Sewing together in January: Day 4 Dispatch (Emily Johnson & Big Dance Theater)

Sunday, Jan 8, 2017 – Emily Johnson/Catalyst is an artist for the coming age. Culturebot has been checking in with her since her 2011 Bessie Award-winning Thank-you Bar at NYLA, for her 2013 Niicugni at BAC for COIL, and for her 2015 multi-day, multi-part SHORE that was gathering, action, performance and celebration. The NY edition Shore in Lenapehoking edition spoke to the home of the Lenape tribe (on whose land we occupy) during 8 days of equally important performances, readings, feasting, a volunteerism. Our community action in the Rockaways has this long term effect for that dune that we are going to shore up and somewhere in there there is performance and somewhere in there we share stories and share a feast, but it’s all held within a long platform for change. Grounded in ancestry, imagination and community, she is committed to meaningful acts for people, planet and life. In that spirit, she co-hosted, with Ace Hotel New York, Umyuangvigkaq for PS 122’s COIL Festival. The day (11:30-6pm) included a durational Sewing Bee and followed Lois Weaver’s Long Table format. Lois has applied her artistic vision to engage the familiar to get people to talk with and about the unfamiliar, most recently hosting a post-election Care Cafe at La Mama. The Long Table is an experimental open public forum with a format based on a dinner party. It allows for a free flow of conversation.

The durational Sewing Bee is part of a large-scale experiment in public engagement that will culminate in Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars an all-night, outdoor stargazing and performance event. The Work includes the quilt making, performance, storytelling, song, ground, and sky. It relies on our willingness to voice intentions, witness, work, experience time, and imagine. Set to premiere in summer 2017, the sewing bees phase of the project focuses on building a series of 84 hand sewn quilts (4000 sq. ft.) designed by textile artist Maggie Thompson and sewn by us. Umyuangvigkaq was one of many Sewing Bees for the project. We will stitch together a quilt of conversation, ideas, and fabrics. Here we will recognize indigenous people, artists, art methods, and audiences as we indigenize the performing arts and the world at large.Come with ready hearts. Come all day or for a stitch. Every 75 minutes we’ll shift a conversation to a new critical topic engaging the intersections of the Indigenous with contemporary American culture. 

I’d originally scheduled to cover Latifa Laabissi’s performance, but once the headdress issue was publicized, I opted to share this space instead. Following the previous (Day 3) day’s charged conversations, the feeling that most of the room was willingly and (in sewing together) literally sharing the labor for change proved inspiring and hopeful. The Long Table and the Sewing Bee tasks allowed for a welcoming environment that fed an intelligent, engaging, and positively minded discourse. And, as was mentioned during the Saturday Native American Realness talk as a methodology for increased discourse, this event came with a reading list. Originally from Alaska, Emily is of Yup’ik descent and for this event was joined by four Native Alaskan, Aboriginal, and First Nations women, including Dr. Karyn Recollet, an urban Cree woman and assistant professor in the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto whose research is choreographic fugitivity, Indigenous futurities, and decolonial love. Sm Łoodm ’Nüüsm (Dr. Mique’l Dangeli) is of the Tsimshian Nation of Metlakatla, Alaska. She is a dancer, choreographer, curator, activist, and assistant professor of Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast. Choreographer and scholar Vicki Van Hout is of Dutch and Wiradjuri decent. Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin, a Narungga, Wirangu, Wotjobaluk woman and Deputy Chair of the Australia Council for the Arts. Hadrien Coumans, director of The Lenape Center, was set to open the discussion

Long Table Discussion and Durational Sewing Bee Schedule on January 8:

11:30am: Breakfast and Welcome to Country

12:00pm: This is Lenapehoking – Countering Perceived Invisibility

1:30pm: Indigenizing the Future – The Continuance of Aesthetic, Invention, Ceremony

3:00pm: My Dad Gives Blueberries to Caribou He Hunts – Indigenous Process and Research as Ceremony

