michael j. morris


partial alignments and degrees of difference

Several different areas or dimensions of life have recently pushed me to articulate what I consider to be one of the most fundamental tenets of my ethics: I want to live in a world of difference. I do not want to live in a world in which everyone is the same as me, in which we all aspire to agree fully, in which we presume that everyone’s needs and values totally align; I want to live in a world of partial alignments, a world full of not only different perspectives but different ways of life and modes of living that create the conditions for different perspectives. I want to live in a world in which we struggle to find commonalities, and in which we strive to coexist when no single commonality can be reached.

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This week there were a number of important presidential primaries, including Ohio. In the weeks and months leading up to these primaries, I have found myself in heightened states of disagreement with people in my community, on Facebook, and in conversations which sometimes unexpectedly turn political. I have continued to consider and reconsider my position—which I won’t lay out fully here, but which continues to find the existing political system dysfunctional, a position from which I struggle to trust or believe in any political candidate, from which I have admired the idealism and passion of Bernie Sanders, and from which I have consistently found myself more aligned with the practicality of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This writing is actually not about expounding on or defending that position. Rather, as I continue to navigate this campaign, I find myself faced again and again with extreme, superficial representations of candidates who I do not know personally, but who are undoubtedly much more complex—and in some ways similar—than what is presented to me by the media, friends, and loved ones. bell hooks very usefully reminded us yesterday: “As a firm believer in the importance of free speech, I consider it vital to feminist democratic process that all women be free to choose who they want to support—whether I agree with them or not. As a challenge to dominant thinking and practice, it is crucial to not construct images of individuals that are one dimensional and binary. No one is all good or all bad. Importantly, our focus should be on critical issues, standpoints and political perspective, not on personalities.” hooks addresses several points that I consider to be vital: first, that we simply must be able to affirm one another’s choices and perspectives, even when we do not agree, and that we must not continue to construct one-dimensional and binary depictions of political personalities. Again and again, we are presented with totalizing binaries—Clinton or Sanders, democrat or republican, us or them—binaries that depend on reductive, one-dimensional representations, binaries to which we subscribe and which we then proceed to reproduce and circulate. Not only does such thinking do a disservice to the world in which we live—the complexity of which rarely if ever simply complies fully with such reductive, binary logics—it distracts from the actually more difficult but important work of critical analysis and dialogue between perspectives and positions that are different in many ways, but also in some ways partially and contingently align. As Kate Bornstein taught me in Gender Outlaw: “The choice between two of something is not a choice at all, but rather the opportunity to subscribe to the value system which holds the two presented choices as mutually exclusive alternatives.” And as Brené Brown asks provocatively in Rising Strong: “…when faced with either-or dilemmas, the first question we should ask is, Who benefits by forcing people to choose?” Both Bornstein and Brown remind me that binary thinking is a tactic of power, of regulation, and both suggest that there must be other ways of examining situations that are forced into such binaries.

Form Flow Alignments

Still from annotated video illustrating allignments, the way in which Forsythe designs relationships in space and time Credit: Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company

One approach that has been life-changing for me is to look for partial alignments within degrees of difference. This is an approach that emerged from a choreographic research project called Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced, which investigates systems of organization in choreographer William Forysthe’s dance One Flat Thing, reproduced. [You can read all about the project on the website for Synchronous Objects.] In this project, the research team—directed by William Forsythe, Norah Zuniga Shaw, and Maria Palazzi—studied the ways in which this dance “examines and reconfigures classical choreographic principles of counterpoint,” which they define as “a field of action in which the intermittent and irregular coincidence of attributes between organizational elements produces an ordered interplay” (see the Introduction essay “The Dance” in the SynchObj site). In other words, counterpoint emerges from an ongoing activities across which emerge moments of shared qualities or similarities, moments that appear briefly, intermittently, and irregularly. They describe these moments as alignments: “Alignments are short instances of synchronization between dancers in which their actions share some, but not necessarily all, attributes.” These shared attributes might refer to multiple actions executed with the same timing, or multiple dancers doing different things but all moving in the same direction, or different dancers that pass through similar shapes with their bodies, even if they are performing different actions, for example. Alignments often emerge in situations in which the “top structure”—or what we notice most prominently—is difference: dancers doing different actions in different ways coming from and going towards different places, etc. Within these heightened states of difference, at the deeper level of organization, partial and fleeting alignments occur, qualities or attributes are shared, briefly, incompletely, and even circumstantially. This dance and the Synchronous Objects researchers prioritize the importance of these moments, these partial alignments, as developing a mode of organization that relies not on unison or uniformity, but actually depends on difference, on the lack of total unison or uniformity.

This occurs in the dance itself, but Zuniga Shaw suggests that it might offer ways of thinking about other parts of our lives as well: “I think this is significant not only as a concrete phenomenon in dance, but also as a larger metaphor that’s applicable to how we look at and analyze ecosystems, to how we maybe notice the play of light on the water, or the interaction of branches in the canopies of the trees above us, and to how we interact with the complex realities of our daily lives. So what if in those situations when there is conflict in your lives, in those situations where we’re encountering maybe just a lot of difference, in our classrooms, in the downtown streets, in our workplaces: what if we approached those situations contrapuntally? And we didn’t try to squeeze these things into marching bands of unity, but instead we get pretty excited about that disagreement and difference, and heighten our attention to the deep structures, the deep sets of relationships, degrees of alignment, quirky little agreements, that are percolating under the surfaces of our lives all the time.” What if when we encounter difference—different values, different perspectives, different actions and activisms—what if even when we encounter conflict, we allow ourselves to become curious? Rather than first attempting to convince one another of our own perspectives, rather than trying to make you more like me, what if we started to ask questions: can you tell me more about what you think? What are the values and priorities that brought you to this perspective? What is it you desire? What is it you need? What are you afraid of? What might we be able to do together?

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Another event in my life that has prompted this line of thinking is Caitlyn Jenner’s reality docu-series, I Am Cait, which is now in its second season. I have a lot of opinions about Jenner’s presentation in the media, the way in which our culture has elevated someone of her racial and economic privilege—white, wealthy—to the status of “icon” so rapidly, the significance of her very public transition given her history as an Olympic athlete and hero for American masculinity, and the particular priorities of her show, none of which I’ll go into here. I think I Am Cait has done some things really effectively; I also think it has handled some people and their stories reprehensibly. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing Angelica Ross—founder of TransTech Social Enterprises and actress on the hit new show Her Storyspeak at Denison University; she discussed the ways in which her appearance in the first season of the show had been cut down considerably, eliminating the successes and activism of her life, and reducing her to a familiar sound-byte regarding the struggles that many trans women face. I am sure that this is not the only instance of the stories of trans women—particularly trans women of color—being edited and simplified to fit the particular agenda of the show and Jenner’s image. That being said, the show is also introducing issues that I find important: one of the big themes that is emerging this season is difference. The premise of the season is a road trip on which Jenner is joined by a group of other trans people—mostly trans women—and several people who are not trans. On the bus and on the road, conflicts have already arisen—no doubt providing the kind of drama that make a reality tv show successful. Arguments have developed around politics—Jenner is an adamant conservative republican, everyone else on the trip seem to be democrats—and around different experiences with language. Jenny Boylan and Kate Bornstein have already had multiple conversations about the controversial term “tranny,” which Boylan and others find offensive and hurtful, and with which Bornstein identifies, as her “name,” her community, her family. The group has had conversations about what it means to be a woman, in which perspectives differ and in some ways partially align. Throughout the television drama of what is unfolding, what I appreciate is that the show is offering a representation of difference, conflict, and partial alignments. While it continues to show a somewhat narrow and extremely limited segment of trans communities, it is showing that not all trans people are the same, nor should they be. I appreciate that the show is not only giving visibility to [a few] trans people, but that within this community, there are a wide range of identities, perspectives, values, and feelings. We are not all the same, and if we were, that would be cause for concern. As Jenny Boylan tweeted yesterday, “‘Unity’ for the Trans movement, I think, means accepting broad range of identities. Not making us all agree on one.” And why not? As a culture, we have long been comfortable with a range of perspectives, values, positions, identities, and personalities with our cisgender celebrities; besides embracing a range of identities in trans communities, I would hope that we could also accept that kind of range for trans celebrities as well, even when we don’t agree with their perspectives and choices.

