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Still from “Enjô” (炎上 /Conflagration), 1958. Directed by Kon Ichikawa, adapted from Yukio Mishima’s novel, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.”
“Overstimulated!” These were the words one of us blurted out in response to our teacher Jen Oleniczak, when she asked how we felt after the last exercise. We had been loudly exclaiming nonsensical two-word phrases at one another in fast repetition. These phrases had been spontaneously generated in the moment, based on two random letters of the alphabet. As soon as one partner had invented a phrase, meaningless and random as it may be, the other had to somehow manage to “perform it” (think A and P = “Aardvark Parading”). While doing our best to “aardvark parade” we simultaneously had to invent a follow-up phrase (i.e. “Acting Pretty” etc. etc.) for our partner to then perform.
“Improv for Professionals” class at the Brooklyn Brainery was smudge/FOP’s first encounter with formal improvisational training. The two-hour class passed incredibly fast, inciting only minor feelings of trepidation. Our instructor’s careful facilitation and silliness lightened the mood. After about ten minutes, we took Jen’s advice and stopped thinking about how ridiculous we looked and sounded. We surrendered to the context, and attempted to be present and responsive to the highly unpredictable prompts hurtled our way.
This small Brooklyn classroom with a small group of ten was an ideal environment for suspending control and testing out what it’s actually like to try and not anticipate what’s coming next — to try to simply meet what’s next as it comes. It was amazing to realize that so many of our finely honed skills sets did not apply in this context. You can’t think forward, because it’s going to come from someone/somewhere else who hasn’t yet thought/unleashed it. They don’t even know what’s coming. Yet, you have to respond to what arises even when it’s from somewhere no one is expecting — and not what you expect or want it to be. This is the challenging and rich potential of improv. In these moments, you’re condemned (liberated?) to interconnectedness, as improv is inherently relational. No action or word stands alone. You must listen closely and riff off one another. Intentional communication is core to improv (and much more, as Jen shares eloquently in her TedxCortland presentation). Improv demands you not isolate yourself, it’s impossible. There’s a pact at the core of the process — you’re never in it alone. The process is, essentially, a network. The phrase, “yes, and” summarizes a technique for generating more exchange, play, and responsiveness. Improv requires that you build off of what just happened, rather than go your own way with it. Together, we keep the “ball” up, moving, flowing, rather than having it settle into any one person’s trajectory. More simply, this form of serious play boils down to the question: how can we support each other in looking less stupid? With everyone watching everyone else’s back, ready to swoop in and take up the improvisation burden when it starts to sag to the floor, each player can actually inhabit the moment more fully. Each can pay better attention to the other players, and to the unfolding context. Paradoxically, bringing more personal energy to “emergency” (just now emerging) contexts demands that we be less self-absorbed.
As we surrendered to the pace of improv, we found ourselves doing/saying/moving in ways that aren’t necessarily graceful nor intelligent, and that we certainly didn’t expect from ourselves. And yet, they arose. Something did step into the breach between sensation and making sense. The “not thinking” might fail to “get things right” (or make sense), but in the process, we enacted capacities we have to meet the chaos of changing circumstances. And sometimes we did that against the odds of who we think ourselves to be.
smudge/FOP attended this course as part of an ongoing, informal project we’re calling “skill sets for navigating the Anthropocene.” We’re at a place of reassessment in our studio work. After a decade of churning out a great deal of text-based, information and research projects, we sense the necessity of taking a different tack — one that takes us deeper into practices. Making a distinction between living in the Anthropocene and making work “about it” (as if it were somewhere else or at some other time) is no longer possible. This has made us suspect that the skills sets we “need now” are those that enable us to work within the psychological and philosophical domains as much as they enable us to work within art and design. What might we do as artists|humans, to find ways to frame the physical and psychological challenges of the Anthropocene while inhabiting them, and without tipping into despair? And how might we account for our place within the Anthropocene, for the fact, as Timothy Morton puts it, “It never stops sticking to you, no matter where you move on Earth. How can we account for this?” The questions of how to account for “it,” how to reckon ourselves with it, how to pay it our attention bring us up against the realization that, as of yet, we do not have the skills to act differently enough in/as the Anthropocene — especially in ways that would feel artful.