4:30pm: Radical Love: Indigenous Artists and Our Allies 

I arrived for the middle section, grateful for the hot coffee and fresh fruit provided. A group of people sat at several tables or stood at high ones round the space. A projected screen included #thenacunningvoice #coil17 tweets. I wandered through areas of people sitting on the floor or couches, stitching, writing and listening. I soaked in the glow of ideas and gentle actions. Took some notes, ate some munchies, stitched some squares together, wrote messages on others, took more notes, ate more nuts and listened and marveled at the power of shared effort. The AIDS Quilt, at 54 tons (!) is an overwhelming collection of lost lives. But, the item also holds in it the acts of love, remembrance and solace. For a little over a year and a half, I’ve been braiding and knotting collected single-use plastic bags for performance and installation works in my Tides Project. Despite the dirty aspect of working with reclaimed garbage, the handwork has a seductively focusing effect. Never patient enough to learn to knit, I find myself deeply satisfied by the simple work of braiding, as well as the creative and improvisational task of figuring out what the materials are asking to turn into. There are plastic ball gowns, tutus, yellow tulips, red firebird wings, projection screen/sheets, nets, and piles stuffed into my parents garage, my office at Hunter College and bags, bins, and under the sink in my apartment. Stitching for the quilt bound me to the others in the room, others from the past, others still to come just as I bound one piece of fabric to another with a simple backstitch.

  • Some of my notes: Emily brings the aesthetics of improvisation up. Describes the aesthetics of Standing Rock as a feeling of being bundled up, what that feels like, how it smells, how aesthetics can be all senses. [I wonder if we as artists working with embodied processes need to shift some of the aesthetics conversations towards phenomenological ones, but then my head hurts from the academy-speak running through it.]  Other voices join the conversation: 
  • Taking care of each other, choreographies of movement, how can our way aesthetic be seen as really protective measures, recast the land. 
  • Futurity…What are the choreographies of young people in these cities? Are they carrying an Ipad and geocaching? What are the apps that map their futurities?
  • younger participant describes looking out for one another in a cul de sac in Newark as an “I got you, you got me” exchange.
  • How do we in 300 years let our grandchildren know. Once you live a life of extraction of oil and debris of plastic. One demands carving and sipping. 
  • Another person states that when people come together we discover we’re really all the same, right? Same needs and wants? Things become your problem or your problem and not my problem and they want to separate all of us. 
  • Value of place, indigeneity as replacing colonial values, depending on choreography and movement,  the future where fights for data is like the fight for land, reclaiming a sense of understanding the artificiality of borders, difference of me to you though the erasing of difference is problematic too
  •  A message pops up on the screen thanking Quyana Lois Weaver for creating the beautiful long table format so we can be in it right now.
  • How can we use aesthetics to impart new layers of meaning while retaining previous layers of history as a land – identifications of the individual self separates the identifications of who we are together
  •  Impenetrability, how can we reclaim something we’ve collectively forgotten? The system, the world that we inhabit enforces certain choreographies upon us – we walk certain paths – and from what i feel in order to reclaim my own indegentity it requires a shedding of everything that is around me – the entire system is set up to make you think in a certain way  – our genes have ancestral knowledge that indegenous people are fetished for it – the language that we’re all speaking right now doesn’t allow us to communicate – how do we break that open – the systems that we have – how do we change it? The choreographies of forgetting?
  • Monuments, memories of that history. Knowing the land while on the land. The land beneath our feet. How do we create choreographies of remembering? 
  • Someone asks to go back to some of the terms, I’m not at the general ‘we’ yet. Why futurity versus future, why indigenizing?
  • Futurity is the play with words, a poetic license, it’s activating lands and territories as unbounded – futurity is that future that is here – movements in those lands – confluences that come together in ways of being in choreographies – the idea of choreographies – manifest in ways of being – compelled to move – how does sewing slow us down to move
  • David White (The Yard) shares Story Musgrave’s statement that the only way to move in space is to think of it as choreography – with nothing to push off of choreography is a map for task achievement
  • We don’t have a word in our language for diversity. Nonwhites are not different from white people. We have this most important idea of equality.
  • We’re living in the rule of law which is based on the doctrine of DISCOVERY. Certain people had the right to do certain things to other people because others are only partially human. DOCTRINE OF DISCOVERY. Our laws are rooted in that. You have to overturn that whole idea. Rules are written to protect property over people. People of color must get the approval of people not of color in order to get access to the making of art.
  • Why is afrofuturism not a model for an option for us.
  • There’s danger perhaps in an acceptance of colonial history as a given. We have overlapping cartographies. We’re all talking from our place, but who is telling our stories.
  • Our actual survival is going to mean being able to be with the earth, access homelands in a clean and safe way, Sustainable
  • From the outside it’s creation and making – with the “ing” of indigenizing

Emily closes out the session with a gesture of Futurity for us. We all close our eyes, reach one arm forward and another forward, towards our future ancestors. And then, then one hand back to the chest and the other hand back to the chest. 


