The Place of Utopia: gloATL’s Blue Astro Turf Swings

August 22, 2013 · Print This Article

Introduction: Laying the Floor

This July, I participated in the gloATL Summer Intensive. gloATL is an Atlanta-based dance company that creates physical installations for the public. During the Intensive, there were six of these installations that focused on the concept of utopia for a series of “utopia stations” that was part of its series Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective that had occurred during the summer for the past few years; this summer was the last of these installations. Lauri Stallings, the choreographer and founder of gloATL, considers these performances installations – physical and public installations; the series is described as “physical installations [that] are unveiled as public utopia stations for arriving, leaving, and staying for awhile.” [1]

During the first weeks of the Intensive, Stallings described to us her interest in utopia, referencing Thomas More’s book Utopia (Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia (De optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia)), published in 1516. What seemed to be impelling Stallings to the notion of utopia is that the word utopia has multiple and somewhat contradictory meanings. The statement for this summer’s series of utopia stations describes that “[t]here is a double-meaning in the term “utopia,” being both a good place (eutopia) and a no place (outopia).” [2] The perplexing concepts of “good” and “no” together propelled me to enter the work. During this discussion with Stallings, the company, and fellow intensive participants, I mentioned that it seemed that “no place” had to be impossible. Wherever there is being, there is movement. Even between two atoms, there is an ever-so-slight vibratory motion. Animate form, or life, is exactly that, animate. It moves. [3] If “no place” cannot possibly exist, then what of the “good place”?

gloATL. Utopia Station 1. Liquid Culture 2013. Soundtable. Photo from BURNAWAY flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/burnaway/sets/72157634525912059/

gloATL. Utopia Station 1. Liquid Culture 2013. Soundtable. Photo from BURNAWAY flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/burnaway/sets/72157634525912059/

All of the installations involved swings, swing sets, and the encouragement of public engagement with the swings. For Stallings, this is a gesture of ultimate freedom; the ability to partake in the childlike joy of swinging within public space. Each installation also had blue astro turf designating a stage of sorts that at most times separated the dancers from the public. However, Stallings said that even this space should not be maintained as an eternal divider. She keeps in mind that a member of the public could always step over the edge of the floor and enter the space of the stage.

In looking back on this Intensive experience and observing the installations while reading Plato’s Republic for my PhD comprehensive exams, I find myself in a rather perplexing state of body-mind. Both Thomas More’s Utopia and Plato’s Republic describe a space where all would be good – proper governance, happiness, order, common property. Both of these spaces are fictional, however, and cannot possibly exist in the real world; a confluence of the double-meaning – a good place that is no place. In encountering a work that attempts through dance to create a utopian space in the current world we live in, the troubling passages in Republic become more clear instances of the perceived dangers of artistic freedom. [4] However, maybe the utopian installations illuminate these same passages in terms of a Platonic sarcasm; since the idea has been so pushed to the edge, it has become ridiculous.

 

Being There

As a participant in the making of the work and also as a viewer, my experience of the series of installations straddles multiple spheres of engagement, perception, and bodily recognition. I have to admit that those three weeks of July were among the hardest I have lived yet. The physical exertion of dancing for hours six days a week was taxing. The emotional investment was more than I had expected. The mental exercising was beyond what I had encountered before. Being in a PhD program at Emory, I don’t often have the opportunity to use my body as the material of my thought and production of work, so putting myself in the mode of bodily “thought” was an exercise in mental gymnastics.

Inhabiting another’s work was something I had not experienced before. Taking on someone else’s idea as my own and incorporating it into my own body was more of a challenge than I could have imagined. The ability to fully take on the choreographer’s concept as inspiration for one’s own bodily experience is a skill that I fully respect. It amazes me to see gloATL dancers express these concepts with their whole bodies; each finger is doing something special; each facial twitch is a culmination of an entirety of being. As Stallings says, “the movement is in your fingers.”

Stallings process is an incredible one to witness. Starting with an idea, it traverses into often unexpected territory, blossoming into full body expression. This part of the process, called “Process” by gloATL, usually came after a warm-up led by Stallings or other gloATL dancers. This wasn’t any sort of warm-up though. Called “Tools,” it was an exploration of internal bodily connections that make movement manifest externally. All movement generates from the inside and radiates towards an external form that can be witnessed. Coming out of a Gaga tradition, a dance technique and vocabulary formulated by Israel choreographer Ohad Naharin, “Tools” is a way to connect to the pleasure of movement. Even when difficult, the ability to move is a pleasure in and of itself. One of the goals is to constantly search for the unexpected places in the body that initiate movement. Stallings often said that if you feel you are comfortable with a particular movement, it’s time to move towards something previously undone, unthought, un/not-moved.

