Considering Coexistence: An Interview with Jenni Nurmenniemi

August 19, 2016 · Print This Article

Frontiers_Excavations2015_Mirko Nikolic

Frontiers in Retreat: Mirko Nikolic (2015–) ‘We heart Copper and Copper heart Us’, data copper mine as part of Excavations exhibition. Photo: Matti Tanskanen

Last April I had the opportunity to meet with Helsinki-based curator, Jenni Nurmenniemi during the Anthropocene Curriculum: Technosphere Issue at the HKW in Berlin. Nurmenniemi and I met towards the end of the conference, after having attended a number of different workshops and Anthropocene-related events. In the following conversation she and I talk about curating, particularly the work that she has been doing with the Helsinki Artist Program, and its largest project Frontiers in Retreat.

Caroline Picard: What is the Helsinki International Artist Program?

Jenni Nurmenniemi: HIAP is one of the largest residency centers in Nordic and Baltic Region, hosting up to 100 per year with an emphasis on interdisciplinary practices. We have two locations: one is on an 18th century fortress island, Suomenlinna—not too far from the city center, though it feels quite remote. It’s visually interesting as a mix of Slavic and Scandinavian influences. And the idea is that living and working space are combined, so work is entangled in a nice way. Our other location is very different. It’s a former Cable Factory. We have three studios there. That site is very urban and industrial—a nice contrast to the otherwise picturesque island location.

CP: Frontiers in Retreat is specifically interested in ecology and art, is that right? It’s part of HIAP?

JN: HIAP runs several projects, of which Frontiers is the biggest one. It actually occupies quite a lot of our physical space and mental capacity at the moment—or until 2018; it’s a five-year engagement. HIAP has a few other thematic programs and maybe one really interesting to mention is Safe Haven; it allows people who are somehow persecuted in their home countries—under threat of human rights violations or their freedom of speech is suppressed in their home countries. HIAP is part of a residency network that allows these people the chance to kind of take a break and come for residency for a longer period of time to rethink their situation.

CP: In those cases, do you find that you have to coordinate with different government bureaucracies?

JN: Absolutely. It has been a very challenging residency program. Ethically, there are so many questions, and I actually am not the best person to talk about it in detail because it’s run by another group of people. Questions about what happens when the residency ends raise questions about ethical responsibility; sometimes people need asylum, to establish their lives in a new context. What’s the responsibility of the residency and art center then and what are the constraints and possibilities around how we can support these people? I think that relates to the art and ecology residency in a sense that when you’re running a project with local communities (which is often the case with Frontiers residencies) the question of continuity and support comes up again. Like, what happens after the artist has left? Will their processes and initiatives continue or will their work just vanish as if it never happened?

CP: People often bring that up in relation to Social Practice projects—like if an artist wants to come to a community and build a green house, but then nobody takes care of the green house after the artist leaves and it ends up just falling apart…

JN: I might have to say more about the Frontiers structure. We have seven locations and some of the ecosystems are quite fragile. If an artist wants to make an intervention, that will obviously have some consequences, influencing the balance of its particular system. For example, a Berlin based artist, Tue Greenfort, wanted to work with mushrooms. He came to Suomenlinna island and he started researching what kind of mushrooms grew there, whether they could actually provide solutions for food production. He often works with mushrooms, but in this context, he wanted to cut down a huge tree on the island in order to make it into a mushroom For cultivating protein for the island’s human residents.

I think the most interesting part was the negotiation with the chief gardener of the island who explained how important this tree was, even though it might look dead—trees like that facilitate a tremendous amount of biodiversity. Removing it would be very bad for more-than-human kinds on the island. The conversation was rather speculative, but removing one tree might have interfered with the island ecology drastically. All in all, there are twenty-four artists working within Frontiers.

CP: Do most of the Frontiers projects take place in nontraditional exhibition spaces?

JN: Yes and no. I think people move nicely between gallery or museum contexts and their field work, as well as at the intersection of theory and practice. We wanted exactly that. To form a platform that allows people to move between rigid categories that usually structure how one navigates the art system.

CP: I think it’s amazing how much invisible work there is to curation—boring paper work, bureaucracy, administration, as well as hosting and facilitating. What is a curator to you?

JN: It’s a question that I think about pretty much everyday. It’s a lot of invisible work as you said especially now and especially because I’m a bit weary of imposing trending theoretical or conceptual frameworks on my approach. Every six months or so, there is some key concept that people start to obsess over. I’m wary of that. I try to construct open platforms where things emerge organically or slowly, and then engage deeply with the artist work over a long period of time. Taking time, recognizing artists’ capacity to mediate between different forms of knowledge and different disciplines. They can cross those boundaries and I try to support that potentiality.

It’s a lot about hosting. It’s a lot about listening and being super sensitive to nuances. We somehow set certain loose parameters, follow what emerges, and then try to tease out meanings. Meanings in plural because I don’t feel it’s possible to construct a coherent or singular narrative around art and ecology. That topic emerged here at the HKW many times. It’s important to allow space for complexity and select epistomologic multiplicity that generates difference.

