Book review: “SOCIAL ACTION ART THERAPY IN A TIME OF CRISIS,” by Jamie Bird, London: Routledge, 2022
Reviewed by Gary Nash, February, 2023
This review considers a book centered on theories and models of social action art therapy and how it can work effectively for individuals and groups experiencing crisis. Drawing upon various ecologies, climate psychology, and eco-art therapy, this book addresses various responses to climate change, especially the role of imagination in creating alternative versions of the future. The review helps to understand how a social action approach to art therapy serves as a way of addressing the political and collective components of climate change as well as other moments of crisis, including asylum, refuge, and domestic abuse.
Keywords: social action, social justice, art therapy, environmental arts therapy, climate change, nature, creativity, art-based research
Book cover of Social Action Art Therapy in a Time of Crisis by Jamie Bird, Routledge, 2022
Over the past ten years I have been digging deeper into the feelings aroused in response to the increasing impacts of climate change in my work as an art therapist in the UK. I have continued to examine how my own uncertainty and ambivalence limits the efficacy of my practice when supporting others in understanding their anger or denial in response to the climate crisis.
My collaboration with pioneering Environmental Arts Therapist and Dramatherapist, Ian Siddons Heginworth, over those ten years has led to a greater integration between my work in the art studio and my work in nature as I bring the outside in and work psychologically and therapeutically in outdoor spaces.
The workshops and courses that we developed over this time have led to a growing community of environmental arts therapists and led to the group exhibition Touching nature: Touched by nature, and the joint publication Environmental arts therapy: Wild frontiers of the heart, edited by Ian and me in 2020 . The book was released just as fear of the approaching pandemic began to take hold, and the exhibition took place between nation-wide lockdowns in the autumn of that year, here in London.
Although forming a pioneering training course for arts therapists working within nature, the exhibition in 2020, and the publication are tangible acts that use creativity to mobilize change, I continue to seek to understand the vital connections between nature, psychotherapy, creativity, and the environmental climate emergency. Jamie Bird’s book Social action art therapy in a time of crisis provides a bridge between therapeutic spaces as well as between ideas, ethics, and research. Jamie draws on art-based research that he has been involved in over the past eight years and the book was written during the pandemic-era. I have found that the chapters of this book help me to piece together what I experience as a fragmenting reality as we lurch from crisis to crisis, into a coherent narrative that connects creativity, imagination, and wider social issues. He documents experiences from his research of art therapy groups with survivors of domestic abuse and describes a process of ‘slow violence’ to help us understand the incremental effects of climate change upon mental health. Bird draws together the intersections of ecology, arts, creativity, and care for the wider society with the principles of social action and social justice.
The book draws on Bird’s previously documented accounts [1, 2] that locate research and creativity within the social and political lives of research participants. The work described reflects McNiff’s early work  that identified the post-modernist potential of reducing the demarcated space between the client, the artist, the researcher, and the practitioner. McNiff has always shown how art, creativity, and imagination flow through these demarcated roles and that art also has the potential to unite them and contribute coherence when researching human experiences of uncertainty, ambivalence, resistance, and change. Bird reduces the distance between research participants, research design, and research outcomes in his work in the context of the experience of trauma, neglect, domestic abuse, and inequality that affect all participants of research, along with the implicit inclusion of the researcher. In the art-based research described by Bird, the research process uses art media to engage with social and political issues relating to trauma, crises, and change; he also shows how the arts mobilize opinion leading to the potential of an active outcome.
One of the intended outcomes of art-based research has an introspective quality, whereby we look at what we do, and consider how the arts intersect with participants’ experience and the research context. The focus of enquiry enables us to understand how art informs the methods we use in therapy practice, using the research findings to experiment or modify art-based methods so that we can do them better. Ultimately, research outcomes include disseminating the findings to share practice developments with the wider creative arts professions and communities. Using the same art-based research frame and methods, Bird places an emphasis on the outward movement of the influence that research can have by activating creativity and imagination. Outcomes in social action art therapy include mobilizing structural, social, and political changes in the imagination of research participants that has an unintended effect of increasing the democratization of the research design. This approach has the potential to radically alter the research agenda moving it more fully into the domain of a therapist-researcher-participant-activist paradigm. In Bird’s work, research outcomes generate action and produce measurable effects in the lives of research participants, research outcomes that are no longer static or fragmented into digital logarithms that comply with academic criteria or institutional research frameworks. In this work, research participants become collaborators, research methods using the arts become an activating process which mobilizes creativity, and research outcomes have the potential to generate change and inspire political imagination.
The book supports practitioners to consider how arts expression can be extended into social action, engage in identifying social injustice, and help us consider how we might use the arts to confront inaction and mobilise change: “Art therapists will (likewise) be familiar and comfortable with self-reflection being an essential element in creating good therapeutic relationships. What a social action approach advocates for, is the widening out of that act of self-reflection so that it incorporates social and political influences” (p.30). Bird repositions art therapy, environmental arts therapy, and art-based research, acknowledging the value of the arts in capturing and expressing different ways of knowing and different forms of knowledge, and identifying their potential to generate imaginative responses towards unimaginable life events:
‘The aspect of arts-based research that is most relevant in the context of advocating for a social action and social justice approach to art therapy, is its closeness to participatory and emancipatory approaches to research within social sciences and the humanities”. “Of note is how arts-based research aligns with how imaging new and more just futures, in addition to uncovering and reflecting present lived experiences, and valid concerns for what has been termed “new paradigm research”’ (p. 41).