4pm, Cage Shuffle, Big Dance Theater, American Realness, Abrons G05

  • The sequence of the stories is random.
  • The sequence of the dance is not.
  • The performer follows Cage’s original performance instructions: “Read stories aloud, with or without additional musical accompaniment, paced so that each story takes one minute. Read all stories in order or select a smaller number, using chance procedures or not.” 

Big Dance Theater – Video Still By Michael Almereyda

Last spring, while co-teaching an interdisciplinary class with theater (Mia Rovegno) and music (Ryan Kebele) faculty at Hunter College, I brought Big Dance Theater’s subversively brilliant, mmm at this point in their careers perhaps brilliantly subversive makes more sense, Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar up to share their work with us. In addition to showing video of past work, Paul taught the students (mostly theater majors, with a couple musicians and movers) a small section of Annie-B’s choreography for their work-in-progress. They explained that they were working with John Cage’s 1963 score Indeterminancy. Each story was 60 seconds and would be fed to Paul via earpiece. The choreographic material would progress in a pre-set linear fashion, with repetitions and variations built into it. After watching him dance as he delivered a series of stories while dancing, he had them try it. Having already sent them a few mp3s of Cage speaking his stories, he had them attempt to execute a version of the solo while using their phones, with one ear bud in, to feed them the stories. The multi-tasking itself was extremely daunting. The students weren’t familiar enough with Cage (or Cunningham) to understand that Paul’s first performance wasn’t just an impressive bit of moving and speaking. But, as they got to watch a few different people try it, as the movements aligned with several different texts, it revealed the myriad opportunities for us to establish correlations between gesture and statement, and the delight that arises when those things seem to serendipitously converge. Without a predetermined relationship between text and movement, chance procedures allow the seemingly obvious connections to establish themselves in the viewer’s mind. The power of planned happy accidents was released.

At that point, Cage was actually on shuffle play.  For the world premiere of Cage Shuffle at American Realness, composer Lea Bertucci, sat on a stool and called out a new number to Paul after each tale ended, essentially composing the performance at each performance. The numbers triggered a feed that sent John Cage into Paul’s ear and he would then recite Zen tales, folk stories, anecdotes about David Tudor or in case of “0” nothing at all, while he continued to dance. Paul has many of the 90 stories memorized, but Cage’s versions set the timing and cadence of the spoken word, while it seemed that Paul could chose to slow down or speed a movement up slightly. Indeterminacy offers an incredible counter to the dangerous certainties of art and existence. Predictability’s naughty little sister, it lures us into a playground game of individual meaning making, and when mobilized by a pair of artists who have brought us a wealth of irreverent causation between classical and found texts with dance, sound, costume, props, time, and space over the years, it’s like an ASMR (think non-sexual brain orgasm) experience, soothing because it’s firing neurons in a happy, tingling way. Head orgasms aside, Paul’s ability to alter focus and gestural timings while delivering a stream of text is a neurological feat of its own, a virtuosic expansion of the multi-data stream performance legacy of his association with the experimental theater company The Wooster Group.  In some ways, it’s like we as humans are already trying to replicate the processing tasks of computing. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time reading Wired Magazine’s Fiction issue, Tales from an Uncertain Future, but at times I’m dazzled enough by Paul’s performance to believe he’s escaped from one of Charles Yu’s (How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Westworld) scenarios, sneaking his advanced, artificial intelligence past us bumbling hominins. Later, after a reset, Lea moves to a table to compose a live tape and digital collage soundscape while Paul dances the dance without speaking. In the end, all the parts are sewn together in an indeterminate quilt.   

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