The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.
—Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power
Horizons are shared because they coexist in enmeshment with one another. This does not mean, however, that they are equal; one of the most helpful things about the concept of a horizon is its ability to describe a world characterized by asymmetrical power relations and the differential distribution of bodily vulnerability that is a consequence of that power of asymmetry.
—Gayle Salamon, The Life and Death of Latisha King: A Critical Phenomenology of Transphobia
September 2019. I am outside a performance installation by LA-based dance artist taisha paggett, who is in residency at Light Box in Detroit. She is trial-running components of an upcoming collaborative dance-centered installation project, “School for the Movement of the Technicolo(u)r People,” Gallery TPW in Toronto, 2019.1
Around me in the cracked concrete parking lot are around ten other dancers. Weeds shoot up between us, wild strands of September green pushing all the cracks. Connections open up everywhere for me: here are many people I have danced with for years in the region’s community dance venues.2 I am the only one who uses a mobility device (my scooter), but from personal disclosures I know that the circle contains multiple disabled people: next to me is a queer White HIV+ cis man, a bipolar dancer is on the other side, and there are others. I know that many of us enjoy the energy of communal movement and the challenge of using performance energies to world-changing ends. We are always up for experiments.
My main focus in this chapter is how community performances instantiate new nonmonocultural perspectives in the here and now. My method is informed by tendrils and tentacles and entanglement, somewhere on the continuum of participant-observer and creator. Feminist science scholar Donna Haraway writes about one of her “demon familiars,” opening her second chapter in Staying with the Trouble with a spider, an “eight-legged tentacular arachnid”:
I remember that tentacle comes from the Latin tentaculum, meaning “feeler,” and tentare, meaning “to feel” and “to try”; and I know that my leggy spider has many-armed allies. Myriad tentacles will be needed to tell the story of the Chthulucene. (2016, 31)3
In this study of feeling performance and trying for new futures I am using a phenomenological perspective to knit entanglements of self and world at the site of the horizon—the horizon Salamon describes in the epigraph: a site of enmeshment but with divisional aspects, with traces of unequal bodily vulnerability, water and air mixing, land and history mixing, bodies on land, in air, on and under the water: shared world horizons with different epigenetic memories. A phenomenological perspective is one where my sensing/feeling self is the curious seat of consciousness that sends out her senses (or tentacles) to know the world around her. By orienting toward the environment, a self assembles, and an “I” emerges, in relation.
The horizon is a meeting place where lived and felt bodies and lived and felt (more-than-human) social lifeworlds touch. And these horizons are contested and evolving sites, as the self’s knowledges shift and change.
With this, the study falls squarely into the original terrain of “ecology” understood as the study of the relationships between organisms and how they relate to their environment or physical surroundings—“the science of the living environment” (Odum 1959, 4). In this chapter, the monster trails around us. Each chapter unfolds its skins-touching-across-otherness in different ways: you’ll find Indigenous mermaids in the next chapter, a different kind of apocalypse of watery death/life imaginations in the third, and inorganic and organic hybrid creatures in the last chapter.
Let’s enter paggett’s environment.
You and I might be uncomfortable at times in this performance space or in this book. In this Detroit performance, I am a White dancer entering a Black-centered space. Some of you might be nondisabled, entering a particular crip space of pain and mobility issues through my writerly perspective.4 Racialized, cis or trans, with different class backgrounds: we all bear and witness different experiences, none of them totalizing or representative. Let’s get spun into paggett’s dancerly web as I spin mine by using performance engagement as my introductory format. Let’s dive into these eco soma method webs.
We, the community participants who responded to the social media advertising for the evening, assemble outdoors until paggett is ready for us. We are a mixed-race but predominantly White group. We are led into the cavernous dim space of the Light Box. A spacious dance floor extends beneath our feet to two brown hands in prayer pose on a large glittery cutout high above the far wall, a memory from when this performance place was a Baptist church.
We are given instructions. There are stations, with flowers blossoming like shrines to our embodied copresence, the occasion of being-with. Each station invites us to do certain things. Every five minutes, we are to change stations. How we engage is up to us. All of us are experienced somatic and improvisation artists, and there is no hesitation.
The world-building I am tracking in Eco Soma engages with the longings of fantasy and make-believe. My argument throughout this book hinges on the fact that many people, well beyond “art world” crowds, enjoy and even relish being active audiences (of performances, video work, and creative writing experiments) and are willing to engage bodily in complex sets of questions. I love to feel our world-building, and I invite you to come with me, working within your own comfort zones. Hesitation is okay, and stumbling feels like an appropriate way of being in a complex world. Find your own rhythm.
This is what I read before entering the Detroit workshop contract. paggett writes:
I’ve been thinking a lot about gravity. The gravity of the blood (to paraphrase [somatic practitioner and BodyMindCentering founder] Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen) but also the gravity of being a racialized body (which we all are) . . . The gravity of this violent political moment but also the gravity of getting lost in the groove of a favorite song . . . The gravity of weight exchange in a contact dance but also the gravity of grieving . . . The gravity of a delicious breath but also the gravity of having to navigate uncertain and unfamiliar terrains. (Light Box Publicity, August 2019)
Gravity. The first thing I see near me as I enter the space is a big blackboard. On it, chalk writing invites us to share the names of people we mourn, people who have passed from us and who we want to honor. The name Stanley Love is on the chalkboard: an experimental New York downtown choreographer who passed just before this workshop. Before I do much else in the space, I write down a second name: Reid Davis. Davis was a White queer theater maker from California; a longtime heart-attack survivor; a bear; and a hug giver who also left us this past summer. I remember when he would just “come with me,” gladly accepting invitations to fantastical community performance actions centered on disabled queer lives, finding new ways of being together.
Next to the blackboard is a microphone, unplugged. A sign invites us to “echo the name” into the room. I imagine many of us hear “#sayhername” in the under-swing5 and think about race and gender. Indeed, later in the evening, many other names on the board are women’s names. In one of my five-minute engagements, I chant all the names that have been assembled on the board and read some of the names through the flowers that half-obscure them: more than names, they are handwritten swirls, hearts, lines, assemblages that make a sound on my tongue, tentacles and roots that reach into the past and into the future, lineages that twirl around the bodies moving in the circle. There’s beauty and playfulness. And there is a sense of unease: I can’t tell the racialized association of the names on here, and the associations of the hashtag format make me acutely aware of the Black-exclusionary nature of many White somatic spaces.
The entry into this space is under the sign of (queer/embodied) lineage, under the weight of death and the celebration of life, moving into the future by braiding our past(s) and shifting White supremacy’s present. By implicating me as a participant to write, speak, sing, and mourn, I become part of embodied connections. I hold the cool microphone in my warm hand, an awareness of my unamplified voice twining with dancers and light in the large space. These tentacles need no electricity. I am also aware that so many names never get spoken in this environment and that my ability to project my voice into space is an effect of my particular comportment training and my particular understanding of the social rules pertaining to me. To #sayhername, for instance, has consequences. Black trans subjects, in particular, are vulnerable, and to speak her name is defiance and can be met with deadly force. I am aware of these horizons as I hold the names in a queer-framed, Black-framed6 world into which my queer White body is explicitly invited, framed through ritual, given rules for being.
My work engages art practices in contested public sites, and I am particularly intrigued by performances where the very nature of the contestation can be shrouded, unclear, or inaccessible to people entering them with privilege, be that racialized, gendered, settler colonialist, ableist, classist, speciesist, or other privilege (people with relatively less privilege usually experience this sense of inaccessibility, that critical distance, much more often). I try to feel my way into moments of discomfort, to the monsters of exclusionary and racist pasts and presents all raising their heads and chewing on potential connections. I track what happens when time and space shift, when spin and encounters happen, when pleasure becomes a gateway to new openings, and when immediacy and distance merge. I am guided by a Cthulhu monster stretching tentacles over natureculture horizons, touching weird things, “interlacing trails” (Haraway 31). Monsters: racist metaphors, and yet also embodied performed sources of power. The scent of flowers invites me into other-being, co-being, as I touch the silky smoothness of a petal. Am I a monster to this flower?
Soon after entering, I am in a big circle, my scooter whooshing through space, twirling and matching trajectories with paggett, my White arms sailing out as her Black arms intersect. We glide, float, shift weight, mirror each other: her slim agile body, my heavy form, circles and breath. The connection is immediate and joyful, and I catch glimpses of her smile as we bring our pas de deux to an end.
There is an intersubjective charge in the room. Later, in the talking part of the evening, paggett tells me that she also marked that moment of our circular dance. She noted the soothing note of my machine, my scooter, which allows me to zoom smooth in ways no bipedal rhythm can. Phenomenological inquiry here is not just a focus on this narrating “I,” delineating how the layered rich world appears to her, but also full of ethical challenges to frame “soma” with “eco soma”: self-sensation with bodied world and not just the world of those who seem similar to the witnessing self. Scooter rhythm intertwines with the sounds of the music on the soundtracks, with the pads of naked feet on the dance floor.
Every five minutes, change.
Music changes. Sometimes, there’s silence. Sometimes, there are Black spirituals, moaning the blues and sadness and Jesus into that space, rousing the hairs on my neck, moving all dancers into repetition, exhortation, full body up and downs, bouncing, swinging movements. At one point, we are listening to Malcolm X on a scratchy recording talk about his visit to Africa, about the Black man rising and the dignity of the Muslim brothers.
Read-out texts float in, and the tentacular takes on a different shade, making present bodies aware of embodiment histories and power relations. paggett reads from Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2019), a manifesto about White supremacy and the invention of geology. The book focuses on racialized concepts that condemn non-White bodies to chattel, to matter, and to commerce and exploitation.
I find other books in the space, and we hear excerpts over the course of the night: the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature and Dance’s Field Guide to iLANDing, Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods’s Black Geographies and the Politics of Place, the program for Canadian BLM activist and trans/crip performance artist Syrus Marcus Ware, and Rodney Diverlus’s burn, burned (“In a fictitious future, after decades of race wars, a cadre of revolutionaries struggle to pick up the pieces,” read the program notes).
The texts sink into movement: the trance state of moving communally in space allows for a different reception situation than distanced reading. What is the difference in hearing these sentences below read out in a performance while one’s skin and muscles are activated, outward reaching, or while assembling a linear argument in one’s readerly mind?
Racialization belongs to a material categorization of the division of matter (corporeal and mineralogical) into active and inert. Extractable matter must be both passive (awaiting extraction and possessing of properties) and able to be activated through the mastery of white men. Historically, both slaves and gold have to be material and epistemically made through the recognition and extraction of their inhuman properties. (Yussuf 2019, 14, read by paggett in the performance)
Human and metal, entwined, both in labor extraction from dark mines but also in the discourse fields of recognition: these are the associations of “ivory teeth” and “ebony skin”: racialized markers that align certain humans with extractive capitalist values. Later, one dancer puts golden trousers and a golden blouse—obtained from a prop box of clothes for dress-up—over her dancer’s leggings and shirt. Combined with this book passage, the 1970s ABBA-influenced images of Dancing Queens spin in my European head and touch monstrous capitalism: human/gold mining operations. This is the danger of reference fields: of listening to a song with a different ear. Listening and feeling, dis/comfort opens up new tentacles of thought for me.
