Meet Tania Cañas, course coordinator of the Honours program in Social Practice and Community Engagement at the VCA

Tania Cañas, course coordinator of the BFA (Honours) Social Practice and Community Engagement program. Supplied.
Tania Cañas, course coordinator of the BFA (Honours) Social Practice and Community Engagement program. Supplied.

The Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours in Social Practice and Community Engagement is a new one-year course for artists of all disciplines exploring community dynamics and techniques of understanding and engaging the public. Course coordinator Tania Cañas is an artist, researcher, writer and also works as coordinator at cohealth Arts Generator. Here she talks with Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Practice Danny Butt.

Danny Butt: Can you talk a little bit about your interest in teaching and how that's come about for you as a practitioner?

Tania Cañas: For me, teaching was never a separate thing that sort of happens after you master a particular technique and then go out and teach a community about it. Teaching is an intrinsic part of the process of Theatre of the Oppressed and other artistic methodologies that I started off with. So I see teaching in the context of VCA and the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Melbourne as one of the many expressions of creative practice.

So the BFA Honours program that you're coordinating in Social Practice and Community Engagement – do you think that these engagement skills can be taught and and if so, how do you work as a teacher in that space?

Yes! Obviously Paulo Friere is a big influence – it's not the banking model of education as depositing knowledge, it's holding a space and a site to have nuanced and sometimes difficult conversations about how contemporary practice exists in the newness of the world. And so with that comes bigger questions of community - and those bigger questions do not belong to one discipline or even only to art.

And then there's different practices, stories and histories that bring us all together in that same space. Its exposure to different ways of thinking and doing things - not so that you can repeat it like a recipe, but in the creativity of sharing we understand the nuances of our own practices. The teaching space holds those conversations. I see an alignment with facilitation.  

When working in projects in the field, you can make mistakes and unwittingly harm communities you seek to help, not because of bad intentions, but because of the pressure to get things done. The teaching space offers pause to unpack the practice and a supportive environment to work through some of these very difficult and complicated considerations.

In this way, perhaps it's not about ‘teach’ in the stagnant sense of transmitting information. We teach not just how to do, but how to be. How to be present, responsive, agile, listening. We practice these things in every session.

You mentioned big questions that students and practitioners are grappling with. What are the big questions in community engaged practice that students are exploring in the program?

The big questions are how can an arts practice can be applied not just to another body without thinking, understanding how to think through the history and context of a given practice. Questions of relational ethics that shift with time and space and critical dialogue and listening. Questions of authorship; questions of ownership and self-determination; being a guest and being a host; and how not to get trapped in simplistic superficial ideas of representation as well. These are issues that are interdisciplinary, so the range of disciplines in the course makes it an exciting space.

Speaking of simplistic ideas of representation, your PhD research was titled Performing Credibility Can you tell me a little bit about the title and the research?

The research was about expected performativity for refugees on and off the stage. I saw these expectations at work in refugee theatre approaches that used case studies of how to do theatre with refugees, usually from the position of someone who's got a grant to go do theatre with refugees. This approach didn't speak to power dynamics that are shaped before one even gets people together in a room, let alone on stage. The lack of critical analysis of this has led to the dramaturgy of what refugee theatre looks like and also what refugee advocacy in the arts looks like.

My research looked at the patterns of refugee theatre and refugee advocacy in the arts and asked, why does it all look so similar? Does refugee theatre just change the refugee body and put another body in from whatever target community is in fashion next? Rather than a focus on citizenship, inclusion and consciousness raising in the non-refugee world, Performing Credibility attempted to find positions that can resist these patterns and create possibilities.

As well as being a practising artist you've also been engaged at very pragmatic levels as an organiser and project developer with RISE Refugee and now cohealth Arts Generator. Could you maybe talk a little bit about what the research has brought to your practice and what has been useful outside the academy?

It's the focus on the question, who is the audience? And being really specific about that. Research has allowed me as a practitioner to feel like I wasn't isolated – particularly as a person of colour – that there was history to what was happening, a history that's going to happen and continue happening after you. It brings a clearer sense of purpose in the long term, but also some agility in the short term, to focus on relationships, the specifics of place and the relation between making and discourse.

So what can students expect if they came to study with you in 2021?

They can expect a cohort that they're going to go on a journey with. This course encourages peer learning – everyone comes with their histories, their journeys, their practices. It's not so much on disciplinary skills, like, one student is going to teach this other student how to play the violin, even though that does happen. We focus in dialogue on the bigger 'why' questions in practice.

There's a responsiveness – the curriculum is not something we roll out and it doesn't always look the same every year. The guests we bring in depend on what the interests of the cohort are as well. And so we're set up really well to be responsive to that and hold conversations over a longer period than a lot of courses.

I was impressed with the way that you took last year’s lecture series [Re-membrance, Re-volt, Re-emergence 2020] into an international frame that brought a different set of experiences than students might've had in the pre-pandemic time.

That was really fun to organize, but also it was really great to hear the students' feedback. We spoke about what happens in institutions and outside of institutions, it was an opportunity to bring different groups of people together who might not usually be able to come together. The world is both accessible and really specific. That’s what we are dealing with now.

It was a challenging year for community engagement and social practice with the pandemic. How artists have responded, how have you been able to respond and what do you think it taught us about the dynamics of community and social practice?

Being in lockdown enabled students to pause for a little bit, rather than trying to jump straight in. This recalibration got students to really think through what it means to hold community in this environment. And in 2020 that looked so different for each student. Where sometimes students have a utopian abstract idea of working with community or working on community, the pandemic has forced people to really interrogate and challenge historical ideas of community and applied practice.

Applications for the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) Social Practice and Community Engagement course close on 31 January 2021.