The art of not succumbing to shutdown

By Luciana Leiderfarb

About the X International Colloquium Arts for Childhood and Social and Human Development which took place on the 28th and 29th November 2020 at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.


The X International Colloquium Arts for Childhood and Social and Human Development was made of resistance and will. Between the virtual and reality, between network and presence. It was made with people and for people, because the importance lies in continuing to create and to think. Above all.

To encounter people in these days is an almost extemporaneous act: we are in the middle of a pandemic, sheltered at home, as well as within ourselves, as shells. If we go out, we touch no-one, no-one touches us, contacts are restricted to spoken word, and that is always muted by a mask that hides emotions and gestures. To meet each other these days is a gift that requires adaptation and flexibility like never before.

For all these reasons, the tenth International Colloquium Arts for Childhood and Social and Human Development, besides a symbol of the persistence necessary for this initiative to stay alive during a decade, constitutes, through the force of the circumstances, an oasis in the middle of the desert. “This Colloquium unites us, more than ever”, Helena Rodrigues commented at the beginning of the session, in which participants were given the option to attend in person or at home.

What to bring to this meeting? What you bring in your luggage, continued Helena: thoughts, words, actions that are mixed together in this sort of “picnic” where they’re shared. The idea is, as always, to boost mutual inspiration, but that’s not all. There’s also a call for cultural and civic responsibility. By happening, this Colloquium reports a path, a work, a process. And it reflects on the adaptations, the challenges, demanded by the present.

A phrase from Professor Agostinho da Silva, quoted by Helena Rodrigues, serves as a gateway: “I don’t have any plans because I don’t want to ruin the plans life has for me.”


The contagion that saves

At 15, Matilde Milhões Maia doesn’t remember a world without art. She was born into it. Her mother is an artist, illustrator and curator; her father dedicates himself to graphic arts. They founded “Bichinho do Conto”, the first bookstore specialized in children’s literature. They’re booksellers, and Matilde remembers her parents delight with the smell of books, the act of unpacking them and placing them on the shelves. She has followed them everywhere, wherever they went. “I learned a lot, drew a lot and met wonderful human beings called artists”, says Matilde.

This is the story of a teenager who came to the Colloquium to share her experience with the arts, which merges with her life experience. Since she grew up absorbing creativity, she knows that artists “use reality, transform it and give it back as a piece of art”. Artists have the “extraordinary ability to change the spaces they pass through and convert emptiness into something fantastic”, she affirms, adding: “They’re not mad, they’re brave. Art is necessary to development because it touches us and changes us. Art is a contagion that saves.”

Matilde attends the António Arroio Artistic School in Lisbon. And she believes that teachers have an “enormous impact” on students’ lives, because “we go to school not only to learn things, but to get to know ourselves better”. It’s in this sense that, when questioned about what message she would give young people who feel lost or closed upon themselves, the student answers: “Teenagers are not idiots, we are not uninterested. We are people in development. We have the problem that we are still discovering who we are. Don’t stop doing it. Defend yourselves from stereotypes.”


The sound that saves

“Birth and Rebirth in Prematurity. Stories of Hope and Resiliency. Contribution to Research and Intervention”. This was the title of Eduarda Carvalho’s participation, a psychologist, music therapist and CESEM researcher, who came to the Colloquium to report what she saw and discovered in the research project she has been developing since 2016 at the Alfredo da Costa Maternity Hospital. Behind the title, alas, there are people, tiny people fighting for life. In the asepsis of a neonatology unit, affection finds its way.

As everyone, babies born prematurely have a past, that of the motherly womb, the first human auditorium, where the first auditory and emotional memories are generated. That’s where the maternal voice starts echoing, awakening the fetus’ ability to “be responsive”. At the end of the pregnancy, they’re in perfect harmony with their mother, as evidenced by changes in brain and cardiac response. Where does this communicative musicality come from? Studies show that the baby shows, from early on, intent on communicating with others – for instance, twins perform reciprocal movements from twenty-four weeks of gestation. “We are not immune to the presence of the other”, outlines Eduarda Carvalho. The psychotherapist recalls that, according to Colwyn Trevarthen in his innate theory of human intersubjectivity, “human beings are born with an innate predisposition for interaction with partners”, not simply receiving their interventions, but also completing their message.

