Director’s Report – PCCA 2021 Online

by Louisa Diana Brunner – PCCA 2018 Conference Director

The context and the conference title


This Conference was  the 13th conference in the so called Nazareth series of the Past in the Present project started nearly 30 years ago and the 8thconference since PCCA was established in 2007.

The PCCA August 2020 conference WALLS – OPEN, CLOSED, SLIDING? EUROPE AND OUR WORLD TODAY in The Netherlands had to be postponed. In spring 2020, the Covid 19 pandemic spread all over the world and our lives had to be changed dramatically and we had to adapt in order to hopefully survive physically and mentally to such an unexpected and unthinkable event.

After exploring the possibility of holding the conference in the Netherlands again or eventually in Germany, considering the spread  of the lockdown in Europe and worldwide in fall 2020, the decision to hold the conference online was inevitable. In planning the postponed conference in 2021 our assumption was that there is a ‘before’ the pandemic that still exists, there is a ‘present’ that we have to manage as best we can, and there is a future that is still quite uncertain, however the vaccine makes us hopeful. Based on these considerations, we decided to pilot a conference in a completely new territory, for the first time online. The 2021 Conference  was conceived having in mind the previous PCCA conferences and adapting it to the new circumstances. The title became WALLS – OPEN, CLOSED, SLIDING? THE VIRUS, EUROPE AND OUR WORLD TODAY. The idea was to capture the situation in Europe and in the World at a time of global trauma, a time of loss of many loved ones and all other kinds of losses on a mass scale, a time of grief and mourning. A time in which our old familiar world and so much that we used to take for granted are now in the past, and anxiety, disorientation and uncertainty confront us in the present. So an important  question to address in this conference was for example What resources do we bring to face this situation as we prepare for the post-traumatic period of rebuilding and reconstruction?


On one hand, the virus and the consequent lockdown brought a new emphasis on walls – to keep out the virus and its vectors; between the employed and the unemployed; between those able to work and those furloughed to avoid contagion; and between the more privileged, protected from the worst ravages of the virus, and those on the frontline. These set one group apart from the other. Is proper empathy across these walls possible?

On the other hand, there has been a quiet digital revolution that has brought walls down in a positive way, expanding virtual meeting spaces and relationships. Speed of change has been and is a dimension to which we have had to adapt in these years of Covid 19. What is up to date today can be outdated tomorrow. All this certainly is also evidence once more of how adaptive mankind is.

The Primary Task of the conference was: To provide a space for participants to explore how issues around the theme WALLS – OPEN, CLOSED, SLIDING AND THE VIRUS play themselves out in the conference itself, and in Europe and in Our World today in general.

Our vision about the conference

The overall vision and strategy of this conference was: tradition and innovation, back to the origins and a launch into the future, trusting the method. There was a lot to be learned in the online circumstances, I greatly appreciate the openness of members and staff in engaging and exploring this new territory and space. So much emphasis was given, on one hand, to the founding elements of the Nazareth-PCCA project: Working Through the Aftermath of the Holocaust, The Past in the Present, The Repetition of the Past and the Work in the Presence of the Other (your enemy or somebody with whom you are in conflict). Another aspect that was addressed was that the conference is a fractal of the society in which we live. Therefore the experience and the dynamics which develop within the conference space, should also re-enact what is taking place at an individual level, in groups, organisations, institutions and communities – we are part of a broader societal level outside. This process in the online conference space aimed to help us understand and learn what is happening here and out there in Europe and in our World Today, both above the surface (immediately visible) and beneath the surface (the covert and unconscious dynamics) and to support us in our role of citizens in our daily life.

A conference, also an online one, can be seen as a transitional space in Winnicottian terms  where members can experiment new learning creatively, also from taking up different roles.

In order to be able to offer a safe enough space and in consideration of the intensity and depth of a PCCA conference, our main concern was to provide the necessary containment and holding both through the structure (the design and technology) and the content (in terms of food for thought and working hypotheses). In traditional Group Relations and in PCCA conferences concepts of boundaries, role, time, territory and task are the way to implement this containment for staff and members, but how to  do it online was the real  challenge.


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The online dimension

We immediately became aware of the challenge of the technological dimension, although there had been other conferences and the 2020 PCCA event directed by Mira Erlich Ginor. A provider was contacted to explore the possibility of technological support. But also a conference online is a socio-technical experience where technology and group relations and PCCA competences are necessary. Socio-technical approach is part of the theory and method of the Tavistock Institute of The Human Relations where Group Relations conferences were developed and the PCCA method is an application.

We were lucky that Leila Djemal, a member of staff, is an expert and passionate about group relations and technology and we created a new role of consultant & technological advisor. I am very grateful to her for all her very dedicated passionate and professional work. As also stated in all the feed-back we got from staff and members, this model worked very well.

