Movement, Bodies, and Relationships of Power, Oppression, and Resistance
Theater director Jiwon Chung recently led a Global Urban Humanities (GUH) workshop in which students considered systemic violence through a series of exercises based on the work of Augusto Boal. City and Regional Planning student Jeff Garnand, who participated in the workshop, reflects on how physical movement helped students from many disciplines consider power relationships.
Coursework in the humanities and social sciences often – should, must – bring students into contact with systems of oppression, hierarchy, and domination. And all students have had experience with these forms of power in their own lives in various institutional and social settings. Many have studied, and some have participated in, resistance movements that seek to challenge the exercise of power as a form of domination themselves. But how often are we provided with a forum in which to consider these manifestations through the methods of theater and performance?
The Global Urban Humanities program brought together students, faculty, and engaged members of the community for a workshop on considering systemic and structural violence, offering them the opportunity to work with Jiwon Chung, a theater practitioner and adjunct faculty member at the Graduate Theological Union with a long and deep connection with Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed.
Chung uses Boal’s work as a way of helping students and communities recognize both the targeted and diffuse operation of oppression, and then using the format of movement, performance and theater as a generative space for conceiving forms of individual and collective resistance and counternarrative to advance social justice.
Workshop participants came from a range of fields in the arts, social sciences, environmental design, and humanities, bringing to the workshop their own disciplinary expertise and epistemologies. At the opening of the workshop, we were invited to meet each other, wandering the room loosely and encountering our fellow classmates and beginning to create webs of connection and affinity through prompts offered by Jiwon. The exercises became increasingly intense, as participants engaged in relationships of power through body movement, and were asked at each turn to reflect upon how it felt to be dominant and oppressed within a given scenario.
In one exercise, the entire class was engaged in movement that tied each participant to multiple other participants; I happened to be at the center. Small movements on my part had dramatic effects on my fellow participants one or two levels out. There was a cascade of power in each gesture: a small movement of my hand sent people sprawling across the floor at the periphery, struggling to keep up under the constraints of a system which had been imposed without consultation or consideration of the participants.
Jiwon invited us to reconsider these dynamics, inventing new ways to respond to the exercise of power that was happening right in front of us. We were able to respond to power, to critique and resist it, at some points ignore it or create alternate ways of being in our autoconstructed system that respected, or attempted to respect, the needs of those who were oppressed in these embodied relationships. The oppressed were able to respond both as individuals and collectively, to reshape the dynamics in the room toward a more just relationship.
A major strength of the workshop for attendees was a very visceral experience of power, as well as seeing visually and experiencing through the body the relationships that people are placed within knowingly or unknowingly, and the points at which empowerment over one's own or collective decisions is truncated or constrained, as well as the slow unfolding of possibilities to modify those dynamics. Jiwon was a very sensitive and attuned facilitator – I really appreciated his style and attentiveness to power and the attendees as intersectional subjects nested in webs of multiple and varied power relationships. Part of what I hope we are all getting in our coursework and time at Berkeley is a facility for empathy, and the workshop was an excellent way to further develop that facility in everyone who participated, regardless of their chosen field: empathy should know no disciplinary boundaries.
At the end of the workshop, everyone agreed that they had learned a great deal through working with our bodies, with feeling, exercising, and resisting power. Participants came away with a mindfulness and a deeper understanding of the ways that power works overtly and also very subtly, and opened our minds (and bodies) to the ways in which oppression is exerted within and across disciplines and in society at large. We could see clearly that there was no easy answer, and no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing oppression and power, but in experiencing its effects through our own bodies we gained in our consciousness and awareness a somatic understanding that can and will carry forward into our own academic, social, professional, and personal lives.