FOP


Higashi for the Anthropocene
10.27.2014, 9:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

allHigashi for the Anthropocene and seasonal higashi, in collaboration with Kagizen Yoshifusa (Kyoto) and Wagashi Asobi (Tokyo), smudge studio 2014

The project had humble beginnings. Our primary intention was to invite a small group of hybrid artist/practitioner colleagues into an experimental context.  They would be colleagues whose work we respected for how it addressed the challenges of the Anthropocene (ranging from work on the proliferation of plastic to extinction of species, climate chaos, the “thing” power of food, what it means to find one’s life work in the Anthropocene, imagining deep time, etc.).

Instead of talking about our work, sharing our latest projects, or assembling together for the purpose of creating “change,” we would simply pause together.  For an hour and a half we would offer our guests traditional Japanese matcha tea and sweets (higashi) in simple acknowledgment of, and gratitude towards, the fortitude they show by turning their lives and work toward instead of away from the complexities of planetary realities in the Anthropocene.

We chose higashi as our medium for this event because they are a tiny, dry confectionary that are materially sturdy enough to travel the nearly 7,000 miles from Kyoto, Japan. For centuries, Japanese sweets such as higashi have accompanied matcha tea at traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.  The offering and eating of the sweets inaugurates a point of pause and contemplation, and enacts generosity and gratitude shared among guests.

Notably, Japanese craftsmen have refined the designs of traditional higashi over hundreds of years to translate daily experiences of seasonal variation into edible forms.  The designs of the sweets (autumn leaves, spring cherry blossoms, grains of rice) invite guests to psychologically be with and move with seasonal change as it unfolds.

However, the sweets we would offer in our project would not be traditional higashi.

Higashi for the Anthropocene would be designed to suggest that the daily seasonal variations we are now experiencing in the Anthropocene constitute a “fifth season.”  This fifth season is marked by strange weather whose unseasonable events increasingly cut through, interrupt, and scramble the familiar weather events of the “traditional” four seasons.  Higashi for the Anthropocene would invite traditional tea sweets to intentionally turn, like us, towards the Anthropocene.  They would be designed to serve as apertures onto the Anthropocene.  We would use aspects of their color, form, and symbols to center our focus on the material and climate realities of the Anthropocene.  But at the same time, we would use higashi’s association with the hospitality, calmness, sweetness, and pleasures of the Japanese tea ceremony to turn us away from the all too readily available narratives about the Anthropocene.  The event would be designed to offer something other than steeping ourselves in the currently hyper-mediated sentiments such as despair, guilt, or heroism.

To materialize these intentions in the form of higashi for the Anthropocene, we asked Kagizen Yoshifusa, a 300-year old confectionary shop in Kyōto, and Wagashi Asobi (Tokyo) to collaborate with us.  Together, we would use the  medium of higashi to reimagine traditional seasonal designs and make them capable of acknowledging the now emerging, unseasonable fifth season.

We invited a special venue to support the gathering: Kajitsu restaurant.  Kajitsu specializes in shojin-ryori (Buddhist vegetarian meals).  It serves New York City as much as a cultural institution as it does a restaurant.  Their seasonally attuned menus change monthly, and their special events celebrate centuries-old Japanese crafts and holidays which are often inspired by the seasons.

Higashi_invite

As smudge studio, we sensed an urgency to invent new ways to inhabit the Anthropocene in our daily lives.  We wanted to see if Higashi for the Anthropocene might prove to be an event that we could draw upon for inspiration and resiliency in coming months.  We suspect it might be the first of many practices we will invent in the near future — practices we design to help us (and maybe others) “hold the thought” of the Anthropocene as our contemporary condition, but do so without exhausting or depleting us.

Today, post-event, we believe that the project was a “success” in those ways.  We saw in our guests a palpable affirmation of the necessity of the project’s gestures, and we sensed sincere appreciation of attempts to find ways to live within emerging material realities, and in new ways.

