The water pours slowly from the Villavicencio (bottled in Mendoza, Argentina) bottle into the posh wine glass and I suddenly notice the great force and energy of the movement of the simple transfer of material. I notice the beauty and poetics in the change, in the movement of material, the time, the space, the sounds. And I begin to think about that the short time I have spent in Buenos Aires so far has, after all, given me something—something I really needed.
I’m terrible with change. Ever since I was a small child I stayed away from it as much as I could. I kept shoes that were 2 sizes too small for me because I couldn’t stand the thought of them moving somewhere else, out of my sight and life; after finding out that a tree needed to be cut down in the place where a barn would be built in the woods by my house, cried and then contacted every single tree transplant service in the phonebook until I found a way to save the tree. But, I have come to learn that change is inevitable and that a lot of the time it is actually a really good, important, creativity-engaging happening. Change is movement. So far on this co-op in Buenos Aires, I have witnessed and experienced movement, particularly of the body in space, both viscerally and critically.
I have been thinking so much about bodies; my body, other bodies, the relation of my body to other bodies, the power of bodies, the vulnerability of bodies, the reproduction of bodies, the value of bodies to the state apparatus. The medium of performance is the body in space. It is movement. Performance is all of these things. To be researching bodies and performance and politics in Buenos Aires, Argentina is particularly interesting. The political history and public memory resonates with and penetrates the very active performance scene here. The body and the performative body has a whole different meaning and connotation when juxtaposed with the violence of the military dictatorship of 1973-1986, during which between 10,000 and 30,000 civilians in Argentina were ‘disappeared.’ Though the history of the ‘Dirty War’ and its violence is important to understand, I am neither an expert nor have the experience of living through it to fully articulate its meaning. What I am able to do is to observe what is left today of such state-sanctioned violence in this place that I am living. I’m reading a book called “Theatre, Performance, and Memory Politics in Argentina” by Brenda Werth that goes into an historical analysis of recent Argentine history and the responses of performance and theater arts/artists. She writes: “After the systematic torture and disappearance of an estimated 30,000 individuals during Argentina’s last dictatorship (1976-1983), the prominence of the body in theatre and performance of the eighties and nineties acquired unique significance” (12). She goes on to quote theatre scholar Beatriz Trastoy:
Si el terrorismo de Estado que implantó la última dictadura militar se basó en la desaparición forzada de personas y en el obstinado silencio oficial referido al destino último de las víctimes, silencio que contrastaba con el estremecedor relato de testigos y sobrevivientes, no ha de sorprender, entonces, que cuerpo y narración hayan sido los ejes estructuradores de estas nuevas tendencias escénicas. [If the state terrorism instituted by the last military dictatorship was based on the forced disappearance of individuals and the obstinate official silence surrounding the fates of the victims—silence that contrasted with the chilling accounts of witnesses and survivors—then it should not be surprising that body and narration are the two structuring axes of these new state tendencies.] (12)
Although Werth and Trastoy were writing about the theater scene in the 80s and 90s, I argue that the importance and focus on the body continues to permeate performance in Argentina in the new millennium.
