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“What we call yūgen lies within the mind and cannot be expressed in words. Its quality may be expressed by the sight of a gauzy cloud veiling the moon or by the autumnal mists swathing the scarlet leaves on a mountainside. If one is asked where yūgen can be found in these sights, one cannot say; a man who cannot understand this truth is quite likely to prefer the sight of the moon shining brightly in a cloudless sky. It is quite impossible to explain wherein lies the interest or wonder of yūgen.” -Buddhist priest and poet, Shōtetsu (1381-1459), from Nō and Bunraku, Donald Keene
from “I Understand Everything Better,” image by Maria Baranova, courtesy Advanced Beginner Group
(See Interfacing the Anthropocene Part I for an introduction to this post and Interfacing the Anthropocene Part III for a continuation.)
The entire stage was in motion, serpentine waves of billowing plastic. As “the wind” increased its fury, our main character gallantly attempted to confront the storm that swirled violently around him. It was a pivotal moment of David Neumann’s performance, ‘I Understand Everything Better’ at the Abrons Arts Center.
The New York Times has described Neumann as having weathered “a number of storms in recent years, personal and meteorological.” And in ‘I Understand Everything Better,’ “he reflects on the deaths of his parents, which bookended Superstorm Sandy. Techniques from Japanese Noh theater, along with his characteristic wit, provide grounding and leavening forces.”
In the last moments of ‘I Understand Everything Better,’ after the storm has passed, a father is about to die. Neumann (as his father) is moving slowly off stage, dressed in white attire reminiscent of traditional Shinto and Nō costume. His exit is meticulous. Step by step. In silence. It is a slow, ritualistic movement. It conveyed a process of passing out of being. Another character on stage, serving as the character’s medical attendant, states definitively, “I’m here till’ he’s gone.” And, off he goes, into his “next.”
Core to the concept of Nō theater is yūgen, which roughly translates as subtle beauty, mystery and profound grace. We (FOP/smudge) feel it is the urgent task of artists to discover and enact new practices that cultivate new sensations of, and fortitude for, living within emerging planetary realities. Our hunch is that this is will be more effectively taken-up through embodied practice rather than through representation or description. Neumann’s appropriation of Nō to communicate and enact the loss of his parents — and to indirectly link these passings to the upheavals of planetary systems (i.e. hurricane as metaphor for Anthropocene), left us newly inspired.
from “I Understand Everything Better,” image by Maria Baranova, courtesy Advanced Beginner Group
Neumann’s ritualistic exit from the stage was risky. It was slow and processual. It drew us in closer until we were with him. American culture tends to avoid lingering over themes of death and other limits — and over the idea of not grasping for more (time, resources etc.). Yet signals that we humans are approaching new limits are everywhere. It’s stressing us out. The gathering “storms” signals to us the many limits we do indeed face.
We noted, appreciatively, that when Neumann needed to express something deeper, more sacred, about the changes he was experiencing in his life, he sought “training” outside of American cultural traditions. For thousands of years, cultures such as Native Americans and the Japanese, just to name two, have been refining embodied and often aesthetic practices intended to invite humans to continuously acknowledge their (humble) place within larger planetary realities. In preparation for ‘I Understand Everything Better,’ Neumann took part in a “Nō Immersive” in Tokyo, under a fellowship grant from the Asian Cultural Council.
Neuman elaborates on his attraction to Nō for The New Yorker, “Watching Noh is like looking at an airplane in the sky. It is slow and serene. But if you were up there with it there would be all this noise and black smoke.”
In the playbill for the performance Neumann writes that with the loss of his parents he “felt a significant change … a new perspective—a type that only loss can bring…” and that Superstorm Sandy lent, “a sense of humility in the face of the natural world, and with that, the perspective only nature provides.” Neumann has said that he was never interested in attempting to imitate Nō, but rather his work “shares some formal elements with both the Nō and Kabuki theaters, and with that, the desire to engage and activate our imaginations.”
As FOP/smudge, we sense that if contemporary humans (Americans, in particular) feel there are a limited number of meaningful practices available in our contemporary culture that enable us to turn towards the planetary realities and limits that we currently face, instead of distracting us away from them, it is important that we (especially artists) learn from such practices that exist elsewhere — and then attempt to invent our own. Neumann has done just this.
