Collective Recipe – social overwhelm
İpek Burçak spoke to art and cultural workers about making the choice to participate in important collective / collaborative work (e.g., solidarity events, protests, self-organised reading groups, mutual aid groups, and work feedback groups for artists/academics, etc.) in spite of the possibility of a tense social situation that may become overwhelming/tiring. Participants give some insight into how they stay active in these areas while negotiating feelings of social overwhelm and anxiety, as well as possible ways to make such spaces more welcoming.
- Do you have special hints for yourself to feel comfortable or less overwhelmed before / during / after such a meeting?
- What do you think people who are co-organizers of such an event could do better to meet your needs/help you feel less overwhelmed with social interaction?
- You don’t have any answer to these but would like to share something else about such a situation (experience/anger/disappointment/gratitude/other feelings)?
If it is an open event/space it helps to bring someone with me/go with someone I know. If I don’t know anyone in the space I feel completely lost and have a hard time engaging with it.
Also having someone else to rely on is helpful when I’m too overwhelmed and need to leave/take a break.
In these complex social spaces I also often function better when the rule set is clear to me: As an example, I did tech support for a community festival a couple of times. Having something to do and just knowing that I have a reason to be in a space and can use that as a platform to engage with people made it less stressful (I know when and where I needed to be). I have had similar experiences with things like writing protocol for a work meetup. Something that helps me focus on a task and makes it ok if I don’t engage in the conversation for a bit.
But I am also questioning if there is something off about this: That I can only participate in such spaces if I have a purpose/if I am working??
Take some time off, depending on how exhausting the event was, at least a day of quiet/alone time with no (social) obligations whenever that’s possible. Also staying at home. In that time I don’t check or answer mails and other messages (which is in general a helpful practice: not having the feeling that I need to reply immediately all the time or be available all the time). Maybe just taking some time to work on my own projects/doing research and such.
I had bad experiences with communication in social work/aid groups. Where not all the communication/info was available to me (i.e. people having to reschedule or notices for next meetings that get distributed via internal ways of communication or person to person).
Being really explicit with information and channels of communication/where to get access to info is for me one of the most important things.
The same goes for spaces I want to engage with but am unfamiliar with, I feel a lot of knowledge is peer-to-peer which can be a quite exclusionary practice.
I believe that in order to feel less overwhelmed in this or any other situation, it is important to know what you want from the situation you are in. And when one is clear about what he really wants to do in this assignment, that is where the concentration should be. Perhaps when someone is in a workgroup, one can feel that people have expectations of how one should be. I think if it’s a good working group, the members are open to finding solutions and it can be helpful to be honest about how you feel and seek a solution if something doesn’t work for you.
I think that the organizers should be clear from the beginning about the way they want to work, visibility in the way work is planned and show themselves as a person who is there for team communication. I think it is important to understand what kind of people you are working with, not only to have the vision of the professional background and understand where that person comes from and look for a point of connection that helps them interact with more ease, openness and fluidity.
I tend to overplan everything in my head a lot before meetings and events where I am contributing something. Often it feels like it helps with confidence or helps me to orient myself when I start to feel overwhelmed but it can also be exhausting and time consuming so I need time after to recover. I am also getting better at leaving things early without feeling too much guilt when it becomes too much.
Communication around expectations and keeping things to allotted time frames really helps, and also thinking about other options for interacting when it becomes too much. I really appreciate when events have quiet spaces that you can go and sit down in when you need to (more seating for all!) but this is still quite rare.
The art collective that I am part of (Make-Up Space) is starting a 6-month program of events, exhibitions and workshops at the end of January. As a group, we are using the template of the ‘disability riders‘ (using the work of artists like Johanna Hedva, etc., as inspiration) to create a form that asks each artist how best to communicate with them, disabilities and needs that we should all be aware of, expectations of the project and any important information. So far, we’ve had one meeting about it and people are really receptive and it feels like a way that I can talk about what to do when I experience social overwhelm and anxiety. We are going to keep meeting as a group to go through them and keep talking about it because it’s a new concept for a lot of us so it’s a lot of work but hopefully it will be a tool that we use for all projects, and have confidence to use it when working with other institutions.