CP: Today there was a related critique that “The Anthropocene” is problematic in that it represents a single totality. Maybe it’s better to say the Anthropocenes, so as to allow for multiple timelines or extinctions, multiple experiences, types of experiences, and various relationships to our ecological times.

JN: I’m really fond of imagining history as a web—interconnected webs or networks, a network approach to history instead of maybe kind of the chronological timeline and drawing from different cultures as much as it’s possible, recognizing that, okay, I’m situated.

One project I thought a lot about during the Co-Evolutionary Perspectives Seminar has to do with mining or the extractiveness, in extraction industries. I’d like to bring up this project by Serbian artist, Mirko Nikoli?. It started last year and now it has had iterations in different locations. It’s called “We Heart Copper, and the Copper Hearts Us.” Mirko is looking into what kind of ideas and meanings humans attached to copper. He set up this site, WeHeartCopperCopperHeartUs.com—a data mine that sources everything with a hashtag copper from across the world, from different social mediums. He uses this as a study of kind of what it signifies to humans in different context. Then, actually there is also a physical DIY data center which Mirko is going to take to different mining sites in Southern Finland this spring.

CP: And it exhibits in a gallery space?

JN: It’s a good example how we exhibited this last summer, the prototype out here at the Gallery Augusta as part of the group show titled, Excavations. This year, it’s going to be activated and it’s going to be instead of hanging from gallery ceiling, it’s going to hang from trees. The idea is that Mirko can fold it, put it on his shoulder and somehow cycle to a different mining site or…undiscovered deposit. Ironically maybe, I love the word “deposit” in this sense, but kind of a site which has not been excavated yet or extracted yet.

He’s been researching into ancient mines in Finland and then ongoing mining projects and then future mining sites. This is kind of reaching the different timelines or historical moments together and putting emphasis on how much we rely on copper. We don’t really often think about it although its been a subject in the art world for quite many years now but how its conductive properties actually allow us to use our technospheric devices and build this whole network that we articulate as technosphere.

CP: I also keep thinking about the Joseph Beuys reference to the I Love America and America Loves Me. I can’t figure out if you or maybe it’s just not that I can’t figure out, but in sort of game kind of way. It’s like, “Oh, is the coyote the copper?” In some way, I think of Beuys’ coyote as a nexus point for all ecological, political, historical narratives. It’s sort of funny to think about precious metals that way. Of course, they’re embedded in so much of our experience but we don’t think about them.

JN: Exactly, that’s well articulated. Through Mirko’s work I’m always led towards dissolving the hierarchical binaries of Western dualist thinking

CP: You mean like the nature/culture binary for instance?

JN: Exactly. But also, the division between material and immaterial, animate and inanimate. For instance, the idea that data is somehow immaterial. Mirko’s project has an undeniable material aspect. It has the website of course but then you can see, for instance, Mirko works in copper mines himself in Serbia. He really engages with the material, both extracting it and putting it back to the earth. There are all these sediments and layers to his project that I find fascinating.

CP: I was also suddenly thinking too that it seems like one of the things you had also negotiate is these labor structures that are similarly embedded…

JN: Absolutely. Here, another Frontiers artist, Bart Vandeput, or Bartaku, a Belgian mastermind. He also conducted his artistic research in a mining city in Serbia and was very interested in labor structures and the fact that actually there are not that many miners left.

CP: I was wondering if you could talk about the Anthropocene, ecology, and the words that we choose to work with when looking at our ecological times? Do you think the Anthropocene as a term is a fad?

JN: I like how you mentioned that it might be a good idea to talk about the Anthropocene in plural. It’s also about language. It’s hard to translate sometimes from Finnish to English, but I think the term provides an umbrella term to recognize that humans are influencing most if not all ecosystems in this biosphere. But I want to know how to go beyond that acknowledgment. There, I think we need more specific concepts. I’m very careful of what I impose upon the artists whom I work with. At the same time, I realize that they also need critical dialogue and input from curators. What we’ve tried to do with Frontiers is to build a glossary that allows this different epistemic frameworks or multiplicity.

This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.

 Frontiers in Retreat: 'Excavations' exhibition at HIAP (2015). Photo: Salla Lahtinen


Frontiers in Retreat: ‘Excavations’ exhibition at HIAP (2015). Photo: Salla Lahtinen




Why are we doing art at all? An interview with Eiko Honda

August 16, 2016 · Print This Article

Page 2 of the 1883 Japanese translation of Leviathan. Courtesy of the National Diet Library Digital Collection, Japan.

Page 2 of the 1883 Japanese translation of Leviathan. Courtesy of the National Diet Library Digital Collection, Japan.

What happens to a word when it is introduced to a foreign language? What kind of concepts and realities are engendered? There is something viral and adaptive about the conveyance of ideas. The new word “Anthropocene,” for instance is interesting to track—although it might carry an immediate potency, it doesn’t have the history of other words, vs. “Leviathan,” for instance, or “equality.” A few weeks after the HKW’s 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum, UK-based curator and philosopher, Eiko Honda, and I met to discuss the curious way terms refract through culture. She is the 2013-2016 curatorial fellow of the Overseas Study Programme for Artists, Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan. Recent exhibitions she worked on include Ting-Tong Chang: P’eng’s Journey to the Southern Darkness, Asia House, London (2016); Saya Kubota: Material Witness, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, London (2016); and Missing Post Office UK, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2015).

