Nov 16, 2018

5 min read

Change makers in The University of Trees – an interview with Shelley Sacks

Author: Holok Chen

This interview took place back in 2015 via email. This piece was originally published in Communal Times.

“Standing in the forest one day, I suddenly realized that I was in a ‘university’ and that if one could develop the patience and the skill to hear, see and understand, one would find that all the trees were teachers.”

Shelley Sacks recalls the initial thoughts that brought about The University of Trees. This could sound strange to Hong Kongers who live in a concrete jungle. We should seek to understand trees more, especially in a world of eco-crisis.

The University of Tree is simultaneously an art project, a community building project and an ecological project. The initial idea was to build an arena where human beings could work on uncovering, confronting, discussing and reshaping the inner actions that give rise to outer actions.

The idea was actualized by the invitation of the ‘Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World’ in 2006. Tree bands made of grey felt were placed around the trunks of several trees in the forest and participants gathered in the woods to communicate, build a relationship with the trees and learn from them. This is later known as the “main forum” of the University of Trees project.

“The aim was to create a place for social sculpture: to explore connective thinking and practice to shape an ecologically just and humane future.”

Such space of imagination is described as the ‘field of awareness’. In the process of reflectin, participants have to follow some key ethos, such as understanding that ecological crisis is not just an external crisis; it has to do with our own consciousness. “The ‘field of awareness’ is much more than just a marked out territory.” It is important because it changes the minds of individuals and decision makers who are too preoccupied with numbers and utilities.

All change makers care about the goals and objectives of their “world saving projects”. When asked what were expected from the project, Shelley Sacks kindly warns that an outcome-oriented mindset, even in the context of world changing projects, is dangerous.

“One danger is that we understand action in ways that are much too limited. The other danger is that we delude ourselves into believing that certain things are meaningful actions and outcomes when they are not. This is the dilemma for all agents of change!”

Shelley Sacks worked closely with social sculptor Joseph Beuys in the Free International University (FIU). Their collaboration, however, did not start out very naturally. As a critical social change maker, Shirley was skeptical of the usual practice of organizing forums, dialogues and debates, as she could not see the correlation between these discussions and the actual action that would change the world.

“I couldn’t see how the dialogue processes in the FIU differed from other debating talk-shop forms.”

Gradually, Beuys’ idea of the “social sculpture” convinced Shelly.

“A social sculpture is the embodiment of the political, artistic and philosophical realm. If I sum this up in a few words it is an emphasis on freedom. Nothing is fixed. In fact Beuys’ well-known statement: ‘every human being is an artist’ also means ‘every human being is an agent of change’! But not yet realized. We are mostly potential artists and potential agents of change. This is also one of the reasons that Beuys said ‘Teaching was his greatest artwork’ or that in the universities ‘an enchanter has to appear’. The field of social sculpture works with these ‘invisible materials’ – attitudes, habits, values, that we are free to change to in order explore different, non-exploitative ways of being in the world. Those who understand and are passionate about this potential freedom need to ‘enchant’ or inspire others into this perception of themselves. And I could say these are my commitments too. ”

Engineering consciousness is however, a long process, because it involves constant expansion of the project to people from different places. It also requires change makers to adapt their ideas according to different contexts. When Shelly first designed the grey felt tree bands, it took only a few months. And the tree band evolved as the project spread and the design eventually became one with yellow cloth in 5 years’ time. Originally taking place in forests, the project has spread to other areas which make direct replication of the initial project impossible. In semi-desert areas where forests and vegetation are virtually non-existent, the “Instruments of consciousness” (originally trees) had to be changed as well. Slowly, Shelly found out that the field of awareness can take place anywhere, as long as we focus on our relationship with the world and regard life forms such as trees as teachers. To date, the fields of awareness have taken different forms such as the ‘acupuncture action’ in Berlin or ‘social emergence’ in Bonn.

“The Field of Awareness process enables different groups and individuals in a particular place – street, village, town or city – to clarify and deepen their own agendas and how their agendas correlate with others’. It creates a new community of understanding.”

Goethe said: “Every object truly observed opens up a new organ of perception in us.” This is how Shelly first envisaged to cultivate a new organ of perception through social sculture. Shelley Sacks does not create art pieces that easily appeal to our senses. Shelley will be sharing in Etudes for the Everyday (concept by Kingsley Ng and Stephanie Cheung) during her visit to Hong Kong.

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