Art, a pedagogic tool for urban resilience

Much has been written on the conceptual framing of urban resilience and how to operationalize it, engaging all stakeholders, and make it useful for the community. But some ambiguity around the word “community”, fueled by multiple case studies emphasizing the difficulty to reach an optimum resilience level due to limitations in “community capacity building”, may lead to some confusion. This ambiguity could increase the difficulty for experts to understand how citizens can be appropriately empowered. The question is not to know if citizens should be part of the decision process but how they could be trained to understand the meaning of the concept. This post should be seen as an open letter to artists and experts willing to commit themselves into a teaching process. It aims to explain how “Art” can contribute, as a pedagogic tool.

Resilience thinking and citizen empowerment. Resilience thinking is a matter of perspective. It goes beyond the definition of urban resilience as the ability to withstand shocks. It implies a capability to reconsider what could be seen as granted and by doing so, enables a holistic approach encompassing the ways we interact with our environment. For urban citizens, standing back from daily lives and dealing with the unexpected change is not an innate gift. Though, understanding such capability is key. It will help to build the link with experts mastering the concept of urban resilience and will enable citizens to be efficiently empowered. This being said, the pending question is how experts can fulfill their social responsibility in a transfer of knowledge from teacher to learner. Skilled and recognized experts have no or limited training in such matter. Though the sociological dimension of urban resilience advocates for a better understanding of philosophical and sociological concepts, as those developed by E. Levinas and P. Freire on alterity and dialogical pedagogy, it is unfortunate to see that few publications underline their critical role in the process of building citizens empowerment. 

What is art and what does it teach us? The very first question coming to anyone’s mind is of course “What is Art?” But the relevant point on the topic of urban resilience is not “What is Art?” It is “What Art teaches us?” The answer plays a predominant role as “Art” enables to think differently compared to more traditional ways of thinking. As such, it may be seen as endangering institutions by breaking norms and creating a counter-power. Duchamp considered “Art” as a thought and not simply for its aesthetic pleasure. The role of “Art” is not to please political institutions. By doing so, it would feed a suspicious feeling on its true nature. “Art” can be politically incorrect when needed; it should not aim to “aestheticize” politics but possibly to “politicize” aesthetics. 

Do artists give a better understanding? Art” gives a better understanding of the world. Its vision of reality enriches the collective debate, enabling a significant change by shifting the perspective to more open-minded views. It gives the opportunity to understand reality differently, either using our sense of understanding or our sense of emotions or both. It helps to identify the changes, to question possible causes, to reconsider the standard and the positions on which a policy is based. Art history is full of examples showing its pedagogic role. The Bauhaus movement is amongst the most striking with its innovative way to teach how “Art” could influence manufacturing, not speaking of the legacy of Josef Albers with the experimental Black Mountain College. The creative approach of artists should be understood independently of the creation itself. A sculpture, a painting, a poem have their own value that can be provocative, embarrassing, upsetting, radical. The artistic approach, whatever its outcome, basically aims to ask questions, to think differently, to build new narratives. Seen from this perspective, artistic approach and resilience thinking deal with the same issue: reconsidering what needs to be reconsidered. 

Art, a pedagogic tool. Pedagogy cannot be decreed; it earns to be learned. In the specific case of urban resilience, teaching is cognitively challenging. It requires an ability to share the same wording, to connect to urban citizen’s sensitivity and at the same time to contextualize the teaching. It will be meaningful at one condition: to connect to citizen’s experiences while at the same time making sure that the teaching process can inform them on the threats and challenges related to the concept of urban resilience. A critical step in building this connection will be to learn and share a common language enabling to understand the meaning of urban resilience and the philosophy backing the concept. This should be thoroughly prepared by artists and experts beforehand, to make sure that the message will be correctly understood, but also to help artists. Indeed, the artistic approach is often based on personal experience, living conditions and emotions. Writing a poem from a white sheet, painting from a blank canvas or carving a block of marble does not aim necessarily to teach something. The message does not appear always at first glance. But nothing prevents from translating emotions into a learning process. Emotions can also help us to think. 

