Make Space: Performance as Currency for the Wild

Posted on Oct 17, 2017

Make Space was a three year programme run by Nic Green and Artsadmin from 2013-2015, developed to offer young artists the opportunity to explore site-responsive performance practices. Over the three years, the project was based at Hackney City Farm, Richmond Yacht Club (Eel Pie Island) and Totteridge Cricket Ground consecutively, with each group spending a month exploring the collaborative potential between themselves, each other and their chosen site.

This weekly series will feature reflections, artistic responses and critical writing inspired by the project, exploring the potentials of ‘place’ and rejecting the pressures of ‘productivity.’ The authors of each blog all attended the Make Space Symposium in 2016, either as a participant or as a contributing artist: 

  • 'Away with the Birds | At Sing Two Birds | Mnemonic topographies | Women of the Hill' by Hanna Tuulikki
  • 'Performance As Currency For The Wild' by Rebecca Leach
  • 'A Naturally Occurring Psychology' by David Key
  • 'Making Conversation' by Ayisha De Lanerolle
  • 'Feeling Our Way Into The Practice (Of Doing)' by Simone Kenyon
  • Make Space participant reflections

Performance As Currency for the Wild: Reflections on Making More Space

by Rebecca Leach

When poet and activist Gary Snyder talks about performance as “currency in the deep world’s gift economy” (1990, p. 81), he is suggesting that we can establish a reciprocal relationship with the natural world through performance; that performance is an opportunity through which we can offer service to the world on which we depend.

Make Space shows the potential for site-based learning, ecopsychology and performance to form an interconnected ecology of practice that is grounded in attentiveness to place and body, while simultaneously encouraging participants to take creative risks and face the unknown. This potent combination creates a space where “leap[s] of spirit” (Shepherd 1977, p.6) and a “profound sense of body-mind joy” (Snyder 1990, p. 101) are possible. These heightened states of emotion are reached when we “make intimate contact with the real world, real self” (Snyder 1990, p.101).

In other words, when we enter into relationship with the wild.

Felt and sensorial experiences often seem beyond words, beyond the limits of the expressions of the written word. The term “fey” captures the “peculiar, otherworldly” nature of intense experience (Shepherd 1977: 111), and the awkwardness of trying to verbalise or document the often invisible and ephemeral site-based practices that are intrinsic to Make Space. Inevitably this collection of reflections and thoughts will only show a small facet of the experiential richness felt participating and witnessing Making More Space. To attempt to build a fuller picture of Make Space as a whole, I am grounding relevant theory about our relationship to place, embodiment and the unknown with my sensorial experiences of the Making More Space weekend.

As I stepped onto the footbridge to Eel Pie Island and walked over the Thames, I felt the sensations of a treasure hunt, a heady combination of curiosity and adventure. I was arriving with a cluttered head full of questions for my own practice, about how to carry the attentiveness, sensitivity and empathy I am able to be open to in wild places, here in an urban environment. The journey onto Eel Pie Island was opening in me a sense of possibility, a feeling of potential.

The tidal river means that the island is in a state of flux. Its size and shape constantly changing, it is a very different world from the solid suburban streets on the river banks. I wound down footpaths past self-made houses of corrugated steel and flashing signs, driftwood and Cornish maps and soon found myself at the Boat Club, on the other edge of the island, looking across the Thames to the overgrown bank opposite. It did not feel like I was in London anymore. Inside the boat house the club’s Patron, Phil Collins, smiles down on us.

Place is important. The philosophy of Make Space is grounded in site-based learning and ecopsychology (Key 2016). Essentially this is rooted in knowing a place or site through your experience of it, often through the practice of paying attention to the world around you and how you sensually engage with it. This grounded knowledge of place is often perceived to be easier to achieve in wild rather than urban settings (Ibid), yet Make Space has always operated in an urban environment and offers interesting possibilities of how site-based learning might look within different environments.

“U-bhil U-bhil
U-bhil U-bhil”

The sound is moving around the room in waves. With each breath we let out sounds mimetic of birdsong. This is a song compiled of vocables from Gaelic folk song: non-lexicon or wordless forms of sound. They have been carefully composed into a score that allows us to give sound to the forms in our own speed, with our own breath. The collective result is phenomenal. The waves of sound build into a hypnotic repetition. My sense of hearing starts to dominate my other senses, leaving them to fade into the background as my awareness becomes fully emerged in the waves of sound. The sensation is unusual and otherworldly, the usual heaviness of being slips away.

