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Fluid Ecologies

Dr Joseph Dunne is a performance practitioner and former member of Tracing the Pathway Collective; he is also Rose Bruford College’s research assistant. His practice is rooted in site-based performance and documentation and archiving strategies. This article is a precis of his residencies in Finland and Greenland as part of Tracing the Pathway’s Fluid Ecologies project.


We are four bodies, each unique and fixed, yet porous. We are one shifting whole – an ecology dependent on its constituent parts. As a fluid mass we merge and collide with other beings that we encounter along our path, and thus new perspectives forge an itinerant-based knowledge.

In May and June 2015 I began the Fluid Ecologies project with my company, Tracing the Pathway. For five days we were artists in residence at the LAPSody Festival at the Theatre Academy University of the Arts in Helsinki. Shortly afterwards we travelled to Nuuk, Greenland, to take part in the PSi conference Fluid States North: Performances of Unknowing.

We are a collective of four and have been working together for nearly five years. Our practice explores how documents can aid the re-presentation of sites and memories in performance. The collective’s methodology is designed to formulate an evolving processual framework with multiple iterations and access points. Fluid Ecologies is in many ways the embodiment of this methodology; it is Tracing the Pathway’s attempt to establish dialogues through embodied and sensuously collaborative modes of knowledge production.

In an effort to resist against the creation of discrete and finalised live art works we create structures that enable us to interact with audiences whose presence enjoins with ours to generate fluidic encounters. These encounters form part of our evolving archive: a repository of fragments that weave into our writing and function as material to activate future temporal live acts. The body-to-body, site-to-document, and document-to-body encounters we manifest as live and participatory acts leave residues of themselves on the spaces Tracing the Pathway work in and across. We animate these traces in performance when we invite participants to contribute to our archive. The various iterations that comprise Fluid Ecologies are a conscious attempt to subvert hermeneutic categorisations. No performance event is a closed system; each constituent part of Tracing the Pathway’s practice feeds into the other modes.In this way, we treat performance as a series of continuous events that regenerate knowledge through embodied encounters. Our methodology is therefore in a perpetual state of transformation because we strive to make it responsive to the people and to the environments we work in. But in another sense we describe our process as fluidic because we are separated by distance and do not operate from a permanent office. The majority of our time is spent planning, talking, reading, and researching by ourselves; the time we spend with each other to facilitate workshops and performances is largely devoted to enacting ideas which until then have not been physicalized. We are an ‘ecology’ because the elements that fuse in our work are not hierarchically structured. Rather, we aim to achieve a symbiosis between all of our constituent parts.

It was not until I participated in Fluid Ecologies that I was able to reflect upon what the implications of Tracing the Pathway’s methodology have for artists who wish to make their process public. This is distinct from making public performances, as the processes that produce live art works are embedded into the structure of individual pieces and rarely achieve a performed presence in and of themselves.

Unlike Ash, Cara and Mads – the other three members of the collective – I am not from a performance art background. My masters’ degree was in theatre practice where I trained with Philip Zarrilli in psychophysical acting. In the main, I have only taught theatre. My lexicon of critique and analysis is routed in discourses pertaining to theatre and drama. This does not mean, however, that I am unversed in the practices and theories of performance art. Indeed, when I began the research for my PhD into the ‘liveness’ of the archive I was inextricably drawn to performance art as a way of formulating my theory and practice. My studies ran concurrently with my work with Tracing the Pathway, and at varying points the work overlapped. Yet I have never felt compelled to situate my practice outside of a theatrical paradigm. This in itself might not be significant. After all, performance art is not an art form that originated independently from theatre, but in some important ways they are distinct from each other, not least in the types of labour imbricated in both disciplines.

Nevertheless, I now find myself in the paradoxical position of making performance art whilst not being a performance artist.I am uncomfortable describing myself as a performance artist because rightly or wrongly it evokes for me a perception of art’s place in the world that I do not concur with. Historically, performance art is a practice that has always strived to smash the boundaries between life and art, professional and familial identities, the personal and the political. I have never thought it was necessary for my arts practice to overtly enter into my relationships with my friends or family, nor have I thought it should determine how I perceive and interact with the world. I maintain that to do so closes down one’s intellectual faculties and powers of empathy; the art as life paradigm inhibits the profoundly important desire we all posses to distinguish between us and them, here and there, you and me. All cultures are enriched and indeed sustained by these differences no matter how arbitrary or irrelevant they may appear. Occasionally, I have also found myself frustrated that the schools of criticism which performance art has spawned have illuminated the ideas underpinning live art pieces sometimes more effectively than the works themselves. These views however are illustrative less of performance art’s limitations than my limited knowledge of how performance art operates. Having had time to evaluate my work in Helsinki and Nuuk I am beginning to ask how the relationship between performance art and theatre is negotiated: what factors determine if one is making one and not the other? And how do practitioners flow between the two disciplines?