Not only is performance politically relevant and driven, it also is abundant and independant. There exist three tiers of performance/theater here: state-sponsored, commercial, and independent, and the independent realm seems to be to be flourishing. There are multiple shows and performances every single night, and from what I’ve attended, there seems to be strong and supportive audiences. Of course, when I talk to theater people here, there continue to be similar issues with funding and assistance for the arts. But, when compared to my experiences in theater regionally in the US and in New York City, the independent scene here is extraordinary. The experience of watching independently-created performances here in Buenos Aires is different than my experience in the US, mostly because of the language and cultural barriers. Here, I notice movement much more—the way the space changes when the performers move, the way they wave their hands or slump or walk, the choreography (or lack thereof), the breathing. Am I just noticing it more because I don’t understand everything in Castellano or is there more detail and care given to movement and space in the independent Argentine performances that I’ve seen? I will continue to investigate this…
Oh yes, and I’m also working! My work on co-op is very-much tied in with all of these thoughts about the body and performance and politics. I’m working with and for Mujeres de Artes Tomar, a collective of women artivistas from mostly Buenos Aires (but also including some from around south and central America) that create performance and events aimed at gender justice, equity, and empowerment of women. One of my first assignments with them was to help renew their mission. This is what we came up with: “ColectivA de mujeres artivistas para el empoderamiento y la transformación. Sentir, pensar, decir, hacer disidentes, en rebelde alegría, libertad, autonomía y plenitud por el ejercicio de nuestros derechos.” [Collective of women artivistas for empowerment and transformation. To feel, to think, to say, to do dissident, in rebellious happiness, liberty, autonomy, fullness to exercise of our rights]. I am helping them to make a new website (sneak preview of the site under-construction here, see their currently functioning website here) and helping to prepare for projects that will happen in September and October. I’m also taking a class called “the body in the scene” with Claudia, one of the directors of the organization at a local theater school and performance venue. Mujeres de Artes Tomar is very active online in order to organize the group of more than 4000 members. You can join their facebook page to see what they’re up to!
Overall, I am transitioning, changing, moving, learning, and each day is different. I am reminding myself to step back and appreciate sights and sounds and smells and memory. I am still thinking about the water pouring from the bottle to the glass and wondering where my senses will take me next.
Werth, Brenda G. Theatre, Performance, and Memory Politics in Argentina. New York, NY: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2010. Print.
The streets are filled with vendors selling beans and corn tostada, people convincing tourists to buy fake alpaca sweaters and colorful fishing pants, and the garbage of Ritz crackers, Coca-Cola, and slew of other trash-snacks produced by corporate moguls who have gotten their hands on the small but fierce country of Ecuador. But the most consistent presence in the streets is dogs—dogs of every shape, size, color, texture, weight, and level of energy. And they all have someplace to be.
All of these said dogs have a distinct sense of purpose. They don’t stay in their homes and yards waiting for their “owners” (if they have them) to take them for a walk or let them outside for a scheduled departure of bodily fluids. Instead, they run from place to place (or sometimes choose to take a long nap intentionally in the middle of the sidewalk walkway) with purpose and determination. They take initiative and ownership of their lives and schedules and consequently get stuff done—they find their own food (a lot of times they eat the garbage that the humans prematurely put in the median of the road for the garbage truck to pick up), have friends (whom they greet from wherever they are at the moment—on roofs, in gutters, or from the kitchen of a local café or panadería), protect themselves and their territory, never get “lost” because they set their intension is to roam, and they care for each other and form bonds that make their lives fulfilling and satisfying.
The dogs of Ecuador and their free-range attitudes enforce and inspire my view toward life and work. I see work as more than the act of holding a job, doing it, and being paid. I see it as a pat of life that need not be separated from life itself. Work shouldn’t be a burden to be avoided or forgotten, but a lifetime of personal and group goals that challenge, inspire, and transform ones worldview and add to ones life story. As the dogs of Ecuador seem to have already found, senses of independence, being needed and helpful, and caring for others around me, and loosely being able to create my own schedule are all important traits to me in life (and consequently “work” as well, if it need be separated).
My work at La Biblioteca Interactiva at Fundación Arte Del Mundo encompasses much of my loves in life—art, community, activism, connection—and is a venue to empower the continuation of those loves with others. La Biblioteca Interactiva is a community gathering place—it serves as an after-school library and art activity center for local children ages 6-12, a performance space for professional and amateur magicians, theatrists, performers, musicians and artists of all kinds, and a venue for fire ceremonies, dances, classes, and art-making.
