“If we can think, feel, and move, we can dance”: Anna Halprin’s radical pedagogy

At Hunter College last week, I saw an installation which accompanied a dance performance taking place this fall on campus entitled Radical Bodies, which features the work of choreographer Anna Talprin. Halprin, whose experimental workshops took place on a beautiful outdoor stage, did work that “rejected the high style and codified technique of reigning modern-dance choreographers like Martha Graham in favor of improvisatory tasks and everyday activities.” (NYTimes, March 24, 2017)

Many of these images are featured at Hunter College in the North Building, along with a description of the commitments to community building, embodiment and moral philosophy, and the search for authenticity through “self-generated creativity” (from Halprin’s Manual of Dance, 1921). Beautifully, and rightly, the Hunter description describes Halprin’s work as a radical pedagogy that speaks to the pain and struggle of the individual in the present era: isolation, homogenization, commodification, and standardization collude to obscure and trample on the stirrings of soul and unexplained, nascent, vicious little visions and vitalities we all have buried deep within us.

Halprin’s work resonates with John Dewey and other educational philosophers who explored the relationship between art and experience, and emphasized the importance of an education premised upon experience, of interacting with one’s world to create new meanings and emerge into a more fully developed self.

A beautiful proposal, indeed, one that is rare nowadays but not, thankfully, gone from our pasts, or our futures.

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Abstract art and the proceduralization of physicality

While the title of this post is ambiguous at best and horribly abstruse at worst (by the way, linguist’s nerdy moment: the word “abstruse,” which means “difficult to understand, obscure,” is in itself abstruse), I think it’s the best way to describe a piece of installation art by Jeff Kasper in an exhibit I saw at the Graduate Center of CUNY, where I study. The two images, shown here are scans of pages free to the public that accompanied videos playing on screens in the wall:

new doc 111_1

new doc 112_1

Both pages display what appear to be instructions, steps by which to engage with another person in a physically proximate walk with a partner (vol. 1), or to meet up with friends and go out as a repeated habit (vol. 2). The strange vagueness with which physicality is referred to (for example, vol. 2 states, “Touch each other. Support each other physically.”) is complemented by the uncertain, almost alien way in which the interpersonal content is referred to (in vol. 1, there is simply mention of one’s “walking partner,” leaving the intended audience to wonder whether these instructions are meant for use with close friends, lovers current or to-be, family members, someone else). What is particularly interesting – and unnerving, to me – is the step-by-step breakdown of such mundane experiences, which are as universal to people around the world as one can imagine and as expressive of how we unconsciously experience human physicality in public spaces.

But what if this piece is meant to signal just that, a shift in the universality of human physical interaction? We are already seeing it, in the ways in which screens – on which I am typing this, and on which someone might be reading it – draw our eyes away from each other, making even intimate spaces like elevators, subway cars, and seats at the dinner table experiences of great interpersonal distance. Perhaps the point is that human beings may lose a sense of what it means to interact with each other as physical beings that share common language, so to speak, about embodied sociality.

And then the twist came: What if I myself am not the intended audience, or rather, what if there is an audience for these instructions for whom I am a second audience? It seems that any typical human being would have had such experiences naturally, over the course of his/her life as a part of being socially physical. But what if these instructions are written…for those who have not had such experiences?

For better or worse, my sci-fi background (mostly TNG) provides me with broad, fantastical references to alternate possibilities and ways of perceiving our reality, much the way art can and should. It dawned on me that instead, the artist might instead be “speaking” to a non-human entity who might be learning to be human, perhaps through an instruction guide. The proceduralization, ugly and awkward as a guide for how to do laundry for a new college student, adds a particularly interesting dimension when considering the question of physicality. We rarely question our physical being, instead following them through our worlds as the mediators of engagement for socializing, labor, consumption, pleasure, transportation, rest, exercise, and so on as simply the natural aspect of our corporeal selves. But what if, like Scarlett Johansson’s well-played character in Under the Skin (which I would strongly recommend, by the way), the being reading this procedure was doing so for the first time? What might physical intimacy, careless and simple as it might sound to us, appear to look like as a subject of study?

Amazing how art, sudden, brazen, incisive art, can bring into one’s mind a powerful vision of the self that had not yet occurred. What else, might we wonder, could art teach us in a reality that seems completely out of our hands nowadays, a runaway train of lies and white supremacy and violence and androcentrism and horrible vanity in which we are desperate to have a stake? What assumptions might crumble at such a reckless and restless time?

