Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Refections, Preparations

Hello to everyone.

Marissa asked me to write a little bit about how I prepared for foi in 2001. I’ve only just now had the time to sit down and think about this question with any amount of serious detail. I think I’ve been avoiding it a bit because I must confess to all of you, I didn’t do a whole lot to prepare last time. When I did foi in 2001, it was an impulsive, gut decision, as is often the case with certain smaller scale pieces that I make. Usually what happens in those instances is that I either agree to do a performance somewhere or I decide to do a performance of some kind, and then I let the panic of that impending deadline focus my thoughts or summon my energies to actually make or do something.

I think that such was the case with foi in 2001. I was in the middle of making my first evening length piece, and the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan in October of 2001. I wish I could remember better what my specific thoughts were at the time, but knowing the way I usually feel about art and politics, I am sure that I felt helpless to understand how I could specifically respond to what I knew was violence being perpetrated in the name of “defense.” One of the early, horrifying lessons of living in the George W. Bush regime was that the voices of U.S. citizens who were against militaristic, interventionist tactics were completely unheard. Later we would find that these voices (Cindy Sheehan comes to mind) were even vilified or ridiculed. The very tiny moment that had existed in the few days after 9/11, when, I’ll speak for myself of course, you sensed that there was the potential for some kind of paradigm shift, some kind of meaningful internal reflection about how we were living in the world, was soon eclipsed by the call for military action in Afghanistan, and eventually, Iraq. I know that writing this reveals the level of my own naiveté about how governments work, and certainly it shows that I had no real idea of the extent to which W.’s vision of the world was so viciously, insidiously about dividing the world into victors and vanquished. I had no real idea about his vision of himself as some kind of player in a biblical fait accompli, where he was going to wrest the power from the “evildoers” in the name of christian heroism.

No, I was just making art. I was trying to figure out whether the duet should go before or after the group section in the dance that I was making. I was trying to figure out the specifics of the counterpoint in a two-minute section of choreography. I was lucky to have a live/work space at the time, with a small but magical studio that I loved intensely. But, besides the fact that I was also busy performing in other people’s work still, my life was pretty small geographically. My walk from my bedroom to the studio was maybe two steps long. Aside from that first night after the World Trade Center fell, when the streets were deathly silent and the sky as well, save for the periodic whoosh of what I assumed were military jets, I had not felt terribly dislocated by the turn of events. (I think that it’s important to note here that I did not, unlike others who I did know in NY, have a direct relationship with anyone who died on 9/11.)

Somewhere in the midst of this strange time, military action began in Afghanistan and I began to think about what that meant. I am, for better or worse, a dancer, and so my reactions to things often stem from a value system that is about what happens to bodies and what they feel. I am also a sort of “fuzzy” lefty. By this I mean that my political bent is most definitely to the left, even though I don’t consider myself as informed as I would like to be. But as I think of it now, I do remember wondering what it must be like to live in a state of fear because of the threat of military violence. Just that one, timeless night of 9/11 had given me a small window into what it was to live in a state of true non-knowing. For most (though I acknowledge not all) of us, living in the U.S. affords us this terrible luxury of not having to wonder if our homes are going to be raided or bombed in the middle of the night. We get to concern ourselves with going to work, seeing our friends and family, working on “ourselves” physically, psychologically, spiritually.

I remember that at the end of September in 2001, I had to get on a plane to perform with John Jasperse Company, and when I got to the airport, I began to have a small panic attack about flying. Freaked out, I called my parents and spoke to my dad, who told me not to worry, and that sadly, a huge proportion of people in the rest of the world have to live with the fear of violence every day, and now, he said, we have to learn to as well. My parents are immigrants from Colombia, which has been contending with a civil war for over 40 years. People in my family there have been kidnapped or killed because of the conflict between the leftist guerrillas, government forces and paramilitary squads. It’s a complex, sometimes surreal reality that impacts everyone’s lives there. It made sense for my dad to say this, and it did actually comfort me.

But in the U.S., military action enacted abroad by the government goes by largely unnoticed. Again, I must clarify that I’m speaking from my own position of living as an artist in New York. I am geographically located in the mix of lower class Latin-American families and predominantly white “hipsters,” the classic tale of New York gentrification. I am not in daily contact with families whose fathers, sons or daughters have entered the army or who are serving overseas, or who have come back traumatized or facing a dearth of services set up for them. Nor am I in daily contact with Afghan or Iraqi refugees. It’s fucking weird, quite frankly, how easy it is to live in the U.S. and feel utterly untouched by the policies enforced by “our” government.

I am re-visiting a lot of these thoughts lately because I’ve been reading an incredible book that Jesse Hewit (CA rep) gave me called Shoot An Iraqi, Art Life and Resistance Under the Gun. (published by City Lights Books) It’s by Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen. Bilal is an Iraqi immigrant who works as an artist in the U.S., who in May of 2007, did a month-long performance project called Domestic Tension, where he lived in Flat File Galleries in Chicago for a month and made it possible for people to shoot him live and over the internet with a robotically controlled paintball gun. It’s a devastating, humbling account of this action and it’s also a memoir of his life in Iraq under the vicious tyrannical reign of Saddam Hussein, and it’s also a reflection on his own feelings about the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq, and I highly recommend it.

But I’ve really strayed away from the original question: How did I prepare for foi in 2001? Already I’ve admitted that I didn’t do a whole lot in any direct way. I can speak a little bit more to my intentions for doing the event. At some point my frustration and confusion about the invasion of Afghanistan led me to think about what it must be like to never get to rest, to never get to feel that you can stay where you are at peace. Obviously somewhere in there I decided on the idea of moving continuously for 24 hours, and the idea of being blindfolded and ear-plugged probably came along kind of instinctually as well. It seemed appropriate to highlight both my sense of disorientation but also my feeling that people in the U.S. were being blind and deaf to the violence being committed abroad. Or for that matter, the violence that it is to take a young American and embed her or him in an unquestioned system that says it’s ok to kill people that you don’t know. (In his book, Bilal talks about the phenomenon of remote bombings, where U.S. troops electronically detonate bombs in Iraq while sitting in a military control center in say, Colorado.)

I’ve always been fascinated by endurance based work, how a body moves beyond a performativity that is about indicating that something is difficult, and actually undergoing a difficult action, so that the body becomes marked by this strain in real time. I think that in the original incarnation of foi 2001, I imagined that the strain of continuously moving for 24 hours was somehow “symbolic” of the difficulty that displaced people must feel. I now feel like this was a terribly naive assumption on my part, and instead, would like to consider that the “difficulty” that is being symbolized in foi 2008 by continuously moving for 24 hours has to do with how hard it is to remain committed to consciousness, to sensitivity and compassion, how hard it is to stay “awake” to the reality of remote war.

One of the people I did research at the time of foi 2001 was Teh-Ching Hsieh, a Chinese performance artist who did a series of year-long pieces. (The one that is most commonly known is the piece he did with Linda Montano, where they stayed connected by a rope for a year, but he did four other year long pieces). I was tremendously inspired by him and these pieces and in the course of researching his work a bit, I found out that his birthday was December 31st! I had already decided to do foi on the 31st so this seemed like a cosmic stamp of approval on the choice of date.

Other than that I think my “preparations” involved just telling people about what I was going to do. I sent out some emails about the event, though I didn’t make too much a big deal about it at the time, and I made up a simple text about what my intentions were that I put up on the door of the studio where I did the action so that people could see it when they walked in. I got a blank notebook also for people to share their thoughts if they came to visit. I set up my video-camera in the corner on a chair and put all the replacement tapes next to it. The night that I started, my roommate (Marissa Perel, IL rep) gave me a brief preparatory massage. I was freaked out because I was coming down with a little bit of a cold. I had a (loud) alarm clock that I placed on the floor in another corner in the studio. I set it for midnight right at 12:01 and I started. (I think it must have been like this, I can’t remember how I did it otherwise... so oops I did one minute less in 2001, fuck!) I put foam earplugs in and covered my eyes first with the kind of weird blindfold you get on planes which I covered again with a white bandana. I wore a plain white t-shirt and red, cotton sweatpants (which, through repeated sliding throughout the following 24 hours, would eventually “stain” the white walls in a subtle but unmistakable patina). Like I mentioned earlier, I was in the middle of making my first evening length piece – enter the seen – around that time, a piece that was going to be performed in my studio in February and March of 2002. Fritz Welch, my visual art collaborator for enter the seen, eventually came to the studio in the early afternoon of the project and began making some wall drawings while I was doing foi. This had been Fritz’s idea, to start drawing while I was doing the 24 hour piece. Initially I’d been resistant but I remember that when I came into contact with him while blindfolded I was so relieved and happy to touch a body that I knew, that was engaged in another creative act in the room as well. This elation and relief happened repeatedly throughout the day, as other people, most of them familiar to me, came and went. Touching people’s hair, or shoulders, or briefly giving them the weight of my body, engaging in short little dances with them, were all incredibly powerful for me, as they were momentary steps out of the intense isolation that it is to blindfold and earplug yourself. I don’t want to say more about that, other than that I’m apprehensive of what it will be like this time around, as I imagine that it’s possible that more people that I don’t know will come to foi this time around, since we’re making it a more publicly known action this time.