Caroline Picard: In your talk, “Japanese Nature? Between Language and Landscape,” you describe a linguistic paradigm shift that emerges when when an ideographical language (like Japanese or Chinese) meets a phonetic language (like English or German). As you describe it, the tension of that encounter can eventually yields a shift in thought. Does that shift relate all to the idea of authority?

EH: I think it’s related to the question of who is the authority creating or translating a language. I’m personally very interested in the role of the agent. Let’s say in “Anthropocene,” for instance, there are currently two different ways of articulating that word in Japanese and I’m not entirely sure which one we have settled on. One of the words is written with the sign for “a person” and the sign for “a new age.” The other is written as “mankind” or the age of mankind. The first possibility follows patterns of translations from the previous epochs, matching for instance how “Holocene” was translated. Depending on who actually translates the term and what kind of specialty that person has as far as academic study and political ideology, the implications can be quite different.

CP: How has that interest influenced your research?

EH: I’ve been looking at how the notion of “ecology” was introduced into the Japanese language at the beginning of the 20th century, as it compares to other everyday words which, in regular use now, were introduced by Miyoshi Manabu —a plantologist. Manabu studied in Germany in the late 19th century. He was a government bureaucrat well-known for introducing a policy to protect rare species of trees, and for introducing the term “ecology.” Miyoshi created the term seitaigaku as the Japanese translation of the English term ecology in his book Futsuu shokubutsu seitaigaku/The Ecology of Common Plants in 1908. On the other hand, he had a contemporary Minakata Kumagusu who never really finished school but nevertheless ended up in London working in the British Museums. As an alternate transliteration of “ecology,” Kumagusu gave it a different spelling.[1] The clear difference is that whereas one of the sei conveys the living things themselves and focuses on the life of the creature or plant, the other sei suggests rather a “nest” and “house”—that is, a safe comfortable sphere and space in which all living things can exist. Despite numerous essays and research notes he produced on all topics from the phenomenological study of Shingon Buddhism to science of the time to a reference on 19th Century England’s Commons Preservation Society in his activism against Shirine Amalgamation Act that concurrently caused industrialization nature, which threatened habitat of his focus of research slime molds, he never ended up publishing a comprehensive work on his theory of ecological thoughts as such. However, what is strongly implied is that he urged ecology as an interdependent community of life that supports the production of each others’ habitat. Whereas Miyoshi focused on the preservation of specifically rare trees, Kumagusu saw the importance of not even removing weeds, because weeds are part of an overall ecology sustaining the delicate nature of the primeval forest, and thus produced what the naturalist saw as the wonder of living things. Miyoshi and Kumagusu’s approaches to ecology were comparable, but significantly different.

CP: In a funny way, I feel like you are suggesting that something as small as a single word or idea can have similarly large effects—

EH: I think, in a sense, words and languages we use are one of the most fundamental commons that affects scope of human imagination. Depending on when a term is introduced to certain cultures and by whom can lead to significantly different outcomes. Cultivating the similar line of inquiries, I recently wrote a short paper for the forthcoming publication The Nuclear Culture Source Book (Ele Carpenter ed., Black Dog Publishing) inspired by how the idea of “individual” in the West wasn’t introduced into Japanese language until the end of the 19th century. Before that time, they didn’t have an equivalent word that would articulate such notion. People back then had a different conception of how the world was organized. It’s also important to pay attention to the context in which the notion was transliterated. When the word kojin, or individual, first appeared as it is used today in 1884, it was in a translation of a book Kokka Seiri Gaku or the “Physiology of Nation” written by the German—well Prussian, at that time—diplomat and grossdeutsch thinker Constantin Franz who urged federalism with a monarch, where a selected—not elected—council would advise the sovereign and make decisions. The same word was presented together with a translation of selected chapters from Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 Leviathan.

CP: What brought on the publication?

EH: The book was published right after the coup d’etat of Meiji Year 14 in 1881 at the Japanese parliament, during which the government was trying to form a modern constitution; there was a dispute about whether they should follow a Prussian model or a British one. Political leaders of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement believed in the latter one; they were engaged with Franco-British social theories as reasoning ground. However, they were expelled from the government as a result of the coup, marking a shift in the government’s translation of political theories to Prussian philosophies.[2]

CP: What role did the Leviathan play?

EH: The translated version of Leviathan was introduced in combination with that other, Constantine Franz’s publication entailing the individual as somebody with equal, free and independent existence that would not be violated from the power of the state or any others, regardless of its occupations or social position.[3] When the Leviathan was translated in this context, however, the first chapter wasn’t included, and the second chapter, especially the part that discusses the absolute power of the sovereign state, was meticulously translated. That first chapter includes Hobbes’ theory of human nature, describing how an individual only exists outside the society. It only gains citizenship and enters human society in contract with the authoritarian power of sovereign. So, what is suggested here is that the individual was introduced in a context that makes the very origin of the idea in the constitutional narrative.

CP: Are you suggesting that Hobbes’s writing changed Japanese culture differently?

