Change from within

The TRACTION project and the power to transform institutions, networks, individuals and, eventually, systems.

Performance at Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon © Joaquim Dâmaso / SAMP

To create positive and lasting social change, major improvements must be made at the systems level of an issue area. This entails reconfiguring policies, processes, and power structures to remedy complex issues such as poverty, social justice, health disparities, and more.[1]

As a project manager at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation who, among other responsibilities, manages grants targeting social transformation through participatory, co-creation artistic practices, I’ve been in a privileged position to witness some very ground-breaking, innovative and powerful moments during the last 15 years.

When you’ve seen so much good work, it is unusual to feel surprised or profoundly shaken by an artistic experience. Sometimes, however, you’re brought back to earth and your perspectives are truly challenged and awakened, as I was by the events I experienced in Leiria and Lisbon during the month of June 2022.

In less than 15 days, I attended three stage performances of the TRACTION Portuguese Opera trial O Tempo (somos nós) –“Time (As We Are)”–an international conference and several “behind the scenes” moments in between.

One consistent line of reflection that continues to visit me is the capacity of the TRACTION project to provoke—I can almost say require—changes from within at several levels: institutional, network, individual.

As Valentí Oviedo, General Director of the Gran Theatre del Liceu, mentioned during the International Conference Building Capabilities: Rethinking the Social Value of Culture, institutions such as Opera Houses should endeavour to question themselves, including their actions towards being, as they intend, accessible spaces (in a multi-dimensional perspective). The work being promoted through TRACTION at Liceu is no doubt provoking inner change, demanding from all Liceu staff a different engagement and consciousness of the geographical and social context they are embedded in. Working with the “Manteros” of Top Manta and other participants within the neighbourhood, the approach followed in the Barcelona trial has contributed to a different prioritization within Liceu, a perspective which is key in current times.

Through similar projects supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation during these years, I’ve witnessed the Foundation change, become more aware and conscious of its audiences and the gaps that need to be addressed. With that purpose, it has defined new lines of action to embed participatory, co-creative practices in several of its direct cultural activities.

Something very similar was witnessed during the “O Tempo (somos nós)” performances, within the prison in Leiria, but also at the Gulbenkian Foundation main auditorium: the very conventional Gulbenkian Foundation Orchestra was visibly touched and changed in these few days of work with SAMP’s professional artists and, especially, with the non-professional (inmate) artists. To witness the quick alignment achieved with so few rehearsals and, at the end of each performance, the smiles and shared sense of belonging and identity was surprising and very enriching, not only for spectators such as myself, but also as I’ve also been told, by the Orchestra members themselves.

SAMPs artistic Director Paulo Lameiro reported that one of the senior musicians from the Gulbenkian Orchestra shared with him after performing, that it was one of the very few occasions when they had played using all their “heart muscles”.

How much does a Prison need to change from within to allow for such projects to be developed in house, adding to this already quite complex setting, the technological dimension? It’s surprising and amazing to see how prisons (in Portugal but also in other countries) have started to become more open and conscious of the value of participatory artistic processes in social transformation and even a reduction in the rate of recidivism.

The Prison Staff, from the guards to the Director, not forgetting the different technical teams (some of whom also participated on stage at the end of each presentation), have been key in allowing these projects to happen. At the same time, they’ve also been directly impacted and given new tools and knowledge that can support a rethinking of current, quite traditional ideas, set in stone over time and without considering education through the arts approaches.

Performance in EPL-J prison, Leiria © Gil de Lemos / SAMP

At an individual level, the project spans a wide range–attendees, professional artists, technicians, social practitioners, researchers, direct participants and their families and friends. In this respect, knowing that several situations could be shared in this post, I’ll concentrate on one particular case:

Mário (fictional name) was sentenced to a long period of detention. During it, he participated in two previous Opera projects – Don. Giovanni (2014-2016) and Cosí Fan Tutte (2017-2019). Following his release, Mário is living in the north of Portugal, around 250 kilometres away from Leiria. On Saturday, on my way to attend the performance within Leiria prison, I ended going through the security check and entering the prison at exactly the same time as Mário and his girlfriend. I overheard his comments and observations while we walked the 500 metres, give or take, towards the Tanoaria, where the performance would be held. Mário was “back in jail” but completely transformed, empowered and with a sense of pride at having been part of similar projects in the past. To bring your girlfriend on a date to a prison where you’ve been locked up many years of your life is not very conventional and, I would say, could entail some risks. In this case, it was absolutely the opposite. Benefiting from the fact that there were some pictures of previous initiatives on display, Mário shared with his partner stories about his personal accomplishments back then, when he became one of the leading faces of the project. I have no doubt that the Opera in Prison project contributed to shape many “Marios” and avoid a path of recidivism and further incarceration.

The TRACTION project, through its continuous connection between art practitioners and knowledgeable academics and evaluators, has allowed for “intersectional pollination processes”, shrinking gaps that traditionally exist between these two universes, contributing to a mutual, comprehensive (sometimes almost “natural and painless”) change process.

All these changes from within, from donors and public institutions that are famously rigid and adverse to change, professional practitioners and non-professional artists, to researchers, conventional culture and public art, all contribute, I believe, towards the questioning of the aforementioned set in stone systems, proposing reconfigurations of power structures, and piloting new processes and methods which target solutions to complex problems.

The TRACTION partnership is clearly leading the experimental field of technology in the arts and cultural sector towards social transformation, aiming at a more cohesive society. Art allied with technology is contributing to a new world and international partnerships like TRACTION are leading the way on that journey.

Hugo de Seabra – Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 6 July 2022

[1] In Milken Institute: