Tuesday, December 9, 2008

intentions, reactions

hey there folks...
i got this super interesting email from gregory holt, who is "rep"-ing for New Hampshire and i asked him if i could re-post it here and include my response to it. i think it gets at some of the central ideas about how to approach doing foi... i'm very curious to hear anyone else's response..

From Gregory Holt:

hi miguel!
i've been having many conversations about this project, raising a lot of intense issues, and wondered if there were a way to open a larger dialogue between all the participants of the project so we can learn from each other's thoughts. maybe a bulletin board on the blog? or some kind of forum? or just 'replying all' to your email list? i also really want to hear more about your first experience with this, and what was successful, and what was difficult, and what was communicated, and what you learned. here are some of the conversations i've been having, and i'm really interested in your experience not as an 'answer' to any of these questions, but just more about how the questions play out in the act.

when i talk about this project, i've been getting many responses from people reacting to it as a form of shock art, self-torture, and aestheticized suffering. my roommate was talking about how in her experience art/representations which generate pity through proximalization of suffering do not open space for transformative response, and somehow paralyze her responsive abilities- if she follows an intense, triggered, emotional response then she 'doesn't understand art' because she's not detaching herself and remaining in a conceptual space, but if she focuses on a conceptual or interpretive response, then she feels she's cutting herself off. how do we encourage transformative witnessing?

i've been kind of surprised by these responses because i don't think of this project as shock art, self-torture, or suffering. it seems too understated and non-sensationalized to be shock art, and too voluntary to be torture. however, prolonged sensory- and sleep- deprivation, and forced repetitive exercise are in fact torture methods employed by the US and the replication of that experience as performance, regardless of how controlled, is an aestheticization of it.

i've been approaching the project not as primarily a representation or a concept, but rather as a process engaging our physical capacities for working through and elaborating limited information and nascent ideas, and for reaching new conclusions about how-to-be in the world. as a live performance, i think this action circumvents the abstraction of written or intellectual analysis, while avoiding the sensationalism, flattening, and distancing of visual media. however, another friend was saying that she, as a non-dancer, doesn't know to approach dance performance looking for those things. trained in a visual culture, bodies in performance seem to be necessarily images and signs. how do we call for other ways of seeing?

i recently read the autobiography of chan khong, an activist from south vietnam, who writes extensively about meditation and ritualized protest as components of political action. meditation and mindfulness retreats have served her to reground her work and center herself for difficult action. ritualized protests have helped motivate her and thousands of others to re-dedicate themselves to peace. living in an america without a strong tradition of either, how do these aspects of the action communicate?

oh yeah, and in the list of participants can you list me as 'gregory holt'? i still haven't found a space, but keep approaching places...
here's crossed fingers. we just had an amazing week with deborah hay, what a fantastic person!
take care.

hi greg
thanks for this awesome email. and yes I will change your name to gregory for the press release.

I’m surprised as well by the responses you’re getting. I don’t really feel like responding to them directly because I am not interested in getting into my “rebuttal”/argumentative head. people will think what they think and that’s fine.

my interest in this action is in the contemplative/potentially “transcendent” space that engaging an endurance based action proposes. I am interested in keeping the situation simple. one body, one room. no special “lighting” or “sound” or “partner.” my experience the first time around was that the simplicity of the score and the challenge of doing it blindfolded and ear-plugged brought my body through tons of feelings, time zones, imaginary spaces. I chose to privilege my interior world for those 24 hours, and it was exhilarating, disorienting, harrowing, exciting, lonely, intensely sad, and then, when it was over, extraordinarily euphoric.

I am not interested in “representing” something directly per se with this action. of course I am not so na├»ve as to be ignorant of the fact that the presence of a blindfolded person evokes images on the more harrowing end of the spectrum. so be it. I am not interested in “acting” imprisoned, tortured or anything like that. keep moving for 24 hours. don’t eat, don’t sleep. drink water. pee when you have to. interact with the people who come to watch at your own discretion. like I wrote in the original statement, I am acutely aware of the fact that we are engaging this chosen action as people who have the option to walk away from it. and we will. duh. of course that’s the case. but I believe that in some very basic way, this action, and all of my performances really, are practices of consciousness. some people even call that “prayer.” that’s maybe a bit of a strong word, who knows. but I don’t mind it. do I know if doing this 7 years ago made me a “better,” more “politically sensitive” person? I don’t know. I’d like to think that that’s just my nature. but I like trying things that freak me out, that bring me to close proximity with the truths of my body, my mortality and my feelings. I like to think that by extension this gives me an opportunity to practice empathy with other people in the world who have those concerns, which is maybe everyone?? hell, you just studied with d hay for a week, right? she has a score that’s “what if you could dance with all that there is?” in a way, this action evokes the same question. it’s not perfect. it’s not nearly enough. but it’s something.

I think that engaging the simplicity of the action with an open, curious heart is what can lead to “transformative seeing.” shit I didn’t intend to respond directly to the things you said you’re friends said, but I guess I just did and so I will also say this: there’s a difference between responding to an idea of what something might “look” like and then the actual being in the room with someone who is going through an experience. if that weren’t the case, then I’d never need to go see a performance again and I’d be content with looking at pictures of shows. again, deborah has that marvelous phrase: “Invite being seen...”

of course the action is borne from the political context that inspired it. this action is A way, not THE way, of acknowledging that context and at the same time attuning myself to the work that must continue to be done to end the wars and to work towards people’s true freedom. I am also interested in practicing consciousness on the micro-level, with my daily interactions with friends, strangers.. etc. I FAIL ALL THE TIME at trying to be present and attentive to these things, but I believe in the effort of trying.

I genuinely do believe that I will be emboldened doing foi this time knowing that there are, at least, 28 other artists doing it at the (more or less) same time. I believe that there is power in that “telepathic” connection, and I like the symbolism of several bodies in various spaces working with the same struggle and from the same intentions. it makes me think of how I in general am emboldened when I remember that I am not the only person feeling frustration, or loneliness, or difficulty. of course the specifics of each participating artist’s “journey” (hate that word, but had to go there...) is not something that I can, or want to control. I can say that I hope it’s a full experience for each person who does it.

last time I did it, people came and went throughout the day. some people came multiple times. I had a notebook in the studio for people to write their impressions, or really, whatever they wanted to write. a bunch of folks drew stuff in it. I mean, it’s not like SO many people wrote in the book. most of the responses are earnest, sometimes poetic responses or acknowledgements of what they were thinking about. it was direct and small and subtle in the way that most “transformation” is.



Jesse said...

hi miguel and all. I have alot of feelings about the ideas that people have offered you, gregory, about representation and appropriation, and about what i think you are getting at, miguel, with your purpose around this project.

first i want to say how very glad I am that people are taking us to task about the intention and affect of this action. i always get excited to re-learn that there is, with many communities, a discursive system of check and balances between artists, activists, educators, and citizens in general. as ostensibly political and urgently reactionary as this action may be, i do think that its heart is terribly artistic, experimental, induldgent, irreverent, and playful. and I am starting to get comfortable with that kind of agenda as a legitimate site of poltical action.

the woman from south vietman, gregory, that you were talking about (who derives power from ritual/performative forms of protest) really seemed to speak to the rather simple reality that those who can, do. what i mean by this, is that this is not, to me, a project of emulation or attempted empathy, or any sort of "walking in someone else's shoes" business. to me, and what i understand from miguel as well, is that it is an opportunity for us, as physical artists to offer up our greatest creativity for thinking about the issues at hand. and for me, that greatest creativity is accessed by turning inward, and moving for a long time while blindfolded, earplugged, underslept, underfed, and fatigued.

i would NEVER dream of considering the physical state of our bodies to be representations of war victims. There is definitely an interesting moment here though, because this state of being is used as torture, as you say, Gregory, but I think its important to keep the integrity of the project focused on what we ARE meaning to do, not all the permutations of meaning that may come up. That possibility of (mis)representation of our intentions is the surrender that we always make when showing anything to anyone, and while those provocations are an explosive, important, and tricky part of making art, I don’t think they should paralyze us from doing doing doing. If there’s some systemic way that this project is clearly disempowering people, then i want to know about it and I would consider it heavily, but beyond that, I think that associative challenges to its intention are pretty much just great and augmenting to what we’re doing. Like I said, I love the system of checks and balances; it keeps us ALL accountable to oneanother while not policing to the point of stasis. I agree with Miguel that there is a difference between responding to what something might look like versus responding to your own visceral experience while in the room with the person doing the action. That said, I think that pre-empting violent misrepresentations is necessary in many cases, and I’m glad that people are on their game. I got in a fight with my mom because I told her that I knew that that “Australia” movie was going to be infuriatingly racist, and she was so frustrated with me because I “hadn’t even SEEN it yet!” But I am proud of my critical ability to forebodingly sniff out hegemonic bullshit, and I wouldn’t sell it for anything.

To bring it back around though, I feel like its all about, “what can I contribute?” I am 28 and white and from an “educated” middle America, middle class family of elementary school teachers, bruce springsteen lovers, hamburger eaters, Michael Dukakis supporters, roller coaster riders, and sometimes-churchgoers. I feel deeply rooted in my awareness of my socially inextricable sense of access and privilege and I am not interested in trying to deconstruct it. I’d rather expose it and understand it. I’m also a super sensitive and politically distraught American queer artist, and what i feel that i can contribute —humbly but effectively — is a 24 hour period of work that is dedicated solely to a mental and physical meditation on U.S. foreign war policy and its consequences. Hopefully, it will be evocative and full and will perhaps promote contemplation and further types of “movement.”