We are grateful for our guests’ responsiveness and willingness to meet us in this experimental space;  to momentarily re-direct their time towards the explorations we made together through Higashi for the Anthropocene; and to meet us — even on a Saturday afternoon — once again, within the Anthropocene.

autumnblendtraditional autumn higashi, made by Kagizen Yoshifusa (Kyoto), “spring” cherry blossom higashi made out of season for the project, by Wagashi Asobi (Tokyo)

For our guests, the story of how the ideas and intentions for this project ultimately took the material form of sugary sweets and were delivered to us in New York further qualified the candies as higashi of and for the Anthropocene.   Silently embedded within the bodies of the higashi themselves, and now within the guests who consumed them, are tales and journeys that also bespeak the Anthropocene.  It took eleven weeks to bring Higashi for the Anthropocene into the world.  Some aspects of their journey could be anticipated (such as the comedy and tragedy of Brooklyn international delivery).   Others, not.

When you look at Higashi for the Anthropocene, it’s easy to notice that they appear a little rough-hewn.  They co-exist awkwardly alongside traditional higashi whose forms and executions have been perfected over centuries.  But the candies/sculptures/objects in/of the Anthropocene were born of limits — limits of language, time, Anthropocene weather, international logistics and sugar itself.  A 14-hour time difference between New York and Kyoto ensured that all email communication for the project took place at times felt to be too early or too late in the day for messages to be meaningfully composed or absorbed. Our inability to communicate in grammatically correct Japanese greatly influenced the parameters of the project and its process. There were countless attempts to find the simplest and most direct ways to describe and communicate elusive qualities and sensations of the Anthropocene, so that the geologic epoch could then be abstracted into sugar form.  Even in English, we don’t have language that adequately captures the difference of the Anthropocene or that describes unfamiliar sensations of its unseasonable qualities. But this project led us to realize that striving or waiting for such language is not actually viable.  There isn’t time, and tasks are too urgent.  Many design expectations had to be let go of, and simultaneously, many improvised alternatives had to be spoken and drawn before they could be enacted.  As we forged ahead, We were humbled to realize that it is a substantial task to ask anyone, and any practice —  especially those that have been preserved and refined over centuries — to break their form for the purpose of turning towards/into the Anthropocene.

These tiny fragile candies have a carbon footprint of 7,000+ miles.  Their path towards the table at Kajitsu passed through the 19th and largest typhoon to affect Japan this year.  They are poignant material traces of moments of reinvention, re-assessment and reframing within unfolding Anthropocene events themselves.  Perhaps what is most telling about this project as a gesture of acknowledgement toward the Anthropocene, is that these candies were brought into being by a host of unrelated people who worked across great distance and differences to address something none of us fully understood. As limits were reached, the project did not collapse, but reshaped itself to what became possible when we turned at those limits and proceeded with a difference.  The outcomes were generative failures of translation and intention.  They were then gifted to, and consumed by, a bold and creative group of humans who are daring to turn into the Anthropocene.

JamiesHigashi for the Anthropocene, designs by Jamie Kruse, produced by Kagizen Yoshifusa (Kyoto)

tablekatopeopleHigashi for the Anthropocene, Kajitsu restaurant, October 25, 2014

tablelongshotHigashi for the Anthropocene, Kajitsu restaurant, October 25, 2014

Please see smudge studio project page for details on the higashi designs.

Guests for the event included: Heather DavisElizabeth EllsworthEvie GarfLisa HirmerJamie KruseRachel SussmanNicola Twilley and Marina Zurkow.

Remote recipients of Higashi for the Anthropocene were:
Jane Bennett, Michele Sorensen and Valerie Triggs.

*Special thanks also to Zenya Imanashi (Kagizen Yoshifusa) Motohiro Inaba (Wagashi Asobi), Riichiro Kato (Ippodo Tea) and the entire staff at Kajitsu restaurant.

** Sincere gratitude to Valerie Triggs and Michele Sorensen for project support.



Peoples’ Climate Practices
10.08.2014, 8:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

marchposter spotted on a Manhattan bound Q train in early October

 

It was a dismal reality-check to spot this poster (above) on a Q train last week. Given the complexities of people and motivations that resulted in the People’s Climate March last month, this poster felt like just another missed opportunity to communicate something vitally “else” to the millions of people who flow through New York City’s transit system.  It could be read as a bit of human self-sabotage:  the perpetuation of the (at least American) myth that despite the slogan of the march (“this changes everything“), we can still go to brunch, walk the dog, and be entertained in the afternoon as we contribute to “sav[ing] everything we love” simply by being physically (though not psychologically) present for an hour or two of marching.

So, here’s to embarking into new territory.