We used the Zoom platform with only one link for all the events which made everything very simple, accessible and efficient. We used Padlet for the conference notice boards and Jamboard for some other boards. Everything worked smoothly and both staff and members were able to use these online resources.

The online conference required an enormous amount of preparation. The conference management met regularly for months, work with the technology advisor was ongoing weekly, the administration was tightly supervised. The staff met twice before the conference and also had a technological tutorial. A lot of invisible and amazingly generous and dedicated work was done before and during the conference. All staff adhered enthusiastically to this new pioneering project. Nothing was improvised. Although the schedule was tight and even tighter for the staff, staff was able to have enough space for reflection and to address the issues at stake in depth. Among many other things that emerged from the conference material, it was noted that as staff we deeply engaged with our different identities and the challenges we go through in our lives. This work on identity was mirrored in the membership in a parallel process.

Staff Recruitment

Following my re-appointment as Director and due to the impossibility to hold the 2020 conference, I decided to invite the same staff of that conference. So I immediately re-invited  Fakhry Davids (United Kingdom) as the Associate Director to whom I am extremely thankful for his ongoing availability to think together and work with me all through a complicated and challenging three-year journey, and Antoaneta Mateeva as Administrator, for her warm presence, ideas and continuous commitment.  Some of the 2020 staff could not make it in 2021. The consultants were Leila Djemal (Israel) who, as mentioned above, also took up the role of technology advisor, Shmuel Erlich (Israel), Bettina Jesberg (Germany), Julian Lousada (UK), Allan Shafer(Australia), Iwona Soltysinska (Poland)Mark Stein (UK), Nadine Tchelebi (Germany) and  Dorothee von Tippleskirch-Eissing (Germany). Since we were recruiting very  well, Julian Lousada was invited to join the staff in March 2021, a few weeks before the conference started, and he kindly accepted with very short notice. I truly appreciate of his availability. The staff group was varied in terms of age, personal and professional background and approaches and institutional affiliations, citizenship and nationality and group relations experience.

We continued to work with the office of Brigitte Reusch, who handled all the pre – and post-conference administration. Antoaneta Mateeva in her role of Conference Administrator liaised with GeberReusch, coordinating the work.

Sponsors and Supporters

We are very grateful to DPV, DPG, IPS, NPAV and the Burkard Sievers donation for their financial sponsorship. We also had EPF, IPA, OFEK, OPUS, PTPA and the Tavistock Institute as friendly supporters.

Membership Recruitment

Considering that we were able to start marketing the conference in January 2021 and the conference was held in April, we had a very short time to advertise it. Much effort went into recruiting members first of all through the PCCA mailing list by sending a conference flyer and the link to a website created for the conference where they could find the brochure. This was also sent to many distribution lists: OFEK, Israel Association of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, AKRI, Tavistock Institute, OPUS, ISPSO, Il Nodo Group, the DPV, DPG, IPS, NPAV, IPA and many others. PCCA members and the Conference staff engaged in personal recruitment. We also posted some announcements on Linkedin and Facebook.

Interestingly in the first days when we opened registration, many people registered, so we were very soon aware that the conference could take place. But then recruitment stopped so we decided to extend the early bird fee two weeks more. From that moment the flow of registration became continuous until the day the conference started. The online dimension allowed us to accommodate also last-minute registrants.

The conference time


The conference took place over four days from the 8th April to the 11th April 2021. Working online can have some challenges and can be stressful for the body, the mind and in terms of  learning. So we designed a sustainable time table, working with members between 9.30 am and 5pm during the first three days and from 9 am to 2pm on the last day. Although we had to slightly shorten the breaks, the timetable seemed sustainable for the majority of people and at the same time there was enough space for learning. 

The dates in early April proved to be good. It was the week after Easter, some people were still on holiday. It was the start of spring and most countries were still in lockdown. The need to be outdoors after a very demanding winter was not yet felt, so people were still willing to spend long hours at the computer.

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Fee Structure

The online dimension allowed us to keep the fees very low. PCCA agreed to have very low fees as an investment in piloting of the new online dimension. So the early bird fee up to 20

days before the conference was €300.00 and after the full fee was €350.00. Since our intention was to attract East Europeans, Palestinians, Developing Countries, Students and Early Career Researchers we offered them a fee of € 250.00.


This Conference was financially supported by four psychoanalytic sponsoring societies (DPV, DPG, IPS and NPAV) and the Burkard Sievers donation. We are grateful for all this support.

