Last week, I took part in my first group therapy session, not in a wood-paneled church basement, but rather at NURTUREart as part of More Joy, a project organized by Famous Accountants.  Co-directors Kevin Regan and Ellen Letcher lead a series of encounter group sessions based on psychologist William C. Schutz’s Joy: Expanding Human Awareness (1967). Shutz developed the exercises at spiritual retreats, which he lead at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  As an experiment in group dynamics, the project fit well with NURTUREart’s WE ARE: exhibition series, which we have been covering all summer, as it explores ideas of community and group identity in Bushwick. 

The influence of the 1960’s and 70’s was palpable in the gallery, from the red and purple shag rug ringed with black cushions, to the messages scrawled in capital letters on large pieces of paper posted around the room, preparing participants for the intensity of what they were about to experience and urging them not to hold back.

“The manner in which a person holds their body indicates their mood, background and present accessibility to human interchange,” read one sign (emphasis theirs). “A true initiation never ends,” read another. “Cosmic love is absolutely ruthless.”

The setting recalled the original hippie movement, and the text revealed the undercurrent of aggression in it, with its rejection of traditional social norms and sometime-sexual pressure on the “uptight.”  The confrontational edge in the setting also recalled an earlier (and somewhat misguided) version of psychotherapy, with its Freudian notions of routing out repressed anger.

Though the exercises didn’t all have the intended effect (primal screams didn’t relieve anger so much cause a sore throat) they were surprisingly cathartic and revealing of individual anxieties.

The “Pandora’s Box” exercise began with Regan asking for a volunteer to expose their genitals to the rest of the group.  After we all spent a few minutes considering it, Regan announced, “Just kidding!” (it was unclear at first whether he was originally serious).  He then told us to recount our internal arguments, pro and con, to exposing ourselves publicly.

Some participants were initially inclined to expose themselves, but wanted to negotiate the exact terms of doing so, or, naturally, didn’t want to be the first or only volunteer.  Others initially were averse to the idea, but then scolded themselves for being too conservative, or resented the power dynamics in their role as artist relative to the gallery directors asking this of them.

In another exercise, “Break In/Break Out,” the group linked elbows in a circle and tried to prevent one person in the center from escaping, or excluded an individual trying to break in.  The exercise felt like a physical dramatization of common social predicaments: either the need to break free of constricting relationships, or the desire to be included. The “break in” version seemed a poignant metaphor for the insular Bushwick art scene, or more broadly, the struggle of the emerging artist within the New York art world.

More Joy was especially refreshing in that the project lacked individual authorship. In a community of artists struggling for recognition to gratify their egos, this project was a uniquely group effort, under the heading of a gallery as opposed to an artist. It addressed the history of psychology more than the history of art. Yet, the project gave the participants a sense of catharsis, allowing them to see the social world differently, an effect which so much art aspires to, but rarely achieves.