Over the next few months, via this blog, we’ll send occasional signals of our attempts to live and enact a literal “difference.”  Signals will come from within (rather than describing or representing) projects/events in which we take-up new forms of performative research and applied aesthetics — enacted through intentionally designed practices.   These could range from daily life practices, new language/communication skills-building, inhabitation practices, and food production/consumption. We envision events in which we create contexts where we, and sometimes others, can co-exist with unfolding, planetary material realities that are “changing everything” in ways that don’t take us “out” of those realities, and that sturdy rather than drain us.  We’re most interested in practices that make it possible, without overexposure to hyper-mediated fear messages or debilitating narratives of guilt, to hold the thought that what is happening to the human habitat “changes everything,” and to accept that these massive changes as real.

We made a nascent attempt at one such practice in Truro, MA two weeks ago (“Renga for the Fifth Season”).  From here, we hope to go deeper with how to set up and live through such practices, and what such gestures might mean.  This is likely to be a long-term commitment.  We don’t know where they might take us, but we make these gestures as a refusal to wait for or expect governments to “solve” or “fix” the “problems” or to “save” the planet (or us)—and we make them as a means to actualize our intentions to turn daily life into a sustained practice of inhabiting change itself.



Renga for the Fifth Season: Phats Valley Residency
09.25.2014, 12:52 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

closeup_rengawriting_small

no proper vantage
I look to weather.com
can the app explain
why I cannot read the sky
from within the fifth season?

September’s insects
my ears must turn to find you
no use, you call from every
mountain as you search for your
spring summer autumn winter

formal connection.
the silhouette of Corn Hill
the mounds of Fresh Kills.
what colors the grasses that
spring from the City’s navel?

2047
says the New York Times today:
east coast exodus.
Traveling today’s gentle tide
with new appreciation

autumn equinox,
no matter our doings here
sun keeps its own course.
from the ground, a growing sense:
balance is a distant star.

 

closeup_pensrenga_small

How might a 1200 year-old, seasonally-responsive poetry form be updated to meet the contemporary realities of 2014?  This coming weekend, we’ll experiment with the possibilities during a public event that is part of our week-long residency at Phats Valley in Truro, MA.  Over the past week we’ve been collaborating with Oliver Kellhammer.  Our shared project is to attune to the local geologic, geographic, environmental and seasonal history of this small section of Cape Cod – with the added intention to tune into the larger planetary forces that are re-shaping this place, here and now.
We, among others, have recently come to call the Anthropocenic-changes affecting all places on the globe, during all months of the year, “the fifth season.”  While inhabiting the local autumnal changes just starting to emerge on the Cape, we’ve had an extra eye and ear out for Anthropocenic inflections of the “seasonal.”  The unseasonal events that can’t be placed in time, but bring with them strange assemblages of displaced flora, fauna and human-made materials as well as strangely unpredictable weather patterns.  We’ll share initial outcomes of our week-long collaboration via a process of on-site renga creation (collaboratively linked poetry) at this Saturday’s workshop.  We’ll offer participants a series of starter lines for the  5-7-5-7-7 syllable count poetry form.  Guests will join in the collaborative writing after having a chance to experience the Phats Valley site and environs for themselves and gather inspirational “data” for poetry creation.  We will also share an accumulation of words and phrases that we gathered together during our field expeditions and conversations.  We’ve collected them into a saijiki-inspired almanac (saijiki is an almanac composed of seasonal words, called kigo in Japanese). Our Phats Valley almanac is composed of words, phrases, and thought fragments that are both responsive to the local Cape environment and at the same time suggesting its connections to the dawning “fifth season” that is the Anthropocene.
Details for the public event:

Renga for the Fifth Season | Cartography Primer No 2
Saturday, September 27, 2014
2pm | 18 Phats Valley Road, Truro, MA

Cartography Primer is a series of workshops that will investigate the Pamet Marsh area through mapping and exploratory exercises. Cartography Primer No 2 will take place Saturday, September 27th at 2pm, at Phats Valley Residency in Truro, MA and will be led by artists-in-residence Oliver Kellhammer and smudge studio.

“The sun and the moon are eternal voyagers; the years that come and go are travelers too. For those whose lives float away on boats, for those who greet old age with hands clasping the lead ropes of horses, travel is life, travel is home.”