We had 17 requests for bursaries. Due to the large recruitment at the bursaries application deadline, we were in the position to fulfill all the bursaries’ requests. Funds were allocated on the basis of 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). Even though we offered the requested bursary, three applicants decided to withdraw. We gave a bursary to a Bulgarian and a Polish member from the Burkard Sievers donation, to a German and two Polish members from DPG funds, to two Indians from DPV ones and to one person from Portugal-Morocco  from NPVA contribution. In any case we operated with a very tight budget also in terms of what we could offer the staff as a fee.

Composition of Membership

Up to the last day before the conference we had 67 registered members, unfortunately 2 persons  withdrew at the last moment, 10 others had withdrawn before, for health or work reasons So we had 65 members in the conference, 48 women, 18 men and 1 not declared. Age wise, they were between 27 and 78 years old, the average age of the participants was from 40 to 60 (52 people or 79%) almost equally distributed between the three decades. 19 members had already attended a PCCA Conference and for 46 it was a first time attendance. There were 21 countries present: Australia (2), Austria (1), Belgium (1), Bulgaria (1)  Germany (14), India (2), Ireland (1), Israel (6), Italy (5), Latvia (1), Lithuania (1), Norway (1), Poland (6),Portugal (1), Russia (1), Singapore (1), Slovenia( 2), Switzerland (2), Turkey(1), UK (11) and the USA (4).

In terms of professional affiliation, members were psychologists, psychoanalysts, consultants, scholars, business people, project leaders, artists, economist, etc. It was a very sophisticated and engaged membership. As a staff member suggested, this was achieved because “it was a PCCA conference in which the emphasis is not strictly on the organizational and institutional dynamics, but on the human experience as reflecting particular time

Conference Program and Events

The program consisted of the following events:

Small Study Groups (SSG) – 5 sessions, 6 groups, 11-12 members with a consultant.

Social Dreaming Matrix (SDM) – 4 sessions, all participants and 3 staff hosts.  

European Event (EE) – 4 long sessions, staff as consultants.

Review Groups – 4 sessions, 10 groups, 6-7 members with one or two consultants.

Plenaries – Two plenaries: an Opening Plenary at the beginning and a Closing Plenary at the end of the conference.

Due to the pioneering dimension of this online conference it was decided not to have a Large Group (LSG) as in the previous conferences. On the one hand, we learned from other online experiences that the LSG was challenging and needed to be experimented more. On the other hand, we thought of going back to the original Nazareth project conference where there wasn’t a LSG. Nevertheless I would suggest that in the future a LSG should take place also in an online conference. We decided to have a Social Dreaming Matrix (SDM) in a larger configuration, although not a “here and now event”. After each session the three hosts posted the dreams on a Padlet, a technological wall, available all the time for both staff and members. This task was very demanding for the staff Shmuel Erlich, Allan Shafer and Dorothee von Tippelskirch-Eissing who very generously worked overtime to carry out this job and to whom I am really grateful. Social Dreaming was valuable¸ serving as a channel for creativity and emerging unconscious themes for the system.

The Small Study Groups  (SSG) worked well online, a lot of thought was given before and during the conference by the convener Nadine Tchelebi who led the team in an exemplary manner and this gave an important contribution to the work for which I am very thankful.

Also the Review Groups (RG) team worked in the same dedicated manner, very well convened too by Iwona Soltysinska who was engaged, also in exploring new different technological resources, for example visual tools. It all seemed well structured and contained and I greatly appreciated this work.

As in the 2018 conference, also this time we had an European Event which involved all members and staff. For the plenary opening we provided three consultants, Bettina Jesberg, Julian Lousada and Mark Stein to whom I am very thankful for a great job. Other consultants were allocated to some of the territories for the first sessions and some territories were left without consultants. All the remaining staff were in one room as consultants and I was the convener of the consultants group. In this conference during the EE we had a consultants’ group who attended to management and consultancy. The idea behind this was to try to flatten the hierarchical structure mirroring what is going on today in organizations face to face and in the virtual space, in the Covid -19 and post Covid-19 times. Calling it ‘European’ created some tension, since it was more a world event. It was also the event in which the technological dimension was most challenging when adapting it from the face-to-face conference and transitioning it online.

