by Louisa Diana Brunner – PCCA 2018 Conference Director
This conference was the 11th conference in the so–called Nazareth series of the Past in the
Present and the 7th conference since PCCA was established in 2007. This project started nearly 25 years ago.
This conference was built on the previous ones and especially on the last three in Poland, in the sense of continuing to focus on Europe. The title was Exclusion, Resentment and the Return of the Repressed. Europe in a Globalized World. The idea was to capture what is going on in Europe and in the World at a time of great change and turmoil. As suggested in the brochure, shadows are gathering across the face of Europe once again. The European Union was built in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the Second World War partly to avoid a repetition of past tragedies. As exemplified by Brexit or the new populist government in Italy, today the European Union is beset by disintegrative forces mostly powered by and manifested in the rise of reactionary nationalist movements in virtually every European nation. In many cases this is seen as the return of the repressed of different unaddressed historical dramas. For example, anti-Semitism, kept under the carpet for a long time, is again more openly expressed and spreading.
The Primary Task of the conference was “to provide a space for participants to explore how feelings of inclusion and exclusion fuel resentment. How the return of the repressed influences personal and cultural identities and relations within and between individuals and groups in the Conference and how this in turn illuminates wider cultural and political processes in Europe in a globalized world. And finally, through the awareness of these dynamics, to enable political and social action and a more active and responsible citizenship.”
The Conference was designed one day shorter than the previous ones. We thought that time is precious in our contemporary life and it is always more complicated for people to take time off from family and work. The PCCA Board decided to change the venue and to hold the Conference in Western Europe. The choice of the Netherlands came up quite early, in consideration of the history of the Netherlands in terms of the events of WWII and its role in Europe. The Ernst Sillem Hoeve in Den Dolder that we found thanks to Martijn van der Spek, the Conference Administrator, provided a good venue i in a beautiful wooden landscape in the Dutch country side. This venue is owned by the YMCA, it has a non-profit culture, the profits go to YMCA’s social projects, therefore, it is coherent with PCCA’s social engagement.
It was the first time after the foundation of PCCA that we had several members coming from the country of the venue and we realized how difficult it is to host this type of Conference in one’s own country. It was a heavy load, it made people more responsible and they were deeply confronted with their national history.
Following my appointment as Director (Italy), Paul Hoggett (United Kingdom) was invited as the Associate Director. As mentioned above, the Conference Administrator was Martijn van der Spek (The Netherlands) and the Conference Associate Administrator was Lili Valko (Hungary), but she was not able to attend the Conference, her baby was due soon. The consultants were Fakhry Davids (United Kingdom), Mira Erlich Ginor (Israel), András Gelei (Hungary), Veronika Grueneisen (Germany), Marina Mojović (Serbia), Joan Roma i Vergés (Barcellona) and Dorothee von Tippleskirch-Eissing (Germany).
Due to higher numbers of registration than expected and since Lili Valko could not attend the Conference, András Gelei (Hungary) joined the staff in the last months before the Conference. The staff group was versatile in terms of age, personal and professional background and approaches, as well as institutional affiliations, citizenship and nationality and group relations experience.
We continued to work with the office of Geber & Reusch, which handled all the pre- and post-conference administration regarding the hotel and the participants. Martijn van der Spek and Lili Valko, in their role of Conference Administrator and Conference Associate Administrator, liaised nearly for a year with Geber & Reusch, coordinating the work. Their dedicated work made the Conference Administration smooth and efficient.
As in the past we are grateful to DPV, DPG and IPS for their financial sponsorship. We also had NPAV, IPA, OFEK, OPUS as friendly supporters.
Considerable effort went again into recruiting members. First of all, through the PCCA mailing list by sending a conference flyer and then the brochure. These materials were also mailed to many distribution lists: OFEK, Israel Association of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, AMCHA, Tavistock Institute, OPUS, ISPSO, Il Nodo Group, Utrecht University, the DPV, DPG, IPS, NPAV, IPA web event calendar and many others. A special conference website, listing all the materials and online and offline registration form, was edited and advertised. PCCA members and the Conference staff engaged in personal recruitment. We were active on Facebook for many months.