A New Yorker review goes on to say: “In that act of containment, Neumann feels that he found a chastening vehicle for a potentially chest-banging subject. He thinks, also, that Nō reinforced in him the conviction that he has to trust the audience. ‘I don’t want to try to convince them that they should like my show, or that they should feel something at a certain point. To refrain from that requires patience. I used to have no patience. I’ve learned some.'”
As we navigate our way through the limits that the Anthropocene is delivering, embodied practices such as the performance Neumann invented, can offer means for gaining nuanced acceptance of the fast, intense material changes taking place on a global scale. By inventing and enacting such practices of our own, we can make contact with emerging realities without being left to reel in states of distraction or despair.
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“… to see beauty which might be sensed, if not described. Their preference for suggestion and mystery was shared be the masters of the tea ceremony, and by the landscape architects who created gardens bare of flowers or trees … the bare stage, the insignificant props, the movements of the actors, recalling at once the Zen priest and the warrior…” – from Nō and Bunraku, Donald Keene, 1966
Hisa and Hikaru Uzawa, mother daughter Nō performers, image Donald Keene Center, New York
The ghost. The beggar. The whistler. The trickster fox. The dead. The laughing. At me? Or someone/thing else? They were staring out from behind the glass cases. A multitude of eyes peering back at me. Some of the faces were cold, ancient, distant. All contained secrets that would not be disclosed readily. They were from another world, yet utterly present with me in the room. The silent gallery was populated by them. Chills ran up my arms. I diverted my eyes to the wall text. It read, “Japan’s Noh Theatre: Around the eighth century various Chinese theatrical traditions made their way to Japan…”
The exhibition, “Becoming Another: The Power of Masks” is currently on view at the Rubin Museum in New York. Here, a variety of masks created for traditional theatre (such as Nō) as well as masks used in communal rituals and shamanistic practices around the world (Northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Mongolia, Siberia, Japan, and the North-West Coast tribes of North America) are on exhibit until next fall.
Some of the Nō masks were disturbing, their faces mournful for unknowable reasons and circumstances. Others provided comic relief, more funny than frightening. Donald Keene has written that looking at Nō masks is like “seeing a voice.”
Immediately upon encountering the Nō masks, I was struck by the feeling that they represented an uncanny constellation of expressions/beings/characters and sensations. To me, they spoke of a complex composite of Anthropocene actants: beggars, villains, animals, beauties, goblins and deities. Which were the faces of oil and gas company CEOs? Which were the faces of those living beside the Salton Sea? Which were me? Which were we, as the human species still in the midst of becoming? Or, perhaps all of us, human and non-human actors alike, can be found in all of them?
In traditional Nō theater things move slowly. Movements are methodical, intentional, calculated. There is no space for improvisation. There isn’t a plot or character development in any sense familiar to Western theater forms. Yet through constraint, vast depths of experience, emotion, and meaning are communicated. Nō is the longest continuously performed theatre practice in the world. It has been speculated that Nō was originally preformed for gods, instead of human audiences, at Shinto shrines in Japan centuries ago. These “gods” were forces of the seasons and landscapes (mountains, rivers and seasons). Following this theme, a particular Nō play was often performed in the season it was associated with, and sometimes only once.
In recent months, we’ve been conducting extensive research into Nō. A great deal of background history for the art form is easily found online. We also highly recommend a more in-depth introduction via Nō and Bunraku by Donald Keene. In this book, Keene describes Nō as a “mood created by motionlessness” and “a dramatic poem concerned with remote or supernatural events.” He also writes that its form is “the search for meaning beyond appearances,” and that Nō’s purpose is to: “move profoundly and transcend the particular and touch the springs of human emotions.” Characters offer “momentary embodiments of great emotions.” Nō acting is closely related to sacred rite. It can be understood is ritual. The actors are more like mediums than performers, as “the moment he [the main actor] puts on the mask … marks the transition from his daily existence to the special realm of his art.” Though, the actor’s “slowness of pace and unrelieved gravity may weary [him], this risk is taken deliberately.” Building off our own growing sensibility that how we conduct ourselves towards the unknown, and towards one another, will be of great consequence in the Anthropocene, we believe Nō offers vital inspiration for this challenge.
from the Rubin Museum (otafuku “beauty and good fortune,” horned mask for village ceremonies, ko-omote (young woman) Usofuki, “whistler” from Kyogen, and the “trickster” fox/kitsune).