To achieve the best pedagogic conditions, experts and artists should accept two main prerequisites:

1- Experts need to recognize their social responsibility and be involved in a transfer of knowledge from teacher to learner. Some of them may find difficult to leave their comfort zone: a transfer of knowledge also means a transfer of power; experts cannot expect to empower urban citizens and at the same time, not to be challenged if they cannot provide convincing arguments. In the way experts and artists will build their pedagogic process, a sine qua non condition needs to be respected: to make things simple though they might be complex. A good example is how to introduce the definition of urban resilience, knowing that most experts would try to encompass its full range of sociological, environmental, and urbanistic dimensions on justified grounds of their interconnection. But let’s recall that a definition is not a description. A definition sets limits while a description opens the limits. Therefore, saying that an urban space is resilient when it can integrate the occurrence of hazards without compromising its operations is an acceptable definition when the pedagogic program intends, at a further stage, to open the limits set by the definition. To avoid any misunderstanding, the objective is not to oversimplify a conceptual approach, on the contrary. Being able to contextualize the various facets of urban resilience is key to understand its conceptual dimension. 

2- Artists need to recognize their social responsibility and be involved in an artistic approach consistent with the objective to reach. Some of them may find difficult to leave their comfort zone: going beyond a natural sensitivity finding its expression in a painting, in a sculpture or in a poem is not easy, and sometimes not feasible. But artists can also be engaged to improve our well-being and well-living, using so their skills to increase our collective awareness as shown by associations like Art of Change (1), Arts everywhere (2) or Bien Urbain (3).

As explained above, it is the artistic approach that is relevant and not the work of art itself. To be used as a pedagogic tool, the approach will need to be described objectively. This could be seen as “counter-artistic” by those defending the idea that “Art” is essentially subjective. But the opposition between objectivity and subjectivity is as counterproductive as the opposition between figurative and abstract art. Though some artists may have difficulties to explain objectively their approach of “Art”, it can be assumed that those willing to engage into a learning process will have no difficulty to explain why their approach is consistent with the issues raised by urban resilience. 

Three guidelines

Guideline 1: understanding the paradigm of cognitive apprenticeship. Though pedagogy earns to be learned, self-studying is fully conceivable. A lot of publications are available online and though most of them are dedicated to a typical “teacher-student” relation, they are appropriate to acquire the basic knowledge needed to engage into a learning process gathering experts, artists, and citizens. To build their program, both artist and expert should keep in mind the following recommendations:

1- defining urban resilience as simply as possible. 2- naming the hazard(s) which is/are relevant for the urban community. 3- brainstorming on the limits of the definition and what makes it incomplete or questionable. 

Guideline 2: sharing a common language. Building a pedagogic tool based on “Art” is challenging as it relies first on building a “joint productive activity” which itself depends on the message conveyed by the artist. When an artist is influenced by his relationship with Nature, he/she will have generally no problem to translate his/her emotions into the appropriate wording. But when it comes to speak about the relations, he/she has with our urban space, the artist will have to acquire a basic knowledge of the wording used by experts, admittedly incomplete but necessary for a dialogical process. In this regard, the open access Disaster Science Vocabulary published by Ilan Kelman (4) is a valuable source of information. 

Guideline 3: selecting the appropriate artistic approach. Using art as a pedagogic tool is aimed to improve urban well-living and wellbeing. Therefore, the needs of citizens should be at the core of the process. When there is a requirement for a local community in the southern hemisphere, asking the contribution of an artist coming from the northern hemisphere with a global approach is risky as potentially off topic. Priority should be given to local artists conveying a message that could make sense for local citizens. Associations involved in the way our society can take full advantage of “Art” will play a key role by bringing together experts and artists.

Building the tripartite relationship “virtuality-reality-action”. Such tripartite relationship should be thought in terms of narrative. Narratives are commonly used during teacher to learner processes. They help to better understand our environment and are useful to create a group dynamic. In theory, a narrative should be structured to enable a quantification of its efficiency. Depending on the objective to reach (from “soft” awareness to “hard” teaching), the expert may decide to structure the teaching process accordingly. In the below example, the tripartite relationship “virtuality-reality-action” refers to the interactions between the artistic work (here, my own photographic work), the comments of the participants and the resolutions decided by the group under the expert leadership. 