We changed the fee structure and introduced an early bird fee of € 1.400,00, available up to three months before the Conference. The full fee was € 1.500,00. Since our intention was to attract East Europeans, Palestinians and students, we offered this target group a fee of € 700,00. Fees could be further reduced in the case of double room occupancy and many members took advantage of this possibility.
This Conference was supported by the three psychoanalytic sponsoring societies (DPV, DPG, IPS). For the first time, we posted our conference on the crowd funding website. Furthermore, a member donated. We are grateful for all this financial support which was used for bursaries. We had 17 requests for bursaries. Due to the high recruitment numbers at the bursaries’ application deadline, we were in the position to fulfill the requests. Funds were allocated based on a written application, as well as a number of pertinent factors (e.g. supporting young people, students and novice professionals and the stark economic realities). Another way of supporting members was offering them to share the rooms in a double occupancy. We prioritized the possibility of giving the bursaries against other expenses, but as a consequence, we operated with a very tight budget also in terms of what we could offer the staff as a fee.
Until the last week before the conference we had 66 registered members, unfortunately 4 persons had to withdraw at the last moment, for health or work reasons. So, we had 62 members which represented a wide range of categories: 49 women and 13 men; 34 in the age range of 27 to 55, and 28 aged 55 to 75. 15 members had already attended a PCCA Conference and for 47 it was a first-time attendance. There were 15 countries present, Bosnia and Herzegovina (1) Germany (16), Hungary (1), Israel (4), Poland (2), Russia (1), Serbia (7), Slovenia (6), South Africa (1), Spain (4) Switzerland (2), Turkey (1), United Kingdom (4) and the United States (1).
In terms of professional affiliation, members were psychologists, psychoanalysts, consultants, scholars and business people.
The program consisted of the following events:
Small Study Groups (SSG) – 4 sessions, 6 groups, 8-12 members with a consultant.
Large Study Group (LSG) – 4 sessions, all members and 4 consultants.
Social Dreaming Matrix (SDM) – 4 sessions, all participants and 3 staff hosts.
European Event (EE) – 8 sessions, staff as management and offering consultancy.
Review and Application Groups (RAG) – 4 sessions, 8 groups, 5-9 members with a consultant.
Plenaries – Two plenaries: An Opening Plenary at the beginning and a Closing Plenary at the end of the conference.
The Social Dreaming Matrix took place every morning after breakfast for one hour. Based on learning from the previous conferences, the group met as a whole, i.e. all members and three staff members who served as “hosts”. Two of the staff hosts were from the LSG team and one of the SSG team. Social Dreaming was valuable¸ serving as a channel for creativity and emerging unconscious themes. The SDM was followed by the SSG and then the LSG, with an alternation of small and large group configurations.
An EE was introduced for the first time, building on the previous experience of the Systems Event. The choice of calling it EE came from the desire to emphasize the context and to define the field of observation in Lewin’s terms. We provided two consultants for the plenary opening and others to some of the territories for the first sessions, as well as territories without consultants. The Event Directors’ Group (EDG) and the Event Consultants Group (ECG) were assigned to two different territories and each had a different task. The EDG had to keep a special eye on the learning process while the ECG concentrated on the dynamic process of the experience of the “here and now”. Members formed six groups. The themes around which the groups coalesced were focused on different aspects of Europe and the European Union. In this sense they were coherent with the Primary Task of the event, although it could be seen as a counter- dependency dynamic in terms of complying with the staff guidelines, which mirrored in this an external dynamic in terms of the relationship of the different states with the European Commission.
In my view the approach, the strategy, the design and the implementation of Group Relations methodology in the Conference depend on and reflect the Director’s epistemology, ideas, experience, identity, personal and professional background and style. Every Director interprets Group Relations in a different way. A Conference can be seen as a transitional space in Winnicottian terms where participants ideally should arrive in a without-memory-nor-desire state of mind so as to be able to experience new learning from their different roles. My main strategic ideas included learning from the past, a balance between tradition and innovation, deep trust in the method and a mind-set that we describe in Italian as ‘perfection does not belong to this world’.
