experience before re-engaging in conference mode. Tonight: improv performances galore as of 9pm, tomorrow more sessions…

One of the 'all star' improvisations on Friday night

One of the ‘all star’ improvisations on Friday night

Opportunities to explore more topics and to experiment with improvisation in different forms followed on Saturday. Here is the link to a taster for a JazzIt! workshop that is designed to connect jazz and leadership, led by Lutz Hempel. http://youtu.be/5FJq0WmZr2c