My work here fluctuates and changes all the time depending on the needs of the foundation. Everyday I have a meeting with the director of the organization and the other volunteers (whom also come and go—constantly changing dynamics and directions of the daily activity) to plan for the daily art activities for the participants who come to La Biblioteca that afternoon. After the meeting if I’m in charge of the activity of the day I plan and prepare for the activity. If someone else is in charge of the activity, I help them prepare or assist the director in administrative duties of running the organization—replying to emails, etc. So far I have lead several activities including a week-long continuing art project of reading “El Gran Capoquero (The Great Kapok Tree)” by Lynne Cherry throughout the week, making puppets and a set, and then rehearsing and putting on a puppet show, making artist trading cards with mixed media and then having an exchange session, making juggling balls and practicing juggling, and watching some videos with art made from alternative mediums and then making collages and pictures with local dried pastas, beans, and corn. I have also assisted with activities such as an alcachofa (artichoke)-tasting and drawing session (they’re a new vegetable to Ecuador), and making a mobile to hang from the ceiling at La Biblioteca. After hearing the requests of some of the children who come to La Bib, I plan to host a book-making activity for them to write their own books (as they’ve been itching to make some!).
Aside from planning and making activities happen in La Bib, I assist with other foundation-hosted art events and the general tasks of the foundation. We host a weekly movie night, performances (most recently a magician from Quito, Ecuador), and support local artists in their endeavors. For instance, tonight will be the culmination party of a project I’ve been working on for the last three weeks. I’ve been assisting a local sculpture and musician to make paper balloons which will be lit on fire and float in the sky as part of a full-moon fire ceremony and music-making party. The constantly shifting duties of working at La Bib and the diversity of people I work with everyday make it an ideal job for me, as one of my priorities in life is to gain different experiences and build stories to tell by working with others and following my ambition—much like the dogs of the streets who follow their own fancies to create individual life paths.
Like the Ecuadorean street dogs, I need to be independent and constantly reorienting and changing my scenery. I need to be part of a community and to live life in the moment—always choosing my own path that aligns with my goals and is an environment to create a community. My work at Arte Del Mundo has helped me to more clearly realize the ways a lifestyle of self-direction can be put to use to empower others within a community and to open myself up to learn from others. But unlike the dogs of the streets, I usually remember to brush my hair before I leave the house in the morning.
When I was little, I used to get so annoyed when my mom answered my questions with questions. She was so eloquent about subtly getting me to ask myself the question I asked her to presumably to get me to learn more about whatever the subject was and maybe even answer the question myself. No matter if it helped in my development process, the whole thing still annoys the heck out of me. But, this week I realized that I am required to do the same exact thing for my job–make people answer their own questions. Thanks, Mom. You’re super good at preparing me for my future.
***note: if you don’t know about Creative Time and Kara Walker’s Project at the Domino Sugar Factory you’re going to be very confused. Before you read on, read this article, watch this video, and read my earlier blog post to learn more about the artwork and my work with Creative Time. ***
Working on “At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker Has Confected: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: A Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant” has had me asking a lot of questions. I began with simple questions: why a sugar factory? Why domino? A sphinx? A woman? So much Styrofoam? That much sugar? Once I got to working on the project and started literally throwing myself (along with sugar) onto the project, I became more attached to its message and started asking different and deeper (messier) questions: Does using this much sugar for something other than consumption perpetuate the historic privilege that sugar is associated with? What will other people think about the project? How does being part of the fabrication process affect my outlook on the work? Without a background of research in sugar-refining will people see similar messages?
I’m still asking questions. Right mow, I’m sitting in a high-rise Whole Foods sipping on my sugar-free kale-apple juice and thinking about how I just ate a ton of delicious maple-sweetened granola. It wasn’t easy to find granola without cane sugar. Has working on the project and dealing with 35 tons of sugar made me hate sugar (FYI: now, later in the day, as I proofread this post, I am sitting in the actual Domino sugar refinery amidst the marvelous sugar baby. The smell here today is overwhelming and disgusting. It smells like diabetes and barf and a cupcake that has been sitting near the window of a car for too long and has melted all over the place. I still love sugar, but I also realize its disgusting characteristics).
Doing research on Kara Walker, her work, and her research for “A Subtlety…,” I became (and am still becoming) more aware of the messages I connect from the marvelous sugar baby. I don’t want to share too many of those feelings here for fear that you (reading this) will grab hold of the messages I see and take them as your own. I’m all for sharing, but it’s much cooler and more enlightening to find your own meaning in the work. Ha – I’m telling you to ask your own questions.
