May 31, 2024

“United on the hill of support” – Kristīne Brīniņa at Liepāja Catholic Primary School

As part of the project, seven Latvian artists visited six schools throughout Latvia where they took part in art residencies with students.
Read and get to know what Kristīne Brīniņa did in Liepāja!

Who? The artist Kristīne Brīniņa with Grade 3 and Grade 7 students
When? From February till May 2023, for 4 months
Where? At Liepāja Catholic Primary School
Other people involved? Teachers of two classes – Dana Liepa (theatre) and Liene Mileiko (visual arts)

Watch here: Kristīne Brīniņa’s residency at the Liepāja Catholic Primary School

When you are small, everything seems united. Adventures, friendships, discoveries, sorrows and joys extend one another continuously, and the world is a common space for everyone, where you can safely pursue new goals and turn for support in a difficult moment. As we grow, cracks begin to appear in this wholeness, and at some point we find ourselves alone, each on our own rock, seemingly separated by impassable canyons. How to create bridges over them again to reach one another in an atmosphere of steady trust?

The artist Kristīne Brīniņa is an independent choreographer, dancer and performer. She has been nominated for the Latvian Dance Award several times, whereas in 2023 she received the “Spēlmaņu nakts” (“Players’ Night”) award for Choreography of the Year in multiple theatre performances. Kristīne also works with text and directing; in her works, she goes beyond the usual boundaries of the stage, using movement to engage with the urban environment as well as with very personal territories in relationships and in everyday experiences. Her works are empathetic, feminist and are an invitation to give an opportunity also to those who are less heard.

As the venue of her residency, Kristīne has chosen Liepāja Catholic Primary School. It is a private school and it provides education also for children with functional disabilities. This is one of Kristine’s initial goals – to create, with the students, not only a work of art, but also a safe environment that would promote understanding, inclusion and trust. Together with her students, using methods rooted in dance, she wants to build a space for development, in which the most important thing is not a grade in a journal, but self-discovery, expression, and emotional well-being, through this renegotiating relationships between classmates as well.

The school management offers Kristīne to work with Grade 3 and Grade 7. She decides to work with both at the same time, so that she can compare the students in their childhood to those in their teenage years – how their opinions, worldviews develop and change. In order to integrate the artist’s residency with the compulsory school curriculum more successfully, it is decided to integrate it into Visual Art classes in Grade 3, and to combine it with the Fundamentals of Theatre class in Grade 7, which takes place once every two weeks. Accordingly, Kristine also chooses two different directions in how to work with the students, adapted to the needs of each age group. In both, she is looking for ways to help children believe in themselves and become more self-confident, and to learn how to overcome the less bright moments more easily.

In total, the artist meets with the students eleven times, and each masterclass is 2 x 40 minutes long. She develops the lesson plan in advance and uses various choreography tasks and exercises, but, at the same time, there is also space left for the unknown – for the creation of ideas, the development of collaboration between groups and mutual relations. The first meeting is an introduction with both of the classes being together.

From the beginning, students try to understand what dance really is or isn’t. Should it be considered dance only when everyone moves together in the same way, or is it something more after all? Little by little, through conversations and examples – fragments of works by contemporary choreographers shown in presentations as well as movements performed by the students themselves – the students decide that anything can be a dance, as long as the dancer himself or the observer deems it to be that. Later, Grade 7 also employs these conclusions in a conversation with Kristine after attending Liene Grava’s play “Tīklā” (“In the Net”) dedicated to teenagers together.

The lessons take place in the classroom, deftly rearranging the room every time. Sometimes the groups also go outside, in the schoolyard. To make it easier for everyone to get together for collaborative work, Kristīne uses the tips she learned during a meeting with the leaders of the “Mellene” children’s camps organized to support artists in residence – how, for example, to sustain and mediate students’ attention using playful elements. In order to establish mutual respect in the group, everyone participates in creating shared rules. Unlike several other residents of “The Artist is Present,” Kristīne works without the help of an art mediator-assistant, so the presence of teachers who look after the children and help explain more complicated terms, but do not directly interfere in the collaboration between the artist and the children, is of great support.

To feel more united, each group comes up with its own name for their creative team: Grade 3 students are the “Dancing Cosmic Dogs” and Grade 7 students become the “Night Moths.” Among the students there are also some with hearing and movement disabilities. In each lesson, Kristīne invites those present to participate in various choreographic exercises and tasks. The artist wants to show students that dance is not just a series of memorized and repeated steps to the rhythm of music, but a way to communicate with the world. Kristīne asks the students to imagine various non-standard and abstract situations, which can be solved only using movement. She shows how to find and feel yourself in a room. The pupils must not only perform physically, but also try to formulate what they have done in words and conclusions after the process. Some exercises, for example: moving together like a flock of birds; imagining yourself as water, wood, rubber; painting with the body – envisioning how to leave one’s imprint in the room using the body.

At the same time, it is important for Kristīne to talk with the children – about everyday life, their mood and major life events – and to try to get to know each one of them. She also observes the class as a whole and its dynamics, paying strong attention to it, and concludes that the Grade 3 students are open and free, while the Grade 7 students are much more shy and withdrawn. Kristīne concludes that in this group, although in a hidden way, there is emotional violence between the students. This raises the question – is “The Artist is Present” not only an art and education project, but also a social project, and can joint art activities have a therapeutic, unifying task? Over time, contradictions also arise between the artistic process, which is free-flowing and unpredictable, and the requirements of the educational system, which requires an accurate but limited assessment of the students’ achievements. Sometimes it is impossible to reconcile both approaches.

