Essay – Loose Ends : Writing Texts, a symposium synopsis by G. Till

Loose Ends – Writing texts:

Some notes and thoughts by an insider | outsider. The questions are my reflection on the symposium.

Gretchen Till, OAKLAND CA 03-31-2012

The 4th iLAND symposium: Moving Into the Out There ended in the early evening a Saturday ago and, suddenly, or so it seemed, the two days of gathering and making new knowns and un-knowns together was over. What do we do now? What do we know now? ‘Of course’, iLAND continues. The new residents will be starting and the 8th program round will be underway. But what do we do with all of that work that we did together and on our own?  Like many iLAB residents have noted, just when the collaboration is getting good is when the best laid plans for documentation are suddenly inapplicable or un-producible. And then the process becomes a type of invisible. Our final wrap up discussion felt the same way. Just when we were waist deep in the swimming pool of group thought , we have to clear the room and leave our two day rooftop perch at the 11th Street building of the New School.

How do interdisciplinary collaborators find the literal and metaphoric places to work?

The symposium was a celebration. This 4th coming together celebrates what has been done and that there will continue to be, as Kathy Westwater of the most recent iLAB residents PARK put it so vulnerably in the discussion on the first evening, an organization that provides a forum for people to make connections and collaborations that they might otherwise find too risky to do on their own, and therefore be less likely to go outside of their dialog comfort zone. This conversation weekend was definitely not comfortable. Cozy and adventurous, but not comfortable.

How does the iLAND forum situate and accommodate political points of view?

This symposium went considerably further towards writing texts as a collaborative organization. Not only does the organization have something to say to itself, and to getting people involved in joining on the productive research end through the iLAB residencies, the assembled conversants are identifying areas where iLAND is uniquely poised to produce dialog into discourse. Each residency is a collaboration of individuals from their disciplines, and the basis of the residencies (in performance – in process – in sites) brings quite a large body together that is spiraling inward and outward in scale and time.

At the opening “roundtable,” which included former iLAB residents, iLAND board members, and members of the community in formation, we were in a space assembled through dance that included (people working around) oceans (oceanographers and marine biologists), atmosphere (greenhouse gases researcher), human body (biochemical medical researcher), and the terra in restoration and forestation and urbanization (conservation managers and scientists, arborists, urban designers). In many cases artists, dancers, and choreographers were self-same with the scientist. This means that the tensions inherent in inter-disciplinary collaboration can be viewed here like no other place, but yet, even in this forum, the inter-workings are still so hard to manifest. An exercise we did of setting the words DANCE and SCIENCE directly in relationship to each other: apart, and overlapping, revealed how much work it is to set these two entities in relationship, and also let loose a ton of places to explore interests through understanding gaps and similarities. As an architect, a profession which seems to ‘naturally’ work across many disciplines, setting up specific relationships instead of assuming overlap was part of the work I had to do. The example of “model” brought this out quite strongly. The different disciplines have very different relationships to the word and practice of model from projective, to analytic, to technique. Clarifying intentions helped to see where overlap, shift, and work could occur.  It also helped bring relationships into scale with each other.  What kind of dance?  What area of science?

Through performative practice and collaborative process, the anchor of the residencies provides this literal growing body of research findings and trainings. The presentation by collaborators from PARK illuminated how the site itself becomes a collaborator. The site is the former Fresh Kills landfill. The participants, through access literally only gained during performance, form this new body on-site and then form the site by re-mapping it through the indeterminate practice of wandering. The debate around human being actions within and apart from nature shows up here as the process of “cleaning-up” itself has been called into question. This seems like an astounding shift, when I heard a panelist remark that current thinking around the Pacific garbage patch includes seeing it as part of an evolving system. The role of kinetic understanding of actions in relationship is right in there.

How does performative practice relate to vast difference in scales?

The Friday evening presentation of iLANDING, a method towards knowledge possibilities through collaboration as described through the expanding community of iLAB residents, is a major effort towards writing the discourse. This step was described by board members Kate Cahill and Elliot Maltby as necessarily trying to exist through several different means: aphorisms, matrix; and separately, but concordantly, the development of an archive that is visible to the present. I wonder, is iLANDING almost like a representative of this growing body that can sit in the room, like we are all sitting in the room? The opening description from the presentation is, “iLANDING: or: a method to make a method [that you don’t yet know] for working with people [ that you also might not know] across disciplines. “  

How does this method manifest as both a collaborative partner and an on-going process?