—From Narrow Road to Interior, Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉), translated by Helen Craig MCCullough

In the spring of 1689, Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō set out on a five-month journey in Japan. His experiences are documented in his book, Narrow Road to the Interior, also known as The Narrow Road to the Deep North. While traveling, Bashō drew upon and further developed a 500-year old practice of collaborative haiku poetry called renga. Bashō’s style of renga included juxtapositions of place, events and allusions to literary, historic and mythic sources. Renga, in its most basic form, is recognized as being inherently collaborate (linked verses by multiple authors build upon each other’s words), inspired by the environmental and social contexts of the moment (such as what trees are in bloom, what stage the moon is in, and who is present at the time of the renga writing “party”), and responsive to the impermanence of the moment.

On Saturday, September 27th, artists-in-residence Oliver Kellhammer and smudge studio will practice a contemporary translation of Bashō’s collaborate, time-based poetic form and journey-based practice for Cartography Primer No. 2. They will use that translation to produce a collaborative, renga-inspired work that speaks to the impermanence and continuous renewal of “place” and daily life: the change that makes the world.

Today a renga-like creative practice that responds to the unfolding contexts of its own production would involve many social and environmental conditions unknown to Basho. Indeed, the material conditions of daily life in 2014 are barely understood by those of us who are living them.

For our renga-inspired event, we will invite participants to attune to ephemerality, impermanence and change by walking and pausing in Truro. We will ask guests to spend an hour with “the change that makes this place.” We will invite them to use words, diagrams, sketches and found objects to creatively respond to local events and experiences of change as it plays out across their time-based experiences of “this place.” The exact site and route of travel will be shaped by what is present at the event: people, weather, light, season, affordances.

We will then gather around a large scroll of paper. Together, we will create a collaborative, renga-like work on the scroll: a flowing, “call and response” sequencing of words, images and objects that poetically link our collected, incomplete, and ephemeral experiences of “place”.

The resulting renga-like work will take up challenges and possibilities that are offered by change, as it propels all humans into uncertain but linked futures. We will seek ways to share this work with a public audience.

 

____

The Cartography Primer is a workshop series held in conjunction with the Phats Valley residency program. Through walking tours, mapping and other means, we uncover and document the unique history of the site. Phats Valley Residency is administered by The Nomadic Department of the Interior (NDOI), a creative research group co-founded by Ann Chen and Davey Field.



WaDokei: Attuning to Temporal Time
09.22.2014, 8:27 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

video: bohinic (This video demonstrates how the hour indicators are moved in proportion, from equal spacing at the equinoxes, to close spacing on one half and wide spacing on the other as the year approaches the solstices.  In reality, it would take a year to complete this revolution.)

In celebration the Autumn Equinox, we offer a reminder of the wadokei, also known as Japanese temporal time keeping.  Wadokei clocks divide a day into unequal temporal hours, composed of six daytime units (from local sunrise to local sunset) and six night time units (from sunset to sunrise), regardless of the season. In summer, the daylight hours are longer and the nighttime hours are shorter, and the opposite in winter. Only on on equinoxes, such as today, the hours are spaced evenly. Whereas on solstices, the clock would have half open spacing on one side and half closed spacing on the other.

On these days of equilibrium, perhaps what feels so good is the reality that the time of our body “clock” actually feels like what our mechanical/digital clocks communicate back to us. In contrast to say, December at 5pm in Eastern Standard Time, when it it feels as though night has, and will be lasting forever. Even iPhones ticking off the minutes of an even 24 hour clock get to feel “right” at least twice a year, on the equinoxes.

Back in the Muromachi period (approx. 1337 to 1573) the wadokei were invented. The history of their design is fascinating:

“[Wadokei] are divided into two sets of six units called “koku”. Each koku bears the name of one of the 12 noble animals of Japanese culture, from the rat to the boar, and were numbered in an unusual way. Midnight, the hour of the rat, was associated with number 9, while 6 represented dawn. The numbering continued, with the number 4 was the last koku before noon. As with midnight, number 9 also represented noon, and the sequence repeated itself along the afternoon and beginning of the night. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 were not used in Japan for religious reasons as they corresponded to the number of bell strokes used by Buddhist monks as a call for prayer. The crucial times in this seasonal system were the boundaries between daytime and nighttime. These points in time, at dawn and dusk, were defined as the times when three lines on a human hand became visible or invisible.” – From WorldTempus, 2012

In 1873 Japan adopted Western style timekeeping and surrendered this incredibly embodied daily attunement to seasonal variations for the detached linearity of 24 equal hours, 365 days a year. Where might we all be if things had gone the other way? What if the West had adopted temporal time? Might we better prepared to meet the planetary changes underway today? It’s hard to imagine that being more aware of changes in light and season, and having time actually reflect our bodily rhythms on a daily basis, wouldn’t scale up to aid us in keeping awareness of other, even larger earth forces inflecting our lives.  Temporal time certainly makes it harder to forget that we’re inhabiting a planet that’s rotating AND moving through cosmological space on a minute by minute basis. Who knows what else such clocks might help us remember or relearn today.

