Art and Animals 1: Collective Learning


“Perhaps art begins with the animal”, ask Deleuze and Guattari in What is Philosophy?

And perhaps recent examples of participatory experiences involving animals is a good starting point to explore new ways to engage and develop audiences.

As a first “Art and Animals” entry, I wanted to come back to TransHumance, a large-scale participatory experience hailed as the highlight of Marseille 2013 European Capital of Culture.

Transhumance – from the latin trans – across and humus – land: the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures.

Transhumance is a century-old practice, developed on all inhabited continents. In Provence, it has shaped the landscape and created exchange and circulation, of people, animals, stories and seeds.

After a sharp decline in the 20th century, it is currently garnering a new surge of interest in France.  As herds of sheep, cows or goats are guided along well-defined routes – that need to be carefully negotiated with local authorities and landowners – villages along the way celebrate this seasonal event with festivities and educational opportunities about pastoralism.

Théâtre du Centaure, a Marseille-based company working exclusively with horses, have conceived TransHumance (note the emphasis on the Human) as a vast participatory experience for Marseille European Capital of Culture 2013. Starting on 17th May in Italy, Camargue and Provence, 3 groups will converge near Marseille, gather for a transcultural celebration, and walk through Marseille on 9th June.

TransHumance features horses and their riders, livestock, land art, animal choreography (for which the term animaglyphs was coined) and village fêtes.

Audience participation is encouraged before, during and after the experience, offering different ways of contributing to the work, but also of learning:

While these opportunities are open to everyone, TransHumance is also working closely with the Academie d’Aix Marseille (regional school board), which represents about 200,000 pupils, from elementary to secondary schools, to embed arts, sciences, philosophy and digital skills projects into their 2012-2013 curriculum. Suggested pedagogic projects are outlined here. TransHumance is also featured in the free collection of “dossiers pédagogiques” (learning files) called Pièce (dé)montée, offered to teachers to prepare their class for a touring play.

The TransHumance trail starts on 17th May – a free app is available to follow the live journey, and active phones on the sponsor network will be visible on an augmented-reality 3D map – but audience engagement starts much before: the calendar on this regional school board document states that the first call to schools was scheduled for January 2012.

One class has taken the project at heart: the “classe d’accueil” of the Vieux Port secondary school, in Marseille, open to children learning French as a second language, coming from Afghanistan, Algeria, Armenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and many more countries. They are writing a year-round blog inspired by the project: poems about identity, visits to exhibitions, and other ways to help them discover their new city and culture, learn French and develop friendships and common points of interest.

Not all learning opportunities are aimed at schools: in conjunction with TransHumance, free workshops are offered in Marseille to train to be a dance “guide” for BalBêtes, the giant ball organised where the three trails meet, before the Great Crossing of Marseille. As several thousands of people are expected for this evening of traditional dances, each “guide” has to commit to train ten “mirror dancers”, who will in turn help participants to follow the steps and enjoy the choreographies.

And to finish, here’s the teaser video created by Théâtre du Centaure, marrying the strange and the mundane with its centaures visiting the busiest train station in Marseille.

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