Laajverd Visiting School is relatively a peculiar initiative in the predominant global narrative of development. The School focuses upon the regional patterns of growth and progress. In order to understand the structure of these societies, LVS conducts workshops and site research in an attempt to analyze the different strands of regional lifestyle composition.
IBEX interviews Laajverd Visiting School’s director Zahra Hussain about her most recent project, Academy of Democracy held in Neelum Valley, Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
Please tell us about Laajverd Visiting School and what does it stand to achieve?
I can start with explaining what Laajverd is, it a not-for –profit organization registered under the 1961 Act of Societies. I founded it back in 2007 when I was still a student at the National College of Arts and saw the need to relate my creative practice with the realities of the city. Through the years, Laajverd has evolved into a varied interdisciplinary collective with a focus on the intersections of culture, art and architecture.
Laajverd Visiting School is an initiative to engage bachelor students and mid-career professionals in rigorous field research. This encourages them to critically analyze the culture, environment and people of that area. This helps them reflect upon their own position in an increasingly urbanized and globalized world while understanding the challenges faced by local cultures and traditions. For the locals, we try to make them aware of their environment and also do on-site impromptu workshops in areas where we can assist them through the LVS outreach program. The LVS believes in a two-way learning model where the locals and visiting scholars can interrelate.
What is Academy of Democracy, and how is it related to Laajverd Visiting School?
Academy for Democracy is a practice led research project that aims to analyze, understand and refine the role of the creative faculty in order to equip them with the precise body of knowledge that will aid them during humanitarian activities. By extensive research into the academic structures and the professional practice that follows, this project investigates new and creative methodologies that re-structure the current academic process. AFD is the idea that deals with giving multiple possibilities and knowledge platforms for a student/researcher to engage with; an idea that opposes strict disciplinary studies. Laajverd Visiting School is a practical manifestation or a physical model of this idea.
What is the model of the Visiting School?
The visiting school is a ten-day cross-curricular and interdisciplinary intensive in a regional landscape. It is a combination of four to five workshops, two sessions and field research followed by tutorials and presentations. A day at LVS usually starts with a workshop; the afternoon is dedicated to field research while the evenings are used for compiling research and discussions. It is pretty packed and intensive as I mentioned earlier so the participants should be well prepared for that.
Which specific areas has LVS explored up till now?
Starting in 2014, we visited the Attabad Lake crisis and focused on the audio-visual cultures, the built and natural environment along with climate change and disaster management. In 2015, we visited Neelum Valley that focused on audio-visual cultures, the built and natural environment, eco-tourism and craft making for a global market. This year we also introduced a workshop on creative research methods that actually discusses the overlaps in social sciences and creative arts.
What was the objective of your study in Neelum Valley this year?
Our aim was to investigate and put forth creative propositions for conserving indigenous culture, suggest alternate livelihoods and promote methods of conserving the environment focusing on reading form language in the built environment, audio-visual cultural uplifting, eco- tourism and environmental security keeping in mind that the communities have been affected by the Line of Control. The objective is to learn from the community and environment and give something back to it as well, so we have an outreach program as well.
The visiting school is a ten-day cross-curricular and interdisciplinary venture, how were you able to conclude the workshops and onsite research in the given time frame?
As I mentioned earlier, this is an intensive, which exposes the participants to various aspects of human life and within a regional landscape, it becomes useful to learn something in the studio and test it in the field. The exercises of the workshops are designed to engage the participants in rigorous field research, which is then summed up at the end of each day. By the 8th day of the LVS, we have enough information gathered which is sorted, organized and used to develop the individual project proposals by the participants. It is all a very healthy platform for knowledge accumulation and dissemination.
What workshops did you orchestrate and what were the main objectives behind them?
The workshops were held on Built Environment, which highlighted form language and pattern language of this region. In the Audiovisual Cultures workshop, we investigated the various indigenous practices that help preserve natural resources. The Eco Tourism workshop focused on devising strategies of eco-tourism in this valley keeping in view the strengths and weaknesses. Craft making for a global market carried out ethnographic survey to assess the quality, development and future of craft as a practice by women. The session on Mountain conservation was an important one, that focused on the condition of natural environment and the current threats poised to it. Overall, these workshops were an effort to unlatch from the prevalent global narrative of design and development and through these we analyze the different strands of regional composition of life and try to map trajectories that can help, understand the structure of these societies.
Which scholars/ field experts invested their time to conduct these workshops?
The workshops were designed and conducted by national and international faculty and professionals. This information is detailed out on our website at http://lvs.laajverd.org
How was this research and fieldwork substantiated towards the end of this project?
First of all the fieldwork is arranged, sorted and presented by all the participants to develop their individual projects. These projects are then presented to the local authority and people of the community. I am currently compiling the indigenous practices and lifestyles that have been documented through field research into the form of a catalog which will be available online. This catalog will be useful for social scientists, anthropologists, architects and related professionals and even tourists who wish to engage or carry out any work in this area.
How many participants contributed to the research led AFD 2014 and what was the assortment measure of such a team?
We had 16 people this year, a mixture of bachelor students and mid-career faculty members from Karachi, Lahore, Hazara, Islamabad and Kashmir. Every year, 2 months before the LVS, we send an open call for people to apply with their resume and statement of intent. Laajverd board members carefully go through each application and select the ones best suited for the particular region and study.
How was the research funded and supported?
Each participant pays a certain amount to come on board, this fee takes care of their travel, food, accommodation and studio space. People such as Dr. Murtaza Jafri (NCA), Ms. Baela Raza Jamil(ITA-CEC), Dr. Anis ur Rehman(HWF), Mr. Murad Jamil (BAEIAP), Saulat Hussain, Mr. Safiullah Baig (Akcsp) have supported the project and sponsored people to participate in the LVS. Our workshop conveners are also a huge support for the project, because without them, this won’t be possible.
Can you tell us more about the Out-reach program?
The outreach program is that when I say we don’t only take from the environment but also give something back to it. With our knowledge and skillset, we try to engage the locals in a learning experience. In Neelum Valley, Kel bazaar, we saw the littering and improper garbage disposal, which led us to run a cleanliness drive in the main bazaar.
This involved school children and trader union and gave a positive message to the people. We were also encouraged to train local girls working on looms to create innovative designs by giving them a studio session. Some of our participants with prior training in theater gave workshops of Tour guiding to three local men. The most important one is the uplifting of a local museum.
What is this local museum and what is your role in it?
During our field visits we came across a local museum that is being run by the community. A local person, Bashir Ahmed has taken the initiative to establish a small museum in his village Janawai in Guraiz Valley. Old indigenous items of heritage importance have been collected from the villagers and kept in a room. The museum is currently in a dilapidated condition and requires uplifting and restoration. There are approximately 120 items in the museum that require proper attention and care and need to be catalogued in a chronological order. Laajverd is in the process of collecting donations to help the community in preserving their cultural and heritage archive.
The nature of Academy for Democracy is quite new for Pakistan, yet crucial for academics and development. How long do you think it will take for the research findings to be actually implemented?
As long as it takes for people to realize and understand the benefits of it. It is two-fold you see, we have an academic model which is quite striking and cutting-edge, this should be introduced in social and environment sciences and the creative arts. And then we have research findings from the field, which can be used by academics, and organizations that wish to work in these areas. | Authored by Khaula Dar |