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Candis Cayne, Hillary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, [I think second from the right is Mimi Marks], and Zackary Drucker

Zackary Drucker, who also appears on the show, wrote earlier this week, “Friends can disagree. And in this historic primary season—fraught with anger, fear, and resentment—friends WILL disagree, LOUDLY … So let’s all take a deep breath. Let’s not feed into the fierce rhetoric that is destructive to the greater cause. Let’s have these conversations with respect. Let’s appreciate what we’ve achieved and retain the righteous willpower to achieve more.” Boylan and Drucker, in their writing and on the show, continue to hold space for conversation, for listening, for finding connections across disagreements. They have openly criticized Jenner for her unwillingness to listen and discuss other perspectives—an unwillingness that seems to be shifting as the season progresses—and they continue to engage one another at the places they align across their pronounced differences. Particularly moving for me was the way that the show handled the conflict between Boylan and Bornstein in the second episode of season two: at a dinner with the whole group, Bornstein describes how she and Boylan share values for the livability of trans people (which she jokingly describes as “trans supremacy”), but that their personal strategies and ideologies conflict. After having a long talk, the two came to the point where they could say: “Some of your stuff is hard to hear, and I know some of what I say is hard to hear, and I’m trying to throttle it back in your presence. But I know you listen to me, and I promise I’ll listen to you.” Boylan describes their friendship as disagreeing on so much but loving each other so much, and in that, I hear counterpoint; I hear partial alignments—here, love—within heightened states of difference, and the presentation of that as a mode of relationship and coexistence is something for which I am very grateful.

[This post has already gotten quite long, but I also want to acknowledge that I see this kind of relationship modeled expertly and beautifully by bell hooks and Laverne Cox in their public dialogue at The New School, which you can view online. On many points, Cox and hooks disagree, and then keep talking. They stay in the conversation. They maintain and investigate the places they align and agree, however small or temporary, within the context of other ways in which they disagree irresolvably.]

I want to be very clear: I am not advocating for difference and an appreciation of partial alignments merely out of some kind of liberal/PC fetishization of “diversity.” I am committed to these perspectives because of the very material reality that none of us live in a world of our own on our own; we live in a world with others, and we are making a world together in which we will all continue to live. That world cannot be formed from a single perspective, from any single set of values that manages to overwhelm, overturn, or eradicate all others. The world that we share must constantly be grown out of not only our differences in perspective, but also our different values, our different priorities, our different needs. It has to emerge not only from the irresolvable differences and partial alignments between people who consider themselves democrats and people who consider themselves republicans, but also between people who have different racial histories, who have different gender identities, who have different modes of ability, who have lived for different periods of time; and also between different species with whom we share this planet, different modes of life at a multitude of scales, living creatures who are so different from me that sometimes it seems the only way that they might survive is if we do not. I believe the question we must ask again and again is: how might we live together without eliminating our differences? Where and how do we align partially while maintaining our vast differences? The alternative is totalitarianism. The alternative is fascism. The alternative is the cisnormative heteronormative imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—to borrow a term from bell hooks.

I want to live in a world in which we can hold different—even contradictory—perspectives without abandoning the pursuit of collective world making and coexistence, without resorting to violence. To be clear, I consider an insistence on sameness, an insistence on unity that eliminates difference, to be the ideological starting point for countless forms of violence; any desires for conformity, for sameness, for unity that does not allow for difference should be extremely suspect. As we continue in the year of this presidential election, I hope that we might shift the conversation towards curiosity, towards listening, towards examining partial alignments rather than trying to convince the other to fall in line with one’s own views. To be sure, I have no illusions that the current political system that we practice in the United States is not broken; however, within the broken system, I want to believe that intelligent, critically thinking people can and will come to different conclusions as to what might be the most effective direction for our nation. When the people I love unabashedly support a candidate that is not the person I have chosen to support, I want to believe that we can survive those differences of perspective. I want to believe that we can not only peacefully accept that our loved ones, colleagues, and community can intelligently reach different perspectives/conclusions, but also recognize those differences as opportunities to get really curious about one another, learn about these other people with whom we are sharing and making our world, and hope to understand something about the values, feelings, priorities and thought processes that shape their perspectives and desires. Within trans communities, within larger communities in which trans people live, I want to believe that we can hold space for our differences, and in doing so, also attend to the small, partial, potentially temporary ways in which we align, in which we can experience something shared, with which we can pursue a world that emerges from no single view or ideology, but from the rambling complexities and contradictions between the countless modes of living together on this planet.

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John Jasperse’s Canyon: at the precipice of chaos

Photo by Tony Orrico

My experience of John Jasperse‘s Canyon, performed at the Wexner Center for the Arts on 28 April 2012, is a play of territories at the precipice of chaos, a shifting superimposition of structures and organizations—of bodies, of time, of space—that enact opportunities for disruption, deterritorialization, and disorganization, and a gesturing towards a fullness of that provides the very grounds from which organizations like “bodies,” “time,” and “space” emerge. My vocabulary here is particular, and it is worth clarifying at the front end. In watching Canyon, I am immediately struck by the multiple dimensions that are at play within the work, not simply “space,” “time,” “bodies,” etc.—fundamental elements of dance/choreography—but the particular structures through which these elements take on definition. I think of these structures as territories, following Deleuze and Guattari. Elizabeth Grosz, discussing Deleuze, writes, “… the constitution of territory is the fabrication of the space in which sensations may emerge, from which a rhythm, a tone, coloring, weight, texture may be extracted and moved elsewhere, may function for its own sake, may resonate for the sake of intensity alone. And, equally, insofar as its primordial impulse is the creation of territory in both the natural and human worlds, art is also capable of that destruction and deformation that destroys territories and enables them to revert to the chaos from which they were temporarily wrenched. Framing and deframing become art’s modes of territorialization and deterritorialization through sensation; framing becomes the means by which the plane of composition composes, deframing its modes of upheaval and transformation” (Grosz 12-13). Sitting in the audience in the Wexner Performance Space, I am met with a collection of such framings, mappings, and organizations: a white Marley floor set askew (not parallel to the walls); a line of bright orange flags—themselves reminiscent of staking claim to land as a new “territory”—dividing the floor into two halves; structuring of the space accomplished through lighting (lighting design by James Clotfelter), inscribing blurry delineations of brightness and shadow; and perhaps most overtly of all, sprawling linear compositions in fluorescent tape traversing the walls and floor (visual design by Tony Orrico). Each of these materials suggests a mode in which the space has been organized or territorialized, a system through which structures have framed (and in doing so, produced) “space.” These various territories do not describe the same space; rather, they function as divergent structures superimposed on one another offering multiple accounts of space, each organization a route for disorganization when considered through a different logic. The lights do not territorialize spaces that reside within the bounds of the lines of tape; the lines of tape do not align with the rectangular Marley floor nor the rectangular architecture of the space; the line of flags cuts through these various other territories; and so on. In this sense, the superimposition of territories effects a series of deterritorializations, each structure producing a rupture in the others, each exceeding the logic of the others. This dense layering of territories/organizations/structures produces the opportunities for their own undoing. Grosz goes on to write, “… art is not only the movement of territorialization … it is also the converse movement, that of deterritorialization, of cutting through territories, breaking up systems of enclosure and performance, traversing territory in order to retouch chaos, enabling something mad, asystematic, something of the chaotic outside to reassert and restore itself in and through the body, through works and events that impact the body” (Grosz 18). At these sites of rupture, where these various territories cut through one another, I am brought close to something, what Grosz calls “chaos”: it is that full potential that provides the very conditions for extracting experiences and concepts such as “space.” It is at the collision between these territories where I glimpse their undoing, where I brush up against chaos and “the beyond.”