In chapter five, Climate Crisis (pp. 112-134) Jamie describes the structure of three workshop groups to show how a social action approach, combined with art and art-based research, are used to explore participants emotional responses to the ecological crisis. The examples given provide a step-by-step account of the structure, themes, art/natural materials, focus of themes and discussion with three different groups a) environmental activists, b) university staff and students, c) community groups, the artworks and responses are digitally recorded and form part of the discussion section of the chapter. In the examples described, Bird shows “the different ways in which aspects of art therapy and art-based research can be used in ways that contribute to the work of helping individuals and groups to make emotional sense of the climate crisis and prepare for an uncertain future” (p.131). A comparison is made between the research workshops/group and the transitional stories of migration and domestic violence and how the themes intersect with our experiences of climate crisis. The themes are ‘escape and harmony, relationships and social support, and agency and resistance’ (p.129):
“The notion of transitional story is just one way of framing how people might think and feel about their relationship to climate crisis, and there is scope for further work to be done on how this might relate to thoughts about adaptation to climate change.” (p. 130)
“It does though offer a useful way of making some sense of both the feelings associated with fear, loss, and the disruption to a sense of self, place, and belonging, and how the future might be imagined in a way that strengthens or recovers a sense of belonging.” (p.130)
“…the violence of climate change is most often either experienced in a vicarious or secondary way or is in the shape of violence that is anticipated and dreaded.” (p.131)
In Social action art therapy in a time of crisis, Bird develops art-based research in the context of the interconnecting human experience of the current existential threat of climate change, providing a practice-oriented approach that demonstrates how art can contribute to defining problems, visualizing resistance, activating social conscience, and mobilizing political imagination. The book demonstrates how art can be used to connect, engage, communicate, and contribute to creating change.
Both art and political imagination are central to Bird’s approach, underpinned by an understanding that, in the arts therapies and in art-based research, the creative and imaginative capability of research participants can be applied to generating change in their lived experience.
In summary I have found that the book shows:
- how relevant the arts are when facing uncertainty and unimaginable change
- how the arts support us to find a voice and to give expression to unspeakable pain, suffering, loss, and trauma
- and in the context of climate crisis and being in a current process of transition and change – how the arts and creativity can capture our experiences of uncertainty, ambivalence, avoidance, guilt, grief, and fear in relation to existential threats.
Social action art therapy in a time of crisis places the work of art therapy within an ecological and environmental context. The approaches described support the reader to critically engage with the way that we think about the crisis we are living in and place the arts therapies within a socially engaged paradigm. The book shows how the use of art-based research and art therapy practice can contribute to making emotional sense of the climate crisis.
AT Dip, MAAT, EAT Cert, has over twenty years of art therapy experience working in adult mental health, voluntary sector, learning disabilities services & mainstream education. Gary is a co-founder of Environmental Arts Therapy UK which promotes the work that creative arts therapists are developing through workshops, courses, and events see www.environmentalartstherapyuk.co.uk He runs environmental arts therapy training in London and is co-editor of “Environmental Arts Therapy: Wild frontiers of the heart”, Routledge, 2020.
Reference for citations:
Nash, G. (2023). Book review, “Social action art therapy in a time of crisis” by Jamie Bird, Routledge, 2022. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, Vol.4(2). - URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)
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“Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice” is the international multidisciplinary Journal focused on building an eco-human paradigm, disseminating eco-human knowledge and technology based on the alliance of ecology, humanities and the arts. Our journal aims to be a vibrant forum of theories and practices aimed at harmonizing the relations of mankind and the natural world in the interests of sustainable development, the creation of Eco-Humanity as a new community of human beings and more-than-human world. The human being is an ecological being, not separate from the world. The Ecopoiesis journal is based on that premise and aims to develop a body of theory and practice within that framework.
The Journal promotes dialogue and cooperation between ecologists, philosophers, doctors, educators, psychologists, artists, musicians, designers, social activists, business representatives in the name of eco-human values, human health and well-being, in close connection with concern for the environment. The Journal supports the development and implementation of new environmentally-friendly concepts, technologies and practices in the various fields of health and public life, education and social work.
One of the priority tasks of the Journal is to demonstrate and support the significant role of the arts in their alliance with ecology and the humanities for the restoration and development of constructive relations with nature, raising environmental awareness and promoting nature-friendly lifestyles.
The Journal publishes articles describing new eco-human concepts and practices, technologies and applied research data at the intersection of humanities, ecology and the arts, as well as interviews and conference reports related to the emerging eco-human field. It encourages artwork, music and other creative products related to eco-human practices and the new global community of Eco-Humanity.