Now that the project fabrication is finished (though since Kara wants the work to be altered naturally by the factory, technically the piece will never be finished—think dripping molasses) and the public is welcomed in to see the artwork, I have an entirely different job than when I was actively in the process of making the work. All of last weekend I spent in the Domino Sugar Refinery with the sugar baby and the public viewers. I was stationed at the merchandise (or as the cool kids call it, merch) table selling 24×36 inch Kara Walker at Domino posters for $5 (to the amazement of New Yorkers who assume anything that costs less than $25 to be either the bargain of the century or a scam – okay, maybe that’s a little bit of an over exaggeration).
Sitting at the merch table I learned a lot and was asked a lot of questions. When people hear that I was in the crew of people who helped make the work, I’m asked questions about the proportions of sugar, the way the entirely-sugar figurines were made, how long it took to make the piece, if ants will take over the sugar sculpture, and if all of the gunk lining the walls and ceiling and beams and everywhere you can imagine is really all original sugar and molasses (the answer is yes). Then there are people who come to the merch table looking for a brochure or handout or anything that could lead them into the “right” way of thinking about the mysterious sphinx. And then there are the people so curious that they rush to me at the table and exclaim that “I need to know the meaning of Kara’s work” and “why did she make it” and “WHAT SHOULD I THINK ABOUT IT?!” I answer their demanding and impossible requests like a boomerang (think: I am rubber, you are glue, whatever you say bounces back and sticks to you) with another question—what do you think? I say, “Kara didn’t want there to be any text associated with her work onsite and wants you to interpret the work yourself.” To this, people either wither with disappointment, give me a look that says you’re not telling me the whole story, or breakout into wide smiles and thank me for telling them and tell me how interesting it is that Kara made this decision.
I like that there aren’t answers to the questions of the meaning of the Kara’s installation. It leads to people to be more eager about discussing their thoughts and opinions on the work. People’s unique, unchangeable histories make their ways into different ways piece is viewed. Many visitors share their thoughts with one another can be enlightened by others’ experiences with the work.
Of course, there are people who don’t know what do say but “it’s beautiful” and walk out quickly hoping to not have to think much more about the artwork, but that’s also an experience in of itself.
No matter how I view Kara Walker’s piece or other artwork anywhere, I am learning that asking questions is good even though there will probably never be a definitive answer them. There are always guesses and educated promises and statistical pointers, but there could always be a different answer.
So, though it drives me nutz, thanks, Mom for making me ask my own questions. Thanks for helping me realize that an authority figure or “wiser one” doesn’t always hold the answers. Thanks for helping me listen to other’s views and opinions while also giving myself the respect to listen to my own opinion.
But really though, have a question? Go ask yourself.
My experiences in the last two months have changed my life. I have transformed artistically, personally, creatively, and professionally and I wouldn’t give up these experiences for the world. Since the beginning of October, I have trained with the SITI Company, a New York-based theater collective that makes classical, contemporary, and newly-devised plays, operas, and performances. I was first introduced to their company when I saw their collaboration with Ann Hamilton at the Wexner Center this spring. At that performance I was inspired by the company’s presence, their unique energy, and the collaborative nature of their artwork. It wasn’t until I started to learn about their way of approaching work during the trainings that I began to understand the immensity of their processes and the importance of training, collaboration, and company commitment to making their unique performances. SITI’s philosophy is broken down into seven main points, each of which becomes obvious while watching a performance or training with anyone who is a member of the company.