I try to take at least one hour per day to rest in order to recover from overwhelming group situations. Guided meditation sometimes helps me.
I find it easier to take part in meetings that are not too strictly structured. It is always good when there is room to overturn what has been planned and to find other structures together that mean more freedom for everyone. There should also be enough breaks.
Thinking about the social anxiety I might have before entering a situation without knowing, I might need to motivate myself and think about / concentrate on the aspects that wake my interest.
After, I want to do something relaxing, and try to reduce my social media use.
I might not feel comfortable going to gatherings with a specific purpose if almost every person in the group is white European, even though that purpose interests me. In that regard, I think organizers could do more effort actively instead of just ‘being open for everyone regardless of gender, race, etc.’ which doesn’t necessarily achieve that by itself. There can be more space for quietness and less forced-from-top ‘democratic equality’, but also they should keep in mind that some people tend to take too much space unless someone takes attention away. So keeping these in balance would provide a good basic structure, I guess. Being able to come and leave the room unnoticed feels very welcoming as well.
I think one of the essential things organizers of meetings, or workshops alike could do is to plan those events in such a way that they don’t put the participants in a spot that they don’t necessarily want to be in. This means for example that usually in workshop-like situations, you are asked to work in certain ways or complete tasks, such as working in groups or having to come up with a result before the next meeting, etc. Structuring the event this way could be productive for some, but overwhelming for others. I think it is important to find a balance between creating meaningful social interaction and giving everyone breathing space, which could be challenging considering different needs and expectations. I sometimes find certain themes in workshops or events very interesting, but because of how those events are structured, I hesitate to join. From my experience, sometimes the organizers might feel obligated to be ‘participatory’ or have the desire to conclude their event with a collective result; and this could lead to a certain level of ‘pushy’ or artificial participation, which in turn actually facilitates the opposite effect.
1) So much of my work and practice within culture and politics involves working under pressure and to implement the best possible outcome. It is never easy and mostly overwhelming, especially in terms of delivery and working with a team. Over the past year I have become less anxious and more motivated. I think this is because I understand the practicalities better, however there are coping mechanisms which work for me. For instance I switch off all my social media, information can be very overwhelming especially when struggling with bi-polar. There are way too many feelings and thoughts which begin to take over the actual work, but those feelings can easily be turned into ideas especially when you’re working with a set group who understand your brain. I communicate with the team knowing I can present ideas, but have difficulty with beginning. How to start off with this idea? What does it look like, how will I be able to demonstrate this idea? Do I have enough information? These are the questions I begin to form to help me structure my process.
2) Co-organisers usually don’t make things easier, as one size doesn’t fit all of us. Being overwhelmed is a difficult process and I think being honest with the people you are working with is the best practice. We all work differently, we all learn differently. Political organising can be quite different in comparison to working within the arts. There isn’t a strict protocol and what’s pivotal is to make everyone feel understood, and work at a pace which is considered rather than expected. Social interaction means to feel available and most of the time we feel distracted, usually because we want the best possible outcome as our work is never about the individual. We feel distracted because our political climate is unclear. Therefore co-organisers need to consider the effects and work around the emotional implications it has on a person and set an understanding of needing and wanting to inspire a discourse.
Thank you to all participants for taking the time to share their thoughts and experiences.
Ipek Burçak is an artist, working across a variety of media, including video, installation, sculpture, new media, performance, and artists’ books. Her process often results in world-building while exploring the entanglements between human and non-human beings, social space, anti-ableist approaches, and narratives hidden under technologies. In her installations, she searches for gritty aesthetics beyond the flat and clean visual language. Ipek Burçak is the co-founder of the publishing collective Well Gedacht Publishing, where she co-produces artists’ publications in various forms in collaboration with other diasporic artists. She lives in Berlin.