And the performance has not even started yet.

As the sound score begins, dancers come running through the audience into the space. The dancing feels familiar. It is exquisitely precise; it springs lightly and circles and swings, almost entirely vertical, and always with a particularity that feels both powerful and measured. At first I think that the familiarity of these vocabularies feels generic, then something happens: I notice the spatial pathways of these dancers, juxtaposed over and against the lines drawn on the floor and walls. They move with precision, yet it is precisely not the paths traced out along these lines. Between the “territory” of these highly organized bodies—organized both in the clarity of the choreography, but also in the evident regulation of their training—and the tape, the lights, the demarcation of the Marley floor space, the architecture, I falter. These frameworks or systems of organization (or, again, territories) each provide a way to see and structure the space, and they do not align. They do not operate through the same logic, and thus they continually cleave through one another. Bodies fall into temporary lines with one another, but they are lines that intersect and extend through other lines (light, tape, Marley, cement, flags) in the space.  In this sense, what seems familiar or even generic takes on new, unexpected properties. The movement—however familiar it might feel—enacts an unfamiliar operation in the disruption/deterritorialization of other versions of the space, and in doing so, makes the movement itself no longer what it might have seemed to be.

Space is not the only element that is produced through these various forms of organization: these bodies, as bodies do, are moving in/through time. Their movements repeat, and the rhythms of their repetitions segment time, as does the music, and the time produced through the movement of bodies and the repetition of those movements is not always the same as the time that is produced through the complex rhythmic structures of the sound score (composed by Hahn Rowe). These temporal territories deterritorialize one another (or, at the very least, suggest routes—”lines of flight”—along which deterritorialization might be accomplished), and in doing so, I brush up once again with that from which time becomes.

Somewhere between time and space, I encounter the alignments of bodies: dancers coming into synch with one another, sometimes in brief or extended unison, sometime in shared timing of different gestures, sometimes in shared or similar vocabulary that is not in synch with one another. [William Forsythe and Norah Zuniga Shaw define “alignments” usefully in their introduction to the Synchronous Objects project: “Alignments are short instances of synchronization between dancers in which their actions share some, but not necessarily all, attributes. Manifested as analogous shapes, related timings, or corresponding directional flows, alignments occur in every moment of the dance and are constantly shifting throughout the group.”] In these moments of alignment between bodies, fleeting territories emerge, briefly establishing logics capable of holding these dancing bodies together, traversing other configurations of time and space, while also interrupting the clear/stable individuation of bodies on stage.

At a pivotal moment in the piece, the performers distribute themselves across the stage, pulling up the fluorescent orange tape that has traversed the white Marley throughout the performance. This is the first time that these bodies have moved along these lines, taking on the organization of these marks, but they do so only within the very moment that they become unmarked. This is breathtaking, the mundane task of pulling up tape demonstrating something of becoming unmarked/disorganized/smooth in the very moment of reiterating/retracing the given marks. I think of Judith Butler’s suggestion that the opportunity for the subversion of performative regimes is in the repetition of those very performatives. The repetition is the site of agency, the point at which the doing can become undone. The strips of tape peel and snap off the floor, into the air, and are rolled into great balls. So much happens in these moments: following these lines, the lines become undone; the two-dimensional moves suddenly through the air, three-dimensionally, and coheres as haphazard clumps. The linear formations are made to break with their own logic, rapidly transitioning into new states, themselves becoming the tools for their own deterritorialization. Something similar happens with the standing flags throughout the piece: at various points, dancers reconfigure these flags, and in doing so, simultaneously produce new [organizations of] spaces while undoing the spaces that had been described by the flags only moments earlier.

These are the mechanisms of the piece, these various structures intersecting and undoing one another and themselves. But throughout it all, there is the suggestion of something more, something beyond, what Grosz calls “chaos”: “Chaos is not the absence of order but rather the fullness or plethora that, depending on its uneven speed, force, and intensity, is the condition both for any model or activity and for the undoing and transformation of such models or activities. This concept of chaos is also known or invoked through the concepts of: the outside, the real, the virtual, the world, materiality, nature, totality, the cosmos, each of which is a narrowing and specification of chaos from a particular point of view. Chaos cannot be identified with any one of these terms, but is the very condition under which such terms are capable of being confused, the point of their overlap and intensification” (Grosz 26-27). In Canyon, this chaos is most articulate to me in that which is beyond, that which is out of bounds, out of reach, out of sight, off balance, just beyond what is accounted for within the available logics of time and space and bodies, just beyond what is demarcated by the choreography, the lights, the floor, the visual designs, etc. The beyond/chaos operates constantly at the edges of the territories, and I catch glimpses of it in their mutual disruption, but it is perhaps physicalized most overtly in the ridge on the floor at the edge of the performance space: the Marley floor takes on a kind of topographical elevation, inclining upward into a short roll near the far “upstage” edge (see photos). Throughout the performance, dancers and objects move over this ridge to disappear behind it. Quite literally, we were shown where visibility ends and unseeable/unforeseeable possibilities exceed both the visible as well as the floor space. Similarly, dancers frequently enter and exit the space through the audience seating, simultaneously extending the “performance space” and—depending on where one was sitting—crossing out of sight. In these moments, I became keenly aware of what was beyond this organization—“the performance”—and the liminal space at the margins of what is included within the time/space of the performance. This was for me the ongoing brush with chaos between and beyond the intense proliferation of organization(s) within the work.

Photo by Tony Orrico

Finally, this sense of “the beyond” is articulated throughout the dancing bodies of the work. Time and again, dancers (Lindsay Clark, Kennis Hawkins, John Jasperse, Burr Johnson, and John Sorenson Jolink) perform at the edges of their balance (there is a lot of stumbling in this piece), at the edges of unison, at the edges of alignment, at the edges of clear geometric spatial formations, at the edges of stability; frequently, they fall or spill or are thrown or slide into this “beyond,” into excess, off balance, no longer fully in control, not quite in unison, no longer in a straight line. I love the moments of the dance in which the dancers seem to to drift and wander, with drifting foci and limp bodies, somewhere between intoxication and a dream stake, a kind of a wandering about wonder that does not clearly define its trajectory, that does not rigidly contain these bodies. The limits of clear organizations/structures/territories—again, of balance, of unison, of alignment, of spatial formations, of stability, etc.—are explicated through these excesses. This is what lingers with me as the night wears on: the sense of what exists just beyond how this moment is structured, the specter of chaos as the rich, full ground from which territories—those various ways in which my body, this space, this time, my sense of self, my geographical situation, etc. etc. etc.—take on precarious constitution. This is not to disparage organization or structure or territory; these are the strategies through which we navigate our experience and our worlds; these are the strategies with which dances—all art, in fact—are made. Rather, there is a quiet hopefulness in the lingering effect of Canyon, an awareness of the conditionality, contingency, and precarity of such structures, a persistent sense of what exceeds these frames, of hovering at the edge of what else (and how else) might be possible, between and beyond.