The two panels on Saturday: Indeterminacy, Ecology, and Urban Design: the performance of city ecosystems; and Performing Queer Ecology spanned the relationships of performing body to systems and structures both as actor and as system itself. The space of ecology is elastic to definition as, debated in the panel. An area can be defined and the internal relationships identified, or the actions and agents can be identified and the edges and connections registered. Both city and queer can be registered as entities and processes.

Indeterminacy, Ecology, and Urban Design: the performance of city ecosystems – some notes.

In introducing the panel, Phil Silva (iLAND Prog. Dir., resource manager) described that, a million trees will be planted in NYC, and they will be in millions of relationships to humans and actions performed by humans, and the trees will also be an urban forest that will be in ecological relationship to other systems. Silva works in a resource management capacity and is proposing that being within performance gives a time sensitive scalar sense of embodied action that is currently not accommodated for in design. Victoria Marshall’s (urban designer, educator) proposes a model that put imagination as a determinant that allies across both nature and the divided discourse of disciplines. Marshall also discussed resilience as a model that a lot of people are starting to work with and building meaning around. Working to build meaning around a model seems like a particularly interdisciplinary thing to do and knowing where the conversations are forming is helpful to direct energies. Susan Sgorbati (choreographer, researcher) sets improvisation as a topological way of knowing that embodies emergent patterns. This is a revelation that something intrinsic to a discipline may have analogs or reveal something in another discipline that can then lay a platform for collaboration. David Maddox (conservation scientist) discussed science as a necessarily collaborative event in bringing knowledge to people; and, there are philosophies that are forming the current environmental discussion of how we want cities to be, such as LEED that frame the knowledge translation. How does a conversation like this panel get to influence these larger philosophies that are shaping decisions around environmental philosophy? The discussion around the phrase ecological services was a flashpoint. Again, the position of humans, and how we are in relationship to and set ourselves outside of systems was at debate. It does bring up a point around the tools of a discipline. A principal method in science is measurement which relies on quantification.

Yet another eye-opener in the difficulty of collaboration was my emotional response to Marshall’s presentation. She is a landscape architect and urban designer. I am an architect and an urban designer. Listening to her talk about representation, and diagrams, and positioning of relationships, I thought, ‘this is it, this brings it all together, what else could be said’. Thankfully, Sgorbati began her portion of the talk laying out concepts around improvisation and noting that this will resonate with the dancers. (Not that it couldn’t resonate with others.) This is the clarity of resonating within the workings of our disciplines, and then being able to find mutual ground because we are literally right next to each other, talking. Maddox, as an environmental scientist working in an applied conservation setting, brought up the necessity of translation because there are philosophies setting the stage. The topic of translation is akin to the struggle with the concept of documentation. Translation is resisted. Documentation in performance is elusive.

This is experimental. Each discipline is trained in and bringing its tools to the table. How does the work register?



Performing Queer Ecology – some notes

The panel on Performing Queer Ecology was generally anticipated by people I talked to about the symposium before I left California for NYC. What would it be? (yes there is a book titled Queer Ecology, but)  In introducing the topic, Jennifer Monson (iLAND Artistic Director) described her trajectory as an artist who in the 80’s and 90’s worked in identity and politics through embodiment of sexuality, and in the 90’s and 00’s has been working in embodiment in ecological and sensory systems. It seems to me that it is very important to say PERFORMING queer ecology. This sets all three things very strongly in their process state. Otherwise, Queer Ecology is a subset or definition of ecology. And we are definitely in process here over time.