The first five weeks of training was focused on the two principle methods used by the company—The Suzuki Training and the Viewpoints. Tadashi Suzuki is a world-renowned Japanese theater artist and director of the Suzuki Company of Toga. He developed a training for the actors in his company that is deeply rooted in historical Japanese theater styles, such as Noh and Kabuki. Unlike other actor training programs of today (and of recent history), Suzuki’s training focuses on the actor’s body, particularly the legs and feet, rather than on psychology. The training is physically rigorous, which I definitely didn’t expect going into it. Each day after training for an hour and a half I was dripping in sweat and after the first two days of class I was having trouble walking up and down the subway staircases. This LA Times article goes over the basics of what the training entails and the background that brought Suzuki’s method to be a global phenomenon. It’s kind of amazing how a training that could be seen only through the eyes of theater and acting can actually open up truths about other aspects of one’s life and herself. I found that through the rigorous training I was able to unlock aspects of myself that I didn’t know existed. I found new strength, new energy, new spirit. I found comradery and company. I found dedication and exhilaration and persistence. These theatrical and life advancements aren’t surprising, I suppose if one knows about the background of Suzuki’s training method. He is interested in training the actor to search for and find the innate animal energy that exists in us all (as humans) but has been forgotten under layers of learned cultural narrative. The training itself includes stomping, walks, and basic movement patterns all along with a focus on breathing and relaxation, of especially the upper body, and bodily breathing tools. During the training, it is constantly emphasized that the technique can never be perfected, only improved upon because the technique in its perfect form is impossible. I think that the constant inertia from the fact that the goal is never to reach perfection but to always continue to improve is really beautiful and inspiring. This video demonstrates some of the physical motions used by the Suzuki method.
The second focus during the first five weeks of classes was the nine viewpoints, adapted for use by the theater artist Anne Bogart and her collaborators from modern dance choreographer Mary Overlie. The basic foundation of the viewpoints is to break down performance into key aspects of time and space. Rather than be in a constant state of ‘making,’ the viewpoints encourage listening and ‘reading (observing)’ versus ‘writing (creating, adding).’ These viewpoints bring inspiration through the deconstruction of performance and are helpful in creating original works and in developing ensemble. Each of the viewpoints of theater (as defined by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau) introduce a new way of approaching and dealing the time and space. The viewpoints are as follows: Time: Tempo, Duration, Kinesthetic Response, and Repetition; Space: Shape, Gesture, Architecture, Spatial Relationship and Topography; and Vocal: Pitch, Volume, and Timbre. While keeping these aspects of time and space at the forefront of the mind and sometimes isolating certain viewpoints, one can move their body through time and space in a unique improvisational exploration. To learn more about the philosophy of the viewpoints, click here.
So, everyday for the first five weeks of training I was exercising the new (to me) methods of seeing the world of life and the theater through the animal energy of the body and the viewpoints of time and space. These initial trainings totally rocked my world and prepared me for the next two weeks of classes which would bring challenge and reality into the picture. For the 2nd and 3rd week of November, I studied Composition, creating performance work from scratch in a collaborative environment and Speaking (vocal training). These trainings were imperative for me to solidify my understanding of the Suzuki Method and the Viewpoints. Being in the midst of actual performative work is a deep challenge and then implementing the new strategies and methods from Suzuki and Viewpoints adds to the chaos. But it was important and positive chaos that continued to help me develop as an actor and person.
Over the last seven weeks I have learned not only the physical presence and aspects of the Suzuki and Viewpoints methods, I have connected more deeply to my own significant artistic ideologies. I have learned to work collaboratively and creatively with others. I have gained a better understanding of what it is to work in the arts in a globally-conscious, multi-faceted world. I have recognized the importance of company and collaboration while making artworks. I think the most exciting thing I have learned in this journey thus far, though, is that there will always be somewhere to go next. The trainings and processes are incredible jumping off points that need to be reached with dedication, effort, and creativity. This co-op has taught me new tools for performing, connected me to many artists from all over the world who are interested in making experimental performance works, and opened up my view of the SITI company’s collaborative mindset and spirit. But, this co-op has also allowed me to think deeply and critically about my own artistic practices and vision as well as my development as a person. For now, I am focusing on an aspect of the viewpoints that I think rings true for many aspects of life, artistic and otherwise: if you get stuck, read. Just read—watch, listen, hear, contemplate, notice and receive the news of a difference.
photo credit: Michael Brosilow