Cited: Grosz, Elizabeth. Chaos, Territory, Art: deleuze and the framing of the earth. New York: Columbia U P, 2008.



list of thoughts

This morning my mind was spinning with ideas and questions. I needed to get them down somewhere. I put them here:

What are forms of analysis in dance studies that might function as methodologies for ecological analysis?

Synchronous Objects as an instance of analyzing the internal functionality (choreography?) of a dance(ed) system by way of aggregate data derived from interviews with dancers and choreographer, correlating the accounts to produce a description of the dance’s dependence on the dancers’ interdependence by way of the cueing system.

How else might choreographies demonstrate interdependence (an ecological structure)? And is this a description of the functional interdependence (how it actually works on the inside) only, or does it also include the perceived interdependence, the perceived gestalt of the work (something like the visual composition and the interdependence of formal elements to constitute the overall “effect” or “specular”(?) experience of the piece? In SO, I would classify the analysis of the cueing system as the former (the internal functionality) and the analysis of counterpoint and alignments (particularly those annotated in the project videos) as the latter (compositional devices/effects).
Partnering
. . . the entire spectrum of compositional devices/elements/effects could be analyzed for their interdependent potentials . . . how elements are put together and the effects of those compositions . . .
Props (object theatre)
Symbiotic relationship with the audience
Something about the relationship between the work and external cultural objects (I’m thinking about work that appropriates or cites or quotes other existing work—music, choreography, text, etc.)

Still the ongoing question, how might ecological analysis function as a methodology for choreographic analysis? Further, how might this “ecological analysis” be inflected by ecofeminist and queer ecofeminist critiques, producing a queer eco(feminist)logical analysis of choreographies?

Ecofeminism: correlating mutually reinforcing systems of oppression between feminism and ecological struggles

Queer ecofeminism (which may in fact be the starting point for what I have eventually considered ecosexuality/sexecology): extends the correlation to other master narratives and apparatuses by which “Others” (nature, female, queers, the erotic, etc.) are alienated in order to constitute the normative (the natural, male, heterosexual, logical, etc.); where this seeps into ecosexuality is the point at which all bodies become permeable and inter-penetrable

Can there be a Sexecological analysis of choreography (I believe sexecology, as I have theorized it, is necessarily queer)?

Questions about how different choreographers/dance practices (practitioners)/performance artists have constructed “nature” and their relationship to it. Right now Laban and his “nature cults,” his assertion of the correlation between natural forms and human movement as one potential object for analysis; Butoh suggests itself immediately as another. Karl Cronin, Love Art Lab, etc.



Sololos

Another exhilarating dance performance I had the opportunity to experience this week was a performance of Trisha Brown’s Sololos, staged and directed by Abigail Yager, performed in Thompson Library on the campus of the Ohio State University.

There is a video of the performance floating around facebook, but I can’t seem to find it this morning. I did find a video detailing the history and renovation of Thompson Library, which will at least give a sense of the architecture to which I will refer.

To start, I have seen this piece three or four times, all in different settings, and I have to say that I could not conceive of a more apt space in which this piece might be performed. I am a big fan of the architecture of Thompson Library, and its structures provided a wealth of lines, spaces and formal alignments for this dance that has itself a kind of internal architecture (I think there’s a sense in which all dance has a kind of architecture, and there has been a burgeoning mass of research exploring the relationships between dance and architecture; the work with which I am the most familiar has come out of/around the Synchronous Objects project. You can read about some of this research here. I also have a brilliant colleague of mine, Mara Penrose, is currently collaborating with architecture student Renee Ripley on an upcoming project entitled Inscription, another great opportunity to examine the interplay between dance and architecture). Sololos, like much of Trisha Brown’s work, has a very precise geometry to both the movement material and the spatial organization of the dancers. There is a linearity to the movement, and a constant sense the every point on every surface of each dancers’ body both corresponds and is aware of its correspondence to spatial coordinates. In the performance of the dance, its internal geometry enters a dialogue with the geometry of the space; the coordinates of the dance become mapped onto the infinite potential axes provided by the architecture and the viewers. There is also an architecture to the timing of the dance; it goes beyond the precision of the individual actions of individual dancers and moves into the realm of interactive precision: I experience it almost as a temporal geometry, and as dancers move through various phrases of movement, in and out of unison, there is a constant sense of correlation across time. Additionally, related to both the spatial/formal and the temporal architecture of the dance, there is also an architecture to the attention required by this piece.

Before I range too far into my own experience during Friday’s showing, I would like to share the description of the piece offered in the program of the event as a nice summation of the nature of the choreography:

Sololos is one of the purest expressions of Trisha Brown’s love affair with choreographis structure. Created in 1976, it is a study of causality–cause and effect, as well as logical processes, properties, variables and facts in which dancers respond to instructions called to them from a dancer offstage. The piece begins in simple unison, quickly unravels into visual complexity, then re-ravels itself back to its beginning prompted by instructions given by the caller. Governed by strict adherence to a set of rules and requirements, it exists in endless permutation as a function of these improvised calls. The vocabulary is entirely fixed, yet the form is composed in the moment.

“The piece is constructed of three movement palindromes. These phrases of movement material can be danced in forward or retrograde, and can be called to change direction at any time. The foundational phrase, referred to as Main, functions as a central artery delivering dancers to choreographic ‘doorways’ through which they pass to splinter off to auxiliary palindromes referred to as Branch and Spill. Whereas there is only one Main and one Branch, there are four unique Spills created by each of the dancers in response to a written set of instructions.”

These sets of rules and requirements are one aspect of what I am thinking of as the architecture of the dance. While the materials are meticulously set, the ways in which they work themselves out, driven primarily by the directions of the outside “Caller” (on Friday, Meredith Hurst and Mara Penrose functioned as the Callers for the dance), is improvised within those rules. Like the physical architecture of a building maintains a certain concrete fixity, a container for infinite possibilities of human movement through the structure, the movement itself is essentially improvised within these structures. Perhaps a bit more phenomenologically, I think there is something also to be said about the “fixity” or “mobility” of the architectural structures within the field of human perception. The way in which we experience a space is entirely informed by the conditions of that experience (others in the space, time of day, personal conditions, memory, etc.), and it is in this perceptual fluctuation between fixity and mobility that I felt Sololos primarily in dialogue with Thompson Library.

I had the distinct experience of the enactment of the dance re-enacting the space. A primary device of this enactment was geometrical alignment. Lines of bodies in space falling into parallelisms or perpendicularities with the formal elements of the library brought those elements into my perception in a new, previously unrecognized, way. Thompson Library is full of grids, some of which are more or less parallel (the shadows cast from the skylight, offering a grid to the floor on which they danced; the central column of the stacks, housed in grids of glass and steel which provided the backdrop for the dance; etc.), others not so rigid (the lines embedded in the floor are sometimes curving, sometimes diagonal, offering lines off of the strict grid with which bodies might find alignment). In this sense, the revelation and transformation of the dance become a frame or device for the revelation and transformation of the library’s architecture in the field of my perception. While this could be said of any dance in any space, it was between the specific linearity of Sololos and the rich complexity of geometrical forms within Thompson Library that I felt a deep affinity, and it was through this affinity that I experienced the mobility of the space itself.

