• Ivan A. Kirchgaesser

(2) Earth Forum

Earth Forum is a social sculpture practice that engages people in a dialogue around how they perceive the world and how they could shape an ecologically viable and socially just future together. Often taking place in public in a circle around an oiled cloth, it creates a space out of the ordinary. Calling upon everyone’s ability to think imaginatively and actively listen to each other in a non-judgmental manner, it allows for trust and a deep connection to emerge – even between strangers and people who wouldn’t usually talk to each other. Hence, it can foster integration within communities and build bridges where there is lack of communication and mutual understanding.

Participants stand around the oiled cloth at the end of an Earth Forum

Earth Forum as an entry point into the field of social sculpture


I spoke to Heiko Nowak, who has been an Earth Forum ‘responsible participant’ since 2014. He trained with Shelley Sacks, emeritus professor in Social Sculpture at Oxford Brookes University. She developed the practice in the context of the 2011 Climate Summit in South Africa and continues to offer it through the framework of the mobile and alternativeUniversity of the Trees: Lab for New Knowledge and an Eco-Social Future. To Heiko, an organizational developer and coach based in Tübingen, Germany, Earth Forum has been an eye-opener and entry point into the field of social sculpture. Rooted in the political ideas of the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), social sculpture is the fundamental notion that every human being can develop the perceptive, imaginative, reflective, and communicative capacities to become a creative co-shaper of society. Earth Forum, in Heiko’s words, is like a small oasis in which people can experience themselves as such. Since his training, he has facilitated about two processes a year – mostly, but not exclusively, for people with an interest in questions of social and ecological change. One session usually takes about three hours and requires the full commitment of its 5-15 participants. There are four phases, the first of which involves a ‘short walk on the planet’ to establish an experiential common ground between participants.


According to Heiko, what is special about Earth Forum is the quality of attention and connection it enables: “It always allows me to discover the world anew, to encounter it with fresh eyes and to hear it with fresh ears. I see a value for myself, but I also see the social value. People who enter an Earth Forum as strangers might depart as friends, because they have gone through a valuable experience together. This is where I see a wider relevance to society.” Comparing it to other dialogue spaces, he says: “Earth Forum builds a sense of community, which is based on the recognition that we live on a shared planet together and are faced with the question of how we want to treat it. This social component makes it different frommany other learning spaces.I can compare it to a process I was involved in yesterday, which was an open dialogue aimed at involving citizens in developing their neighbourhood. What happens is that people come and bring their own culture of discussion. The Tübinger culture of discussion, in particular, tends to be quite academic. There is not really an openness to actually listen to the other person. Hierarchies play a huge role, and it is quite common to interrupt someone whilst they are speaking and to keep on reiterating one’s own point of view. Earth Forum prevents this kind of behaviour through its clear structure and the principles that shape the process. This frame is what enables the special quality of encounter and communication.”


How to get people to participate in a process they don’t yet know the value of?


Asking whether he finds it easy to interest potential participants, Heiko responds: “Unlike my other work, I see Earth Forum as an art form that I want to offer for free, not as a product that I want to sell. Instead of asking people to invest money in something that will deliver them a certain outcome, I ask them to invest their time and attention into a process with an open end. The challenge in enticing people to attend is to convince them to let themselves in for something they don’t yet know the value of. Bearing this in mind, giving up three hours of one’s time shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of commitment. Also, if you do Earth Forum in a professional context, there is the question of resources. It’s expensive for a company to have their employees participate in a three-hour process. They would wonder how much they will profit from this investment. For this reason, I find it a blessing that I can offer Earth Forum for free – because it ‘only’ requires time and attention. Yet, it is very intense in terms of personal investment – both on the side of the facilitator and the participants – which makes it expensive in its own right. But it is because I value Earth Forum that I am prepared to give my time and energy to create this space for others.”


A yellow University of the Trees band marks the Earth Forum site

Why is it worth the effort?


Having been involved with Earth Forum myself as a responsible participant and trainer, I am aware that not everyone offers it for free. Depending on context, some people apply for funding and others charge organisations and individuals on a sliding scale. Given the significant personal investment on Heiko’s side (in German, he called it ‘Herzblut’, literally ‘heart’s blood’), I wondered if there were any moments that made him feel like doing Earth Forum was really worth the effort. Heiko: “I remember an Earth Forum I did in Vienna. It took place in a seminar room, but we took our walk on the planet in the main shopping street. People brought back incredible things from the earth and perceived the city in a completely new way. I found that very fascinating. How someone finds a rose and brings it back to the cloth inside, which suddenly brings in this poetic dimension of nature in the big city. It’s amazing to see what it does to people, to come together and witness this transformation, this shift from one level of perception to another. Things like that doesn’t usually happen in everyday life. But Earth Forum has a knack for bringing about such moments. Also, I’m particularly excited when someone says, oh, I never looked at it like this before. That is when I notice that Earth Forum has a learning effect, bringing together people who wouldn’t usually listen to each other.”


Despite it being a process that explicitly presents itself as having no preconceived outcomes or agendas, I was curious to hear what Heiko thinks Earth Forum might enable. “I wish I could see what happens with people after they’ve participated, what stays with them. Perhaps the experience planted some seeds and made people stay in touch afterwards. That definitely happened one time I did Earth Forum with local sustainability groups. The experience of entering different levels of perception together enabled ongoing contact between the different groups for over a year. It depends on the situation, though. Sometimes you spend three hours together, and then everybody just disappears. On another occasion in Alfter, there was follow-up workshop and a follow-up meeting that people travelled hundreds of kilometres for to attend.” In terms of impact on a personal level, he adds: “My experience of working with Earth Forum helps me in my everyday life. For example, in my work as a consultant. It reminds me that a deeper communication is possible, and this knowledge motivates me to push a little further, to get people to go a bit deeper than usual. It also makes me aware of the beauty of the world, when I go for a walk and pause for a moment to perceive how the trees meet high above the street. When I notice that I am down here, but that there is a whole other life world going on up there. It is both a poetic experience and one of noticing that I am able to shift my perspective. As simple as it sounds, it is very profound to really perceive what is there. It is capacity of which one can’t have enough!”


In future, Heiko would like to use Earth Forum to bring together people of different political parties, both decision makers and citizens. When more and more people were to offer this process, he could see it make a real difference on a local and regional level. If you would like to get involved and become part of the growing international community of responsible participants, have a look at the University of the Trees website to find out more about trainings and other events in your area.


Heiko offered Earth Forum at the Schmiede, a cooperative prototyping environment in Hintersee, Austria

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