The sense of clash, of racialized geographical location, surrounds us in the Light Box, in Detroit, on a street not far from the initial stones thrown as part of the 1967 Detroit Protests (usually called “riots” in White-framed history books). One of my codancers and collaborators, disabled performance artist Marc Arthur, shared with me some of his process writing after our visit:
Whenever I’m in Detroit I feel like I’ve arrived from a place of privilege. I’m thinking of the histories of migration there, and the ongoing racism and segregation. They echo and reverberate throughout the performance space not only as we conjure with taisha’s voice and research questions. They feel particularly embodied. The history of the city enters my experience. I found myself spinning a lot, and jumping a lot. It was hard for me to sit still in a space that was, at times, deeply meditative. (personal communication, 2019)
Marc jumps and expends energy. He lets the energy of discomfort at a racialized situation find expression in his White body. Sensitized to the scene and its geographical location, he incorporates the spinning energies that mark so much of Detroit’s history and translates them with his muscles. Sitting on my scooter, I feel the vibrations created by jumping dancers around me.
I remember a show I had seen earlier that year, a performance engagement with a subterranean Afrofuturist Detroit network, poet jessica Care moore’s Salt City: A Techno Choreopoem, developed at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Spinning in the Light Box, I feel for the tunnels under Detroit, the connective webs beneath the city that were links between the historical speakeasies, allowing patrons to vanish when the police came knocking. I try to smell/taste the ionized air in the salt-mine tunnels that channel throughout the city, and that create the setting for Care moore’s show: tentacles of subterranean habitation, vibrating the surface.
Tentacles and monsters, in all their forms, are central to Eco Soma. There are not many horror-worlds untouched by exclusion. Social justice storytelling seeks to be aware of how others are constructed. Monsters that shift alignment between self and other, and that exceed narrative certainties are the eco soma monsters that intrigue me. I use “eco soma” to refer to felt things that come close and create emotional response, poetic in-betweens, listening for new sounds, creating new pathways. With eco soma, I refer to creative flights of connection that combine bodily, emotional, and imaginative responses. I invite you to see what happens in your own reading practice as you offer openings to yourself as you read the in-between. I offer these terms, eco and soma, not as a coinage or a territory move but as two words in search of connection, with a space between and around them, in spin with one another and producing layered pearlescent illuminations fueled by breath.
In my evening’s activated reading practice, a golden shirt suddenly twitches into a monstrous moment of racialized pasts that inform presents and might inform futures if the world does not change the rules of its capitalist extractive biopolitical games. Pretty soon in this chapter you will hopefully make yourself comfortable with crip cannibals. This is the heart of this study’s politics: how artmakers use diverse bodies, minds, and words to build future-leaning speculative worlds together, in art-based practice, on unstable and nonsolid ground in the context of biodiversity challenges, climate catastrophe, and environmental change. Performance and dance are central to my argument, both as objects of analysis and as ways of being. Tentacular engagement feels most powerfully enacted when skins meet, when the dispersed sensitivity of my body’s surfaces come up against other living beings, human and other-than-human, in the context of curiosity and in the dis/comfort of being with otherness.
As this book will investigate later, empathy has been a fraught pathway of calling for shared humanity. Racialization technologies have successfully dis-aligned White skin sensation from Black and Brown skin sensation. The “commonsense” understanding of one entity as alive and human and another as inert and nonhuman is already imbricated into politically charged structures of understanding the earth. To think of body/earth/material entanglement also means to think through and beyond any easy understanding of “the body” and “embodiment,” to go beyond a meaning that aligns with liberal understandings of a White independent colonial self. As feminist literary critic and theorist Hortense Spillers reminds me, “Before the ‘body’ there is the ‘flesh’ . . . if we think of the ‘flesh’ as a primary narrative, then we mean its seared, divided, ripped-apartness, riveted to the ship’s hole, fallen, or ‘escaped’ overboard” (Spillers 1987, 67).
To hear words like these while moving and alert to embodiment sets up nonempathetic riffs of dissonance, a Black jazz of unclarity, and dislocated echoes of how ways of being can be parceled, divided, and categorized.
Eco soma is a site of slowly dawning merger: modes of embodiment and modes of extraction economies rasp against one another in creative engagement. My body/body conditions. Monster tentacles. White/supremacy/monstrosity. In the Light Box, I hear textual snippets that remind me of Black precarity, of danger in public space. Stories of Hurricane Katrina and the disposability of Black homes. I measure the distance between my arm arc’s freedom and who might not be allowed to engage with abandonment in shared space.
There’s gravity all around us in these two hours of open exploration, whether my own limbs sink and rise, whether I witness other movers, or whether I take up another invitation station: “rest,” lie down by myself or with another participant on a comfortable futon and watch the video displayed on the ceiling above us. My body experiences pain now, and I am glad to find this station and take up its invitation. I stay connected to my body, though, and feel it shifting into the contours of this particular futon.7 I see the movers around me, echoing their movements in my own sense of embodiment, even at rest.
In the video projected onto the ceiling, I see a group of Black dancers move with each other, a black cloth wrapped around them like fascia, the connective tissue sheet that wraps everybody’s innards. The sheet here is external, a piece of fabric, and it reminds me both of a shroud and a swaddling blanket. Resting, witnessing, I get to muse about culture and color, about what I see with my German-European eyes, and what others might see. The dancers give weight to each other through the cloth, in counterbalance, shifting each other while keeping one another safe (see Plate 2).
At another point in the video, I see the dancers in their weight sharing but with a third person holding a black shiny surface up to them: they can watch each other in a Black mirror. I read a metaphor for a Black space, a Black perspective, being seen. Together, the threesome travels across an arid landscape, a park with large gashes of exposed earth, always in motion, always reflecting and in relation. The terrain is challenging. The earth heaves. I am led to think about landscaping and which bodies toil in soil—and about toxic sites and environmental racisms’ sedimentation of toxins in communities. The movement continues. The group in the room is learning ways to move together.
This book’s experiment leans. It leans into, against, away, over, with, onto. Again, the valence field of the word touches many shores: from “leaning onto” as a crutch, a support, a friend, to “leaning in” as an upward striving mobility that sees contemporary feminism as rapacious neoliberal energy. There is no purity in this eco soma work. No body is untouched by violences of colonial, racialized, gendered, linguistic, and corporeal punishment. And yet, the words “body/bodies,” “embodiment,” and “somatic,” lend themselves to futurities thinking of self-care and communal as well as personal happiness.
Eco soma attention as a lived experience registers discomfort and violence even in the absence of explanation and fully realized cogitative process. You know when something’s off, and you know it in your bones. Eco soma methods pay attention to these energies of somatic articulation and strive to offer tools for registering them. Eco soma methods also offer solace, ways of connecting ourselves to the living energies of land, animals, caretakers, and fellow humans as wayfarers on our journey.8
Around me in the Light Box, movers are releasing into and pushing up against gravity. I take weight. I share weight. I hear gorgeously sung songs of Jesus wishing to take the load off my back and feel the tentacles of the seduction—and the price.
In an earlier intervention, a poem for dancers, taisha paggett wrote:
stay fearless and momentous. Stay
unwieldy and excretory. stay oceanic. Keep
letting this piece drag on. stay humble.
because we were born with resistance in our spines.
stay chained to that fence, that tree, that railway
track, one another. stay over the rainbow, kaleidoscopic. (2012)
Durational labor can train us to “stay with the trouble,” to use Haraway’s resonant phrase. The participant dancers in the space take responsibility to be in relation to one another, to fill the space with our bodies, and to come into contact. Racialization, and what it might mean for White and Black people to enter a Black-framed space, has been central to my own White experience. Memories of Black Lives Matter activists’ choreographic actions are at the core of my engagement with the self-and-other-and-world-care instructions offered at each of paggett’s stations.
And there are other dimensions to my participation. I try to stay receptive to the multivalence of touch as violence, as tenderness, as invitation, as shifting border states, as queerings on the edge. I remind myself that there are multiple traces of Black embodiment in this space, not just precarity, but also joy, fulfillment, and care for our earth. Queer Black foremother Audre Lorde writes:
We tend to think of the erotic as an easy, tantalizing sexual arousal. I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way. (1978, 54)
Many artmakers, Black, White, of color, disabled, nondisabled, have touched in with Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” essay and have come away enchanted, energized, challenged.9 The text offers a battery, a tune-up, an affirmation: there are forces inside us oriented toward living. In a world that tells Black, Brown, queer, trans, and disabled lives (all in different ways) that their lives are not worth living—toward death, in the depth of a mine—I attend to the somatic pull of Lorde’s work and words.
Different tentacles, different life forces: eros moves in the Light Box, living as fullness and energetic touch. In the gravity of multiple histories, mournings, and celebrations, there are horizons, dense border zones and their energies. This is a somatic performance exploration. It offers agency to its participants. The scene will only come alive when enacted. The performance is participatory, not just in the execution of particular instructions but also in an unforced succession of moments of decision making. The actions we engage in are open to the public but not spectacular and “for others.”10
The fellow queer White disabled dancers I came and left with talk about it all afterward, sitting down over a delicious Lebanese feast a few minutes away in Dearborn. We are clear: this kind of performance action is a thinking/moving/being in joy, a meditative space we approach like an embodied poem and a critical act, a place where we grow and learn together. We, with our different articulations of Whiteness, were welcomed into and learned some initial rules of a particular Black-framed performance space, with questions and uncertainties remaining.
My particular perspective in this book is informed by my disabled status. My ways into places, to places, and through places are shaped by my physical being and by social and cultural forces of exclusion that offer different pathways to different people.11 The performances I witness and participate in through these pages are all marked by many different markers of exclusion and inclusion, performing destabilization.
That, then, is the world of eco soma actions: tentative creeping engagement, not just by crips but by many who find themselves unable to stride outward, forward—pushing harder and getting somewhere. Many of us get nowhere fast: disabled, economically disadvantaged, educationally challenged, in poverty, racialized into monsters, outside gendered binaries, or without resources. This study charts modes of resilience and joy in performance experiments. I am not only looking for agencyful and direct movements in the face of challenges but also for sliding downward, over, and around those challenges, in the hesitant paths that many of us take to be with one another.12
With this orientation, this study always travels in very specific paths. There are no recipes here for how to lead community arts projects that provide civic uplift. There are no success stories of widespread transformation. The political and the personal touch but do not become one another; they stay halted, a bit crippy, creepy, speculative.
Instead this book deals with the pleasures of the immediate and the minor. Most art projects here are invitations in public realms but without fanfare, (with a few exceptions) outside the context of “high art.” I theorize moments of offering support and being offered support. My perspective is not (only) a distanced critical evaluation but also a phenomenological thickening, a being-inside, seduced and hence partial, full of longing. This book charts forms of theorizing that emerge from contact and attention, a fostering of poetic, mildly sarcastic, playful and joyful sensibilities, aware that our horizons are co-constructed but not level.
This is a project of hope.
Let’s revisit one of the foundations of much performance practice: an attention to the embodied engagement that shapes how people appear in public. I track the zones between self and other in an outdoor Australian dance theater performance by people with cognitive differences; in a biomimetic participatory performance in Oakland, California; in the form of a video creating its own rhythms and soundspaces; and in movement, biopolitics, and my German memory, emerging among an art installation of living plants. In each section, my eco soma audience address changes.
As a somatic explorer, I enter three-dimensionally into an encounter. As a phenomenographer, I listen in layers. In my eco soma method, I align my own sensing with openness about being otherwise, moments of other-knowledge. I try to tune myself to that sensitivity. Explore with me the potential of focusing on this dynamic as a different way of understanding political arguments in the public sphere, concepts of access and (bio)diversity, unclear trails toward futurities.