Given the material limits we face in the Anthropocene, we feel that the intentionality of Nō practice, coupled with its strict physical delimitations, potentially infinite depth of meaning, and hybridity of performance (there are 140 derivations of Nō masks, many of them extremely subtle), can aid us immensely in living the Anthropocene.
If there’s something humans need to learn to accept in the Anthropocene, it’s limits. Nō invites a wide gamut of response to limits — through limited gestures. What can be accepted, embodied and practiced through an aesthetic exploration of limits? How might we embody/enter constraints with utmost intentionally — and in alliance with non-human forces? What aesthetic contexts might we invent that invite an intimate interfacing with forces of the non-human: weather, animals, forces of change? What practices invite us to become more nuanced, hybrid — and aesthetically engaged in and by our actions — despite the challenges we face?
“suffering ghost” Nō mask from Japan, at the Rubin Museum
Japanese karura “eagle-like bird,” said to have wings and a human body. Adopted into Buddhism as a protector deity
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walking and siting the geologic along 6th avenue, April 24, 2015
As spring finally arrives in New York, motivation to get outside has escalated and the topic of where and how to walk in New York has become an increasingly popular topic.
This past weekend we had the pleasure of leading two walks through the streets of New York, with a particularly geologic focus. The artist-led walking tours were offered through MoMA, and entitled, Uncovering Deep Time in Midtown: A Walking Tour. The walks took off from and updated our 2011 project, Geologic City.
Our two groups were invited to experience and consider geologic forces and flows that give form and foundation to New York City — and then ultimately to consider the deep futures that the city, as a geologic force in its own right, is now setting up. We asked walkers to get curious with us about how imagining deep time might assist city dwellers to inhabit and creatively navigate current planetary changes underway.
On April 24th, we set out with a group of students from Columbia University, most of whom were enrolled in a provocatively titled Anthropology course: “Ecocriticism for the End Times.” This group needed little introduction to the topic of the Anthropocene and related ideas, and was particularly open to discussing the geologic impact humans are having on the planet, as well as the cultural and biological impacts that we humans are experiencing in return. They readily activated our Anthropocene Viewer.
On Saturday, our public tour began in a MoMA classroom with a brief introduction to geologic time (and the considerations of the Anthropocene) before heading out. From there, we endeavored to see if we could, at least for four short blocks, use various “aesthetic prostheses” to assist our brains in their efforts to grasp what some say is ungraspable for humans: deep time. The images, poetic language, and devices we used invited us to take a break from our habitual ways of experiencing the City. For this segment of the walk, we would instead try and experience our familiar urban environment as newly filled with materials that are, in fact, “time travelers” delivered by geologic history into the present, where they populate and animate our contemporary world.
When we arrived at 50th Street and 5th Avenue, we paused beside the LEGO® store display window. We used magnifying glasses to inspect tiny bryozoan fossils that what make up the 350 million year old Indiana Limestone cladding on the sides of the building in Rockefeller Center. We then turned to face the tower of 30 Rockefeller Center, and took note of the uncanny, striking resemblance between the fossilized, lattice-like structures that colonies of Bryozoa built 350 million years ago, and the structure of the iconic NYC building that is 79 Rockefeller Center. The “windows” in the fossilized lattice are where the soft-bodied Bryozoa lived, suspended in comfortable air bubbles — not unlike the workers in offices behind the windows of The Rock.
We then gave our walkers a chance to pause, sketch, write, and consider the force of geologic time that has created and shaped the materials that afford our everyday life in the City.
magnified view of the Indiana Limestone that adorns Rockefeller Center, FOP 2015
As we walked to our next site, we attempted to view taxi cabs as “geology in motion.” Taxis are both fueled by and coated in primordial bodies of the Devonian, Permian and Cretaceous. The car paint color known as “taxi yellow” is manufactured out of oil by DuPont. Its color code is M6284. The crude oil used to cover and propel NYC’s taxies is the transformed remains of marine animals and plants covered by layers of silt and sand, then subjected to immense forces of heat, pressure and time.
Along the way, we used the concept of Pre-Earthian to ponder human entanglement with deep time. Pre-Earthian materials (elements such as iron) formed during cosmic events that pre-date our planet. Today we see them manifested in urban human affordances such as manhole covers which were scattered in abundance across the streets around Rockefeller Center. And our everyday links to Pre-Earthian iron extends far beyond — to the iron core of our planet which gives us our magnetic poles — to the blood coursing through our bodies as we walked.
