Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Working with VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) for the last nine years has introduced me to an amazing group of people; smart, funny and down-to-earth. Philip Yenawine, Co-Founder, is an incredible human being who is full of passion and VTS is a means to an end, to give underserved students the chance at a good education. Philip wrote a letter about his trip to Bangkok and I wanted to post it.

I'm in a plane flying home, so cramped I might not be able to finish
this but I wanted to give some kind of account of this remarkable
time. It was a pretty difficult trip, partly because Bangkok where I
spent most of the time is challenging on many levels: big, congested,
noisy, polluted, and not very attractive. I think it might be true of
many Asian cities: they've grown so fast that developmental controls
are few, and the worst part of this is how little of old, traditional
building remains. Instead you get a lot of concrete, a little glass,
almost no green. But to stress this misses a more important point:
people were wonderful to me every where I went.

Altogether I did 12 days of presenting and applying VTS in Thailand
spread between Bkk, Chaing Mai and Chaing Rai. The latter two cities
are in the north where it's more mountainous and the presence of
nature is at hand, despite the density of development. Chaing Rai is
very near the borders of Myanmar and Laos and the reason for being
there was to work, via a great organization called the Mirror
Foundation, with both kids and adults from the "hill tribes"--people
who live in ethnic groups which until recently were pretty much out
of mainstream culture. Now they are attending schools and learning
thai, and at such a rate that their traditional ways will soon be
lost. Some look at this with regret but they're moving forward
anyway, wanting such things as plumbing and electricity. They have
been and are so poor that children were, maybe are sometimes sold
into virtual slavery, including the sex trade which is huge in the
cities. Organizations like the Mirror Foundation are set up to help
stop this and to offer remedial education, employment opportunities,
and social services--and also to try to maintain some respect for
what was once there, culturally.

I worked for a day and a half with about 15 kids, discussing pictures
and writing, and everyone was astounded first that they were willing
to talk and second in the changes in their writing even in that
impossibly short time. It was clearly most beneficial for the 13 and
14 year olds but even the two ten year olds went from making drawings
to writing a few sentences about images they'd discussed. I was
working through a translator who was pretty skeptical to begin with
but who got so into it, he was facilitating the discussions by the
end, occasionally stopping to fill me in on what was going on. I also
worked with a group of adults, some of whom are in training to be
guides to their villages (offering tourists a more authentic view
into the cultures than what the big city guides provide which is more
like a docent tour of a zoo....really), others of whom are creating
and recreating crafts to sell and self support, and others are
working with youth to try to keep them from alcohol, drugs and
getting into trouble. Some of the youth workers were teens themselves.

In any case, what I did with them was demo and deconstruct VTS for
them to use as a tool for discussing issues, collaborating in problem
solving. The tour guides decided on some questions to ask their
groups as they looked at traditional huts and rice paddies. Hard to
tell what they took from it really and in any ongoing sense but it
was clear that they saw that putting their heads together as groups
helped them appreciate each other more and they actually talked
through some abiding challenges while I was there.

I learned more from this than any of them, I'm sure, and the power of
vts to pull voices from the timid and usually unheard works in
corners most people would think of as backward. I was basically
glowing for the two very long, engaging, intense, warm hearted days.
So were my keepers from the US Embassy; no one had ever asked them to
visit these areas, much less work with the locals.

I probably should say that I was working as a cultural envoy, still a
bit unclear what that means in general. I was recommended to the
embassy by an American guy who first encountered VTS when I was in
residence with Linda at the Univ of Illinois. The planning of the
trip was basically a negotiation-- you want to do WHAT? Though I
don't think anyone really got it til we began work, the embassy
people (two women, one Thai both of whom I liked a lot, and a good
thing; we were together solidly for 8 days) none the less set it up
so that I not only got the time among the hill tribes but also did
presentations for the public, for the faculties of education and fine
arts at three major universities, for art teachers, and in Chaing Mai
for 100 representatives of the school district including those in
charge. (300 wanted to come; they limited the number; the
presentation was held in a hotel in front of which was a banner
welcoming Philip Yenawine...the manager rushed to greet me with an
arrangement of flowers which is basically their equivalent of a
lei.... It was a riot.)

Can you imagine the entire faculty of education at, say, Stanford
spending a full day hearing about VTS? At the major univ in Bangkok
about 40 people from the university took a two day workshop....I
spent one other day there with undergraduates--we VTS'd images as
well as poetry and other texts. In that case, we used English, but I
was interpreted the other days, which is hard. The questions from the
faculty were continuous but not hostile, and it turns out that part
of the interest results from the fact that the Thai education
ministry recently announced that the teaching of critical thinking is
an essential skill. As near as I can tell, people were as grateful
for what our research documents as thinking skills as they were for
seeing how VTS could nurture them. There were almost gasps when I
showed them writing samples and basically parsed them to point out
changes. Again, because these were more presentations than trainings,
and because of challenges in language/translation, I can't imagine
that anything substantial was actually learned. But even the
faculties of fine arts were attentive, participatory, and receptive.
To give it my usual, tasteful turn of phrase, it was a mind fuck to
be listened to in this way by so many educators.