EH: There is a huge difference between reading an original text and a text that’s been only partially translated with a different structure of argument, or another version of the same text that has been translated differently, for instance one that has been heavily edited, presented without its very important introduction and first chapter. Those omissions can limit readers or human imagination from possibilities of what “individual” might mean.

CP: How have you been thinking about this in terms of the Anthropocene?

EH: Attending the HKW’s Anthropocene Curriculum certainly made me think about that. In fact, I am currently working on a short text for the forthcoming edition of the Japanese-English journal 5: Designing Media Ecology edited by one of our conveners from the AC campus, the artist Andrew Yang, on the theme of the “Anthropocene.”  I look forward to feedbacks from our fellow participants and readers when it is done.

CP: I wonder how the idea of individuality changes in relation to large-scale environmental events. Maybe because I know your essay in The Nuclear Culture Source Book is about “Atomic Subjectivity,” and we’ve talked a little about social practice in Japan, I was wondering if you thought current interests in social practice in Japan might be connected at all to Fukushima?

EH: There’s been so much discussion around that for sure. Not everybody changed their nature of practice, but just as 9/11 completely shocked everyone in the US, there were urgent questions amongst practitioners who had cultural ties to Japan about what art could do and where it stands under the circumstances; in a sense, questions of collective responsibilities were addressed whilst conveying expressions of individual thoughts, interests, and concerns. I can never generalize, but it seems to me that whereas widely canonized older generations of contemporary artists in their late 40s and 50s were more concerned about their place within Western art history and the international market during their youth, increasing numbers of younger artists have started to question the importance of international esteem. Now the question has more to do with, “Why are we doing art at all?” I’m personally interested in the latter concern and trying to find a different idea of art history, or a different way of narrating artworks that might not necessarily fit within the established convention of Art History.

CP: What might that look like?

EH: I would like to think that it would be more to do with historiography of artistic practice that entails a possibility for empowerment of everyday life of everyday human beings—not necessarily just of artistic “genius” and heroes. As we know, grand-narrative histories have been written by certain identities to serve interests of certain race, culture, power, and gender and not of others. Whilst working with living artists to create a space of engagement—such as exhibitions, talk events, and published texts—with living minds of diverse culture, I came to think that these are acts of creating or amplifying narratives of what might be significant and otherwise potentially dismissed; to me, to consciously take part in the narrative making is, in a sense, to take part of the collective responsibility mentioned earlier. Re-evaluation of seemingly mundane languages that created the grand narratives of human history through investigations beyond the disciplinary convention of Art History felt like an important initial step to take. For example, the art historian Kinoshita Naoyuki has discussed how the idea of artwork—which is nowadays recognized with this word, sakuhin, in Japanese—is written in Chinese as a sort of product that’s being made. That word, that term for artwork didn’t really settle in our language until after the 1940s. Before that period, artwork was called sakubutsu. It’s spelled as an object that’s been made, but sakubutsu, if you write it and if you don’t put it in a context or tell anyone what’s it’s about, it can also be read sakumotsu. It’s exactly the same writing. Sakumotsu in our contemporary language today means vegetables or a harvest that have been gathered from your field—rice, or anything that you harvest from your soil. I’m interested in finding these kinds of underlying thought that have been hidden in history. Could we possibly investigate these different terms further and, in doing so, find a potential tool or a method for a new kind of language? One that might narrate practice without falling into a standard idea of art history or art historical narrative?

CP: Subtle shifts like that can have large and lasting consequences, even to the extent that they might destabilize hierarchies, or disrupt ingrained patterns of hierarchical thinking. What you propose is like a form of non-aggressive resistance, because you’re just posing a question that says, “Well, what happens to our configuration,” for instance, “of the art world or of the way we define art if we imagine that an artwork and a vegetable equate to one another?”

EH: Yes, exactly, and it’s also related to the widely discussed issue of modernity. What does it mean to be modern? And can we possibly find a different kind of modernity by narrating our current issues and past events differently? Might that change the future as well? And of whom? How can we try to extend one’s imagination beyond our established conventions? The historiography of language—of one of the most fundamental commons—and of artistic practice that works with the human tool of imagination— might have some answers to the queries.

 

This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.

 

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[1] The particular difference between these two trajectories of ecology has been discussed by Takeuchi Yoshinobu, the Kumagusu scholar and chief curator of Wakayama City Museum.

[2] Takahashi Shinji, “Kindai Nihon to Hobbs/Modern Japan and Hobbs,” Nishi Nippon Shimbun February 19, 1992, 51.

[3] Sait? Tsuyoshi, Meiji no Konoba, Higashi kara Nishi no Kakebashi (Tokyo: K?dansha, 1997), 229.




Horizons of Knowledge, Movement, Systems: Jennifer Monson’s “Live Dancing Archive”

May 23, 2013 · Print This Article

The sound switches. Loud intensity and vibration. My body is permeated by the sound and radio waves. While watching the dancer move, I realize that all the cells of my own body are moving, oscillating, with the sound waves.

The dancer runs across the stage, throws herself towards the floor, glides. My body feels the impact of the floor on skin, skidding, sliding, perhaps squeaking.