Back at the MoMA, we had a short break in the Sculpture Garden. Here, we could experience first hand how humans transform geologic materials into art. Picasso and Rodin have been turned iron into bronze sculptures of animals and historic figures. And as we stood beside the Garden’s pleasant pond and fountain, we noted the monumental urban infrastructure known as the Catskill Mountains, which use gravity to send over 1 billion gallons of fresh and clean water to the City each day. Walkers stopped in the Garden to sketch and consider that, not only is the water displayed in the pools and filling our drinking bottles arriving here all the way from Upstate New York — it is a geologic material in its own right – as old as the Earth itself.
As we left the MoMA, we shifted focus to geologic futures in the making. We passed out portable “Anthropocene Viewers” (direct link to pdf) to the walkers. The Viewer invites users to experience their surroundings through the frame of the qualitatively new geologic epoch we now live in – one shaped by human impacts on planetary systems that are now acting back upon us.
We headed north on 6th Avenue to Central Park looking for Anthropocene-inflected realities along the way. In addition to humans, we documented chemically enhanced “fresh” flowers, NYC sightseeing buses displaying huge advertisements for vacations in the Caribbean, concrete sidewalks, urban density, global brands, foods imported from the other side of the world.
Our deep time walk concluded near the southern edge of Central Park, at what we’ve come to affectionately call the “Smithson Steps.” At a particularly prominent outcropping of Manhattan Schist (near 59th Street and 6th Avenue), in 1972, the artist Robert Smithson photographed two small steps carved into the 450 million year old rock by park designers. He used the photo in an essay for Artforum, published in 1973. The piece is entitled “Frederick Law Olmsted and The Dialectical Landscape.” In it, Smithson writes:
“Imagine yourself in Central Park one million years ago. You would be standing on a vast ice sheet, a 4,000-mile glacial wall, as much as 2,000 feet thick. Alone on the glacier, you would not sense its slow crushing, scraping, ripping movement as it advanced south, leaving great masses of rock debris in its wake. Under the frozen depths, where the carousel now stands, you would not notice the effect on the bedrock as the glacier dragged itself along.”
We never tire of this paragraph and the wonder it incites. There’s an incredible disjunct between the geologic imaginary of this piece and the urban reality that lives and breathes around the steps in 2015. What geologic futures are we in the midst of ushering into reality? What geologic futures exceed us? What evidence of the Anthropocene can be sensed here?
From within the park, the distracting din of the City is a bit more remote. Planes still pass over overhead, tourists still stroll en masse, surrounding buildings still loom. But there is a bit more space to actually take it all in. Standing atop the schist, we make contact with geology that signals the raw forces of geologic time. Walkers took a pause to inspect the groves carved into the schist by massive glaciers and try to picture, in the place of skyscrapers, the 1000 foot height of the ice that once towered over this spot.
At this last destination, we unfurled a banner version of our Geologic Time Scale. Unlike the official geologic timescale— ours does not end with the present as culmination. Instead, we locate the present as the middle of geologic time on Earth. Neither beginning nor end, the present is where geologic and human forces are in the midst of unfolding and enfolding. The right side of the banner represents past geologic events, the left depicts how the materials forged by those events are being enculturated by human activity in the present.
Our walks last weekend, and geologic viewer’s text and graphic design, suggest that all geologic time is contemporary; the materialities of every previous geologic epoch flow into the present-as-middle and give form to our daily lives. Here, these materials are continuously remixed by geologic forces and enculturated by human design as products, limits and affordances — with consequences that are geologic in effect.
unfurling the Geologic Time Viewer in Central Park, image courtesy Katie Holten
*special thanks to Alison Burstein and Sheetal Prajapati at MoMA.
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“People should realize we are in a new era,” Mr. Brown said at a news conference here on Wednesday, standing on a patch of brown and green grass that would normally be thick with snow at this time of year. “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.” —California Governor Jerry Brown as quoted by the New York Times
The bar at the Nipton Hotel, CA, FOP 2009
The news is remarkable. Last Wednesday, April Fool’s Day ironically, California residents were mandated to consume 25% less water for the first time in history. California is our most populous state. How will millions of Americans adapt to this change? Consuming a quarter less of anything seems rather daunting. Imagine consuming 25% less food or getting 25% less sleep. Is water different? If so, how excessively have we been consuming it? How much do we really need to survive — and then what of the rest? It seems residents in California could be some of the first American’s to signal back to the rest of us what’s actually necessary and what we’ve been borrowing from the future (that no longer exists).
