While I was reading the articles assigned for class introducing us to Liisa Robert’s film, “What’s the Time is Vyborg?” on a Sunday afternoon, I instantly was inspired by her work. I believe this inspiration came from the many layers this project presented and how she and her collaborators successfully captured the history of the Finnish-Russian conflict, the current state of Vyborg, Russia, the story of the famous Finnish Library by architect Alvar Aalto, and the perspectives of some local Russian high school students in a creative writing workshop. I believe my interest also stems from my own Masters Thesis Project that looks at using place as a way for students to create narratives that critically reflect on their relationship with their local environments. Thanks to Drea, Hannah and I were able to meet with Liisa before she took off to the airport and was able to learn a bit more about her experience working with the high school students.
The creative writing workshop did not have a predetermined curriculum. Liisa and the students worked together, day-to-day, on the structure of the workshop. This approach created a democratic experience, allowing the students to have just as much say as the people helping to facilitate the project. Liisa mentioned they started out with simple questions, such as Who Am I? or What is your favorite part of the city? and later entered improvised writing excercises with the theme Vyborg as a Prison. Other times they would wander the city using their senses to describe the houses, buildings, streets, sounds, and smells. The activities from the first day would influence what would happen the next, creating a very fluid and spontaneous workshop. At the end of the day the group would critique the activities of the day to help determine what would happen then next day. This writing workshop is a great example of a democratic learning environment, an approach not commonly used in the public school system in Vyborg. Liisa mentioned the schools in Vyborg are rather technocratic and do not offer classes that focus on student experience and perspectives.
This creative writing workshop relied heavily on developing trust within the group. Much of the trust building activities took place in the Alvar Aalto library, allowing this space to not only act as a way to connect with the history and current state of Vyborg, but also as a safe zone. As seen in the film, there were several examples of creating trust: the girls lifting a member of the group into the air or the entire group walking blindly in a line down a flight of stairs while holding on to the shoulders of the person in front of them. The well-being of the participants was a major priority. These kind of activities allowed the participants to develop the trust needed to become active members of a collective and improvisational work space.
Liisa also mentioned that the performative aspect of the creative writing workshop was a natural progression from their writing and wandering research activities. The girls who participated in the project decided that their fictional stories needed to be enacted, or performed, therefore, leading to the camera becoming part of the process.
Another thing I find most interesting is the fact that the clips chosen for the film were initially intended only to be a form documentation. The structure of the film showing the architects working on the building, the girls performing their stories in and around the city,and shots of the creative workshop activities was an aftermath. The clips were separate pieces of documentation that later became constructed together into a beautifully poetic film. Now, we asked Liisa if she had a suggestions for working in such a improvised way, with so many unknowns. She mentioned the importance of having confidence in being an artist and teacher is letting this confidence embrace whatever happens in the classroom. She gave us the website for the project, check it out. You can also go to the main website that houses the former link and you will find a live cam of Vyborg…right now it is snowing!