The three panelists each gave a sense of embodiment within a discipline that could describe a process relationship around ecology. Robert Sember’s eloquent elegy to the interchanging of dry-wet-death-sex-surface (as and in) landscape was a persistence of discovery. It was traumatic to listen to, but I am not sure that the discovery itself is trauma. Sember describes three subjects and the ways their bodies are struggling with becoming landscape through death and finding the resilience around these acts. One of the subjects is David Wojnarowicz and his photography that charges his dying body into the landscape. A photograph shows Wojnarowicz’s face mostly covered in the desert dirt, only lips still visible to speak, kiss, or breath a last breath. Ivan Raykoff’s proposal of the UNSOUND body in the socialization of the musical body was rendered with a hilarity of familiarity (to me at least), the piano lesson. John Thompsons Modern Course for the Piano: First Grade Book, first page “Music Land” was reviewed for its prescriptive gender socialization narrative, from the image of the masculine hands, to the image of the girl figure holding the musical melody supporting hand (supporting role) of the boy figure on their way to a castle. Gender norming at the level of tones and technique to create the sound body, sound meaning normative. Finally Monson’s talk entitled “Bewildering Desire” un-narrativizes the sensing of bodily meaning through repositioning and repositioning and repositioning wilderness, access, and interior both of person and architecture. This repositioning distributes desire to the far edges attention and orientation. The image experience of the opening of SoLongAbandon (the first video Monson shows) which was performed in the grand interior setting of Judson Church, is of a naked, doubled-over body with long red hair (most discernible feature) who is hop bounding backwards while flicking back a plastic cup lid by their hair as the tips brush against the floor. And this is just the beginning of the body, object, orientation, interior/ exterior landscape repositioning. Exchanging meaning amongst bodies and their different relationships to self and landscape, and their access to both of those things makes be-wild-er-(ing).

Sadly, as things go with time, the panelist didn’t have a chance to converse with each other to break open the density of those adjacencies.

And still, there are two performances and two workshops to review……. The intensity of modes of exchange continues.

Ben Carson’s (composer, improviser) experiment in performance entitled “Piece for Four Strangers” during the first Friday session, that was part of Raykoff’s Senior Seminar class for the New School, was a fun introduction to a lot of topics that would come up throughout the remainder of the symposium. The performance brought together 4 seminar students and symposium participants to perform a spoken musical score. This performance brought out a range of concepts around performance: being in a system in the moment that produces contemporary visibility; and engaging a process to test the way in which something works or develops. The symposium gathering also got to move quickly between listening to theory, performing, and responding to being in a performance state of either participation or observation. Carson’s discussion of William James’ “Radical Empiricism” introduced the topic of transitions as a way of forming a sense of self. Transitions as a way of knowing something about self or entity formation would be present and differently defined across all of the panels. i.e. emergent patterns in improvisation (Sgorbati) to the “seven miles per second” the velocity required to escape the atmosphere [and collapse the normative world]. (Sember reading Wojnarowicz)

The final element of the symposium, a performance choreographed and performed by Athena Kokoronis in collaboration with the performers, followed the Performing Queer Ecology panel and packed the house. This was a great feeling. Having a dense human humus allowed there to be a hole in which the political sounds of the John Cage text “Lecture on the Weather” could reverberate and further encounter the holes and densities forming in the mass midst of the performer collaborators bodies. The bodies were forming and reforming against the one and many of their own mass as it lay intertwining on and reaching above the floor.  Their bodies were simultaneously arriving and departing within the scale of their assembly. It was harder to integrate seeing the video portion of the performance in this form though. The trade off for having a serious bond between audience and performers that was breaking and reforming was energetically worth it. The 1975 John Cage text, which seems like it could have been written tomorrow with its description of political borders protecting and ejecting individuals from social economies, was a great counterpoint to the intensification of the social body through the mycelium running.

The event structure of the symposium put together reviewing, practicing, proposing, and performing, all of which together writes the discourse. In addition to shoring up what happens internally with the iLAB resident program, we practiced interdisciplinary collaborative engagement through workshops that “threw” us outside. Inside/outside is a big area for inquiry, within which the positioning of the artists/researchers in relationship to systems is an on-going thread. This finds form in the workshops with the talking inside and then going outside. Gathering inside to think collectively beyond ourselves, versus the attempt to sense expansive coherency through external engagement reveals very distinct affective impacts on production. This meaning in transition is itself a site. (see photo essay “The Shape(s) we are in” on the modelmodelmodel blog – forthcoming )

The relationship with The New School was vibrant and delightful, from hosting, to contributing through panels and the presence of students. Having an institutional interdisciplinary host gave a strong welcoming surround. It is easier to do difficult work if you aren’t fighting the front door. Landing into the senior seminar class to start off the symposium, eventually gave a sense of being in the school, not just at the school building. And in turn, iLAND’s unique interdisciplinary scope introduced interdisciplinary work across The New School that hadn’t been in contact before. Yes!

It really is about making relationships. Thank you iLAND for making this possible.

Gretchen Till is trained as an urban planner and architect.  She works in design, writing, and performance, and is based in the SF OAK Bay Area.


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