The first concern, also in consideration of the intensity and depth that a PCCA Conference can lead to, is always to provide the necessary containment, with regard to structure (through the design) and content (in terms of food for thought and working hypotheses). Therefore, traditional Group Relations concepts of boundaries, role, time, territory and task are the way to implement this containment, for both staff and members. My feeling was that this was the case in the Conference and contributed to the task of learning. Like any Group Relations Conference, also the PCCA one is a very complex event and each member has her/his own learning experience. However, some common issues emerged that were specific to this Conference and made it worthwhile.
- A discrepancy between the European Union as an idea/dream and the European Union in reality.
- The European Union was initially built by the so-called Old as a defense against war and the traumas of the first part of the XX century and, as a staff member said, “to eliminate or control the bad side of our human-ness’.
- The European Union was a top-down decision with the assumption that differences, nations, cultures can be integrated with a magic wand.
- The energy is located in nations which joined the European Union recently. The élites of Old Europe seem like bureaucrats without heart and passion and, as a staff member suggested, they split emotions. The dynamic was one of dependence, counter-dependence and the need to comply with real or imagined task guidelines.
- It was also observed and hypothesized in the European Event that passion was not so manifest in this Conference or it was a bit sanitized. There could have been a collective defense and fear of a potential explosive destructiveness. A staff member suggested that it is “more difficult to get in contact with today’s tensions, traumas, fights and aggressions in Turkey, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bosnia, Ukraine, etc.” than with old ones.
- There are still mental “Iron curtain(s) in (the) European Union “or type A nations (the first 12 EU countries) and type B nations (the new entries).
- There was the acknowledgment of a lack of historical knowledge about the local and national histories (for example the Balkans or Catalonia), but also an absence of curiosity to explore the history further. Each person tends to stay in her/his comfort zone of her/his small world and community.
- There was quite a bit of evidence that Brexit is too frightening to talk about openly from an exclusion/inclusion perspective both for the Brits and for the Europeans.
- The racial dynamic was present and manifest in a slimy way. The exclusion –
- inclusion dynamic was mostly projected openly on the racial dimension, in this way freeing up people from other potential exclusion experiences with all the pain and humiliation connected to such emotions.
- The return of the repressed, as a staff member suggested, haunted the Conference, but could not be addressed nor really ‘return’; it was too threatening. For example, the Holocaust was there but mainly referred to in relation to past conferences.
- The perpetrator – victim – bystander dynamic emerged, on the one hand, as a polarization or in competition about victimhood. There was the danger of a “perverse victimhood” so present today.
- Pain was more openly discussed in the small group configurations and less in the whole system moments, but it was acted out throughout the Conference also in different ways with some manic moments.
- It was a Tower of Babel of overlapping contrasting languages, with a strong emphasis on the new emergent so-called language of action, the language of the populists and the nationalists.
To conclude, I want to outline some final considerations.
- In the conference, many aspects were unpacked. It was a ‘contained’ Conference with an overall ‘working group mentality’ culture or in ‘a depressive position’ state of mind, obviously also with moments of strong regression.
- The staff managed to work well together as a team, integrating their differences, and this was openly acknowledged by all. This was also probably mirrored in the sophisticated membership attending the Conference. The dilemma remains about how much this prevented deeper work on conflicts, destructiveness and pain (in sanitizing them) or if it was the most appropriate culture for the task of the Conference and members’ learning.
- In terms of the theme of the Conference we experienced that Europe is a very complex entity, with many layers in the past and in the present, which are very difficult to contain and address all at the same time. I am aware that the word complexity is quite abused today, and this can seem banal, but the ‘lived emotional experience’ of the ‘here and now’, within the Conference dynamic, was greatly confronting, at moments nearly emotionally and cognitively unbearable and uncontainable in the mind, all at once. You continuously had the feeling that you could not get it all at the same time, there was always some layer that could not come to light.
First of all, I would like to thank the PCCA Board for the trust shown in authorizing me to direct this Conference. I am truly grateful to my colleagues of the Conference Management, to all the staff for their very generous dedication, contribution, availability, insights and for supporting me in this journey and to all the members who accepted our invitation to join the Conference, making it so rich and powerful. My main hope now is that this Conference has been a learning experience for the members, even though with different degrees for different people, because this is the raison d’être of this kind of work and what gives running a Conference meaning.
Louisa Diana Brunner – PCCA 2018 Conference Director