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.

 

РJọo Flor̻ncio

 

 

 

 




Interview with The Mythological Quarter

October 31, 2011 · Print This Article

Bonnie Fortune and Brett Bloom are artists and former Chicagoans that make their home in Copenhagen these days. While many artists lend the same creative abilities to their homes as their practice, we rarely get a glimpse of what goes on there. Often, what goes on locally at home—the apartment, the neighborhood, the city—can feed back into a practice until the boundaries of artwork and lifework are comfortably confused. Fortune and Bloom use their blog Mythological Quarter to share their experience of making a home in a new place. This includes reviewing books about homesteading, recounting experiences making work in a new place, documenting instances of neighborhood ingenuity, and sharing creative experiments made in their apartment. Bonnie and Brett’s blog impressed me with the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment brought to all of their projects, whether it’s meant for an art festival or the living room. I sent Bonnie a few questions to chew on over email.

Passive herb watering system. Credit: Mythological Quarter

Bryce Dwyer: Where does the name “Mythological Quarter” come from?

Bonnie Fortune: Mythological Quarter is the name of a group of streets in the Nørrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen that are all named for Norse gods. Our street is Baldersgade. Balder was the son of Odin. Because our blog is primarily about hyper-local ecology and what people can do to live closer to and learn about their local environment, we thought it was a good idea to name it after our neighborhood. We also liked the imaginative possibility of the name, which is good because in the few short months since we started the blog it has morphed beyond the initial mission statement and intent. We started by detailing a lot of projects that we were doing in our home but have since evolved beyond that. We’ll return to that on occasion, but the focus is now a little broader.

BD: I don’t think it’s a leap of faith to believe that some of the same creative experimentation that happens in a conventional artist’s studio is at play in the home of an ecologically-oriented urban homesteader. Of course, the output of these impulses varies. In one scenario you might end up with a presentable art project, in the other, a batch of worm castings to feed your houseplants. How do you think of these different outcomes of artful living in relation to one another? 

BF: This is a good question because it relates to the slow morphing of the blog’s purview. I have a reluctant affection for the idea of urban homesteading. Certainly, I look at and am inspired by those authors that would put themselves in that category, but I also question their efficacy having tried, and continue to try, many of their DIY projects. My interest in homesteading ideas is research into how to become more connected to my immediate environment.

So many of us live in cities now that the question becomes how can one deal more directly with where one lives rather than put the environment or an idea of the natural world at a distance—as something that exists elsewhere.

I am very interested in incorporating ecological thinking (i.e. considering how we are part of rather than separate from the environment we live in) into my daily life and routines. Sometimes it’s achieved and sometimes I feel alienated by what living in a city really means—being removed from your food production, waste disposal, electricity, natural gas, etc.

Because I am trained as an artist, I automatically look at things from the perspective of producing culture. I think about how I can use my skills to make an improvement in the overall environment of the world. What does that look like if one of my main skills is cultural production? Making posters, writing, connecting people, making exhibitions, and making projects. The blog gives me a focused research platform that allows me to connect with other artists, but also scientists and those working with the contemporary environmental movement. But there are times when MQ veers off topic and focuses solely on art projects. Just as there are times when we can’t figure out the perfect indoor compost system and end up throwing away our table scraps.

BD: Do domestic experiments ever leave the house and become projects-at-large?

BF: Yes, our domestic experiments do become projects outside of the home. To start with MQ is a project somewhat outside of the home in that it is in the public sphere of the Internet. Currently we are planning a way to frame certain aspects of our research on MQ to make a book. MQ, as a project, is more about research and development—talking to others, reading, trying things and documenting those experiments. It is a testing ground for larger projects. For example, through an interview project for MQ, I met a group of local naturalists and biologists who helped me immeasurably in making a recent poster project for the local art fair.

BD: You and Brett have been collecting great resource books and making them freely available for a while now. What are some of your “desert island” books?

BF:
How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz
The Book of the New Alchemist, Edited by Nancy Jack Todd and E. P. Dutton
Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew
Ecology textbook, Edited by Began, Harper, and Townsend
Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison

I started collaborating with Brett on a project called the Library of Radiant Optimism for Let’s Re-make the World. The project collected books from the late 60s and early 70s. Several of these books like the The New Alchemists, The Environmental Design Primer, and How to Build Your Own Living Structures focused on how to transfer ideas from the environmental movement to daily living—the beginnings of the green design movement.

Reading these books, collecting them together, and writing reviews led us to wonder about what people were doing now or how we could make our own experiments.  MQ stems directly from that collaboration. It is a more streamlined, less nostalgic version of that project.

What to take to a desert island? The problem here is that I think too literally about this. I would say How to Build Your Own Living Structures, but you need a hardware store to build some of these things and that’s not on a desert island. In fact when we moved to Denmark we had to leave a huge part of our library at home, so in a sense it was moving to a desert island (well, Copenhagen’s on an island anyway). Leaving our books at home was a hard decision but one determined by the economics of international flight. We’ve since started to rebuild our collection. As we do, I’m adding to the Book Reviews portion of the blog.