To address your question, Gregory, about how to promote transformative witnessing, I think this strange and delicate little task might require you/us to really let go of the controlling or agenda-based side of “promoting” an idea or way of experiencing. I think that we can, as individuals, have some brief literature or way of communicating some words about what we’re up to, but I kind of think that the only way for us to promote transcendence is to let people know what the project is and then commit to the action with all of our training and love and fear and anger and all the rest of it. Not terribly nuanced, I know, but…that’s what I think.

Anyway…I think I’ll stop there. I really appreciate this discussion, and I think I’m most invigorated but all the work that we still need to do understand academic/activist approaches to action versus artistic ones. No, they shouldn’t be “versus”, but I found this tension to be profoundly underexplored back in my grad school days, as I attempted to create theses that insisted on art as sociological data and that very data as art. We’ve got a long way to go, blah blah blah. Sigh. Goodnight.


miguel said...

hi all
i think these are really interesting topics to keep talking about.

i am interested in complicating further the ideas of empathy and identification. i agree with jesse that i think it's naive to think we can "stand in" for people who are actually undergoing the ravages of war or displacement. and i also agree about creating a space of contemplation for the consideration of u.s. foreign policy.

but i'm also interested in the ways that art actions propose "projection" into an imaginary space or how an individual dancer can project herself/himself into other imaginary/real bodies. i am interested also in the ways that bodies link across space. what is it to enter into the mind/body space of another person? i am compelled by this topic and think immediately of (strangely enough) actors and also bodyworkers. how people create empathy with those who are not themselves. i feel sort of green in this arena and would like for other people to write more about it.

one of the things i enjoy about being a dance artist who has worked in the field for a long time is my ability to see a body and "feel" where it moves, where it's "blocked," where it gathers its strength from, etc. i really try to work from this place of perception when i teach and look at a lot of bodies, all very different than my own, and try to make assessments or offer what i hope will be helpful information about what i "see" and also "feel" in what i see. (this is SO HARD to do.. it's so hard to just escape the first layer of "evaluation" - this is what is "wrong" - and instead into a more nuanced place of "what is happening..") i think that this kind of empathy is a powerful skill that dancers acquire that is given short shrift in the world at large. and obviously there are those artists, anna halprin for example, who work with how to work with their bodies as instigators of healing. i don't know enough about halprin's work to elaborate on how she thinks about this, but i am definitely curious as to how intention creates a field of energy around itself (WOW I CAN'T BELIEVE I JUST WROTE THAT PHRASE) that can potentially move beyond its immediate space. say for example, massive demonstrations or revolutions... these are bodies in action and affecting other bodies, in close geographical proximity and then sometimes beyond that... and then also "through" time, as you learn about the actions that others have done that then in turn inspire you to act.

i think i'm a little bit all over the place here but hopefully some of what i'm thinking about is clear.. i'm curious to hear even more from other folks!

tonya lockyer said...

This is a very interesting dialogue.
It makes me reflect on the power of words.
Words which frame an action; create expectations; shape interpretation.
Of course, context plays a role as well.

Here in Seattle, responses to foi have been only positive and supportive.
I have been doing periodic 12 hour improvisations from 6pm to 6am for a few years, so perhaps folks are considering my participation in foi in relation to that personal creative history.

But perhaps the way I am verbally framing the action also has an impact.

For better or worse...

I have been verbally representing foi as an ritual/action shared simultaneously across the nation. I say that I hope my presence can simply act as a reminder that at the beginning of a new year that promises change for our country, our nation continues to be engaged in wars in Iraq and Afganistan; there are still many prisoners of war; many have been displaced...

Foi is an opportunity to experience and reflect. A simple action. And one i frankly perceive as a humble one.

Finally, perhaps niavely, I have never seen our presence in foi as an act of representation.

Although, I believe we are creating a presence that may be powerful in how it invites us and others to create meaning.

I definately agree that we can never assume to walk in anothers shoes. In 2000, I did a project with an artist from Tehran. One day he told me of being 15 years old, serving in the Iranian army during the Iran -Iraq war, and being told to pick up body parts from the field and put them into garbage bags. He was also given the task of weaving through the field with an old woman who identified the dead. He wrote the names into a little book. Her voice, whaling, is what inspired him to become a composer.

When I expressed empathy and saddness he said: This is what you American's do not understand. You want to empathize and sympathsize but you can never know my experience. You cannot imagine it. He wanted me to respect his experience. And to have the humility to respect my own limitations.

Then 9/11 happened. Instantly I understood what he meant. Perviously, I could never have imagined how 9/11 would feel.

In short, I appreciate miguel and jesse writing that foi is an opportunity for us, as physical artists, to simply offer up our energy, presence and creativity for thinking about the issues at hand.

Those are some thoughts from Seattle.
I am grateful to be sharing this experience with you.