To do so, become aware of your bodymind13 as you are reading this—surely an unusual request in academic writing but one that respects the particular eco soma research trajectory I am sharing. My argument is not only articulated in the words but hopefully is also encoded in the rhythms of the chapter, in the sound of words, and in the juxtapositions between themes and media. But how do you become aware of your bodymind?
For now, breathe. Become aware of the feel of this book’s paper, or the feeling of the keyboard beneath your fingertips. Feel your eyes: use some eye exercises, looking to the side, up, and then down. Focus on something away from the screen or page then direct your eyes back. Adjust how you sit; feel gravity flowing through you, anchoring you as you give your attention to the argument developing in these words and to their sound and their rhythm.
The study of “the somatic” has different contours in the discipline of dance studies, one of the disciplines we’ll be engaging in the journey of this book.14 Somatics offered a way out of the anti-intellectual accusations that embroiled dance studies and still shape its psychological stance. “What a body knows”—this might seem like an obvious statement to many people who have undergone any kind of conscious bodily training.15 But for a while, calling upon “body knowledge” was taboo, something that signaled inadequate socialization in critical theory. Over the past twenty years or so, these issues have slowly been laid to rest from two different directions.
The first direction comes from dance’s engagement with White and European critical theory. Dance studies discovered critical theory’s already-existing critical bodily and sensorial heritage. Particular moments in this reencounter centered on a rethinking of Walter Benjamin and early twentieth-century work on the city and the flâneur and on Michel de Certeau’s corrective to Michel Foucault (1984), explicating the workings of power on the level of daily habitus. Both of these theorists go walking in the city and find different ways of addressing power relations and modes of resistance in everyday movement. Also part of this toolbox for thinking about movement and dynamics as central to politics, consciousness, and relation, is Deleuzoguattarian work in its vitalist lineage and its exploration of energetic shifts.16
A second (and deeply related) line of connection emerged from rethinking the work of anthropologists like Marcel Mauss (1935) and Thomas Csordas (1993), as well as phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty  (2007) and Simone de Beauvoir .17 Eventually, once dance studies began to address its White-lens problem, other phenomenologists entered the dance studies canon: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks (org. 1952, trans. 1967) and Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, which I have already discussed in the passage about Fernando Pessoa’s desk in the preface (2006). This rethinking helped rehabilitate an intense and specific thick description of bodily sensation and allowed for connections between these sensations and the coming to personhood, subjectivity, identity, the social, and power.
Outside of critical theory, the study of somatics, developing out of training in embodiment, slowly transformed the dance world itself and influenced writing on movement and bodily experience. Don Hanlon Johnson (1995) and Martha Eddy (2009, 2017) chart many influences and practitioners in the field (covering European practitioners from Rudolf Laban, Marion Rosen, and Ida Rolf to White U.S. practitioners like Anna Halprin, Joan Skinner, and Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen). Many of these anti-industrialist, pro-personal-empowerment movement practices shaped Thomas Hanna’s 1970s naming of the field as “somatics.”
Johnson, an important voice in this establishment of the field, sums up his perspective on the deficit in European Enlightenment and its Greek roots. He holds against the widespread sense of somatics as purely personal transformation, uncoupled from politics and social change (and, though he does not explicitly state this, something for rich people).18
Medicine, education, psychology, and government were each put into separate conceptual silos, masking the fact that they are inextricably interlinked in how they affect us. Our founding political thinkers tragically failed to take into account the fact that people who have not learned how to successfully attune to each other, especially to those in other demes [neighborhoods in different city states] in the midst of intense differences, cannot successfully collaborate in the enormous project of creating an intricate and just set of democratic structures. (2018, 7)
In pursuing this line connecting somatics—attunement, cofeeling, sensing, bodily sensibility—and political development, Johnson cites Wilhelm Reich’s antifascist analyses and Mohandas Gandhi’s embrace of ahimsa—nonviolence—as models to think bodily and political transformation together (and Johnson acknowledges the deep flaws of each of these individuals).19 He writes about the set of somatic pioneers that emerged as part of European modernism, many touched by the violence of wars and the Holocaust, such that “they saw their methods of touch, sensing, breathing, feeling, and moving not only, or even primarily, as aimed at personal well-being, but as methods for reshaping the institutions of a sick social order” (2018, 18).
In his 2018 collection, Johnson acknowledges that even though this political impetus was part of the conception of somatics, the field didn’t fully open itself up to honor and acknowledge non-White and Indigenous writers, thinkers, movers, and knowledge carriers—or anyone who explicitly grounded their somatic approaches in forms of embodiment historically deemed marginal (fat, queer, disabled, trans, etc.). So Johnson attempts to recast the established canon explicitly in a more just and worldwide frame, in keeping with the field’s emerging acknowledgment of colonial and decolonial moves in the academy and the studio.20
When I read Martha Eddy’s work on somatic pedagogy (Eddy 2009) with my performance studies students, what resonates most clearly with them is the argument that somatic education is a pathway to taking responsibility for oneself, in the absence of hard truths and in experimentation and playful process. And my classes also usually acknowledge that the written word alone, before our experiences of actually engaging in exercise work and observing each other breathe, is only part of our exploration. This is not knowledge to be gained only from reading about somatics but knowledge that becomes available when embodiment becomes a form of reading practice and informs attention to sounds and signs, a visceral close reading. The circle is complete when moving/reading come really close, like when paggett reads Yusoff to us while we move.
Eco soma: much somatic research has tended to stay within the boundary of one’s own skin sack. In this study, artists reach artfully outward. The “eco” here keeps pushing on that skin sack, extending beyond the fingertips, reaching out toward others, and registering the physical/psychical dis/comfort waves that happen in that energetic field. Those “othered” by dominant groups never had the luxury of only thinking of their own skin sack, though. In 1980, Iris Marion Young had to think about how patriarchy impacted the trajectory of her swinging arm in “Throwing Like a Girl.” In 1993, at a conference on “Rage against the Disciplines,” Susan Stryker performed a monologue about transgender rage and queer fury at the edges where embodied experiences of transgender people meet a world steeped in binary gender violence. The resulting essay was published in GLQ and is still now, in 2021, one of the most read essays of the journal. Stryker posits allegiance with the monster created by Victor Frankenstein and reclaims the monstrosity label even as she writes eloquently about what it feels like to live within persistent pathologization:
Like the monster, the longer I live in these conditions, the more rage I harbor. Rage colors me as it presses in through the pores of my skin, soaking in until it becomes the blood that courses through my beating heart. It is a rage bred by the necessity of existing in external circumstances that work against my survival. (1994, 244)
Stryker theorizes how this rage fuels “the hard work of constituting ourselves on our own terms, against the natural order” (1994, 252). This is an empowering and moving call to use affect, physicality, and fantastical monstrosity to disrupt conceptions of the natural: a somatic, embodied push against the divisions that subtend power relations anchored in “natural” relations and “right” bodies.21
Cultural somatics practitioner Resmaa Menakem thinks about the effects of living in an anti-Black world on one’s own body schema: “The Black child gets infused with these ideas about what’s human and beautiful between the ages of three and five. It is in the structure of our society, of the media, of religion, of economics. It affects our circulatory system, our musculoskeletal system, our nervous system” (2019). Work on the level of somatics, of embodiment, needs to happen for change to have an effect, and that labor is a challenge and an offer to both benefactors of and those oppressed by White supremacy. When not addressed, violence continues, as Menakem writes about police culture and “us” versus “them” thinking: “When intergenerational trauma lives and breathes in the bodies of both ‘us’ and ‘them,’ almost any encounter can lead to tragedy” (2017, e-book).
I hope for new forms of living through the kind of creative practices I am discussing in Eco Soma, practices where consciousness of embodiment and of cultural formation intersect. Embodied labors of attention on the limits of self and world, a phenomenology that incorporates imagination with tentative reaching toward intersubjectivity and otherness: that is one of my working definitions of the eco soma field.
Somatics in the Community Studio
Somatics are the foundation for much that cultural workers and community dancers do in their everyday work life. If you are a performance artist working with communities, you most likely engage in one of four things in your daily or weekly sessions: (1) you use somatic work to calm, focus, and develop bodyminds; (2) you invite the experience of joy and ease; (3) you listen to and tell (body)stories; and (4) you shape what you build on in these ways through dramaturgical choices.
Somatic work is foundational. You can listen better if you breathe in peace and have space in yourself for both you and others. You can tell your story or move your body with more ease if you have a provisional or momentary sense of stability in yourself. You need to have some sense of ownership in order to be free with yourself. You need some point of anchorage to speak from—and maybe you conceptualize that as your diaphragm, the land you stand on, or your connection to ancestry. Expression emerges from somatics, which is why, to me, somatics and the honoring of breath, space, and embodiment are so vital to a political aesthetics of access.
A lot of my initial experimentation with somatic practices emerged from my early work in community performance in the 1990s. I was working with mental health system survivors in Wales, and I thought that my training in Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal would guide me well. I was also studying for my Certificate in Community Dance from the British Laban Guild (and eventually obtained it as one of the first wheelchair users to get any kind of official dance qualification). My plans included dramatic sketches, creating embodied tableaux and dance choirs about power dynamics in mental health settings and the workings of stigma. But when I started my sessions, I quickly found that the basic foundation for expressive work was not a given. For our warm-up, my participants joined me in centering ourselves, standing upright, and then swaying back and forth and from side to side. This is a common exercise in theatrical and dancerly work: a grounding, sensing one’s self in space (try it: stand up for a bit. Sway. Find your center. Then read on).
In my sessions, my collaborators fell over. They had to step out to catch themselves as they toppled over. I was mystified: I could never quite get to the later levels, to what I deemed to be the actual work, as stability was not a given. It took me a while to work it out: my collaborators had an impaired ownership of their own body. Most of them had been institutionalized against their will at some point in their lives. Many had been homeless and moved from space to space. Some had been imprisoned. Many had depot medication inserted under their skin, leaching chemicals into their bloodstream—injectable long-release medication designed to cut noncompliance.
In order to do political work, we breathed. We all breathe in toxic worlds, some more toxic than others according to our level of privilege. In these Welsh sessions, we used somatic methods to take back and improvise around our damaged bodyminds, invaded, incarcerated, beaten, and medicated.22 This work is the basis of my understanding of the politics of somatics: make more space for more bodies, damaged and invaded; share breath in public; enlarge which bodyminds get to take up space in our shared world; find ways to anchor; and acknowledge older anchoring methods.
What it means to be human is so much more than having a voice in the sense of being able to put forward a rational, discourse-driven, individual, self-dependent agenda. I cite philosopher Erin Manning, who approaches issues of how bodies know and how they become politically active. She does so through a somatic lens:
The body senses in layers, in textures, in rhythms and juxtapositions that defy strict organization into a semiotic system. (Manning 2007, xiv)
In this statement Manning might not think specifically about disability aesthetics, but I do: Sensing in layers, textures, and rhythms—not in the units that linguistic discourse offers us—is to me the core experience of moving with fellow disabled people. Dispersed centers, interdependence, multiple sites of engagement, nonverbal concentration, a free long, open refreshing breath, joy at the site of encounter: these are moments that blossom in the performances I discuss in these pages. In the next section of this chapter, I show how a perspective on eco soma presence in a theatrical framework can shift the stakes of what political actions can be.
