Reflections on ‘The Butterfly Effect: The Art and Performance of Social Transformation’

The Lennon King Wall, part of The Butterfly Effect event

The Lennon King Wall, part of The Butterfly Effect event

On January 25, 2015, at Saybrook’s Spring Residential Conference for the Schools of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Inquiry, Clinical Psychology, and Organizational Leadership and Transformation, students and faculty put on a community-wide event, “The Butterfly Effect: The Art and Performance of Social Transformation.”

Click here for link to the video of Joel Federman’s presentation on “Open Source Politics” at that event. Here, we asked the two students who curated the event, Monisha Rios and Anthony Julius Williams, to reflect on their experiences.

What was the inspiration behind the workshop and event?

Monisha: Great question! For me, the inspiration arrived on numerous paths.  An event like this has been in my mind for years, thanks in part to a collaborative CS/TCS seminar on art and social change.  I didn’t envision it happening at Saybrook until the Fall 2014 RC during the TCS seminar on reclaiming common space, where Anthony, Marc Pilisuk, and I chatted about the idea of an experiential social justice art installation in the halls of the Westin (our Saybrook commons).

I believe that in the bigger picture our field in its totality has the capacity to generate large-scale social and environmental change – for better, worse, and everything in between.  Saybrook University occupies a unique position in that it brings people together from all sorts of places, with varying interests and experiences, many of which intersect.  I’ve noticed over the years, that students, faculty, and staff are pulled in so many incredible directions at RC’s that we often miss opportunities to connect across specializations.  We miss chances to inform one another’s work.  We miss crucial events.  For example, why do we have to choose between the Diversity Lunch and other necessary obligations, when diversity is essential to our function in communities?

As an anti-oppressionist systems-thinker with a clinical background, I was frustrated by this observation.  That insular silo-effect can have a detrimental impact on the bigger picture.  We see that happen in our everyday lives, on our jobs, in our clients’ lives, and in global events.  Why maintain the status quo when we can innovate sustainable new approaches?  I wondered what would happen if, using art as a vehicle, we deconstructed those silos and converged at the center of our intersectionality (click me), in the middle of the Venn Diagram of our oppression and solutions to oppression, if you will.  And that’s why the question “How do creativity, chaos theory, and psychology inform the art of transformative social change?” set the stage for the project.  I imagine the possibilities even as I write this response.

Anthony: I met Monisha at my very first RC in Fall 2013 because we both attended these incredibly interesting seminars in creativity studies and social change. Even though I didn’t know much about chaos theory, as soon as she mentioned it to me at the Fall 2014 RC, I knew there was something there – it was a classic “aha! moment” for me. Later investigations taught me that emergence and self-organization are concepts central to chaos theory, and of course those are important processes for artists and activists as well. Because Saybrook students are here to transform themselves and their communities, I thought they might be inspired by what complexity theory has to offer them and their work in the world. This connection to “hard science” is crucial to make as we seek to protect Saybrook’s mission to advance humanistic values in a world increasingly dominated by science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

For the layperson, what is chaos theory?  How is it relevant to creativity and social change?

Monisha: Think of the Ripple Effect or the Butterfly Effect (pun intended! oh, and click me).  In terms of relevance to creativity and social change, the relationship between social science and storytelling comes to mind.  One of my favorite examples is film.  There are a myriad of socially and environmentally conscious films that have introduced audiences to new ideas about their roles in the world, inspiring them to participate in change rather than simply standby and watch.  One that has profoundly impacted me is Beyond Borders (2003), starring Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen.  It’s a film that challenges privilege, exceptionalism, and detached philanthropy.  It’s the film that really propelled Angelina Jolie’s involvement in international human rights work.  I follow her humanitarian work and her use of storytelling through filmmaking as a means of taking social action.  This year’s Academy Awards was full of other pertinent examples.

