Typically, my favorite parts of a dance performance are the costumes, the sleek bodies and the elegant presentation of precision. I appreciate the way the body can move within the limits of choreography, but I frequently feel so distant from the dancers. The space between me and performer, whether it is a few rows of auditorium chairs or several hundred rows in a stadium setting, is almost always enough for my attention to wane. I can easily drift away from the present moment as the dancers express passion and energy between one another on stage. My experience with the installation Super Nature by BodyCartography Project was quite the opposite. When I entered into the installation space, I felt an immediate responsibility to engage. I was immersed, intrigued and invigorated. I was part of the installation, and my energy collided with the performer’s energy in a way that made me feel relevant and alive. I want audiences to feel enveloped by the work, reflective and engaged by the performers or the experience. The directors of BodyCartography Project describe this installation as an opportunity to train audiences to be present and available with their emotions when they engage with a performance.
BodyCartography Project describes Super Nature on their website:
An intimate installation functions as part one. It is built for a gallery space and an audience of one. In an empty gallery, one member of the public meets one performer and has a non-verbal interaction. Both performer and audience have agency to transform the energy of the space through their behavior and social interaction, sometimes very subtle and sometimes extreme. The evening length theater work functions as part two.
I have not experienced the evening length theater work, and this post only considers part one of the work, an intimate installation which was installed at THE WORKS at Fashion Tech in Portland, OR as part of PICA’s annual TBA festival. For those of you who didn’t experience the Works this year, Fashion Tech is a 30,000 sq. ft. warehouse that once housed an interior design supplier. Super Nature was installed in a small, cinder block room that was most recently used as a studio for a spray paint artist. The space has a large vent coming down from the ceiling for ventilation and a heavy, sliding wooden door that leads into one of the main hallways of the building. BodyCartography Project installed a wooden floor painted white and had the walls painted a warm gray. The room had one light and speakers installed.
Otto in the Installation, photo by Chelsea Petrakis for PICA
During the installation, a single audience member is asked by a docent to “please remove your shoes and turn off your cell phone, feel free to be anywhere in the space and when the installation is finished, I will come open the door for you.” The exact language of these instructions is important for creating ambiguity and not dictating the audiences viewing response. Next, the docent opens the door, and audience of one enters the space to find a solitary performer. After approximately 15 minutes, the docent comes to open the door for them. When I served as docent for this piece, I waited for the participant to naturally emerge from the space before I closed the door behind them. If someone had nervous energy or expressed feelings of anxiety, I stated explicitly that they could leave the installation at any point if they felt uncomfortable. Uncomfortable interactions can lead to empathetic reactions that are sometimes unreachable in other realms; however, it is important that nobody feels trapped during the installation.
Super Nature is unique because both the performer and the audience member are alone in their role, and the performance is an interaction that unfolds, dependent on the energies of both people in the room. The tension between the social and intuitive body creates an immediate confusion about the role of the audience member. The experience questions whether the audience is a participant, a spectator, a collaborator or a witness to the performance. In my experience, I felt a nonverbal invitation to exchange with the performer. I felt agency to affect the situation, and I felt responsible to respond to the performer in ways that I would not under different spatial (ie. a larger room) or social dimensions (ie. more audience members). The relationship that Super Nature builds between audience and performer is special because of the metaphorical light that shines on the solitary audience member. From my perspective, the audience member is part observer, part participant and part collaborator.
As part of TBA’s public conversation series hosted at PICA’s downtown office, Olive Bieringa (co-director of BCP), Otto Ramstad (co-director of BCP) and Michael Sakamoto discussed the installation in terms of its intended impact on the audience. Sakamoto, artist and faculty advisor in the MFA-Interdisciplinary Arts program at Goddard College, describes his experience with the installation as if he were “being danced.” He felt there was an immediate meeting of a shared moment during which he “was being danced.” His ultimate takeaway was the dialogue with himself that happened as a result of the experience with the performer. When the audience enters the space, they have to choose where to be, how to respond, and how they want to absorb or reflect on the situation. Some feel enlightened and inspired after leaving the space, others feel disquieted or uncomfortable with the silence or close proximity between performer and audience. Ideally, this piece opens up the sense of discovery for the audience and gives the audience a space to practice reflexiveness in their own body.