Just to make sure that I had seven days of presenting in a row, I let
the American guy talk me into work with a corporation on one day--at
the end of which we boarded a plane to the north to start the next
morning with the hill tribe kids. About 40 people from the company's
design and management teams vts'd art, got a lecture on Housen, and
eventually talked their way to new understandings of both their ads
and those of competitors. These teams are often at loggerheads it
appears and have no language to communicate but by the end of the day
they were brainstorming new solutions to certain of their promotions.
VTS power.... We could have a business doing this, and also training
people to facilitate discussions using experience with art to build
what we all know it builds. Somehow it's not gratifying in the way
that working with hill tribe kids, or even elite college students, so
I eventually told the American, who as it happens is extraordinarily
difficult, that I wouldn't return in early March to work with Coke
and another multi-national. Among other things it's too far to go.
But the real thing is that it takes time and energy away from our
mission with schools.

Altogether there were eleven presentations in twelve days in
thailand. Most nights i was in bed by 9. The last time I tried
anything close to this was when we were working in the former soviet
nations but I was twelve years younger.... I could barely move during
the two days I had off in Bangkok before leaving for Hong Kong.

I was invited to Hong Kong by the director of a small contemporary
art space. He'd been the curator at the Canary Islands center when it
caught the VTS virus. He asked me to come to do a training on Housen
and applications for both teaching and writing for the current
participants in a curatorial training program they run, one of very
few in Asia. It was a small group--five--but we had a long and
productive day. The next morning I spoke at a breakfast for about 20
art and education leaders in Hong Kong--it was almost scary how much
energy there was in the room--a reflection of HK generally. It's hard
to imagine it's vitality. Afterwards I met with the staff of the
Asian Art Archive, which is attempting to fully document contemporary
art in Asia which is another scene that has a vibrancy I haven't seen
since nyc in the 80s. They'd love to work with us if we end up
needing images; they also want to do more educational outreach and
are fascinated by VTS. I had Friday day off, and yesterday did
another 10 to 6 presentation open to the public which turned out
mostly to be teachers of various sorts. Again the reception was
positive. We may get more invitations to visit there and elsewhere.
(Asians are amazingly peripatetic; they live and work in multiple
places it seems.)

It won't be surprising to hear that people are more interested and
supportive of education in these two Asian countries than is the
case in the US: look at who excels at US universities. But one
impression that I am left with is that we're losing in more ways than
one. Autocratic governments may oppress--I am sure they do--but
decisions get made, which is more than we can say for our government.
There is so much more money available for all sorts of
things--investing, educating, taking care of people--that all I can
think at the moment is that we're already behind Asia in a whole lot
of important ways, and the dysfunction of our economy and gov't make
it so I haven't a clue how we'll catch up, much less remain a
wealthy, productive nation by comparison. Of course the giants are
japan and China--and then there's India-- but even in Thailand which
is relatively poor, I have the distinct impression that things are
getting better at a fast rate while the US contracts and suffers.
Consider the tribal villages as symbolic: they are moving from abject
poverty and backwardness to extinction via the kids getting educated
and moving out and up. Maybe 15 years for the transformation. The
kids love their villages but they're not staying there. The cities
are growing frighteningly but I see more homeless and destitute in LA
than I did anywhere I visited....

Hong Kong is built on this huge rock and you get glimpses here and
there of what it must have been but like so many other places what
Mother Nature gave us is one thing and what people have done with
it/to it is another. Virtually every square inch is occupied. An
unbelievable number of tall buildings, most of them scary, a few
stately and vestigially colonial, some good vintage modernism, but a
lot of them new, slick and oh so chic. Shopping is huge every where
whether it's street markets/vendors or malls full of Prada, Dolce,
Armani etc etc. One stunning moment was taking a taxi to what's known
as the Peak--the top of one of the mountain crests. I was expecting
what you get at the top of San Francisco peaks--a park, benches,
astounding views. I got out of the cab in an underground garage sort
of thing, and, confused, gave a look at the driver who pointed to an
escalator. Up I went into a plasti-plush shopping mall surrounded by
decks that overlooked what was once magnificent for its natural
appeal and now is awe-inspiring for the way humans have inhabited
it... Astonishing. Also cold and windy and mostly foggy. I ate some
lunch-- it's actually weird how the good places to eat are often in
the ubiquitous malls--and got back in a taxi to return to my hotel to
sleep some more. Space, by the way, is at such a premium that in the
boutique hotel where they put me up I had to do my exercises on my
bed. God forbid there had been two suitcases.

It was a good trip for VTS. It was tiring for me; can't do this
again. When I say I am too old, I fucking mean it. Still I had such
wonderful moments with dreamy people that I come away from it feeling
enriched almost as much as depleted. I invited the director of the
Mirror Foundation and any staff that could come to supper the first
evening in Chaing Rai. It was a Sunday, and we met at the night
market. Dinner for eight was $60 which one of the embassy people
insisted on splitting with me. There was a stage at one end of the
plaza where all during dinner traditional musicians were playing.
Turns out they were the opening act: the next was four drag queens
who were exquisite, on the one hand, and preposterous on the other.
What was amazing was the response: no biggy. My mouth wouldn't close;
this wasn't the east village, but everybody around me took "lady
boys" as a matter of course. So there's that factor about Thais: live
and let live. And, on the other hand, during discussions of an
African mother and child many of you would recognize, adults couldn't
really spit out the word breasts....even the translator stumbled.

Ain't life grand?

1 comment:

Hope Torrents said...

Sorry 'followers' the letter is long but worth the read, in my opinion.