In terms of pragmatics of preparation, I am trying to stay in shape over the holidays. Right now I’m in Florida visiting my parents for Christmas. I had hoped to do a dietary cleanse while I was here, but this fanciful notion soon disappeared when I got here (What the hell was I thinking? How could I deny my mom the pleasure of feeding me?). But I am definitely watching what I eat over the next few days, and trying to stay physically fit while calm and not overworked. I am doing a little bit of meditation in the mornings and at night before I go to bed. I may or may not put on a blindfold and some earplugs for about an hour just to alleviate any potential shock for the 31st. I am trying to assemble volunteers to let people in during the event. I am going to make sure I have a webcam and my computer for the ustream feed and my video camera and tapes ready. I will also get a blank notebook to have in the space for people to respond. I will get a bunch of big bottles of water to have in the space, I will also have empty milk jugs in the space to pee in (though I know everyone’s dealing with that differently this time around). I am planning to write an index of the ustream channels that everyone who can start one gets up onto the blog shortly before the action begins. I am sending out a big email about the action either tomorrow or friday. Claudia LaRocco is writing a piece about the action for the New York Times, which should come out on the 30th. I am reading the book that Jesse gave me, and reading the paper and trying to stay informed and conscious of the world outside of the immediacy of this event.

Opening up the action to include other artists has meant that I have already been in mental preparation for this event in ways that I never did in 2001. It’s been a marvelous process to invite and find other artists to engage in the action. It’s forced me to create language about the action and then to clarify that language. This is something that I don’t usually have to do with such rigor and it marks a significant change from then to now, and I appreciate that change greatly. And doing foi this time around with other artists has made me consider the value of diversity in relationship to the different needs that the participating artists have expressed. It’s made me think about where my own body is – I’m seven years older – and though I’m certainly still in pretty decent shape, I’m definitely more scared this time about what the physical implications of this action will be.

But I have to say that underlying all of these interests, both to the specific pragmatics of the event and to my own involvement, has been my consciousness that I’m still confused and frustrated about what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s somehow disappointing that this action is even “necessary” still. But I am increasingly excited about everyone’s involvement in the action, and about the “telepathic” support I will be transmitting and receiving throughout the action. It is exciting and powerful to engage in this truly nationwide event (31 artists at last count!!) with other committed people. I feel very lucky, honored, and humbled.

One more thing I’ll say – before every performance I do, be it solo or with the Powerful People – we usually say the following chant “We are strong, we are powerful, we are beautiful, we are divine.” I know I will be saying this before and during foi 2008.

1 comment:

dfkhls;gkh said...

Hi everyone,
I am not sure if this will even be read as it so close to our moment of 'community.' In the moment before finishing that sentence, I tried to find a word like communal for the activity we will all be engaging in.
Reflections on this circumstance is not what I meant to write anyway. I wanted to address how I am setting up my space and concerns for potential problems (I am trying not to say that Miguel mentioned posting something about how I was setting up the space. Oops.).
The space I am in is a dance studio, with accoutrements such as marley and barres.
I am placing a few copies of the press release near the entrance, with lists of everyone involved. There is also a sign encouraging individuals to check out the ustream channels, enlarging the community of one to many.
In a logistical way, I must be responsible for myself, perhaps extremely so, during the 24 hour period.
For myself, I am making containers of tea and also bringing juice. My biggest concern is that I will fall asleep. I do not do well with sensory deprivation. My mom is also routinely checking in on me. But not too often.
So some advice, if I can offer any, is to stay well hydrated, have some friends, and take the time to prepare the space.
I wish everyone the best (is that okay to say?) during this experience.