Roz (left) and Olive (right), photo by Chelsea Petrakis for PICA
I spoke with a lot of people after they exited the installation, and frequently, people felt like voyeurs or had strong empathetic reactions, both physical and mental. I wondered why, in this more intimate setting, people felt specifically like voyeurs especially when compared to a more traditional setting where audience members are exclusively spectators. As an audience member at a stage performance, I have frequently felt myself disappearing into the crowd, but in this installation, my position as the audience member was more within myself than it is in a big theater. In some instances, audience members felt the desire to disappear and not disturb the performer. The option to disappear or interact is a spectrum for each person who enters the space, and some people may experience a moment where their relationship to the performer shifts. For many people, this shift came close to the end of their time in the installation when they began to open up their metaphysical energy to the experience. This type of experience gives the audience and the performer the opportunity to learn something new about themselves in relation to a stranger. Regardless of what behavior the audience chooses to enact, they affect the performer, and in a sense, the distribution of agency during the performance is constantly in flux. In some cases, audience members felt like they had little to no agency to transform the environment.
Anna (left) and Roz (right), photo by Chelsea Petrakis for PICA
After people exited the installation, I tried to give them a subtle, nonverbal invitation to share with me about their experience. Many people responded to the invitation, and I have transcripts of a few conversations to share with you. I tried my best to respect people’s need to be with themselves directly after the installation, and as a result, some of my conversations occurred hours after the audience member’s experience with Super Nature. Each of the following interviews took place in Fashion Tech where the project was installed, and all participants gave consent to be recorded. All names have been changed for the privacy of the individual.
Conversation with John from France
Right after he came out of the installation
John: There’s this thing about a relationship with someone, with the body, we’re just breathing the same air. Because she’s a dancer, she has a very different body, and it renews the gaze that I have on the body.
Roz: Was there a breakthrough moment for you in the piece?
J: It was just a tidal wave, it was coming, and it was disappearing, coming and disappearing. The fact that you can change your orientation in the room is making it like real life. You don’t have to feel the gaze of other people in the audience. This big, deep, profound intimacy with someone that you don’t know, that you probably will not know after this experience, it’s just great.
Conversation with Sophia from Portland
Right after she came out of the installation
Roz: How was the experience for you?
Sophia: It just feels really good. I just really enjoy when I connect with somebody.
R: Did you feel like you connected with her [the performer]?
S: Oh yeah. We rolled around on the ground some. It’s a thing of trust. It’s all about that. Letting you understand. Every other person who is in there is going to have a different bond or reaction. Some [audiencers] might be like “stay away from me” and freak out or just watch. Some will want to be with you, whatever you’re going through.
R: What about the interaction made you feel like you had connected [with the performer]?
S: I don’t know. It’s just about accepting somebody. It’s like, “Okay, you can lean on me, and I can lean on you.” Then there was a big smile. There were moments with eyes closed. There was a lot of allowances. I don’t do a lot of contact stuff, it’s weird.
R: Me neither, I’ve never done it before this experience.
S: I’ve seen so much dance in my life, and I have a lot of dancer friends. It’s nice to experience. I need more of that. It’s not my thing. I just like to learn other things, letting go.
R: Would you consider practicing contact dance after this experience?
S: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I should start going to Conduit [dance studio in Portland]. I need to roll around with people more. I like the lighting. The space makes you feel like you can just be.
R: And be however you want.
S: Yeah, you can be light. It’s just so beautiful. I’m really glad I came down.
Conversation with Emma from Portland
Immediately after she came out of the installation
Emma: By coincidence, I was standing in this corner right before it was over. When you started to open the door, the weight [used as part of the door’s opening system]…
Roz: Oh no…
E: And then I realized, I thought it was coming down from space, but it was actually connected to the door. It was really interesting. I could tell it was ending and for some reason I had just put myself in that corner at the very end. It was a neat coincidence.
R: I’m glad you didn’t get hurt. I ended in that same corner once, too. I almost got hit with the weight, too.
E: [laughter], that was interesting. It felt like a complete closing in that sense.
R: What other experiences did you have there?
E: Well, it was interesting because it was so intimate that there was quite a bit of discomfort. I think I felt a little uncomfortable because the performer/viewer relationship is somewhat upset. Not upset, but it wasn’t as clear.