Sensing in Public: Rollercoaster Theatre
The first tracks for my eco soma project were laid a good while ago in 2006, when I witnessed the Melbourne, Australia, performance of GAWK, by Rollercoaster Theatre.23 I began to understand the work as a form of social somatic, with my particular interest in the way disabled people show up embodied in social space and upset productively how space and embodiment can be configured.24 I approach this particular show with an attention to what performance scholar Shannon Jackson (2011) calls the “support structures” of participatory art: the kind of training, architectures, and durational interventions that make the labor of touch experiential. I am engaging with this show in the context of its wider production of disability culture labor and, in particular, its educational framework. Rollercoaster Theatre is a group formed out of graduates of the Certificate in Live Production, Theatre and Events (Ignition Theater Training). This course is a vocational theater training course for people with a broad range of disabilities and learning needs, and the majority of students in this course have developmental or cognitive differences.
The GAWK performance took place on Federation Square, a postmodern, deconstructed, architecturally kinky, weird civic center site in Melbourne. It is a place designed for commotion and mixing, and many performances take place there and insert artful behaviors into the habits of the city.
On this site Rollercoaster Theatre set up three high scaffolds for a promenade performance event, and they also used the square’s existing giant animatronic screen to show a video they had created. On the scaffolds sat the performers, far removed from the crowd (see Plate 3). There was no performance text. Instead, the performers engaged in routines, like stretching hands out, shielding their eyes, or other repetitive actions. The colorful video blinked phrases (“I feel so left out.” “I love you.” “Don’t touch.” “Come over here.”) interspersed with drawings of stick figures (some people with arrows shot through) and combinations of text and graphics, like an “I” followed by two staring eyes.
Naomi Chainey, general manager of Grit Media, an Australia-based disability media content provider, wrote a review of the show:
The imagery was stark with six over-lit performers shrouded in white sheets and heavily coiffed costumes lined up across the stage. Movement was minimal—the occasional reveals of large open eyes painted on the performer’s palms which “stared” at the crowd making up the majority of the actual performance—the figures effectively dehumanized, as the piece delved viscerally into the issues of perception. Through use of repetition, sound bites, music, animation and photography (effectively displayed on the overhead screen) the piece portrayed an intense loneliness that gradually built to a crescendo as the performance went on. Voices crying “stop looking at me!” and “can anybody see me?” were, I thought, particularly powerful, as was the repeated image of the eye painted on the hand. (2008)
Watching this particular performance and focusing on the performers high up on the scaffolds, I felt like a key was turning inside myself. I had written much about deconstructive approaches in disability performance, but here I was faced with a show that didn’t quite feel capturable with the tools of this particular lineage of contemporary ironic distancing. As a disabled critic, I could try to capture this performance in a number of critical theoretical frames. I could talk about how the group inverts the flâneur, turning the gaze around and highlighting their own status as objects of the gaze, or how the actors become starees.25 I could analyze how these starees use sophisticated techniques to deflect or deal with being the object of stares. There were many ways in which the performers shielded themselves. The choices were really interesting and diverse: some made themselves less human, others donned paraphernalia of authority, yet others cushioned themselves. They wore fat suits, beehives, organic or plant matter, bishop’s miters, huge hair, and even cheese wedges. All was armor. All was white, reflecting rays back out.
I thought of the Australian desert, the camouflage of living things, staying hydrated, and shielding oneself from the sun. I thought of zinc sunblocks for European settlers, trying to make Australian lands habitable to White people. I could make quite a lot of that. I could offer citations and readings that would develop this analysis of the show as a political statement about the public sphere, either around disability inclusion or about human environmental or environmental human impact.
But neither flâneur/public sphere imaginings nor a focus on loneliness or Australian environmental discourses quite grasps my experience that day in Melbourne. “The body senses in layers”: My main experience was not involved with a measured assessment of the political aesthetic strategies employed by the group. Instead, my experience was one of particulate impressions, of multiple attentions gliding over my body, including sadness and thoughts of flanerie but also including the feeling of the palm of my hand, the desire to paint, and thoughts on costumes and hiding among plants, evading the metal surfaces of the square. I felt quite directly the sadness of reaching out and being denied, of what it might feel like to be excluded and not being seen—not being seen as human. But watching the show, I kept rescuing myself by focusing on how much fun it must have been to construct this or that costume and how much time and attention was involved in putting on makeup or on creating the images on the hands. I observed the performers and their intense focus high above the world, being looked at—but this time inviting the look, basking in it.
The Intensity of Process Play
The education framework for this performance is the Ignition Course, a radically accessible form of theater training that can cater to students who cannot read or communicate through spoken language. It uses interesting ways to train its students. For instance, they “introduce important Australian plays by using images and videos to create their historical and geographical contexts and by workshopping segments of the plays themselves” (Hutchinson 2005, 14).
I imagine Rollercoaster Theatre built on these ways of presenting knowledge by slipping into roles, tasting history and theory through embodied doing. What I saw that day in Melbourne reminded me of that process, playing bits of various pieces and roles: I can easily imagine that the performers chose a particular costume because of a sensual affinity with a particular hairdo, for instance.
The local paper saw things in a similar way, as they report that “Stanley, of Seddon, thought he looked quite sexy in his costume and he was not intimidated at the thought of sitting high on a platform” (O’Doherty 2008). They asked Stanley for his opinion on his role, and printed it without reference to his particular impairment26 or by making it inspirational.
I found out that the idea of the eyes on the hands came from a Doctor Who episode. Again, I can imagine that in their rehearsal space, at the Footscray Senior Citizens Centre in Melbourne, Rollercoaster Theatre slipped into Doctor Who characters, got fully into painting eyes on their hands, and played all out at seeing through their hands: playing with touch and sensation, feeling hot and cold on their skin—all these somatic exercises that are part of a cultural worker’s vocabulary.
At this point, I draw a parallel with Anna Hickey-Moody, an Australian researcher who codirected a show for Restless Dance, a dance company of people with developmental disabilities. She writes in an intriguing way about a particular moment in her show: a man lighting a candle. She uses a Deleuzian framework of affect to address the intensities involved in the repeated lighting of the candle as an embodied act of wishing:
His embodied memory of the way that the “candle lighting” happens is an extension of his personal style. Weeks of working . . . have cultivated the corporeal affect of “the wish” and have instilled a method for lighting the candles in his blood, flesh and bones. (Hickey-Moody 2009)
Not irony and analysis, but intensity and specificity embodied in blood, flesh, and bone through style: that seems to me at stake here, in the GAWK performance, too. As a witnessing critic, I shift vocabulary, as Anna Hickey-Moody does: “The question is no longer about ability and disability but is about sense, affect and relation” (Hickey-Moody 2009). All performers had styled a persona for themselves, high up on the scaffold.
Messages fragment and shift kaleidoscopically. To use a unifying perspective like the flâneur or the single message “It’s sad to be excluded” feels too restrictive and normate.27 A focus on somatic practices can help me to understand a different time and space flow, one less concerned with the semiotics of political agendas and instead with the pulsing of life: even life denied life by many eugenic techniques and technologies that lead to so many disabled people, in particular people with Down syndrome, being killed before birth. I have to work within hope, cruising utopia (to cite Jose Muñoz’s resonant phrase): desirously finding openings for pleasure and connection. This is reparative criticism, a “privilege of unknowing,” to cite Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s (2003) call to engage in critical practices that move in tension with paranoid criticism and which
seek new environments of sensation for the objects [critics] study by displacing critical attachments once forced by correction, rejection, and anger with those crafted by affection, gratitude, solidarity, and love. (Wiegman 2014, 7)
If I witness in a somatically flavored way, paying attention to the textures, rhythms, and echoes in my bodymind, I can bodysurf on this Australian show (and Stanley’s “sexy” floats with me) and in the realm of counterpublics. My desirous reading tries to be aware, sensitive to, and ameliorative of the public images of disability, to imagine, with Sedgwick, a place where “the reader has the room to realize that the future may be different from the present” (2003, 146). Michael Warner writes:
Counterpublics are, by definition, formed by their conflict with the norms and contexts of their cultural environment, and this context of domination inevitably entails distortion. Mass publics and counterpublics, in other words, are both damaged forms of publicness, just as gender and sexuality are, in this culture, damaged forms of privacy. (2002, 63)
How can I use eco soma methods to refigure the damaged, stigmatized identities of disabled people toward a new public, one that is aware of the processes of damage and can be open, elastic, and plastic enough to widen our sense of who can come to voice, presence, joy, “feeling sexy,” or agency in public?
In reading my way through the performance and its critical embedment, the spoken and unspoken, the known and the unknown, I want to open up the concepts of “distortion” and “damage” and place here instead Gerard Vizenor’s (Anishinnabe) concept of “survivance” in the context of racialized eco-catastrophe. Survivance, he writes, with a poet’s unclear clarity, “is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry” (1999, vii). He later elucidates this “story” concept by placing it firmly in the realm of narrative and artmaking: “The nature of survivance creates a sense of narrative resistance to absence, literary tragedy, nihility, and victimry” (2009, 1).
This narrative resistance to absence works well in this disability story from one of his literary works. Vizenor writes in his novel Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles (1990) about a pilgrimage in a postapocalyptic, postindustrial, post–fossil fuel United States, a band of trickster characters traveling along the Mississippi River. One memorable scene presents a surreal encounter with “cripples” and shows the survival techniques they use to live—imaginative self-imaging enables public presence and vitality.
I quote from literary theorist Joseph Coulombe writing on Vizenor—and I leave the language of my co-conspirators here in place. Sometimes, in order to move forward, I need to be open to language patterns beyond my own, and that might, today, include “deformed” or “handicapped.”
When they [the heroes of the book] come across a large group of physically deformed people, some of whom lost their faces or legs due to industrial toxins, the pilgrims [and the readers] receive a lesson in the use of the imagination to combat debilitating situations. Some of the “cripples” dress as moths, some wear special masks; all envision their lives as whole, so each is whole in his or her own way. They cope creatively with their handicaps: “Their incomplete bodies lived whole through phantoms and tchibai dreams” (Vizenor 1990, 145). (Coulombe 2011, 82–83)
There are many books in which literary cripples become the heartful center and the carriers of life lessons to be learned. Vizenor’s work is not that flat. His cripples end up devouring one of the pilgrims, pulling her limb from limb in an orgiastic ceremony. These tchibai dream creatures are more Bakhtinian carnivalesques than plucky survivors. They are excessive, transgressive, voracious: they swallow absence and enlarge themselves into shimmering new wholes. In this universe of postcolonial Indigenous collage, movement, engagement, even eating (and being eaten) is life.28
By taking my critical field here not just from queer and Brown performance studies but also from Native American literary imaginaries, I can enlarge the field of co-conspirators, and I can look for the moths: those of us who find ways of entering imaginatively into the public sphere, armored with play against the stares and the stories.
In the case of the Melbourne performance, some of what I witnessed relates to what Jose Muñoz has called disidentificatory moves (1999). “Disidentification is about recycling and rethinking encoded meaning” (31): disidentificatory moves emerge from ambivalence and from some kind of identification with (gender, racialized or other) stereotypes, consciously critiqued, in an ironic/longing play. This kind of self-knowledge and irony might well be part of what I am seeing on the city square. But Vizenor’s emphasis on dreams gives me a different purchase for thinking through the political agency of people with cognitive differences. Styling moth dreams, gossamer desires, weaving images out of what finds a hold in one’s bodymind.