Alan Read argues that at it’s most effectual “theatre is antagonistic to official views of reality” (1993, p.11). Optimally, theatre communicates in images, yet despite the multiple and varied innovations that have occurred over the decades the written script retains its status as the foundation of much theatre practice. True, all scripts exist as potential performances, yet they have also enabled theatre to enter into the corpus of literature. Literary critiques are not governed by the same rules as those of live performance; it hardly needs saying that audiences interpret live acts and texts markedly differently. In relying on the critic’s articulation of ideas lying underneath performance art pieces I have been guilty of falling back onto the false hypothesis that live art can be entirely ‘understood’ through text, or indeed that there is something in any art work that can be fully ‘known’. The level of comprehension I refer to here is of course limited to the cognitive rather than the sensuous, but all types of performances communicate through the body. After experimenting with the conference paper format at the LAPSody Festival and the PSi conference I started to consider how artists could deploy the embodied language of performance to share their methodologies.

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The iteration of Fluid Ecologies at the Theatre Academy in Helsinki manifested as an installation Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow. We were taken with Edward Monkton’s description of the sparrow that “plants beautiful thoughts that grow like flowers in the blackness of space” and thought it was a potent metaphor for how we want our methodology to operate.

Participants were invited to plant seeds in a pot and then add them to the pile of soil we had installed in the foyer of the theatre. The participants wrote their names on flowerpot sticks and watered their small pot of soil over the course of the festival. The four of us also recorded fragments of conversations we had with participants on archiving labels and added them to the installation.

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The seeds acted as a way to illustrate and experience the formation of thoughts, dialogues and relationships as a collaborative act. Some of the texts that were generated were included in the conference paper we presented on the last day of the festival. We had said in our application that our methodology was going to be the subject of this paper, yet after experiencing Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow we strongly felt that any attempt at contextualizing it would somehow lessen the profundity of the experience we had with the participants. I can say this from the luxurious position of hindsight; at the time I found this process challenging in the extreme. I had never written a conference paper during a performance process; the former always followed the latter. I have always considered conference papers to be reflective and at best provocative exercises; they offer a chance to present one’s projects and stages of one’s thinking with peers, but do not act as part of one’s artistic practice per se. Embedding the writing of the Fluid Ecologies paper into a performance piece demanded a degree of commitment and personal revelation I was unprepared for.

When we were planning Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow I was convinced we were not giving the participants enough to work with. As someone who has been trying to develop methodologies of audience participation I have become convinced that performers must be prepared to ask for a level of commitment from participants which challenges their notions of what audiences ‘should’ do. Planting seeds and talking with us seemed a little tame to me. But what I had not considered before I began the Fluid Ecologies project was the level of commitment I would have to make – not as a performer, but as a person. I thought I understood what it meant to commit to a performance, but here was the first time the limits of my training and knowledge became evident. I was trained to perform in a theatrical context, which to a greater or lesser extent always has a fictive overlay. In contrast, as a piece of performance art the Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow demanded I make myself vulnerable in order to engender the type of dialogic exchange we were aiming for. It was clear from the interest the participants displayed when planting the seeds that they found the experience enriching, but I didn’t understand why. Yet herein lay the problem: it was not until I came to write my sections of the paper that I realized I had been attempting to answer this question before I had entered into the process. Moreover, I was unconsciously complying with an artificial performer-spectator dichotomy: one performs, the other watches. This was contrary to the level of interactivity Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow demanded. True participation in a performative sense requires a blurring of boundaries between the two roles until both the performer and the participant enter into a collaborative relationship until the work that is produced lacks a single or even delineable author.

As a method of expressing Tracing the Pathway’s methodology, Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow and the Fluid Ecologies paper illuminated for me the lacunae that are inherent when attempting to share an ongoing artistic process. The paper was an assemblage of our memories produced from participating in the installation and some reflective writing on how we consider Tracing the Pathway to function as an ecology. This was a necessary format to explicate the processual nature of our work, but  it made me consider the limitations of standardized conference papers when attempting to embed theoretical discourses into live acts. I have never subscribed to the notion that theory and practice exist as a binary. Practice as research projects are not exercises in performing ideas anymore than they are attempts to textualise live acts. Yet it is a truism that the text and the performance outcomes that are generated from practice as research projects are often produced as separate pieces of work. By consciously using the material that was generated from Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow without seeking to overly contextualize it in the conference paper I began to think about how practitioners might appropriate the body-language of performance art as a method of sharing their artistic process in a conference setting.

This does, however, raise the question of how willing or, indeed, able existing institutions are able to facilitate this type of practice. I am not talking about a performance or a conference paper here, but rather a method of expressing a philosophy of working that does not cohere to the rules and restrictions of langue. Such a structure would have to incorporate a documentation strategy that did not function as a series of historiographical records but instead acted as generative materials to expand the dialogic exchanges that occur between performers and audiences. If such a mode of scholarly communication were possible it could potentially innovate the ways we in the academy disseminate the processes underpinning performance practice.