R: How did you respond to that ambiguity?
E: Well, I just kind of went with it. I found when he was on the ground, I sat on the ground because I didn’t want to be over. That felt too hierarchical. In a sense, I kind of moved around a bit in relation to his movements.
R: Did it make you feel like you would like to move around in a larger theater setting? To gain different vantage points?
E: Well, I’m not a dancer. I did kind of have a sense of where it would be interesting to mimic and respond to his movements.
R: Did you?
E: I didn’t really. Except, I moved up and down. I thought, “oh, that looks like my yoga pose, I could do that…I could do that.”
R: What held you back from doing those things you were feeling?
E: Being in this place [gestures towards the building and larger space around her].
R: Being in the audience role…
E: Right, you’re not supposed to move. Right? I mean, I moved around a little bit. Also, when you do it, you don’t see the other person as much.
E: So, that was kind of interesting, too. I’m not sure where the word cartography comes from because I didn’t really feel there was a lot of mapping going on.
R: This project is called Super Nature and the artists are called BodyCartography Project.
E: Oh, okay. Yes. The soundtrack was interesting. So industrial. So hot. I feel so bad for the guy. There’s no air. That’s not a heady discussion. I expected it would be more tactile. But, it wasn’t.
R: Do you think you had agency to make it tactile, or not?
E: I didn’t feel like I did.
E: Because of the spotlight. And because of his movements, they were very dance movements. They weren’t pedestrian movements at all. So, you had a sense that he was being a modern dancer and you were in a small room watching him. I felt that I had a certain agency, but not…if his movements were different, I would feel more agency.
R: Thanks for your reflections.
E: It was interesting, thanks a lot.
After TBA, the first participant at the Portland installation asked to share feedback about the experience via email. Here are his remarks:
Hello my name is Andre Middleton, Community Services Coordinator for the Regional Arts and Culture Council, and I was fortunate to the be the first participant in the BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature performance at the 2014 PICA TBA festival. I knew very little about this participatory performance experience outside of what I read in the description.
Let me start by saying that the stark grey walls of the room in which it took place were very prison like. As I entered the room and the door was closed behind me I felt as if I had stepped through a portal that removed me from the world at large. The silence that enveloped me soon gave way to an atmospheric rumbling that came from a single speaker suspended from the ceiling. The lone male figure in the room seemed poised, almost coiled with potential energy. I was unsure if I or he was to be the instigator of the performance so I started to move. I can’t recall how I moved, but I do recall that I wanted to avoid limiting myself within the space. I wanted to have the right to touch all the walls, I wanted to break down my personal bubble and therefore establish a presence within his as well. As we moved closer, the normal walls we often build around ourselves were shattered as we touched. In an instant I thought about the taboos of male on male contact. I wanted to let the dancer know that he was welcome in my space, so I didn’t retreat from his touch. I also wanted to acknowledge his contact so I simply rotated my hand as we continued to move now in tandem. When we parted it was not a separation of sorts but the next phase of the dance. soon our eyes made contact. In a way, this next phase was even more intimate than our physical contact. Our gaze lingered for what felt like an eternity. By the time our eyes parted it felt right, not rushed or hurried. Our bodies had somewhere else to go and of course our eyes followed.
After talking with audience members, I realized that there are a lot more outcomes and variables to this installation than I thought after experiencing it myself, and I wondered how the directors have decided to measure success for the piece.
The following quotes come from an email correspondence that I had with Olive and Anna, one of the performers, after they left Portland and returned to Minneapolis. My goal was to give the performers a platform for describing their intentions during the installation, to share the vulnerability and practice that goes into such a performance.
Email between Roz and Olive from September 25, 2014:
Roz: During the public conversation at PICA’s downtown office, you described your work in terms of creating opportunities to form relationships. Can you explain how a relationship develops between the audience and the performer in Super Nature?
Olive: I’m interested in engagement. I’m interested in identifying the moments we feel connection with each other. I’m interested in how a changing relationship, in this case between performer and audience, can manifest in a dance. I’m interested in how our attention can be deeply focused on this feedback loop between ourselves and another person and the information passing between us. I’m interested in the gap of attention that this provides thereby allowing the unknown potential of our body to unfold. I’m interested in how we can be present with each other.