We’re in our early stages of “skill gathering.” In addition to improv, we attended disaster preparedness training and were introduced to sitting zazen on New Year’s Eve. We are also rethinking the activities and attitudes that compose our own daily life practices. We’re not Buddhists, actors, or Emergency Management personnel. But we suspect that one response being called for by the Anthropocene is a remixing of habitual actions. And a loosening of fixed senses of identity.
The Anthropocene is certainly some kind of “emergency,” however slow moving or distant it might appear in some (temporarily fortunate) locales. Perhaps this is why Elaine Scarry’s important book, Thinking in an Emergency, came to mind during our improv class. In it, she shows how “clear thinking and rapid action are not oppositional.” And she argues that the ability to do both — to think in the midst of overstimulation or rapid action — doesn’t just happen. You have to practice it. As Scarry states, “this book will … set before the reader four concrete instances of emergency preparation that depend, for their essential design, on the willful instilling of deeply formed habits in advance of the catastrophe [our emphasis]… It is not the case that ordinary life is habitual and emergency life is non habitual. Both coherent and incoherent emergency actions appear to have their source in habit. The habits that suddenly surface may have been culturally received without self-consciously aspiring to acquire them.” (p.10/16)
Thinking in an emergency requires us to get more comfortable with meeting the unknown, as a matter of habit. “The world is changing more quickly than we can change” (Scarry p. 10). How can we reinvent daily habits in ways that make us able to think within and make something of this emergency?
Tim Morton writes, “Improvisation is adaptation plus awareness … there’s something contemplative about the ecological thought. When you think about adaptation, it is like music that listens to itself. This form of awareness foreshadows a future society in which introversion and passivity have a key role to play” (p.109). Morton goes on to quote Miles Davis, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” In free jazz, Morton says, “all instruments depend on the ‘environment’ of ‘unintention’ around them. The music listens to itself … Because of this listening quality, free jazz can be highly contemplative” (The Ecological Thought, p.109). Improv is like meditation in its attention to the moment of unfolding.
Morton again, “There is global warming; there is an ecological emergency…the melting world induces panic. This is a problem, philosophically and otherwise. Again, it’s a paradox. While we absolutely have complete responsibility for global warming and must act now to curb emissions, we are also faced with various fantasies about “acting now” … There is an ideological injunction to act “Now!” while humanists are tasked with slowing down, using our minds to find out what all this means … the injunction to act now is ultimately based on preserving a Nature that we are finding out never existed” (p.118).
Reading Morton and Scarry, we’ve begun to imagine that perhaps what we need are monk-like emergency personnel, who like to play jazz. Maybe that’s who we are becoming. Or maybe we need to embody such hybrid identities and skills when we improv our way through the next 30 years. It’s hard to say, but all of this makes us think we’ve got a lot of practices to invent and a lot of practicing to do.
Last weekend we had the opportunity to share some of these thoughts at a “Sunday Salon” focused on the Anthropocene (at the home of friends). What proved most inspiring about the event was the experience of sitting down with others who otherwise would have been thinking about the Anthropocene at their own homes in relative isolation on a Sunday afternoon. We found this to be a resilient group. People were willing to channel their “leisure” hours towards the Anthropocene. We saw the event as another form of practice for navigating the Anthropocene. Or at least, as another activity of “skill set” building for turning our daily lives and hours towards it. Instead of thinking alone, we were able to think together for two and a half hours, share food, and arrive at more questions than answers. This might be what it means to pause and listen to and as the Anthropocene. Instead of “presenting” our work to one another, we were posing a great number of open questions to each other about how to practice daily life differently enough.
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