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Imagination Workshops and the World at Large: Part 2

Further reflections on how society has a critical need for igniting and cultivating imagination as the origin of all ideation, inspiration, invention and innovation.

Whether I interact with artists, or those totally foreign to art, I find that everyone, even if secretly so, desires to dream. To yet again feel like an innocuous child we all used to be, to let the reality go, to unstitch the inner wings, and to open them wide and fly. Hence such individuals find their own medium for expressing their wishes, desires, hopes, ideas, aspirations, frustrations as well as visions. Several of the matchstick sketches I have gathered project either an amazing sense of entrapment or passionate yearnings for the authority to become unleashed, and empowered to make our world better, or otherwise be freed to explore imaginary worlds concealed unexposed within each of us. Wherever we come from we all share and have such yearning in common.

While at the university in the magical city of Istanbul, I elected to conduct classes dedicated to exploration of the metamorphically magical art of animation but doing so without any exposure or instruction in the technique of “how to.” My students came from scholarly and research studies demanding of them analyses of creative literary publications of others. I thought that these students deserve a right to express themselves. Thus I focused on the magical freedom the animation language unveils to us, whether we are artists or scholars or researchers. I found that these students, while initially complaining, eventually became so passionate, so vested in their own ideas and stories that, once sent away to create a short animated film, all were driven. They discovered themselves, their own ways and means of making it happen for themselves. Whatever the means of visualization, most of them succeed. And their joy of seeing their very own ideas and visions arise to animated life was unforgettably empowering to them and inspiring to us all.

Whether in Singapore, Korea, Malaysia, Japan, China or in Germany, Netherlands, Israel, Poland, Turkey, Sweden Cuba, or Latin America, or either of the Coasts of the USA and the vast Midwest stretching in between, I found that we all have dreams. As for the places I have not yet had the pleasure to discover, I am eager and waiting. Due to our upbringing, reigniting these dreams, ability to distill them in order to then envision them in whatever shape or format, differ radically. Yet everyone’s heartfelt desire to share their dreams with others is eternally aflame.

Having grown up under Communism, I learned early of its oppressive intent, design and effects. But to those who kept their minds and eyes open, and the fires within alive, this system signified the ultimate enemy, the foe to whom to stand up to, against whom to rebel, outwit and using any creative means doable, expose for its corruptive, domineering or subjugating ideology. I realized that in such a milieu people either sink or fight, resign themselves or resist at all costs. In the country where I grew up, natives of which were renowned for their rebellious spirit, artists transformed into the spokesmen for the otherwise silenced mainstream. They did so not through armed revolt but through their arts, whether paiting, poster, poetry, theater, music or any other form of creative expression. As a result their creations, whatever the medium, were deep, powerful in their spirit as well as rebellious voice, subliminal message, pure ideas, idealism and expression.

So even though, confronted by traditional deeply rooted anti-Semitism, subjugated to treatment edified by the Nazi methods, at a cost of leaving behind all my friends and most of the family, robbed of all material possessions, I elected to emigrate to the unfamiliar world elsewhere, hurt, angry, full of outrage, contempt for their conduct, I still deeply regard their art of that period.

It took many years of time healing for me to go back there. Since that time the country became prosperous, gained its independence and, at least for now, is free from the Big Brother’s clutch. Oddly enough, but not totally surprising, I found that without the oppressive system acting as the enemy, the art has lost some of its potent voice, acidity, edge and fury. What does that imply?

While living in Singapore I went to an art exhibition of curated painting from its native artists but also from Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia, all neighboring countries. Contrast between them was stunning. One of the Singapore’s paintings, giant indeed, bright, joyous and sunny portrait smiling boys, in shorts, flying towards the sky, as idyllic as could be. Those from Vietnam and Cambodia were wonderfully peaceful, pastoral landscapes portraying farmers in their fields. But the art from Indonesia and Philippines was raw, graphic, rough, violent, furious, portraying entrapment, tortures and abuse of those who dared to rebel against the authorities. Such is power of art, and to me personally, this is where art is acting as an agent for change.

Recently I had the honor and unexpected or unforeseen pleasure to be re-invited to Asia again. This time as professor and the endowed Chair of Digital Arts & Media at a flagship university of China. While I consider myself to be open minded, based on my previous assignments and time spent in other regions of Asia, I anticipated to find hard working students who, while hungry and eager, have been subdued by Communism. But such a generality requires certain justifications.

Slightly over a decade ago I was invited to a much smaller South - Asian country, to spearhead design and development of their first University level School of Art, Design and Media. Despite being rather tiny, due to the populace dedication to hard work and their compliant obedience to authority, a regime that had found the country, over an impressively short time period, it evolved into an astoundingly impressive economic attainment - other countries now draw example from.  Now wealthy, economically and politically constant and secure, this island has become a true haven of stability and comfort enticing foreign investments and expats from all around the world.

Yet the fact that this success has been achieved thanks to strong production and manufacturing industries and methodology, has resulted in a mentality and attitudes unappreciative of creative thinking and artistic expression. That is until recent years. For as their success caused them to become too expensive a production site, manufacturing floated away to surrounding countries within the region. Yet foreseeing such trends the practical regime had the wisdom to find ways, and to start investing in the creative education and establishment of extensive creative industry. Still, while I was there, their attitude towards “producing creative talent” was very indicative of perception and perspective that needed time to shift from “producing” to “cultivating” creativity.

Meanwhile the largely unquestioning young generations, growing up in a milieu of security and comfort, did not feel the intense hunger or yearning to question the appeasing reality, or to step outside the prescribed norms or rules. With their eyes wide open, turned toward the West as the embodiment of ultimate success, one to aspire to, learn from and imitate, it likely will take them some effort to reflect upon what makes them and their culture unique. In fact, while I was there, distilling the vision for the school to be, I felt that the fusion of the three prominent cultures, living there site by site, offers them a unique chance for exciting amalgamation unattainable elsewhere. Meanwhile the island turned into a huge stage for international exhibits, conventions or markets.

A few years prior, and some years after too, I conducted my workshops in another Asian nation, it known for its strong communal and family bonding. Coming from the West where our umbilical cords are dissolved relatively early, I was truly touched noticing signs of esteem younger people displayed towards their elder, or matured children exhibited regarding their aging parents, or students towards their mentors. In no other culture did I see students standing up to bow to the teacher.

And yet this almost idyllic communal and social character, which over eras has fashioned and defined their traditions, customs and culture, in my personal observation, has also drained their individuality, sovereign thinking, unique viewpoints, creative spirit and thirst for self-exploration that would provoke individualistic and meaningful self-expression. Much of such symptoms are further magnified by the so called fear of the “loss of face,” it in turn resulting in “risk aversion.” These qualities have been further reinforced by historic occupations and dominations by others.

And now that I have shared a few of my personal experiences and reflections that, at least in my ever in flux mind, may justify why prior to departing for China I expected “hard working students who while hungry and eager, have been subdued by Communism,” in the coming Part 3 I shall describe the actuality.