Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Artist Assertiveness Course - Tiff Oben

In an attempt to push and question the boundaries and ethics of lying to and manipulating participants through art practice, Tiff Oben, with delegated artist Helene Roberts, set up the Artist Assertiveness Course at Chapter Arts Centre. Aimed at fellow artists to help them become more assertive and get better gallery deals and shows, the project completely took advantage of Oben's peers' aspirations and emotions, in the hope that it would lead to a productive and valuable discussion afterwards (which it did). 

Review of Artist Assertiveness Course by Claire Prosser

I pressed 'record' on the dicta phone.

The first person to come through the door was a middle aged women, with hair striped with different tones of grey tied back to the nape of her neck. Devon Jay greeted her with a handshake and a blunt hello. Her first comment was something about this course being 'legit' but I acknowledged her with reassuring eyes and a smile. She went on to have a discussion with Mr Jay, about what she wants to bring to Swansea through the art world. How she loves working with glass. How this course would hopefully help her to be more confident in realising her hopes for Swansea. All the time, although she was speaking to Devon, her eyes were casting towards me. Perhaps a female face is more approachable than the face of a male Assertiveness Leader wearing a biscuit coloured suit. But anyway, I just smiled and nodded, smiled and nodded, turning my eyes to Devon as if directing her voice towards him, and not me. I was only an assistant for the course, not the teacher. She passed comments of how sophisticated the layout of the room was. The room had four tables joined together to make a large rectangular table, big enough room for 10 people to sit around. At the front ( or back) of the table was a big slab of clay in it's blue packaging and at each sitting place there were cloth table mats. It reminded me of primary school days when we new we were going to be painting or playing with clay dough, table covers and wet wipes at the ready.

The lady quietened as the next batch of people came through the door, again met with a blunt greeting from Devon Jay. They soon took their seats around the table. I handed them all photography consent forms. They awkwardly shared the two pens we had available amongst them and returned the forms to me, all giving their consent for Devon Jay to use their images for a range of marketing purposes.

They sat. We (Devon and I) stood. Pacing back and for. I was eavesdropping, Devon probably focussed on the task ahead.  He announced the start, any late comers were to sure to be in trouble if/when they arrived.



First task to the table. How do you describe being assertive? Answers coming up with a range of answers, all accurate in their own ways. Devon Jay summarising it at the end to be a way of simply getting what you want.


A typical team building situation passing around the table. Awkward situation. How are you supposed to summarise in one sentence what you want?


Deep in thought, the members came up with considered, deep, touching answers. They offered themselves to the group, slowly breaking down their persona and confiding in the group and Devon Jay. I felt bad for listening to such personal output. Then took another photograph.


The members were invited up to take some clay. It wasn't cut out, not prescribed, they had to take for themselves, waiting in line for each other. They had seven minutes. Not five, not ten, but seven minutes, to manipulate the clay into something that summarised what their art is about. And therefore, how it would describe them. Three minutes left- they analysed what was left to do. Does this describe my art? Two minutes left- one actually got up to get more clay to perfect his piece. One minute left- they all delicately put the final touches to their piece. They stopped and continued to look at the work they had just made.


Going around the table Devon Jay antagonised each person about what they had constructed. What have you made, Why? Does that describe you?


Devon Jay requested two volunteers and echoed a remark made many a time in school “if I have no volunteers I will pick on two of you.”  Two people rose their hands, oh go on then.

They quickly decided who was going to give and who was going to receive the criticism. The first comment was given with hesitation, oh its sooo hard, and was finally delivered. It was more of a criticism that double backed on itself to become a compliment. “You should be more confident in what you wear.” It didn't even skim the surface of a criticism. Devon Jay jumped in and stirred it up. The second comment was much more entertaining;

“Don't wear those big cross earrings, you are not religious.”



I don't like that cage”

Mr Jay continued with the point of needing a valid reason to support any criticism made. He played on it first of all by throwing off criticism to one of the members. Pointing at the clay cage and the person who made it saying “ I don't like that. I don't like that cage. The theme of entrapment in society is over done and clichéd” passing criticism yet never really giving a just reason. The member just sat there looking at Devon Jay. The guy, was a big bloke, and his eyes widened as soon as he started hearing these comments coming out of Jay's mouth. Soon enough Devon switched it into constructive reasoning and heart rates returned to normal.



Another two volunteers, the bloke and one of the ladies. Several times they were asked to perform and re-perform in different ways a difficult scenario of returning something to a retail store. Not entirely sure who is right or wrong, the lady wanting to return or the Customer Service man. Gender being one of the concepts brought up, big guy onto slim young lady, who instantly appears more assertive, more authoritative? It shouldn't matter but it did, and does. Jay was persistent, making them feel more and more angry which contradicted something that he commented on at the start- assertiveness is not aggression. Heart rates were at a height once again.

Task 9: TAI CHI

Probably the worst (and best) part of the session. Observing the group follow Devon Jay in leading Tai Chi movements in his suit and brogues. Behind the camera I was sinking. I had to pretend to scratch my eyes for the humiliation was swelling inside of me for them. I just about managed to take motion shots of them. Got some great ones, with their legs mid-air and everything.

It topped it off for me when the middle aged lady asked if those movements could be manipulated to suit her physical abilities. Hoping that she could perform other movements in her own time and still get the same effect. Oh God. Devon Jay replied with clear intent, Yes. Of course. I creased.


MY NAME IS _______and I WANT______.


They returned to the first task of the day, saying their name and what they wanted. Each and every person sounding much more assertive, more adamant that that is what they want and what they believe in.


As we came to the plenary of the session, the leader went on to say. “If you want any more information then please visit my website. At this point, the group all delved into their bags or took out their smart phones only to copy down '' from the flip board. (To myself: Don't laugh out loud. Don't giggle. Don't even wince a hint of a smile. )


Wow. Ultimate climax of the day. Topping the session off with hitting that line out into the painful air. He then threw on his coat, grabbed his bag and strode towards me asking “Cheque or cash?!” I played along; “cheque.” Even though hardly anybody uses cheques now?!


Just before the group left I kindly asked for them all to fill out a feedback form. Some of them having a chance to fill out most of the sheet before Tiff Oben stepped into the room.

We stood chatting first of all, well, I remained quiet. Tiff soon announced that “Devon Jay was actually a very good actor. None of this was real. You were all completely tricked.”

The lady who wrote down “I definitely feel more assertive” threw herself into laughter. It could have been worse. Lucky for Tiff, these people took it quite light heartedly. I do believe though, that on some level, they will take some of the comments away. Some of  (a lot of) what Devon Jay (Chris) said was valid. Scarily- I, the assistant who was in on the con, the one behind the camera knowing everything, even sunk into his words at one point.


Claire Prosser

Be careful what you believe in.

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