Other factors contributed to this experience: I was aware of how my perception of the space transformed through the expansion and collapsing of space between the dancers’ bodies. The shifting distance between myself and each dancer functioned as a constant re-negotiation of the distance between myself and the structure surrounding us all, the space beyond the bodies.

Perhaps the most overwhelming of my sensorial experiences with this dance had to do with the formulation of spatial coordinates for the bodies in space. Coordinates are defined by a point of intersecting axes. Throughout the performance of the piece, I was constantly aware of the seemingly infinite possible axes in the space. It went beyond recognizing the situation of bodies between one thing and another; I became aware of the trajectories of lines into space, lines extending as planes, the potential to consider the viewers’ gazes/attention as axes for the situation of the bodies (in constant motion). Because of the unique architecture of the atrium of the library, spectators were fully in the round (all four sides of the dance) on four separate levels. My situation was on the first floor, level with the dancers, but I was constantly aware of the viewers two, three, and four stories above the dance, and the potential to consider those gazes as the definitive axes for the coordinates of bodies. The most explosive moments for me came when bodies fell into formal alignments with one another (whether or not they were dancing the same phrase of movement): inevitably the body of a dancer would shift dramatically in my field of perception, now re-situated due to the alignment with another body onto the axes (that I had constructed perceptually) for that other body. Similar shifts occurred when bodies fell into alignments with the library’s architecture; the recognition of the alignment trumped whatever other spatial situation I had previously constructed for that body, and thus in those moments of simple reciprocity between bodies and structure my perception of the situation of those bodies (and thus the bodies themselves) became radically reconfigured.

Through this process of viewing, I became increasingly aware of the constructed nature of these “axes,” “coordinates,” and “situations.” My knowledge of the “object” was entirely informed by my perception of its situation, and the qualities of that situation were arbitrarily constructed. On a more existential level, this offered some space for reflecting on the arbitrary and constructed understanding of “the nature of things.” If we (primarily) understand a thing because of its relationship to other things, it becomes important to recognize that the “other things” that we collect in order for the object to be consider is both limited and arbitrary. This is perhaps the value of intertextuality, recognizing that the meaning of a thing emerges primarily from its situation amongst others, and that by reformulating the situation of a given topic or object, we reformulate the qualities of what we know/experience it to be.

The alignments of bodies with one another also affected the way in which I became aware of other bodies in space and their alignments: patrons of the library walking in unison with one another, parallel spatial pathways, oppositional spatial pathways, etc. Making my way to the arching theme of my experience, the viewing of the dance in this space began to inform me experience of the surrounding activity. Along these lines, the dance and the library’s architecture mutually redefined one another for the duration of the piece (and perhaps even after the piece, if we want to range into a discussion of something like spatial memory). A significant concern for architecture/the architect is how the structure facilitates, enables, and limits the movement of bodies in space (this might also correlate to a central concern of the choreographer). The presence of this dance occurring in the main atrium and entrance area of the first floor dramatically reformed the way in which the architecture functioned by contributing additionally limiting structures (dancing bodies) to the space. Library patrons were no longer corralled by the structure of the building, but also the disruption of the structure by the presence of a dance. The flow of human motion in the building was diverted, and in this sense, the architecture augmented. Coextensively, the function of the space contributed to the dance itself. Most overtly, one woman, engrossed in text messaging, literally wandered into the dance performance space. She appeared horrified when she recognized her intrusion, but in those moments she contributed an additional body that had to be negotiated in the dance. Besides the over intrusion, it was simple enough to consider all the moving bodies in the space as complicit in the dance. Unlike the proscenium situation in which the only obvious moving bodies are those on stage, this dance was surrounded by moving bodies, and they then entered the field of awareness in which the dance could be considered.

With all of these elements contributing to the perception of both the dance and the space, it seems simple enough to assert that the Callers for the piece functioned as both choreographers and architects for Sololos and Thompson Library for the duration of the piece. The ways in which they solved the functions of the dance shaped not only the choreography but the space as well.

And this is perhaps a good moment to offer a summation of the reward this expeirence provided: The experience of the dance in the space, by way of directing fresh and reciprocal attention into the space, made the architecture of the library (a space I inhabit persistently) more alive, more dynamic, and in effect more meaningful. This then might be said to be a rare opportunity that dance in non-traditional spaces (or, more specifically, familiar spaces in which dance does not usually occur): it provides a perceptual opportunity in which the space might become reinvented, revitalized, and reinvested with meaningfulness.

I could write so much more about the meaningfulness of this experience: how shifting my position/perspective from one side of the dance to another between the first and second run of the piece dramatically reformed my experience; how understanding the functions of the choreography and my intimacy with the dancers/callers made an emotional landscape, going with them on a journey of problem solving, moving near-far-and near to the solution (getting all the dancers back to unison Main in reverse, I think); the moment at which one dancer, Quentin Burley, literally ended up partially in my lap because of where I was sitting and where the improvisation of the dance took him, thrusting me not only into the space of the dance, but also a heightened interpersonal awareness of the piece beyond the perceptual/formal concerns that dominated my experience; the potential metaphors for social/cultural mediation embedded in the function of the dance (if we were to allow the end unison to represent a cultural value for harmony, and consider elements like unison, deviation, minor and vast disjunctions between dancers, the range of flexibility that allows for synch-ups, etc. as informative to cultural configuration); but already being over 2000 words, I think I might have to conclude, with the acknowledgement that this dance by Trisha Brown, the superb work of Abigail Yager in its staging, the performance of the dancers and the architecture of Thompson Library, all the connections in between, offered a profound experience for my week, one about which I could write much, much more.

The piece is being done once more this quarter at the OSU Student Union, 4 June at 1:30. It will be different in the Union (a building I find to be vulgar on multiple levels), but I encourage you to see the piece if possible, and perhaps carry a mindfulness of its transformative potential in your viewing.



Too Many Ideas, Too Little Time

I realize that there is paradox in the very fact that I am taking time to blog about not having enough time to serve all of the ideas spinning around in my life. But I am hoping that by giving them each a little attention, enough attention to put them down in words here, I will be making some space in which to function.

Perhaps the most significant and looming is the paper I am trying to author concerning the Love Art Laboratory, Sexecology, and Ecosexuality. I have compiled a bibliography of potential resources for the paper emerging from fields such as Eco-Feminism and Eco-Feminist Philosophy, Queer Ecology, Embodied Cognition, philosophies of Continuum Consciousness, Tantric Philosophy, and Sex-Positivism. It is my growing project/interest to construct a theoretical foundation for considering the expansion of the boundaries of what we conceive of as the body. I am not attempting to erase or denigrate the body; instead, I am interested in constructing a notion of the implication of the body within the perceived universe/environment. I think this may be a potential implication in the notion of Sexecology/Ecosexuality. From this theoretical foundation, I am interested in exploring the sexualization or eroticism of environment, through the implication of the body in the perceived universe/environment, and the potentially positive effects of implicating sexuality in the environment. Big, nebulous ideas. Need refinement. Not sure when there will be time.

Along with these ideas of expanding the boundaries of the body, I have recently been conceiving of the unity of the body and space. The foundation is the same, that our experience of space is essentially perceptual, perception is an essentially corporeal activity, and while that which is perceived may in fact occur separate from perception, within our experience of it, what it is and how we perceive it are inseparable. Thus, the implication of the corporeality of space. The space that we perceive occurs primarily within the bodily experience of it. An adjacent consideration is the continuum of experience of body/space. We never experience our selves/bodies in a void, but always in space. Similarly, we never experience space removed from our bodily context. The two are never known separate from one another. I am interested in how we might conceive of the body and space as unified. What might it mean to consider a dancing body-space rather than a dancing body in space. Ironically, I think these concerns may be addressed in the work of Rudolf von Laban. Specifically in Labanotation, movement and position is analyzed and described as the continual relationship between body and space. Rarely do you read or write the body without reading or writing where it is spatially. I have always considered it as writing the relationship between body and space, but what if it were to be considered as writing the body-space? How might that change the way we consider movement, bodies, ourselves, our environment, our actions, etc.? I think there are connections here worth exploring.

