Minor practices of recovery: the social life of creative methods

Nicole Vitellone, Lena Theodoropoulou and Melanie Manchot reflect on developing an interdisciplinary method for the study of drug and alcohol recovery

In 2019, we began a research project with the visual artist and filmmaker Melanie Manchot, in order to facilitate the production of Manchot’s first feature film STEPHEN (2023). The film is about addiction and recovery and involves people in recovery from drugs and alcohol.

The first stage of the project explored the potential of a collaboration between us, as social scientists working in the fields of harm reduction and recovery (Theodoropoulou, 2020, 2021, 2023; Theodoropoulou, Vitellone and Duff 2022) and Manchot, who had worked with people in recovery during the making of her video installation Twelve (2012). The second stage consisted of filmmaking workshops with recovery participants.

In this essay we describe the process of building an interdisciplinary methodology and how it enabled a way of researching recovery as a ‘minor practice’. Deleuze and Guattari (1986) describe minor practice as the attempt to establish collective forms of co-authorship. The policies of drug recovery, as well as the discipline of sociology, are major structures that privilege certain voices, methods, concepts and practices, whilst marginalising others. Drug policy does so by rendering the ‘recovered subject’ as its main purpose; it foregrounds abstinence from all substances as the only form that recovery can take. In sociology, it is the critical analyst- an academic often removed from their subject of study- who is the one making breakthroughs. Reflecting on our collaboration with Manchot we address the impact of interdisciplinarity in academia, the lived experiences of people in recovery, and the future of drug treatment and policy.

The collaboration

Our primary aim was to develop a new approach to researching recovery. Through face-to-face and online meetings, we were part of an experimental project in the medical humanities. We built an interdisciplinary research team of visual artists, academics and service providers to examine the impact of filmmaking on ‘recovery’.

Via a series of meetings and a regular reading group we experimented with how social scientists, a visual artist/filmmaker and film producer, and service users could create a shared conceptual language, epistemological framework, and methodological practice. In our initial encounters and interactions, we were primarily concerned with how to engage the object of the camera.

What distinguished our approach was treating Manchot’s methods of filmmaking not as a tool for critical analysis, but as an object of inquiry. This move enabled us to rethink the possibilities mobilised in and through filmmaking and challenge what we, as academic experts, do in the production of knowledge.

Using cameras, acting, reenactment, and the experience of service users undergoing the recovery process, this interdisciplinary collaboration enabled us to explore the ways in which of the camera and filmmaking can contribute to understanding the process of recovery from substances.

The workshops

In 2019 and early 2020, we designed and co-facilitated a series of filmmaking workshops with our recovery participants. The aims of the workshops were:

1) to give participants some time and practical activities which would help them decide if they wanted to get involved with the filming of STEPHEN

2) to start creating connections between the actors involved in the project

3) to observe the role of cameras and performance-to-camera as a creative method of recovery

We began the workshops by building a common language through communally watching a set of specifically chosen films. These included: the Taviani Brothers’ Caesar Must Die (2012), Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet (2017), and Moshen Makmalbaf’s Salam Cinema (1995). Each of these films is political and predominantly involves amateur actors. During each workshop we watched one film, discussed its content and form, and then set a short exercise for participants. The exercises involved using iPad cameras in small groups of three to five people and filming each other. For example, in one of the activities, after assigning the tasks of directing, filming and acting, the participants had to write a short story and film it.

These practical exercises were designed to familiarise participants with different aspects of filming in a performative and collaborative way, where each person took on different roles: devise a short text, act a role, use the camera, direct the action, record sound. Participants often used lived experiences to devise short scenarios that they then chose to perform to camera – and by extension to the group.

Filmmaking and recovery as a minor practice

The goal of our cinema-based workshops was to engender a methodological shift from grand narratives of recovery, to caring for smaller transformations through minor practices of participation. While the majoritarian is a constant and homogeneous system, expressed through the reproduction of recvoery discourses that present abstinence as the only desirable outcome, ‘the minoritarian [is] a potential, creative and created, becoming’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 2004, p. 117).