Flocking Attention: Dandelion Dancetheater
My next performance site is in Oakland, California, a traditionally less affluent neighbor to San Francisco. It takes place in front of the Oakland City Hall, at the center of political decision making, where at that very moment heavy budget cuts eviscerated the welfare net of U.S. social policy. White queer dance maker Eric Kupers of the multiracial and body-positive company Dandelion Dancetheater directed WonderSlow here one sunny day in summer 2011.29 In a place of civic shaping, this performance offered a well-known technique from environmentally aware dance repertoire: flocking.30
At the center of the amphitheater on the Frank Ogawa Plaza,31 performers from multiple racialized groups engaged in daylong flocking. Flocking is a biomimicry technique, often used in dance contexts, and associated with eco-dance choreographers like Jennifer Monson. Monson writes about her work, and I cite her here at length as one of the core practitioners in my lineage:
In the navigational dance project BIRD BRAIN the dance process was informed and created by navigating along the migrational journeys of animals. . . . This process has been rich and complex starting from a deep investigation of the senses and navigating the bodies systems—(Gray Whale Migration); to creating dances within and of particular places (Osprey Migration) to investigating the energetics of flocking and adaptive systems (Ducks and Geese Migration) to creating interactive systems within the container of a theatrical setting as well as pointing to the relationship of the theater’s building to its environment (Flight of Mind). I started this project feeling bereft—that wilderness as I understood it no longer existed in the world (or soon wouldn’t). My understanding of wilderness has evolved into something intertwined within our own consciousness and interaction with the environment. Wilderness or wildness is a state of dynamic adaptability constantly that surrounds us whether in the massive effect of Hurricane Katrina, of the micro affect of endangered butterflies returning to the Twin Cities Ammunitions Plant or the emergent systems designed through game theory and virtual reality. The usefulness of the term “nature” has become complicated for me as I struggle with the dialectic of nature/not nature. What is not nature? Wilderness becomes a more amenable concept for me in that it alludes to something untamable, unknowable and challenging, and it is a very human concept. Wilderness as a concept seems central to human evolution. Dancing is a powerful medium for addressing our “nature” and is one of the places I experience wildness. (Artist statement, ILand, 2014)
Monson’s wildness, the experiential heart of untamable, unknowable behavior, lies also at the heart of many love affairs with things somatic: with the edge spaces where life touches life, leans in and on, expands not just consciousness but also muscle control and energetic state beyond the skin of one individual human. Here, in Oakland, I touch into this energetic field of biomimetic nonhuman fantasy.
“Flocking” is an approximation of bird behavior meaning that there is no continuous leader but that the flock orients itself to whichever bird is out front and follows it until the orientation shifts again. To be in the flock means to enter a group meditative state. My writing here offers my witnessing, a verbal expression of my holistic experience of this meditative state, getting from “hastily walking through the city” time to “watch the grass grow” time (there was literally an installation of a video camera trained on the grass, and a monitor, a cheeky tech translation of “meditation”).
I put on some white clothes (from a chest made available for public use) and wheel my wheelchair into the middle of the stage in front of the Oakland Civic Center and in full view of the politicians’ entry doors. This is not far from the spreading branches of Oakland’s iconic tree, the Jack London Oak: a giant coast live oak that lives on this Ohlone land and is depicted on Oakland’s city flag (you can catch a glimpse of this tree seven minutes into the video).32 I align myself with the person already on the stage, a Latina woman also using a powerchair: Cristina Carrasquillo, a Puerto Rican dance artist (see Plate 4). I am so delighted; it is rare that I get to dance with someone else who uses a powerchair.
I also remember thinking how far my embodiment was from the pigeons that normally make their rounds here on this site. That day, two powerchair users pecked and hunted for some kind of sustenance in the civic round.
When I enter a flocking score my world’s horizon changes. Attention hones itself down to an edge. On that stage, my perception broadens and tightens at the same time as my limbs enter a zone of multiplied attention, responding to the fine small movements the front dancer transmits through her back, her arm resting on her powerchair joystick and her head swaying. Bodily translation becomes meditation. My focus is not on translating her movements into my different body but on feeling myself entering into the energy lines that emerge from her limbs and torso. The sun is shining down. It is warm and getting hotter. My blood rises to the surface of my bare limbs, slathered in sunscreen. I move; my movements are not determined by my core but by the fine sun lines that weave in the flock.
Others enter: one bipedal dancer and then another one. As the frontal orientation changes, I at times find myself the leader, and there is a minute shift as the golden lines change tension and I swing myself into the movements that come most deliciously to me: arm sways, rounded limbs extending into space, my sitting body stretching. Movements from core to extremity, spirals around my spine. Cat stretches and circles. There is no desire to stay at the front, though: the spirals naturally draw me into a different frontality. I move sideways, and another dancer takes over the flock. There are moments of tuning in: waiting watchfully with eyes all over my body to respond to the smallest twitch of the body in front. There is the relaxation as the front dancer moves into a familiar gesture, allowing me to swing freely with the gravity that extends between the earth and my movement memory of opening and closing, advancing, retreating, sways and contractions. I dance for a long time, caught in the pause of attention. Time flows around me.
Then I go my way, home, to everyday life.
I returned in the evening, ready to immerse myself again in the flow of WonderSlow, the meditative flocking procedures that enlarge my skin, shoot out lines of connection, and anchor me so beautifully different in the en passant flow of a workday in the center of Oakland.
In the evening, though, my experience was different. The sun had moved: no longer was my body suffused by the strong heat nor my vision attenuated by the golden glare. What felt like molasses and lounging in my limbs had become the crispness of Bay Area evenings: a touch of cold in the air, my muscles on the edge of contraction, tensing back against the wind. I dressed warmer, and reentered the amphitheater, joining a whole crowd flocking together.
This evening flocking was much quicker and demanded a different attention from me. Instead of joining another chair user, I was now the only chair user in a flock of bipedals (although some were visibly disabled bipedals). The mechanics of the dance had changed through this: the flock turned quickly, and a lot of step work with traveling patterns made it impossible for me to pick up the fine lines of energy, of losing myself in the attention to another’s body translating itself into my own movement. I was always a step behind: if I extended my arms and joined the upper body wave that moved through the flock, I could not control my joystick and retreat the five steps the bipedals took, becoming a static obstacle in their migratory path. If I followed with my joystick the weft of feet moving forward, sideways and back, my body felt left out and unintrigued, longing for the stretching arcs and whole-body engagements.
I left the stage, and joined other wheelchair users at the bottom of the plaza, the lower level, and there we watched the flock for an hour or two: feet up on stone, a fulcrum of movement rather than the radiating arms of it. Again, my attention shifted and, in crip adaptability style, I left behind any frustration and my longing for the sun-drenched languor of liminal control the afternoon’s flocking had afforded me.
Instead, I entered a new phase of audiencing, of being woven into the giant dial that WonderSlow became, transforming again. There was a space for me here, too, even if not, at that moment, as part of the flocking crowd. I now was a still point at the center of a radial action, and I could find peace and joy in that, too. Around the edges of the plaza, dancers moved very slowly, engaging in a walking meditation that had them beat a quiet gong every few steps, circumambulating the plaza in an hour-long duration.
I took in many more details: freewheeling white umbrellas that wafted with the cooling winds across the plaza; a ballet of natural forces just as delicate as the energy lines I had so reveled in just hours before when I was being moved/moving myself. The tick of metronomes, multiple rhythm stations set up all over the plaza’s steps. The oak, standing impassively by, in a much slower plant time.
Breath. Movement. Wind. Passersby. The blank windows of City Hall. Time ticking. The patterns on the Plaza. People. Pigeons. Wigs. Order and Multiplicity.
In my witnessing words here, time has slowed to a pace where I can feel my attention broadening, where there is space for words to appear as I remember the intensities of “being there.” This is to me a somatics of audiencing, invited by dance performance modes that stress not only duration but also meaningful participation. Joseph Beuys speaks of the social sculpture, a conceptual idea I love to use to approach these participatory slow unfoldings:
Let’s talk of a system that transforms all the social organisms into a work of art, in which the entire process of work is included . . . something in which the principle of production and consumption takes on a form of quality. (reprinted in Bishop 2006, 104)
Art practice can help transform toward a gaze and a broader sensorium that becomes aesthetic and that encompasses City Hall as much as the Puerto Rican dancer in her powerchair, in her majestic, smooth, turning circle. The way the city unfolds around us, in Oakland as it did in Melbourne and Detroit, shifts as my attention is honed and revisioned. “I” produce and “I” consume, artfully, changing gears, finding space in the density of the city. The everyday of the flâneur, the city dweller, the politician, the shopper, the homeless person, the person in the mass, the person experiencing herself in singularity, the pigeons, the clouds above: all these everydays can hinge and pivot when challenged at the level of somatic engagement. They create a horizon: a shared sociality with unequally distributed power. In the meditative time frame, this horizon can come to consciousness and rise into focus through the layer of background embodiment. These everydays can change when you end up experiencing yourself as a small but complete whole (to use Vizenor’s phrase), or as a pocket of wildness (to use Monson’s). These projects invite this axial pivot, the social sculpture, the unfolding of aesthetic spacetime, to offer a new perspective on plant and human time, on shared humanity in public, on asymmetrical horizons, on a trajectory toward repairing damaged publics. They invite the interconnectedness of things as living works of art, as cultural productions open to improvisatory interventions.
Memorials of Life
We visited Berlin invited by a group of Butoh artists
who were interested in disability
We thought about doing an action at the Holocaust Memorial
I felt the tension of all war and the inhuman acts of war
I am Jewish
My partner is German
This black stone row after row
Gives me no peace
I don’t comprehend it
I am speechless
We needed a new sculpture
A memorial of life
An accessible place of commemoration and assembly
A practice of peace
May I touch you?
May I touch you?
Thank you for coming.
Thank you being here.
Go through the gate
Please lie down, if you are comfortable with this
And place your head on this person’s belly, the soft part
Go to the left
Give your weight to the person beneath you
Feel the small movements of life
Listen to the sounds our bodies make
See what emerges
You go to the right
May I touch you?
May I touch you?
Feel the wave of breath running through this braid of humanity.
May I touch you?
Remember. (read by Neil Marcus and Petra Kuppers, transcript of video poem, 2011)
In this section, I offer a meditation on eco soma as a performance method.
The Olimpias, the performance research collective I lead,33 ran the Journey to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin many times on three different continents. Neil Marcus, a disabled Jewish performance artist who lost family members to the Nazi killers, and I, a disabled German performance artist, co-created the movement score and ran each of these sessions. We had been invited to Berlin by resident Butoh artists, and together we visited the famous Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe constructed by Peter Eisenman. With us stood Marcus’s brother, a Jewish man who lives in Berlin. The initial idea had been to create an action at the site of the memorial, but the massive size of the memorial and the depth of mourning and grief led us away from this. We paid our respects, sitting in our wheelchairs, silent in front of a vast field of gray concrete stelae or blocks. We couldn’t enter bodily, couldn’t drive our wheelchairs into the mourning field. We explained in a slide in the video we created: “We acknowledge the lawsuits brought by the disabled people of Germany who sued for disability access to the memorial and lost.”34 The somatic experience of uneven ground and narrowing passages had been designed as a metaphor: bipedal people experience unsettled walking, a stumbling gait, when they move through the four acres of the Eisenman memorial.35 What does it mean to have a particular form of embodiment become an emblem for the memory of state terror—in particular a terror machine that also killed many disabled people?36 In our installation, away from the fixity of these blocks, we speculated about other ways of commemorating state-sanctioned murder. We wanted to look toward the nonexclusionary presents and futures we could build out of our different human specificities, in touch with memories of atrocity and genocide. So, instead of entering the concrete of the Holocaust memorial, we created an intimate and fleeting architecture of bodies: a memorial of life, a practice of peace, a fantastical assemblage, a human braid.