Darkness and light, spotlights on my sight horizon. The moving horizon line, the white board, shifts my bodily perspective and orientation.

Jennifer Monson premiered her latest evening-length performance Live Dancing Archive at The Kitchen in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood for a two-week run February 14th – 23rd, 2013. The project Live Dancing Archive comprises three components, which consist of three different archival practices: dance, video, and digital archive. The “Program Notes” for the performance states that “Each of these captures how bodies hold, transmit, and convey experiences and understandings of ecological systems as they relate to human movement through the specificities of their medium.” [1] Monson’s work explores the ability of movement itself as an archival practice; she is interested in the particular capability movement has to archive, record, and store the ecological systems that we experience.

For the two-week run, the video component of the archive was a a video installation which was on view during the day before the evening performances in The Kitchen’s Theater. This part of the work, made by Robin Vachal, a videographer, video installation producer, editor, and teacher, consisted of editing approximately 50 hours of footage Vachal captured during the BIRD BRAIN Osprey Migration from 2002, an “8-week research project in which dancers followed the migration of ospreys along the Atlantic Flyway from Maine to Venezuela.” [2] Watching the video, the audience experiences the dancers’ improvisation solos, conversations with park rangers at nature centers and preserves, public performances, and public workshops Monson and iLAND held with park patrons.

Another component of Live Dancing Archive is the digital archive which was designed and implemented by Youngjae Josephine Bae, who completed her MA in Library and Information Science, in collaboration with Monson and Vachal. The digital archive consists of video footage, photographs, dancers’ journals, project notes, plans and schedules for performances and workshops, and other ephemera generated from the BIRD BRIAN Osprey Migration. The aim of the digital archive is to “make available to the public as much of this material as possible.” [3] The program notes encourage the audience to “peruse the archive in your own time as a supplemental experience to your participation in the audience tonight.” [4] The performance need not “end” once the audience member leaves the theater; she can continue to experience the work through the material which was archived in the movement of the performance.

Jennifer Monson, Live Dancing Archive (Photo by Ian Douglas)

Jennifer Monson, Live Dancing Archive (Photo by Ian Douglas)

Live Dancing Archive’s live performance aspect involves the audience as well.  The audience’s participation in the live performance is that of the ocean. Monson describes her process of choreographing the movement in the program notes as:

“A significant amount of the dance material was learned from video documentation of four improvised solos on the beach at Ocracoke Island, NC. The dancers were Javier Cardona, Morgan Thorson, Alejandra Martorell, and myself. The camera angle was always moving so deciding how to orient myself in the dancing was a challenge. Eventually I arrived at orienting myself always towards the ocean. The audience is the ocean.” [5]

The audience gets to experience a journey of the spaces and ecologies that Monson and the other dancers migrated in Monson’s choreography, and it also gets to become part of that environment itself. Monson’s choice to make the ocean the point of orientation and her further choice to allow the audience to occupy that position, creates a complex dynamic of waves and force that oscillate between the performer and the audience. It is also in Monson’s processes of research and choreography that point to the ecological systems along the migratory path. Monson describes her work as dance research; the movement generated during the migration is knowledge-making. I would further argue that the audience’s experience of viewing the video, the digital archive, and the live performance, while also becoming a participatory element of the system created in the theater are all knowledge-making practices which coalesce in a system of bodies and the environments in which they inhabit. Describing this process of knowledge-making, Monson states that

“the knowledge has to do with understanding the relationships between events and systems. When I’m dancing, I’m bringing multiple ways of perceiving information of movement, sensory, imaginative, and analytical registers. I’m processing information of the world and using it to make choices about movement in the world. The multiple systems I am moving and that are moving me help me to understand the complex systems I am perceiving. There is also the phenomenological approach – as I am moving, the world is showing up for me, it’s changed by my moving, and as I move I also show up for the world. The knowledge is about ways of putting things together in multiple modes, holding unstable relationships of meaning and conditions of existence.” [6]

Phenomenologist Maxine Sheets-Johnstone writes about the primacy of movement in our consciousness of the world. In her book The Primacy of Movement, she states that “We make sense of ourselves in the course of moving.” [7] However, movement is not only sense-making, but constitutive and generative of the self that is moving. Further, Sheets-Johnstone claims that “In effect, movement forms the I that moves before the I that moves forms movement.” [8] These two phenomenological statements seem to permeate Monson’s process of research and performance. Her work explores the ways in which ecological systems function and the dancing body’s relationship with and in these systems.

The live performance of Live Dancing Archive was itself a system. This component of the archive also consisted of multiple parts including the movement, live sound, and live stage and lighting design changes and manipulations. The sound, composed and performed by Jeff Kolar, an audio artist based in Chicago, is “generated live through field experiments in the AM/FM, Shortwave, Citizens, and Unlicensed radio spectrums. The instrument arrangement of handmade radio transmitters and receivers respond directly to external weather phenomena, wireless technology systems, and human activity.” [9] After the performance I attended, Kolar explained that there were more “ghosts” being picked up by the receivers that night than had usually been happening for the other performances. The fluctuations occurring in the systems of the electromagnetic spectrum and the Hertzian space surrounding and emanating from the instruments, the electronic objects of the audience members, and the other technologies that exist in and around the space of The Kitchen directly impacted the sound performance and thus the entire ecology of the live performance.