In the vein of Labanotation and relating to the course I am taking in the History and Theory of Postmodern/Contemporary Dance, I have a renewed interest in reading Yvonne Rainer’s “Trio A” from Labanotation score. I read about half of it last spring in my Intermediate Labanotation Course, and I am really interested in reading/embodying the dance in its entirety. I’m not sure when I will have the time to do such a reading/practice, but I have the interest. It may also be a project that could provide a vehicle for exploring these other ideas, the expanding “centrality” of the body (is that appropriate or ambiguous language?), the unity of body and space, etc. It is a desire. I’m not sure if it is one that can be served right now. But I am passionate about dance history and theory integrating dancing as a methodology and even modality of learning. I think notation provides an ideal implement by which to facilitate that integration. To re-learn/learn “Trio A” while studying Judson and the era of Postmodern dance seems like a dream.

There is also the lingering desire to choreograph a solo based on the “Alignment Annotations” object from Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced. I am interested in writing a Motif Description score of the graphic “object” (which annotates choreographic structures of movement alignments across a seventeen person cast), and from that score, generate movement material for a solo performer. There are all kind of levels and implications to that project. I’m not sure when it will be served. Maybe next quarter in “Current Issues” (which is looking at rigorous emergent creative research).

I am also interested in this notion of “sexual epistemology,” or ways of knowing that emerge from sexuality. I have been interested in exploring the methodologies of the field of sexology and investigating the validity for applying those methodologies to dance practice, be that dance pedagogy, choreographic practice, or even the study of history and theory. This is coming out of a recognition within my own creative practice that sexuality is often omitted or ignored in both dance and academia (especially dance academia). While I can’t be sure, I feel as if this is an effect of an underlying sex-negative perspective, that sex and sexuality are somehow compromising or contaminating rather than constructive or enriching. I’m not sure if this will become a significant research interest, but it is definitely an area of personal and creative interest. I think I am most interested in how human sexual behavior is analyzed, categorized, and discussed in fields such as sexology, and how those lens may be applied to or integrated into dance practices. How might we consider dance, movement, and the body for its sexuality, or how might sexuality reveal aspects of dance/movement/the body that were previously unconsidered? I have absolutely no working knowledge of the ideas I am discussing here, but those are my interests on the subject.

And there are always more. More to read about, more to dance about, more to write and talk and dream about. For now, I am back to work on reading and writing. I have “Autumn Quartet” practice tonight . . . as of now, our plan is to only do this piece four more time, including tonight. That makes me sad. And at the same time, it presents a different energy or urgency to the work. We’ll see how that surfaces.



Cloud of Interests

This week I read an article by Alexandra Carter entitled  “Destabilizing the Discipline: Critical debates about History and their Impact on the Study of Dance.” In it she describes history not as neat boxes of knowledge but as clouds of “dispersing interplay” of discourses. My life, art, and interests feel a bit like that right now. I feel as if I have several large foci with small shifting bolts of connective tissue (big ‘ole mixed metaphor) linking them together. Some of these are illustrated in my tag cloud, others are not so concrete as to have a “tag” attached to them. I feel like I am trying to figure out how they all relate, how they inform or reinforce one another, and how the work I am doing might adequately address/serve/interrogate all of these interests.

At the heart of it all is the body. There is the subject of my arching research interests, that of situating the body as the site of the perception, negotiation, and demonstration of identity, and how this state is considered within the choreographic process. Specifically I am interested in considering movement material generated by the body as the extension of personal identity, and examining how the physical practice of movement material constitutes not only the construction of dance but also the construction of personal identity.

From here I am already aware of the paths that connect to other interests. One that seems to be of increasing centrality is the expansion of the notion of the body. This comes up in my yoga teaching, in the paper I wrote about Synchronous Objects, and in the ideas I have surrounding the work of Love Art Laboratory, Sexecology, and Ecosexuality. In yoga I privilege the body as the site of perception. The sage Abhinavagupta wrote: “Nothing perceived is independent of perception, and perception differs not from the perceiver; therefore the [perceived] universe is nothing but the perceiver.” If perception is a physical activity, as Mark Johnson, George Lakoff, and Alva Noë (among others, I am sure) have suggested, and if perception is the unity between the subject and the object (that which is “external” of self, the perceived universe), then the body take on far more importance as the site not only of the subject, but the subjective universe. This is perhaps not a profound recognition, but I think it may have profound implications. Our experience of the world can no longer be entirely considered as a subject moving through an external landscape; instead, the subject (and thus the body) becomes implicated in the “external” world. I think this may be the connection point to Sexecology/Ecosexulaity. The foundation of my understanding of these radical, fabulous, and beautiful notions as they have evolved out of the collaborative work of Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens is that one looks to find sexual (thus bodily) content in the natural environment. I think this recognition of the body as already implicated in environmental situation by virtue of its role as the creative/perceptual site for the subjective universe offers a natural extension to the exploration of sexuality in that environment. For more about my ideas surrounding sexecology/ecosexuality, see my earlier post. Going back to my yoga practice/yoga teaching, part of the way in which I understand yoga is a kind of alchemy of self, the “splendor of recognition,” the recognition being that Self is not separate from the universe in which it occurs, consciousness is the substance by which we create our own universe, Self is not fixed, nor is the universe, nor is the body, and that by cultivating this awareness of the body/Self/universe in our yoga practice, we are substantially transforming not only ourselves, but our consciousness, and thus the universe in which we live.

Adjacent (but connected) to these interest is the piece that I am working on right now, Autumn Quartet, with Erik Abbott-Main, Eric Falck, and Amanda Platt. This piece has been in process since September, and I am still not quite sure I understand it yet. There are so many blog posts writing specifically about this piece, I don’t want to be redundant, but the major ideas that have emerged from this process are: the relationship between intimacy and violence, undressing/redressing the body, shifting power dynamics, indeterminacy/agency (as created by the structure for the piece being an algorithmic score), the integration of life and art . . . those are the main ideas. Recently I’ve become interested in how this piece relates to sex, the presence or implication of sex in the piece even in the absence of actual sexual action. As I listened to Jiz Lee and Tommy Midas discuss sex in a couple of docu-porns by Madison Young, I was reminded of this dance. I’m still not quite sure what the connections are, but I think they are there. Part of how I am interrogating those connections is by bringing that text, that language, into the process, into the studio. I am situating it into my commentary on the work here on my blog, and in the sound score for the piece. [On a side note, I follow both Jiz Lee and Madison Young on Twitter, and it was an exhilarating surprise to have both of them tweet about my using that text in this piece]. I think as I watched footage of a run-through of the piece, I also began to make aesthetic associations with several films, a few that I have been thinking about since the start of the piece, and one that I had not considered. The last couple of scenes in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer have always been iconic moments for me, and as I looked at this dance, I recognized images that directly relate to those scenes, namely the wild flurry of bodies in various states of undress, and the biting, consuming, eating of a person. In case you haven’t seen the film, I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it was a new connection for me.

