Art and the Creating of Space

It wasn’t long before the panel ended that a young man approached me. I could see out the corner of my eye that he’d been glancing my way several times, waiting for a moment to engage in conversation.

“I really liked your poem,” he said, “it was perfect for setting the space we needed for this dialogue.”

The poem he was referring to was one that I wrote as a response to the 2014 Level Ground Film Festival. The dialogue was a panel of storytellers who shared their stories of faith and sexuality, as a part of the 2015 Film Festival, a panel that I had the pleasure of moderating.

I began the panel with that poem, which began with a simple invitation:

“Let down your hair and tell me your story, you are welcome here.”

This simple invitation created the space needed for those very stories as it invited those who are “different” from us into a space that was safe. Because we began with that sense of welcome, we were able to graciously receive stories of struggle, pain and hope from our storytellers, and in doing so, allow our own stories to be shaped by theirs.

The need for safe space is crucial in engaging conversations and stories that relate to sexuality and faith, or any difficult conversation for that matter. All parties involved must feel that their story will be heard, and their prospective respected whether or not there is disagreement. This is often a difficult thing to have, especially in light of the way we have or have not engaged in conversations in the past.

Art has a way of inviting us into spaces that we don’t otherwise know how to enter. It gives us permission to sit in those grey areas that we are often uncomfortable with. Art does this because, in a lot of ways, it is not bound by space, and often uses and manipulates space to its own benefit. We see this a lot in the way installation artists transform physical spaces, or the way a poet uses words to open our eyes to a new perspective or way of seeing. We hear it in the extended pauses of a vocal performance or monologue, or see it in the extension and hold of a dancer in arabesque.

This is what makes Level Ground so important and unique. As an organization, they have learned what it means to inhabit those spaces, and to use art as a way to do so. The creating of safe space isn’t  about agreeing with one another, it is about struggling to hold in tension what it means to be different and the same. To strive to do this without art is to fail before you even begin.

Questions:

  1. In what ways has art been used in your context to create safe space for dialogue?
  2. What are the dangers, if any, of using art as a tool of exclusion?
  3. What does it mean to have “safe space?”