Luckily, not all hope is not lost. Contemporary designers have reintroduced the wadokei, just in case you’re curious.



Radical Materialism: Making the World Matter
08.30.2014, 9:50 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

world_of_matter_mabe_bethonico_museum_of_public_concerns_poster_video_text_2014_compressedMabe Bethônico, Museum of Public Concerns, poster, video, and text, 2014, via World of Matter

On September 10th we will be presenting our work at the CUNY Graduate Center’s The Center for the Humanities conference entitled, Radical Materialism: Making the World Matter. The conference begins at 9:30am and runs until 6pm (in The Skylight Room, 9100 at 365 Fifth Avenue, New York).

“Images and words can be reportage, witness, representation, and simultaneously also constructive, connective, material reality. How does the particular ability of images and words to hold all of these qualities act in a reconsideration of the earth’s resources? Continuing the James Gallery’s ongoing investigations into “things” and “objects,” this conference will open discussion on fossil fuel imaginaries, embodied research, postcolonial ecologies and eco-aesthetics, and the material/non-human turn with visual artists, literary scholars, art historians, designers, geographers, activists, and writers of literature and philosophy. Held in tandem with the exhibition World of Matter, the conference examines the creation of political worlds of words and images by approaching environmental crisis as a material question with deep roots and profound opportunities for the changing life of the earth.”

On September 9th, there will be an opening and book launch from 6-8pm for the World of Matter exhibition which will be on view at the James Gallery through November 1, 2014. World of Matter, “comprises visual practitioners and theorists conducting long-term research on material geographies, who engage ideas and practices from art, spatial culture, urbanism, anthropology, art history, cultural theory, photojournalism, activism, publishing, curating and education.”

From The Center for the Humanities press release for the exhibition:

The world we inhabit is expanding. Global population growth, increased mobility, accelerated contacts, rising levels of production and consumption, and the expansion of natural resource extraction have had a significant impact in environmental, social and psychological terms. What forms of interaction with the material world acknowledge that there are limits to what we, as humans, might know and control?

Participants in World of Matter draw upon methodologies from the social and natural sciences, journalism, and also poetics and aesthetics, to scrutinize zones of geopolitical-ecological upheaval. The research conducted by the artists, journalists and theorists in World of Matter coheres around a sensitive reconsideration of the planet’s “resources.” Their projects adopt a variety of formats and strategies to delve into relations between humans and the world, in some cases by way of historical narratives, in others, through scientific laboratory research, community collaboration, visualization technologies, or activist organization. These experiments animate an emerging notion of artistic global citizenship, breaking up well-worn patterns of representation by embracing a plethora of aesthetic, conceptual and interventionist engagements with “matter.”

World of Matter artists are Mabe Bethônico, Ursula Biemann, Uwe H. Martin & Frauke Huber, Helge Mooshammer & Peter Mörtenböck, Emily Eliza Scott, Paulo Tavares, Lonnie van Brummelen & Siebren de Haan. This exhibition is made possible in part by the Center for the Humanities, the Ph.D. Program in English, and the Center for Place Culture and Politics.

A full schedule of related events and programming will be available via the CUNY website early next week.  We hope to see you on the 9th and 10th.

 



Hold The Thought: The Next 3.5 Years
08.16.2014, 9:54 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

1157707940_9d47f0a5d1_bGozan no Okuribi (五山送り火), aka Daimonji (大文字), Kyoto, Japan, image cc via Vincent Follézou

The O-Bon festival is currently underway in Japan and concludes tonight, August 16th, with the Gozan no Okuribi (“five mountain send-off fire”). Five giant images are set ablaze on the mountains surrounding Kyoto—a boat, a shinto shrine gate, and three kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese writing).  The fires are lit to send-off the spirits of deceased ancestors that have been “visiting” for the last three days. The tradition of welcoming back and sending off those who once lived is an annual ritual in Japan, more than 500 years old.

