Friday, January 17, 2014

Steve Gross: Prison Psychology and the Arts

I've always been the type of person (and artist) who imports from one arena/discipline/set of experiences into the other - and find that there's often a synergy that can happen as a result.  The series of talks I will be doing through The Field is my first formal attempt to bring my experience of working in the prison setting back into the community and community of artists. 
During the past five years, however, I haven't been idle regarding this cross pollination...I've been doing most of the importing in the other direction, from my Field experiences into my work as a psychologist, therapist, and supervisor.  I wrote the following short essay for the newsletter that is disseminated among the psychologists who provide mental health services in prisons throughout New York State.
When I practice, one of the experiences I refer back to on a regular basis is facilitating feedback groups for choreographers.  In these groups, called Fieldwork, artists show their work in progress before putting it in front of the public.
The basic rule for showing work in Fieldwork is that the artist can't talk.  She can't tell the group what came before the section she is showing.  She can't say the intended meaning of the work, what influenced her choices, or what artistic tradition served as inspiration.  She can't describe the music or the lighting to come.  She can't say how unprepared she is because the heat in the studio where she rehearsed was out.
Not only do artists showing work have a boundary – viewers do as well: don't ask questions, don't make suggestions, just tell the artist what you get from the work.  “Get” covers an enormous range, well beyond what actually happens on stage.  “Get” includes what meaning the viewer thinks the artist is trying to convey, what rings true (or doesn't) onstage, what seems to be going on under the surface, what comes across as meat and what comes across as filler.
As therapists, we are both artist and audience.  As the artist, we don’t really talk about our work.  We don’t announce our interventions (unless that is part of the intervention, which it can be).  We don’t ply our patients with explanations of how they should feel or think (unless that is part of the intervention, which it sometimes is).  We don’t convince patients of our effectiveness.  Instead, we do – we embody the work, through modeling, through interaction, through our relationship with our audience.  If we mess up, we don’t provide all kinds of excuses, we own them and weave them into the work: (“I feel like I went down the wrong track with you during our last session – did you sense that?  What was it like for you?”).
We are also the audience.  We “see” what’s on stage – our patients show us themselves all the time (in session, in groups, in the bull pen, on the walkways, in notes they send us and poetry they share).  Their explicit words and behaviors are only one stream of information – ideally we are set to receive on all channels, ranging from our “gut,” to historical patterns, to familiarity with inmate dynamics in our facility.  In fact, what our patients display is rarely the critical part, the part that leads to the most effective interventions, whether that’s a crisis unit admission or placid, steady attention.
Seen in this light, treatment is a dance, an interplay of seeing and being seen, no matter what the costume or lighting.  The most powerful art usually translates, whether robed in the red velvet of an opera house or the zigzag of cinderblock.

Steve Gross began making dance/performance art in the late 1980s. His work was shown at various downtown venues including Performance Space 122 and Dance Theater Workshop and supported by various funders including the NEA, NYSCA, and Art Matters. Simultaneously, he transformed The Field from a fledgling performance space into a service organization for performing artists. Having been spoiled by 19 years with the best arts administration job on the planet, he went back to school to become a psychologist. He currently is the Chief Psychologist for Corrections-based Operations of Central New York Psychiatric Center - the organization that provides mental health services to New York State's 56,000 prisoners. He also practices privately. 

Click here to sign up to attend any of Steve's three talks at The Field! 


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