These questions were at the forefront of my mind when I travelled to Greenland. Our hosts at the Knustmusuem in Nuuk were the Danish performance art group Sisters Hope. At the heart of their practice is the notion of ‘sensuous learning’. The two ‘sisters’ Gry Worre Hallberg and Anna Lawaetz use performance art as a tool to enact modes of learning that belie cognitive methods of knowledge production in favour of subjective and embodied encounters with experiential reality. Their goals expand beyond creating performance pieces by applying the processes of artistic labour in pedagogical settings. To this end, the group transform schools into temporary academies and are temporarily run by the members of Sisters Hope (see Sisters Hope, 2015). As part of the PSi conference the museum became a Sisters Academy to experiment with how states of ‘unknowing’ might actualise in a conference setting.

Clearly, the presence of live bodies in space is a prerequisite for sensuous learning to occur. It is also a pedagogical exercise in transcending text-centred curriculum design in order to embrace the presence of animate, interactive bodies that enact a type of dialogue that eludes discipline-specific classification. As a response to a provocation from Sisters Hope we created an installation we have posthumously titled The Shadow Room. We took a corner of the museum and covered the floor, the ceiling and the walls with white A4 sheets of paper. To create a cocoon effect we hung large sheets of white paper from the ceiling to the floor, with a space left open for people to enter and exit. On the outside of the space we hung a light with a purple filament that shone through the paper walls, creating a strongly ethereal effect.

Outside of Tracing the Pathway Ash’s primary artistic medium is paper, a type of practice she describes as ‘soft art’. Before creating this installation I had never considered paper to be a particularly sensuous material, but the effects on the participants were quite striking. Throughout our residency period people used it as a space to enter into intimately whispered conversations, whilst Ash, Cara and I felt compelled to write in it.

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Our presentation for the conference was produced in a similar fashion to the way we wrote the Fluid Ecologies paper at LAPSody, only at PSi we were not confined to the format of a lecture hall. All of the listeners sat in a loose formation on the floor of the museum. As we spoke we moved around them and asked them to participate in some gentle movement exercises. After a while we led them into The Shadow Room and shared some writing we had written in response to our time in Nuuk. The town remained an entirely unfamiliar place to use throughout our residency. We had no expectations before we arrived there, and when we did the sense of unfamiliarity only intensified:

Nuuk is exotic, distant and upfront. Take the time to notice it. It’s infertility breeds resistant bodies who are open-faced to encounter. They find it on the streets, in each other’s homes and in the cultural blood bank within which we stand. It is a measurement of entropy that shows detachment isn’t possible. We just watch, hugging the poles.
 Our individual patterns eluding perception, but we’re all mirrors now. Nuuk is the geographical equivalent of a pregnant pause. A non-space of potential and waiting.

The format Sisters Hope created in Knustmuseum illuminated for me the lack of spaces that exist for performance practitioners outside of conferences and other academic settings to share their methodologies. So often events like these becomes showcases for presenting finalised piece or work-in-progress showings, but what we were attempting to do at LAPSody and PSi was to communicate our process by creating work in response to the people we were sharing the space with. By framing performance events as a process of knowledge production, I am now considering what implications this has for performer training programs, and indeed performance art pedagogies in general.

Historical and critical records have a tendency of abstracting theatre from its roots in the practice of the ‘everyday’ – the multiple practices we undertake and that constitute a lived life, much of which resists hermeneutic classification. Read expresses the dichotomy between the written critique and the live event as “[l]ike the fieldnotes of the anthropologist” because “they are not the culture they describe” (1993, p.13). In the theatre, images become known through the experiencing of them in a live space not through the record that documents their occurrence. The performance-image enacts a process of communicating a lived idea that can be sensed and felt but never fully articulated.

This formulation of performance art allows me to confront a useful dilemma in my practice: I am first and foremost an academic; words are my currency. I value written arguments and recognise their importance in communicating and preserving ideas. In pedagogical contexts theatre and performance art practices are dependent on textual and verbal description and analysis to transmit knowledge. This is effective as a method of historicising practices to the extent that they can be placed within a broader corpus of ideas whilst also engendering critical discourses across disciplines. When considering the format of conference papers, however, I am now questioning if standard formats can adequately express the process of performance-making. As someone who is relatively new to academia I have found conferences to be unnecessarily confrontational forums and that they are not always conducive to an atmosphere of knowledge exchange. But this is not to say I believe they should be abandoned: that would certainly be not so much a step but a giant leap too far! Rather, I want to consider how the language and techniques used to enact a performance methodology can be deployed as a means of constructing discourses with audiences that functions as a way of constructing new methodologies.

After our residencies Tracing the Pathway and I are now making plans to progress Fluid Ecologies. I have formalized the following questions to guide my research: How can we train students to make art works that fulfill the function of theoretical texts whilst not succumbing to the limitations of evaluative critique? What forums can be established to collaboratively produce knowledge over the course of an event – a type of knowledge we might term ‘sensuous’? And can this be accomplished without artificially rupturing the rich relationship between theory and practice, which if it were to happen would inevitably lead to ghettoizing performance practice?

References

Read, A. (1993) Theatre & Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance. London: Routledge

Sisters Hope (2015) Available at: http://sistershope.dk/ (Accessed: April 10 2015)

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