Other points of interest branch out from this piece. I am in a course looking at the history and theory of post-modern and contemporary dance this quarter, and in considering what it is I would like to research for this class, this piece has suggested several points: the utilization of undressing as choreography, its reasoning, its perception, etc.; the explication of violence in choreography in post-modern dance: this has interested me for a while. Much of dance has an intrinsically masochistic quality to it. It is difficult, demanding, and often damaging to the body, in small, overlooked ways. I am interested in tracing the expansion of explicit physical violence in choreography, and considering how it might be indicative of an explication of the intrinsic violence, masochism, and even sadism  of dance practices. I am also considering writing my paper on Love Art Laboratory, Sexecology/Ecosexuality, as a component of this course, as the destabilization of fixed parameters of the body might be considered essentially post-structuralist, i.e., essentially post-modernist.

I have been feeling hungry for Butoh lately. Butoh has been the most transformative, fulfilling, actualizing physical practice of my life. Studying with Yoshito and Kazuo Ohno in Yokohama in 2006 was a formative experience for my dancing life. And yet ever since I came to grad school, the time and attention I have made available for a Butoh practice has been non-existant. I regret this, and at the same time I’m not sure of the solution. And yet all of these things, the body as the site of identity, the situation of the subjective universe, subliminal and explicit violence, these are all aspects that I find that Butoh can address.

I’m interested in applying notions of queer theory to choreographic practice, subverting the assumed normative roles of choreographer and dancer, without reverting to the post-modern model of dancers generating movement/choreographer structuring that movement. While that suggests the (perhaps illusion?) of a democratic process, I don’t know if it has substantially subverted those roles. Again, I think of statements made by Jiz Lee in “Thin Line Between Art and Sex” about being a “switch,” the fluidity of roles, leading and following, and how that sexual perspective might inform not only dance practices (as reflected in forms such as Contact Improvisation), but also choreographic methodologies. Truly, I am fascinated by Jiz’s ideas. They have addressed a whole spectrum of concepts that I have wanted to explore for a while and to which I have not yet given my attention. Jiz also wrote an article in a publication called ArtXX looking at the relationship between cognitive science and queer porn. I just ordered my issue; can’t wait to read it.

Which leads to the last interest that I might address here, and that has to do with a notion I’ve considered as “Sexual epistemology,” or ways of knowing that emerge from sexuality, sex, sexual identity, etc. This sense of considering choreographic process from the perspective of “switch” as suggested by a kind of sexual identity could be considered a kind of sexual epistemology. I am curious about what modalities or methodologies might be suggested by other sexual topics, like penetration/non-penetration, arousal, auto-erotic behavior, kink, etc. I have been interested in how the “sex-positive movement” might address or inform academia, or even more specifically, dance in academia. There has been some acknowledgement of sexual dynamics as playing a role in dance practices, but I question whether these have been acknowledged through as “sex-positive” lens. Carol Queen defines sex-positive as follows: “It’s the cultural philosophy that understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life, and it can, of course, be contrasted with sex-negativity, which sees sex as problematic, disruptive, dangerous. Sex-positivity allows for and in fact celebrates sexual diversity, differing desires and relationships structures, and individual choices based on consent” (quoted from her article “The Necessary Revolution: Sex-Positive Feminism in the Post-Barnard Era.”). How might our acknowledgement, treatment, and even utilization of sexual understanding affect dance practices in a positive way? I don’t know, but it is a budding interest of mine.

I’m not sure of all the ways in which these interests relate. Nor am I sure of how to give attention to all or any of these during the difficult and demanding period of grad school, but even just by articulating them and cataloguing them here on my blog I feel that I have served the process in some way.

On to other things.



Sexecology: Making Love With the Earth, Sky and Sea

Ever since I returned from San Francisco a week ago, I have been hesitant to write about my experience of the work that I saw. There is so much to say . . . and yet with plans for writing a formal paper/article about Love Art Lab, the concept of “sexecology” and “ecosexuality,” and the integration of life and art in their work, for whatever reason, I have resisted authoring anything informal here. And yet on some level that is the purpose of this blog, to publish the creative process, the unfinished product, the journey that develops into that which I am making. I also think it would be helpful for me to get some of these ideas moving in a public arena, situate them in a larger context, and see how they grow in this space.

So, what follows are my relatively raw responses to this work.

What brought me to San Francisco was primarily the exhibit “Sexecology: Making Love With the Earth, Sky and Sea” being presented at Femina Potens Art Gallery. I was interested in this potential entry point into Love Art Lab’s work, how this exhibit invites the viewer into the ephemera of their performance work alongside new collaborative art objects (collages, prints, etc.). I also used this trip as an opportunity to meet Beth and Annie and interview them about their work. I left completely overwhelmed and saturated with new ideas, concepts, and considerations. I am currently in the process of transcribing the interview audio footage, so what I’m sharing here is primarily my response to the work itself:

It seems to be a show heavy in relationship to memory. A bulk of what is in the gallery is ephemera from the Green and Blue weddings: costumes, jewelry, photos, videos, paper ephemera, etc., as if walking through their wedding album(s). The large prints of the sea and sky also seem to reference that which previously occurred. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at photography the same again after reading Henry Sayre’s The Object of Performance. These photographs give me the opportunity to look and see with Beth’s eyes, her way of looking, seeing what she saw. They are even some photographs that describe “familiar” sky/sea-scapes (Louisiana clouds, for instance), but look at those scapes with the eyes of a sexecologist. The text in most of the collages references previous occurrences, memories, and descriptions of self in the past. This sense of history/memory is reinforced by the use of vintage images (photos and children’s book images). This is even further reinforced by the interactive element in the show, the visitor survey, asking first to rank one’s perception of the degree of one’s own ecosexuality, then asking for a re-telling of a memory that might be identified as eco-sexual.

It seems to be a large implication of the show that this [Sexecology? Ecosexuality?] is something that has existed for a while, something implemented in the past,  part of the personal histories of the artists, but also perhaps part of the landscape of our country. The retrospective quality of the work has a sense almost like “revisionist history,” retelling a history that went untold thus far.

Of course there is a sense in which any gallery show of objects might be perceived as a testimony of memory, a trace of actions, the implication of previous action. Yet I feel that this quality is fore-grounded by the materials of the show, the text, the images, etc.

I wonder to what degree sexuality might be considered a description of action . . . ways of relating between individuals via sex. Is sex an action or a dynamic or a state of being? What is the relationship between “sex” and “sexuality?” Suddenly Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter seems incredibly relevant to these questions. I may have to make an effort to get through that book, as a way of informing my relationship to this work, to Love Art Lab.

Another major “theme” in the show for me has to do with geography. The foundations for the collages being exhibited are “Geological Survey” maps. The specific states represented are: Kentucky, Indiana (three collages), Arkansas, and Florida. These all strike me as sexually conservative places. Part of the impetus for Love Art Lab was the anti-gay rights movement. To see descriptions and drawings and collages of ecosexuality on these “conservative” landscapes seems to be a political act . . . the relationship between the maps and the added elements seems to say, “It’s there if you look for it. Yes, even here, where sexuality is so narrowly understood/defined.” It’s a nice through-line to recognize in the work, to consider that this political impetus might still be present in this shift into “sexecology.”