From the very beginning, the artist and the children agree that they will work TOGETHER on the creation of the exhibition work – both her and the students will be the co-authors and performers, and therefore, to achieve good results, the contribution of all those involved is important. The young participants appreciate such trust. Even before choosing a particular school to work with, the artist had ideas about an artwork dedicated to the relationship between children and adults – what the little ones would like to say to the grownups if they had a safe communication channel. In this way, gradually getting to know each other and getting to know each other’s interests, together, the participants also choose topics to develop within the framework of the initial idea. They choose topics which affect the students themselves and their emotional experiences. The keywords for the work-in-the-making are: violence, equality, empathy, compassion.

The participating teachers say the following about cooperation with Kristīne Brīniņa and her residency at Liepāja Catholic Primary School: “As the artist was working, I saw quite a lot of tasks I knew (moreso during the warm-up process), which I will continue to use in the theatre lessons I lead, and I will also try to integrate some of the choreography tasks in them.” (Dana Liepa, Theatre). “The students were a bit shy at first, but they looked forward to every class with great interest. There were students who did not particularly want to get involved in the activities, but completed the tasks according to their character and skill level. The artist conducted the lessons to the fullest and used all the time provided. It reinforced what the students had learned, and something new was offered every time as well, so it was interesting for the children.” (Liene Mileiko, Visual Arts).

At the end of the residency at the Catholic Primary School, Kristīne and her students are clear about what ideas to develop at the Valmiera Contemporary Art Summer Camp and to later present at the exhibition in the Vidzeme Market as part of the Survival Kit 14 festival. Their exhibition is called “The Market of Children’s Thoughts” and it includes several works. In Valmiera, together with Marta, Matīss and Elīza the artist records a part of the exhibition’s soundtrack and continues to film videos involving movement. The Norwegian collective Tenthaus is involved in mentorship remotely in this “The Artist Is Present” residency as well, sharing their experience and advising the artist individually. However, most important was Kristīne’s cooperation with “The Artist Is Present” project manager Māra Žeikare, who not only provided technical support, but also helped with polishing the idea of ​​the exhibition work and choosing the most successful form in which to bring it to life.

The purposeful creative process which lasted more than half a year has resulted in the creation of the “Market of Children’s Thoughts,” located in a small, yellow kiosk at the end of the former Milk Pavilion. This market, in which the visitor can hear children’s voices and get their advice, includes several multimedia works. The 11-minute long video installation “Body Prints” was created by the Grade 7 “Night Moths” team. Just like moths, they are often not visible during the day, but when there is a light source present, they unite and try to achieve a common goal. In the video installation, the youths reveal the world of their thoughts with honesty and courage, hoping to be heard and understood. In everyday life, they don’t always tell adults the truth because they are afraid of what the reaction will be. In the market of ideas, they won’t lie. Actually, they don’t want to lie anymore at all.

Whereas in the series of 9 videos titled “Movement Tips for a Sad Day” the Grade 3 students (a.k.a. “Dancing Cosmic Dogs”) show how to try out the movement tips they created for a sad day. These are suggestions for what to do if adults feel sad or lonely. Nine television sets show choreography instructions – children are invited to repeat the movements, maybe then it will create joy. There is also a counter with postcards. Visitors are invited to participate in the thought market and to write their suggestions for a sad day, or thoughts they are afraid to say out loud but would like to share with others, on the white postcards lined up on the counter. Visitors are also invited to buy the children’s thought cards displayed at the stand, by exchanging them for their own creations.

During the opening of the “The Artist Is Present” exhibition, the Liepāja Catholic Primary School students create a bodily installation “Mountain of Support.” It is a physical metaphor for the courage to assert oneself and realize oneself as a strong, full-fledged person and as a part which supports the size and strength of a greater whole. For a moment, the students face each other and everyone present on the hill which rises above the asphalt of the market square, and that momentary, wordless connection, full of mutual trust, brings about something bigger and something dreamlike, only for the participants to let go of it and to be by their own selves again right afterwards.

Kristīne’s insights:

  • The usual way of assessment in schools is contrary to the premise of the creative process. There must be another model found for how this type of residency program is integrated into the curriculum. Creativity is an individual expression that is subject to internal processes and shapes the child’s contact with himself. For such a process to be successful and for the child to learn self-expression, through which he learns something new about himself and develops an ability to creatively reflect on his feelings and relationships with others and the world in general, it is essential to get rid of the burden of criticism and negative evaluation. Otherwise, in conditions where self-expression is graded, contact with creativity can lead to stress, to a bad experience of the creative process itself and negative attitude towards oneself. This can have a negative overall impact on the child. The child’s only motivation to participate in creative classes should be his own interest, which can arise with the help of conversation and encouragement from the class facilitator.
  • In my opinion, the creative process has the central importance in places where the only result worth paying attention to is the student’s well-being. The result in the form of art will arise inevitably. And it will be diverse if we will rely on the dynamic with and abilities of each child in the creative process. It is about being able to trust the child, which would allow him to feel accepted, supported and happy.
  • It would be valuable if such residencies would take place on a cyclical basis, rather than as regularly as other subjects. They should be modules in which instructors and content continuously change, continuing to shape the psychological, emotional and creative growth of the personality.
  • It is important to understand that the children and I are a united creative team making a collaborative work about what children find important.
  • The peace gained psychologically, the free space for self-expression and other forms of collaboration with classmates and teachers developed during the art residency is a favorable condition which makes it easier to absorb the learning material of other subjects as well. Creativity boosts self-confidence and serves as motivation to find diverse learning approaches.