“We don’t ride on railroads they ride on us”: raucous listening against apathy

The title for this blog post is a slight misquote of Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century social and political commentator best known for Walden who wrote about topics including the abolition of slavery and the value of civil disobedience, which he explores in an essay by the same name. Thoreau was concerned about, among many things, the exploitation of laborers and radical changes to our definition of humanity in projects of capitalist expansion under the teleological thrust of technological advance during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, including the mass construction of railroads:

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them…And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.

(A discussion of Thoreau’s concerns about humanity, technology, and capitalism comes from this article in Wired.) I saw a version of the first line of this quote in a cartoon by Art Young, socialist and political satirist from the 1910s and 1920s, in an exhibit at the Argosy Bookstore, New York’s oldest independent bookstore open since 1925. See some examples below:

 
 

The last of the four cartoons is a version of the Thoreau quote. I found it interesting – and a bit depressing – to know that we continue to struggle with the balance between the pursuit of progress and the preservation of humanity. But what is important, really, is to remember that our humanity should not be defined after we’ve struggled toward the next innovation, the next profit. What should be happening is a radical consideration of humanity as a collective social project, radical in scope, that progresses toward a more egalitarian possibility.

Apathy would be one response to such cartoons – god we’re here again, we can’t escape our fate of self-destruction – and this is very much the feature of today’s politics and public discourse. I struggled with this as I left the Argosy Bookstore and headed to meet a friend for dinner in Queens. Emerging onto the street, I turned and saw a park full of people:

 

Groups of people, from different backgrounds, different countries of origin, different languages and religions and and views of the world, all sitting together as a community. It occurred to me that we are all part of a community, several, in fact, and we walk toward each other every day, sharing and singing and spitting and swirling into bigger and smaller spaces. This collective life cannot be taken from us. We can only give it away, along with the force of its voice and its will to change the reality in which we live.

Idealistic? Or realistic? Anything is more real than the stories told by the sociopath running our country and his cabinet of cronies. We can remember – we have always known – what is real and true for us, by us. Yes, capitalism seeks to convince us that we are consumers first and last, that we owe nothing to the person next to us and should fight for his seat. But this is not what our social histories will remind us, should we listen, raucously, together.

Art, theory as “becoming”: the flows of possibility through our (never-)static realities

My advisor, Anna Stetsenko, published a book this year entitled The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education. It illuminates her vision of the world as a place of possibility, conceptualized and made contingent again and again by our contributions to its ever-becoming – mattering – present, which always invokes the future while claiming the fruits of the past. Anna argues a great many things which I will touch on in upcoming posts, but this line encapsulates her philosophy, drawn from her experiences during the Cold War in the Soviet Union and during/after the fall of the Berlin Wall:

The lesson I was able (and lucky) to learn is that the future is actually always in the making now, in the present, and that big changes and shifts might be around the corner even as the present status quo still appears to be immutable and stable. (p. 18)

I love this idea, as it speaks to our ability to act as agents in our worlds, to embrace a view of collective social existence as one that only pretends to be static and given, which flows and changes constantly and awaits, even requires in its rhythms, the participation of all of us in its making.

Such a simple, yet monumental idea appeared in an artistic form in several pieces by Nancy Pantirer (check out her website here), who displayed several installations of her work at the Tribeca Open Artists Studio Tour this spring. She placed 8-10 paintings in a large loft space and set up a lighting display which over the course of a minute or so changed from light to dark, revealing the brilliant shift of different shapes from a recessed place to primary importance. Some of the images appeared humanlike, cloaked figures standing together, and others seemed like celestial bodies, flowing through otherworldly landscapes and spaces. I filmed (with the permission of the artist) several of these interactions of light and paint, feeling the amazing rush of knowing and coming to see images that were always there in the paint.

Link to my graduate student blog post to see the video here.

What a way to see our monolithic understandings of self, our assumptions about the day-to-day. Is it a miracle to come to understand what has always been the case: that the future is actually being made, in our hands, existing already and waiting for us to see it?

“Who are you?”: Art as disruptor, generator of public space

At a graduate student conference called Radical Democracy at The New School a couple of weeks ago, I attended a panel in which several students discussed art and artists who sought to disrupt the status quo about how information is shared and important social issues are discussed among the people of any society. Institutionalized processes of dissemination and control of discourse can constrain access, as well as the range of response, to these issues, making it a less a representation of all voices in the community and more inclusion by selective bias (which tends to benefit those closer to centers of power.