In the Super Nature installation, we get to practice being present with a complete stranger. Practice being vulnerable. Practice feeling our own inner melodrama. As an audience and performer I need this practice.
We had considered the installation as a potential training for our audiences before coming to the Super Nature stage show.
R: You jokingly mentioned during the workshop that you were trying to get the word in the dictionary, how do you define “audiencing”?
O: Audiencing – verb, to practice being an audience, to be in the practice of being an audience???
I’m interested in the active engagement of our audiences. The job of viewing or experiencing good art work is not a passive role of consumption. How do we honor peoples time when they make the effort to come out and see our work? By honoring the choices they make while experiencing it [the work]. By giving audiences agency. By letting them have enough space to create connection and meaning. With the Super Nature installation I’m interested in creating an opportunity to practice audiencing in a tight frame where we can all feel the causal effect of our actions. It is a dense feedback loop.
R: Do you think it is possible to define a successful audience in Super Nature? A successful performer? How are the parameters for success different for this installation than they would be for the same piece performed on a large stage with 200 onlookers in chairs.
O: A successful audience for the installation is someone who is up for the challenge of being present with a stranger. For some people the room is too claustrophobic, or their expectation of seeing something “good” gets in the way of their ability to perceive what is happening.
A successful performer for the installation is someone who can attend to themselves and the audience and allow the performance to unfold in the space in-between. Inviting their whole body to be seen, 360 degrees, in detail. Receptivity and transparency are critical. Finding the balance between doing and being is where the dance begins.
We don’t perform exactly the space piece on stage for 200 people. The Super Nature stage work is a radical ecological melodrama with fifteen performers onstage, a live sound score by Zeena Parkins and mobile set design my Emmett Ramstad. The installation is a close up with the same performers and content unfolding in an improvised frame. In both versions we have attempted to choreograph empathy. This plays out very differently with the different scale of each work.
Performer of Super Nature, Anna, also responded via email on October 1, 2014:
Roz: Do you think it is possible to define a successful audience in Super Nature? A successful performer? How are the parameters for success different for this installation than they would be for the same piece performed on a large stage with 200 onlookers in chairs.
Anna: I don’t think there is a specific successfulness. There I feel like my natural sense of evaluation after a run, as the performer, goes to a thinking that is similar to that of my pedestrian life, remembering what I offered, rethinking their ideas with more space and objectivity, I feel like I have less of the Merde-like blasé or the learned confidence I might feel in another performance setting, I do feel a bit more of that with the stage version. But I also feel or remind myself that it is one small, and first encounter, as I might remind myself when first meeting someone. There is a desire to put forward the best things, in this area; the openness, an ease in mutual understanding translated through physicality and the body, a certain honesty, but it’s a two way street, and there are many factors that might interfere with my desire. The important thing is just the exchange, or the meeting, or the opportunity. I think it would be the same for the audience, though without some of the preparation and fore-warning, which might come as both a hindrance and a benefit.
Roz (left) and Olive (right), photo by Chelsea Petrakis for PICA
In their email correspondence with me, Olive and Anna both describe a necessary openness from the audience and the performer that is key to the work’s success on a performance-to-performance basis. The movers are trained in choreography that aims to induce empathy and highlight the kinesthesia in the audience, but as Anna describes, the intention is not always met. People experience this artwork by engaging or not-engaging from the perspective of an audience, within this experience is an inner dialogue and an outer interaction which becomes the artwork. No documentation or final product is necessary. In my experience, the level of intimacy and openness that I was able to achieve with the performer was genuine and felt like the most authentic response I have ever had to a dance performance. I attribute that authenticity to the performer’s capacity to meet me halfway. This setting provides a space where audience expectations can be deconstructed through movement, quiet observation or dramatic nonverbal communication. This piece allows the willing audience member to engage directly with the energy of a stranger and experiment with how that energy is affected by their presence. Each person who enters the room, audience and performer, have a responsibility to respect the emotional atmosphere of the other and help each other find comfort in the discomfort of the unknown.
Essay and transcriptions by Roz Crews. Roz is currently a student in the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University.
You can email her at [email protected]