Let me describe a session at the recent conference The Great Wave:
The session, offered via Zoom, was entitled I Came Here to Speak About Love: Loss in Business. When I tuned in, I saw a musician and a singer performing boleros, an expressive Hispanic genre of music. When the camera was not focused on these performers during this hour-long session, we were shown a performer standing and staring directly into the camera. She stood silent and stock still, not expressing so much as embodying intensity of emotion. From time to time, tears rolled down her cheeks. There were no speakers; no one explicated. The Zoom chat displayed comments by the conference’s audience describing how incredibly moved they felt by what they were seeing and hearing.
“Join us to explore the unspoken, unseen, and unfulfilled: our unlived lives,” invited the program entry for Negative Space, also offered via Zoom. When we joined the session, we watched a dancer perform a short contemporary-ballet piece. The facilitators then invited us to offer our stories of our unlived lives. After each story – all moving and raw – the ballet dancer would improvise a danced response before thanking us for our story. There was no spoken analysis of the stories or dance and, once again, the Zoom chat showed how touched participants were.
In other parts of the program, Waltz Binaire, which specialises in design through artificial intelligence, presented Journee, an incredibly beautiful immersive online world and digital art space. New York photographer Beowulf Sheehan shared the images he took during New York’s lock down. Short films, concerts, dance performances and improv sessions, mask-making workshops, storytelling, design, and art were all featured in The Great Wave.
Which, for me, is remarkable given that The Great Wave was actually a business event.
The House of Beautiful Business is on a mission to “to shape a more beautiful vision for the future of business, technology, and humanity, built on emotions, ethics, and aesthetics instead of efficiency, extraction, and exponentialism.” It aims to do this by creating a global think tank and community that includes “business and non-profit leaders, technologists, scientists, philosophers, and artists.” Normally held offline in Lisbon, the House of Beautiful Business put their annual gathering online due to Covid-19 in 2020. I have been yearning to go to one of their events for years. Because The Great Wave happened online this year, I was able to ‘attend’ from the physical solitude of my locked down Melbourne home. Hundreds of people from across the globe did the same.
As well as the expected (but superlative and fascinating) talking head presentations from the aforementioned business, tech, science, research, and community leaders (and some artists), the program heavily featured the arts not just as decoration or light relief but as a central component to the program, sharing the responsibility of informing participants’ experience of the event alongside the more conventional spoken presentations.
I started off my career as a performer and choreographer, later became an arts administrator, and still work creatively as a non-fiction writer and as a mentor and facilitator in creative process. All my life I have known that the arts were valid and valuable ways and means of exploring life, including business. And I have spent most of my life grudgingly accepting that almost no one else I knew agreed with me. When I have seen the benefits of the arts extolled, they have always been valued as entertainment – distraction or sensation – or as a repository for society’s stories and histiographies. As a field containing important wisdom about innovation or as a way of processing wicked problems or complex dynamics, the arts are broadly not taken seriously.
It was so good to see them central to this event.
During The Great Wave, the arts were used deliberately – and effectively – to interrogate the themes of the conference. Via the arts, we were invited to sense, embody, or imagine these themes as well as think about them. The themes included liminality, change, inequity, vulnerability, loss and grief, climate change, and how business practice must evolve to work with these. Complex, tricky, messy, challenging stuff. But the arts can help us to explore and accept things that are hard to articulate, frame, or experience via words alone.
The event also asked us to harness our imaginations – moral, social, and creative – and, of course, the arts are a practical example and experience available to us all as to what the imagination can look and feel like and what it can achieve.
In my experience, the arts are never talked about as a conduit to innovation and they should be. During the lockdowns of 2020, the arts were much appreciated and beloved as a place for expressing and processing feelings and responses that seem too big or deep or hard or subtle or entangled to live through and with. But when we engage with the arts, we are not just dumping our feelings, or even indulging in a bit of therapy (although these things can happen as well). Engaging mindfully with art – in whatever art form – gives us the opportunity to combine the intellect and imagination and emotional intelligence with memory, knowledge, instinct, skill, and talent to achieve breakthrough.
The Great Wave challenged its participants to embrace the redundancy and loss of unhealthy or limiting ways of conducting business, and to envisage new ways of working that are sustainable, equitable, and joyful. This was asking a lot of its participants who, nevertheless, responded with enthusiasm and delight. The arts were a major strategy in achieving this.