Statistics from the Human Rights Campaign relating to the laws addressing sexuality in those states:

Kentucky: no marriage rights (constitutional prohibition), no adoption rights, hate crimes prohibited

Indiana: no marriage rights (restricted by law as man/woman), CAN jointly petition for adoption, no hate crime legislation

Arkansas: no marriage rights (constitutional prohibition), prohibited from adopting, no hate crimes legislation

Florida: no marriage rights (constitutional prohibition), prohibited from adopting, hate crimes prohibited

I think there is also a theme of sex(uality) as exchange: exchanging vows, pollination, bees and flowers and trees and honey and body, exchange from exterior to interior . . . again, exchange is an action. Is sex an action or a state of being? A form? I think in this work sex is all of these things, action of the body, morphology of the bodily, a way of interacting, maybe even a way of knowing? Sex as a way of knowing . . . more on this later.

At the heart of my inquiry into this work is the presence of the body and the implications that this work/perspective holds for perspectives of the body and body cultures. “Where is the body?” In the collages especially, there seems to be the implication that the body is everywhere. Correlations or similarities are drawn between images of the body and the imagistic descriptions of the various landscapes. Maybe there’s something being said about how we represent, and thus think about or recognize, geology or landscape? Or maybe there can be the choice to make these correlations? It seems to say that natural forms are sexy, maybe even that there is an interchangeable/transposisitonal quality to natural forms and the body? Does a delta imply a vagina? Do redwoods suggest phalluses? What might it mean to see the natural world as representations of the human body? When we look for “sexy” in nature, what are we looking for? Sensation? Resemblance to the human form? Fleshiness and wetness and hardness and opening and crevasses, etc.

I’m also thinking about the foundational perspective of my paper on Synchronous Objects, that the body is implicit in ways of understanding that emerge from our embodied condition. If part of how landscape, geology, and the natural world becomes relevant within our experience is its resemblance to the human form, then the body is implicit (perhaps) in the natural world.

What if our bodies extend beyond our skin? What if our understanding of “the body” extends beyond our corporeal forms into the way in which we know and that which we know. This brings to mind again the quote by Abinavagupta, that perception is not separate from the perceiver, thus the perceived world is only the perceiver. Perception, according to Alva Noë, is rooted in sensorimotor experience; it is essentially embodied. Taken together, one might conclude that given the perceiver’s embodiment, perception, an action of the body, is not separate from the body of the perceiver, thus that which is perceived (the perceived world) is not separate from the body of the perceiver.

Is this radical?

It relates to my yoga practice/philosophy as well. In recognizing the universe as created from consciousness and perception and recognizing perception as an action/condition of the body, then the universe that we perceive is not separate from the body. Finding nature sexy is, in a sense, finding the body itself, or one’s understanding of the body, a site of sexual content. This doesn’t seem so huge of a stretch. If we look to the body as the site and source of pleasure in the universe, is it so difficult to look back out into the world and find that [bodily] pleasure there as well?

And what might it have to do with dance?

To what degree is sex or sexuality already a component of our pervasive understanding of situation? And in recognizing the possibility that sex/sexuality is already actively contributing to/shaping/affecting our understanding of the world around us, to what degree is the world around us, the natural world, the Earth already a participant in our sexuality? If we are never simply “subject” but only ever “subject-in-environment,” then perhaps realizing that the environment is never separate from who we are is a step towards recognizing that our environment is always implicit in our sexuality, in sex. Maybe an additional question becomes how we feel about that . . . does it turn us on? Is it erotic to consider that sex includes environment?

So, as I walk around outside, I keep thinking about ecosexuality, looking for the body beyond the prescribed boundaries of the body: the succulent fleshiness of plants, the roughness of tree bark and cold blasting wind, tlong tendrils of leaves and branches, the bush of grass and moss, the wetness of the sea, the way it drips, the oozing of tree sap, the phallic quality of tree trunks and stems and stamens, the soft openness of flower blossoms, the swelling of fruit . . . There’s something about the experience of the body adding morphological meaning to the natural world beyond the prescribed boundaries of the body. It’s like a kind of anthropomorphization . . . but perhaps less directly . . . something like our familiarity with the body offering a kind of legibility to the world around us.

Beth talked about ecosexuality as being more about a pulse of sensation, a pulse between how the Earth/Sky/Sea makes her feel and how she makes the Earth/Sky/Sea feel. This pulse makes me thing of spanda, the creative pulsation, again a strong, perhaps implicit, relationship to yogic philosophy. The pulse between recognizing both one’s individual distinction and Absolute Oneness of the universe in consciousness. If the universe is One (and I think it is), it is so in/as Consciousness, which is situated in/as the body. This pulse sees pleasure in the body, then looks from there to see pleasure in the universe/natural world.

This connection to yogic philosophy or a yogic perspective of the body is a fundamental aspect of the Love Art Lab. The very organization of their project is the chakra system, an energetic network distilled from centuries of bodily experience. I feel that maybe as I try to write about this material, it might be appropriate to bring in a substantial amount of Tantric philosophy and its terms and perspectives as a way of engaging with the work. It feels appropriate.

I realize that my terms are getting muddy, conflated . . . sex, sexuality, the body, pleasure . . . maybe it’s all the same? Or at least maybe it is enough to say that none of these occur apart from [an understanding of?] one another? I suppose it’s a good thing that I’m trudging through Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter right now to problematize and destabilize such assumptions . . .

Another relevant question seems to be “Why?” Why look for sex/sexuality/the body beyond the body in the natural world? I suppose the most practical answer is in order to change the way we treat the Earth, Sky, and Sea. It is somewhat of an anthropomorphilogical metaphor, but one that is constructive in altering behavior.

But in a larger sense, I think it has to do with the kind of world in which one wants to live. It emanates from a “sex-positive” perspective, I think, that sex, pleasure, even love, are HEALTHY and GOOD. By expanding those ideas/perceptions/concepts/boundaries, we create a universe that actively contributes to and participates in that health and goodness. Does it have to invoke “sex?” Perhaps not. I think the yogic philosophy of grace achieves a similar ends, perceiving the role of the universe, its nature, as contributing to and participating in our own goodness. By invoking sex, there is an invocation of a certain promiscuity, a boundless sexuality, perhaps even a boundless sexual generosity. In this boundlessness of sex/the body, what room is there for boundaries? Immediately I think that it has to do with trust. I can trust nature, I can believe in Her goodness. I may not be able to extend that same trust to everyone. Thus, the same sort of generosity that I have, or may have, as an “ecosexual” may not translate into boundless promiscuity with people . . .

This “sex-positive” perspective was prevalent throughout my experience of San Francisco, Femina Potens, Love Art Lab, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, stores like Good Vibrations, etc. Interestingly (and adjacent to this discussion), it has sparked a new interest in exploring how sexuality or sexology might provide relevant terms of analysis and methodologies for quantification and organization for research. In a conversation with my dear friend CoCo, we were discussing what currently constitutes my potential dissertation interests, namely the body as the site of identity, movement material generated by the body as constitutive of an extension of identity, the choreographic process as an intimate exchange by which identity is synthesized/co-constructed, etc. CoCo noted the sexual quality that my language around this project possessed, and it opened my mind to the possibility that what I was describing suggests a kind of “sexual epistemology,” and rather than resist it, embrace what it might bring to or provide for the work. This quality of “sexual epistemology” seems to be at the heart of “sexecology” and “ecosexuality.”

And that’s all the scattered words and ideas that I have as of now. I hope that in the weeks to come that I can begin to formulate these ideas into a more cohesive structure, and over time produce some sort of text that discusses this provocative and relevant work. For now, I invite you to peruse and discuss these ideas, in their raw forms.

Oh, and here are some images to accompany the ideas:

Costumes and ephemera from Green and Blue Weddings

photographs by Elizabeth Stephens

Sexecology 3

collage by Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, with Camille Norton

collage by Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, with Camille Norton

collage by Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, with Camille Norton

finding the sexy, wet and fleshy