Some of the main issues that emerged

  • A pioneering culture and atmosphere due to a post-traumatic survival state of mind and the new online dimension deeply shaped this conference. There was a lot of energy, commitment and engagement in the work. Nevertheless the face – to – face conference was missed as also the usual immersion, especially the informal spaces where to “meet” the other participants, to repair conflicts, to network.
  • A staff member noted that an online conference obviously opens up the issue and the challenge of boundaries, those set by the technology alongside the symbolic and layered meaning in the context of a conference. As in other online conferences, the dynamic of regression among the membership was perhaps less intense also in this one.
  • The title WALLS – OPEN, CLOSED, SLIDING? THE VIRUS, EUROPE AND OUR WORLD TODAY captured the context in which we live well. Members managed to work with the theme of walls. The virus and COVID 19 emerged largely in the smaller groups and in the SDM. The full meaning of this is not yet clear. Was it a denial or a resistance to something too traumatic and painful? Before withdrawing a potential member said ” I am tired of talking about COVID”. Or was it that the lockdown situation was more acted out than verbalized, in the sense that all members and staff were in their homes, liviging this ”real experience” concretely .
  • A staff member, quoting Eric Miller, ”For some members,(the personalised learning) may remain the sole outcome but it is not the purpose of the conference …….if it is effective, the application (of the learning) is always subversive. It calls into question the embedded assumptions and myths that support the status quo”. Also from members’ feed-back there was surely a lot of the personalized learning. This links also with what in PCCA we often say that ”members are returning to ’go on with the work’ until they finish it”. In this case we refer to individual work in particular on identity. Another staff member said,”The need to hold on to what was, and is, and seemingly defines oneself, was noticeable as a driving force throughout the small study group dynamics of the conference. Participants looked for their Selves in the Other, trying to establish seemingly familiar pairings, ending up disappointed as their calls for integration remained unanswered. The question of “who are you” and “who am I” seemed to become more and more impossible to answer as the sense of human connectedness grew in the group instead of the expected splitting dynamics”. Although online and mediated by technology, deep sense of connectedness developed in the staff and in the membership.
  • Throughout the conference an emerging theme was the issue of identity and the complexity of identity boundaries associated with the multilayered nature of identity(personal, political, national, racial, georgraphical, sexual, gender, etc.). This was especially played out in the European Event. In this event members were asked to form groups according to their nationality, or other type of international /global groupings with which they identify. Interestingly this did not happen, because it was said it would be too limited in respect to the complexity of identity and it would box them in one. In any case they found how to name the groups in a way that was both on task and off task a bit transgresive or subversive.
  • Overall in the conference it was more difficult for members and staff to work on the systemic and societal dimension, exept in the SDM where, as a staff member noted, the collective was presented through metaphors.This could also be due to the strong pyschoanalytical tradition and founding element and large psychoanalytic membership of PCCA conferences that permeates the PCCA culture. Dreams, free association and methaphor are the founding elements in the psychoanalytical work, therefore the SDM was a the space for this to emerge. On the other hand, what is the system or society in the mind while we are online boxed in our videos?  How can we represent it?
  • Although it was a European conference with a membership from 21 countries European(12) and non-European(9), unexpectedly the Germans, Jews or Israelis theme was present and quite dominant. Is this due to the origin of the PCCA project? Is this a consequence of the type of membership? As a staff suggested ”was it a defence to avoid addressing Brexit, colonialism, racism, the place of black and Islamic people in Europe, refugees and migration?. Or is it still such a big trauma and shame in Europe that deeply influences and impacts our lives? Interestingly the tension between Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews was more manifest in this conference than in previous PCCA
  • Minorities, especially from Eastern Europe, found it difficult to find a ’voice’ that could be heard. The members who were more represented numerically, such as Germans, had a louder voice. This also mirrors East-West power dynamics in Europe .In the opening plenary the issue of female leadership emerged strongly.It seemed that it was very difficult for the membership to acknowledge a pair of a white female director and a black male associate-director, and in a way female leadership was more conventional and easier to address.The ghost of this pair remained in the air or in the cupboard throughout the conference. It also led to the issue about how to trust leadership and leaders today since in most of the countries leadership is unreliable, corrupted, narcisssist, self interested. This lack of trust felt more like an ongoing  complain, a sense of impotence than  really confronting an issue that could be painful, demoralizing and destabilizing. This led to a culture of apparent dependency  which also reflects what happens in our real life in the world.
  • Overall in the conference many aspects remained unpacked and open for futher work. 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 regression and rebellion.

First of all I would like to thank the PCCA Board and Management Committee for the trust shown in authorizing me to direct this conference. It feels that it was a significant conference for all participants, staff and members and a relief to be able to run it in the middle of a pandemic. I am truly grateful to all the staff for their very generous dedication, contribution, passion, availability, insights and for supporting and also sharing their thoughts after the conference, from which I have drawn many ideas for this report. I am very thankful to all the members who accepted our invitation to join the conference, making it so rich and powerful. Our hope now is that this conference has been a learning experience for members, even though with different degrees for different people, because this is the raison d’être of this work and what makes it meaningful to run a conference.

Louisa Diana Brunner – PCCA 2021 Online Conference Director

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