This vocal performance is a section taken from Hanna Tuulikkis Away With The Birds / Air Falbh Leis Na H-eoin (2014). Hannas place-responsive, creative processes are a way of creating work with great attention to place. It is what Lucy Lippard would call “of place” (1997, p.20) rather than about place.  It provides an example of “…the ways art can help us focus on existing places, how their topography and every detail reflects and generates memory and a certain kind of knowledge about nature and culture.” (Lippard, 1997, p20)

Through her processes Hanna makes visible some of the many and multiple voices that are speaking in specific environments.  She refers to such processed as 'Mnemonic Topographies'. By performing the work in the place that it is made of, it offers a gift back to the “more-than-human-world” (Abram 1996). The more-than-human-audience is given equal (if not greater) importance than its human counterparts. This creates performance that privileges its audience with an encounter simultaneously ‘fey’ and grounded; at once otherworldly and thoroughly embedded in place.

Attentiveness to place is an involved process, it takes time to get to know a place, and its context. Writer and researcher Chris Freemantle points out that “we also need to recognise the requirement to learn about context. It’s not a given and it doesn’t immediately reveal itself by walking around… time and effort [is] required to take the context seriously and understand its complexity.” (2009) This length of time is reflected in the one-month structure of Make Space, and in time-based activities, like staying in a spot for 24-hours to observe a full day in that place. 

“You can feel your way in” (Simone Kenyon)

My attention is completely on my feet as I gently move them from edge to edge, first making contact to the surface with their edge, then with the inside edge of my foot.  I am acutely aware of how strange this movement feels in my ankles. I am lying on my back with my knees bent and my feet flat (or one edge at a time) on the wall. 

I am in a room full of people, but this does not matter - they fade away as I focus on the sensations created by the slow movement of my feet. My awareness shifts as my body and brain relaxes. By the time we draw our attention away from our feet and back to the room, I feel lighter. It is as if there is more space in my body and I keep sighing, as if the exhalation of air will create even more space within. I also feel as if there is more space in my head, my oftimes cluttered thoughts have vacated leaving an openness for new possibilities. This quieting is not just of the mind as afterwards I notice am also quiet, I have no need to speak, I am centred and content in my being.

This exercise led by artist, dancer and Feldenkrais practitioner Simone Kenyon, introduces us to the type of embodied sensorial experience that is central to her practice. Simone’s work is centred around an embodied practice, making present the necessity of our ‘animal body’ in how we negotiate the world. This is described by David Abram as “…the attentive human animal who is entirely a part of the world that he, or she, experiences.” (Abram 1996, p.65)

Such a body puts us in relation to other bodies and objects, creating relationships between (for example, in the case of my feet and the floor). By paying attention to our body we enable participation, ‘…a defining attribute of perception itself. By asserting that perception, phenomenologically considered, is inherently participatory, we mean that perception always involves, at its most intimate level, the experience of an active interplay, or coupling between the perceiving body and that which it perceives.” (Ibid 1996, p.57)  We learn (and can expand our learning) through paying attention to our senses across the whole “space-time continuum” (2005) as composer Pauline Oliveros would say.

Make Space was designed as a “process that could not be controlled” (Nic Green 2016). The processes within Make Space trusted that “[we] know more than what [we] know [we] know” and that “the unknown can be scary, but together it is exciting” (Sam Trotman 2016).  On Make Space “this unknown became a currency of sort…combined with a magnificent amount of trust” (Jayson, Make Space participant 2015). Through focussing on site-based performance practices, participants developed an awareness of place but also of their selves in relation to that place: “How many rivers do I have inside me that I forget to celebrate?” (Molly, Make Space participant 2014) This has altered ways of being, but also brought questions of integration and sustainability. “Now I take a lot more time to move through the world, but can I always make space?” (Robert, Make Space participant 2015).

By rooting this shared experience of attentiveness to the bodies’ presence in time and place, there is the potential for a shared and heightened experience of participation to be reached: This transcendental experience is the result of a reciprocal relationship with the wild based on the gifts of attentiveness and creative risk: performance as currency for the wild.

“The things we share transcend time and space” (Audain, Make Space participant, 2014).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abram, D. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human-World, Vintage Books: New York

Brown, S. (2009) Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Penguin Group: New York

Freemantle, C. (2009) Not place but Context https://chris.fremantle.org/writing/not-place-but-context/ accessed 30/12/2016

Key, D. (2016) A Naturally Occurring Psychology, TBC

Lippard, L. (1997) The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, The New Press: New York

Oliveros, P. (2005) Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice, iUniverse: New York

Shepherd, N. (1977) The Living Mountain, Canongate Books: Edinburgh

Snyder, G. (1990) The Practice of the Wild, Counterpoint: Berkeley

Tuulikki, H. (2014) Away with the birds, http://score.awaywiththebirds.co.uk/# accessed 30/12/2016

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