An example of how recovery can shift from a major to a minor practice is the mirroring exercise- based on Manchot’s adaptation of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space (Brook, 1968). In groups of three, participants were asked to share a story. One person engaged in filming, another narrated the story, and the third listened. For the second take, the narrator and listener exchanged roles; the listener re-told the story, or another version of it, and the first narrator became the listener. The initial narrators were not required to say whether their story was real or fictional, and all groups approached the exercise differently. While the first narrator ‘owned’ the story, its mirroring was not an exact repetition, but a response to the original narration. After observing the first narrator, the second one brought their own fiction or reality by offering an alternative narration. What started out as the story of an individual, gradually became a collective story. Without diminishing the significance of the first narration, the story became shared within the group conducting the exercise.

The presence of the camera enabled the production of shared stories within the wider group. At the end of each workshop, short video recordings were compiled, reviewed and discussed. Mirroring as a minor practice creates the conditions for recovery to emerge outside of the usual major structures; it ‘deterritorialises’ recovery by using repetition as a way to collectively tell stories.

Conclusion

The cinema-based workshops gave us the opportunity to collaboratively reflect on the small transformations that become possible through creative practices. Handing the camera over to participants enabled them to take on roles in front of and behind the camera and to tell stories, some of them real, some of them fictional, but all of them significant to the experience of recovery.

Through our engagement with the methods of filmmaking we observed how interdisciplinary and creative collaborations beyond institutions can create tools for minor recovery transformations. Foregrounding the observation of- and care for- such small transformations is essential for the production of a recovery practice that better addresses the needs of people using- and in recovery from- drugs and alcohol.

About the authors

Dr Nicole Vitellone is AF Warr Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Law and Social Justice, and Co-Director of the Centre for Health, Arts, Society and the Environment (CHASE) at the University of Liverpool. Her current research explores the uses of interdisciplinary methodologies for harm reduction, recovery and environmental research. 

Lena Theodoropoulou is a Lecturer in the Sociology of Public Health at the University of Liverpool. Lena’s main research interests include drug use and recovery, examined through Deleuzo-Guattarian methods and feminist epistemologies of care. Her recent book Becoming with Care in Drug Treatment Services: The Recovery Assemblage (Routledge, 2023) empirically explores the practices of care emerging in two recovery drug treatment services in Liverpool and Athens.

Melanie Manchot is an artist/filmmaker employing photography, film, video and sound to form a sustained enquiry into ideas on our individual and collective identities. Performance-to-camera, reconstruction, participation and location-based research are recurring methodologies.  Her first feature film, STEPHEN, commissioned by Liverpool Biennial, premiered as an installation in June 2023 and will be released cinematically in 2024.

The collaboration was made possible by a Northern Network Medical Humanities (NNMH) seed grant and supported by the interdisciplinary Centre for Health, Art, Society and the Environment (CHASE) at the University of Liverpool, where Melanie Manchot was appointed Artist in Residence.

References

Brook, P. 1968. The empty space. London: Penguin Books.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F.1986. Kafka: Towards a minor literature. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. 2004. A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Translated by B. Massumi. London: Continuum.

Savage, M. 2013. ‘The “Social Life of Methods”: A critical introduction’, Theory, Culture & Society, 30(4): 3-21.

Theodoropoulou, L. 2020. ‘Connections built and broken: the ontologies of relapse’. International Journal of Drug Policy, 86, 1-6.

Theodoropoulou, L. 2021. ‘Describing recovery form drugs and alcohol: how small practices of care matter. Qualitative Research, 21(3), 409-425.

Theodoropoulou, L. 2023. Becoming with care in drug treatment services: The Recovery Assemblage. London: Routledge

Theodoropoulou, L., Vitellone, N. and Duff, C. 2022. ‘Practising recovery: new directions and approaches’, International Journal of Drug Policy, 107, 1-7.

Vitellone, N., Theodoropoulou, L. and Manchot, M. 2022. ‘Recovery as a minor practice’, International Journal of Drug Policy, 107, 1-8.

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