The live manipulation of the lighting and stage, performed and designed by Joe Levasseur, who has received two Bessie awards for his design work, was a continual shifting of the ecology of the theater space. The minimal stage props and lighting, reminiscent of Isamu Noguchi’s stage designs for Martha Graham, seemed to create the boundaries of space and time. The stage prop, a long wooden board on wheels, serves as the “horizon line” that can move and shift. At times, Monson herself moved the horizon line, thus changing the orientation of the horizon and its relationship to the audience, the ocean. The lighting was able to move around the stage as well and was manipulable by Monson and Levasseur. The turning on and off of the light, sometimes a single light that was moved around the stage, seemed to control the limits of the perceptual experience of the work. Our perception is always bounded; we cannot see the backs of our heads, our eyes even work through an amalgamation of small focal points, congealed in our brains – we don’t see the world as a clear image; our perception of the world is a complex system composed of interweaving aspects that need to work together to form a coherent experience of the world.

Jennifer Monson, Live Dancing Archive (Photo by Paula Court)

Jennifer Monson, Live Dancing Archive (Photo by Paula Court)

Phenomenology, the philosophical study of our experiencing of the world’s phenomena, understands our bodies as the entities that world the world. The world is mediating through our perceptual experience of it and the world appears for us through our engagement with it. Monson’s work takes this phenomenological understanding of the world seriously in her research processes and the performances that result from them. Much of the research process involves improvisational movement in the places along the migratory route Monson was following. In Ann Cooper Albright’s article “Situated Dancing: Notes from Three Decades in Contact with Phenomenology,” she describes the transition from considering the aesthetics of dance to the phenomenology “because phenomenology focuses attention on the circumstances of this active “becoming.” [10] Though Albright is discussing more specifically Contact Improvisation, she incorporates the notion of embodied research, an important aspect of Monson’s work. Albright describes embodied research as a process that “requires that one engages seriously with the ambiguity that results from trying to conceptualize bodily experience that can be quite elusive. It requires patience with the partiality of physical knowing as well as a curiosity about how theoretical paradigms will shift in the midst of that bodily experience.” [11] This situated-ness of research also can be placed in a feminist tradition stemming from feminist epistemology and the notion of situated knowledge explored by Donna Haraway in her essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Monson’s method of phenomenological epistemology of ecology speaks well to feminist conversations about science and the generation of scientific knowledge.

Jennifer Monson and Jeff Kolar, Live Dancing Archive (Photo by Yi-Chun Wu)

Jennifer Monson and Jeff Kolar, Live Dancing Archive (Photo by Yi-Chun Wu)

In thinking about what this means for an archive and the processes of archival practices, Live Dancing Archive speaks to the ways in which archives have to be generated; they do not simply exist in the world. They are always subject to the particular bodies controlling their collection, documentation, storage, and availability. The interesting aspect of Monson’s work for conversations about the archive is the tension of the usual goal of the archive — infinite storage for an infinite amount of time — and the ephemerality of movement. Can we ever say that an archive is a permanent collection of materials that simply narrate history? Archives are subject to the circumstances of the world — floods, unemployment, politics, fires — and any notion that we can make a truly permanent archive is contingent on the resources available and ideologies of the day. Monson’s Live Dancing Archive made me think critically about these aspects of making and transmitting history. Her movement, some of which I was able to glean from the video installation, is able to capture the singularity of the movement in its original form, though changed, made into something different in its repetition. Her attention to the specificities of place and the ecological systems constituting it along with bodily and movement singularities, creates a complex of environmental knowledge and history within the performance and the dancing body.

Jennifer Monson (Photo by Valerie Oliveiro)

Jennifer Monson (Photo by Valerie Oliveiro)

 

Live Dancing Archive is featured in the upcoming 2013 Dance Improvisation Festival organized by Columbia College Chicago’s Dance Center and curated by Lisa Gonzales with support from Links Hall, taking place June 3-8, 2013. Monson’s Live Dancing Archive will be performed Thursday, June 6, 2013 at 8PM. Be sure to visit the Dance Improvisation Festival’s website for tickets, information, and schedule of other workshops. http://www.colum.edu/Dance_Center/performances/2013improvfest/

Live Dancing Archive Collaborators:

Jennifer Monson: Choreography

Robin Vachal: Video Installation

Jeff Kolar: Composer

Joe Levasseur: Lighting

Susan Becker: Costumes

Betsy Brandt: Dramaturge

Davison Scandrett: Production Manager

Youngjae Josephine Bae: Digital Archive

Tatyana Tenenbaum: Dresser

 

Notes

[1] Jennifer Monson, “Program Notes,” in Jennifer Monson/iLAND Live Dancing Archive (New York: The Kitchen, 2013), 4.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 4-5.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Personal Interview with Monson, 4.16.2013.

[7] Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Primacy of Movement, expanded second edition (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Johns Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011), 117.

[8] Ibid., 119.

[9] Monson, “Program Notes,” 4.