A year and a half ago we wrote a piece on this blog entitled, “Next Five Years.”  At that time, in response to planetary changes we were experiencing, we outlined a re-framing of our work, “perhaps more vital than any single new project.”  We recently revisited what we wrote 18 months ago, and feel that much of what we wrote still applies.  Yet, given the rate of compounding change, we sense that what unfolds in the next three-and-a-half years will be much more sweeping than anything we had imagined from March of 2013.

On September 21st, 2014 there will be a Climate March in New York City, two days before the United Nations meets for an urgent Climate Summit. Given growing awareness of the wildcard potential of our collective futures, there is potential that those who gather in New York this September won’t be “marching” in a fashion typical to previous political gatherings. It’s likely that many of those who care enough to turn out also realize that we have less time (if any) than some suggest to alter the course we now are on, and we have fewer, if any, “solutions” to pursue.  Rather than defaulting to legacy discourses and worn-out political strategies, what can become possible, or what might be “won” (if we even chose to use such language) through the process of walking together and showing up at all, are new ways to be with the reality of what is materially passing in and out of being right now. And this might be what we hoped for most of all a year and a half ago when we wrote “Next Five Years.”  At that time, we anticipated that within that five-year window, humans would “grasp the speed, scale, and material realities of planetary change events more concretely. Arguably, thoughts, dreams, actions and creative gestures that we humans make in response to our first inklings and shared experiences of Anthropocene events will set the stage for their potential consequences.”

The algorithms driving the change that is the Anthropocene are already in motion—yet their outcomes and consequences remain unknowable from here, and highly volatile.  The gathering in September, whether or not we chose to march, could cross a threshold,  or a limit, in our national consciousness. What new daily practices might we invent in the process of turning at that limit?  We could use some new, “cosmopolitan American” daily life practices to aid us, as the O-bon Festival aides Japanese people in connecting with, and holding thoughts about, what is materially passing in and out of being right now.



From the Center: Toshiki Okada
07.14.2014, 4:12 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

SonicLife06from Sonic Life of Giant Tortoise by Toshiki Okada, performed at JACK, Brooklyn, photo Carol Rosegg

She described the feeling. It would start somewhere near her solar plexus and then move up slowly, all the way up into her tear ducts. Or, maybe it would be easier to describe the feeling like being really, really hungry. So hungry, that you have this deep hole, or actually a hollow feeling, in your center. But for which there is no fix.  Yet somehow, this feeling would actually feel good, because the feeling itself would mean that you had “really lived.” And you would then have this “bittersweet” feeling for the rest of your life.

She was Susannah Flood, momentarily acting the nameless part of a Japanese man in Toshiki Okada’s play, Sonic Life of the Giant Tortoise at the JACK theater in Brooklyn. Over 65 minutes, this “character” moved across all five actors on stage, both male and female. At this moment, he was describing what he imagined it would be like if his girlfriend had died, though in “reality,” she hadn’t. He seemed desperate to have some relief from the banality of his daily life, and by imagining that she was “no longer here,” he created a context for having “wistful” feelings that were otherwise impossible.

sonic-master675photo Carol Rosegg

Several weeks ago we wrote about what might come after we humans have accepted that from here on, we are inhabiting an unprecedented planetary reality filled with unpredictable events of change, especially as a result of global warming. And, we asked, what might come now, given the fact that the algorithm of this unfolding material change was set into motion long ago and irrevocably, and that there’s no longer anything to “solve,” “teach,” or “communicate” about this reality.  Upon arriving at our own acceptance of these “facts,” we described experiencing a “weighty sensation.”  We also went on to explain that this acceptance is, for us, preferred to pretending that things were otherwise, because there was the potential to pay attention to this uncomfortable sensation, this “hollow center” you might say, and make something from there, rather than ignoring it:

we’d like to imagine a growing number of creative people attuning to different registers of the current material realities of daily life and offering images/sensations/words from their deeply felt experiences of those realities—from places and times where this bare reality strikes deep. AND then, instead of turning away from these highly inconvenient and disturbing sensations and thoughts, what if they took the time and did the incredibly hard work to make something from within such sensations and thoughts, without expecting any outcome (especially any company) in return? – from FOP May 2014