We ran Journey to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin with Holocaust survivors, with disability culture activists whose different bodyminds meant we had dogs in the braid with us, with transgender activists, and with people with cognitive differences. We ran this in Canberra with Australian Aboriginal activists, with people from the Butoh archive in Tokyo, with Jewish rabbis, and at a queer performance festival in Sweden.
Since the action is participatory, and since it is hard to share what it is like before one does it, it was ethically impossible to assume informed consent to video or photograph. So no documentation exists of most of these events. The only event we recorded took place as part of a three-day Somatics, Movement, and Writing Symposium (University of Michigan, 2011). All participants had perused a reading pack before assembling, had engaged with the ethical issues at the heart of the action in multiple ways, and had given permission to be filmed.
Some of the creative argument in this next section relies on slowing down, on temporal shifts, on a quietness that holds space for things to emerge, on the sensorial effects of the tonal qualities of voices: one halted by spastic speech difference, one with a German accent—and on the strange rhythms of (wheelchair) machine clicks.
I encourage you to switch modalities now, and watch the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=no-ZohJxWZE.
As you watch the video take note of how you feel. Chart whether your breathing changes and if your body posture shifts in the transition from looking at a screen or a page of a book to the more laid-back reception many of us associate with TV watching. Listen to the sounds of the studio mediated in the video. What is the effect of all of this on you? What connections and disconnections do you experience in different media, in documentation?
Let’s look at this performance in detail. All participants/audiences know the title before they come to this participatory action. Journey to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin—a weighty and long title—sets up its own contract with the audience. It was important to Neil and me to give a trigger warning through the title and then to leave a lot of space, taking care not to fill the experience with too much particular historical content.
All positions, apart from the “facilitator” position (me) and “the judge” (Neil Marcus), are sourced in a few short minutes from attending audience members as we get going: two people to be the gate “clearing people before they go forward” (that is the only instruction we give them, and they make their own choices about what “clearing” means) and one person to be Neil’s assistant, helping him to stand if he chooses.
People come up to Neil through a long line and through a gate created by two participants. “Clearing”: some participants create pat-downs, quite physical, checking for knives or guns. Others choose more energetic healing movements, as if touching auras. Once a person is cleared, Neil invites them to go either left or right. I receive the people he releases. I ask them: “May I touch you?” Then I invite them to lie down. I ask the participants around them if they are okay with someone touching them. If everybody agrees, I invite the participant to lay their head on someone else’s belly—a braiding action familiar from the history of participatory art. Many people use wheelchairs or regular chairs while being braided in. We explore together how we can create touch with the next person in the braid. Belly to head is the most common, but we also have back to back with participants sitting, a hand on an elbow of someone in a power wheelchair, a head leaning on a shoulder: whatever works, in comfort and in contact. If someone does not wish to engage in physical touch, I invite them to find a good position for themselves, and engage in energetic touch, instead.
Beyond human (and sometimes nonhuman, service-animal) bodies, the only space shaping is the projection of two photos of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe on some flat surface in the studio or community hall where we are meeting (these are the two memorial photos at the beginning and end of the video: blocks of concrete undulating across a vast space). We also have a few chairs available, alternatives for people who cannot or do not wish to be on the ground or can’t stand in a line.
During the performance, all spatial delineations happen through the changing geometries of the moving bodies and the lines they make as they begin to overlap and assemble. We offer minimal verbal introduction: we just run the score and see what people take from it and what content they bring to their movement experiences. This is an eco soma method approach as a performance: somatically grounded yet deeply in touch with the limits of what is beyond one’s own skin, with the histories and presents of inclusion and exclusion, sorting and naming. The horizon vibrates, and everybody’s experience seems to spread, entering into pasts, presents, and futures.
A sharing circle, often long and elaborate, followed each performance (not part of the videopoem nor recorded anywhere). In the sharing circle, people spoke, danced, or sang about what memories came up, what emerged from ages and experiences of empire, colonialism, eugenics and division, atrocity and healing, the ambivalence and joy of being touched, appreciation for the multiple layers of consent queries, and the pleasure of breath. Participants shared personal memories, cultural memories, somatic experiences, dreams, trance images, and intellectual engagements. Some participants saw ghosts. Some saw stacks of dead Jewish people in the concentration camp. Some fell asleep lulled by the rhythm of communal breath. Some wondered about issues of permission and obedience, saw the tension between the simple structure and the care of the judge’s gaze and my voice with its query “May I touch you?” I have decided not to write down the stories that have been told in the sharing circle. You, watching this videopoem in the flow of what you are reading here, will have your own response and enough imagination to trace echoes of the lyrical and expressive material people shared afterward.
There are multiple ways in which one can express the energies that occur in somatic events like these. I discuss four of them, as each offers different perspectives on Journey to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin—Foucauldian biopolitics, necropolitics via Mbembé, Deleuzoguattarian machines, and (in the next section) Haraway’s staying with the trouble. At moments in these readings, I will offer eco soma method interventions: ways of slipping between intellectual engagement, sensation, site, and poetic fantasies.
Biopower is, according to Foucault, a development on from sovereignty, from kings decreeing death on individuals. In biopower realms, humans have a technology of power over the population. “It is continuous, scientific, and it is the power to make live and to let die . . . [it is] the power of regulation” (2003, 240–41). This regulating power is the power of modernity, “rationally,” “scientifically” creating categories like race or disability. This is the science of eugenicists and Nazis, setting up categories of living beings and engaging in racism as a way of eliminating certain parts of society and of controlling populations. This lineage of argumentation reads all the way to the geology/racialization arguments in the opening of this chapter.
In our performance action, this sorting was something many participants commented on: the chilling effect of being judged, or being sorted into two sides, without a clear sense of what the judgment entails. Being adjudicated and weighed, quantified, made fungible, interchangeable, not seen—this is a deep-lodged fear that grabs many racialized and/or medicalized people.37 There is great risk in enacting this in a social somatic, and Neil Marcus and I are aware of the emotional labor we demand of our participants. My soothing patter throughout is offered as a way to help people through the experience and to make sure they are not stranded or alone in their enactment, activated by the judging action and the images of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe looming over it all.
At the same time, I experience my kind invitation and Neil’s charming smile and gentle touch with his spastic hand as quite a challenge: people accept our invitation without pause, without intervening, without pushback. I had not expected that. In some of our final sharing circles, sometimes participants just stayed in the comfort and calmness of the experience, the utopic feel. When I brought up the implications of the action’s title, and the fact that people had said yes and gave permission to be put into lines, judged, and then laid down into the braid without question, I encountered energies of rupture—the discharge at the moment when one sees oneself not wholly within one’s own control. I stopped making this comment, as it undermined the contract of care we set up (unspoken) in the performance experiment, but I bet the vibration of “what did I lend myself to” was still felt by some participants. Foucauldian biopower is the system, and we feed the system through participation.
I do not want to let this part of the performance discussion sound as if we had set a trap for participants. The tension between seduction and agency was something we had expected to be more at the forefront of people’s experience, and it was for many. I do find it important to take you, as my reader, to this point. Let’s stay with this a bit more, before exploring other facets of what people have brought to the performance.
Foucault developed his work on biopower through the example of scientific racism and the emerging need for political entities to find ways to control societies in industrialization modes and within population explosions. Individual executions, the sovereign right to kill, were no longer an effective means of ensuring sovereignty and power balances—so larger-scale differentiations came into play, and racism became a state function.
Achille Mbembé takes up Foucauldian biopower discussions of racism and moves the discussion from Nazi death camps as ultimate expressions of this form of population control to colonial occupation. He writes that
colonial occupation itself was a matter of seizing, delimiting, and asserting control over a physical geographical area—of writing on the ground a new set of social and spatial relations. (2003, 25)
In two of our Journey to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin performances, this imbrication of population regulation and spatial regulation came most urgently to the forefront: when we enacted the score at the Australian National University in Canberra, the capital of Australia, and when we had Indian and Pakistani people in the circle talking about the arbitrary colonial division of their homeland and the effects of the border on their families. Again, without directly citing what people said in our circle, these divisions of land and people as a result of colonial rule were painfully but also fruitfully brought into the sharing circle and offered new perspectives and solidarities.
The disability experience is one of these modernist divisions and an example of biopower and necropolitics in action, articulating this regulatory dividing action with a somatic sense of oneself, including experiences of pain or fatigue and other bodily states. In this performance circle, initiated by disability culture activists, the intersectional nature of disability, colonial experience, animacies, flora/fauna/human ordering, racialization, and gender divisions might, for a moment, for a breath, become somatically experiential—in shared breath and in the moments when I listen to how a particular somatic experience echoes with particular divisional categories.38
And in the shared breath, and the reliance on each other’s bodies as cushions, as living pillows, as a moving shifting braid, people enacted and narrated connections: I saw relaxed poses, strangers holding hands with one another, heard about the cathartic aspects of being in the braid, the Holocaust imagery winding in an eco soma fashion through the dis/comfort of being so close. We spent time together, breathing, and co-creating a dream world of a future for all. Twice, we had (service) dogs in the braid, tuning into the energy and happily co-snoozing with their humans (at least for a while).
Different from some of my public participatory actions, I did not ask for snippets of free writing from audiences. This particular performance was deeply somatic, and writing felt too removed, too analytical, too organizing. But for you, reader, this likely creates some problems—and hopefully fruitful problems. My ethical withholding in not recording or citing what people said puts strong emphasis on my role as witness and also as the person controlling the discourse surrounding the performance. There are so few pieces of “documenting” detritus that can shore up my narrative or challenge my view.39
My eco soma method writing here has its own audience effects: it invites new narrative conventions as I address my own power both in cocreating the performance and in controlling its narrative. How do you, as reader of these words, reflect on issues of truth status, power, control, and narrative, on the limits of what can be co-felt?
Thinking about these connections, about elements working together in new and surprising ways, leads me to a third perspective: a Deleuzoguattarian focus on machines, on disparate elements integrating into new meaning making, and on horizons meeting and tilting. The next chapter in this book will engage more directly with this multivoicing and decentering, in an Indigenous/settler framework, and in contact with land and bodies. For my purposes here, I offer the following meditation as a way of thinking about eco soma methods of sensing within performance witnessing:
Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order. . . . (N)ot every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature: semiotic chains of every nature are connected to very diverse modes of coding (biological, political, economic, etc.) that bring into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status. (Deleuze and Guattari 2004, 7)
This is Deleuzoguattarian writing, writing from a poetic world, a “lingo.” I often find it useful to remind people that it is okay to not fully grasp the meanings of Deleuzoguattarian writing but to see what becomes activated in themselves as they read. What words grab you, what images emerge as you read about the tree, the root, the lines drawn in the paragraph above?
In this more associative mode, my material below discusses rhizomatic meaning making, semiotic/somatic chains of connection that cannot be traced to origins but that connect archives, practices, and meaning. Machines are nexuses where things grind against one another, their connections becoming haptic, tactile, audible, visible, and sensate. To me, disability is one of these machine principles, as is race and gender: categories born in modernist divisionary practices, deeply interrelated but not reducible to one another, with effects that vibrate outward and create new meanings and life patterns.
In the performance circle, I experience the scene as a machine articulating colonial practice, somatic experience, and storytelling into and against one another—and new meanings emerge. I had not thought about Pakistan and India when Neil and I designed the score, but the connections became “obvious” in the machine of the circle, as people narrated the particular eco that surrounded their soma, the histories and divisions that have marked their lives, and that they held while lying in co-humanity.