After finishing the intensive and going back into my usually more stationary world of reading books and writing words on a screen, I feel that the world of movement has infiltrated my world of stationary contemplation. I realize that the movement was there all along and that it’s just that I have begun to accept it more fully into the life I am living.

gloATL. Utopia Station 2. 10th and Piedmont. Liquid Culture 2013. Photo by Thom Baker. http://www.artsatl.com/2013/07/review-gloatls-liquid-culture-series-finds-breath-simplicity-freedom-great-outdoors/

 

Swinging Release

During the last installation I participated in with gloATL, I felt something inside come up into my throat. Maybe a purely physical experience, but something tells me that it was more. At the end of the installation, we invited the audience into the middle of the blue astro turf floor by leading them using our elbows as the anchor for them to hold onto. There, after looking into each other’s eyes, we decided as a group to speak: “You have only to say yes.” With childlike wonderment and excitement, about the beautiful swing sets, about the blue of the astro turf, about being there moving, the group performing in the installation let go with screams, laughter, and every other kind of expression that erupted from the core. At this point, something inside my body crept up to the top of my throat, something was attempting to escape through my mouth. I stopped still. If I moved anymore, that thing would exit my body onto the astro turf. I couldn’t fathom that happening. It was a purging that I couldn’t handle happening at that time.

gloATL. Utopia Station 4. Woodruff Arts Center. Liquid Culture 2013. Photo from BURNAWAY flickr.

gloATL. Liquid Culture 2013. Woodruff Arts Center. Photo from BURNAWAY flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/burnaway/sets/72157634714580973/

I went home that night after the installation and tried to process what had happened to me. The next morning during process, we went over that moment. The same thing kept happening. Whatever was in there wanted to be let go, but, for some reason, I couldn’t let it. I sat down in the hall outside the studio. My body couldn’t accept what it was saying. The connections between my body, my mind, and my internal emotional existence were confused with each other. It seemed that my mental thoughts couldn’t keep up with the internal movements of my emotions and body. I couldn’t keep it together. I couldn’t participate in the last installation. Of this, I am deeply regretful. I wish I could have made it through, but something, I’m not sure what exactly, kept me back.

Maybe it was the thought of utopia, a freedom I couldn’t comprehend. That feeling deep in my belly that rose to my throat threatened me simultaneously with the “good place” and the “no place.” Something in my unconscious body-mind didn’t understand what that even could mean. How could I occupy that position of “good place” and “no place” at all, let alone at the same time? Maybe this is what Plato was warning against: a radical disorder. If the body, mind, and soul cannot be easily divided and categorized, what happens to that being and the rest of the world she inhabits? Music and gymnastic together as dance brought be to that precipice of disorder that was begging to erupt. This eruption of bodily order holds within it the potential for ultimate freedom from restraint, but also ultimate devastation of a creeping chaos.

gloATL. Utopia Station 3. Goodson Yard at The Goat Farm Arts Center. Liquid Culture 2013. Photo by Ralph Williams. E37 Photography. http://e37photography.blogspot.com

gloATL. Liquid Culture Series 2013 at Goodson Yard. Photo by Ralph Williams. E37 Photography. http://e37photography.blogspot.com

This is the experience that Stallings created – for me, for the public, maybe for the other dancers themselves. Though these installations are meant for public interaction, it is rare that you see an audience member claim the space as her own. The dance floor remains a dance floor for most of the time until glo explicitly invites the public to join them. There is a timidity to dance and art viewing even with the explosion of socially-engaged and participant-driven art. However, during one of the performances at The Goat Farm Arts Center, one of the participants decided to take control of the space. He took on one of the swings hanging from the rafters as his own. He did not want to get off the swing, even when approached by glo dancers that needed the swing to perform the choreography. Eventually, with some silent, eye coaxing he got up and off the swing. In the public sphere, it is impossible to claim a particular space as purely your own. Part of the freedom the series of installations points to is the freedom to not grasp so tightly.

During the ending section performed at The Goat Farm Arts Center and The Woodruff Arts Center, we played a game of switching and racing for swings. It was so satisfying to attain the glory of the swing, but at a certain point, while swinging with pride, watching the other dancers in the middle of the floor fidget with anticipation and wide eyes, I decided to jump off the swing, give it over to another to enjoy. That might be the space of utopian contradiction – both the “good place” and the “no place” together; the space suspended in air where you joyfully float, exiting the swing in order for another to occupy it.

gloATL. Utopia Station 4. Woodruff Arts Center. Liquid Culture 2013. Photo BURNAWAY flickr.

gloATL. Liquid Culture 2013. Woodruff Arts Center. Photo from BURNAWAY flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/burnaway/sets/72157634714580973/

 

For more images of the installations, check out BURNAWAY’s flickr sets for gloATL’s Liquid Culture installations at Historic Old Fourth Ward, Goodson Yard at The Goat Farm Arts Center, and Woodruff Arts Center.

For a great review/write-up of the 2013 Liquid Culture series, check out Cynthia Bond Perry’s article “gloATL’s “Liquid Culture” series finds breath, simplicity, and freedom” published on Arts ATL.

Notes:

[1] Statement for Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective, gloATL, http://gloatl.org/upcoming/whats-next/ (accessed 8.21.2013)

[2] Statement for Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective, gloATL, http://gloatl.org/upcoming/whats-next/ (accessed 8.21.2013)

[3] Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Primacy of Movement, 2nd edition (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011).

[4] See for example Plato’s treatment of music and gymnastic as the best tools for educating the body and soul to be temperate, courageous, and good. However, there are stipulations attached to these training methods; no innovation is allowed. Since music is claimed to be the most mimetic art, it comes with a certain power that must be controlled. I don’t think it is surprising that this art form is paired with an art of the body, gymnastic. (Plato, Republic, Book II, 376; Book III, 410; Book IV, 424; and etc.) Also consider the discussion of music and gymnastic in relation to the proper form of narrative in poetry, pure third person narration, which does not inhabit the person of a character and speak through him or her. In Book II, section 377, Plato asks whether music also includes literature, and further, whether this literature is true or false. This leads the members of the dialogue to a discussion of what stories should be allowed to be told and which ones are dangerous to the ears – too influential.

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