[10] Ann Cooper Albright, “Situated Dancing: Notes from Three Decades in Contact with Phenomenology,” Dance Research Journal, vol. 43, no. 2 (Winter 2011), 9.

[11] Ibid., 14.

 




Performing Ecology, Pt. 2 (Narcissist Modernity)

March 26, 2013 · Print This Article

 

In my previous post, I have presented a series of scenes which highlight the enmeshment of humans and nonhumans both on theatrical stages and in the world at large. I have also suggested that such interconnectedness calls into question the pursuit of autonomy and emancipation as it was set up by discourses on modernity and modernism. Today, I will start to expand on that topic by trying to show, in a very concise way, how the modern pursuit of autonomy and emancipation from “Nature” ended up surrounding humans with mirror-images of themselves, eventually making narcissism a condition for modernity.

According to Kant, the Age of Enlightenment was the moment in history when humankind realised that autonomy from nature and free use of reason were its ultimate destiny. However, because thought had limits, Enlightenment was not only a programme aimed at the progressive liberation of reason but also, because of that, a project of critique, of recognising the barriers which thought mustn’t cross if it is to produce valid knowledge. As a result, Kant eventually claimed that, because things in themselves are outside the mind and are only able to be judged once they have been converted into thoughts, thought is only ever able to think thought and never the things outside thought to which thought itself refers.

Following that, it is possible to identify the formation of a double separation of humans from “Nature” in Kant’s project for Enlightenment: not only are humans separated from “Nature” once through the development of their exclusive mental faculties, but those mental faculties themselves, due to the conditions that must be in place for their correct operability, end up producing a second separation, this time a separation of through from world in itself.

It is this twice-enforced divide between human and world that can still be seen today as the epistemological paradigm grounding a great amount of work falling under the academic banner of ‘critical thought’ in the Arts and Humanities, a dominant methodology of scholarly work perhaps better represented by Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge. However, a crucial difference separates Kant from Foucault: whereas the former wanted to map the absolute limits of thought, the latter aimed to demonstrate how knowledge is always indissociable from power in order to then consider the possibility of future epistemological transgressions.

From Feminism to Queer Theory, from Deconstruction to Postcolonial Theory, the critical ethos of the Humanities, much indebted to Foucault’s work, has taken as its job to reflect upon the limits of human knowledge in order to understand how what is taken for granted is in fact produced at the level of discourse through complex articulations of power and knowledge. By focusing on the performative nature of knowledge—how knowledge does rather than is—the critical project seeks to separate the arbitrary from the necessary in order to reveal how realities previously assumed to be universal are instead historically contingent. However, by falling victim to an uncontrollable suspicion of knowledge, contemporary critique ends up betraying itself as the only certainty it allows, the only truth claim it leaves unturned, is the one upon which critique itself depends for its own survival, i.e. the one that posits the historical contingency and performative nature of all knowledge.

The problem is that whereas the critical enterprise had, following the dawn of Modernity, been rightly concerned with calling into question beliefs such as those advanced by various religious doctrines and replacing them with scientifically validated facts, at the start of the 21st century and there being no beliefs left to disprove, criticality has now started targeting objective facts themselves, often by negating their existence or by turning them into a mere product of their dialectical counterpart, the observing human subject and its usage of language. Today, after the so-called ‘objective reality’ was found to always be the result of power-knowledge formations, human discourse has become the true cause of the world itself.

The unfortunate outcome of that phenomenon is clear: while scholars spend their time trying to expose the true conditions of (human) knowledge, the arbitrary nature of everything we know, very real phenomena are having rather real consequences: global warming is happening, the Arctic ice cap is melting, natural resources are diminishing, sea levels are rising, and old and new pandemics are still killing millions (unless you can pay to survive). In short, widespread critique has contributed for society’s inability to act upon issues as pressing as persisting social inequalities or climate change. Furthermore, whereas, in Foucault’s case, for instance, it was a tool of progressive left wing politics, today it has been taken up by right wing conservatives who use it to deny the reality of ongoing ecological disaster and even by fascists like those who insist Auschwitz never happened. In the 21st century, the only thing humanity seems to be able to do is to argue while hoping that one day the cows will eventually come home by themselves.

What we have ended up with is a species obsessed with itself, unable to grasp anything other than its own reality. In good ‘ol Kantian fashion, thought is the only certainty; everything outside of it is just a muddy grey area. And so we are left able to look at nothing other than ourselves: our qualities, our capacities, our politics, our beauty (this latter, I hope to develop in my next post). Like Narcissus stuck by the lake or—better—like Narcissus drown in the lake, drown in itself breathing the water of his own reflection (happily ever after), we keep going until the day comes when, to misquote British poet Peter Reading, after heat waves and after heats deaths we reach absolute zero.




Performing Ecology, Pt.1 (Introduction)

February 26, 2013 · Print This Article

SCENE 1. 1978, Wuppertal Opernhaus, Germany. A young dancer, her eyes closed, struggles to move freely in a darkened German kaffehaus, her movements made difficult by the walls that enclose her. Again and again, she hits the tables, she falls, she stumbles on the empty chairs that oscillate between being signs of an absence and being a very real presence as objects in space. Again and again the audience hears the sound walls make when hit violently by a tiny ballerina frame. This is Pina Bausch’s Café Müller.