BD: What are the things that you’ve learned through amateur pursuit of useful knowledge that you might not have acquired anywhere else? Where might people have acquired this knowledge previously and can you speculate on some reasons for the change?

BF: I consider my artistic practice to be a research-based endeavor. Part of this is having gone through an academic system of art training, part of it is the way contemporary art making has evolved. I make art about what I am interested in, what I care about, and what I am passionate about. This is amateur in a sense, but also a professional pursuit of knowledge. For example, it has lead me to talk to scientists about how to properly conduct a survey of the biodiversity of an inner city empty lot so that I can make a poster about the process. I am not a scientist, I’m an amateur there, but I am still approaching the project with a level of professionalism. And I am genuinely curious about making sense of the world around me, in that sense it’s not an amateur pursuit of knowledge.

Another example: before moving to Copenhagen, Brett and I did a public art project for the city of Urbana where we built bat houses. We were interested in how to encourage wild habitats that are within and more integrated with the built environment of a city or town. We didn’t know what bats liked before starting the project, so we learned about them and their habitat needs to fully realize the project.

As to where people acquired knowledge previously: The Internet has obviously changed how we gather and share knowledge. This makes me think of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. First of all, he suggests that our planet needs a new name, Eaarth, because global warming has reached a point of irrevocably shifting the planet we knew as Earth. For the rest of the book he lays out how climate change happened and how it’s shaping the world. He concludes with what is being done and what can be done in the present day environmental movement. McKibben suggests that small-scale initiatives—things like Community Supported Agriculture, bartering systems, and generally doing things on a smaller scale—is the way to acclimate to living on Eaarth. Within all of this, he points out that the Internet is something that will continue to be a useful tool for connecting and sharing information between the world of self-sufficient and small-scale communities he imagines as the answer. This conclusion stuck with me because it was not what I expected him to write because he had already written about supporting hyper local initiatives (local farming, food sharing, etc) and the Internet seemed the exact opposite of this. Introducing the Internet into the system contradicts focusing on the local and also, by McKibben’s way of looking at it, a way to support and encourage the system.

We began Mythological Quarter (and other projects) trying to think about our immediate environment—the apartment, the neighborhood, etc. that we live in—the hyper-local. It is now a means for us to research, gather information, and share it with others. It’s a knowledge project on the edge of local and global.




Abdessemed Exhibition Closed Under Threats of Violence

March 30, 2008 · Print This Article

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San Francisco Art Institute has canceled closed the controversial Abdessemed exhibition as well as the public forum. The exhibition was curated by Hou Hanru, who was interviewed by us in Episode 129.

From the SFAI Website:

In response to a series of violent threats by animal-rights extremists, the San Francisco Art Institute announced today that the public discussion on Adel Abdessemed’s exhibition Don’t Trust Me, scheduled for Monday, 31 March, has been canceled. For the same reasons, the exhibition itself, which was temporarily suspended on Wednesday, 26 March, has now been permanently closed.

“We unconditionally repudiate these threats against SFAI,” stated President Chris Bratton: “My first concern is with the safety and security of SFAI’s students, faculty, staff, and their families, as well as members of the public that regularly visit the campus. In light of the violent threats by extremists against this institution, we are unfortunately forced to cancel any public discussion or display regarding this artwork.”

Soon after it opened, the Abdessemed exhibition became the subject of an orchestrated campaign by a number of animal-rights groups, including Animal Liberation Front (ALF), In Defense of Animals (IDA), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). One result of this campaign was a parallel onslaught of explicit death threats and threats of sexual violence against SFAI staff members and their families. The swift escalation from controversy to credible threats has regrettably forced SFAI to make a decision unprecedented in its 137-year history.

“Though we’ve decided to take this action,” continued President Bratton, “SFAI stands behind the exhibition as an instance of a long-standing and serious commitment, on SFAI’s part, to reflection on, and free and open discussion of, contemporary global art and culture. As an institution, we take seriously our responsibility to encourage and promote such dialogue.”

“The artist,” continued President Bratton, “participated in an already-existing circuit of food production in a rural community in Mexico. The animals were raised for food, purchased, and professionally slaughtered. In fact, what causes the controversy is that Abdessemed, an artist, entered this exchange, filmed it, and exhibited it.”

“Here, then, is a case where highly local assumptions about how things are produced have come to inform how the world itself is seen. In general, consumption in the US is fueled by things produced out of sight and from far away. In many cultures, particularly those of the global south including Mexico, the killing of animals for food is often direct and present, not concealed from sight as is the case of industrialized food production here. This distinction is certainly relevant to Don’t Trust Me. Admittedly, this is an uncomfortable confrontation for some, but is nevertheless a real condition not only for animals, but also for the people whose lives are bound up with them. Simply stated, it is an outrage that threats of violence have, in this case, succeeded in derailing a public debate on issues that are critical to our everyday lives.”

The press release can be found here.