Generally in the United States, we’re used to an abundance of resources and affordances. Much of our current collective lifestyle depends on not being distracted by considering the systems that reliably deliver our food, water, technologies, energy. Yet, last week’s mandate in California marks a turning point in our national mythology. We’ve been overreaching our habitat’s material limits. Earth magnitude change and the physical consequences of our individual daily life practices can longer be denied. And it’s we who will change and adapt in turn.
Water and energy are two major affordances Americans have been able to waste — abundantly — for decades if not centuries. We waste somewhere between 30-50% of the energy and water that flow through our buildings. (Notably, 20% of our nation’s energy is generated from nuclear power. Eliminate such “leaking electricity” and we could, arguable, eliminate our need for nuclear power plants.) At home, the devices we mindlessly leave plugged in continue to consume “vampire power” even when we’re not using them — amounting to an estimated 10% of household energy use.
The drought in California didn’t start last Wednesday. Though its severity has intensified over the last four years, it’s been building for years and things are likely to be getting drier for many more. We are all systemically entwined with how well Californians manage this drought, we’ve all got a stake. Half of all of fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the United States come from California, including up to 90% of foods such as broccoli, almonds, grapes, strawberries and tomatoes — many of which are water intensive.
What’s inspiring to us at FOP about this moment is that the actions being taken are not being framed in terms of stopping or reversing this particular drought. Actions being taken now are about adapting to changing conditions caused or intensified by the Anthropocene.
If you have a crisis of meaning about what your life/dreams/work might be in this era of great change we think this moment offers a remarkable opportunity to make regular, daily life practices more intentional. If we were to actually pay attention to that shimmering, increasingly elusive and essential liquid that we’ve been taking for granted, what other possible daily practices might flow into our imaginations?
Rising California lettuce with water gushing from a faucet in Brooklyn doesn’t feel like the act it was before the news of the mandated water restrictions broke last week. What makes this the “different era” proclaimed by Governor Brown is the fact that daily life is being lived differently by more and more individuals. It’s a necessary difference. It’s also the inspiring part of this unfinished story. We can pay attention to the consequences of our own daily acts — and there’s meaning in that. It’s even possible that we may find more meaning in our lives than before, as we perform simple acts of not taking for granted the systems that sustain us.
The backgrounds and foregrounds of our lives are starting to flip, and that flip is a part of larger realizations and practices to come. As Timothy Morton likes to say, “Giving up a fantasy is even harder than giving up a reality.”
Mojave Desert, outside Nipton, CA, FOP 2009
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inside TRANSCOM, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013
We’re pleased to announce that the last stop on Look Only at the Movement‘s multi-year relay among a number of exhibition locations is the Nevada Museum of Art. The project will open in the Museum’s Media Gallery on April 11 and will screen through July 26th, 2015. We’re happy to have the project shared with local audiences who are familiar with the long-term challenges of nuclear waste storage because of their proximity to the Yucca Mountain project in southern Nevada.
After launching in the fall of 2013 at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center in NYC, the project has been on the move for 19 months. We’re grateful to the venues that served as hosts to the project in New York, Santa Fe, Wendover and Nevada. When we embarked on this project in 2012, we never imagined that the resulting exhibitions of the video would run longer than the nuclear waste transportation trucks that we documented and moved-with. After a “puff” of plutonium was released from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico in February 2014, the movement of nuclear waste to the Plant was suspended. For the latest update on WIPP’s closure, see the following link.
Moab, UT, from Look Only at the Movement, smudge studio 2013
If you’re unable to make it to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno to see the project’s final appearance, good news! All are welcome to experience the project online and in full between now and March 31st). Recess Art’s project,
official office, is simultaneously screening video works, including Look Only at the Movement, in New York and Dresden galleries.