Running the Journey in an Australian theater, Neil and I did not yet know to think about Australian Aboriginal experience of division and enclosure, land rights and death, police brutality, and prison vans. Once we heard the stories, the machine knitted a new whole between disability and Indigeneity, a whole for a moment and a hole in the meaning making that tries to separate us into identities.
In another performance, Butoh archivists from Tokyo spoke about the tsunami dead floating on the waves and about how lying on one another, breathing, ghosted their somatic experience. Memorial, earth time, ocean time, and human time coalesced to become a machine. They witnessed themselves as connected, and water, fish, and organic material in the process became part of the breath wave.
“May I touch you?” repeats on multiple levels throughout this participatory performance, and through my writing here. People have their own experiences from different life realities, from different enmeshments, but they find themselves on a shared horizon, in a field of breaths, in the valleys and hills of bodies.
In the next section, please join me as Neil and I take the Journey performance into a non-White-owned space, a space dedicated to a diaspora, remembering colonial violence.
Moluks Historisch Museum: Moving with the Clove
As a last lens in this section, I offer a final memory jewel, a crip performance relic. We enacted the Journal to the Holocaust Memorial score in the Moluks Historisch Museum, the Molukken/Spice Island museum in Utrecht, the Netherlands (the museum has since shut its doors, one of many austerity victims). Donna Haraway shades and twists Deleuzoguattarian thought of machines and rhizomes into natureculture thinking. She transgresses categories in order to defamiliarize and open up new connectivities:
My purpose is to make “kin” mean something other/more than entities tied by ancestry or genealogy. The gently defamiliarizing move might seem for a while to be just a mistake, but then (with luck) appear as correct all along. Kin-making is making persons, not necessarily as individuals or as humans. (2015, 161)
In her work, she brings narratives of flora and fauna specificity into contact with human social justice thought and ecological time with human time: I can try to “make kin” through various ways of knowing and through sensing/feeling and research: suddenly, something I hadn’t thought of before as having animacy, having life, is a lively thing I can interact with.40 In the Moluks Museum, a similar move happens in the sensory universe of its space: making kin, being in contact, on a complicated horizon of colonial and crip relations, with a clove, the aromatic flower bud of a tree.41 How does reciprocity enter into this relation, though? Can this become something other than extractive? How can I exercise my imagination to see ways in which our work with the clove benefits the clove (to take up Potawatomi ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s challenge to imagine “beneficial relations” [2015, 6])? The performance could offer a form of composting to the plant remnants, an exchange of sweat and breath humidity that might assist the plant material’s journey through time. Or else, all our engagement with the smell of clove could assist in wider cultivation of the plant, assuring markets and distribution patterns. Anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes, “Making worlds is not limited to humans” (2015, 22) and my human imagination is limited—plants make their own stories and journeys. I offer the very moment where you/I/we begin to think about a nonhuman-centered benefit as an eco soma speculative act of engagement.
The museum is also a community center, a place of assembly for the Spice Island inhabitants who were removed by Dutch colonial forces in the 1950s. Kin, spread out on a rhizome of postcolonial transplantation and removal. These Spice Islanders, themselves of hybrid origin, of New Guinea, had fought Indonesian forces side by side with the Dutch colonizers in the Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger (the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army), hoping to win a free state for themselves. When the Indonesians took over the island chain, these Moluccans were threatened and painted as collaborators with the Dutch. So, in a move to “clean up” their colonial violence, the Dutch brought twelve thousand Molukkan soldiers and their families to the Netherlands. Nowadays, the center list recognizes about forty-five thousand descendants in the Molukkan diaspora.
For many of these descendants, given Indonesian politics, few links to the homeland remain. For them and others, the museum offers a narrative of how Dutch colonialism and Indonesian struggles chafed against one another, as well as a clear sensory memory relic: the smell of cloves. The Spice Islands were on the Dutch radar, as well as other colonial forces, because of their riches: their spices, a much sought-after commodity in early colonial raiding. And when one walks into the main exhibition room of the center, large vats of cloves welcome the visitors.
Guards advised us that we could each take a clove: we were welcome to take the nail-shaped spice as a memento of the Molukkan struggle and diasporic experience. With the permission of the center, as part of our Journey to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin score, we handed out the little spices as worry stones, kinesthetic objects, and memory relics to be held and warmed in one’s palm, releasing the cloves’ scent.
As participants felt their bodies breathing in the weft wave of lifting and falling chests and bellies, they clasped the cloves in their hands like little islands of warmth and scent. While they were waiting in the line to be let through the gate, and while they were lying in the braid, people could smell the cloves from time to time for the duration of the action. And they could take the plant remnant home, whatever “home” meant for them. The action’s participants came from many spaces in the world. How we received the clove against the warm surfaces of our skin, as exotic or homemaking, heimlich or unheimlich, as food or as object, as familiar spice or signpost of otherness, mapped a world for us.
As a cultural critic, I could create a rhizome of clove, charting its many connections and semiotic webs. I could write about scent, the nail-like shape, colonial travels and economies, use in environmentally acceptable reef fishing methods,42 and so on. But for my purposes here, in this eco soma flow, I am “staying with the trouble” to cite Haraway again, with the intention of calling out the edgy human/power/natureculture associations instead: I think about these plants as objet a, that is, desire objects in psychoanalytic transference of energies; as exchange objects in colonial wars, boundary objects in allocating racialized labels; transitional objects in medicine, in particular biomedicine’s other, herbal/alternative medicine; and as fetishized mementos of performance actions.
In that mélange of associations I think of lineages of plants as convivial, close to my skin, my aching bones, my pain receptors, yet also grounded in European extractive colonial journeys: both of these experiences are baked into my bones. Plants can be soothing healing entities, near personified, on the edge of speculative fantasy familiars. In many traditional and Indigenous herbal medicine practices, you speak with the spirit of the plant, honor them, and ask for relief. Cloves are painkillers in many different Western and non-Western medical contexts. Whatever was going on for people in the Journey braid, the clove had its own powers to ground and soothe. The power relations stay part of my reception. Each small clove, each dried flower bud, stuck in, blossomed again, and lodged little tentacles to dislocated homes, global travels, the realities of colonial wars, and the long duration of plants.
Painkillers and pain: to work with the clove stays with the trouble of biopolitics, with the horizon of separation and its ills, with greed and its results, and with resilience: the ability of the Spice Islanders to make a kinship home on the cool, flat waterlands of the Dutch.
Social Practice: Memory
In this last part of the chapter, after these discussions of “soma” in multiple forms, humans in their (bio)political/post/colonial diversity, and humans on the horizon of other-touch, I keep expanding the circle. I can extend my discussion of somatic interventions into moving bodies again to a wider sense of life: first by linking my autobiography as a somatic, embodied subject of a perpetrator nation to wider historical moments of German Nazi politics and then on toward plant life and the durations of nonhumans.
To me, visiting Germany means entering a fraught and complex emotional terrain. I am German, and I enrolled at the University of Cologne, the first high-school finisher in my local family net.43 It was during this time that I first became a wheelchair user—my lifelong disability expressed itself in such a way that bipedal movement became impossible. This particular personal history meant that not only the history of exclusion but also the structural positioning of different bodies were always clearly experiential to me: in order to get to the dance seminar, I had to climb to the top floor of the theater, dance, and film studies building, often on my butt, stemming myself up on my hands step by step (enact this: lay this book aside. Stem yourself up from what you are sitting on right now. Note the effort. Count your stairs).44 This university was not for bodies like mine. Eventually, at age twenty-four, I moved to the United Kingdom and then, ten years later, to the United States. Along the way, I found disability culture and civil rights legislation that made my career possible and my form of embodiment conceivable in performance studies.
Growing up as a young, energetic, disabled subject, bodies in flux were never far from my mind when I thought about disability and Germany: to me it was so clear that my parents’ generation of congenitally disabled people had been exterminated by the Nazis. That was the generation that had wrought much social change in other countries, in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere. Growing up on the Niederrhein, I could see Kriegsversehrte, war veterans, in my own home and all around me but not many older people with congenital differences. Many of these, like so many others—Jews, Roma, Sinti, gay people—had been exterminated by the Nazis, seen as lebensunwertes Leben: lives not worth living.
Eugenics still hangs like a shroud over my vision of Germany: here, contemporary social hygienic methods around disability usually seem to focus on health care and abortion, not on ramps and access. So when I travel to Germany, I still often feel excluded: few contemporary dance spaces in Berlin allow me access, university theater seminar spaces are still often inaccessible, and fellowships cannot accommodate my wheelchair needs.
Events like the Berlin Biennale are still quite inaccessible, housed in courtyards full of cobblestones, and the Biennale’s emphasis on “social practice” art does not seem to include thinking about smoothing the path on the ground. This is a choice, a choice enacted, a movement made—invite one more artist rather than buy some concrete and create a ramp. These are choices. This is only one historical way for a modern nation and a reborn city to come into being. This way of shaping space is not a given, not natural, and not necessary. In some ways, in my “structure of feeling” (to cite Raymond Williams) at home, and in the architectural structures of public life, this Germany does not seem to be too interested in disability as part of the horizon space of human biodiversity.
There are of course many disabled artists in Germany, and it is important not to make them invisible.45 But why are there still all these barriers in public life in such a rich country? Why is my experience of German open shared space still so unpleasant? This is the question I bump up against, literally, when I wheel myself over the cobblestones of German streets.
So how can I use eco soma methods to link movement actions to national imaginings (not in semantic categories but in theories specifically focused on movement and sensing) and to new futures? Hardt and Negri’s writing about the multitude allows me to link energetics, movement, and capital relations together. Their work is part of what informed the dramaturgy of political movements like Occupy Wall Street and other newer forms of finding resistances. In their discussion of postmodernist labor practices they state:
(One) face of immaterial labor is the affective labor of human contact and interaction. . . . This labor is immaterial, even if it is corporeal and affective, in the sense that its products are intangible, a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion. (2000, 292, 293)
“A feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion”: much of the language used here can easily glide into the registers of dance and theater studies. The language echoes attempts to see performance as an effective method of community cultural development or health intervention. This is the language many dance artists use when we try to speak about effects of performing in the community and how this might potentially be measured and made productive. How can one measure the affective? How can it be harnessed? What is dance and theater’s place within biopower? This is a place of research for many contemporary community dance artists, people working in an area of dancerly production. This is dance with and for everybody, every body, an area of thriving dance practice that sits in between the interstices of folk dance and concert dance and that has at least one of its origins in Germany: in Ausdruckstanz, in the sense that all bodies can be expressive and that this expression is something worth attending to.
One of the Austro-German origins of this work is dance theorist and somatic artist Rudolf von Laban’s ways of thinking through the connections between vitalism, a universal energetics, and movement. Without following the ins and outs of Laban’s work and his reception in Germany, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere,46 a personal excursion in this chapter allows me to connect to Laban issues when I think about postmodernist production, biopower, the post-Fordist/Taylorist factory,47 community cultural development, and dance with changing bodies:
After my Abitur, or high school diploma, I worked in my home town in a car factory which delivered parts for Ford. For a short seven months, I was a union worker, and my union card and pay-in book are still in my office drawer. One of my workstations, one on which I spend many months, is still deeply engrained in my bones—and the work flow I learned there in my bones and tissues was my embodied reminder of what I was taught later, when I studied for my Laban dance certificate.