Pina Bausch, Café Müller.

SCENE 2. 1986, Chernobyl, Ukrainian SSR. As a result of a complex set of causes including various design flaws, one of four reactors at the local nuclear power plant exploded in the early hours of the 26th of April. What followed was a release of radiation amounting to at least 100 times the radiation of the infamous bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, leading the accident to be widely recognised as the biggest nuclear disaster in History and campaign groups such as Greenpeace to predict up to 93,000 extra cancer deaths as a direct result of it. This is the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster.

Scene 3. 1992. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Representatives of the governments of 172 nations meet for the first ever United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). In an attempt to recognise the impact the continuing deterioration of ecosystems is having on the well-being of humankind and to to tackle its progression, the conference culminates with the publication of, amongst others, Agenda 21, a non-biding action plan for the implementation of sustainable development policies at local, national, and global levels. The document will then be reaffirmed and modified at subsequent conferences. This is the first ever Earth Summit.

First Phase Digital

Scene 4. 1993, Venice, Italy. A British filmmaker presents his very small audience at the 50th Venice International Film Festival with seventy-six minutes of flickering International Klein Blue projected onto one of the screens at the Pallazo del Cinema, and accompanied by ambient sounds and disembodied voices who, hopelessly, narrate different fragments of the artist’s daily battle with HIV and of his struggle with AIDS-related blindness. This is Derek Jarman’s Blue.

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Scene 5. 1997, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. For its first solo exhibition to be held at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, a famous fashion house collaborates with a Dutch microbiologist to create a series of eighteen dresses treated with different strains of bacteria and mould that, as the exhibition progresses, will be responsible for changing the colour and aspect of the garments worn by dummies displayed behind a glass wall. This is Maison Martin Margiela’s (9/4/1615).

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Scene 6. Johannesburg, South Africa. A white man in drag wears an old chandelier as if it was a tutu and struggles to balance himself on his disproportionately high high-heel shoes while walking on debris, stones, and dirt in one of South Africa’s shanty towns. Around him, workers hired by the local authority, armed with crowbars and wearing orange overalls, demolish the locals’ dwellings to allow for the construction of the future Nelson Mandela bridge. This is Steven Cohen’s Chandelier.

Chandelier_StevenCohen_AS

Scene 7. 2002, Nature, Vol. 415. Nobel Prize winner chemist Paul Crutzen identifies a new epoch in geological time which, for the first time, coincides in  time with the scientist’s writing. That new epoch is said to have started with the industrial revolution of the latter part of the eighteenth century, when humans finally became one of the most powerful forces of geological history, able to replace woodlands and forests with landscapes of steel, concrete, and smoke. This is the “Anthropocene.”

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Scene 8. 2008, London, England. After announcing his true identity out loud to a packed theatre—”My name is Romeo Castellucci”, he says—the controversial Italian theatre director puts on a protection suit while a pack of German shepherds are led onto the stage by their trainers. After that, some of the animals attack the artist, bitting him while he lies defenceless on the floor. This is the Prologue of Socìetas Raffaelo Sanzio’s Inferno, the first of a trilogy inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

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Scene 9. 2010, Ljubljana, Slovenia. A naked female body falls backwards in slow motion down the red-carpeted eighteen-century oval staircase of the Gruberjeva Palace. In its long fall, the body exists at the intersection of mastery and powerlessness, forced to permanently negotiate the unfolding of the event with the gravity that pulls it down and the late Baroque staircase that guides its movement. This is Kira O’Reilly’s Stair Falling, a rather alluring pas de deux between artist and architecture.

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Scene 10. 2011, World Wide Web. In the aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, a video appears on YouTube in which an anonymous worker wearing protection clothing approaches one of the CCTV cameras of the nuclear site, points at his contaminated surroundings and then at the centre of the camera, in what looks like a reenactment of Centers, the 1971 performance for camera by Vito Acconci. After twenty minutes—the exact same duration of Acconci’s original work—the worker walks away. The video goes viral. This is the ecological age.

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The scenes just described highlight the tight interconnectedness of humans and nonhumans and, as a consequence, pose serious questions to the dreams of autonomy and emancipation from “Nature” that humans have been pursuing more or less intensely since the dawn of Modernity with its ideology of Enlightenment. As a result of the present ecological age and the apparent fall of the wall that used to separate “Nature” from “Culture”, the Arts and Humanities are being forced to reconsider their own ambit of study: how can its disciplines adapt to the rediscovered reality of a flat world in which humans and nonhumans seem to be permanently enmeshed in one another, in which human actions seem to often have nonhuman consequences and vice-versa?

Departing from that premise and those problems, the series of monthly posts which I start today will try to think the consequences that the ecological age will have for contemporary theories and practices of theatre and performance. In those coming posts, I will be presenting an overview of the anthropocentric role theatre and performance have played throughout History, some of the ways in which they have been criticised and reinvented, and, ultimately, the ways in which they ought to be thought differently as a consequence of their unfolding on the broad Anthropocenic stage.

Watch this space.

 

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