What happens when one is born ahead of time? To answer this question, it’s necessary to imagine the sonic environment where these babies are. After months surrounded by maternal liquids and sounds, a glass now mediates their relationship with their parents. Not only can they not be touched, but they’re connected to life through a series of sound-emitting machines. If for the baby all of this is strange, to parents it symbolizes a loss, the loss of a pregnancy and the fright of a birth that makes them equally premature. Eduarda Carvalho says that parents learn to wait, that they become hypervigilant and alert. And that music, lullabies, “often sang as religious chants”, can bring them the communication they yearn to have with their offspring.

The idea is to blur the hypervigilance and focus on interaction. Little by little, there comes the day when a window opens in the glass cocoon and the baby can be touched, when contact with a simple finger works as a affectional lap that finally happens. It’s another birth. Another phase of the journey begins. In it, the Kangaroo Method takes an essential role. It started in Colombia, in a maternity hospital where incubators were lacking, and someone thought of wrapping the babies with their mothers, skin to skin. Encouraging results were soon to appear: stress and parental anxiety reduction, babies’ physiological self-regulation, better sleep quality, weight gain, greater bonding and interaction, ease in breastfeeding.

But the kindness of the method is deepened when connected to singing. “I realised that if they’re given space and time to do so – and singing can be crying – singing is a facilitator of parental gaze orientation towards the baby”, assures the psychologist. While she accompanied the parents, she herself sang songs while they cuddled their child and, little by little, became together in singing, beginning to murmur. Parents “need to be sang to, in order to sing”. And singing emphasizes the present moment over the past scare and what the future represents.

In 36 mother-baby dyads in kangaroo position, the mother was requested to establish visual contact and sing or speak to the baby for 15 minutes. At the end, the premature baby shows a “communicative musicality” which encourages him to be more vocal and to maintain either alternation or synchronization relative to the mother’s pauses. There were situations in which the baby would vocalise over the mother’s singing, even coinciding some notes. Eduarda Carvalho ascertained as well that “the latency time of the babies vocal response was longer in speech than in singing”, in addition to the fact that the mothers vocally orient themselves differently according to the baby’s gender.


The love that saves

“Prematuros”, edited by Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation, is a book by author João Pedro George. A sociologist and literary critic, he didn’t write it as fiction, nor even from the experience of others, as a journalist would do. He wrote it based on what happened to his daughter Carlota, who was born at six months gestation, weighing 650 grams. The father’s first instinct, he tells, was to go to a bookstore to find literature on premature babies. And what he found was a blaringly thematic void, given such a complex and serious subject. “That led me to write the book”, he confesses.

At the time, he was finishing a Doctorate degree in Madrid, where he lived with his pregnant partner, everything came to a halt when she stopped feeling the baby and had to undergo an emergency c-section. Carlota was 5 months along in her development, but no-one was able to explain the reason why it happened. “To me, who had never seen a premature baby live, it was an absolutely singular experience”, João Pedro George refers, illustrating what he saw: head like an orange, hands like pennies, which “disturb the perception we have of the human body, with the aggravating factor of some body parts being underdeveloped”. Torn from the uterine environment, suddenly subject to the laws of gravity, Carlota was born with brain hemorrhages that announced a “catastrophic scenario” and led doctors to affirm that the baby wouldn’t survive. The parents had to sign a document authorizing that there wasn’t “therapeutic carnage”, meaning, that when the time came, the body would be allowed to follow its natural course. “I won’t forget the moment I signed it”, says the father.