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Seghal’s work being performed at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, image courtesy aformofwarning.com
It was her disarming eye contact that brought me to tears. Or maybe it was her beautiful voice, rolling up and off the walls around me. She was wearing the uniform of a gallery attendant and she had her back to me now. When she turned, she looked me directly in the eyes and held steady. Her smile was sincere and she looked as though she was empathizing with how tired and disoriented I felt. Her voice was clear and measured when she stopped singing to state the title of the work. It sounded as if we were in the middle of a conversation, but we were total strangers and I hadn’t spoken a word. I was overcome with an inexplicable constellation of emotions. She was the first person to look me directly in the eyes for many days. And in some ways, it made sense. Of course someone might want to sing in such a beautiful space — muted natural light was filtering down from skylights above, pristine white walls set-off pastel masterpieces hanging throughout the room. But the words she sang unraveled any sense of normalcy, “This is propaganda…This is propaganda.”
I had come here specifically to experience the “situations” of artist Tino Seghal, whose work is being staged at the Stedelijk Museum for 365 days (through December 2015), but the encounter had moved me much more than I had expected.
Another visitor walked into the gallery. She turned to face the wall again and started singing the same phrase before turning back to address the new visitor directly with the title of the work. I stumbled into the next gallery.
Critics have called Seghal’s works “constructed situations.” Some have declared him an architect of interaction. Though highly designed, these exchanges also have the potential “to derail” at any moment depending on how the individuals engaged decide to navigate their “situation.”
I realized, with delight, that there were “triggers” to several of the works I experienced. They “began” either when a visitor simply arrived in a space or looked someone else directly in the eye. It had taken me a couple of attempts to discover where the “work” was in an adjacent space. Upon entering that gallery for the third time, I made eye contact with a “guard.” He immediately broke into an easy smile and started swinging his arms like propellers. Then, he stated the name of the work and came to a rest. The playfulness made me laugh.
These “triggers” left a lasting impression. Not only did they bring me into the present with an active awareness of the situation, they also made me realize how potent the act of initiating communication can be. They also left me wondering what might be squandered in habits of distraction. In these works, fleeting exchanges between strangers become highly charged, co-created and radically open. I couldn’t help but wonder how these practices might translate outside the gallery in public space.
When I left the museum and went back out on the street, I realized I was now actively looking for other eyes to meet. Who else might be part of this mysterious game? Who else might want to set a series of interactions into motion together? Who else, might just want to acknowledge, together, that we were both here — now?
No one else met my eyes. Instead, people went about their business, enjoying the sunny day.
This made me realize what a gift the work of the singing guard had been. Her intentional gaze was more than just a kind acknowledgment when I was feeling particularly jet-lagged. It wasn’t really about me at all, and yet it was. I had experienced her intentional address as art and I had participated in it. Leading up to the encounter was the reason I was in Amsterdam at all: I had just participated in a highly mediated event (“The Geologic Imagination” Sonic Acts 2015). It had been a wonderful experience. And though anyone in the world with internet access could have experienced the work/performance I had shared in real-time, after experiencing Seghal, I wondered how those tuning in remotely had experienced what I shared.
The days prior had certainly heightened the power of the very simple, analog, human to human experience that took place when I was paired briefly with another human in Seghal’s work. There had been an accountability for “consuming” and creating art — and our time — with one another. It demanded an aware presence of our fleeting relationality.
The Guggenheim Museum in New York described Seghal’s work in 2010:
“The fact that Sehgal’s works are produced in this way elicits a different kind of viewer: a visitor is no longer only a passive spectator, but one who bears a responsibility to shape and at times to even contribute to the actual realization of the piece. The work may ask visitors what they think, but, more importantly, it underscores an individual’s own agency in the museum environment. Regardless of whether they call for direct action or address the viewer in a more subtle sense, Sehgal’s works always evoke questions of responsibility within an interpersonal relationship.”
As we all navigate the uncertainties of the Anthropocene, how we conduct ourselves in the world, towards the unknown and especially towards one another, will be of great consequence. As we’ve written recently, we sense the need to practice how we might meet these uncertainties. Seghal’s work is a fantastic test case that offers inspiration. By drawing attention to how we conduct ourselves in the world and with one another, what might we make from here? And, how rare to experience art that doesn’t rely upon (or overtly critique) the massive networks of media, resources and systems that distract us from sensing the severity of what is now afoot?
“There’s something deeply optimistic in his work,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist of Sehgal, “It believes in change, in the production of reality, and that engagement produces consequences.”
How might we write/design/create new prompts for acknowledging the strangeness of our very strange moment? How might we co-exist together, within unscripted possibilities, and with a sense of sincerity?
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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.