As we experienced Toshiki Okada’s production, we felt as though we were witnessing an uncanny (re)enactment of the realization we had only a few weeks prior. There’s no getting back things that were dear to us once they are gone, but in their absence, highly nuanced constellations of feelings surface that can be surprisingly instructive. The psychological space of these feelings is vast, but unfamiliar and largely unexplored in Western culture. According to Okada’s production company, the word  切なさ/setsunasa was translated from Japanese into the words “bittersweet” and “wistful”  for the English version of the play. This word is untranslatable into English, but the kanji used, “切/kiru” is used in the verb “to cut.” When used as an adverb, as it is in the play, it is more akin to “loss” and “loneliness.”  And it also suggests an “atmosphere” around the feelings. It is not as strong as “literal sadness” and could be used to describe a constellation of feelings felt by a person during the autumn season. The word’s etymology includes both a sense of sadness, as if the “heart was torn,” and an even older link to “thinking something precious.”  For us, Okada’s work is exhilarating, as it uses the difficulties of translation to invite global audiences to cultivate more nuanced vocabularies and psychological capacities for being with, and describing, what is in the midst of passing out of being.

Okada is well-known for delving into the uncomfortable psychological spaces of Japanese society. And post-March 2011 his work and process changed significantly. Though Sonic Life was written pre-earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns, the work deeply resonates with the ongoing realities currently unfolding in Japan — and far beyond. That’s the incredible power of this production. Most of us, contemporary humans that is, experience some version of daily life as being out of sync, and perhaps banal, in comparison to what we know in our core (or hollow center) about what is actually unfolding in the world, just beyond our comprehension — (global warming, rising seas, droughts, superstorms, or Fukushima).  An actor on stage whispers speaks to this under his breath, to no one in particular:  “you people aren’t living at all.”

Yet, the play is far from being accusatory. Through faltering, dead pan statements delivered in stops and starts without a traditional plot, hauntingly unanswerable provocations are left to hang in the air. The medium, or mode of address, is the message. Are we actually relieved to lose someone/thing because it breaks us from the numbing flow we’ve been buffered within for too long? Is it human nature to have our material affordances and life itself become more meaningful and dear only after they are irrevocably lost?

The character(s) in Sonic Life want to be “capable workers,” but they are mostly bored out of their minds, working, commuting and consuming for no real purpose. They’ve been lucky enough to escape most of the cruelty and pitfalls in life so far, only to be left with an almost desperate sense that they haven’t really lived, and that they “want to live more fully” and even to say out loud, “I’ve lived my life to the fullest.”

As one character puts it:  “What I’m doing right now, actually, despite what it looks like, is having a dream.”

Yet, this dream is our reality and there is no mistaking it. The actors of the performance make disarming eye-contact with audience members.  The division between stage and audience blurs as direct references are made to the “outside” that is unfolding in real-time (subway rumblings, traffic, sound of the a/c inside the theater).

Sonic Life 2photo Carol Rosegg

The play closes with a circuitous unfolding of words, offered not as conclusion or truth, but as open thoughts that are, again, directed to no one in particular. “The life we are living is a far cry from what humankind ought to be living.” This is quickly followed by a seemingly protective, reassuring counter statement/question:  “Maybe we’re not cut out to live how humankind ought to live?”  Maybe we just can’t bear it.  It’s a lot of pressure.  It’s simply beyond our imaginations and capacities as a species to hold the thought that the everyday is connected to something bigger, and act in accord with that thought. And, maybe if everyone is unable to do this, as seems to be true, then our individual “failures” to live as we ought to are neither failures nor tragedies.  And, even if we are able to live as we ought to live, the current situation on the planet suggests that everyone has failed, not just me or you.  Perhaps this could be reassuring.  Either way, we come to a realization that we have limits.  As one of the characters points out, we can’t fly like birds AND there’s no need for us to fly like birds — therefore this “limit” of not flying is okay.

Yet, in the Anthropocene, we’ve invented technologies, economies, and cultures that extend beyond both our own species’ and our own planet’s limits. We have designed ways to fly, that involve huge carbon footprints.  Perhaps humans ought to live without flying like birds. But we don’t.

___

*sincere thanks to Nana Koetting at chelfitsch for her assistance in translation.

 




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 203 other followers