In the incubator, his daughter’s extreme fragility revealed itself along with her strength, her will to live. And in the midst of the “emotional rollercoaster” and the oncoming and overcome crisis, João Pedro George discovered that “not only are the mothers that sing, the parents too”. “I sang, brought back my childhood songs”, he describes. He immediately realised that singing had a visible and “really concrete” effect on the baby: “Music, the sound of voice, skin on skin, it seems to domesticate the machines.”

Carlota left the incubator 4 months later. The brain’s plasticity, which makes the healthy areas compensate the ones the haemorrhage rendered useless (neurons can ‘specialize’ in functions which were not their own), meant that the after-effects were not too serious. She had to attend oxygen therapy for a year and practice reflex gymnastics. Today she’s 12 years old, a teenager like many others who study in Madrid. She’s physically smaller and needs a daily dose of growth hormone, which she’s about to quit, because life won in Carlota’s life. Her father highlights the importance of a resource such has the National Health Service: “Saving a baby like this is very expensive, it costs between one thousand and two thousand euros per day. We have no idea of these values, and only the State can secure them for the entire population.”


What is seen by those who see

Seeing is a creative act. That’s what Jan Svensson, Leif Hernes and Tona Gulpinar, who were present in the Colloquium via Zoom, defend in order to decode the “PaPI Opus 8” performance by Companhia de Música Teatral. If the eye of the beholder is an informed one, as is the case of these three Norwegian professors of Oslo Metropolitan University, appreciation constitutes an act of sharing and learning. Jan Svensson, with research related to multicultural music education, tells us that what he saw raised two questions: one about the aesthetic resources used, and another about the human skills required.

In an attempt to answer the first, Jan says to have found several tools at play in this creation, such as repetition, manipulation of expectation, elaboration in constant contrast with simplification, and exaggeration. Repetition, in this case, means to show the same thing several times, which takes an important role in children’s language in spontaneous play. Simultaneously, the show aims to keep their engagement, resourcing to silence in music and stillness in dance. The pair elaboration/simplification serves to reach “the essence of what is required to tell a story” and exaggeration allows the performer “to move like a bird”.

As for the second question, the teacher finds a technique to keep engagement and focus in children which consist in resorting to the unexpected, the never before seen or heard, stirring in them the “ability to perceive where sound comes from, or to follow the movement”. In parallel, Jan notes, the performance awakens the ability to separate contrasting characteristics – light from shadow, darkness from light – which, being apparently simple, “is challenging, for instance, for people with disabilities”. Imitation is “the basic mode” of learning in children, even newborns, and symbolic communication, language without words, signs or sounds, plays an essential role in it. Lastly, the piece explores humour and a sensation of challenge, the reciprocity between the artist and the audience, and the audience to each other.

Leif Hernes, researcher of art for children, materializes this by emphasizing the “surprising way in which elements from child’s play are integrated in the piece” and the fact that the performer’s eyes are focused on the audience, so that each person feels seen and acknowledged. “She plays with the idea of hiding and revealing. Sound follows movement or goes against it. It’s a choreographic piece”, he notes. It’s not by chance that Leif and Tona Gulpinar attribute importance to this aspect. They themselves have been busy with the “Handing” project, which strives to inquire how the audience can become involved in the performance. Thus, they brought to the Colloquium the image of a kindergarten where both are leaning over a table surrounded by children, where everyone has their hands on the tabletop. At a given time, everybody interacts. “Physical interaction brings very strong consequences”, says Tona, “it means having an equal partner in the artistic process”.

Tona is the one who presents us with “Be Extended”, an installation at a contemporary art gallery in Oslo rooted in the creation of objects without function, “as if they were extensions of the body”. Inspired by rag dolls, “the children can almost wear them”. Experimentation began with babies aged two to three years old, but didn’t stop there. Adults could also join in the improvisation, with background music, of the most varied bodily figures rising from the osmosis between body and object.