I stretch out a hand to the left, and grasp the edge of a thick plastic sheet, nearly as tall as I am. I tug, and my second hand moves over to nudge the thickly undulating slightly sticky sheet along, smoothing it, making sure no wrinkles appear. Moving my whole back, I maneuver the sheet over the metal apparatus in front of me. My right hand reaches up and pulls down the top part of the metal machine. Its jaws clasp onto the smooth sheet. My right hand moves sideways, and hits a round red button, a half-sphere, that yields to my push and initiates a vacuum sequence. The metal machine in front of me hisses and vibrates, and the sheet is heated, pulled by evacuated air, pressed into the familiar half-moon shape of a Ford dashboard. The process takes about two minutes—and then the top releases, and I can push it upward. The dashboard is warm and smells of heated plastic. I grasp a sharp knife, and quickly yet carefully circle the giant sheet, freeing the newly formed instrument cradle from the flapping remnants. Tugging at the sides, the dashboard releases, and I shift my back again, my core engaged, as I haul the large plastic mass upright, and thread it onto the waiting structure to my right—a rail, onto which assemble the dashboards, each the size and shape of large sides of beef, nestling into one another, their warmth slowly fading. Having completed this task, I turn again to the left, ready to reach out my hand for the next plastic sheet.
In between this process, I have a few seconds to myself, as the plastic warps under the vacuum press. Slightly to my left, near the edge of the big machine, lies a small yellow book, a Reclam edition—a familiar sight to all Germans, the highly economic Universal-Bibliothek (“universal library”), classics either in or translated into German. One month, it was Hobbes’ Leviathan (at that point, I was still studying for my Philosophy final school exam), another month, it was Shelley’s Frankenstein (here, I was on my own, reading for pleasure), and yet another, my first encounter with Melville’s Moby Dick, finding the list-chapters particularly suited to the rhythm of my work. In the seconds the machine affords me, I read a page and a half, unfailingly. When the hissing stops, I return the book to the metal shelf, and get ready to haul—my mind engaged in the page I just read, my meditation on political theory, whaling towns, and monsters in perfect harmony with the demands of this effort.
Much later, I learn how Rudolf von Laban’s followers adapted his work to help factories create efficient movement structures, one that would allow workers to counteract the negative effects of repetitive strains. I do not know if Laban’s principles were part of the training of whoever designed that machine on which I saw my 18th birthday. But this furtive book consumption, and the rhythms of reading it engendered in me, are still part of my repertoire of literary behavior. I found both comfort and meditative dance in my engagement with the machine that enabled my studies: it provided the money to allow me to pay for my first year of university, and it offered me time to think.48
Then, I lived in the compass of the factory—one of my performance/social sculpture actions, WEFT, started from the sound of my grandfather’s wooden leg on the concrete floor of the fabric factory where he was a night watchman. Now I live in Ypsilanti, Michigan, an ex–auto factory town, with its memories of union jobs, and narratives of workers’ hope. It was also at one point the Michigan city with the largest Black demographic, and it played a significant role in the underground railroad, part of Black escape routes to Canada. How can rhythms of escape become resonant to eco soma methods of seeing one’s movement freedom in relation to constraints, unclear horizons of sociality, and the alienation and comfort of the factory?
During Laban’s time in the United Kingdom, in the Second World War, movement analysis was useful in both workers’ education and in ameliorating the Fordist industrial factory: his system, developed alongside an engineer, allowed workers to compensate muscularly, through styles of enacting a particular movement for the highly regimented movements that the machine/human interface demanded. At the same time, this introduced workers into a new disciplinary machine, one of calisthenics for keeping the body in peak condition. This is one of the more constraining histories of somatics and its alignment with neoliberal self-perfection.
This seesaw of ambivalent political engagement carries through the history of community dance. In some perspectives, the work of expressionist dance builds upon (positively connoted) local specificity, deep myth work, and the articulation of home narratives—all values that allowed it to be appropriated by (negatively connoted) fascist narratives of Blut and Boden (blood and soil).
How does this nexus of disciplining the body as a factory addendum in nation-building jibe with the expressive affective potential of community dance, the pleasure, joy, passion of moving together, of creating images and narratives in dance, and of creating embodied poetry in the here-and-now in contact with environment and community?
Hardt and Negri’s political analysis of post-post-Marxist practices of the multitude can be helpful in articulating that nebulous realm of “creative resistance” that many of us in performance studies and applied theater studies keep coming back to. They offer space specifically in thinking through creative resistance within complexity, for they allow us to also think about the disciplinarity of that creativity and the way that creativity fuels a postmodern economy.
Creating movement patterns in relation to one another is one of the formal elements of Laban’s community dance practice, which has at its core the creation of choreographic patterns of varying energies, levels, and speeds, articulated against one another to allow for tension and development. Once immersed in these ways of thinking about movement, participants quite quickly tune into the expressive potential of everyday movement. In dance movement workshops, participants can quickly create patterns of echo and opposition with many different stimuli (think back to the opening of this chapter: arms gliding in mirror and counterpoint).
Remember my action instruction earlier on, stemming oneself up steps, lifting oneself by one’s arms, embodying the movement signature of awkward stair navigation? Maybe doing this now you can access the sense of marble under your butt, the hardness of the surface, and the slickness of wet rain traces trampled in by bipedals now covering your mucky hands. You can feel the exposure of your backbody as you move up and then backward. Maybe there’s an emotional signature to the direct and sudden explosions of gravitational force downward as you push yourself up the next step or even to the more sustaining practice it eventually gives way to, yielding into the step to rise up less abruptly but more in tune with my body’s patterns as I accommodate my environment. This is a bodily reading of biopower: not biopower’s force to decide on which bodies are toward death and which toward life but biopower’s sorting function at the level of physical engagement with built environments. Some bodies are not welcome here.
These resonant physical moments are also the political horizon of this way of working in community. Together, in a performance workshop, I/you/we can find the moments when a particular bodily experience echoes memories, analysis, and social commentary. This “I/you/we” functions as a different kind of Stolpersteine (German for “stumbling stones”), a little rest/resistance in the smooth flow of writing. The encompassing “we” would be an invisible marker, but so much of this is about being aware that there are multiple perspectives on things and experiences. Together, I/you/we can create countersomatics, movements that revalue oppressive experiences. Articulating biopower means becoming aware of who is seen as human, what is seen as meaningful, and what else might enter the frame when I/you/we open up to alternative ways of seeing the world and our bodyminds.
Social Practice: Plants
To close, let’s go and visit an exhibit, eco soma style, with an attention to how it feels, embodied/enminded, un/comfortably at times, to be there. The exhibit was on the top floor of the KW, the Institute for Contemporary Art, part of the 2012 Berlin Biennale. I walked up there with my cane and sat on the steps, remembering much of the bodily habitus of my German days. Biopolitics and the shape of the artful body were much on my mind. Up on the top floor a dark space awaited me, lit by an array of bright lights over rows and rows of seedlings. This was “Berlin Birkenau” by Polish artist Łukasz Surowiec, a project that had brought 320 seedlings from the environs of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to Berlin. These young seedlings were handed out to participants who then entered into a contract of care and agreed to nourish them. Here was the site of a practice of peace, an interspecies collaboration, a politics of care, of ongoing activity and energetic exchange, and of immaterial/material labor.
When I visited shortly before the end of the Biennale, many seedlings were dead. Something about the space looked like a garden center, a greenhouse. Polish and other immigrants often provide the cheap backbreaking labor of tending rows of plants in Europe, planting and harvesting salads, carrots, flowers. The birch seedlings were only one part of a living transnational transit, historical and contemporary, around labor, factories, death, and life. Historical roots and empire narratives of migrating workers wove connections in my witnessing.
I am writing about these trees in the context of a book that points toward speculative forms—monsters, tentacular connections, clove fantasies, and moth humans. Thus, I also see my visit in Berlin’s exhibit space, and the little birch trees in another context, more akin to Marx’s use of the speculative when he writes that “capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (1887, 163). Aimee Bahng writes about the multiple meanings of “the speculative,” grounded in capitalism and (financial) risk management as much as in imagination, hope, and queer futurities. She writes, “When speculative futures run wild, excavation, historicization, and haunting become increasingly important modes of contingency to slow the storm of progress” (2018, 17). Bahng’s context are transnational networks of care and undercommons, communities of color imagining against rapacious capitalism. In this Berlin exhibit, German/Polish histories, presents and futures align along migrant axes, and haunting atrocity shadows the brown and green liveliness.
Birch trees: traditionally, in my culture, the trees of youth, of pagan rites, of fertility. But Birch is also in the name of Birkenau concentration camp (Birch = Birke). I tried to stand for a little while on wobbly legs, tried to be with the plants and to find something that would reach across the energetics of species—I have often used Deleuzeoguattarian ideas of rhizome and plant vitalism to work with community groups in botanical gardens. But in this exhibition space, the weight of history seemed too much to bear, too hard a pull on me seeking plant connection and living flow. Witnessing this in Berlin did make it easy to wonder cynically about what revolutions might look like. About the space of gestures. And if gestures are empty or full of revolutionary potential, or both. Outside the Biennale, sunshine and rain were happening at the same time, and I found myself asking whether these little baby plants wouldn’t do better outdoors than in the dark exhibition space.
In the performance actions I shared in these pages, I use eco soma methods to show how audiences become participants on the move, implicated in social patterns while somatically engaged. They are invited to feel-think-be particular styles of temporal puzzles, to become social sculptures, or to think about the fullness and emptiness of gestures.
Leaving that cobblestone courtyard in Berlin, I wondered about the future of nonhuman others under human regimes: I wondered if some of these seedlings would grow up into bonsai, little cripple trees, appreciated for their twisted beauties, old survivors living gracefully and marked by violences reaching into their roots. Would the birches mingle with other trees and plants—old live oaks in California, clove trees in the Maluku Islands? Could diversity as a value intersect with the clean aesthetic of a German exhibition hall? Maybe the failure to thrive in conditions of uniformity is also a somatic protest.
In his anthropology of thinking forests in the Amazon River region, Eduardo Kohn wonders:
The world beyond the human is not a meaningless one made meaningful by humans. Rather, mean-ings—means-ends relations, strivings, purposes, telos, intentions, functions and significance—emerge in a world of living thoughts beyond the human in ways that are not fully exhausted by our all-too-human attempts to define and control these. More precisely, the forests around Ávila [a Quichua-speaking Runa village in Ecuador] are animate. That is, these forests house other emergent loci of mean-ings, ones that do not necessarily revolve around, or originate from, humans. (2013, 72)
What are the mean-ings/mean-ends of the exhibit hall and its alternating scarcity and density of light and water to the trees? Is there a communicative web deep in the shallow soil of the exhibit hall, this recently popularized tree/mushroom web communication that has influenced much Shinrin-yoku/“forest bathing” thinking?49 What do birches make of human-blood-and-calcium-rich soil? What kinds of “we” do trees know, and what are unequal horizons of self/social world in root terms?
In this book, I try to fly with these thoughts. But my concentration breaks, and I fall back into my soma sack, utilitarian, human goal oriented, pleasure seeking, exhausted. So I make the trees into extractable material, like gold and diamonds, when I ask what kind of living benches could be made out of what kind of sustainable growing wood, to support all dancers, all breathing beings, to actively work toward a world that lets all people be people? The real question would be: what world would let all human dancers, and more-than-them, other-than-humans, live together in their intersecting trails?
There were many holes in the Berlin exhibit: absences, maybe portals, transport sites to other futures. Many plants had been taken home, and some might be thriving as I type these words. People took them: audiences. Active audiences who felt okay with the challenge to look after a living metaphor, with offering some space in their own lives, people who got engaged by the little plant’s lively otherness.
There is much hope in that.