Anthony:  Chaos theory arose from meterologist Ed Lorenz’ attempts to model weather patterns in order to improve forecasting. One day he input rounded data rather than exact data into his computer, and rather than getting a slightly different model, he wound up with a vastly different one. That’s the Butterfly Effect: a slight change in initial conditions can lead to huge changes later on (the proverbial butterfly in Brazil produces the tornado in Texas). Sensitivity to initial conditions, in addition to determinism and recurrence, define a chaotic system. Right there, you have a great set of metaphors for creativity and social change: artists and activists are sensitive to the conditions of our lives, the current aesthetic and political determinisms elicit our small repeated actions, and over time those actions can lead to global effects.

Chaos theory has a lot to say about creativity, activism and psychology because all of these are nonlinear systems—and its mathematical equations are direct sources of intricately multidimensional beautiful fractal art. Briggs and Peat’s Turbulent Mirror and Seven Life Lessons of Chaos are accessible starting points into the science and humanities of chaos – and I want to add that psychologists such as Adrienne Harris, Terry Marks-Barlow and Bradford Keeney are deploying complexity theory to powerful effect as explanations of how clients experience gender, family systems and mental health.

How have you two collaborated on developing the curriculum?

Monisha: Our team’s creative process was holistic and evolved naturally. We spent a lot of time communicating as friends, as people overcoming multiple oppressions, as artists with mutual and independent visions, as fellow students, as worker bees, as change agents.   We honored each other’s ideas and strove to maintain the integrity of our vision as we went along.  We sought counsel from our sponsoring faculty and invited them to participate in constructing the content.  It was important to us that the event be as inclusive and participatory as time and resources allowed.  Working together in person at the RC was the icing on the cake!  I’d co-create with Team Butterfly Effect again any day.

Anthony: Ditto! Monisha and I have complementary strengths that made for more than the sum of its parts. She had the initial idea and I developed the concept; she was diplomatic and I was strategic; we both used our energy, focus and creativity to solicit the tremendous support the project received from Saybrook faculty, staff and students.

Prof. Ruth Richards’ enthusiasm and Prof. Joel Federman’s sweat equity were as phenomenal as their respective brilliant presentations on chaos theory and social transformation. We both had in-depth conversations with our fellow students to develop their contributions to the show: Theron Fairchild’s artistic PowerPoint on initial conditions; Gloria Chance’s film on imagination; Melinda Rothouse’s sonic meditation; Larry Graber and Kat Rosemund’s drumming circle; Karel Bouse’s Appalachian vision; Carrie Pate’s socially conscious poetry; Anne Vanderlaan’s nature paintings; Richard Talley’s stained glass; and Joel’s “Saybrook Lennon King Wall” out in the hallways allowed us to reclaim the commons while surfacing a much-needed discussion about #blacklivesmatter.

I kicked off the event with a poem about butterfly power and facilitated a group improvisation about Saybrook issues, and Monisha closed us out with a powerhouse speech about student activism. Monisha has become a well-known activist on military sexual trauma, and I’ve long been active on criminal justice reform, but looking back at the event, the issue that really came to fore was conditions for students. There are a huge number of critical issues facing the world right now, but it always comes down to the fact that the personal is political. Activism always begins at home!

What do you hope the Saybrook community will gain from this experience?

Anthony: I hope we’ve demonstrated that student-led projects have a powerful contribution to make at Saybrook, and I hope it leads to vigorous student representation at all levels of decision-making at Saybrook. As the University undergoes a re-organization, let’s all work together to ensure that the amazing butterfly power here is deployed to full effect both inside and outside our virtual learning community.

Monisha:  Ultimately, I hope The Butterfly Effect lives up to its name.  I hope it evolves into something beyond its intentions.  I’d like to see it propel us into more collaborative projects between schools and specializations that have a tangible, visible, uplifting impact on the world around us in real-time.  I hope it will empower the Saybrook community to unite in the embodiment of our Mission and Core Values.