By Nala Walla

From the communes of the sixties to the experimental communities of today, many skilled and talented people have been involved: builders, bodyworkers, system-designers, gardeners, healers, organizers, grafters, musicians, midwives, bakers, herbalists, shoemakers, mothers, weavers and so on. The high rate of failure in these communities, of burnout and reassimilation into the mainstream, is not caused by lack of skill or capability. Simply put, these communities fail over and over again because people cannot get along with eachother. It is the lack of healthy social infrastructure which has caused and continues to cause most of the difficulty. And it is precisely within this arena of social health that the arts most benefit a community, and the individuals that comprise that community. Community arts practices are quite indispensable if we want to fulfill the main permaculture tenet “CARE FOR PEOPLE.”

In tribal societies all over the globe, what we might refer to as the “participatory arts” serve the function of keeping the social wheels greased. These societies use dance, song, music, and theater to bond the group together, to resolve conflicts, to dissipate tensions and blockages both within the body and between people. The participatory arts accomplish this social function quite efficiently. Improvising with sound and movement serves as a method for people to explore a sense of union with larger cycles and patterns that are simply too vast to understand rationally. This valuable type of experience, where we physically harmonize with natural law, cannot be achieved through science or technique alone.

If we observe indigenous tribes—both human and non-human—we notice that tribe members gather together regularly and cyclically. Perhaps they gather around the campfire each evening, singing songs at sunrise or at the full moon, celebrating, perhaps, the first day of the summer. We also notice that everybody in the tribe participates. There are no rows of chairs where people sit down, watch, applaud the “performers” and then leave.

Today, mainstream art may qualify as entertainment, and perhaps voyeurism, but it certainly does not constitute participatory art, and thus the essential benefits of this type of art are not accrued to the community. The lack of modern participatory art gatherings is noticeable, and this lack is closely related to the sense of alienation, of separation from nature and from each other that plagues modern people, and our attempts at creating New Communities.