The image that saves

And because it’s not only words that are part of this Colloquium, the way is given to images. Precisely, to the documentary Luís Margalhau created about the performance of the piece “Murmuratorium”, which Companhia de Música Teatral performed in Ribeira Grande, São Miguel (Azores), in co-production with Musiquim.

“I write little and shoot a lot”, says the director, for whom it was important to introduce the sea as an omnipresent element of the film. After many hours of images, these are visualized, and the directing process begins – editing. He didn’t want to say much, so that the documentary spoke for itself. “It’s a film of beautiful people, with beautiful people, for beautiful people”, he summarizes, adding that the final performance was seen by around 300 children.

The film was exhibited. It’s beautiful, serene, profound. The children explain what they do, how they do it, what for. They talk about nature, about what hasn’t been done and should be done in order to protect it. In particular, the sea, that family member of any Azorean, permanent landscape of the islands, powerful giant of resources weakened by man. The sea.


The journey without travel of a confined company

“Stories of artistic overcoming in pandemic times” is a title literal enough to understand what it is all about. Jorge Graça, saxophonist and doctoral student in CESEM’s Education and Human Development Group, tells us that “the plans he had were cancelled due to the pandemic”, but that this didn’t mean their disappearance. “CMT divides its projects into artistic-educative constellations, which allows for a variety of formats”, he continues. With this assumption, “Poemário” was created, whose adaptation to confinement implied abandoning its improvisational aspect in order to follow a script. The result was a series of audiovisual poems – short films – created collectively from home.

This went on to a performative work, called “Poemário Vivo”, through Zoom, responding to “the human desire to communicate with someone on the other side”, and fading the borders between audience and artist. In this project, “the audiovisual poems created earlier were, in a way, incorporated into the online performance, in which music ceases to be sound and becomes time to be spent in common”.

In this report of artistic survival, the so-called “immersive training” changed format, in pursuit of the task, assumed by CMT years ago, of “giving people options to participate in creative experiences collectively”. Thus happened “ZygZag&Zoom” with artists and trainers of Companhia de Música Teatral in artistic residency at Cine-Teatro Louletano, and the trainees on their respective houses, via Zoom. As a process, it represented the challenge of using the online medium, and learning its reach and limitations. But it paid off, since it emerged as a place and possibility of artistic participation after several months of isolation.

Composer Paulo Maria Rodrigues highlights, on the other hand, the resistance of the project “Mil Pássaros” – creation of origamis by children in schools and libraries – programmed for the Green European Capital, in Lisbon. The live installation didn’t happen in Estufa Fria but on Green Capital’s Store, at Praça do Município, where the installation is seen from the outside and responds to the presence of passers-by. In the case of “PaPI Opus 8”, the plan of performing in libraries had to be cancelled, being replaced by an online version where there was an attempt to “surpass the normal transmission” and interact with the children – who asked if Inês, the performer, was “a magician”. What guided CMT in this challenge was “believing it is possible to continue”.


The words that save

The end of the Colloquium was near. It was time to go back to Earth, to a land that nowadays is devastated, that silently, but firmly, is emitting its signals. It was time to impose singing, in some way, and for that the Brazilian Cecília Valentim participated from São Paulo. This singer, music and vocal educator, and somatic therapist, made her experience travel thousands of kilometres to undertake a session with the audience. It was a meditative, introspective and simultaneously collective moment, in which she urged participants to spread, because “in singing, a word is light and it goes beyond any border”.

She sang, accompanying herself with percussion, and we all followed. And in that way, we modified the landscape. “What kind of landscape are you walking through now?” – it is not the same as before.

To close we all collaborated with a word, just one, that summarized the Colloquium. Here is what came up:

“Freedom, rediscovery, oxygen, egg, sea, dream, life, sorrow, contemplation, together, union, I am here, inspiring, instigating, sharing, complicity, unique, rigour, contagious”.

Contagious rigour. Until next time, with or without a pandemic.