An example: Dealing with communities threaten by “so-called natural disasters”(5). This photographic work raises two main questions. The first one is our emotional behavior when facing a “so-called natural disaster” (5) which can fundamentally differ from one to another. A quake talks of an irrational fear: the destruction of our matrix. Indirectly, it highlights the question of the relevance of different levels of disaster vulnerabilities. The second one is the meaning of a return to usual activities after a high level of damages. A city may find the resources to quickly resume its economy and businesses without having the appropriate infrastructures for the most vulnerable (i.e., Mexico, 1985) (6)

Though a dialogical process of learning suggests a co-working approach, it should be stated that the role of teacher and learner are fundamentally different. The teacher, in our case the expert, is the leader. During the tripartite relationship “virtuality-reality-action”, the relevant questions need to be anticipated, determined, and prepared by the teacher beforehand, with the cooperation of the artist. In our example, the teaching process will need to encompass the following:

1- the sociological causes of so-called natural disasters (5) 2- the relation between resilience and vulnerability 3- the question of bouncing back (business as usual) vs bouncing forward 4- a comparison with Japan and their risk management approach in case of earthquakes 5- a general conclusion on the meaning of urban resilience for the group of citizens 6- a plan of actions 

The fiction of shakes, a virtual scenette

More informations on the photographic work here

Citizen 1 to Yky: Your work is really frightening. There is broken glass everywhere. Obviously, everyone is dead in this landscape.

Citizen 2 to Yky: How can you speak about urban resilience when everything looks destroyed?

Yky to citizens: Yes, quakes are frightening. When I started this work, I was wondering: “How is it possible that people can ever adapt to a seismic environment? I still wonder. Are we less vulnerable in case of flooding?”

Expert to citizens: At first glance, this work does not look very encouraging. But before concluding that nothing can be done in case of quakes, we should ask ourselves a first question: What has caused such a mess, as shown in the picture?

Yky to expert: Mother Nature obviously.

Expert to citizens: Yky‘s answer makes sense. What do you think?

Citizen 1: Hold on. What about the infrastructures? Did they comply with seismic norms?

Expert to citizen 1: Probably not …

Citizen 2 to Yky: And what about people? We see nobody in your work. Are they all dead?

Yky to Citizen 2: Oh, no. They are neither dead nor alive. They are not here. I did not know how to show a sign of human activity. I wanted to underline the question of vulnerability.

Citizen 2 to Yky: What do you mean?

Expert to citizens: I think I understand what Yky wants to say. The work does not say anything about the social positions of the inhabitants. A high-income person can be less vulnerable than a low-income person. Can you figure how?

All citizens together: For sure! The rich one had his private jet and could leave quickly after the first quake. And the poor one, as always, had no other place to go …

Expert to citizens: This seems to be a general rule. Low income people are always the most vulnerable. Some of you may have higher income than others. So, knowing we all live in a seismic zone, what should we do to prepare ourselves before and after the quake? And then, let’s see with Yky if another approach of his work is conceivable.

Citizen 3 to expert: Excuse me. I do not want to spoil your teaching process. But I am sure you are going to show us nice examples of what other threaten communities do. And this is OK with me. But what worries me more, are the decisions that local authorities will take in terms of going back as quickly as possible to the situation that prevailed before the quake. What I see in Yky’s work is not very optimistic.

Yky’s answer: Well, it depends on how you will consider it. You may see only a broken path filled with pieces of glass. But this path may also lead to a new way of living together, should it help to become aware of our fragility. Why is it that we are so vulnerable and what could we do about it?

Expert’s answer: If we sum up what we have discussed, I see three points on which I propose to elaborate: 1- What do we mean by “(so-called) natural disasters” and are they comparable to each other? 2- What do we mean by “vulnerability”? 3- When we say that we want to come back to a “normal” situation, what does this mean? Let’s try to answer those questions before answering the final one: What should be done to be prepared and to anticipate a quake?


  5. The wording “so-called natural disaster” expresses the view that there is no natural disaster (but only natural hazards) and in the same time recalls the consequences of human activity on Nature in the Anthropocene.
  6. The Resilient City, MIT, Diane E. Davis, p 255