The artwork presented by one of the students in the panel offered an alternative vision. Pasha Cas, a brilliant young Kazakh student who has been creating public art in postsocialist Kazakhstan since he was 16 years old, calls himself a “street artist” and engages passersby with important social issues like nuclear waste, international conflict, and human alienation and loneliness in new forms of capitalist labor arrangement and extraction in the 21st century. The goal: to disrupt the ways in which people access such debates — which influence each and every one of us — and to generate public discourses that are fresh, dynamic, and immediate at the visual level of the passersby. Such an approach abdicates the power of intellectual and art-world elites to control the narrative and determine the direction and scope of public engagement with our daily struggles in shared spaces. This is activist in its generation of public space at a time when we are atomized by exhausting work schedules and other experiences of isolation, suspicion, and fear. He thrills us by asking, “Who are you?” in his latest video (link here), a quesitons that seems too rarely asked in a world that appears to be more interested in the individual as consumer and the community as basis for homgenization.

“WE DANCE!” (2016) BY PASHA CAS (TEMIRATU, KAZAKHSTAN)

See more examples and a brief interview here. Pasha Cas’s manifest video, «This Is Silence», can be found here.

Hip hop dance as rupture, aesthetic rising

I’ve been obsessed with hip hop videos since 2014, when I discovered Tricia Miranda, LA-based choreographer for stars including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Missy Elliott. I took one hip hop dance class in Boston and can barely shake it in salsa or bachata outings (#cudjatellimwhite), but that doesn’t seem to matter when I tune in on the newest gorgeous turnout by Lia Kim, Kyle Hanagami, or newcomers like Phil Wright. Most of the videos I watch (with the exception of Kim, who I believe is based in South Korea) are filmed at Millennium Dance Complex in LA. The dancers crush it in groups to the latest hits and encompass all bodies, all types, all interpretations of power and being. To say it embraces “diversity” is frankly a total disservice. It’s not about diversity. It’s about f**k yes, here it is, sit your a** down and watch this because any story you were telling about me before I started dancing is officially beat. Women stride and pop and lock, men wreath their limbs like snakes, heavy girls destroy it, skinny players jump in and get huge. It’s about owning that stage, that camera’s eye, and doing this in my way now, probably never the same, so know me the way I’m telling you, right now.


KATY PERRY – Bon Appétit ft. Migos | Kyle Hanagami Choreography

So yes, it is an indulgence. But there’s something bigger happening here, I think, and I want to suggest that we can look at this amazing work with a smarter, sharper lens. I’ve been reading about identity as a form of social performance, especially in the work of Butler, rather than as a fixed category that is applied upon birth. However, nowhere is the fluidity and transversality of Who I Am better enjoyed than in the presence and unfinished breathings of art. When we think about art as a means of rupturing a set of givens in our social realities, what Barone sees as a way of refusing a mandated status quo premised on master narratives, we can see what is possible, we can articulate it using given tools that we bend and bite on to make work for us, in the here and now. We are possible-izing what social scripts want to insist is impossible, we are making reality, bringing past presences and future openings into a unity drifting and glorious and indeterminate. Something about dance, too, adds the component of sociocultural thinking which says we can’t do this alone because there is no “we” in solitude, I am not seen nor see without the rest of us and me together, using these tools and making something new together. 

See the first performance (0:00-1:29) of Tinashe – Party Favors, choreographed by Tricia Miranda. The space this dancer, Diana, occupies, exudes ownership as she makes choices and employs a language that is fully hers. She is strong, baseball-capped, sharp-jawed, clad in black, dredded, tattooed, long-nailed, maroon-lipped, mid-driff-showing, reaching, stabbing, controlled, snaky, masculine, feminine, other-ine. She is a woman of color and urban, but even in this space there is something that luminesces beyond those terms. What and how she disrupts what is expected embodies a rising to a different level of aesthetics, where unity itself is only possible through fragmentation and reconstitution. The only way to know her is to watch, again and again, to see her meanings. I highly recommend doing so.

Migration is natural

On May 11th, PBS featured a fascinating story for its “Brief but Spectacular” segment that inspires thinking around (im)migration and identity. Jess X. Snow, a young first-generation Chinese-American artist illuminates her experiences as an immigrant, a child of immigrants, with force and insight:

Imagination is daring to love what is not in front of us. So what then, is immigration, if not imagination given a destination?

Jess describes the recounting of her family story as a young person with a stutter, an atypical way of being that produced unkind treatment by students around her. Jess found freedom in her poetry, in creating beauty in deep engagement with political philosophical questions related to what immigrant identity is under increasing surveillance as well as interrogating Westphalian notions of border drawing as “unnatural.” It’s not bravery that she exhibits, but rather honesty, loyalty to her family, her artistic community, and to her own vision, and the voice of a generation that asks important philosophical questions about political conservatism and nationalism through art and collective meaning-making.

Check out the artist’s work here.