Social and Ecological Literacy
The way we inhabit our bodies is irrevocably intertwined with the way we inhabit the world. It is through our bodies that we receive sensory information from the world, filter it through our personal belief system and neurological apparatus, and respond with thought, word, and deed. To bring awareness to our physically habituated patterns, as we do in movement and bodywork practices, is to offer witness to the intersection of nature's intelligence and our socio-historical context as uniquely expressed through each of us.
(Photo by Joan Schwartz of Jo Birns from Ash Poems/ Discourse Off The Walls by Shah and Blah Productions)
Axis Syllabus, as discussed in the Applied Anatomy chapter, is a system of internal ahimsa (non-violence). The intention is to mediate unnecessary conflict between our different parts through an understanding of range and safe limitations of each of the parts. The typical socialized hierarchy of mind over body, with the head on the throne at the top of the shoulders, is turned on its side to make way for a more democratic (perhaps even anarchistic) model. The head is one of multiple-decision making motors (along with the chest, pelvis, arms, and legs). Side bends and spherical space powered by the spiral and the helix replace the vertical linear emphasis that dominates our culture. The value judgments of our culture can be seen in the connotations of words like straight, upstanding, upright, top, bottom, and so on. In spherical space, these value judgments are rendered meaningless. Straight or upright, in this context, would even call in questions of efficiency and stagnancy.
Likewise, the work of Cranio-Sacral Therapy and Myofascial Release depend largely on a trust of the body's biological intelligence. This is innate, and not learned, intelligence. Caring, non-sexual touch that encourages relaxation and relieves stress offers vitally important parasympathetic respite to over-active nervous systems. These are the same nervous systems that are teaching our kids, driving along on the roads, making policy decisions, running businesses, and generally shaping the fabric of our social strata. The ways we relate to each other and the decisions we make transcend this sphere and impact the health of the planet on every level. To bring a touch more health and joy, to ease the smallest amount of unnecessary pain and suffering, to make one more person feel loved and cared for, ripples outward to have unknowable impact on the state of the world.
Contact improvisation is another technology that shifts our relational and physical health. It invites us to extend the assumption of the intelligence of the human animal to the others around us. It is a practice in present moment awareness and skillfull responsiveness in perpetual unknown circumstances. It is a practice structured by the same physical and chemical laws and interactions that govern the rest of biological creation. It is a practice unmediated by technology and industry that requires no more resources than a body and a place. It is an exercise in free will, creativity, and communication. Its goalless nature, based in curiosity and play, aligns it with the being nature of the cosmos and gives us a break from the industrious striving that dominates our culture. Its anarchic anti-hierarchical origins arose organically out of a multiplicity of influences. Each participant brining his various investigations and interests, affecting the continuous unfolding shape of the forms development.
Of course, the subject matter of performance can be ecologically or sociologically relevant. Gender, war, sickness, relation to nature, poverty, and technology are among countless subjects for performance that are overtly related to ecology and social justice. However, I would argue that art making is, regardless of content, of social and ecological relevance.
Art, for the maker and the viewer, is an exercise in awareness. It acts as a mirror to each audience member, highlighting aspects of their unique experience. Performance looks into the subconscious of the collective human experience. It uses the ephemeral substances of time, space, and image as the means to engage with the basic questions of "what the world is made up of," "what we are made up of," and "what about it?" Art making engages a dialogue between the human and the more than human world. It inherently exists within a given social context and has the capacity to rise above that context and offer an experience of universal relevance.
The sorts of site specific, context specific, and experiential performances largely discussed in the section on Interdisciplinary Performance take on additional social issues. Site specific performance sometimes manages to momentarily wrestle back command of the commons from the commercial domain. In its place, such performance can sprinkle potent image memories that reinvigorate our previously mundane landscapes with possibility and magic. Experience crafting reminds the audience of their responsibility and power at the center of their own engagement with the world.
(photo by Joan Schwartz of Daniel Bear Davis, Ulla Mäkinen, and jellyfish. Half Machine, 2007)
Improvisational performance skills, and composition in general require a cultivation of what Ecopsychologist, Laura Sewall calls, Ecological Perception. Her essay in the the book Ecopsychology could be used as a syllabus for a class in improvisational composition. The perceptual practices she identifies as relevant for perceiving our ecological conditions are:
(1) learning to attend, or to be mindful, within the visual domain; (2) learning to
perceive relationships, context, and interfaces; (3) developing perceptual flexibility
across spatial and temporal scales; (4) learning to reperceive depth; (5) the intentional
use of imagination (Sewall, p.204).
These are exactly the skills cultivated in and necessary for improvisational performance and composition.
Those who create, and those who make art making possible in this day and age, are revolutionaries. It requires sacrifice, dedication, and trust. It is an investment in the slowly dwindling poetic reserves of the universe. The artist is alternately, a monk, a soldier, a teacher, a shaman, a custodian, and a bum.
Throughout this country the value of art and physical practices are being challenged. Art programs in schools and funding programs are being slashed. The body is considered something to be tamed with medications and surgeries. The importance of dialogue with the unknown in our bodies, each other, and the world at large, is rarely recognized. Technologies that interact through dance, touch, and creation, with our deep poetic and biologic intelligence are of inestimable importance to our well being as individuals and a planet. Our bodies and our imaginations are amongst our greatest teachers. Let us pay attention.